The territory of Kazakhstan has historically been inhabited by nomadic tribes. By the 16th century, the Kazakhs emerged as a distinct group, divided into three jüz (ancestor branches occupying specific territories). The Russians began advancing into the Kazakh steppe in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century all of Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire. Following the 1917 Russian Revolution, and subsequent civil war, the territory of Kazakhstan was reorganized several times before becoming the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic in 1936, a part of the Soviet Union.
Kazakhstan was the last of the Soviet republics to declare independence following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991; the current President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been leader of the country since 1990. Nazarbayev maintains strict control over the country's politics. Since independence, Kazakhstan has pursued a balanced foreign policy and worked to develop its economy, especially its hydrocarbon industry.
Kazakhstan is ethnically and culturally diverse, in part due to mass deportations of many ethnic groups to the country during Joseph Stalin's rule. Kazakhstan has a population of 16.6 million, with 131 ethnicities, including Kazakh, Russian, Ukrainian, German, Uzbek, Tatar, and Uyghur. Around 63% of the population are Kazakhs. Kazakhstan allows freedom of religion. It is a very tolerant country to religions like Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Islam is the religion of about 70% and Christianity is practiced by 26% of the population. The Kazakh language is the state language and Russian has the official status, equal to that of the Kazakh language when used in documentation of all levels.
While the word "Kazakh" is generally used to refer to people of ethnic Kazakh descent, including those living in China, Russia, Turkey, Uzbekistan and other neighbouring countries, the term "Kazakhstani" (Kazakh: қазақстандық qazaqstandyk ; Russian: казахстанец kazakhstanyets) was coined to describe all citizens of Kazakhstan, including non-Kazakhs. The ethnonym "Kazakh" is derived from an ancient Turkic word meaning "independent; a free spirit", reflecting the Kazakhs' nomadic horseback culture. The Persian suffix "-stan" (see Indo-Iranian languages) means "land" or "place of", so Kazakhstan means "land of the Kazakhs".