Sources of Kazakh National Pride

by Michael Hancock-Parmer on 10/4/2010 · 9 comments

A quick disclaimer: This is an article where I try to show history’s relevance in contemporary Central Asia.  It is really my first such attempt, and while its level of success may be debatable, I’m going to keep trying other articles in this vein as the connections occur to me.

It seems too long since I’ve posted at Registan.  A story wandered across my laptop screen today, however, that seemed noteworthy enough to bring to Registan readers’ attention.  If you’ll bear with me, there’s a bit of a historical essay hidden in here as well.  I’ve tried to take out all of my parenthetical explanations and place them in notes at the end.


What does it mean to be a descendant of Shynghys Khan (1) [Genghis Khan] in contemporary Kazakhstan?  A new geneaology of Shynghys Khan has been produced after years of labor from Gizat Tabuldin and Anatoly Olovintsov, including over 5000 members of the family tree.  According to their work (Russian), the current population of Kazakhstan includes those of the 27th-30th generations of Shynghys Khan.

From their founding of the Kazakh Khanate in the 15th Century to their repression under Joseph Stalin, [Genghis Khan’s] male-line descendants, known as the “Tore”, formed an aristocratic elite, who stood outside the three Kazakh clans, and provided the sultans and khans who ruled the nomads of the steppe.

Srym Bokeikhanov, a 72-year-old historian and writer, was never told of his Tore ancestry as he grew up, his parents being wary of the fate of his great uncle Alikhan Bokeikhanov, who led Kazakhstan for its brief period of independence between 1917 and 1920.

“It was very dangerous for me, and for my parents, so when I was a child, my father didn’t tell me,” he said. “I found out when I was a student, but it was very closed information, because Alikhan, my great uncle, was killed by Stalin in the Butyrka prison.”

This is really intriguing.  There is no doubt that the Soviet Union made certain judgment calls regarding the haves and have-nots of Central Asia and the steppe based on their own understanding of history.  But I would like to take a chance on explaining why their understanding was flawed, and that their flawed understanding should stop informing the contemporary image that Central Asians and citizens of the steppe region have of themselves.  In other words, this is the first in a series of articles where I will posit that the history prior to the Russian Conquest, rather than being a time of shameful backwardness and stagnation, could be a source of pride and identity.  There’s a lot there that has been forgotten, but can be rediscovered with attention paid to previously ignored data in the native languages.

Part of the legacy of the Soviet Union is the resulting history that was written (and re-written) using various models of Marxism and Marxist-Leninism.  Part of the Marxist model persists today in the use of the term ‘aristocracy’ to describe the Khans of the steppe.  I would call this a mistake, caused by trying to put overly-simplified models [like Marx’s model of the progression of history](2) on top of unrelated and unique historic narratives.  In other words, if you’ve decided that the Kazakh Khanate is an example of feudal rule, you will by necessity provide analogous groups(3), without stopping to examine the accuracy of the analogy at each step.  In other words, instead of the analogy seeming less useful as it stretches the original premise ever and ever farther, its utility becomes over-estimated by historians looking to define a period they are less familiar with.

How helpful is this model?  It certainly serves to give us a vague understanding of the interplay between the various ‘classes’ in society, but it also invites us to overlook important details unique to Central Asia picture.

Take, for instance, the fact that there are literally thousands of male descendants of Shynghys Khan within a few generations of the Mongol Conquest, spread out over all of Asia, speaking a multitude of languages and holding as many religious faiths.  While Shynghys Khan divided land between four sons, it’s worth noting that most of his male descendants were far more prolific in producing heirs, with many having ten or more sons and an undisclosed number of daughters.  Only a small percentage of these ‘princes’ hold power, or even the promise of one day holding power.  As noted Historian of Kazakhstan Irina Erofeeva  has pointed out,(4) there were  various types of Shynghys descendants – those who stood a chance of inheriting power, and the rest, without lands or authority, who nonetheless could be used as a puppet by other factors in the steppe looking to gain control.

Those descendants of Shynghys Khan now living in Kazakhstan are just a sliver of the family tree.  However, they number more than 200,000 in Kazakhstan’s official estimate (story in Russian with video).

