Kazakhs are known for being cheerful, honest, warm-hearted, sincere, hospitable, tolerant and straightforward. Traits that are admired include bravery, emotions and optimism. Respect for elders and clan loyalties hold a high place in Kazakh society. Kakakhs have traditionally been organized into clans that in turn were organized into tribes. Uzbeks and Kazakhs are regarded as the most individualistic people of the Central Asians.

Family, community and clan are the focal points of Kazakh life. In the past , when they were nomadic herders, to survive everyone had to rely on others and this attitude is still present in Kazakhstan. Although years under Soviet rule raised levels of suspicion and distrust these years did not wipe out or diminish traditional sentiments about hospitality, friendship and camaraderie. It is said the community is the center of the individual. As many towns and villages are small and isolated in the vast country reliance on others has traditionally been important for survival.

Kazakh and Kyrgyz cultures have been described as mixes of Mongol and Turkish culture. Kazakh culture has been the most influenced by Russian culture and been described as the “least amenable to strict codes of conduct.” In the poverty-stricken rural areas people may be desperate and stoop to petty corruption yet they are able to maintain some dignity. They can also be remarkable optimistic and cheerful even under the harshest of conditions.

To a degree the people also maintain the Soviet mentality as they rarely get involved in other people's personal affairs and tend to keep to themselves when in public. Due to this attitude, the people take offense at few things. Although everyone will notice odd behaviors and cultural abnormalities, rarely will anyone point out your cultural mistakes.[Source: safaritheglobe.com]

Kazakh Hospitality

Kazakhs are very hospitable. Hospitality is expressed with warm welcomes and giving guests the place of honor at the table. There is an expression: “Kazakh hearts are like the steppes—wide, kind and generous. “ Islam — their religion — and the nomadic code of behavior both place a strong emphasis on hospitality.

Reporting from the home of an Aral Sea fisherman in Karateren, Kazakhstan, Ilan Greenberg wrote in the New York Times: “Having received unexpected visitors, Zhaisanbayev unfurled long, handwoven carpets across his large living room while his wife prepared piles of nuts, fruits, and cured meats in a kitchen sparkling with new, brand-name appliances imported from Korea.” [Source: Ilan Greenberg The New York Times, April 7, 2006]

The Kazakhs have traditionally entertained all guests, invited and uninvited alike, with the best things they have — usually a prize sheep. At dinner, the host presents a dish of mutton with the sheep's head to the guest, who cuts a slice off the right cheek and puts it back on the plate as a gesture of appreciation. He then cuts off an ear and offers it to the youngest among those sitting round the dinner table. He then gives the sheep's head back to the host.

See Eating Customs

Kazakh Society

Traditional Kazakh society revolved around herding animals and allegiances to clans, tribes and "zhuz" (similar to tribal confederations). Bonds based on these principals continues to play a part in modern Kazakh society, politics and economics. Kazakhstan has traditionally put an emphasis on respect for elders, tolerance of religion and ethnicity. Clan loyalty is often more important than religion.

According to kwintessential.co.uk: “The Kazakhs developed a patriarchal view of the world. They banded together in extended family groups to battle the hardships of the environment and to protect their cattle and their families. This was officially called "ata-balasy", which means the joining of a grandfather’s sons into one tribe of extended family. The husband plays the primary role in family life and is ultimately responsible for the family’s survival. [Source: kwintessential.co.uk |]

“Kazakhstan is also an extremely hierarchical society. Everyone has a distinct place in the hierarchy based upon family relationships. People are respected because of their age and position. Older people are viewed as wise and therefore they are granted respect. The "ways of the elders" is a popular expression that is used to explain why things are done in prescribed ways. Kazakhs expect either the eldest or the person with the highest position to make decisions that are in the best interest of the group.” |

Kazakh Clans

Kazakhs have traditionally been organized into clans and they were organized into tribes. These in turn were organized into tribal groups with a common ancestor and zhugs (See History). The Oldest zhug is made of eleven large traibes: the Dulat, Alban, Suan, Sary-Uysun, Srgeli, Ysty, Oshakty, Chaprashty, Canyshkly (Katagan), Kangly and Zhalair. Each is comprised of several large clan groups. The Dulat tribe is comprised of the Botpay, Chmyr, Saikym and Zhamys clan group, which turn consists of several clans.

