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ETHNONYM: Turkish-speaking Bulgars


Identification. There is no exact information about the number of Gagauz in the world today. In addition to the now-independent former republics of the Soviet Union, Gagauz also live in Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Turkey, and, in small numbers, in Canada and Brazil. In pre-Revolutionary documents, they are most often called "Turkish-speaking Bulgars."

Location. Today in the former Soviet Union, 152,752 Gagauz (77.5 percent) live in the republic of Moldova; 32,017 (16.2 percent) in Ukraine; and 10,057 (5.1 percent) in Russia. The number of Gagauz in the remaining former republics is small.

Demography. Over the thirty years between Soviet censuses, the Gagauz population as a whole, including those in Moldova, has grown by 59.2 percent, which is about 1.6 percent more than the growth of the former Soviet Union as a whole. The Gagauz population increased by 26.5 percent in the 1960s, 5 percent in the 1970s, and 13.8 percent in the 1980s. The sharp drop in the rate of increase in the 1970s can be explained by the Soviet assimilationist policy, and, in particular, by the fact that, after the Krushchev thaw of the early 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, conditions in Moldavia blocked the development of Gagauz identity and channels for social and professional mobility. To adapt to the realities of the Moldavian Republic it was necessary to affiliate with the nationality of the majority ("the basic nationality"). The Gagauz did, registering themselves as Moldavians.

According to the census of the 1970s, one-third of the Gagauz were living in cities and two-thirds in villages. The number of males and females was the same.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Gagauz language belongs to the Southwestern (Oguz) Subgroup of the Turkic Group of the Altaic Language Family. There are two spoken dialects: central (spoken by people in the Chadyr-Lungsky and the Komratsky regions) and southern (spoken by people in the Vulka Neshtskey region).

Before the Revolution, folklore texts were published in the Russian script. In the years of Romanian occupation, some literature, in particular the religious and historical, was published in the Romanian alphabet. In 1957 a writing system was created on the basis of the Russian alphabet. The Gaugaz have preserved their native language with relative stability: 94.3 percent were speakers in 1959, 93.6 percent in 1970, 89.3 percent in 1979, and 87.4 in 1989. They also speak other languages, mainly Russian. The Russian language had been mastered by 63.3 percent in 1970, 68 percent in 1979, and 71.1 percent in 1989. Some Gagauz in Moldova are fluent in Romanian (as spoken in Moldova)about 6 percent of the population in the 1970s and 1980s.

History and Cultural Relations

The ethnogenesis of the Gagauz is undetermined. As of now, neither native nor foreign specialists have been able to determine it, although twenty hypotheses have been suggested. Many of these begin with either/or questions: Who were the GagauzTurkicized Christians or Christianized Turks? That is, were they Bulgars who adopted the Turkish language or Turks who converted from Islam to Orthodoxy? Did they descend from pastoralists, or were they a sedentary population that was assimilated by pastoralists?

Answering these questions is made difficult by two factors: the absence of information in the literary chronicles of the Middle Ages, and the heterogeneous nature of the Gagauz population on the Balkan Peninsula on the eve of their relocation under the protection of Russia.

Much of the early ethnic history of the Gagauz took place on the boundaries between what was to become pastoralist steppe country and land inhabited by settled peoples. On the eve of their relocation to Bessarabia, the Gagauz in the Balkans consisted of two ethnic strands: the Khasyl Gagauz (the ancestors of true Gagauz) and the "Bulgarian Gagauzy." The majority of scholars are inclined to think that the original core of the Gagauz consisted of Turkic-speaking pastoral Oguz, Pechenegs, and Polovtsians. One of the last migrations of Polovtsians to the Balkans took place in 1241. But there is evidence that among them were Bulgars who had learned Turkish and a portion of a population then under the protection of the Turkish sultan, Izzedin Keikavus. In European scholarship the question has frequently been posed as to whether the most likely ancestors of the Gagauz were Turkic-speaking Proto-Bulgars who, in the 670s, came to the Balkans from the banks of the Volga under the banner of the Bulgar king, Asparukh.

In the course of the frequent Russo-Turkish wars at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries, the Gagauz, siding with the Russian army, emigrated to the steppe of southern Bessarabia, primarily within the bounds of the Bendersky and Izmailsky districts. In 1861 to 1862, some Gagauz settled in the Tavrid District.

