Identification. Altaian is the general name for a group of Turkic peoples living in the region of the Altai Mountains of southern Siberia in the Altai Republic. These peoples include the Chelkan, Kumandin, Telengit, Teles, Teleut, and Tubalar. The name "Altai Kizhi" is applied both to a specific unit among them and to this group of peoples as a whole; it is a descriptive designation, not an official one. "Altai" designates the region; "kizhi" means "man" or "person" and is generally used to denote a nation, folk, or people. Historically, there is no specific name for these peoples. They may identify themselves by the name of the locality in which they live, such as a river or a forest zone; for example, one group of Altaians living in the Mayma River region refers to itself as the "Mayma Kizhi" or the "Maymalar" (i.e., the Maymas). The Tubalar occupy a forest zone and sometimes refer to themselves as the "Yish Kizhi"—the "Forest [lit., Wooded Mountain] People."
It is also the custom among peoples of the Altai to refer to themselves as the members of a line of common descent. In the past they were designated "Kalmyks," "Mountain Kalmyks," etc., but this is an error, because the Kalmyks speak a language classified in the Mongolian Language Family and have only a distant connection, if any, to the Turks. The frequent occurrence of the term "Tele" among the names of these peoples (Telengit, Teles, Teleut) goes back to the name of an ancient Turkic people, the Tele. A variant of this name is set down in Chinese records of the sixth to eighth centuries.
The Altaians are defined as Turkic not only by their language but also by their customs and history. It was once believed that the Altai Mountains, where they live, were the original homeland of all the members of the Altaic Linguistic Group, but there is no historical evidence of this. Nevertheless, the Altaians are near the center of distribution of the Turkic-speaking peoples, having neighbors within this language group to the north, east, south, and west.
Location. The Altaians constitute a group of related mountain peoples living beside the streams of the Altai complex of mountain ranges. This complex consists of the chief water-divide ranges, the South Altai, the Inner Altai, and the East Altai; the Mongolian Altai is connected to this mountain complex, rising to the southeast of the Siberian Altai region. The Altai system is located in the central part of southern Siberia, with Mongolia to the east and Kazakhstan to the south; it lies between 48° and 54° N and between 83° and 90° E. The mountains are of moderate elevation, with several reaching 4,500 meters; those higher than 3,000 meters are snowcapped throughout the year. The Altaians live in the broad plateaus, steppes, and valleys of the ranges. The climate is continental, with considerable temperature swings, but is modified by the effect of the mountains, which cause a winter temperature inversion. In effect, the Altai forms an island of higher temperatures in winter than those found in the Siberian taiga to the north or in the Central Asian and Mongolian steppes to the south and east. The mean January temperature of the Chuya steppe, in the southeast of the region, is -31° C; winter temperatures fall as low as -48° C. The mountains form a nodal point for the gathering of precipitation. The main rainfall occurs in July and August, with a secondary and smaller period of rain in the late autumn. The western Altai has a mean annual rainfall of over 50 centimeters; the east is drier, receiving about 40 centimeters per year, or even less, and forms a transition to the more arid Mongolian steppe, farther east.
The Altai is rich in lakes and streams. The chief lakes of the region are Marka Kul in the south and Teletsk in the central part of the Altai region. In nearby parts of Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan there are much larger lakes: Zaysan Nur, Kara Usu, Ubsu Nur, and Kulunda. The Siberian rivers Ob, Irtysh, and Yenisei have headwaters in the Altai Mountains. The most important rivers within the Altai are the Biya, Katun, Bukhtarma, Kondoma, Ursul, Charysh, Kan, Sema, and Mayma.
Of the groups of Altaians mentioned, the Kumandin live chiefly along the right, or north bank of the Biya River, in the northern part of the region; the Telengit live mainly along the river systems of the Chuya and Argut, in the southern Altai; the Tele occupy the valley of the Chulyshman River in the east-central district; the Teleut live beside the Charga River; and the Tubalar live in the valleys of the Greater and Lesser Isha and neighboring streams.
Their territory lies entirely within the former Soviet Union (specifically within Russia, there they form a unit for administrative and census purposes). The Altaians presently live compactly within the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Oblast (GAO) (founded 1 June 1922), a region of the Altai Krai in the southern part of west-central Siberia. The center of the autonomous oblast (92,600 square kilometers in area) is Gorno-Altaisk (until 1932 it was called Udala, from then until 1948 Oirot-Tura). The territory of the oblast is divided into eight administrative districts connected to the center by roads and air transport. In all districts the Altaians live mixed with other peoples, among whom Russians represent a large percentage; in the Komagach District of the GAO, the Altaians live among Kazakhs.
Stretches of farmland, pasture, and steppeland are found in the region; the steppes are drier than the farmland, the latter being located chiefly in the north, the steppeland in the south and east. The principal steppes are the Uimon, the Kurai, and the Chuia. The soils of economic importance to the Altaians are the rich chernozems, the steppe and mountain meadow soils, and the gray forest soils. The chernozems are most useful for farming, the others less so.
The natural vegetation in the area is variable, ranging from steppe grasses, shrubs, and bushes to a light forest of birch, fir, aspen, ash, cherry, spruce, and pine, with numerous clearings and spacings between the trees; this forest merges in the north with a modified Siberian taiga, with thinning vegetation. The wild fauna include hare, mountain sheep, several species of deer, bobacs, East European woodchucks, and moles; predators among them include the lynx, polecat, and snow leopard; bird species include the pheasant, ptarmigan, goose, partridge, snipe, and jay; fish in the lakes and streams include the trout, grayling, and sig (the latter is mistaken by the local Russian population for the herring).
Demography. With the exception of the postwar (1959) census of 45,270, the population remained near its present level of 59,130 between 1926 and 1989.
Linguistic Affiliation. Altai, a member of the Turkic Language Family, has two major dialect groups, Northern Altai and Southern Altai. The former includes those groups known as the Kumandin, Chelkan, and Tubalar, whereas the latter consists of the Altai-Kizhi, Telengit, and Teleut. The Northern Altai dialects reflect features typical of the Northeast Turkic languages and therefore are similar to the Turkic languages of southern Siberia, including Khakass, Shor, and Tuvan; the Southern Altai dialects share much in common with Kyrgyz and thus reflect features of the Kipchak Group of Turkic languages, which also includes Kazakh, Tatar, and Nogay. The Altai literary language is based on the Southern dialect group.
The first written language for the Altaians was established in the 1840s by the Russian missionary M. Glukhov, in conjunction with the Altaian M. V. Chevalkov. But its development was interrupted in the beginning of the twentieth century. In the 1930s a new written language, employing first the Latin script and then the Cyrillic, was established, becoming the basis for the development of education, the eradication of illiteracy, and the codification of the norms of the literary language.
Most Altaians are bilingual in their native language and Russian; instruction is in Altai. Radio broadcasts are transmitted in Altai three to four hours per day. The Altai language is not used for administrative purposes.
Education. In Gorno-Altaisk there are several specialty schools where Altaians can receive an education or learn a trade. The pedagogical institute prepares teachers in various specialties for the schools of the Altai. Some of the graduates find their calling in the scientific-academic or manufacturing-production areas. The secondary specialty schools are livestock and cooperative-trade technical colleges. The pedagogical and medical schools graduate specialists to work in the districts of the oblast. In addition, many Altaians also complete studies at universities and institutes in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Novosibirsk, and other Russian cities.