Clan loyalty is often more important than religion. Every Kazakh knows his genealogy back at least seven generations. One Kazakh told National Geographic, “If a man cannot name his ancestors for seven generations, he is no Kazakh.” With that knowledge a Kazakh or she can also determine his or her kinship ties to practically every other Kazakh or to the whole world. Large clans with the Middle Zhug are the Kipachaks, Argyns, Naimans, Kere and Uaki. The three large clans in the Younger Zhug are the Bayul, Alimul and Zetyru,

Every Kazakh clan has a “tamgy” (clan symbol), a “uran” (war cry) and a common ancestor, and with him, tales and legends connected with the founding of the clan. Kinship ties can be traced along both male and females lines. There were some special rules governing the children of daughters or sisters of a women. For example, the daughters or sisters of a woman could take anything from her of value up to three times.

Khazakh Zhuz

Historically the Kazakhs identified themselves as belonging to one of three zhuz, or hordes (ordas), each of which had traditional territories: the Great Horde, Middle Horde and Little Horde — or the Right, Left and Western branches as the Qing government documents referred to them. The Middle Horde was the most powerful, with the largest number of people and most complete clan lineage. The Kazakhs in China mostly belonged to the Great and Middle Hordes.[Source: China.org china.org |]

Because the Lesser Horde controlled western Kazakhstan and the Middle Horde migrated across what today is northern and eastern Kazakhstan, those groups came under Russian control first, when colonial policies were relatively benign. The traditional nobles of these hordes managed to retain many of their privileges and to educate their sons in Russian schools. These sons became the first Kazakh nationalists, and in turn their sons were destroyed by Stalin, who tried to eradicate the Kazakh intelligentsia during his purges of the 1930s. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

The Large, or Great, Horde was dominant in the south, and hence did not fall under Russian control until colonialism was much harsher. Substantially fewer Great Horde Kazakhs became involved in politics before the revolution, but those who did became socialists rather than nationalists. For that reason, the Great Horde members came to dominate once the Bolsheviks took power, especially after Kazakhstan's capital was moved from the Lesser Horde town of Orenburg (now in Russia) to a Great Horde wintering spot, Almaty. Kunayev and Nazarbayev are said to have roots in clans of the Great Horde.

With the collapse of the CPK and its patronage networks, and in the absence of any other functional equivalent, clan and zhuz membership has come to play an increasingly important role in the economic and political life of the republic at both the national and the province level. The power of clan politics has been visible in the dispute over moving the national capital to Aqmola, which would bolster the prestige of the Middle Horde, on whose lands Aqmola is located. In general, members of the Lesser and Middle hordes are more Russified and, hence, more inclined to cooperate with Russian industrial and commercial interests than are the members of the Great Horde. Akezhan Kazhegeldin, prime minister in 1996, was a Middle Horder, as was the opposition leader Olzhas Suleymenov. Although mindful of Russia's strength, the Great Horders have less to lose to Russian separatism than do the Lesser and Middle horders, whose lands would be lost should the Russian-dominated provinces of northern Kazakhstan become separated from the republic.

Anatoly M. Khazanov of the University of Wisconsin wrote: “Belonging to a certain "zhuz" is still important to the Kazakhs, particularly among the local administrations which often sabotage decision s made by the president and the government of the country. Today, one should not overestimate the intra-ethnic competition among the Kazakhs. It is certainly only of secondary importance and is much less salient than, for example , among the Kazakhs' southern neighbors, the Turkmen. It is possible that the importance of ethnic subdivisions within the Kazakh community will in the future diminish, particularly, if the competition with other ethnic group s continues to increase. On the other hand, I would not completely exclude the future possibility of a revival in tribalism in Kazakhstan, if the proper condition s emerge. [Source: Anatoly M. Khazanov, University of Wisconsin, August 2, 1994 ^|^]


Traditionally Kazakhs have lived in settlements called auls, based on kinship, which formed basic administrative units called “somon” or “arban”. A typical aul is made up of five to eight yurts, with the yurts arranged according to each household’s relation to the aul’s leader.

