September 2007 the long-awaited scientific conference on Karaites issues was held in Crimea. Even though I was not able to attend it, I know that there wasnít any report presented on this conference concerning the main problem of this unique, but disappearing people. Alas! On some reason, no one loudly dared declaring that Karaite people literally disappear before the eyes of todayís generation. You shouldnít necessary be an expert-ethnologist to see this phenomenon. Studying the statistics, that is open and known to any Karaite, is quite enough. Nevertheless, Karaites maintain olympian calm, and keep on discussing the ongoing domestic affairs at the conferences, without noticing the main problem.
However, if todayís demographic trend wonít change within 2-3 generations, the Karaites people will only speak of in past tense. 640 of 800 Karaites currently living in Crimea are elderly people. Only 100 people can have children. And these one hundred people have only 60 children. This demographic statistics, where procreation is not able to compensate for mortality, will lead to the extinction of the whole people very quickly.
What's the matter? Why Karaites are not concerned about the fate of their own people? Donít they care how their children and grandchildren will call themselves, and whether they will have the descendants at all?
To answer at least some of these questions, we must look into the past of the people, as someone wise said: "The Past, growing through the present, creates prerequisites for the future." Maybe already at the very foundation of the Karaite people there was something that proved to be fatal obstacle, which does not let them developing in a progressive acceleration. Or maybe everything can be explained by the theory of Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, who revealed that ethnic groups, like people, born, gain strength and power, and then upon reaching old age die quietly? He even defined the average life expectancy of an ethnic group - 1200 years. Karaites are already over 1200 years. However, maybe the thing is not in age, but in a confluence of the unfavorable historic circumstances, because Gumilev mentioned only an average figure, as he knew well that many ethnic groups live 2000 and more years, but some even die in the ďjuniorĒ age.
Thus, the life expectancy of ethnic groups as well as peoples, could be prolonged, by creating them favorable conditions. One must only wish! First of all people, that is, Karaites themselves must have this desire. After all, Karaites are very talented people. One should only mention the outstanding personalities of the past 100-200 years, to dispel all doubts in this respect. But I will not do this for two reasons: first, in order not to clutter the article, second, in order not to judge people only by its heroes. Even without heroes Karaite people historically proved to be the reasonable and thoughtful ethnic group, distinguished not only of hardworking, but also courage and brave in military affairs, loyalty and honesty in serving their duty. To make sure of this one could only trace the historical life of the ethnic group from the time of its birth until the present day. Not in vain all Crimean khans recruited Karaites to serve as palace guards. Minting coins was also trusted exclusively to them (the Lithuanian dukes did the same way). All this taken into account, Karaites are surprisingly humble and do not boast about their achievements and heroes, as other ambitious people of the former Soviet Union do (I will not name them here). Even the mere fact that Karaites today are the most highly educated ethnic group in Ukraine as for the number of people with higher education per capita, already speaks for itself.
This very extraordinary people started reducing in number starting from particular historical moment, no longer compensating for the natural and artificial losses. One could even mark the historical moment when the breakdown occurred and ethnic group moved on to the stage of degradation...
It happened after the annexation of the Crimean Khanate by the Russian Empire. Despite the fact that Karaites, in spite the Crimean Tatars were not subjected to genocide on the part of Russia, and were even favored by Katherine the Second. But it happened so that serving to the Russian Empire Karaite ethnic group started declining like pebble-leather. It is hard to understand the reasons of this phenomenon at once. It requires the deep research. However, even without going into details, one could highlight the objective factors - reasons that resulted in the decline of the ethnic group.
The first thing that interrupted the natural development of one of Crimean indigenous ethnic groups is the invasion of new and alien orders to the customary life, settled and established for centuries. This destroyed their usual way of life. You see, each of more than three dozen ethnic groups that historically settled and inhabited the peninsula for not only centuries but even millenniums, lived independently and separately. The State, founded by Garays, changed nothing in the well-established way of life of these ethnic groups. It preserved and legitimized not only ethnic, but also religious diversity. Uniting the whole kaleidoscope of different ethnic groups in a single state, the State nonetheless could unite all this mass into one single nation. Islamic religion served as a cement that welded together this conglomerate of peoples. It wasnít imposed on them in a forced way. It was a voluntary process, as the Crimean Khanate originally had to profess the democratic methods in foundation of the state.
As far as the Karaites concerned, they played a special role in the foundation of the Crimean Khanate: the first Khan of the new state and the founder of the Garay dynasty, by the way, borrowed his acquired "name" from Karaites, the people who turned out to be the cradle of the newly founded state. Perhaps, that is why Karaites were in a privileged position, and preserved their original religion, and, consequently, their ethnic identity.
