The people of Central Asia are basically divided into two types: the traditional nomads and semi-nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Turkmen) and the settled people (the Uzbeks and Tajiks). According the DNA studies, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen have retained their "ethnic purity."

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the ethnic groups of Central Asia. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been difficult to distinguish from one another. The same is true with Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. Clan and regional ties have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

Alexandre Bennigsen wrote in 1979 that ‘sub-national and supra-national loyalties remain strong in Central Asia and actively compete with national ones’; however, his thesis that this supra-national identity ought to be based on anti-Russian ‘pan-Turkestanism’ with the Uzbeks as its directing element is difficult to accept, at least as far as Tajikistan is involved.” [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

See Minorities.

Uzbeks and Tajiks

Modern Tajiks are very similar to modern Uzbeks. They have similar customs and lifestyles. Up until the 20th century they were regarded as essentially the same people except that Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. In some ways the Tajik ethnic group was invented by the Soviets as a way to divide the local population and make them less of a threat to the state. Two of Uzbekistan’s most famous cities, Samarkand and Bukhara, have a longer association with Persian-Tajik cultures than with Turkic-Uzbek cultures and have traditionally been home to more Tajiks than Uzbeks.

Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally had very similar customs and settled lifestyles except the Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. Tajiks are also distinguished from other Central Asian by their traditional Islamic-Iranian culture. The widespread use of “Tajik” as term of identification did not come into common usage until the Soviets started using it. The term “Tajik” is also used to describe the speakers of non-Persian Iranian languages in the mountain valleys in the Pamir mountain area such as Sarikolis, Wakhis and Shugnis.

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the ethnic groups of Central Asia. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally been difficult to distinguish from one another. The same is true with Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. Clan and regional ties have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

Central Asia is a meeting point of Turkic, Persian and Mongol cultures. Uzbeks and Tajiks have traditionally had very similar customs and lifestyles except the Uzbeks spoke a Turkish language and the Tajiks spoke a Persian language. Most ethnic Tajiks in Uzbekistan identify as Tajiks, but citizens of Uzbekistan.

Uzbeks consider themselves the dominate people of Central Asia by virtue of their numbers and their historic links to Tamerlane and Genghis Khan. Other ethnic groups in Central Asia dispute this claim.

Into the 20th century people referred to Uzbeks and Tajiks as Turks and Persians. The Uzbek and Tajik designations only really became widespread with the arrival of the Soviets and their desire to mold ethnic identities to suit their purposes.

Kazakhs and Kyrgyz

Kazakhs and Kyrgyz are close relatives. They look similar, have many similar customs and speak similar languages. Many believe they are essential the same people with Kazakhs traditionally residing in the steppes and Kyrgyz living in the mountains. The Kyrgyz, however, have a longer and more coherent history than the Kazakhs.

Describing Kazakhs and Kyrgyz in the 19th a writer in the journal “Russly vestnik “wrote: “A child is assigned a foal from a favorite mare born in the same year as the child; they are brought up almost together spothat by the time the child is able to sit astride the horse) and that happened when child has his third birthday) the animal is completely trained and like a household pet.”

The Kazakh and Kyrgyz “”archal” saddle has very high pommels each of which is split on two; the ends that stick out have round holes in which little sticks are thrust...Instead of stirrups it has deep, wide pouches attached to the saddle rees of the child’s feet.; the sticks support the child form the sides. The high pommels act as a support from front and back and therefore he sits in complete safety and cannot fall except with the horse.”

Kazakhs, Cossacks and Russified Kazakhs

“Kazakh” is an old Turkic words that means "free man" or “secessionist.” The same Turkic word is believed to be the root of the word Cossack, another group of people associated with the steppe. Kazakhs and Cossacks are very different though. The Kazakhs have called themselves “Kazakhs” or “Kazakhs” since the 17th century, or possibly the 15th century when they broke away from an Uzbek khan in the 15th century. Neighboring groups began calling them Kazakhs by the 17th or 18th centuries.

Russians initially called referred to the Kazakhs as “Kazakhs” or “Kazatsakaye” but later called them “Kyrgyz.” This was done to distinguish the Kazakhs from the Cossacks. To avoid confusion between Kazakhs and Kyrgyz until the 20th century Russians called Kazakhs ‘Kyrgyz’ and Kyrgyz were called Black Kyrgyz. Only in 1926 when the Kazakhs gained national autonomy did the Kazakhs regain the use of their traditional name.

The Kazakhs are the most Russified of all the groups in Central Asia. This is because they were the first people to be brought under Russian rule and have maintained close contacts with Russians over a long period.

Under the Soviet rule and Russification, Kazakh nomads were forced to give up there nomadic ways and move to dreary cities and collective farms, they lost their traditions and identity. The Russification program was successful. Many Kazakhs speak Russian better than Kazakh. Since claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived a language long and culture suppressed by the Soviet Union.

Character of Central Asians

All Central Asian cultures have been described as high context and formal, especially with outsiders. Describing a group as high context means that they tend to deal in absolute truths and spell things out clearly while emphasizing smooth interpersonal relations and, in some cases using subtle and indirect ways of communicating.

Central Asia has a long tradition of paternalism and Central Asian are known for their patience.

A sense of fatalism in Central Asia is not as strong as among other Muslim groups. Uzbeks and Kazakhs are regarded as the most individualist of the Central Asians.

Central Asians with strong Turkic roots tend to come on more strongly than those of descent, Asians, who tend ro be little more mellow and self effacing. In “Journey to Khiva” Philip Glazebrook described a famous Uzbek writer he met as a “robust, bullnecked man” with “friendliness radiating from and a bone-crushing handclasp and a greeting like a loudspeaker announcement.”

