By some counts there are over 140 different ethnic groups in Central Asia. Many ethnic groups have traditionally identified themselves by their headgear and are divided by anthropologists into the Turkic and Persian language speakers, Muslims and non-Muslims and nomads and settled people. The main groups in Central Asia have generally been divided into the nomads (Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Turkmen) and the settled peoples (Uzbeks, Tajiks and Uighurs). [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: China, Russia and Eurasia” edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company]

There has traditionally been a lot of intermarriage between the people’s 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 toes have historically been more important than ethnic identity.

As a result of the borders drawn up by Stalin in the Soviet era and the tradition of living without border in a crossroads of ethnic groups, there is a great deal of demographic confusion in Central Asia. You can find Uzbek villages in Kyrgyzstan and Kyrgyz villages in Uzbekistan. Tajiks pop everywhere. Turkmen often wander into Uzbekistan and Kyrgyz often wander into Kazakhstan.

Central Asia has a long history of tolerance. It has traditionally been a crossroads for people for different ethnic groups, religions and regions. In the Soviet era, Central Asia, and Uzbekistan in particular, was dumping ground for dissidents and unwanted minorities. Among the groups that were exiled to the region where Crimean Tartars, Chechens, other Caucasus groups, Germans and Koreans.

In some of the Central Asia republics, the ethnic group for which they were named struggled to make up a majority of the population. Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “Whereas the titular population dominated in Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan, with approximately 80 percent of the total population, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were home to large nontitular minorities. The Kyrgyz accounted for only 65 percent of the population of their republic. The Kazakhs would not cross the majority threshold until the 1999 census (53 percent of the population). [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2006]

Soviets Carve up Central Asia

Although the peoples of Central Asia—Uzbeks, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Kazakhs—have a long history the republics that became Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrzgzstan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were created in the 1920s as the equivalent of American states with no plan for them ever to be independent countries. The Tajiks were given their own republic but it lacked Bukhara and Samarkand, cities with mostly Tajik populations that traditionally had been Tajik cultural and business centers.

Stalin, serving as people's commissar of nationalities, divided up Central Asia into the current republics in 1924 as part of a divide and rule strategy to thwart any attempt at a pan-Turkic or pan-Islamic revolt against the Soviet Union. Borders were not established along ethnic or geographical lines but along lines mostly likely to suppress dissent. Ethnic groups were divided and placed in neighboring republics rather than into a single nation. Russians were pushed to move in the area.

Before that time there were no real borders in Central Asia. People were grouped together by religion, loyalty to a certain leaders, language in a way that was always changing and never clearly defined. There was no sense of nationhood and even ethnicity. Under the Soviets, ethnicity became defined as rigidly as the borders and many groups were provided with a history, culture and tradition that conformed to Soviet ideology.


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.


The Karakalpaks are a formally nomadic people that have traditionally lived in the western deserts of Uzbekistan in a region now known as Karakalpakstan and fished in the Amu Darya delta and the Aral Sea. Karakalpak means “Black Hat People.” Under the Soviets, they were settled in towns and collectives and lost much of their culture. They are also called Kalpak or Karalapaks.

In the early 2000s, there were about 400,000 Karakalpaks, with 350,000 in Karakalpakia, 20,000 elsewhere in Uzbekistan, 3,000 in Turkmenistan. 2,500 in Russia and 2,000 in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. About 93 percent of them live Anu Darya Delta area of Karakalpakia. They make up 2 to 2.5 percent of total population of Uzbekistan and are outnumbered in Karakalpakia by Uzbeks in the south and Kazakhs in the north. Most Karakalpak live in settlements along irrigation canals of the Amu Darya Delta.

Karakalpaks are the result of the mixing of indigenous Iranians with invading Mongols, Turks and other Central Asian horsemen such as the Huns, Ogus Turks, Pechengs, Bashkirs and Ugrians. They allied themselves with the Seljuk Turks and the Golden Horde and fought against the Kipchaks in the 12th,13th and 14th centuries. They began referring to themselves as the Karakalpaks around 1500 when they settled in the Syr Darya delta. Afterwards the migrated closer to the Aral Sea and became subjects of the Bukhrarans, Kazakhs, Dzungarians, Khivan, Russians, Soviets and Uzbeks.

Karakalpaks have cultural and linguist ties with Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. Their language—now the official language of Karakalpakstan—is a Turkic language closer to Kazakh than Uzbek. An effort has been made to switch from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet.

Tatars in Central Asia

There are significant populations of Tatars, a Turkic people that look more like Russians than Turks, in Central Asia as there are in Russia and most of the other former Soviet republics. Tatars began settling in Central Asia in the 19th century at the encouragement of the tsars. In the late Soviet period, numerous Tatars migrated to the Central Asian republics, in particular Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Large numbers of Tatars were exiled to Central Asia at the end of World War II.