The peoples of the Mongol Empire are only to be led by fit leaders chosen from the male descendants of Shynghys Khan.(5)  This lasted in China into the middle of the 14th century, in Iran nearly into the 15th century, in European Russia [Golden Horde] until its disintegration into smaller Khanates (Great Horde, Astrakhan Khanate, Siberian Khanate, Crimean Khanate, etc.) in the 15th century, but longest in Central Asia largely until the Russian Conquest, though the area had long since split up amongst Khanates and Emirates.(6)

The story that led me to wax historically on this topic is from the British Telegraph, but you can find other related stories in Russian quite easily.  I mention them over the Kazakh versions because Google Translate makes them more available to an English-only audience.  In any event, I return to my first question: What does it mean to call Shynghys Khan your ancestor?

In Kazakhstan, it means quite a lot.  Then again, so does any provable connection with history.  Whether you descend from Khojas, Khans, Batyrs, or Bis, history in Kazakhstan is being rediscovered and an identity once decried as backward and feudalistic is being rehabilitated.  And why not?  In the west, and certainly in America, any connection one can prove with proud ancestors can be a source of identity, no matter how far back or tenuous the claim.  Then again, I should admit that I’ve never been one to make much of the mighty Hancock line.

This is all very interesting to me, as it seems to be another element of Russian colonization slowly peeling away in independent Kazakhstan.  Before the Russian conquest of the steppe, the Chingisid Principle (7)  was a component in the right to power.  However, within three generations of Shynghys Khan, there were already hundreds of descendants, and within two hundred years there were thousands, and by today the number may well be in the millions, if not tens or hundreds of millions.

Let’s consider this current drive to prove descent from Shynghys currently making news in Kazkahstan.  Looking very specifically at Kazakhstan’s connection with Shynghys Khan, we see a very small section of the overall Chingisid picture.  And yet, already by the 18th century on the eve of Russian incursion, the Kazakh Khanate(8) was ruled by the blood-line of Shynghys, which were picked from a population of descendants that numbered at least in the thousands, if not more.

In other words, how can there be any surprise that their blood persists in Kazakhstan today?  I, for one, am not surprised at all.  But I’m glad that Kazakhstan is beginning to look to the past to forge their identity.  I only hope that they can do so with open minds and without preconceived notions of what they’d like to ‘find’ in the past.  In other words, when the Marxists wanted to find Feudalism, they had no problem finding Feudalism.  Similarly, if the Kazakhs want to find a nation of heroes and kings, then that is surely what they will find.  What I suggest is merely looking to the past, learning the languages of their fore-fathers, and reading without a political goal.



For the purposes of this article, I’m privileging the Kazakh spelling over our English variant of Genghis Khan.  I assume that the “G” was originally a soft G, similar to J, which is the voiced alternative to the unvoiced “Ch” of Чингис in the Mongolian version, rather close to the “Sh” of the Kazakh Шыңғыс.


The Marxist model of history has had several iterations, with different definitions of terms, especially in the Soviet Union, but the base model he proposed can be found at Wikipedia.  To wit, 1 – primitive communism, 2 – slavery, 3 – feudalism, 4 – capitalism.  Marxists (not Marx, really) argue that the next stage is communism, or perhaps socialism, or maybe socialism comes after communism.  In any event, this model of history may have struck 19th century philosophers as intriguing, it strikes historians as simplistic and comical to the point of ridicule.  If you disagree, might I point out the fallacy of teleology.


Feudal Lords (Khans), their Vassals (Biys, Begs), and the fiefs they rule (the clans and tribes) with their military units (cavalry archers headed by Batyrs).  To complete the picture you need the church, of course, and the European model of bishops and abbots leads to the wholly inadequate portrayal of the Islamic offices of mufti and shaykh.


Erofeeva, I.V., 2003. Rodoslovnye kazakhskikh khanov i kozha XVIII-XIX vv. Almaty: TOO ‘Print-S’.


Shynghys Khan’s Empire was divided after his death among four sons:

Jochi, Chaghatay, Ogedey, and Toluy

Jochi’s descendants ruled the Golden Horde (European Russia and environs), though it is from this line that the Uzbek and Kazakh Khans emerge to eventually rule Central Asia.  It’s worth noting that there is significant doubt as to the paternity of Jochi, suggesting that any blood of Shynghys Khan in modern-day Qazaqs probably takes a more circuitous route than direct descent from Jochi.

