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Self-designation. The Koryaks call themselves by two different names: the traditionally nomadic reindeer-herding tribes use the name chavchu 'reindeer rearers', 'rich in reindeer', the resident tribes nymylan 'resident, settler' (nym = a dwelling place, settlement). Koryak originates from a neighbouring people who derived the name from the Koryak stem kor 'reindeer (korak 'at the reindeer', 'with the reindeer'). The Russians adopted this variant and popularized it.

Most probably the Koryaks were first mentioned in writing in 1755 by Russian explorer S. Krasheninnikov in his book of travels. The national policy of the 1930s encouraged the use of self-designations as the official variant. In the case of the Koryaks the name nymylan predominated but after the war the former name was reinstated.

Habitat. The Koryaks live in the northeast of Siberia, in the northern part of the Kamchatka Peninsula and on the adjoining mainland from the Taigonos Peninsula to the Bering Sea. The traditional roaming area of the nomadic Koryaks has been west of the Kamchatka Central Range, up to the Itelmen settlements. Administratively the Koryaks live in the Koryak Autonomous Area of the Kamchatka Region of the Russian Federation (from 1933 to 1937 the Koryak National District). This covers 301,500 km2 in all. The population is 40,000 (1989) and the administrative centre is the town of Palana (3,500 inhabitants in 1975). The Koryak territory is mostly forest tundra and tundra in the subarctic climate belt. The mean temperature in January is -25 °C and in July +12 °C.

Population. Data on the Koryaks has been mainly obtained through census:

native speakers
19596,28790.5 %
19707,48781.1 %
19797,87969 %
19899,24252.5 %

Though the number of Koryaks seems to have been relatively stable for some time the percentage, resident on traditional Koryak territory, has diminished (16.4 % in 1959 and 16.2 % in 1979). The percentage of other ethnic groups is expected to keep growing. The total population of the Kamchatka Region is 443,000 with a mean population density of 0.9 person per km2. The number of mother tongue speakers is telling.

Anthropologically the Koryaks, as well as the Chukchi, belong to the Mongoloid North Asian race. They are short and sturdy with a characteristically dark skin. The face is wide and flat (also the nose), the cheekbones prominent and the lids have the specific Mongolian eyefolds. The eyes and hair have dark pigmentation (black and dark brown), and the hair is straight and coarse. The men are predominately beardless.

The Koryak language, as well as Chukchi and Itelmen, belongs to the Chukchi-Kamchatka group of Paleo-Asiatic languages. Structurally Koryak is incorporative or polysynthetic. It is assumed that prehistorically it had been related to the languages of the American Indians. It is likely that their common original home was on the Asian mainland from where the forefathers of the Indians set off to America before the Bering Strait severed the land route.

The Koryak language has seven distinct dialects (though some sources indicate four). The majority of Koryaks speak the relatively uniform chav-chyvan dialect. The language of resident Koryaks is more diverse. In the northern part of the National District the following dialects are distinguishable: Paren, Kamen, Itkana and Apuka, and in the south Palana and Karanga. Each dialect has features not observed elsewhere. The diversification of Koryak into dialects has been insufficiently studied. For example until the 1960s the Aliutor and Kerek languages were considered to be Koryak dialects.

Language. The Koryaks' closest relations have been first and foremost with their kindred peoples. It has been said that Chukchi is the closest related language to Koryak, morphologically, however, it is the Kerek language and lexically, Aliutor. The Koryaks can communicate with the Chukchis and Aliutors in their mother tongue without any trouble. As the Koryaks have interacted with all their neighbouring peoples, there has been a mutual linguistic influence. Since the 1930s Russian has most affected the Koryak language. The need to name new phenomena, notions and terms has caused extensive linguistic borrowing. The loan-words used to be incorporated into Koryak in compliance with its inherent laws. The practice ended in the 1960s when Russian loans had to be used as they were in the source language. Mixed settlements, collective farms and schools, and in addition, Russian-language media, administration, culture and ideology led to the further predominance of Russian. The incidence of intermarriages in the 1960s diminished the importance of the Koryak language in the family circle.

