Staunton, May 13 – The Karaims, an ancient people surrounded in mystery because of their combination of Jewish, Christian and Muslim characteristics, are at the edge of extinction in both Ukraine and the Russian Federation, a situation that neither Kyiv nor Moscow seems ready or able to combat.
In an article on the “Kavkavskaya politika” portal today entitled “The Jews of the Caucasus,” Zaur Karayev tells something about this unusual people whose religion is usually considered a branch of Judaism but which in a highly unusual way “combines in itself elements of Christianity and Islam” (kavpolit.com/iudei-kavkaza/).
Scholars have been arguing about the Karaim for most of the last two centuries, Karayev notes. Until the 20th century, most suggested that they were of Jewish origin given their basic religious practice, “but this theory has several shortcomings,” he continues, including the date of their emergence and the distinction between the Karaim as an ethnic group and Karaimism as a sect within Judaism.
The Karaim practice a somewhat different religion than do the Karaimists among Jews, a religion that appears to have formed “under the impact of all Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam and also possibly from ancient Turkich religious cults” as well. Moreover, the Karaims have their own distinctive language, which is of Turkic origin.
The most likely theory at present, Karayev argues, is the so-called “Khazar theory,” which holds that the Karaim are the descendants of the Jewish Khazar state that was defeated by Prince Svyatoslav in 965. That theory, however, has been challenged by Israeli scholars whose genetic studies have found that the Karaim are not closely related to most other Jews.
Valery Alekseyev, a Soviet anthropologist, suggested that the Karaims are not “simply” Khazars but rather “a mixed people, the ancestors of whom include the Khazars, the Alans, and possibly the Avars and several other peoples who lived in the Caucasus at that time.” Given that Alania and Avaristan were in close contact with the Khazar kaganate, that would make sense.
Today’s Karaim, Karayev says, “completely share the Khazar theory.”
Most Karaim live in Ukraine in the Crimean cities of Feodosia and Evpatoria, the latter of which has long been considered the center of their religious life, even though their religious facility is on the third floor of a building given over to other things and services are now rarely held. And those in Crimea maintain close relations with the Crimean Tatars.
Today, there are very few Karaim left. The best estimate is a few more than 2,000 in all. According to the Ukrainian census of 2001, there were 1200 Karaim in that country, 750 of whom lived in Crimea. Only about 200 of that total, however, still speak Karaim, an indication that the community is dying.
Some Karaim activists in Ukraine are seeking to fight assimilation by promoting national identity and greater religiosity, but the small size of the community there may mean that these efforts have come too late.
The situation of the Karaim in the Russian Federation is if anything even more bleak. According to the 2002 census, there were350 Karaims in that country, half of whom lived in the capitals, with the remainder in Rostov oblast and in the North Caucasus. In the 2010 census, there were only 200 people who identified as Karaims, and only three spoke the language.
“It would not be a bad thing,” Karayev concludes, if the authorities would try to help save this community, “one of the rarest ethnoses of the contemporary world” and one whose roots extend back into the history of the Russian state.