A number ethnic groups deemed untrustworthy by Stalin were sent to Central Asia — particularly Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan — before, during and after World War II. These groups included Germans, Poles, Balts, Koreans, Ingush, Chechens, Meskheti Turks, Kalmyks and Tatars. Many died on the journey to Kazakhstan. Others died not long after they arrived. Some of those that survived continued to live in Kazakhstan. Others returned to their homelands when they got the chance.

In the 1930s, a number of ethnic groups, including the Greeks, Tatars, Koreans and Volga Germans were suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Some were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” More than 1.5 million people were deported to Siberia and Central Asia.

During World War II, the Volga Germans and Caucasus ethnic groups such as the Chechens and Ingush were rounded up a transported in cattle cars to new "homelands" in Siberia and Central Asia. After Stalin died some were allowed to return. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

Fearing them as potential spies and traitors, Stalin rounded up all the ethnic Germans in 1941 and deported them to Siberia and Central Asia. Nearly 900,00 0 people were deported. They rounded up a transported in cattle cars. Some died on the way there. Thousands died in labor camps and coal mines. The mass deportation and, arguably, genocide, against twenty nationalities—including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, and the Volga Germans—during World War II is called the “war on cosmopolitans.

The Germans were only able leave the places they were exiled to in 1955 and 1956, after Stalin died. In the meantime their homes and land were taken over by Russians. Without an autonomous region they were unable to organize politically and were unable to do much to improve there situation.

As for the Greeks, initially they prospered under Soviet rule. Greek schools, newspapers and culture flourished in places where there were large numbers of Greeks. The number of Greek schools rose from 33 in 1924 to 140 in 1938. There a was political drive to create an autonomous Greek territory. Things changed in 1930s, when Stalin included the Greeks among the groups that were persecuted and deported. Greek schools were shut down. Publications in Greek were banned and much of the Greek population was suddenly evacuated from their homes and sent into exile in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Siberia. Many were imprisoned and executed as “enemies of the people.” In 1949, Stalin exiled tens of thousands of Pontic Greeks in Crimea and the Caucasus.

See Germans, Koreans, Chechens, Under Minorities


The Balkars are a small tribe that live on the slopes of Mt. Elbrus in the central Caucasus Mountains. There are about 71,000 of them, most of them in Kabardino-Balkaria. They are related to the Karachays. Eighty percent of their territory is above 2,000 meters. The Balkars, also known as the Malkars, are mostly Muslims and speak the Karachay-Balkar language, a member of the Altaic-Turkic family of languages.

The Balkars are Sunni Muslims but they converted very late, in some cases not until the end of the 19th century. Traditional beliefs that have endured include the ritual of dressing up dolls as frogs and dousing them in water to bring rain; protecting homes from the evil eye with horse’s skulls; placing a horse at the entrance of a home for good luck; giving amulets to their animals; and banging on pans during a lunar eclipses to prevent the monster Jelmauuz from consuming the moon.

The Balkars also maintain beliefs in their traditional gods. According to legend the Balkarian people were sent by their gods to earth from the constellation known as the She-Bear to communicate with the mountains.

See Minorities, Russia

History of the Balkars

The origins of the Balkars is still a mystery. Some have connected them with the Huns, Bulgars and Khazars. Most scholars trace their origin to the Iranian-speaking Alans and the Turkish-speaking Black Bulgars and Western Kipchaks. Before the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century they were a member of the Alan union of tribes, but after the Mongol invasions they retreated into the deep canyons of the Caucasus and there forged their own identity and were able to avoid trouble.

In the fifteenth century, Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks brought Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school to the territory that is now Kabardino-Balkaria, but Muslim precepts have been observed rather superficially since that time. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

The Balkars struck in deal with the Russians in 1837 and were able to stay above the fray during the Caucasus Wars. Under the Soviets, the Balkars and other Caucasus people were forced to leave their villages, previously organized by clan, and join collective farms.

In 1944, the Balkars were forced to move to Central Asia, with most ending up in Kazakhstan, along with a number other Caucasus groups.. They were allowed t return to their homeland beginning in 1957. One Balkar told the Los Angeles Times, "The soldiers gave us a half-hour and told us to get in the trucks. They drove us to the trains station in Nlachik. Then we rode the rain to Kazakhstan. We lived there for 14 years."

There is some rivalry and animosity between Balkars and Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkariya that has been exacerbated by bombings blamed on Chechen fighters.