The Tatars is a name used to describe several distinct groups of Muslim Turkic people who speak Turkic languages. Most are Sunni Muslims and are identified in association with specific areas in Russia and the former Soviet Union. There are four main groups of Tatars; 1) the Volga Tatars; 2) the Crimean Tatars; 3) the Siberian Tatars; and 4) the Kriashen Tatars. Tatars are also called Tartars.

The Tatar language belongs to the Kipchak group and has several regional dialects. The region of present-day Tatarstan was occupied by the Mongols when the Golden Horde swept across the middle Volga region in the early thirteenth century. When the Mongol Empire fragmented two centuries later, one of its constituent parts, the Tatar Kazan' Khanate, inherited the middle Volga and held the region until its defeat by Ivan IV. Shortly thereafter, Russian colonization began. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Crimean Tatars

Crimean Tatars emerged in the 14th century. Their early history is somewhat similar to that of the Volga Tatars but they evolved more or less independently of them but later on at the end of World War II their fate took a tragic turn when practically their entire population was exiled from their homeland to Central Asia. It is not clear how many Crimean Tatars there are. A census in 1989 counted around 270,000 of them, but the true figure is believed to be more than a million. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, September 1994]

Crimean Tatars speak their own language. It is based on the language of Kipchak Turks like the Volga Tatars but is different. It incorporates a number of Ottoman words, for example. In some ways it is more closely linked to the languages of the Azerbaijanis and Turks in Turkey.

Crimean Tatars have traditionally been an agricultural people but since they were exiled in World War II (See Below) they have mainly lived in cities and worked in the industrial sector.

Forced Exile of Crimean Tatars

On May 18, 1944, towards the end of World War II, all of the Crimean Tatars—some 230,000 of them—were roused from their beds and rounded up in one night, under orders from Stalin, and forced onto trucks and rail cattle cars for the long trip to Central Asia (mostly to Uzbekistan) and the southern Urals. The Tatars were falsely accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis— even though they supplied a large of soldiers to anti-Nazi units in the Red Army—and were exiled as punishment. The Tatars were one of a dozen or so ethnic groups accused by Stalin of collaborating with the Nazis.

One Tatar late told the Washington Post, "A Russian officer came with three soldiers and ordered us to leave. He said the Tatars were traitors to the Motherland. My father gave him documents showing that my brother was fighting the Germans in the Red Army, but [the officer] threw them aside. He said that meant nothing.”

The Tatars were locked inside the cattle cars. At stops some food and water was thrown in and dead bodies were removed. As many 100,000 of them died—nearly half their entire population— during the journey and the early days or resettlement. Those who survived lost their land, lost their identity and were subjected to crushing restrictions.

Crimean Tatars in Uzbekistan

The Tatars were settled in communities under tight supervision. They were prohibited from traveling or publishing in their language. One woman told the Washington Post, “In Uzbekistan, Tatars are being turned into Uzbeks and Russians. We're losing our languages, our culture and identity.”

The Tatars first lived in concrete huts set up on the steppes. Over time they built proper houses. After Stalin died, other groups were allowed to return to their homelands, but not the Tatars. Some historians believe this was because that Tatars might stir up anti-Soviet activity among other Muslim groups. Other historians have said the Soviet’s simply wanted the Tatars land and firmer grasp on the strategically important Crimean peninsula.

Back in the Crimea, Russians had moved into Tatars houses and farmed Tatar land and destroyed Tatar mosques and cemeteries. The Crimea was developed into an important military zone and a playground for the Soviet elite. In 1946, the Crimean Tatars ceased to officially exist as a distinct ethnic group, instead they were grouped in the broad Tatar category.

Germans in Central Asia

Germans in Central Asia were deported from their homes in the Volga region in World War II or came as settlers in the 19th century. A few are Mennonites. By the late 1970s there were ove 1 million Germans in Central Asia, with the vast majority of them in Kazakhstan, Many ethnic Germans in Central Asia fled after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. For a while about 150,000 a year left.

Most of the Germans deported to Kazakhstan made the journey in cattle cars. One German woman told National Geographic, “We were on the way for about six weeks. When the train stopped we would try to cook, but all of sudden the command would come,’Immediately to the cars!’ My youngest child died of hunger. I didn't have breast milk, and we had nothing to feed a baby except dry bread...A lot of people died. When we stopped the soldiers gave us spades to bury them. But today we don’t know where the graves are.”

Many of the Germans sent to Kazakhstan were from the Volga region. Many of the survivors took over managerial and professional jobs. At the time of independence in 1991, there were about 1 million Germans living in Kazakhstan. Many ethnic Germans in Central Asia migrated from the region after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The exodus has robbed the region of able managers and professionals.

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.

Last updated March 2022

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