Кенаса в Сімферополі. Фото автора, 21.01.2022 р.

Who are the Karaites and what is currently happening in the Crimea with the Karaite heritage


If you were in the Crimea before the Russian occupation, you probably tried Karaite cakes. They were also often called Crimean, but the correct name is Karaite. These are traditional cakes of Karaites, the indigenous people of Crimea.

In Soviet times, the Karaites were called “nationalities”. Today they are mistakenly called a national minority, but in fact they are one of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine, along with the Crimean Tatars and Crimean Tatars. Since the XIII century, they live in modern Crimea. Once numerous and highly respected, today the Karaites are one of the few peoples. The occupation of Crimea has made preserving the Karaite heritage even more difficult. We are talking about what is currently happening with the Karaite heritage in the occupied Crimea.

Who are the Karaites

Kenasa, Kyiv, street Yaroslaviv Val. Photo Posterrr for Wikipedia.

Researchers from the Ukrainer expedition emphasize that today the Karaites are one of the smallest indigenous peoples of Ukraine. Karaite communities in Evpatoria and Simferopol number several hundred people, in Feodosia there are about a hundred Karaites. Outside the peninsula, there are even fewer members of this ethnic group. The largest Karaite community outside the Crimean peninsula operates in Melitopol, and the only active kenasa, the Karaite Prayer House, belongs to a small but active community in Kharkiv. Several people also live in Kyiv, Halych, Ivano-Frankivsk and Lutsk. By the way, in Kyiv, near the Golden Gate metro station, there is also a Karaite kenasa, but it is not currently operational.

In Kherson, where the Karaites in the XIX – early XX century were a very influential community, the only Karaite kenasa demolished in the 70s of last century to build a grand staircase to the theater. In Odessa, the Karaite kenas was demolished in the 1930s during the Stalinist terror. In the Crimea, before the 1917 coup, there were 11 Karaite kenas – the Soviet government closed them all until 1959. Prior to the occupation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, kenas operated in Evpatoria and Chufut-Kale.

Karaites profess Karaism – a religion that combines the features of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Karaite language

Sofia Yalpachyk. Photo source: news.mspravka.info

The Karaites have their own language – Karaite. As of 2001, 76 people were called Karaite in Ukraine, and a total of 671 people were Karaites. According to the UNESCO classification, the language is in a state of extinction. Currently, the study of the Karaite language in Ukraine is strongly supported by the Melitopol community: Olena Arabadzhi, chairwoman of the Melitopol Karaite National Cultural Society Jamaat, and Sofia Yalpachyk, board member of the Melitopol Karaite National Cultural Society Jamaat. Mrs. Sofia is an Honorary Citizen of Melitopol. It is this community that has a Sunday school and teaches Karaite.

Although there are no native speakers in the Karaite community in Kharkiv, they still try to preserve traditions, as well as those words and phrases and language turns they know.

Karaites in modern Crimea

The first Karaite communities in the Crimea appeared in the cities of Solkhat (Old Crimea), Kirk-Yer (from the 17th century – Chufut-Kale) and Kafa (today – Feodosia), as evidenced by the Karaite necropolises of the XIII-XIV centuries. After the Russian occupation of Crimea, communication with the Karaites there became more difficult. If before the Karaite occupation regular meetings were held, and Evpatoria and Simferopol became places of such meetings, today such public meetings are excluded.

The Karaites of Ukraine, who currently live outside the peninsula, are in touch with the beginning of the online coronavirus pandemic. From time to time, Karaites from Crimea join such online communication, but not always reluctantly: differing views on Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula and the danger of persecution by the occupying authorities often become an obstacle.

It is difficult to say unequivocally whether the Karaites accepted the Russian occupation of Crimea – they are forced to live under occupation in Crimea. Russia positions its attitude towards the Karaites as a “revival”. Both the “revival of the language” and the “revival of monuments” can be seen in the headlines of the articles in the media, and the study of the language is planned to be conducted on the basis of the Crimean Tatar language. But the problem is that the Karaite language has at least two dialects and a dialect that is really similar to the Crimean Tatar is one of the dialects. While there is also Trokai (Lithuanian), which the Karaites consider a “pure” language. Thus, the Russian Federation in Crimea does not take this feature into account.

Monuments to the Karaite cultural heritage in Crimea are in danger of destruction due to the occupation of the peninsula by the Russian Federation, as the occupying power pursues a reckless and chaotic policy on cultural heritage on the peninsula [1]. And Ukraine, as a sovereign state (in fact, like the international community) has no control over the situation with the preservation of monuments and the activity of the occupier in this area.

There are materials on the Internet about the state of some Karaite monuments in the Crimea [2]. However, due diligence in this regard has not yet been conducted by Ukrainian authorities and / or civil society representatives.

In addition, most of the scientific work and research conducted in Crimea before the occupation is currently unavailable. In particular, the domains of the sites where the information was posted are gradually being shut down. For example, the description of the Theodosian Karaite cemetery, which was made before the occupation, is no longer freely available [3].

Of course, this requires the Ukrainian authorities to make greater efforts to monitor the protection of Karaite cultural heritage sites, as the danger of their destruction during the occupation poses real threats to Ukraine’s national security. However, no information about such activity of our state has been found in the public domain.

Karaites in modern Ukraine

There are few Karaites in modern Ukraine, especially considering that it is difficult for Karaites from the Crimea to keep in touch, and therefore it is also difficult to keep records. However, those communities that exist in other regions of Ukraine, as we mentioned earlier, keep in touch.

