The largest of the four ‘Stans, Kazakhstan is a country of steppes landscaped with vast plains and hilly plateaus crisscrossed by rivers and lakes, including the Aral Sea, within its boundaries. While the geography of the other ‘Stans varies from ruggedly mountainous Kyrgyzstan to the deserts and irrigated fertile belt of Turkmenistan, there is a shared commonality of historical development among the region, with Kazakhstan’s history representational for the region.
The earliest recorded inhabitants were probably from Persia, followed by Alexander the Great’s armies of the fourth century BC. Two centuries later, the Silk Road trading route was well established between the lands of the East (China and India) and the West. This overland caravan route would persevere until the Portuguese found a faster route by sea in the late 15th century.
Meanwhile, the strategically located future ‘Stans were visited by waves of succeeding invaders and empires, including the Parthians, Kushans, Huns, more Persians, and then Turkic peoples of the sixth century, who settled and became the ancestors of today’s populace. They were nomadic herders who lived in yurts—portable, dome-shaped tents made of felt. Arabs conquered these tribes, followed by Mongols under Genghis Khan in the 13th century, Tamerlane in the 14th century, Uzbeks in the 15th century, and later by Russians in the 19th century, who attempted massive settlements of Russians into these territories. The Soviets claimed dominion over these lands after ousting the royal tsarist regime in 1917.
The last decade of the 20th century was a tumultuous time of change for the Communist-dominated societies of Russia, central Europe, and central Asia. All four of the ‘Stans were part of the Soviet Union until that country of vastly different ethnic cultures began to crumble in the late 1980s. Like tumbling dominos, Communist-led governments succumbed one by one. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, followed by the collapse of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and Romania (1989), Yugoslavia (1990), and the Soviet Union itself (1990), ending the Cold War between East and West. By 1991 Albania ousted its communist rulers; Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia declared their independence; and President Gorbachev resigned, marking the final demise of the Soviet Union.
By late December of 1991, the four ‘Stans had formed their own constitutional republics, united together in a loose commonwealth of independent states. Unfortunately, a number of political and economic difficulties have beset these countries, severely hampering their progress toward democracy and prosperity. Some of the republics are rich in agricultural lands, and others in mineral and petroleum resources, and how they use these may help determine their future paths.