Balkar Life

The Balkars have traditionally been animal herders. Agricultural land took painstaking effort to create through terracing and maintain. This land was quite valuable and could be inherited by individuals while pasture land was communal. The Balkars were also good hunters. Mountain goats were regarded as a delicacy. When an animal was slaughtered the joints were broken in such a way that 16 or 24 pieces formed a relut (an ancient Turko-Caucasus custom). Balkars ae also fond of aryan (sour boiled milk) and kefir (a fermented milk drink made with kefir "grains").

Traditional Balkar settlements were built in a terrace-like fashion on mountain slops. The Balkars built fortresses with defensive towers between three and five stories in positions that guarded entire canyons. In the summer herders traditionally moved into stone-and-waddle “tents while their animals grazed in the high pasture. In the winter some families lived in semi-subterranean structures for protection from the cold. Each dwelling was divided into an “honored part” for men and an “nonhonored part” for women.

Many Balkars have lived to be over 100. But now there are fewer centenarians than there used to be. Balkar women were regarded as skilled seamstresses. They spun and made cloth and decorated it using a number of techniques. In the old days men were known as gunsmiths and bullet makers. Marriages traditionally were arranged and sex before marriage was not uncommon.


Dungans are Chinese Muslims. Most are descendants of Muslim Chinese from Gangsu and Shanxi who fled their homeland after a failed Muslim rebellion in 1878. Most speak Russian as their first language as well as the Central Asian language of the people they live among. Many are trilingual, speak a Dungan dialect of Chinese but can not write in Chinese. Although most dress in Central Asia clothes they still eat Chinese-style dishes with chopsticks, speak Chinese at home and live in Chinese-style courtyard home with Chinese-style heated beds call kangs. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

There were about 70,000 Dungans in the former Soviet Union in the 1980s, with 30,000 in Kyrgyzstan and 25,000 in Kazakhstan, and small number in Uzbekistan and Russia. They live mostly on the Chu Valley of Kyrgyzstan and the Kurdai region of Kazakhstan with a few in Bishkek, Almaty and other cities in the region.

The first Dungans arrived after the fall of Kashgar and the final victory of the Xinjiang by the Manchu. They were welcomed with open arms and given land by the Russians as part of Great Game scheme to win the support of Chinese Muslims so they could gain an advantageous position to claim territory in Central Asia.

Dungan Life

Only 10,000 Dungans originally came from China but their numbers have increased and their numbers have grown and the Dungans have prospered due to the fact they have had large families (six to eight children per family and men with multiple wives were common) and succeeded as farmers known for their hard work. Many lived and worked on collectives that were very productive. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

Dungans have tended to marry other Dungans. Since there were so few of them to begin with many Dungans are related to one another. There are two main groups of Dungans: descendants of those from originally from Gansu and descendants of those from originally from Shanxi. Most members of these groups tend to marry within their groups. Marriages to other Muslims such as Kazakhs or Kyrgyz sometimes occur, but marriages to non-Muslims is taboo.

Dungans are Sunni Muslims who belong to the Hanafii school of law. They have a reputation for not being very religious yet every Dungan settlement has a mosque, administered by respected members of the community; most Dungans pay the Muslim zakat tax to help the poor; and keep a Koran at home. Most however do not pray five time a day or fast everyday during Ramadan. Many religious rites such as circumcisions, weddings and funeral rituals are performed according to Islamic traditions at home.

Dungans are famous for their hospitality and banquets, which are often held during birthdays, weddings and funerals. Because Dungans are so closely related to one another banquets can sometimes be quite large. After a child is born there are celebrations on the 10th, 40th, and 100th day after birth and again when the child is one year old. Wedding celebrations last two to 10 days and feature a number of events. Young people tend to chose their own partners rather than have a marriage arranged for them yet match makers are involved in some aspects of the union. The “teasing the bride” game is often conducted at the wedding.

Meskhetian Turks

Meskhetian Turks are a Turkish group that has traditionally lived in south-southwestern Georgia to the south of Meskhetian mountain range. In November 1944, after being denounced as “enemies” of the people” by Stalin, they were rounded to and deported to Central Asia (mostly Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). About 155,000 Meskhetian Turks from 200 villages in the Meskhetia region of southern Georgia were deported.

Meskhetian Turks have received some attention for the way they adapted their traditional culture and lifestyle from the western Caucasus region to Central Asia. The two areas could not be more unalike. The western Caucasus is well-watered, mountainous and mostly Christian. Central Asia is flat dry and mostly Muslim. The traditional way of life of the Caucasus was of little use to the Meskhetian Turks in Central Asia and their modern identity has been shaped by how they dealt with this change.

