Buffeted By Political Firestorm, Crimean Minorities Forced to Choose


As tensions are ratcheted up between Ukraine and the Kremlin, Jews have been forced to choose sides. In the Crimea, two small minority groups, the Karaites and Krymchaks, have been caught in the political crosshairs. Crimean Karaites, a Turkic-speaking ethnic group, have backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while the Krymchaks, a similarly Turkic group, have preferred to stay neutral. While it might seem a little surprising that such groups have supported the Kremlin, or at least chosen to remain silent, such developments are somewhat understandable in light of tumultuous history.

Take a stroll through downtown Kiev today and the last vestiges of Karaite culture are still visible. Walking along Yaroslaviv Val street, I spot an impressive architectural masterpiece called a “Kenasa,” a Karaite term for synagogue. Typically, a Kenasa is a two-story building with one floor reserved for men and the other for women. The faithful can only enter the Kenasa after washing both hands and faces and removing shoes. Originally built between 1898 and 1902 in Moorish style, the local Kiev Kenasa was constructed by Vladislav Gorodetsky, a famous architect of the day. During Soviet times, the temple served as a theater and was later converted into the Ukrainian House of Actors. In 1991 Ukraine achieved independence, though unfortunately the synagogue was never given back to the Karaite community.

Karaite kenasa in Kiev.
Karaite kenasa in Kiev.

Karaites of Crimea

The Karaites have vanished from Kiev but an 800-strong flock continues to live on in Crimea, where adherents still boast two Kenasas. In Podil, an old trading and Jewish quarter in Kiev, I catch up with Cyril Danilchenko of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. The Karaites, he explains, rejected the Talmud and split off from Judaism to form a new religion. Though the Karaites still adhere to the Torah, and keep a religious calendar which includes Rosh Hashanah, Passover and Shavuot, the Karaites don’t define themselves as Jews and worship the pagan god Tengri. During a recent research trip to a Karaite cemetery in Crimea, Danilchenko and other archaeologists and ethnographers were even instructed to remove all clothing displaying Hebrew script.

In the 19th century, Danilchenko says, the Karaites underwent a form of “communal insanity” by claiming they had immigrated to the area from Israel long before other Jews and hence never participated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Under this thinking, the Karaites sought to foster the notion of “good Jews” vs. “bad Rabbinic Jews.” Danilchenko also claims the Karaites falsified dates on their tombstones so as to move everything back in the timeline some 1,000 years.

Though somewhat odd, such developments may have helped the Karaites preserve their culture in the long-term. Indeed, during the 19th century Karaites convinced anti-Talmud Czarist authorities that they should be treated differently from other Jews. “On this basis,” Danilchenko says, “Karaites received some favors and tax dues were lifted for them. Before the 1917 revolution, they enjoyed a great deal of prosperity and there were no limitations on their trade and profession.”

Indeed, in Czarist times the Karaites were considered one of the richest and most economically influential ethnic minorities within the empire. What is more, the Karaites were exempted from the Pale of Settlement, a policy which put limits on Jewish mobility. As a result, Karaites were able to settle in major Russian cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg. Fast forward to World War II and the Karaites again got lucky: because they were not technically considered Jews, the community was spared from the horrors of the Holocaust.

Karaites and Krymchaks: A Story of Ethnic Survival

Despite such good fortune, the Karaites fell on worse times after the revolution of 1917. Indeed, once ensconced in power the Soviets persecuted the community. In the city of Simferopol, for example, the authorities replaced a Star of David atop the local Kenasa with a communist red star. Since 1936, the building has housed a radio broadcasting office, and today the local flock is forced to pray in a local school building due to the lack of a proper Kenasa.

In total, only two Kenasas remain in Crimea, one in Yevpatoria and another within an ancient cave fortress located near the city of Bakhchysaray. Meanwhile, only about a dozen people manage to speak Karaim fluently, and the community clings to its culture such as kybyn for example, a Karaite meat pastry or dumpling made with a typical braided twist.

