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LOCATION: Altai Republic in Russia (the Altay Mountains of South Siberia)
POPULATION: 68,000 (2002)
LANGUAGE: Turkic Dialects; Russian
RELIGION: Russian Orthodox Christianity, Native Altay religion


Altay (also spelled Altai) is a term used to refer to a number of Turkic ethnic groups in the Russian Federation inhabiting the Altay district (krai) located in South Siberia. The Altays are in fact divided into two major divisions, the Northern Altays, comprising the Tubalars, Chelkans, and Kumandins, and the Southern Altays, comprising the Altay proper, or Altay-Kizhi, theTelengits, Telesy,andTeleuts. The Northern and Southern Altays differ considerably in language, history, and material culture. Historically, the Southern Altays were frequently mis-named White Kalmyks, Biy Kalmyks, or Mountain Kalmyks, and the Northern Altays were called "Tatars." Many ethnographers and historians consider the Altays' South Siberian home-land to have been the original homeland of the Turkic peoples in general. Furthermore, the Altays are of special interest to historians, ethnographers, and linguists because of their preservation of very archaic cultural traits.

The Altays are descendants of numerous Turkic as well as Samoyedic and Ketic peoples who lived in the Altay Mountains. The Turkicization of these communities was an ongoing ethnic process completed by the end of the 18th century. The ancestors of the Altays were varyingly subjects and constituent elements in the powerful Inner Asian states that emerged in the Altay and Sayan Mountain regions of South Siberia and came to dominate the steppes of eastern Inner Asia. This area came under Mongol control in the early 13th century, and the Altay region appears to have been a borderland between the lands of the Ulus of Jochi and the Ulus of Tului. As a result, the lands of the Southern Altays became the easternmost territory of the Blue Horde, centered on the lower Syr Darya River in Central Asia, and the lands of the Northern Altays became the northwestern border of the Mongol successor states in Mongolia. In the 15th century, the Altays came under the control of the Junghars, a powerful Western Mongolian confederation, and remained under their control until the annihilation of the Junghars by the Manchus in 1756. It was in that year that the Northern and Southern Altay tribal leaders petitioned to the Russian authorities to put themselves under Russian rule, and since 1756 the Altays have been subjects of Russia.


Numbering only around 68,000, the Altays are a small ethnic minority in Russia; however, by Siberian standards they constitute a relatively large group. The homeland of the Altays is the Altay Mountains of South Siberia in Russia. Most of the Altay population is located within the Altay Republic, which contains within it the so-called Altay Highland Autonomous District (Gorno-Altaiskii avtonomnyi krai). Although Altays constitute less than 2% of the population of the Altay District (Russians make up the vast majority of the district's population) they constitute a much larger proportion of the population of the Altay Highland District. The Altay District shares borders with Kazakhstan to the southwest and Mongolia to the south. Overall Altays constitute about a third of the population of the Altay Republic.

The Highland District has an area of 96,600 sq km (37,300 sq mi), and the district's mountains can reach over 13,000 ft (3,900 m). The mean temperature in January is between -30°c (-22°f) and -15°c (2°f), and in July the mean temperature is 15°c (62°f). Roughly 25% of the territory of the Highland District is covered by evergreen forests.

The traditional economy of the Altays was nomadic stock breeding, supplemented by limited cereal agriculture. A steady loss of pasture land to Russian colonization beginning in the early 19th century has resulted in a gradual increase in the role of agriculture in the Altays' economic life. Nevertheless, stock breeding has always held a very important position in Altay life, especially among the Southern Altays.

The Altay Mountains are very rich in wildlife, especially deer and squirrel, and the Altays have traditionally exploited the area's extensive forests. The hunting and gathering of forest products, especially furs, continues to be an important supplementary activity in Altay economic life.


The Altays speak a number of Turkic dialects that are to varying degrees mutually intelligible. The Southern Altays speak dialects of the Kipchak (or Northwest) branch of Turkic, which are closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz. The Northern Altays, on the other hand, speak dialects of the Northeast branch, which are related to Khakass, Tuvan, and more distantly, Yakut. Among both Northern and Southern Altays, Russian is also widely spoken, and substantial numbers of Altays have been linguistically assimilated by the Russians.