The traditional homelands of the Meskhetian Turks has since been taken over by Georgians and other ethnic groups who are adverse to te idea of giving the land back to the Meskhetian Turks. The Georgian government said Meskhetian Turks could return under the condition that they replace their Turkish names with Georgian ones. Proud of their Turkish identify, most refused. The issue o resettlement is still being debated to this day.

History of Meskhetian Turks

Meskhetian Turks are also known as Meskhetians. They speak a language classified in the Qoghuzic subgroup of the Turkic family and were first identified in southern Georgia between the 11th and 14th centuries, a period marked by invasions of Turkic groups such as the Seljuks and the Timurids and fighting between the Ottomans and Persians. The Meskheti area had few natural barriers and the mix of these Turkic groups with the local population created the Meskhetian Turks. They in turn mixed with a group of Armenian-speaking, light-skinned Catholics, called the Franks, thought to have been the remnants of a stranded group of European Crusaders.

Meskhetian Turks lived in homogenous villages and villages with other groups such as Georgians, Armenians and Kurds under both Christian Georgian and Muslim Turkish rule. During much of their existence they lived under Georgian rule and were able to maintain their identity and prosper through trade with the Georgians. The Meskhetian Turks produced bountiful harvests using irrigation with wooden and ceramic conduits and were known for producing much sought-after tobacco and honey.

The Meskhetian were forcibly exiled from southern Georgia to Central Asia, mostly Uzbekistan, by Stalin during World War II. Unlike other groups that were deported from the Caucasus, the Meskhetian Turks didn’t return to their homeland after Stalin died. They made permanent homes for themselves in Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. It was thought that since the Meskhetian Turks were Turks and spoke a Turkic language like Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz and were used to living among different ethnic group they would do well in Central Asia. But that didn’t happen.

Meskhetian Turk Culture and Life

Meskhetian Turks are fairly devoted Muslims. Among the pre-Islamic customs that have endured is the custom of bringing a fire to the graves of the dead after a funeral, attempting to induce rain by rattling pebbles in a brass basin, healing people and animals with “moon water” (water left outside on a clear night) and the custom of breaking an egg on the head of an oxen before plowing.

Marriages have traditionally been arranged between people considered to be blood relatives (but this also includes relatives of godparents and others who are not genetically related). Godmothers symbolically adopted infant children of friends by placing the naked infants through an opening in her clothes to simulate giving birth. Traditionally, arranged marriages were worked out when the couple was quite young. The wedding involved the payment of a bride price (half which was traditionally returned during preparation for the wedding), an Islamic ceremony and a large colorful and lively feast, finishing with a procession to a house newly built for the newlyweds.

Living in Central Asia changed the Meskhetian Turks in many ways. They adopted Central Asian homes and some Central Asian style clothing. In Azerbaijan, where many of them live, there has been rebirth of Meskhetian Turkish culture.

Discrimination Against Meskhetian Turks

Many of the estimated 200,000 Meskhetian Turks outside Georgia sought to return to their homes in Georgia after 1990, as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Many Georgians argued that the Meskhetian Turks had lost their links to Georgia and hence had no rights that would justify the large-scale upheaval resettlement would cause. However, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze argued that Georgians had a moral obligation to allow this group to return. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Meskhetian Turks were at the center or some ethnic disturbances including the one in 1989 in the Fergana Valley (See Below). Many have since left Uzbekistan, settling in Azerbaijan and almost all the former Soviet republics except Georgia. Many ended up in Krasnodar in southern Russia near the Black Sea, where they have been subjected to harassment and worse by Cossacks (See Cossacks, Russia).

One man told the Washington Post he and 37 other men were rounded up while working in a tomato fields and held for hours, and having their passports seized. The man said, “They were told to go away; ‘we don’t want you her.’ They said we had no right to work; we are foreigners.” A woman told the Washington Post that militiamen in camouflage uniforms broke into her house and demanded she turn over her television.

Krasnodar locals don’t consider the Meskhetian Turks to be citizens of Russia although many of them were in the area when the Soviet Union collapsed and therefore should be granted citizenship. Today, there are about 20,000 Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar. They live in a kind of legal limbo. They are unable to get residency permits or buy land because of anti-immigration regulations enacted by local authorities and enfored by police and ultranationalist Cossack vigilantes.

