Karaites - Orientation

Identification. Karaites or Karaim are followers of non-Talmudic Judaism and thus are distinct from rabbinic Jews such as the Ashkenazim. Karaites adhere to the Torah and Pentateuch, the books of the Prophets, and the Writings—and exclude the Talmud, the post-Torah rabbinical commentary, which is accepted by other Jews. In Russia today, the few remaining Karaites live principally in cities.

Demography. It is virtually impossible to estimate the number of Karaites at the time of their appearance in the region of the former USSR. By the end of the eighteenth century the number of Karaites was approximately 3,800. During the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were significant migrations. Many Karaites returned from Galicia and Volynia to the Crimea. In Crimea, Karaites moved from the mountains to the coast, primarily to Yevpatoria and Feodosia. As a result, the ancient Karaite center of Mangul was deserted and the population of Chufut-Kale declined significantly. At the same time Karaites were migrating from the Crimea to other Black Sea cities (Odessa, Nikolaev, Kherson) as well as to Moscow and St. Petersburg.

In the mid-1840s the number of Karaites reached approximately 6,000. The principal center was Yevpatoria, with a Karaite population of 2,000. At the end of the 1870s there were 10,000 Karaites, and by the beginning of the twentieth century the Karaite population was around 12,800, 90 percent of whom lived in cities.

As a result of the Revolution, the number of Karaites at the beginning of the 1920s declined to 12,400, and by the beginning of World War II there were less than 12,000. In 1937, according to Karaite tradition, 483 Karaite families were relocated from the Crimea to Lithuania. Because of World War II and assimilation, at the end of the 1940s about 7,000 Karaites lived in the USSR, and another several thousand lived in Poland and other countries. The 1959 Soviet census records 5,700 Karaites; the 1970 census shows 4,600; and the 1979 census only 3,300. At the present time, the number of Karaites in Russia is no more than 2,000 to 2,500. Several thousand East European Karaites live elsewhere in Europe and the United States. There is also a Karaite community of as many as 25,000 of Middle Eastern origin in Israel and a remnant population in Egypt.

Linguistic Affiliation. Karaites in the former USSR speak Karaite, one of the languages of the Turkic Group, in three dialects: Crimean, Halicz-Lutsk, and Trakai. Of the contemporary Turkic languages, Karaite is closest to the Crimean Tatar language. Before the 1917 October Revolution, Karaites used Hebrew as a written language, which at the end of the nineteenth century began to be replaced by Russian, and in the 1920s and the 1930s by Polish and Lithuanian. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries attempts were made to create a written Karaite literary language based on the Hebrew alphabet, which was later replaced by the Russian alphabet in Russia and by the Latin alphabet in Poland. Use of the written Karaite language, however, was never widespread. At present, most Karaites consider Russian their native language, and only 15 percent of Karaites, the overwhelming majority of whom are older people, continue to speak Karaite.

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