Chaghatay’s descendants ruled Central Asia (until they are supplanted by Jochi’s descendants) and Eastern Turkestan (modern-day Xinjiang) and eventually founded the Mughal dynasty in India

Ogedey’s descendants ruled for a very short time in the East before being replaced by the descendants of Toluy (Qubilay in China and Chaghatay in Eastern Turkestan)

Toluy’s descendants ruled a large part of the Middle East, based in Iran, as well as China under the Yuan Dynasty.  It is for this reason that we see more close relations between Ilkhanid Persia and Yuan Dynasty China (see, for example, the ease with which Marco Polo traveled between the two on his return trip).


What’s the difference between a Khanate and an Emirate?  Well, in the specific case of Central Asia, a Khanate is ruled by a descendant of Shynghys Khan, while an Emirate is ruled by someone else, generally a military leader (hence emir/amir) or the descendant of a military leader.  Hence the Khanate of Khiva, denoting its ruler could claim legitimacy from the Chingisid Principle, as opposed to the Emirate of Bukhara, where the office of the non-Chingisid military leader (ataliq, ataka) held power after the fall of Khans from about 1747 (officially 1785) until the rise of Bolshevik power in 1920.


The Chingisid Principle (or Genghisid Principle, if you prefer) was said to be a part of the code of laws drawn up by Shynghys Khan, stating that the Empire would be ruled only by male descendants.  Needless to say, this was far too vague, so that the transition of power at every stage could be contested.  At some times, the rule was interpreted to mean that succession should pass to the oldest surviving heir, meaning that instead of the son, a brother, uncle, cousin, or other relative of the deceased Khan would take control.  Within a few generations, one could find a descendant of Shynghis Khan at any age, and it would have been possible for the Empire (and later its successor states) to be ruled by an unending succession of ancient Khans ruling for only a few years or months each.  Needless to say, the rules were interpreted only as liberally as necessary.  It is perhaps because of the ambiguity of the ruling that the Khans very quickly became puppet rulers giving an air of legitimacy to states that were de facto run by other military powers, foreign and domestic.  This happened eventually even in Mongolia and Central Asia, though much sooner in Iran, China, and the lands of the Golden Horde.  If descent from Shynghys Khan proved too unlikely to prove, as in the case of Amir Temur [notice he was never Khan Temur], one could always head into the steppe to kidnap a Chingisid to put on the throne.  The interesting exception here is Babur, a descendant of Temur from his father’s side, but a descendant of Shynghys Khan from his mother’s side.  Needless to say, the law of male-only-descent was suspended the moment it had political use; i.e., it was only natural for Babur to claim legitimacy through his mother’s side.


The Kazakh Khanate, according to modern historiography, formed when a large group of nomads, under a Chingisid leader from the line of Jochi, and Jochi’s son Toqay-Timur, split from the Uzbek Khanate of Abul Khayr Khan following his crushing defeat at the hands of the Oirats, Mongolian tribes whose territory ranged from Mongolia and northwestern China to southeastern Kazakhstan.  The Oirats themselves were weakening at this time, and it was to one of their previously held territories, the land of Zheti-su (Semirechye) that the Kazakhs moved, with the blessing of the Chaghatay Khan, Esen Buqa.  Khan Esen Buqa had had nominal control of the area, but welcome the Qazaqs (who were not yet calling themselves by this name) as a buffer to protect him against the non-Chingisid Oirats.  This break with the leadership of Abul Khayr Khan, himself a descendant of Shynghys through his son Jochi and Jochi’s son Shiban, is in my opinion the most likely of sources for the name later attributed to this group, that being the Qazaq Khanate.  The term Qazaq (Kazakh in Russian) had already been in use by that time to denote a time of independence, freebooting, acting independently of authority.  These “qazaqs,” then, broke with Abul Khayr Khan, and went with their own Shynghys descendants, again through Jochi, but through Jochi’s son Toqay Timur, two leaders (distant cousins, though called brothers incorrectly in some sources) of the line of Urus Khan, named Kirey and Janibek.