Museum of Karaite History and Culture, Halych. Photo: https://karpaty.rocks/

One of the largest cultural institutions that preserves the history and culture of the Karaites in Ukraine is the Museum of Karaite History and Culture in Galicia. Established in 2004, the museum is a branch of the state reserve “Ancient Halych”. In three halls there is an exposition that introduces guests to the religious and cultural traditions of the Karaites, social and domestic life of the Karaite community of Halych. According to one version, they arrived in Halych by agreement of King Daniel with Khan Batu in 1246. As in Kherson or the Crimea, the Karaites of Halych were mostly engaged in trade.

And the largest cultural community involved in the development of Karaite culture in Ukraine is the Melitopol National-Cultural Karaite Society “Jamaat”. It was created in 1991. At the origins of its creation were Yalpachyk Helii Semenovych and Tikhonova – Katyk Tetyana Oleksiivna. She was chairman of the company for 20 years.

The activities of the society were aimed at reviving, studying and preserving the ethnocultural heritage of the Karaites. For this purpose, under the authorship and under the direction of Heliy Yalpachyk, a Russian-Karaite phrasebook (1993) and a Russian-Karaite dictionary (1998) were prepared for publication and published. The textbook “21 lessons of the Karaite language” was published in 2001 and was republished in 2004 with the help of Heliy Yalpachyk’s daughter Sofia Heliyivna. In 2014, an “Ethnographic Essay on the Karaites” was published by the Yalpachyk family based on materials collected by their father and grandfather. The Karaite language is currently taught in Melitopol.

The result of painstaking and inspired work of activists of the society, teachers of Melitopol State Pedagogical University. B. Khmelnytsky, correspondent of the newspaper “Melitopol Information” became an almanac of historical essays “Karaites of Melitopol”. The book reflects the great contribution of the Karaites in the development of culture, science, social life of Melitopol. The almanac contains a large number of photos from the family albums of the Karaites of the city. The book has aroused great interest among historians, ethnographers, local historians and has long been a bibliographic rarity.

Melitopol also has an ethnographic and cultural center, Kale, which combines a Karaite museum and a cafe with Karaite cuisine.

In December 2018, the element of intangible cultural heritage “Tradition of making Karaite cakes (et ayakalaku – recipes of the Karaites of the city of Melitopol, Zaporozhye region” is included in the National list of elements of intangible cultural heritage of Ukraine. In other words, Karaite cakes are recognized by the state as an element of the intangible cultural heritage of the people. Incredible work in this direction is carried out by the representative of the Melitopol Karaite community, candidate of geographical sciences Olena Semenivna Arabadzhi. She has prepared a number of scientific publications on the peculiarities of the Karaite national cuisine and the preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of the Karaites.

Law on Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine: Will It Preserve Karaite Culture?

In 2021, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted the Law of Ukraine “On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine”, which stipulates that the indigenous peoples of Ukraine formed on the territory of the Crimean Peninsula are Crimean Tatars, Karaites, and Crimean Tatars. “Indigenous people of Ukraine are an autochthonous ethnic community formed on the territory of Ukraine, bearers of original language and culture, have traditional, social, cultural or representative bodies, self-aware indigenous people of Ukraine, is an ethnic minority in its population and has no state education outside Ukraine, “the document reads.

The law is aimed at maximum protection of cultural, informational and other rights of indigenous peoples, providing them with mechanisms and tools to work with the Ukrainian state. In particular, the representative bodies of indigenous peoples are recognized. This is especially important for the Karaites, as the Karaite representative body is just being formed.

The law prohibits the denial of the ethnicity or ethnic identity of the indigenous peoples of Ukraine. This is also an important component, especially for the Karaites, about whom Russian propaganda spreads a lot of misinformation.

Kenas in Simferopol. Photo by the author, 21.01.2022

According to the document, indigenous peoples have the right to observe, revive and develop their spiritual, religious and cultural traditions and customs, preservation of tangible and intangible cultural heritage; determination of the list of own places and objects of religious and cultural significance; restoration of its historical toponymy; cooperation with educational institutions to ensure the study of their language, history, culture of the indigenous people.

Indigenous peoples also have the right to create their own media and receive state support through representative bodies.

In our opinion, it is the information component that can become the basis for preserving the Karaite heritage in Ukraine. This can be the basis for the introduction of targeted programs at both national and local levels of activities aimed at preserving and developing the culture of the Karaites. Currently, such programs already exist in several communities in Western Ukraine, as well as in the South (Melitopol and Kherson).

It is seen that the Law will allow the state to form a system of support for tools to preserve the Karaite culture: studying the Karaite language, researching the history and culture of the Karaites, creating and disseminating content about the Karaites and their culture, and more.

It is worth emphasizing the need for in-depth study of the situation with Karaite cultural heritage sites on the Crimean peninsula, as Crimea became the place of formation of Karaites as a separate people, and it is in Crimea that the vast majority of Karaite cultural heritage is concentrated. these monuments are subject to enhanced protection as an integral part of the cultural heritage of Ukraine, which is now under the rule of the occupier.

It is possible that the full implementation of the Law of Ukraine “On the Indigenous Peoples of Ukraine” will really be able to ensure, if not development, then at least the preservation of culture, language, traditions and monuments of cultural heritage of the indigenous people of Ukraine. It is possible that the support of the already existing practices of the Karaite communities of Melitopol, Kharkiv, Kherson, Halych and other cities and towns of Ukraine will allow to pass the heritage of this people to the next generations of Ukrainians.

However, “may” does not mean “will”. And only the active interaction of the Karaites themselves, Ukrainian society as a whole and public authorities will turn the probable into a reality.

Yevhenia VIRLYCH,

journalist, member of the Council of National Minorities

  and indigenous peoples at the Kherson Regional State Administration


Implemented within the project “Information Platform” Voice of Crimea. Culture “- about Crimea honestly, qualitatively, actually” with the support of the Media Development Fund of the US Embassy in Ukraine. The views of the authors do not necessarily reflect the official position of the US government.


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