In the old days, an aul was a group of households consisting of kin and nonkin that migrated together and formed discrete social units. Aul functions included helping one another in times of trouble, participating in kinship rituals such as weddings, funerals and hair cutting rites and economic exchanges. Household in the aul cooperate for labor intensive activities such as tending livestock and sheering sheep.

The aul’s leader is usually a senior member called an aksakal (“white beard”). Often he is no more than that the eldest male in a household or extended family. When he dies his eldest son becomes the aul leader.

Increased urbanization, the collectivization of herds and the enlargement of settlements has undermined the traditional aul system. Traditional administrative units have been replaced with administrative districts based on territory.

Traditional Clan and Aul Composition

The clans were formally blood groups of different sizes. The smallest productive organization and nomadic community within the clan was the "Aul," people with the same grandfather or father; sometimes they included people without any blood ties, mostly dependent poor herdsmen from without. So, there was a sharp contrast of wealth in the "Aul" of three, five, a dozen or more families. Owing to wars, migration or other causes, such internal blood relations became very loose. [Source: China.org china.org |]

The ruling group was composed of the nobility, tribal chiefs, herd owners and "Bis." The Bis generally came from a rich herdsman's family, were well-versed in the laws, customs and eloquence, and were generally regarded as qualified mediators. The ethnic group did not have any written law, but each clan had its own common law which protected private property, the privileges of the tribal chiefs, and tribal solidarity and unity. |

Whenever there were disputes over property, marriage or other matters, the "Bi" mediated and handled them in accordance with the clan law, generally practicing "punishment by nine," i.e., compensation of nine head of animals paid by the loser to the winner of the lawsuit. According to the Communist Chinese government: “The Kazakh clan organization was a combination of the feudal system of exploitation and the clan patriarchy. The ruling class plundered the people economically and enjoyed political privileges. The majority of the poor herdsmen were deprived of all rights whatsoever.” |

Identity in Kazakhstan

The people of Kazakhstan tend to identify as Kazakh or as Russian, both of which are ethnic-based identities. Kazakhs have struggled to define what it means to be Kazakh. Prior to the Soviet takeover the Kazakhs were generally nomadic people who claimed Islam as their religion. Due to Soviet rule, relatively few Kazakhs are nomadic any longer (although some have taken it up) and few are devout Muslims. Because of this, the people cling to an ethnicity that is still trying to find or create an identity. [Source: safaritheglobe.com]

It can be emphasized how important clan and regional identity are in Kazakhstan. The Kazakhs have traditionally been divided onto three main groups (“zhuz”): the Great (southern Kazakhstan), the Middle (north and east Kazakhstan) and the Little (west Kazakhstan). These divisions date back to the period of history when the Kazakh empire was established and then divided. A common first question asked by Kazakhs meeting each other for the first is "What zhuz do you belong to?"

Social Change in Kazakhstan

The way of life in Kazakhstan is undergoing some growing pains as the people, their culture, traditions, and historic way of life are be questioned. The people have always lived a life based on nomadism and moving with the animals and seasons. However, the Soviet changed this and forced the people to settle the lands, shifting them from herders to farmers. Today nearly everyone is settled, but only about half the population is actually urbanized as the daily way of life in Kazakhstan is still based on the land and nature for a large number of people.

Although over half the people are urbanized, many of these people are ethnic Russians, who live a lifestyle similar to that of other Russians. City life is the norm for many of these people as they maintain regular working hours and jobs. Many Kazakhs have also adopted this way of life as work and school set a schedule for the people, essentially dictating the daily routine. For these people the work day tends to last about eight hours and schools often teach for a couple fewer hours per day.

Despite the settlement of the people and the changing way of life, the culture is still rooted in the land and over a quarter of the working population of Kazakhstan still works in the agricultural industries. For these people life and livelihood are heavily dependent on the seasons and weather. Daily schedules shift from season to season, but long hours are not uncommon during the warm summer months when days are longer.

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 April 2016

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