Meskhetian Turks and the Fergana Valley Ethnic Conflict in 1989

In 1989, ethnic animosities came to a head in the Fergana Valley, where local Meskhetian Turks were assaulted by Uzbeks, and in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, where Uzbek and Kyrgyz youth clashed. In Andijan, Uzbekistan, Jews and Armenians were chased out of neighborhoods and their houses were burned down. In Tashkent and mostly in the the Fergana Valley around the same time the Meskhetian Turks, a small minority, were attacked by Uzbeks. When the dust cleared hundreds of Meskhetian Turks were dead or injured (150 deaths were reported) , nearly 1,000 properties were destroyed and tens of thousands of Meskhetians become refugees. Disputes over land in the crowded Fergana Valley and high unemployment, particularly among young men were blamed for the ethnic violence.

Uzbekistan, specifically the fertile and populous Fergana Valley, had been the principal destination for Meskhetian Turk deportees in the1940s. Despite the hardships associated with their internal exile, many Meskhetian Turks in Uzbekistan had attained a relative measure of prosperity, proving themselves industrious agricultural producers. Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic and political liberalization policies contributed greatly to the anti-Meskhetian Turk outburst, lifting the lid on simmering nationalist sentiment among Uzbeks. Overcrowded conditions in the Fergana Valley, combined with widespread poverty, also fueled interethnic hostility. [Source: Open Society Foundation ***]

By May 1989, the tension was such that a supposed misunderstanding between an Uzbek and a Meskhetian Turk in a Fergana market led to a fight, which sparked countrywide rioting. The loss of life and property might have been much greater if the Soviet army had not been dispatched to protect and then oversee the enforced evacuation of many Meskhetian Turks. ***

Saifadin Tamaradze, a 54-year old farmer who now lives in the Sabirabad region of Azerbaijan, recalled: “As late as May 1, we had no reason to expect that there would be any problems. Then we began hearing rumors that something bad might happen.… After the incident [in the farmer’s market], Uzbek crowds appeared on the streets and they were throwing stones and threatening people. We tried as best we could to defend ourselves.… We became very afraid when we heard that in other places they [Uzbeks] were burning houses and killing people, so we fled to a collection point, where the Soviet military was protecting us.… We left in such a hurry that we had no time to collect any possessions. We didn’t even take our documents.… It was devastating to leave. With hard work people had built a nice life, and we had to leave with nothing.” ***

Many of the estimated 70,000-plus Meskhetian Turk evacuees from Uzbekistan settled in Azerbaijan. Others went to various regions of Russia, especially Krasnodar Krai. Still more resettled in neighboring Central Asian states, primarily Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. The physical separation of what had been a relatively compact Meskhetian Turk community in Uzbekistan, compounded by the demoralization of sudden loss, dealt the repatriation efforts a blow from which it has yet to fully recover, according to some Meskhetian Turk leaders. They are quick to proffer conspiracy theories, asserting that Soviet authorities feared the Meskhetian Turk leadership in 1989 was on the verge of achieving repatriation goals, therefore the Kremlin intentionally stirred events that would keep Meskhetian Turks divided, and hence pliant. “The Fergana events of 1989 were specifically manipulated by the KGB and other power structures in order to weaken our movement,” said Yusuf Sarvarov, the leader of Vatan, a Meskhetian Turk advocacy organization that spearheads the repatriation effort. Whatever the source of the Fergana events, Meskhetian Turks are still struggling to find the cohesiveness that would facilitate repatriation. The legacy of the riots also has an ongoing impact on the search for human security. ***

Since the Fergana tragedy, many Meskhetian Turks have managed to recover from the trauma. But not all. In particular, Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar are grappling with ongoing insecurity. Chauvinistic leaders in the southern Russian region are carrying out policies designed to make Meskhetian Turks feel unwelcome. The level of discrimination is such that Meskhetian Turk leaders, as well as international observers, warn about the possibility of interethnic disturbances that, for the third time since the 1940s, could culminate in the forced displacement of thousands of Meskhetian Turks. ***

Uyghurs in Kazakhstan

By one count there are about 200,000 Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In another estimate there are 300,000 Uyghurs in Kazakhstan alone. Some Uyghurs migrated from China to the Soviet Union during the Great Leap Forward era. One Uyghur singer who left in 1961 told the Japan Times, “I remember my father got up on a horse cart and sang a farewell song, and people were crying.” She said when she returned to China in 1992, “Very old men came up and said they remembered my parents. They thanked us; they thought that if we were divided for so many years, we would have forgotten the culture.”