The wave of Stolypin agrarian politics carried some Gagauz to Kazakhstan between 1912 and 1914, and later yet another group settled in Uzbekistan during the very troubled years of initial collectivization. So as not to lose their civil rights, they called themselves "Bulgars" in the 1930s; The Gagauz of the village of Mayslerge in the Tarhkent District retain that designation to this day.


The traditional dwelling contains three rooms with a secondary wall of sod (zavalinka ) along the main wall and a veranda supported by pillars. The walls of the rooms are adorned with towels and the rugs (decorated with floral designs) popular among the Gagauz, and there are "rug paths" on the floor.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy centered on animal husbandry, particularly sheep raising, and agriculture that combined growing grain and truck farming with viticulture. Even in the recent past, despite the cultural similarity of the Gagauz to the Bulgars of Bessarabia, there were important differences between them: the Bulgars were peasant farmers; although the Gagauz also farmed, they were essentially pastoralists in outlook.

Food. Many traces of their nomadic past may be found in the cuisine of the sedentary Gagauz, such as a special way of processing milk and the preservation of meat, curds, and sheep's milk cheese in a skin. The staple food is grain, in many varieties. A series of family holidays and rituals was connected with the baking of bread, wheat loaves (kalaches ) and unleavened flatcakes.

The favorite dish was a layered pie stuffed with sheep's milk cheese and doused with sour cream before baking. Other delicacies were pies with crumbled pumpkin and sweet pies made with the first milk of a cow that had just calved. The traditional ritual dish called kurban combined wheat porridge (bulgar wheat) with a slaughtered ("sacrificed") ram and is further evidence of the origins of the Gagauz in both the Balkan world and the steppe-pastoral complex. A special place in the cuisine is occupied by peppered sauces for meat; one combines onion and finely granulated porridge; another is tomato-based. A red house wine is served with dinner and supper. An indispensable component in holiday meals is meat in jelly prepared from the heads and feet of livestock (head cheese).

Clothing. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a Gagauz woman's costume consisted of a canvas shirt, a sleeveless dress, a smock, and a large black kerchief; in winter, they donned a dress with sleeves, a cloth jacket, and a sleeveless fur coat. Required features of female dress were earrings, bracelets, beads, and, among wealthy Gagauz, a necklace of gold coins. "So many of their decorations are hung about," wrote a pre-Revolutionary researcher, "that they cover the entire breast down to the waist."

Traditional male clothing included a shirt, cloth pants, a wide red sash or belt, and, in the summer, a hat; the winter cap was made of Kanakul sheep wool. The shepherd's costume was the usual shirt combined with sheepskin pants with the fleece turned in, a sleeveless fur coat, and a short sheepskin jacket, the latter sometimes decorated with red-on-green stitching.

Sociopolitical Organization

Recently, in conjunction with increased demands for minorities in the professions, there has developed a need for better mass communication. Unfortunately, efforts in this direction have been limited thus far. For example, in 1988 books were published in Gagauz at the rate of 5.5 for every 100 persons of Gagauz nationality, compared to 297 books in Moldavian (i.e., Romanian) for every 100 persons, 1,293 per 100 in Estonia, and an average of 807 in the former USSR as a whole.

The prospects for the survival of the Gagauz national culture and the existence of the Gagauz as an independent people are tenuous. They have the lowest ratio of persons with a higher education in Moldova, a virtual absence of an artistic intelligentsia, a very weak scientific intelligentsia, and an acute lack of intellectuals in general. In 1989 less than half as many Gagauz were admitted to the state university and the polytechnical institute as in 1918. Accordingly, the Gagauz are weakly represented in administration, the professions, and the service industries. There is an acute shortage of building materials, and the environment is in a state of crisis. Analysis of this situation led to the Gagauz movement for national regeneration. On 12 November 1989 an extraordinary session of representatives to the Moldavian Supreme Soviet adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Gagauz ASSR within the Moldavian SSR. Three days later, however, the presidium of the Moldavian Supreme Soviet failed to confirm this decision, thus trampling on the principle of national self-determination of the Communist party of the Soviet Union. Moreover, the Moldavian press opened a campaign of anti-Gagauz propaganda. Despite a series of declarations about a renaissance of the Gagauz, the absence of the necessary conditions, including national-territorial autonomy, will make their realization difficult, and the people appear doomed to assimilation.


