Political Vagabonds of the Steppe and their Influence on Modern Eurasia

Political Vagabonds of the Steppe and their Influence on Modern Eurasia. A Conversation About Qazaqlïq with Joo-Yup Lee

What are the origins of the Kazakh nation? What is common between Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Cossacks? In this interview, Joo-Yup Lee tells us about political vagabonds, ambitious brigades that were called qazaqs who played an important role in the formation of new states, including the Timurid states of Central Asia and India and the Uzbek and Kazakh khanates.

Joo-Yup Lee, who holds a Ph.D. in Turko-Persian Studies from the University of Toronto (awarded in 2012), is an intermittent lecturer at the University of Toronto, where he teaches courses in Central Eurasian history. He has published a number of books and scholarly articles, including Qazaqlïq, Or Ambitious Brigandage, and the Formation of the Qazaqs: State and Identity in Post-Mongol Central Eurasia (Brill, 2016), which won the 2017 CESS (Central Eurasian Studies Society) Book Award, and the entries “Kazakh Khanate” and ”Turkic Identity in Mongol and Post-Mongol Central Asia and the Qipchaq Steppe” in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Asian History.

As the author of Qazaqlïq, or Ambitious Brigandage, and the Formation of the Qazaqs, can you please tell us about the main arguments of this book? And how did you prepare it?

First of all, I would like to express my gratitude to you (the Abai Center / the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington, D.C.) for inviting me to give this interview. I am truly honored!

The main argument of my book is that the formation of the Kazakhs at the turn of the sixteenth century should be understood in the historical context of qazaqlïq, a custom of political vagabondage that played an important role in state and identity formation in post-Mongol Central Eurasia. Let me elaborate on this.

Joo-Yup Lee at his book launch at the University of Toronto.
Joo-Yup Lee at his book launch at the University of Toronto.

During the post-Mongol period, qazaqlïq, meaning in Turkic the qazaq way of life, denoted a form of political vagabondage that involved fleeing from one’s state or tribe and/or living the life of a freebooter in a frontier or remote region. Qazaqlïq activities became widespread starting in the mid-fourteenth century, when the fragmentation of the Chinggisid, and later Timurid, states triggered a steady flow of mounted political vagabonds who, struggling to make a political comeback or ensure their political survival, fled and became freebooters in the frontier regions in Transoxiana and at both ends of the Qipchaq Steppe. Temür, Abū al-Khair Khan, Jānībeg Khan, Girāy Khan, Muḥammad Shībānī Khan, and Babur were all dissident or displaced leaders of Chinggisid and Timurid lineage who, prior to founding their own states, lived the qazaq way of life. This enabled them to muster a loyal band of warriors and increase their political and military power. In short, qazaqlïq played an important role in the formation of new states, including the Timurid states of Central Asia and India and the Uzbek and Kazakh khanates.

Let me now tell you why my explanation of the formation of the Kazakhs matters and how it differs from previous explanations. My book challenges both the contemporary Kazakh interpretations of Kazakh ethnogenesis, which mainly argue that the Kazakhs were formed by amalgamating all the nomadic peoples that inhabited the steppes of Kazakhstan from the Bronze Age until the Mongol invasion, and the Western explanation of the origin of the Kazakhs, which simply equates the emergence of the Kazakhs with the formation of the Kazakh Khanate in the second half of the fifteenth century. The former explanation overlooks the important historical fact that a separate Kazakh identity did not exist prior to the mid-fifteenth century. The latter, meanwhile, overlooks the complex nature of Kazakh ethnogenesis. My book, by contrast, emphasizes the fact that the development of Kazakh identity in the eastern Qipchaq Steppe following the qazaqlïq activities of Jānībeg Khan and Girāy Khan occurred in line with the rise of the Shibanid Uzbeks in Transoxiana following Muḥammad Shībānī Khan’s qazaqlïq activities and conquest of southern Central Asia at the turn of the sixteenth century. In other words, my book argues that the formation of the Kazakhs should be understood as part of the larger historical process through which the Jochid/Uzbek ulus, or people, became divided into the Kazakhs and the Shibanid Uzbeks as a result of the conflictual and interrelated qazaqlïq activities of Jānībeg Khan and Girāy Khan (of Urusid/Chinggisid lineage), on the one hand, and of Muḥammad Shībānī Khan (of Abulkhairid/Chinggisid lineage), on the other.