However, after Russian Empire conquered the Crimea, the elimination of the Crimean State and mass exodus of Crimean Tatars the Crimean Karaites got orphaned. They left without a suzerain. Though, they were offered quickly to serve the Russian emperors. So, Karaites escaped the fate of the Crimean Tatars. They became equated with the rights of the Russian people. However, after the elimination of the Crimean Khanate the democracy that prevailed in the Crimea was abolished. Russian state was the slave state with a rigid authoritarian regime of an absolute monarch, the regime that Crimea did not know. And such change of living conditions could not help affecting on the Karaites who, compared to Crimean Tatars, found themselves in relatively benign conditions. However, the imperial regime could not change its appearance for the sake of some next small conquered people. All peoples in Russia were forced to live in prison, according to the apt Leninís remark. And no one was going to make exceptions for the Karaites. Here is the first objective reason, which became the beginning of withering of the ethnic group, nurtured in completely different conditions. (As far as the Crimean Tatars concerned, by the way, they found themselves, figuratively speaking, not even in a prison, but in a lockup.)
Usually, the assimilation process begins under such conditions, moreover in Tsarist Russia it was a state policy: the Gentiles were baptized, this way making them Russians. It is possible that part of Karaites was forced to follow this way that of course, could not help affecting the number of people.
However, the biggest losses the people suffered during the wars leaded by the empire both in the 19th and especially in the 20th century. The twentieth century in general became suicidal for the Karaites in the literal sense of the word. The number of people reduced almost ten times. It was a real disaster, given that the people have always been numerically small because of the prohibition to marry the infidels. For this very reason, after the Japanese War, World War First and subsequent Civil War many Karaite women a whole generation were left undemanding. Thus, self-isolation of the people on one hand, related with the customs, and constant wars lasted for two decades on the other hand, brought people to the edge of extinction.
After the October Revolt, this line was crossed when the country started the persecution of religion. The thing is that the very appearance of Karaite people was closely connected with their religion. Therefore, the persecution of all religions by the Communist regime, except for the Communism, automatically deprived all peoples of the country of their ethnic and national identity. Thus, in the depths of the Communist-Soviet system, only the language of the people remained the indicator of their belonging to one or another ethnic group. However, Karaites could speak their native language only until 1944, because after the deportation of Crimean Tatars, for any Karaite speaking Karaite language in the Crimea was like death: one could be immediately deported like Crimean Tatar due to almost complete coincidence of these languages.
Thus, Karaites lost their second main feature of ethnic identity - their native language, and took the language of their conquerors. Today, one couldnít distinguish them from Russians in an everyday life. People have lost their face. Given such assimilation rate already the children of todayís parents will not know their ethnic roots.
In fact, if there wasnít Crimean Tatars who fled to the Crimea from the places of deportation at the end of the 80-ies in the wake of rising of the national movement, the Crimean Karaites would have disappeared from the face of the earth as an ethnic group by the end of the second millennium. The revival of the buried alive people started only with the elimination of the communist regime in 1991.
No one forbids any religion and speaking any language in democratic Ukraine today. Stalin's repressions are forgotten as a nightmare. However, their effects remain. Language and culture are the distinctive features of any nation. Thanks to communistsí efforts Karaites lost both of them. There remained only the memory of them. In this respect only one question arises: will the nearly destroyed people revive?
I should note that my personal observations inspire a healthy optimism in me in solving this problem. I did not set the task before me to disclose the reason for this optimism in this article. I just wanted to focus the attention on the issues of Karaite people, in order to target them on solving it. And I hope I succeeded in this. Now we must find ways to overcome the problems, faced by the people. I have no doubt that these ways will be found and the problem will be eventually solved and overcame. And here I would like to give an advice. Dear compatriots and friends, brothers Karaites! Take a look back once again and analyze your history. In your struggle for survival and desire to preserve your individuality throughout the history, you chose friends and patrons. In the fifteenth century, Crimean Tatars became your friends. They respected your desire to preserve your religion and created all conditions for this. But in 1783 the state where you lived and prospered, was destroyed. Russians, who replaced the Crimean Tatars, proposed you serving them. You agreed because you had no choice. However, it wasnít already a friendship, as it was in the Crimean state, but service, serious and sometimes back-breaking. But everything changed when Russian masters were replaced by Russian serfs. These ones didnít care anyone or anything. In their ignorance they destroyed all and everything... they only achieved that they were themselves blown away by the wind of the history. Now it's time to restore all what was best in the past, clearing the chaos that left mindless and ignorant louts, rampaged in Crimea for more than 70 years. And again, you have to choose friends in this new life. Do not make the wrong choice.
Crimean Tatars have returned to Crimea. The historical situation at this time deferrers greatly from the one, that prevailed two centuries ago. The epoch of the empires goes to the past. Today you live in a democratic state where there is no danger of leveling of the ethnic differences. Imperial authoritarianism will not return to the Crimean land, though there are still bearers of the imperial tradition living in the Crimea. But their days are numbered. The future is not for them, so do not look for friends among them. Return to your roots in culture and language, and get free from forced assimilation. I think that Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians will help you in this.