Believing Gagauz are Orthodox Christians. Their ancestorsTurkic-speaking pastoral clanspeople who came from the southern Russian steppe and settled into the maritime region of northeastern Bulgariaaccepted Christianity in the thirteenth century. Notwithstanding this devotion to Christianity, which took root among them one and one-half centuries before the Osmanli Turkish conquest, the Gagauz only superficially grasped the basic dogma of this religion. Although there were a few books in translation in Gagauz villages at the start of the twentieth century, there is no reliable evidence that the translation of the New Testament into Turkish (distributed by the Bible Society in London and using the Greek alphabet) was widely available to them.


Comrie, Bernard (1981). The Languages of the Soviet Union, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kozlov, Victor (1988). The Peoples of the Soviet Union. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

MIKHAIL N. GOUBOGLU (Translated by Paul Friedrich)

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More than ten hypotheses exist about the origins of the Gagauz, although none of them has been proven decisively. In Bulgarian and Greek scholarship, the Gagauz are considered, respectively, to be Bulgarians or Greeks who adopted the Turkish language. The Seljuk theory is popular in Turkey. It argues that the Gagauz are the heirs of the Seljuk Turks who in the thirteenth century resettled in Dobrudja under the leadership of Sultan Izeddina Keikavus, and together with the Turkish-speaking Polovetsians of the southern Russian steppes (Kipchaks in Arabic, Kumans in European historiography) established the Oghuz state (Uzieialet).

In Russia scholars believe that the base of the Gagauz was laid by Turkish-speaking nomads (Oghuz, Pechenegs, and Polovetsians) who settled in the Balkan Peninsula from Russia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and there turned from nomadism into a settled population and adopted Christianity.

During the Russian-Turkish wars at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, the Gagauz resettled in the Bujak Steppe of southern Bessarabia, which had been emptied of the Nogai and annexed by the Russian Empire. From 1861 to 1862 a group of Gagauz settled in the Tau-ride province, a region that is today part of Ukraine. During the Stolypin agrarian reforms of 1906 to 1911, some of the Gagauz resettled in Kazakhstan, and in the 1930s, in protest against the collectivization imposed by Josef Stalin, they moved to Uzbekistan. There they stayed until the end of the 1980s under the name of Bulgars. At the end of the 1920s a few dozen families, in order to save themselves from the discriminatory policies of rumanization, migrated to Brazil and Canada.

The short-lived migration of some families to southern Moldavia, at the time of the Khrushchev Thaw at the end of the 1950s, was unsuccessful. According to the census of 1989, there were 198,000 Gagauz in the former Soviet Union, of whom 153,000 lived in Moldavia, 32,000 in Ukraine, and 10,000 in the Russian Federation. One-third of the Gagauz lived in cities.

Those Gagauz who are religious are Orthodox. The Gagauz language belongs to the southwestern (Oghuz) subgroup of the Turkish group of the Altaic language family. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, folklore texts were published in the Gagauz language, using the Cyrillic alphabet. In 1957 a literary language was established on the basis of the Russian alphabet. On January 26, 1996, by order of the People's Assembly of Gagauzia, writing switched to the Latin alphabet. The official languages in Gagauzia are Moldavian, Gagauz, and Russian.

The majority of the Gagauz are bilingual. In 1959, 94.3 percent of Gagauz spoke the language of their nationality; in 1989, 87.4 percent. The Gagauz speak fluent Russian. In 2000 the Gagauz language was taught in forty-nine schools, in Komrat State University, and in teachers' colleges and high schools.

The contemporary culture of the Gagauz is represented by the State Dramatic Theater (in the city of Chadyr-Lunga), the Kadynzha Ensemble, and musical and folklore groups.

On January 24, 1994, the parliament of the Republic of Moldova passed the law On the Special Legal Status of Gagauzia (Gagauz Eri ), which established the autonomous region of Gagauzia. This new form of self-determination for the Gagauz was based on the two principles of ethnicity and territory and won great approval in Europe.

At the turn of the twentieth century cattle-raising and livestock husbandry dominated, this has been replaced by agriculture, viniculture, tobacco farming, and industrial production.

See also: moldova and moldovans; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist

Mikhail Guboglo

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The Gagauz are a Greek Orthodox group believed to be descended from the Oghuz tribes. The Gagauz are today found mainly in Moldova, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan (173,000 in 1979); Bulgaria (12,000 estimated in 1982); Greece (Perhaps as many as 30,000); and Romania.

See Gagauz in Volume 6.


Svanberg, Ingvar (1984). "The Turkish-Speaking Ethnic Groups in Europe." Europa Ethnica 5:65-73.

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