Sunday, January 9, 2022

Tat Self-Designation among Mountain Jews Response to Stalin’s Anti-Semitic Campaign

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Nov. 19 – Historically, the word “Tat” referred to all groups in the Caucasus who spoke languages related to Persian, but it became the self-designator for many Mountain Jews in the late 1940s as an attempt to protect that community in the face of Stalin’s anti-Semitism.

            Mairbek Vachagaev, a Chechen historian now resident in Paris, describes the complexity of the Tat-Mountain Jew relationship in an interview he gave to Valery Dymshits of St. Petersburg’s European University (

            “The term ‘Tats,’” he says, “is the collective name of the Iranian-language population of the Eastern Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus.” Its origin is “not so much ethnic as social” and is to a certain degree denigrating because most who were referred to by that term were poor agricultural workers who were ruled by Turkic feudals.

            In the Eastern Caucasus, “peoples of various religious confessions spoke dialects of the languages of the Tat group,” and “a large part of them were and remained Muslim. But there were also a few followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church and of course, the more familiar Jewish community.

            “All these groups formed various ethnoses because they lived separately and not in a single population point,” but the chief thing keeping them separate in this regard was endogamy. Their members did not marry outside the faith “because marriage was dictated by religion, Vachagaev says.

            “In Soviet times, Muslim Tats on the territory of Azerbaijan without being asked were listed in the census as Azerbaijanis.” Most of them lived in settlements near Baku on the Apsheron peninsula. “Mountain Jews there were listed as Jews, however. In Daghestan, there were far more Mountain Jews and far fewer Muslim Tats.

            The key event in the history of these groups as far as Tat identification is concerned came in 1948-1949 when Stalin launched his anti-Semitic campaign. “A group of Jewish mountaineer intelligentsia appealed to the Soviet authorities” to allow them to declare themselves members of the Tat ethnos rather than be listed as Jews.

            As a result, there appeared in the North Caucasus “an extremely numerous group of peoples who were listed in their passports as ‘Tats.’” According to Vachagaev, “this initiative from Daghestan spread into other republics of the North Caucasus” where there then lived Mountain Jews.

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