Altays typically have a first name, a patronymic (taken from the father's first name), and a surname. To a large degree Altays have preserved old Turkic names such as the men's names Karga and Malchï, and the women's names Aylu and Sarï. Since the Christianization of numerous Altay communities in the 19th century, Russian names have become more widespread, although it is common for Russian names to be "Altayized": Temekey (from Timofei ) and Banush (from Vaniusha ).


The Altays have rich folklore traditions, consisting of various songs, stories, and fairy tales. The Altays are especially well known for their composition and performance of oral epic poetry. The best known of these epics is entitled Maaday-Kara. Epics are typically performed at night, with a bard singing the verses in a style of throat-singing and accompanied by a horse-hair-stringed instrument called a topshur. The epic tradition of the Altays (and South Siberian Turks in general) is one of the richest in the world, and Altay epics continue to be collected by folklorists today.

The Northern and Southern Altays possess distinct epic traditions shaped by the peculiarities of each group's historical development. The Southern Altays, who were under the rule of the Golden Horde, retained epics such as Alïp Manash and Idegey, which depicted 15th century political events on the Central Asian steppes and in the Volga Valley. The Northern Altays, on the other hand, retained an epic tradition more similar to that of their South Siberian neighbors, the Khakass, Tuvans, and Yakuts.


Despite the conversion of numerous Altay communities by Russian missionaries in the 19th century, the Altays, both Christians and non-Christians, have remained firm adherents to their native religious traditions, which persisted even during the Soviet period, when manifestations of religious life were discouraged or suppressed. The resistance of the Altays to adopting Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism (all three of which are represented in Southern and Western Siberia) has resulted in the retention of very archaic religious traditions since abandoned by most other Turkic peoples. In the traditional Altay world view, the Universe was divided into three levels (the Upper World, the Middle World, and the Underworld) linked by the World Tree (Bay Terek). Altays considered themselves inhabitants of the Middle World, and the community's link to the Upper and Lower Worlds was the shaman (qam). Shamans functioned as healers and played other roles in Altay religious ritual. They also functioned as heroic figures, with shamanic journeys serving as the plots for epic poetry and other forms of folklore. In their performances, during which their souls would travel to the spirit worlds, shamans would typically wear a specific costume and accompany their performance with a drum. In the early 20th century a millenarian religious movement emerged among the Altays and other Turkic peoples of the region known as Burkhanism, which existed into the 1930's.


The various communities forming the Altays and their constituent clans had a series of festivals that featured sacrifices and libations to the spirits of the Upper World and the Underworld, as well as to ancestral spirits and tutelary spirits. Such festivals were held at specific times according to the seasonal calendar and often involved the sacrifice of horses to Erlik, the spirit of the Underworld, and to Ülgen, the supreme deity of the Upper World. Modern-day Altays also celebrate the major Soviet and Russian holidays, including Victory Day (May 9) and New Year's Day (January 1).


Traditionally, when an Altay woman was giving birth, all men had to leave the yurt (tent) and stand outside. During childbirth, men were expected to frighten away evil spirits by making noises and running around the yurt. After the child was born, the head of the family would name the child after the first thing he laid his eyes on.

Young Altay men usually chose their own brides, and a young man's father or a formal matchmaker would go to the bride's father to arrange the match. Once the bride's dowry (kalïm) was agreed on, a wedding date would be fixed then both parties would sit around the fire and begin to feast.

Altays were commonly buried with grave goods, and it was common for wealthy Altays to be buried with one of their horses. The dead were buried in varying ways, commonly on the third day after death. The Telengits commonly placed the body on the ground and built a wooden structure over it in the shape of a small house. Other Altay groups placed the dead on platforms that were suspended in trees. In more recent times, especially during the Soviet era, the dead were simply placed in graves. A series of memorial feasts was usually held after the death of a family member. The first memorial feast was held on the day of the death, and a sheep or goat was slaughtered. Other memorial feasts were held on the sixth, seventh, or ninth days.