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Michael earned an MA in Central Eurasian Studies in 2011 and remains a student at Indiana University pursuing a dual PhD in Russian History and Central Eurasian Studies. He served 6 months in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan in 2005. After the events in Andijan and the subsequent closure of the program, he served 2 years in southern Kazakhstan, returning to the Midwest in 2007. His general area of interest is on post-Timur Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, centered on the Syr Darya river valley.

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Christian October 4, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Quick nitpicky note about the pronunciation of Chinggis: In the Classical Mongolian script, the title is written with a letter that in context pretty clearly indicates the “Ch” sound. The “Gh” we use in English, I’ve heard, comes from a Persian chronicler’s attempt at transliterating the Khan of Khan’s name into a written language that had no “Ch” sound at all.

Otherwise, fantastic article! I knew the Kazakhs often claim affiliation with Chinggis Khaan, but I absolutely zero knowledge of the details. Thanks so much for filling in the gaps! 😀

Michael Hancock October 4, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Thanks for the note on Ch/Gh – but I’m curious, but Persian has a ch sound (چ), or at least it does now. Then again, they have a gh sound. I have yet to read an account of Genghis in Persian, though there are many to choose from. Let me see how the Persians were writing it, or maybe another commenter can chime in.

Boris Sizemore October 5, 2010 at 5:00 am

Greetings from Almaty, on a visit. One thing I have noticed about the Kazahk identity is that there are many players. Tartars are important in all the Central Asian countries and Chechens are also playing an important role. The rise of Islam also affects their perspective on the world and a pan turkic vision is important.

Very glad you are trying to come to terms with some of this. Keep up the great work.

Grant October 5, 2010 at 10:35 am

It’s hardly limited to Marxism for people to claim that the history of an area can be explained through their social/political model of choice. It’s really one of the most irritating parts of studying history because you never can be totally certain how well a historian can get into a long-dead society’s collective head.

Setting my rants and ravings aside it is interesting to see more about Central Asian history here.

Michael Hancock October 5, 2010 at 10:54 am

I think my next attempt my be to cover Alikhan Bokeikhanov (mentioned in the article, as his great-nephew is interviewed above) and the Alash Autonomous government. There’s a lot there, and I doubt I’ll do it justice, but why not start?

Bernard October 5, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Prepared a really nice article. Disagree with some of the comments here. I do not think that much of an effect of Islam. I’m out of here a long time I am following your captions. So far, my favorite posts, in this story. Friends sitting together and discuss the articles are written.

oldschool boy October 6, 2010 at 9:31 pm

Great summary, although I am not sure that Mughal Empire in India was established by Chagatay descendants. I always thought it was established by Timur descendants (was it Babur?), who was not a direct line from Chingis (Ghingiz) Khan.

Beginning from 18th century or may be even before, role of Chingisinds (white bone) in Kazakhs had been diminishing. Biis and batys (black bone) started playing greater and greater role, most of the time really making history while Chingisids, who were merely nominal rulers, were ruther batyrs’ puppets. (There were of course exceptions). Especially in uprisings against Russian rule, batyrs were way more active than aristocrats. I am not sure, but I think, the “importance” of Chingisids in Kazakhs was boosted by the Russian colonial regime, since aristocrats tended to be more complacent and obedient than batyrs and biis. So, I think, even if Communists had not uprooted Chingisids in Kazakhstan, their role wouldn’t be important at all.

Michael Hancock October 6, 2010 at 11:16 pm

The Moghul Empire does have Chaghatay roots, as Babur’s mother was from that line. His descendants made a very big deal about this epic meeting of the Timurid and Chingisid line – truly the chosen ones! heh heh

I’d actually argue that the Khans were a smaller part of the picture within a few generations of Shynghys, and that the Batyrs/Bis/Begs/Ataliqs played larger roles. I mean, Timur himself had a puppet Khan, and that was already a generation before the Uzbek Conquest and the subsequent Kazakh/Uzbek split.

Aigul October 11, 2010 at 6:20 am

Being actually one of Tore I find the article very interesting. The number of descendants in Kazakhstan could be really very high.

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