Staunton, April 15 – Russia’s annexation of Crimea has attracted international attention to the tragic fate of the Crimean Tatars whose homeland it is, but in addition to that nation and to ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, Crimea is home to many other ethnic groups and their fates should be of concern as well, especially given their victimization by Moscow in the past.
One of the smallest – it numbers only 647 members in Crimea and a few dozen more in Moscow and is now considered at the brink of extinction – and most interesting are the Karaims, a people who have lived there for more than eight centuries and who have suffered all the vicissitudes of that location during that time.
In an article on Russkaya planeta Sergey Petrunin traces the history and current situation of a group that some consider to be followers of a branch of Judaism but that others insist have a separate religion, albeit “one of the smallest among the Abrahamic faiths.”
The Karaim emerged in the eighth century in Babylonia to designate a group within the Jewish community there which rejected certain interpretations offered by rabbinical scholars on the Talmud. Members of the group spread across Byzantium, Egypt and Spain and in the 13th century some of them appeared in Crimea.
Almost everywhere, others viewed them as Jews, while the Karaims themselves viewed their community as distinct, and in Crimea in particular, the intermarriage of this community with other groups meant that ethnogenetically if not in religious terms, they were “not Semitic” but Turkic, a distinction that affected their fate profoundly especially in the 20th century.
In medieval times, Petrunin notes, “the majority of Crimean Karaims lived in the capital of the Crimean khanate … or … in locations not far from Bakhchisaray,” from which some of them were “deported” following the Lithuanian invasion in the 15th century. In that new home, they became the forefathers of the Polish-Lithuanian-Belarusian Tatars.
The Russian writer cites the conclusion of Karaim historian Ilya Kazas in 1911 that “the fate of the Karaims in Crimea [was] distinguished from the fate of talmudists who lived in Western Europe. they were not subjected as were the latter to harsh religious oppression, did not know the terrors of the inquisition, and were not burned at the stake” as martyrs.
When the Russian Empire absorbed Crimea at the end of the 18th century, the Karaims entered what many of them still consider their golden age: they weren’t confined to the pale of settlement as Jews but given rights equal to the Russian Orthodox, given special tax benefits and the right to own land, and not subject to the draft.
In Soviet times, their situation worsened because of Bolshevik attacks on religion and on land owners. But the fate of the Karaims turned worse with the German invasion. Initially, German forces treated the Karaims as Jews and executed or sent them to the camps, but the Karaims were saved from extermination by what may seem to many an unlikely source.
Officers of the Russian White Armies who had fled to Europe in the 1920s and representatives of the anti-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church Abroad were able to convince the Nazis that the Karaims were only superficially Jews by religion and were ethnically Turks. Ukrainian officials also made those arguments.
As a result, German forces largely refrained from killing the Karaims, even though the latter hid Jews and even though the Germans continued to execute the Krymchaks, “who were also Turkic but professed Talmudic Judaism,” and largely exterminated that nation, Petrunin says.
When Soviet power returned, the Karaims were not deported as were the Crimean Tatars, the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Armenians, the Romanians, the Hungarians, the Germans and the Italians living on that peninsula. But the suppression of the Crimean Tatar language had the effect of undermining Karaim identity.
Moreover, any discussion of the Karaims was almost impossible during those times, Petrunin says, because of the “double” danger of “possible accusations of Zionism and Pan-Turkism.” Not surprisingly, with the end of the USSR, “almost half” of the Karaims of Crimea chose to resettle in Israel under that country’s law of return.
Nonetheless, a small group has remained on the peninsula and sought to defend its existence as a nation, most recently at the end of March when representatives of the Karaims and the Krymchaks appealed to the Crimean State Council that their rights be enshrined in the new constitution and that they be given a quota of seats in government offices.
What will in fact happen to them now remains unclear – the track record of Russian officials keeping their promises, even constitutional ones is not very good — but the Karaims of Crimea will be at greater risk of extinction if their fate does not become a matter of international concern.