Language Groups
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The Peoples
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Abazians (Abaza)
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Central Asian Jews
Chulym Tatars
Crimean Jews
Crimean Tatars
Georgian Jews
Kola Lapps
Lithuanian Tatars
Mountain Jews
Peoples of the Pamirs
Tats (Tatians)
Trukhmens (Turkhmens)

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Self-designation and origin. The people call themselves karai (pl. karailar). The designation has been linked to an Old Hebrew verbal noun qáráím 'readers' (of Holy Scripture), which would indicate that the members of this small Turkic group are adherents of a minor branch of Judaism. In an effort to distinguish between the Karaim and the Karaite, some scholars use the designation 'East European Karaim' for the former. In some sources the Karaim have been recorded as the Tatars (this is sometimes used by the Karaim themselves), or as the Kirghiz or the Jews.

It is important to note that as recently as the beginning of this century literate Karaim priests regarded Hebrew as the Karaim language. Hebrew is the language in which sacred texts were written and it is still used during services of the sect in Egypt, Turkey and Israel.

Religion has played an important part in forming the Karaim people. Since the 8th century the Karaims have belonged to a sect of Karaism initiated by Anan ben David. This is a reformed Judaism which defends the religious doctrine as it is written in the Bible and rejects the Talmud, the oral tradition. From the 8th to the 10th centuries the Karaims were subjected to the rule of Khazar Kagan. It is recorded in the 13th century that the Karaim congregation practised in Solkhat, the capital city of the Crimean Tatars. In the 14th to the 16th centuries a small number of the Karaim people from Middle Eastern countries were absorbed by the Crimean Karaim.

Habitat. The Karaims are settled widely in the Crimea, western Ukraine and Lithuania (cities). A small number of them also live in Poland, Romania and the U.S.A. Between the 11th and 18th centuries the majority of the Karaim lived in the mountainous central part of the Crimea, mostly near Bakhchisarai (Bahçesaray), in a fortified town called Cufut Kale ('a Jewish fort'). In 1397 Vytautas, Grand Duke of Lithuania, resettled 383 Karaim families from Solkhat, now Stary Krym, on the Crimean Peninsula to the Trakai area in Lithuania. Resettlement of the Karaim in Lithuania continued in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In 1495 the Karaims and the Jews were driven out of Lithuania by Alexander, Grand Prince of Lithuania. The Karaims were initially allowed to remain in Poland but then in 1503 they were sent back to Lithuania, after Alexander had become the Polish king.

Beside the Trakai area (170 people lived there in the 1960s) there are Karaims in the following areas: Vilnius, Birzhai, Panevezhys, Naujamiesta, Pasvalys and Talachkan. In 1408--1411 the Karaims moved to the environs of Galich and Lutsk in Galicia and Volhynia (now western Ukraine). Lutsk became the Karaim cultural centre and Karaim books and newspapers were published there for a long time. Today the Ukrainian Karaims live in the city of Galich and in the village of Zalukva in the Ivano-Frankovsk region.

On the Crimean Peninsula the Karaims live in the Crimean coastal resort towns, such as Evpatoria, Bahcesaray and Theodosia where they have been assimilated by the Crimean Tatars. Before the Russian conquest of the Crimea, the Karaim lived mostly in the Crimean mountains. In the first third of the 19th century the Crimean Karaims migrated to the big cities in southern Russia. By the early 20th century, the Karaims were scattered all over Russia, mostly between the big industrial and trading centres.

Karaims still live dispersed in the Caucasus, and in other Russian cities (Moscow, St. Petersburg). Throughout their history the Karaims have tried to maintain contacts, the great distances between their settlements notwithstanding. Later, the Karaims moved from Trakai to Volhynia (Lutsk) and from there to Galicia (Galich), to Krasny Ostrov (Kokizov or Kukizov in the Karaim language) near Lvov and to other places. There is evidence that in 1692 a Karaim settlement was established at Kokizov near Lvov. By 1911 the only Karaim community in the area was at Galich. There they inhabited one particular street.