Society in Central Asia

Traditionally there have two kinds of people in Central Asia: 1) the settled people, which included farmers, merchants, craftsmen and city dwellers; and 2) nomadic herdsman. The type of society individuals lived in was defined by these two ways of life.

The basic social units were the village. In the case of the nomads their village was an aul, which tended be small and was comprised of a winter time village or camp and camps at the summer pastures and intermediary spring and autumn camps. In the case of the settled people, the village was called a “kishlak”. It was larger and remained in one place. The structure of the aul and kishlak have both traditionally been based on kinship ties.

Uzbeks tended to be settled. Their society has traditionally revolved around clans, villages (“kishlak”) neighborhoods (“mahallya”), and men’s houses or tea houses (“chaykhana”), all of which are clearly defined physically and socially.

Clans have traditionally been very important among Uzbeks and remain so although they are less important than among Kazakhs and Kyrgyz. Each clan had its own territory, leader and system of authority. Descent lines traveled along patrilineal lines from a common ancestor but could be amended, say because of a military or economic alliance. In these cases, the clan leaders often recognized each other as brothers.

Most Central Asian societies are hierarchally oriented and organized. People have traditionally shown total respect for local khans, emirs or chiefs, who in turn have traditionally not shared power or limited it by law. All major Soviet organizations—the Octobrists, the Young Pioneers, women’s organizations and labor unions—existed in Central Asia.

Marriage and Weddings in Central Asia

Traditionally marriages often took place or were arranged when the couple was very young, sometimes when they were children. Contracts between the families of the bride and groom were made by a third party. At the time of the marriage a bride price, which could be quite high and often consisted of livestock and carpets, was paid with the understanding that the bride was now a member of the groom’s family. Many of these traditions endure today.

Polygamy has traditionally been allowed in accordance with Islamic rule but was uncommon because bride prices were so high and under the Soviet system there were few men who were wealthy enough to support several wives. Marriages between cousins occur but is not as common a thing as it is some Arab and other Muslim cultures.

Weddings have traditionally featured feasting, the actual wedding ceremony and sometimes competitions such as horse races. The Soviets discouraged “kalym”, religious weddings, and extravagant feasts but they were held anyway. Couples often went through with both a civil ceremony and a religious one, which is still true today.

Families in Central Asia

Society has traditionally been organized along patrilineal lines, with status and kin relationships distinguished by gender and by birth order age among siblings. Kinship terminology is very complex. They are different terms for older and younger brothers and sisters and for patrilineal and matrilineal uncles and aunts.

Sons traditionally inherited the bulk of property and possession with each receiving roughly equal shares and each getting part when they are married and part after the death of the father.

Under the Soviet, women went from wearing veils and rarely leaving the home to being doctors and tractor drivers. In some places there is some segregation between women and men — such in mosques or in homes during parties — but it is generally not as pervasive and as strict as in some other places in the mother world.

Culture in Central Asia

The most important single cultural commonality among the republics is the practice of Sunni Islam, which is the professed religion of a very large majority of the peoples of the five republics and which has experienced a significant revival throughout the region in the 1990s. Propaganda from Russia and from the ruling regimes in the republics identifies Islamic political activity as a vague, monolithic threat to political stability everywhere in the region. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

However, the role of Islam in the five cultures is far from uniform, and its role in politics has been minimal everywhere except in Tajikistan. For Kazaks, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, whose society was based on a nomadic lifestyle that carried on many traditional tribal beliefs after their nominal conversion, Islam has had a less profound influence on culture than for the sedentary Tajik and Uzbek Muslims, who have a conventional religious hierarchy.

Since break up of the Soviet Union, their has been a reawakening of ethnic pride and revival of traditional beliefs and customs. But the going has been tough because overcoming the Soviet mind set and bring backing forgotten customs has been hard.

Culture in Central Asia in the Soviet Era

The Soviets encouraged the arts on their terms. Artists and craftsmen were pampered by the state. Some expression of ethnicity was allowed within certain limits. To some degree people were taught that ethnic pride was a bad thing and told that their traditional beliefs and customs were backward.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “A combination of factors, such as the autonomy of the nativised bureaucracy, the existence of a stratum of indigenous intellectuals, and a growing ability to express national identity through artistic means, had contributed to the phenomenon of ‘Soviet-encouraged cultural nationalism’ in Central Asia. It remained confined, however, by and large, to specialised and governing elites in Tajikistan. In Donald Carlisle’s words, ‘the intelligentsia and middle class, and urban settings as opposed to rural locales, are the initial incubators for nationalism. But unless such restive elites have mass backing and their urban base expands into rural support, no powerful national amalgam emerges and no successful national movement can be born’. Modernist city-based intellectuals were as alien to their traditionalist compatriots in the countryside as hi-tech factories were to the agricultural economy of Tajikistan. Moreover, the competence and breadth of outlook of writers, artists, scholars and other professionals who were trained inside and outside the republic in quite sufficient numbers were often inadequate. In the 1980s, only one-quarter of all research projects pursued under the aegis of the Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan corresponded to the All-Union level. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In the national republics ‘the reproduction of intellectual and governing elites had acquired unprecedented proportions … For the sake of maintaining the symbols of national statehood enormous resources were pumped into the structures of local academies of science, professional creative unions, cinematography, theatre, elite sports, etc.’ The new indigenous middle class in Tajikistan was reared for one purpose only: to serve USSR, Inc.; it was part of the nomenklatura. There was little danger that ‘Soviet cultural nationalism’ in the republic would become political nationalism. Asliddin Sohibnazarov, one of the genuine proponents of Tajik nationalism, has remarked bitterly that at the beginning of perestroika there were just ‘one–two dozen … Tajik intellectuals who had accepted progressive [that is, nationalist] ideas’.”

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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.

Last updated April 2016

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