Crimean Karaites hail Russian takeover

800-strong quasi-Jewish minority hopes Moscow rule over peninsula will help preserve its centuries-old culture

A Karaite house of worship in Yevpatoria in Crimea (Wikimedia Commons/JTA)
A Karaite house of worship in Yevpatoria in Crimea (Wikimedia Commons/JTA)

BAKHCHYSARAY (AFP) — Crimea’s tiny 800-strong Karaite minority — Turkic-speaking, not entirely Jewish and overwhelmingly pro-Russian — hopes that Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula will help them preserve their ancient culture.

Indigenous to Crimea, the Turkic speakers are adherents of Karaism, a branch of Judaism. They revere the Old Testament but reject the Talmud, the oral Judaic tradition.

Hidden in the middle of a dense oak forest is the ancestral cemetery of Crimean Karaites: 7,000 ancient limestone graves, some covered with moss or lichen, some with still visible Hebrew inscriptions.

“This is a sacred place for us. People come here on pilgrimage,” said Anna Polkanova, a member of the Karaite community who studies the group’s history.

As she approached the cemetery that she said is “2,000 years old,” Polkanova covered her henna-dyed hair with a traditional wool headscarf and launched into a tale of Karaites’ olden times.

“We do not define ourselves as Jews,” said Polkanova, stressing that her people are culturally distinct and not to be confused with other followers of Karaism who live in eastern European countries such as Poland or Lithuania.

To protect themselves from anti-Semitic laws in imperial Russia, the Crimean Karaites intentionally distanced themselves from Judaism in the 19th century –- a move that also helped them escape persecution during Nazi occupation in World War II.

Svetlana Shergene, a tiny and energetic 74-year-old, is among the few people in Crimea’s main city of Simferopol who still attend Karaite services on Saturday mornings.

Sitting in her pink living room full of old family photos and ceramic knickknacks, Shergene said she prays twice a day as her religion requires. The cover of the green prayer book in her hands reads: “Saturday Prayers of the Crimean Karaites.”

“It is essential to maintain our traditions,” said the retired pharmacist who now spends her time making bead-covered Karaite hats or traditional dishes like kybyny — small pies with a meat filling.

The congregation –- now mostly elderly people –- is forced to gather in a school building as there is no Karaite temple in Simferopol, Shergene lamented.

A Karaite synagogue, or kenassa, is typically a two-storey building, with one floor designated for men, the other for women, which the faithful may enter only after washing their hands and faces and removing their shoes.

Only two kenassas remain in Crimea — one in Yevpatoria, another in Chufut-Kale (a “Jewish fortress” in Turkish), an ancient cave fortress near Bakhchysaray. The others were taken over by the authorities under Soviet rule.

The Star of David was replaced with a communist red star on the facade of the former Simferopol kenassa, an ornate 19th-century building that housed a local television station in the Soviet era.

“Look at that, the kenassa has not been renovated since it was built!” said Vladimir Ormeli, the president of the Association of Crimean Karaites, pointing at its chipped walls.

On behalf of his community, Ormeli has long tried to reclaim the Karaite cemetery, the kenassas and the Chufut-Kale fortress from the Ukrainian authorities.

“But we’ve got nothing, only promises,” Ormeli said.

This is why the Crimean Karaites have welcomed the new Russian rule in the peninsula.

“Most of us are hopeful,” Ormeli said, claiming that his people are “closer to Russian, rather than Ukrainian culture.”

The Soviet rule is to blame for the near disappearance of the Karaim language which is closely related to that of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim minority whom the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forcibly deported from Crimea in 1944.

Ormeli — who himself cannot speak Karaim — said his grandmother did not know the Russian language but avoided using her mother tongue publicly as she feared being taken for a Tatar and deported.

Today only around a dozen people can still speak Karaim fluently.

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