My book further argues that the Cossacks of the Black Sea steppes were also the products of the qazaqlïq phenomenon. As the Jochi ulus (Golden Horde) gradually disintegrated into smaller polities over the course of the fifteenth century, the Black Sea steppes became a political no-man’s-land known as the Wild Field (Dikoe Pole) in which a great number of fugitives, in search of freedom and booty, took refuge. The first Cossack groups were made up of Tatar fugitives but in time the latter were replaced by East Slavic adventurers and fugitives from Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy. Among these Cossack groups, Ukrainian Cossackdom occupies the most important place. The qazaqlïq activities of the Ukrainian adventurers and fugitives not only led to the formation of the Ukrainian Cossack Hetmanate, but also contributed to the eventual consolidation of a separate Ukrainian identity distinct from the Russian one.

The mausoleum of Alash Khan.
The mausoleum of Alash Khan, the legendary founder of the Qazaq people. This monument is located in central Kazakhstan near the city of Zhezkazgan. Photo by Maxim Khil.

As you can see, my book deals with two different themes: the qazaqlïq phenomenon and the formation of the Kazakhs. Combining these two themes was not my own idea, but the suggestion of my co-supervisors, Professor Victor Ostapchuk and Professor Maria Eva Subtelny. Initially, I had planned to focus on Kazakh history. However, I believe that combining these two themes made my study unique and original, enabling it to win the 2017 CESS (Central Eurasian Studies Society) Book Award.

In order to write my book, I utilized a wider range of primary sources than had been used in previous discussions about the formative period of Kazakh history and the socio-political phenomenon of qazaqlïq. While the sources pertaining to the early Kazakhs and qazaqlïq are somewhat disparate and fragmentary, the extant source base is large. The major primary sources that my book used can be categorized as Uzbek, Moghul, Timurid, Ilkhanid, Crimean and Volga Tatar, Muscovite, Kazakh, and Chinese histories written in various languages. Prior to embarking on this research project, I had to study many different languages, including Persian, Chaghatay Turkic, Mongolian, Chinese, Russian, and Kazakh, among others.

Some historians suggest that the words “Kazakh” and “Alash” have the same historical origin. There is also an argument that the word “Kazakh” is derived from the concept of “Qashaq” (lit. “runaway,” which is close to your term of political vagabonds). Where did the word “Kazakh” come from?

Let me first clarify one point. [As an admirer of Kantian critical philosophy,] I would like to distinguish between what we can learn from surviving sources and what we cannot. My book is not concerned with the etymology of the word “qazaq” because any argument about the origin of the term has to rely on conjecture. As such, my book only introduces the arguments of such scholars as Gyula Nemeth, Peter B. Golden, and V. P. Yudin in a footnote.

What I did in my book was conduct a comprehensive examination of the meaning of the term “qazaq” as found in the written sources and oral traditions produced during the post-Mongol period. I investigated the various contexts in which the term “qazaq” was used in a broad range of sources in order to provide the first truly integrated understanding of the socio-political phenomenon of qazaqlïq and its historical significance. In that process, I did not find any evidence that would corroborate the hypotheses that the words “Kazakh” and “Alash” have the same historical origin or that the word “Kazakh” derives from the concept of “Qashaq.”

However, based on a thorough examination of numerous qazaqlïq activities described in reliable historical sources, I can offer the following findings.

