Khakas - Orientation

Identification. The Khakas ethnic group in the narrow sense is comprised of that particular Turkic-speaking population that is officially referred to as the "Khakas." This population may be more exactly termed the Khakas proper. In a historical, linguistic, and to some extent even cultural sense, the Khakas also comprise three other ethnic groups—the northern division of the Shor, the Chulym Turks, and the Manchurian Kirgiz. The latter three groups may be considered the descendants of small dislocated fragments of essentially the same parent population of which the Khakas proper represent the principal surviving part.

During the initial period of czarist colonization (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), the Khakas were known to the Russians as the "Yenisei Kirghiz." This appellation was obviously based on the autonym of the contemporary Khakas, or at least of a considerable part of them. Today the old ethnonym is still retained by the Manchurian Kirgiz, who continue to call themselves "Kïrgïs." The Russian colonial administration referred to the Khakas as the "Minusinsk" or "Abaka Tatars," implying a linguistic relationship with the Tatars proper, as well as with other groups regarded as varieties of the Tatars. At the same time, the Shors were referred to as the "Kuznetsk Tatars," whereas the Chulym Turks were known as the "Meletsk Tatars." This colonial terminology was also adopted by the Khakas, who started to call themselves "Tadar" (plural, Tadarlar), an ethnonym still used by older generation of the Khakas. The current official appellation, "Khakas" (plural, Khakastar), was introduced around the time of the October Revolution. Historically, this is a manufactured term, based on a false reading of an ethnonym that occurs in ancient Chinese documents and actually refers to the Kirgiz. For this reason, there is a continuing discussion among the Khakas about the necessity of finding a more genuine native name. As yet, no generally acceptable alternatives seem to be available.

Location. The core territory of the Khakas proper is located on the upper course of the Yenisei in a region known as the Minusinsk Basin. This is a roughly circular area with a diameter of some 200 to 250 kilometers, divided by the Yenisei into a Western and an Eastern half. The western half is further divided by the Abakan River, whose confluence with the Yenisei marks the center of the area (approximately 92° E, 54° N). The eastern half also contains several locally important tributaries of the Yenisei. Except at the point where the Yenisei flows out toward the north, the Minusinsk Basin is surrounded on all sides by mountains of varying elevation. In the west there rise the ranges of Abakanskii Khrebet and Kuznetskii Alatau (generally less than 2,000 meters high), whereas the southern and eastern sides are guarded by the massive Western and Eastern Sayans (up to 3,000 meters). The basin in the middle lies generally much lower (up to 500 meters above sea level). Behind the Abakanskii Khrebet in the west there lie the sources of the Tom River, the native territory of the Shors. Farther toward the north, the middle course of the Chulym River is inhabited by the Chulym Turks. Whereas the surrounding mountains are mainly covered by extensive mixed and coniferous forests belonging to the realm of the Siberian taiga, the Minusinsk Basin forms a small local grassland, vegetationally reminiscent of the Central Eurasian steppes. The climate of the region, which is occasionally referred to as the "Siberian Italy," is relatively mild. The mean temperatures of the coldest and warmest months (January and July ) are roughly — 20° C and +20° C respectively. Daily variations, however, as well as local differences connected with elevational factors, are great. The levels of precipitation also vary locally but remain low especially during the winter, rarely allowing the snow cover in the steppe to exceed 20 centimeters in depth. Prevailing winds are from the south and southwest.

Demography. With some 81,500 individuals (1989), the Khakas rank fourth in population among the indigenous peoples of Siberia. During the past few decades the population has been growing steadily (about 22 percent from 1970 to 1989). Nevertheless, the Khakas are increasingly becoming a minority population in their territory because of the growing immigration of Russians. Large immigrant centers and rural communities were established in the Minusinsk Basin during czarist times, but the Soviet regime greatly increased their number (and their adverse effects). Several huge construction projects have been started in the region, with the goal of transforming the Minusinsk Basin into a massive industrial region termed the Sayan Territorial Economic Complex. As a result, the total population of Khakassia (508,000 in 1981) is today many times greater than the number of Khakas. Moreover, the development has also forced the Khakas to be increasingly widely scattered all over the former Soviet Union, so that today only 63,000 (some 77 percent) of them live within Khakassia. Industrialization has been even more devastating in the native territory of the Shors, today known as the Kuzbass industrial region. Rapid extinction is also threatening the few thousand surviving Chulym Turks and the few hundred Manchurian Kirgiz far away in China.

Linguistic Affiliation. Together with the idioms spoken by the northern division of the Shors, the Chulym Turks, and the Manchurian Kirgiz, the Khakas language forms a special branch of Turkic, distinguishable from the neighboring Turkic idioms, notably the languages of the Tuva and the Altai Turks. Nevertheless, there exists a certain linguistic continuum between the Khakas and the Altai Turks (through the Shors), as well as between the Khakas and the Siberian Tatars (through the Chulym Turks). The language of the Khakas proper is conventionally divided into a number of local dialects, corresponding to the historical tribes. The dialectal differences are small, however, and all the dialects are today served by a unified literary language. The Khakas language is little used in the urban and industrial centers, where the Khakas form a tiny minority. Although the language still survives in many rural communities, the proportion of native-language speakers among the Khakas has already sunk as low as 76 percent. The rest of the Khakas have adopted Russian as their first language. Bilingualism in Russian is, of course, widespread even among those Khakas who still know their own language, but few Russian immigrants learn the local language.

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