Another Crimean minority group, the Krymchaks, has not fared as well as the Karaites. “Of Crimea’s 120 nationalities,” remarks Kyiv Post, “the Krymchaks have one of the longest histories on the peninsula, and one of the most tragic.” Numbering only about 200 people, Krymchak Jews were devastated by World War II. Indeed, thousands were wiped out during the Nazi occupation of Crimea and this has made the community quite guarded in its affairs.

Caught between stronger, related cultural and ethnic groups in Crimea – Jewish, Russian, Crimean Tatar – which have offered help but threatened assimilation,” adds Kyiv Post, “the few remaining Krymchaks have worked hard to preserve their history and identity.” Today, the community maintains a small ethnographic museum in the city of Simferopol, where traditional scarves, dresses, belongings and photographs are held on public display.

Complicated Position of Crimean Jews

Historically, the Jews of Crimea look back on their long and colorful past in utopian terms. Some survivors may in fact recall nominally autonomous Jewish districts from the Soviet era with fondness. At the time, Yiddish language schools were common in Crimea and students studied math, history, Marxism-Leninism and farming techniques. Classes were held in Yiddish, and residents enjoyed performances at local Crimean Yiddish state theaters.

Such utopian history, however, has been obscured by recent political developments in Ukraine. Amidst the contentious political standoff between Kiev and Moscow, Crimean Jews have been forced to choose sides. According to Kyiv Post, Crimea’s wider community of 12,000 Jews is split over Russian annexation of their region. Indeed, some Jews here have supported the Kremlin in opposition to their peers back in Kiev.

To be sure, Russian pledges of higher pensions helped to secure local Jewish support. Furthermore, the main language on the peninsula has always been Russian, and when Putin annexed the Crimea he sought to justify his actions by promising to protect the rights of not only Russian speakers but also other ethnic minorities including Jews.

For some in the local Jewish community, such pledges were welcome. Indeed, some anti-Semitic elements took part in the EuroMaidan movement back in Kiev which toppled the unpopular government of Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. Though such anti-Semitic elements within Ukraine are commonly exaggerated in the media, the mere threat was apparently enough to sway some of Crimea’s Jews to the Russian side. In Simferopol, anti-Semitic swastikas and graffiti were sprayed on a local synagogue, the first such incident in Crimea for three years. Elsewhere in Ukraine, Jews claim the Kremlin has staged these episodes for propaganda and shock value in an effort to destabilize the country. Local Jewish leaders, however, don’t have fond memories of so-called “Ukrainianization,” a policy imposed from above by the Soviets when Crimea was merged into Ukraine in 1954.

Where Do We Belong, Ukraine or Russia?

So where does the Karaite community stand in relation to other Jews in Crimea? For answers, I catch up with Tetiana Bezruk, a researcher at the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine. “About three years ago,” she remarks, “we spoke with the Karaites and they said they weren’t so comfortable in Crimea. They declared that the Ukrainian government had not recognized their culture.”

News reports tend to confirm such accounts. Indeed, Karaites have long sought to reclaim control over a local cemetery, Kenasas and the cave fortress near Bakhchysaray, but leaders say they ultimately failed to secure desired support from Ukrainian authorities. Such acrimonious disputes have led the Karaites to support Putin, as the community hopes the Russian leader will help to preserve the group’s ancient culture. The majority of Karaites, in fact, reportedly voted for annexation. Karaites were also prompted to back Russia in light of lawlessness associated with the EuroMaidan protests back in Kiev and concern that such instability could in turn spread to Crimea.

Some Karaites moreover say they are closer to Russia culturally than Ukraine. Such support may stem from nostalgic memories of the Czarist Empire, when the Karaites fared well in society. Meanwhile, in the wake of Putin’s annexation the Krymchaks have chosen to stay neutral which isn’t too surprising in light of the group’s tragic history. For the local community, the greatest priority now is hardly securing language rights or higher pensions for that matter, but simply preserving the Krymchak museum for posterity.

Brutalized and mistreated at different times in their history, Crimea’s Karaites and Krymchaks are indeed survivors. Seen from afar, their choice to side with Putin or remain neutral may seem a little perverse or even disappointing, but in light of the past can one really blame either community for seeking to avoid conflict? Now that Crimea is firmly in the Russian column, it is to be hoped that the Kremlin will provide both peoples with as much local autonomy as possible in line with earlier pledges.

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