First, in Timurid and post-Timurid Central Asian sources, the term “qazaq” was generally used in the sense of “a (political) vagabond/wanderer” and “a (frontier) brigand/freebooter,” whereas in the Turkic, Slavic, and Latin sources composed in the western Qipchaq Steppe and Eastern Europe, the term “qazaq” (kazak in Russian and kozak in Ukrainian) was used in a broader sense to denote “a political dissident” or “a fugitive/runaway,” as well as “a vagabond/wanderer” and “a brigand/freebooter.”

Second, the term “qazaq” in the sense of a fugitive, freebooter, or vagabond gained wide currency from the fifteenth century. In other words, widespread diffusion of the term “qazaq” did not occur in the fourteenth century. Although the term “qazaq” also appeared in sources written prior to the fifteenth century, it carried different meanings. For instance, in mid-fourteenth century Mamluk dictionaries, the term “qazaq” carried the meaning “freed, free” or “bachelor, single” (qazaq bašlı). Along similar lines, quasi-qazaq bands—such as the Negüderi that became active in Khorasan from the second half of the thirteenth century—were not referred to as qazaqs by their contemporaries, implying that the term “qazaq” was most likely not used in Central Eurasia to designate political fugitives or frontier freebooters in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The term “qazaq” in the sense of a fugitive, freebooter or vagabond began to appear in those sources written in the fifteenth century. Importantly, whereas the Timurid histories written in Persian in the early fifteenth century did not refer to Temür as qazaq, the contemporary histories of Sulṭān-Ḥusain Bayqara (r. 1469–70 and 1470–1506) and Babur (r. 1526–30)—sources written in the second half of the fifteenth century and thereafter—used qazaq to denote the qazaqlïq days of these two Timurid princes.

If further investigations are made of the qazaqlïq activities described in those historical sources of which I am not aware, I believe we will gain a more comprehensive understanding of the meanings of the word “qazaq.”

So Qazaqs, Shibanid Uzbeks, and Ukrainian Cossacks were all founded by qazaqs, or “ambitious brigands.” So the term qazaq had no ethnic connotation? 

From the fifteenth century onward, in Central Asia and the Qipchaq Steppe, the name qazaq was attached to those political vagabonds who fled their state or tribe and/or lived the life of a frontier freebooter. In this sense, qazaq had no ethnic connotation. However, qazaq became an ethnonym when it was attached to the Uzbeks who broke away from Abū al-Khair Khan’s state in the second half of the fifteenth century. I should explain here that Uzbek was the new designation for the Jochid ulus, or people, after the reign of Uzbek Khan (r. 1313–1341). Although the term “Uzbek” is usually associated, in the modern scholarly literature, with the ulus of Abū al-Khair Khan or the modern Uzbeks, it covered Jochid nomads during the post-Mongol period. The same Jochid people were called Tatars by the Russians and Ottomans. At first, the dissident Uzbeks were called qazaq Uzbeks, meaning fugitive or brigand Uzbeks, while the Abulkhairid Uzbeks were called Shibanid Uzbeks by their contemporaries since Abū al-Khair Khan was a descendant of Shībān, the fifth son of Jochi. In time, the qazaq Uzbeks came to be called simply Qazaqs—that is, Kazakhs. Importantly, the early Kazakhs and the Shibanid Uzbeks were considered one and the same people by their contemporaries. They were made up of the same Jochid/Uzbek tribes and used the same Kipchaq Turkic language.

However, one should differentiate between the modern Uzbeks and the Shibanid Uzbeks. The former came into existence in 1924, when the Soviet Union decided to bestow the name Uzbek also on various non-Uzbek Persian- and Turkic-speaking groups of modern-day Uzbekistan. Therefore, one can say that the modern Uzbeks are only partly related to the Kazakhs.

As for the Cossacks, the English word cossack is derived from the Ukrainian kozak and the Russian kazak, which in turn have their roots in the Turkic qazaq. The earliest Cossacks were Turkic-speaking Tatar fugitives, who were the same people as the Uzbeks of the eastern Qipchaq Steppe. As I mentioned earlier, the Tatar Cossack groups were later joined and supplanted by East Slavic adventurers and fugitives from Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy.