The traditional greeting ceremony among the Southern Altays was as follows. When a guest arrived at the yurt of an Altay, it was customary for him to come in and, without saying a word to the yurt's owner, take out his pipe, fill it, and light it from the hearth fire. The host would then do the same, and the two would exchange pipes saying "nä tabïsh bar?" ("What news is there?"). They would then answer "Tabïsh yok" or "Tabïsh yoghïla" ("There is no news"). They would then inquire about each other's health. If there was more than one visitor, the host would greet each one in the same way, in order of rank. Such exchanges generally took place only between men; women usually stayed home or remained silent during the ceremony. Altays are generally reported to have been quiet, polite, and reserved with one another, and observers of traditional Altay society have identified respect for elders as a feature that distinguishes them from their neighbors. Despite the rigid divisions between the sexes, men and women would freely interact with one another, and it was common for young people to arrange their own marriages.


Observers of the traditional life of the Altays have frequently commented on the general state of poverty of this group. The decimation of herds as the result of pestilence or sudden changes in weather frequently led to famine and the impoverishment of whole communities. The integration of the Altays into the Soviet economy probably did not completely liberate them from the economic risks of stock breeding in this remote area.

The traditional housing of the Altays is the yurt, the round felt tent common to most Inner Asian pastoral nomads. Among the Northern Altays, cone-shaped summer dwellings made from felt and tree branches were also common. More sedentarized Altays also constructed log houses similar to those of the Russian peasants who had migrated to the Altay Mountains. During the years of Soviet rule, the Altays were encouraged to move into Russian-style dwellings on collective farms. However, traditional dwellings continue to be used, especially when the Altay herders lead their herds to summer pastures.

While the relative isolation of the Altays has certainly preserved the archaic features of their culture, it has at the same time resulted in a relatively low standard of living.


In traditional Altay society, sex roles were very clearly distinguished. Men were primarily engaged in stock breeding and hunting, while women performed agricultural work, including haying, as well as domestic chores. Child-rearing was also the responsibility of women. Most accounts of traditional Altay society describe respectful and almost formal relations between spouses, especially in the presence of a third party. An Altay man was responsible for the welfare not only of his wife and children, but also for any unmarried female relatives. When a man's father died, the man would not only receive his father's property, but also any unmarried female relatives living in his father's house. Married daughters were considered to have left the family and were not eligible to inherit property from their kinsmen.

Marriage among the Altays was generally monogamous, and marriages could be arranged either between the parents or between bride and groom. A bride would typically bring a dowry (qalïm) provided by her parents.

The various groups making up the Northern and Southern Altays were themselves divided into clans (seok). Clans were not merely collections of related groups. The economic life of Altay society, especially among the Northern Altays, was closely structured along clan lines. Hunting grounds and pastures were divided up along clan lines, and members of one clan were banned from the lands of another.


Traditional Altay clothing, generally the same for men and women, consisted of pants and a long shirt that went down below the knee. Over this they wore a long belted robe with wide sleeves. This clothing was often made of Chinese materials. Overcoats were typically made of sheepskin and hats of lambskin with a wide upturned brim of fox or sable fur. Married women also wore a special sort of sleeveless overcoat. Altays wore soft-soled leather boots, into which they tucked their pants. Some northern Altay groups also wove fabric for shirts and pants from hemp.

Over the course of the 20th century, Russian clothing became more common among the Altays. Throughout the Soviet period, however, traditional clothing, which was quite practical for the harsh climatic conditions and the demands of stock breeding, was still frequently worn.


The mainstay of the Altay diet was traditionally the products of their herds—meat and dairy products. Altays prepared various products from milk, including a yogurt-like drink called ayran. They also distilled a mildly alcoholic drink of fermented mare's milk called chegän. In addition, various sorts of hard cheeses were prepared. The main animals eaten for meat by the Altays were horses, followed by sheep and goats.

The Southern Altays supplemented this diet of meat and dairy products with some cereal crops, primarily barley, which was grown in lowland areas. In areas where Altays practiced agriculture and came into contact with Russian peasants, they also engaged in the growing of vegetables and the baking of bread. The Northern Altays supplemented their diets with a variety of forest products, such as berries and roots, as well as fish. All Altay groups consumed substantial amounts of tea and tobacco as well.