History. The Koryaks are natives of Kamchatka. The coastal tribes are considered to be the direct descendants of the Neolithic people but the origin of the northern reindeer herders is more obscure. Their assumed Koryak origin has a considerable later Even influence. For centuries the Koryaks have reared reindeer and gone fishing, they have traded and been friendly or at war with the Chukchis, Itelmens and Evens.

The first Russians to reach the Koryaks were Cossaks S. Deinyov and M. Stadukhin. After completing a bridgehead, the Anadyr fortress, the conquest of the Kamchatka people began in earnest ( the Morozko campaign of 1690, the Atlasov campaign from 1697 to 1698). The Koryaks defended themselves bravely and refused to pay the tribute. The clashes continued until the end of the 18th century. At this point the Russians decided to change their inflexible and despotic power politics in favour of bribes. They offered the chieftains presents and vodka and the chance to retain their former authority if they assisted the Russians in tribute-collecting. In some cases a chieftain could even have a say in local affairs. It is known, for example, that Semyon Umyavin, a christened tojon from the village of Kamenskoye was a member of the local court.

The first Russian settlements in Koryak lands date from the 18th century (Penshino, Gishiga). These were followed in the next century by zealous Orthodox missionary work. These efforts proved more fruitful with the southern Koryaks who had already begun adopting Russian names. Russian traders also became active in the region at this time. They bartered items made of iron, various cloths, salt, tea, tobacco and gunpowder. With the help of vodka the traders found it easy to cheat the primitive people of their wares for a pittance.

The natives of North-East Asia profited from the trade competition which began at the end of the 19th century. Alongside Russian traders Americans peddled and the Russians were forced to improve their trading methods.

Soviet rule was established in Kamchatka in 1923 and it brought about fundamental change. The First Congress of the Kamchatka Soviets took place in 1930 and there was decreed a preference toward Soviet trade. New trading stations were established and the Koryak National District was founded. The new rule created new economic relations. The hunters had to adapt to the planned economy and a state pricing which allowed for only meagre incomes. During collectivization co-operatives and artels were set up. This marked the beginning of the overall motion to turn Koryaks into settled citizens (in 1926, 55 % used to be nomad herdsmen). The Koryak social system recognized no ranks or classes, and a high premium was always placed on communal work and mutual assistance. It was impossible for them to grasp why, in the name of collectivism, a part of the community had to be proclaimed kulaks and exterminated, just like the enemies of the people later on (American and Japanese 'spies'). 60 % of the Koryaks had joined co-operatives and artels by 1940 when collective farms came into existence.

The mentality of the Koryaks underwent profound changes. Extensive brainwashing accompanied a campaign to abolish illiteracy. The Koryaks became anxious and resentful of demands for children to be sent to boarding schools. In 1933 Koryak schoolchildren numbered 1,543. At school they had to absorb the new ideology. Besides extensive anti-religious propaganda and scorn for shamanistic practices Koryak tradions were viewed with great suspicion. Soviet officials were of the opinion that the Koryaks could be well off only if their lifestyle mirrored that of the Russians. It meant such things as better housing, technology, technical appliances and education. But, it also meant the disappearance of an existing natural way of life along with its associated traditions. Many Koryak settlements were forcibly liquidated, for instance Makarevsk, Uka, Dranka, Hailyuli, Gishiga, Anapka, Napana, Kultushnoye, Moroshechnaya and Rekinniki.

It is true to say that during the last 40 years the degeneration of the Koryaks as a nation has been quick and, most probably, irrevocable. Soviet economic and national policy has consistantly worked toward making the natives feel unwanted outsiders and portraying them as troublemakers in their own homeland. As masters and supervisors, the Russians have decreed the site for a mine or a prison, a wharf or a dump -- the Koryaks have had no say in these matters. As the achivements of modern civilization are solely the benefits of Russian intervention it follows that Russians are the only ones to have a say in the matters of local infrastructure. The prestige of the Koryak language is low, the traditions are considered to be ridiculous and any distinctive ethnic feature is held up as a sign of inferiority.