  • Around 1783 the number of Karaim was approximately 3,800 and of these 2,600 lived in the Crimea, 700 in Lithuania, 300 in Galicia, and 200 in Volhynia.
  • In 1844 (according to P. v Koeppen), 5,725 Karaim lived in Russia (of them 4,198 in the Crimea and 761 in Lithuania) and less than 300 in Galicia, which was then part of Austro-Hungarian empire.
  • In 1879 (according to Karaim community data) their number was 9,725, and of these approximately 6,000 lived in the Crimea, 944 in Lithuania, and 250 in Galicia (part of Austria-Hungary).
  • In 1897 (according to official census data) the number of Karaims was 12,894 (in reality probably a little bit less, say approximately 12,500), out of those 5,200 lived in the Crimea, 800 in Lithuania, 200 in Volhynia, and 6,000 elsewhere. According to 1900 census data less than 300 lived in Austria-Hungary.
  • In 1913 the Karaims numbered 13,200.
  • In 1920 they numbered 7,800, and of them 5,500 lived in the Crimea, 1,800 in the Ukraine, and 500 in other parts of the U.S.S.R.
  • The Karaim population declined during the Russian Civil War as a result of warfare, famine, disease and extensive emigration.
    In 1926, 8,324 Karaims lived in the U.S.S.R. and 4,000 in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia (according to official census data 1921--1931).
  • In 1939 (approximate estimate) the number of Karaims in the U.S.S.R. was 9,000, with about 3,000 living outside the USSR.
  • In 1959, 5,700 Karaims lived in the U.S.S.R. During World War II the Karaim population had been considerably reduced.
  • In 1970, 4,600 Karaims lived in the U.S.S.R., of whom 2,400 lived in Lithuania (speakers of the language: 16.5 %).
  • According to census data there were 3,341 Karaim people in 1979. It is assumed that there are less than 5,000 Karaims living in the world today (M. Kupovetsky).

Language and history. The Karaim language belongs to the Kipchak-Polovtsy group of Turkic languages. The closest related languages are Kumyk, Karachay-Balkar and Crimean Tatar. The Karaim have probably had contacts with Khazars, the Alani (whose descendants are the Ossetes) and the Bulgars. Karaim divides into a number of dialects: the Crimean dialect, the Trakai dialect (Lithuanian) and the Galich-Lutsk dialect (western Ukraine). The dialectal differences are mostly phonetic and in vocabulary.

In addition to linguistic dissimilarities the Karaims differ widely in respect of their culture. By the end of the last century, the Crimean Karaims had adopted the closely related Crimean Tatar language. Now, they speak the middle dialect of the Crimean Tatars. The Slavic (Polish, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Russian) influence on the Trakai and Galich-Lutsk dialects began early and is notable. The Karaim syntax is Slavic, but Turkic origins are still evident in the vocabulary. The Trakai dialect has been influenced by Lithuanian. The Karaim language itself has not had any effect on neighbouring languages, due in the main to the small numbers of the Karaim and their historical isolation. The Karaims have always been multilingual, apart from Karaim, they have spoken Russian and Polish or Ukrainian and Polish. For instance, when the Karaim community in Lutsk sent a memorandum to the Polish parliament in 1790, they claimed that all the Karaims spoke Polish fluently. In the second half of the 19th century, when the russification of Lithuania began, Russian influence on the Karaim strengthened. The Karaim in Lutsk were effected by russification even earlier. The Karaim language lost ground as a common spoken language, although as a written language it came to be used more widely owing to the emergence of a distinctly profane literature.

It is assumed that the ethnic identity of the Karaim in the Middle Ages had not fully developed, as the stress at this time was laid on denominational membership. It was not until the 18th century, when ethnic and social conflicts with the surrounding world arose, that an ethnic and linguistic awareness was awakened and felt to be important (a distinction was made between the Karaims and the Jews in order to gain in the civil rights struggle in tsarist Russia).

Since the end of the 19th century Karaim intellectuals had sceptically looked down on their mother tongue, as though it had been imposed from without. It was being replaced by Crimean Tatar or, in the cities, by Russian. At the First Crimean Karaim Community Congress in 1924, the Karaims in the Crimea could not reach a consensus as to what their mother tongue was: Turkic Tatar or Hebrew. The latter was referred to as the ancient Karaim language in the congress materials. The Karaims in the diaspora, on the other hand, have always had a positive attitude to their mother tongue.

After World War I the Karaims in Galich, Lutsk and Trakai found themselves within Polish boundaries. The change in the political situation brought about a cultural and political renaissance of the Karaims. The work of S. Firkovich, a Karaim man of letters and teacher, was of special importance. The generation raised and educated in the 1920s were better mother tongue speakers than their fathers and mothers. A number of Karaim books of fiction were published in Lutsk, and a grammar and dictionary of the Trakai and Galich-Lutsk dialects were printed. The Karaim language was purified from Hebrew influences, and an effort was made to translate the whole liturgy into Karaim.