Uyghur living in Kazakhstan enjoy a relatively high degree of cultural and educational freedom. Many Uyghur children are educated in their language at school. The government funds theater and dance companies in the Uyghur language. The fact that many Uyghurs live together and learned Uyghur in school has helped them keep their culture alive. In Kazakhstan the Uyghur language is written with the Cyrillic alphabet.

The Uyghur-language State Republican Theater of Musical Comedy was founded in 1934, As of the early 2000s, the company boasted 110 professional musicians, actors and dancers and classical and dances and plays. It includes both Kazakhstan-born and Chinese-born Uyghurs. The company used to tour China but was banned from doing so since in 1996.

Uyghur Activism in Kazakhstan

Some Uyghur groups that have demanded more autonomy in western China have been based in Kazakhstan, which is regarded by Beijing as a hotbed for Uyghur nationalism. Some Uyghurs who have been accused by Beijing of being terrorists have sought refuge in Kazakhstan.

The body of one activist was found strangled to death in a reservoir. Two others were killed after allegedly killing two policemen (an incident that Uyghurs say didn’t occur). Other have received death threats over the phone. Uyghur activists believe the Chinese government is ultimately behind the deaths and threats and say that the Uyghur areas are crawling with Chinese spies and informants.

As Kazakhstan and Beijing forge close ties, the Kazakhstan government has begun turnings its back on the Uyghur community and repatriating some Uyghurs that Beijing has label as terrorists to China. Some of those who have been repatriated have allegedly been tortured and killed.

Kazakhs Outside Kazakhstan

There were an estimated 10.8 million Kazakh worldwide in the 1990s. There about 8 millions Kazakhs in Kazakhstan, 1.1 million in Xinjiang, 900,000 in Uzbekistan, 740,000 in Russia, 90,000 in Turkmenistan, 70,000 in Western Mongolia, 50,000 in Kyrgyzstan and 30,000 in Afghanistan. There are also many Kazakhs in Turkey and the United States.

Kazakhs living outside of Kazakhstan have been invited to become citizens in their homeland if they returned. About hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs have thus far taken up up the offer, most of them from China, Mongolia and Russia. The effort to bring the Kazakh diaspora back to Kazakhstan continues. In 2004 more Kazakhs returned than left, making Kazakhstan the first of the former Soviet republic to reverse brain drain.

Many of the Kazakhs that lived in Mongolia migrated to Kazakhstan after Kazakhstan became independent in 1991. See Mongolia

Kazakhs in China

Kazakhs in China also called Hasake or Qazaqs. They live mainly in Altay Prefecture, Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture, and Mulei and Balikun Autonomous counties in Yili, the northern part of Xinjiang. A small number of them are found in Haixi Mongol and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai, and the Aksay Kazakh autonomous county in Akesai, Gansu province.

The Kazakh have traditionally made their living from livestock raising and animal husbandry. Only small numbers of them settled down and are engaged in agricultural production, in part because where they lived was not very well suited for agriculture. Near the Kazakh border in China, there are people with blond hair, green eyes and Asian features.

Most Kazakhs in China are Muslims as they are in Kazakhstan. Muslim holidays are their main festivals. Because of their traditional nomadic ways they have raised relatively few mosques. Kazakhs are regarded by the Chinese as being industrious, brave, warm and hospitable and good at singing and dancing.

The Kazakhs have generally have stuck to their nomadic ways more than the other minorities in Western China. They generally raise sheep and earn money by selling mutton, lamb, wool and sheepskin. Chinese merchants provide them with clothes, consumer items, sweet and particularly alcohol.

The Kazakhs resisted several attempts to by the Chinese Communists to make them live on sheep-raising communes. About 60,000 Kazakhs reportedly fled to the Soviet Union in 1962 and other crossed the border in India and Pakistan or were granted political asylum in Turkey. Horgass Pass between Xinjiang, China and Soviet Kazakhstan was closed in 1971 and not reopened until 1983.

Kazakh population in China: 0.1097 percent of the total population; 1,462,588 in 2010 according to the 2010 Chinese census; 1,251,023 in 2000 according to the 2000 Chinese census; 1,111,718 in 1990 according to the 1990 Chinese census. [Sources: People’s Republic of China censuses, Wikipedia]

See Separate Articles Under China; KAZAKHS IN CHINA: HISTORY AND CULTURE factsanddetails.com ; KAZAKH NOMADIC LIFE factsanddetails.com ]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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