Kazakhstan in 2010 retains the dramatic and varied landscape, and many of the cultural traditions, that fascinated Valikhanov. However, the social and economic scene of independent Kazakhstan is dramatically different 175 years after Valikhanov’s birth.
As the world’s ninth biggest country, Kazakhstan has a vast landscape offering varied environments, including flatlands, steppes, hills, deltas, canyons, lakes, mountains, and deserts. These terrains accommodate many attractions and activities, and a diverse industry. Rail and domestic flights offer convenient and reliable transport across this vast land, the largest landlocked country in the world.
Investment in infrastructure and industry has led to Kazakhstan’s emergence, in the post-Soviet era, as a prosperous and modern Eurasian nation. It is currently the most economically advanced country in Central Asia. The country has many vibrant and modern cities, but the two most important are Almaty and Astana.
The Kazakh nation has evolved through centuries of nomadic tradition in the vast steppes of Eurasia. During this process the historical borders of the nomads have always been diffused and indefinite, allowing for a constant trans-continental trade and cultural exchange. This is the major determinant of the diverse cultural development of the Kazakhs, as well as other ethnic groups represented in today’s Kazakhstan. And while Kazakhstan is no longer predominantly nomadic, Kazakhstan’s nomadic traditions are still evident, in modern culture, and visitors can engage with village families and experience Kazakh hospitality, cuisine and culture first hand.
The culture of Kazakhs before settling in the 20th century was predominantly nomadic. The main historical achievement of the nomads has been the mastery of transferring a vast body of collective knowledge, amassed over centuries, from one generation to the next. The cultural knowledge, passed on from father to son and mother to daughter, comprises a synthesis of Eastern and Western cultures and an entire complex of multinational know-how.
Kazakh hospitality is the key to understanding the nation. Hospitality in a vast territory of climatic and geographic extremes is considered a basic moral imperative. Every guest to a dwelling should be treated with honor and provided with shelter if necessary. Before the guest proceeds with the journey, it is customary to offer food, sarkhyt, for the continuing travels.
Kazakhs are passionate about sports and hunting, which are essential parts of nomadic culture. During festivals such as Nauruz (Nauryz) (a non-religious celebration that marks the first day of spring and the beginning of the year in the Zoroastrian and steppe calendar), physical contests provide public entertainment.
At the debut of the 21st century, Kazakh art evidences ancient traditionalism and contemporary mainstream. The historical location of the main Kazakh cities along the Silk Road has determined the unique and universal trait of nomadic art. As a result, Kazakh culture has produced significant masterpieces and accomplished forms of art. Today, the mixture of influences is apparent in art, music and literature.
Music has always played a significant role in the lives of nomads. Music, as well as poetry before the 19th century, was transferred from generation to generation mainly through the spoken word.
In the second half of the 19th century, much Kazakh literature, with its countless versions of songs, tales and opuses, was transferred into written form. Sagas about batyrs (nomadic knights), heroic epics, and love tragedies, which were passed on from generation to generation, eventually took shape on the pages of books. Among the scholars who first put folk legends to paper, and translated foreign literature, as well as provided momentum to the development of Kazakh literature, were Abai Kunanbayev, Ibray Altynsarin and Chokan Valikhanov.
Applied arts in ancient Kazakhstan were part of life’s daily routine. Clothing, furniture, utility tools, yurts, and horses’ saddles were always decorated using nomadic patterns and design. Nowadays, this tradition continues mostly for the sake of tourism and hardly a single tourist leaves Kazakhstan without a gift adorned with national symbols.
Compared to applied arts, Kazakhstan’s visual arts are relatively young. In ancient times, nomads used to draw on rocks and, today, these petroglyphs can be found throughout Kazakhstan. But modern Kazakh visual arts originated in the late 19th century, under the cultural influence of Czarist Russia, when the first impressive paintings by local painters began to appear. When discussing Kazakh painters, Abilkhan Kasteyev (1904-1973) has to be mentioned. He built true and lasting monuments to national visual arts. Use of vivid color and a high level of precision distinguish his paintings.
As with modern visual arts, theater and movie-making came to Kazakhstan with the expansion of Russian culture. Drama theaters and opera houses opened in cities in northern Kazakhstan, then spread throughout the country.
The movie industry in Kazakhstan was founded in 1929, when the Soviet propaganda machine established the first local movie studio. Hundreds of movies and documentaries were shot in the post-war period. Today, with dozens of private movie studios, Kazakh movie-making is a thriving industry that is recognized globally.
Architecture in Kazakhstan has much to offer. The most remarkable masterpiece is the colossal Mausoleum of Khoja Akhmed Yasawi in Turkestan, which represents one of the best-preserved of all Timurid constructions. It is recognized by UNESCO as the country’s first site of patrimony, and was declared a World Heritage Site. The Soviet period, when all cities in Kazakhstan were built and renovated in impressive Soviet-style architecture, is also evident. In the new capital city of Astana, the modern architecture of independent Kazakhstan is quite distinctive. It has an avant-garde architectural style, featuring large areas of glass and exotic curvature.
Today, the Kazakh culture represents a genuine melting pot of traditions, customs and beliefs of not only Kazakhs, but also of more than 100 ethnic groups living in the country who are united in their shared history. This kaleidoscopic range of nations is unique to Kazakhstan, its history and its land. And there is no doubt that all Kazakh citizens are proud of their country’s cultural heritage and diversity.