No formal educational apparatus existed for the Altays until the establishment of an Altay Christian Mission in 1868, when efforts were made to create an Altay alphabet and teach Altay converts literacy in translated Altay biblical texts and in Russian. The children of Altay converts could also be sent to Russian Orthodox monasteries. However, the vast majority of Altays had no access to formal education in any language.

With the establishment of Soviet power in the Altay lands, attempts were made to create an Altay literary language, as well as a Soviet-style intelligentsia. The Soviets created mixed Russian-Altay schools, and the current educational system in the Altay region is essentially an adaptation of the system created during the Soviet period. There are a number of higher educational institutions in the Altay region, and a few Altays also study in larger institutions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere.


One of the most treasured aspects of the Altay cultural heritage is the recording and publication of the Altay oral epics, which are of tremendous value not only for our understanding of the Altays, but of Turkic and Inner Asian peoples in general.

The preservation of Altay cultural heritage is closely linked to the preservation of Altay religious traditions. Despite their partial conversion to Christianity in the 19th century, there is currently a renewal of interest among the Altays in their sha-manic traditions, which they have been free to express since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Altay musical tradition is similarly rich and also linked to the epic and shamanic traditions. In addition to epics performed in the style of throat-singing, Altay musical folklore includes genres of a religious nature such as libation and sha-manic songs. Despite the prominence of Altay vocal music, especially throat-singing, Altays also had several popular musical instruments. These include horse-hair fiddles, stringed lute-like instruments, and a sort of a metallic Jew's-harp called a kobïs.


Much of Altay life consisted of tending and milking the herds, making felt, and doing agricultural work such as planting and harvesting barley and mowing and gathering hay. Observers of traditional Altay life often comment on the tediousness and monotony of all the agricultural work and chores such as the milking of livestock and the making of dairy products such as cheese, yogurt, and butter.

Altays have continued to work in collective farms created during the Soviet era. The prosperity of collective farms varies considerably from farm to farm, depending on the resources allotted to the collective as well as the efficiency and organization of the collective farm's president and workers.


Like other Turkic peoples, the Altays enjoy horse racing, archery, and wrestling. The wrestling is a type influenced by the Mongol style in which two competitors square off standing, grab each other by the shoulders, and try to force one another to the ground.


The performance of oral epics, which typically took place during winter nights and were accompanied by music, not only entertained but instructed the Altays in the values, history, and mythology of their community. Religious ceremonies, with their feasting and songs, likewise had a recreational element to them. Summers were the time of most abundant leisure for the Altays, especially Altay men, whose main recreational activities were drinking fermented mare's milk and hunting.


The Altays were known as especially skilled blacksmiths. Altays believed blacksmiths to be vested with religious power. Another important medium of Altay folk art is wood, and many objects intended for everyday use were often carved with elaborate designs. Religious images of ancestral and other spirits were often made of wood, cloth, and animal hair, or combinations thereof. The most elaborate creations of Altay folk art were shamans' drums and other elements of the shamanic costume.


As with many other small, formerly nomadic groups in Siberia, the Altays have experienced numerous social problems as a result of their marginalization in Soviet, and now Russian, society. The Altays have always been plagued by poverty, which, despite Soviet claims, was not only not successfully alleviated, but may actually have been exacerbated during the Soviet era. The assaults of tsarist missionaries and Soviets on the most fundamental pillars of Altay society—particularly shamanism, religious rituals, and the clan-based social structure by which scarce resources were allocated—severely undermined Altay society. Furthermore, the introduction of cheap grain alcohol such as vodka further exacerbated Altay social problems.


In traditional Altay society the nomadic economy and dispersion of Altays into small social units limited social segregation of the sexes. At the same time a clear division of labor was evident in nomadic Altay society, with women focusing on child-rearing, food preparation, and textile production.

During the Soviet era, particularly during and after World War II, Altay women began to gain access to Soviet education, and began to enter to some degree the industrial, and to a much more limited degree, the professional workforce.


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—by A. J. Frank