A Zaporozhian Cossack from Crimea (CossackMamay).
A Zaporozhian Cossack from Crimea (CossackMamay). Cossack Mamay is a legendary hero in Ukrainian folklore. Painting by an unknown folk painter, late 18th–early 19th century. Kyiv, National Center of Folk Culture “Ivan Honchar Museum.”

In short, the Kazakhs, the Shibanid Uzbeks, and the earliest generations of Cossacks were virtually one and the same people. They were all Turkic-speaking nomads from the Jochid ulus (Golden Horde) and the Mongol empire. However, the Shibanid Uzbeks became mixed with Iranian-speaking groups, while the early Tatar Cossacks were assimilated with and supplanted by East Slavic Cossacks. This means that the Kazakhs are arguably the most direct descendants of the Jochid ulus (Golden Horde).

Uzbeks in Central Asia are also a young nation. What do you find special about the formation of national identities? How did the Soviet period affect them? And in general, how close are the nations of Central Asia to each other historically? 

The modern Uzbeks are a much younger nation than the Kazakhs. As I remarked earlier, they should be differentiated from the Shibanid Uzbeks, whom I discuss in my book. The latter were the Jochid nomadic people (ulus) of the Kazakh Steppe who conquered the Timurid states of Transoxiana and Khorasan at the turn of the sixteenth century. Importantly, the Shibanid Uzbeks and the Kazakhs were one and the same people prior to their division at the turn of the sixteenth century. They shared a common history (as members of the Jochid/Uzbek ulus and the Mongol empire), religion (Islam), and language (Kipchak Turkic). The modern Uzbeks were formed in 1924, when the Soviet Union created the new Uzbek nation, tailoring nationalities to the Soviet national republics. The new Uzbeks consisted of not only Shibanid Uzbeks, but also Sarts (mostly groupings of Tajik origin that became Turkic-speakers) and Tajiks, neither of whom had previously been regarded as Uzbeks. The Soviet Union also chose Karluk Turkic, not Kipchak Turkic, as the language of this new Uzbek nation.

As for the Kyrgyz and Tajiks, they are descended from the peoples that had previously been known as such. The Persian-speaking Tajiks are an indigenous Indo-European people of Central Asia. The Kyrgyz are descended from the ancient Yenisei Kyrgyz, who were most likely of Scythian/Indo-European origin. They came to modern-day Kyrgyzstan during the post-Mongol period.

If the Soviet Union had not created the new Uzbek nation in 1924, the Kazakhs and Uzbeks would have been much closer to each other ethnically than they are now. The Tajiks and Sarts would also have formed a much larger group than they currently comprise.

A Persian miniature painting.
A Persian miniature painting. Portrait probably of a Qazaq khan. The inscription identifies him as a “Tatar Khan Padishah of the Qipchaq Steppe (Tātār Khān pādshāh-i Dasht-i Qīpchāq).” Calligraphy on verso. 1550 (circa). © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Many Kazakhs identify with different historical groups, from the Scythians to the Mongols. Anthropologically, Kazakhs range from green-eyed and red-haired to Caucasian- or Japanese-looking. This is partly why genetic studies among Kazakhs are especially popular. What do you think about this? What has influenced this portrait of the nation? How young is Kazakh identity or do you think it is already formed?

Modern DNA studies demonstrate that the Kazakhs are descended from both Inner Asians and West Eurasians. Contrary to the popular belief that the Kazakhs were originally Indo-Europeans who gradually transformed into Inner Asians due to their intermixture with the latter, the Kazakhs are and have always been made up of heterogeneous elements. It would be more correct to say that some Kazakhs are descended from Indo-Europeans, while others are descended from Inner Asians. This logic applies to both Y-DNA and mitochondrial DNA lineages. I would also like to add that a Kazakh individual of Inner Asian descent may have a West Eurasian physiognomy, while a Kazakh individual of West Eurasian descent may possess Inner Asian phenotypes. This is because phenotypes are not always linearly inherited.

