The origin of the Karaites is not clear. In one widely accepted view, the Karaite sect of Judaism is believed to have been founded by Anan ben David in Baghdad at the beginning of the eighth century. The teachings of ben David were directed against the influence of the Talmud and found many adherents among the Jewish population of Babylonia. The original followers of the sect called themselves Ananites; they were joined by followers of other Jewish sects. In the ninth and tenth centuries the new teachings were consolidated, and the sect began to be called Karaite. Followers of Karaitism actively proselytized their teachings among Jews of the Near East, and soon followers appeared in Palestine and other parts of the Middle East as well as in Europe, as far as Spain, where, however, their presence was brief.
In the twelfth century Karaites settled in the Byzantine Empire, from which some migrated to the Crimea. The presence of Karaites in the ancient capital of the Crimean Khanate, Solkhat (now Stary Krym), in the fourteenth century is documented, although the Karaite influence was observed earlier. For instance, the twelfth-century Jewish traveler Pethahiah of Regensburg met members of a sect similar to the Karaites in the southern Russian steppes, populated at that time by Turkish nomads. Karaites settled throughout the Crimean Peninsula, and Chufut-Kale (also called Sela Yehudin, "Jewish Cliff"), Mangul, Feodosia, and Yerpatoria also became major centers of the Karaite community.
Tradition has it that in 1392, after a successful march into the Crimea, Crown Prince Vitovt of Lithuania settled several hundred Karaites in his state, in Trok (now Trakai, near Vilnius), Lutsk, Halicz, and Krasny Ostrov (called by Karaites Kukizov, near Lvov). Karaites later appeared in other cities of Lithuania, Podolia, and Volyn' (Panevezhes, Sauliai, Derazhnia, and others).
Legal rights of Karaites in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom and in the Crimean Khanate did not differ from the rights of other Jews. Both communities had the same rights, bore the same responsibilities, and paid the same taxes—equal to those collected from the surrounding populations—or special Jewish taxes. The treatment of Karaites and Jews at this time was similar. For example, in 1495, Karaites, along with Talmudic Jews, were exiled from Lithuania, returning in 1503. At the time of the Bogdan Khmelnitsky pogroms of 1648, many Karaites were killed along with other Jews. In 1679, in the village of Shaty, near Trok, Karaites were accused of the ritual murder of a Christian child. As a result of the help of other Jews, the case was dismissed in 1680 and the Karaites escaped undeserved punishment. This similar treatment led to the establishment of friendly relations between the communities before the conquest of the Crimea and Poland by Russia at the end of the eighteenth century.
After their settlement in the Crimea, under Tartar rule, the intellectual life of the Karaites effectively ceased. Only after the resettlement of part of the community in the Polish-Lithuanian State, where they came into contact with European civilization and with Ashkenazi Jews, did a spiritual reawakening of Karaitism begin. First, liturgical works were translated into Karaite. Later, in the fifteenth century, Karaites of Lutsk and Trok entered into correspondence with the reknowned Karaite scholar Elijah Bashyazi of Constantinople, and some became his students.
A significant number of Karaite scholars appeared among the Karaites in Trok in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. These included Joseph Malinovsky, Zerah ben Nathan, Shlomo Troki, and Abraham ben Joshua. The best known of them, Isaac ben Abraham Troki (1533-1594), wrote a polemical anti-Christian work, "Hizzuk Emuna" (The Strengthening of Faith) in 1593, first issued in Latin translation under the title "Tela ignea Satanae" in 1681. This work became widely known among Christians, who published many refutations.
Under the influence the Karaites of Trok, intellectual activity grew among the Karaites in Lutsk and Galich. In 1699 Mordechai ben Nisan Kukizov wrote two treatises on Karaitism. His relative, Joseph ben Samuel ha-Mashbiz, the author of many theological works, became a hakham (pl., hakhamim ; wise one, the community leader) of Halicz and laid the foundations for an entire dynasty of hakhamim and hazzanim (religious leaders).
Beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, an active intellectual life arose among the Karaites of the Crimea, associated with the arrival of a group of scholars from Lutsk. Notwithstanding the existence of a large number of scholars among these Karaites, however, there was a noticeable shortage of hakhamim and hazzanim, as well as of teachers ( melanmedim ) , in their communities.
Lithuania was conquered by Russia in 1783, and the Crimea in 1793; the majority of Karaites fell under Russian rule and, together with the rest of the large Jewish population, were placed under special restrictions. At first these laws applied equally to the Karaites, whom the Russians considered Jews. But in 1795 Empress Katherine II of Russia issued a decree that the double tax not be imposed on the Karaites, and, furthermore, that they be allowed to purchase land. For the first time in history, Karaites and Jews were distinguished under law. The schism was deepened by a ban on conversion of Talmudic Jews to Karaitism.
