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ETHNONYMS: Abaka Tatars, Tadar, Yenisei Kirghiz (Soviet transliteration; Kirgiz in Chinese transliteration; Kyrgyz is the pre- and post-Soviet form)


Identification. The Khakas ethnic group in the narrow sense is comprised of that particular Turkic-speaking population that is officially referred to as the "Khakas." This population may be more exactly termed the Khakas proper. In a historical, linguistic, and to some extent even cultural sense, the Khakas also comprise three other ethnic groupsthe northern division of the Shor, the Chulym Turks, and the Manchurian Kirgiz. The latter three groups may be considered the descendants of small dislocated fragments of essentially the same parent population of which the Khakas proper represent the principal surviving part.

During the initial period of czarist colonization (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), the Khakas were known to the Russians as the "Yenisei Kirghiz." This appellation was obviously based on the autonym of the contemporary Khakas, or at least of a considerable part of them. Today the old ethnonym is still retained by the Manchurian Kirgiz, who continue to call themselves "Kïrgïs." The Russian colonial administration referred to the Khakas as the "Minusinsk" or "Abaka Tatars," implying a linguistic relationship with the Tatars proper, as well as with other groups regarded as varieties of the Tatars. At the same time, the Shors were referred to as the "Kuznetsk Tatars," whereas the Chulym Turks were known as the "Meletsk Tatars." This colonial terminology was also adopted by the Khakas, who started to call themselves "Tadar" (plural, Tadarlar), an ethnonym still used by older generation of the Khakas. The current official appellation, "Khakas" (plural, Khakastar), was introduced around the time of the October Revolution. Historically, this is a manufactured term, based on a false reading of an ethnonym that occurs in ancient Chinese documents and actually refers to the Kirgiz. For this reason, there is a continuing discussion among the Khakas about the necessity of finding a more genuine native name. As yet, no generally acceptable alternatives seem to be available.

Location. The core territory of the Khakas proper is located on the upper course of the Yenisei in a region known as the Minusinsk Basin. This is a roughly circular area with a diameter of some 200 to 250 kilometers, divided by the Yenisei into a Western and an Eastern half. The western half is further divided by the Abakan River, whose confluence with the Yenisei marks the center of the area (approximately 92° E, 54° N). The eastern half also contains several locally important tributaries of the Yenisei. Except at the point where the Yenisei flows out toward the north, the Minusinsk Basin is surrounded on all sides by mountains of varying elevation. In the west there rise the ranges of Abakanskii Khrebet and Kuznetskii Alatau (generally less than 2,000 meters high), whereas the southern and eastern sides are guarded by the massive Western and Eastern Sayans (up to 3,000 meters). The basin in the middle lies generally much lower (up to 500 meters above sea level). Behind the Abakanskii Khrebet in the west there lie the sources of the Tom River, the native territory of the Shors. Farther toward the north, the middle course of the Chulym River is inhabited by the Chulym Turks. Whereas the surrounding mountains are mainly covered by extensive mixed and coniferous forests belonging to the realm of the Siberian taiga, the Minusinsk Basin forms a small local grassland, vegetationally reminiscent of the Central Eurasian steppes. The climate of the region, which is occasionally referred to as the "Siberian Italy," is relatively mild. The mean temperatures of the coldest and warmest months (January and July) are roughly 20° C and +20° C respectively. Daily variations, however, as well as local differences connected with elevational factors, are great. The levels of precipitation also vary locally but remain low especially during the winter, rarely allowing the snow cover in the steppe to exceed 20 centimeters in depth. Prevailing winds are from the south and southwest.

Demography. With some 81,500 individuals (1989), the Khakas rank fourth in population among the indigenous peoples of Siberia. During the past few decades the population has been growing steadily (about 22 percent from 1970 to 1989). Nevertheless, the Khakas are increasingly becoming a minority population in their territory because of the growing immigration of Russians. Large immigrant centers and rural communities were established in the Minusinsk Basin during czarist times, but the Soviet regime greatly increased their number (and their adverse effects). Several huge construction projects have been started in the region, with the goal of transforming the Minusinsk Basin into a massive industrial region termed the Sayan Territorial Economic Complex. As a result, the total population of Khakassia (508,000 in 1981) is today many times greater than the number of Khakas. Moreover, the development has also forced the Khakas to be increasingly widely scattered all over the former Soviet Union, so that today only 63,000 (some 77 percent) of them live within Khakassia. Industrialization has been even more devastating in the native territory of the Shors, today known as the Kuzbass industrial region. Rapid extinction is also threatening the few thousand surviving Chulym Turks and the few hundred Manchurian Kirgiz far away in China.