To preserve the original clan system would be sheer demagogy, however, the Koryaks are an example of how the forcible speeding up of the civilization process amplifies its own inherent negative features. The damage goes beyond simply the destruction of the Koryak culture. The atmospheric nuclear tests of the 1950s and 1960s have had catastrophic consequences. The radioactive contamination has reached the internal organs of the Koryaks via the food chain (from lichen to reindeer, from meat to man) and harmed their natural immunological system. For example, the bones of reindeer-herders contain 20 times more lead and 100 times more caesium than the bones of those who do not eat reindeer. During the last 30 years the cases of tuberculosis, high blood pressure, chronic lung diseases and cancer have sky-rocketed. The incidence of cancer exceeds the average by up to three times, and, in the case of cancer of liver, by anything up to ten times. The infant mortality rate is alarmingly high at 70--80 per 1,000 births. The mean Koryak life-span is less than 50 years.

Writing. For everyday purposes the illiterate Koryaks used pictographs. From 1913 Koryak children attended Russian church and mission schools(13 children in 1916) but their own script, like those of other northern peoples, was only created in the 1930s. The All-Union New Script Board approved the model alphabet of 28 letters compiled in 1930, which is the basis of the Koryak writing in Chavchyvan dialect. The first primer, Jissa kalekal (The Red Book) was published in 1932 and in 1934 a reader and various other textbooks were printed.

The number of Koryak schoolchildren in 1933 was 1,545 (in the first year the tuition was in their mother tongue, later on in Russian). Adults began to desire literacy as well. Up to this time people had resented reading and writing in Russian but after the creation of their own script, according to S. Stebnitsky, literacy spread like an epidemic. Everybody was eager to use it in all fields, from accounting to local administration.

In 1937 the Koryaks were forced to adopt the Russian script. Besides textbooks and explanations of ideological concepts (translations from Russian), a little fiction and some nonfiction concerning everyday life has seen print. The best-known Koryak authors are Kersai Kekketyn, Lev Zhukov and Vladimir Koyanto.

A government decree of 1988 planned measures for the economic and social development of the northern peoples. As a result new Koryak textbooks have been published. M. Ikavav and I. Agin have compiled a new primer, V. Kavav and E. Narivlich a new reader Аигыткылг'ын (A Northerner).

Research. The first examples of the Koryak language were in the book Описание земли Камчатки by S. Krasheninnikov in 1755. V. Bogoraz, a deported member of the Narodnaya Volya, began a septematic research on the Koryaks. Thanks to him we have extensive material for the study of the North-East Asian people. In 1917 V. Bogoraz published a collection of samples of the Koryak language Koryak texts, and in 1922 a manual of the Chukchi language which included a survey of the Koryak language and a comparative study of the two languages. Koryak grammar was compiled by S. Stebnitsky in 1934 Нымыланский (коряцкий) язык. The Russian-Koryak dictionary was published in 1926 by the Kamchatka Society of Regional Studies and the Koryak-Russian dictionary by G. Korsakov in 1939.

In the post-war period, in 1968, A. Zhukova published a scholarly paper on the new approach to Koryak grammar. A survey of the Koryak ethnic history was compiled by I. Vvodin (Очерки этнической истории коряков, 1973) and of the folk culture by V. Antropova (Культура и быт коряков, 1971). There is a need for surveys on folklore and beliefs, for collections of text samples, for a special survey on dialects and for new bilingual dictionaries.


  1. А. Н. Жукова, Коряцкий язык. -- Языки народов СССР. Т. V, Ленинград 1968
  2. Коряки. -- Народы Сибири, Москва -- Ленинград 1956
  3. В. Коянто, Кто хозяйн в домеъ -- Народов малых не бывает, Москва 1991
  4. Палеоазиатские языки. Сборник научных трудов, Ленинград 1986
  5. З. П. Соколова, Народы Севера СССР: прошлое, настоящее и будущее. -- Советская этнография 6, 1990
  6. С. Н. Стебницкий, Нымыланский (коряцкий) язык. -- Языки и письменность народов Севера. Ч. III, Москва -- Ленинград 1934


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