DNA analysis shows that the Kazakhs—or, more precisely, the Jochid/Uzbek ulus—were formed after the rise of the Mongol empire, in which virtually all Turkic, Iranic/Indo-European, and Mongolic nomadic groups of the Eurasian steppes were merged into one entity.

What historical topics do you find relevant to study? Kazakhstan recently opened the Golden Horde Institute. What materials or topics remain blank spots in history? 

I firmly believe that the Golden Horde Institute will contribute greatly to the study of the history of the Golden Horde/Jochid ulus. I am also aware that Kazakh historians have already been covering all the relevant materials and topics. What I would personally like to see in the study of Jochid history is a holistic approach to Central Eurasian history. In the Mongol and post-Mongol periods, “Turks” and “Mongols” were not differentiated from each other based on language. The nomad followers of Chinggis Khan and the Chinggisids were all considered Mongol, while the Mongols were identified as Turks in the Islamic world. Accordingly, there was no division between Turk and Mongol in the Golden Horde and the Kazakh khanate. In my opinion, this means that if Chinggis Khan comes back to life, he will identify himself as both Kazakh and Mongol.

Could you please tell us about your connections with Kazakhstan? Have you been to Kazakhstan? Could you share your impressions of and observations about the country, the culture, the Kazakh language, etc.?

I have now been studying Kazakh history for about twenty years. Along the way, I have always been fascinated by the rich heritage of Kazakh history and culture. My impressions and observations of Kazakhstan based on my experience and studies are that Kazakhstan is a developed country, a regional power, and, along with Mongolia, the most important direct successor of the Mongol empire. Also, Kazakhstan seems to me a vast, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic country like Canada, where I have been living for the past seventeen years. As a Korean, I feel that Kazakhstan and Korea have a lot in common in that we both experienced rapid economic development and democratization. I hope we will deepen our strategic partnership.

Author near a bookstore in Almaty.
Author near a bookstore in Almaty.

I visited Kazakhstan for about a month in 2010 after receiving a research travel grant from the University of Toronto. While staying in the beautiful city of Almaty, I also visited Sairam, where the mausoleum of Yassavi’s father is located. I had a tasty shashlik in a small bazaar in Shymkent before going, by marshrutka, to Turkistan, capital of the Kazakh Khanate. I was captivated by the city's historic charm. I then took a seventeen-hour train ride from Turkistan to Almaty. Since I traveled alone, communicating in my poor Russian, my journey was not easy at all. However, I had the time of my life. If I visit Kazakhstan again, I will definitely drop by the futuristic city of Nur-Sultan. I will also travel to Zhezkazgan in order to visit the mausoleums of Alash Khan and Jochi Khan.

In 2010, I was unable to meet any scholars or students. I was a stranger there. However, I cannot forget the kind Kazakhs I met in the street. When I got lost in Almaty, a café owner helped me with directions and gave me a very good map of Almaty as a gift. A lady at a travel agency (I recall her name was Arina) spent half a day without complaining trying to book train tickets to Shymkent for me. During my train ride to Almaty, a young man named Kanat from Atyrau befriended me and offered me sausages and tea. I bow to them in gratitude.

I am also very grateful to Nygmet Ibadildin, who is now a professor at KIMEP University, for treating me to a wonderful dinner at a splendid mall (Mega) and taking me on a night drive around Almaty even though he had met me only briefly once at a conference in Toronto. Nygmet has become one of my best friends.

Before I end my interview, I would like to express my unbounded gratitude to my Korean Kazakh friend Professor Sofia An, the late professor of Sociology at Nazarbayev University, for offering me indispensable help and support at various stages of my research. Unfortunately, she passed away two years ago due to cancer. Her nephew, Dmitri Choi, who showed me the kindest hospitality during my stay in Kazakhstan, is now my adopted nephew. He took me to many places, including the Medeu Resort, the movie set of Nomad, and the Ili River, which was my ultimate destination in Kazakhstan. His wife, Olga, cooked the tastiest pilau for me.

To conclude, Kazakhstan is in my brain and heart.

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