The policy of distinguishing Jews from Karaites continued into the reign of Czar Nicholas I. In 1827, the Crimean Karaites, and in 1828, the Lithuanian and Galician-Lutsk, were exempted from the military service, which was mandatory for Jews. Further, the Karaites received certain privileges, such as permission to hire Christian servants, receive Russian citizenship on the same grounds as others, and swear their own oath in court, all of which further distanced them from rabbanic Jews. In 1809 Karaites came into open conflict with Talmudic Jews; they demanded that the authorities evict the Talmudists from Trok, maintaining that they were illegal residents. This demand was refused, but in 1822 the Karaites again applied to the administration with the same request, and in 1835 it was granted. The support by the Government Council of the Karaites' right to reside in any part of the Russian Empire was an important event, as it freed them from required residence in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. The long battle by the Karaites for equal rights ended in 1863, when the Government Council decreed that "Karaites under the jurisdiction of the common laws of the Empire have the same rights alloted to Russian subjects, contingent on their property and monetary holdings." The only limitation was the ban on Karaites taking people of other religions into their community. The Karaites also succeeded in having their official name changed from "Karaite Jews" to "Russian Karaites of Old Testament Faith," and later to simply "Karaites." In practice, however, many points of the new law were not followed. In 1875 Karaites applied to the Minister of Internal Affairs with a petition to order the administration not to call the Karaites "Jews" and not to apply to Karaites laws that were meant for Jews.
A special contribution to the struggle for equal rights for Karaites, as well as to the collection of Jewish and Karaite documents and manuscripts and their study, was made by Abraham ben Samuel Firkovich early in the twentieth century. Firkovich assembled one of the largest collections of Jewish manuscripts in the world during his travels in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, the Crimea, and the Caucasus. He also published a collection of inscriptions from an ancient Karaite cemetery at Chufut-Kala. On the basis of property inscriptions in manuscripts and dates on gravestones, Firkovich asserted that Karaites settled in the Crimea several centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ and thus carried no responsibility for his crucifixion. Later, he argued for a link between the Karaite faith and that of the Khazars (a Turkic people), who adopted Judaism in the eighth century. Firkovich asserted that Karaites, as non-Talmudic believers and as descendants of the Khazars, were entitled to different treatment than Jews. Although some scholars, contemporaries of Firkovich, noticed quite a few forgeries among the manuscripts that he discovered and on the gravestones, the "Khazar theory" of the Karaites' descent found a place in literature and persists, despite the strong skepticism of some scholars.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the production of Hebrew-language literature and science in the Karaite community ended. A few of the Karaite intelligentsia tried to develop Karaite literature in the Russian language, through printed publications such as Karaite Life and The Karaite Word, which appeared in 1911 and 1913 respectively, but these efforts were short-lived. At the same time, a secular literature in the Karaite language appeared, represented by the works of S. Kobetsky, A. Novitsky, and Z. Abramovich.
After the 1917 Russian Revolution, a significant part of the Karaite bourgeoisie emigrated from the country. There was a second wave of emigration in 1920-1921, motivated by the famine in the Crimea and the Ukraine, which led to the resettlement of many Karaites in central regions of the country. The overwhelming majority of Karaites who emigrated settled in Poland, Turkey, France, Romania, Bulgaria, Egypt, Latvia, and the United States. As a result of Poland's independence, Trok and Galitsko-Lutsk Karaites became citizens of Poland. When Soviet troops occupied the Baltic states and the eastern regions of Poland in 1939, however, they, along with the Crimean Karaites, became residents of the USSR. The Soviet government recognized the Karaite people in 1932, and later they were officially designated the Karaite nationality.
Karaite literature flourished in the 1920s in the old Karaite centers of Poland, and with it came an ethnic revival. Through the efforts of hazzan Samuel Firkowicz, Karaite youth in Trok studied in their own school, and their knowledge of the Karaite language was significantly greater than that of the older generation. Firkowicz himself worked for the revival of the Karaite language, writing poetry and doing verse translations in Karaite.
After the Nazis came to power in Germany and the swift rise in anti-Semitism there, Karaites tried to prove their non-Jewish ancestry. In January of 1939 the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Germany noted in a special resolution that Karaites did not belong to the Jewish religious community and that their "racial psychology" was not Jewish. As a result, the Karaites were not persecuted during World War II. In 1942 the Nazis questioned three Jewish scholars, M. Balaban, Z. Kalmanowicz, and I. Schiffer, as to the descent of the Karaites. Understanding the mortal implications of this for the Karaites, all three affirmed the non-Jewish ancestry of the Karaites. In the same year, however, the Karaite populations of Krasnodar and Novorossiisk were killed "by mistake" along with the Talmudic Jews.
After the war Karaites quickly began to assimilate. Many moved to the large cities, where they no longer formed communities and practically all of the younger generation spoke only Russian. The Khazar ancestry of the Karaites had become firmly entrenched in Soviet ideology. All attempts to refute this "theory" or make reference to a relation between Karaites and Jews met with furious resistance on the part of Karaite scholars. On the other hand, many Karaites, often secretly, continued to consider themselves Jews. Karaite culture in the contemporary Soviet Union has practically ceased to exist, with the exception of a small Karaite museum in Trakae.