World War II and its aftermath brought all this to an end. Hundreds of Karaims left their homes in Galicia, Lutsk and Trakai, because these areas were annexed to the U.S.S.R.

The Karaim language is now on the verge of extinction. According to K. Musayev, there are just 3 or 4 people, all older than fifty, in Trakai, the largest Karaim community, who spoke Karaim in the 1960s, and they did not speak it fluently. "We have no language any more," say the Karaims. The young have replaced it with the language of the majority in their neighbourhoods: Russian (and Lithuanian) in Lithuania, Russian (and Ukrainian) in Galich, Ukraine. They do not fully understand the Karaim written language. K. Musayev had noted that the Karaim prefer to speak their mother tongue when they do not want other people to understand what they are saying. They might also use Karaim corresponding to each other. Karaim is still the language used for ritual. Spoken Karaim is a mixture of Karaim and the predominant language of the neighbourhood. Such a Karaim-Slavic mixed language was imitated in the 1930s by S. Rudkovski in his comedy 'Friends'.

For about 600 years, until the 20th century, the Karaims in the diaspora preserved their mother tongue. This was made possible by their introverted way of life. In tsarist Russia the Karaim were mistaken for Jews and treated accordingly: both the Jews and the Karaims were denied civil rights. (the Karaims have also been mistaken for Jews ethnically, and were supposed to have migrated over the Caucasus to Persia where they had picked up the Turkic language). From 1795 laws for the Karaim differed from those for Jews. Civil rights were extended, but discriminatingly. For example, a law came into effect in 1829 forbidding the Jews to reside in either Sevastopol or Nikolayev, but allowing the Karaims. The hostile attitude of the surrounding world fostered a sense of unity within the Karaim community. The life of the Karaim people was regulated by the priests. Mixed marriages were not permitted. In the community schools (midrash) Karaim or Old Hebrew were used. The Karaim communities fell into decline this century. The First and the Second World Wars fragmented the thus far compact Karaim communities. The Karaim in the Galich and Lutsk areas became enmeshed in all the border and power changes in the Galicia-Volhynia region. They were subjects at one time of the Polish kingdom and at another of the Austro-Hungarian empire. In 1939 the eastern part of Galicia was forcibly annexed by the U.S.S.R.

The majority of the Karaim live in cities (97 %). The old Karaim settlements in Lutsk and Galich have practically died out.

Ethnic culture. The traditional Karaim activities were farming, gardening, crafts and trading. Today most of the Karaims live in cities and their modern-day culture and activities are no different from those of the surrounding world.

Writing. Karaim rituals required that worshippers understood presented texts which promoted the development of a Karaim written language. However, there is no common literary tradition. At various times, they used Old Hebrew, Latin and Cyrillic scripts, depending on what was available in the locality. The oldest written records -- translations of the Bible in manuscript form -- go back to the 11th--14th centuries. The latter have never been comprehensible to all the Karaims.

The first Karaim publication, a prayer book, came out in Venice in 1528. Karaim scriptural texts continued to be published in the 19th and the early 20th centuries, together with a smatter of original and translated profane literature, including some periodicals (in Vilnius, Moscow, Panevezhys, Lutsk).

Today the Karaim have no written language. A comprehensive survey of the Karaim language is still lacking. There has been controversy about the Karaims ethnic origin. Polish linguists, including A. Zajaczkowski (A. Zajonchkovski), whose origins are Karaim, have been more successful in this respect.


  1. T. Kowalski, Karaimische Texte im Dialekt von Troki. Krakow, 1929
  2. Н. А. Баскаков, Состояние и ближайщие перспективы изучения караимского языка. -- Вопросы языкознания 6, 1957
  3. Еврейская энциклопедия. Т. 9: караимы, С.-Петебург
  4. Р. М. Капланов, К истории караимского литературного языка. -- Малые и дисперсные этнические группы в Европейской части СССР (География расселения и культурные традиции), Москва 1985
  5. М. С. Куповецкий, Динамика численности и расселение караимов и крымчаков за последние двести лет. -- География и культура этнографических групп татар в СССР, Москва 1983
  6. К. М. Мусаев, Грамматика караимского языка, Москва 1964
  7. К. М. Мусаев, Краткий грамматический очерк караимского языка, Москва 1977


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