Linguistic Affiliation. Together with the idioms spoken by the northern division of the Shors, the Chulym Turks, and the Manchurian Kirgiz, the Khakas language forms a special branch of Turkic, distinguishable from the neighboring Turkic idioms, notably the languages of the Tuva and the Altai Turks. Nevertheless, there exists a certain linguistic continuum between the Khakas and the Altai Turks (through the Shors), as well as between the Khakas and the Siberian Tatars (through the Chulym Turks). The language of the Khakas proper is conventionally divided into a number of local dialects, corresponding to the historical tribes. The dialectal differences are small, however, and all the dialects are today served by a unified literary language. The Khakas language is little used in the urban and industrial centers, where the Khakas form a tiny minority. Although the language still survives in many rural communities, the proportion of native-language speakers among the Khakas has already sunk as low as 76 percent. The rest of the Khakas have adopted Russian as their first language. Bilingualism in Russian is, of course, widespread even among those Khakas who still know their own language, but few Russian immigrants learn the local language.

History and Cultural Relations

The relatively favorable climatic conditions of the Minusinsk Basin and the protection provided by the surrounding mountains have attracted human populations to this region since Paleolithic times. During the last several thousand years, in particular, the Minusinsk Basin has been continuously inhabited by a succession of populations whose cultures provide the single most spectacular archaeological continuum in all of North Asia. Starting with the late Neolithic (and still controversial) Tazmin culture (approximately 2000 to 2500 b.c.) through the subsequent Afanas'evo, Okunevo, Andronovo, and Karasuk cultures, the Minusinsk Basin seems to have been inhabited by semisedentary agriculturalists and cattle breeders with an increasingly strong steppe-nomadic orientation. This development culminated in the late Bronze-Age Tagar culture (700 to 200 b.c.), connected with the Scythian epoch of Central Eurasian history. According to paleoanthropological data, the Tagar people and most of their local predecessors seem to have had a predominantly Europoid complex of physical features. There then followed the Tashtyk culture (200 b.c. to a.d. 200), which corresponds to the Hunnic period in Central Eurasia and represents a major intrusion of a new Mongoloid population into the Minusinsk Basin. This may be considered the beginning of the formation of the modern Khakas population, although it is obvious that all of the previous periods have also left their genetic and cultural traces on the Khakas.

It is not known which language the Tashtyk people spoke, but evidence from comparative linguistics suggests that an early Turkic idiom may have been involved. In any case, a few centuries later the population of the Minusinsk Basin had become largely Turkic-speaking, as evidenced by the written documents in runic Turkic that have been found in the region. From these earliest Siberian inscriptions, as well as from other historical sources, it is known that the Minusinsk Basin belonged to the sphere of the medieval Turkic nomadic empires (sixth to eighth centuries). Power was subsequently seized by the Kyrgyz tribal union, which for several centuries (ninth to thirteenth) maintained an important Turkic-speaking state centered on the Minusinsk Basin. This state, occasionally called the medieval Khakas Empire, seems to have had a fairly large local population (by some estimates up to 1 million people), some of whom were certainly engaged in settled agriculture. The Khakas Empire finally perished during the turmoils connected with the Mongol expansion under Chinggis (Genghis) Khan, and a considerable part of the local population seems to have moved away from the Minusinsk Basin. It is generally assumed that this wave of Kyrgyz emigrants ultimately contributed to the origination of the modern Tianshan Kirghiz of Central Asia. In a very similar way, when the Russians conquered the Minusinsk Basin they forced part of the local population to move away to neighboring Dzungaria. These emigrants were probably largely absorbed by the Turkic and Mongolic inhabitants of Dzungaria, but a small group was transferred (around the middle of the eighteenth century) by the Manchu government of China to Manchuria, where this group still survives as the modern Manchurian Kirgiz. The latter may thus be considered a diaspora group of the Khakas.

In addition to the ancient Turks and their linguistic heirs in the Minusinsk Basin, the region until recently also had indigenous groups of other ethnolinguistic affiliations. In fact, it seems that the Turkic language never attained a permanent foothold in the eastern half of the Minusinsk Basin. This used to be the realm of southern Yeniseic idioms related to the language of the Ket, whereas the Sayan Mountains supported small Samoyed-speaking populations, linguistic relatives of the Nenets. All of these indigenous ethnolinguistic groups have subsequently disappeared owing to assimilation by both the Khakas and the Russians. Their influence on the modern Khakas is still evident, however, from tribal names and toponyms.

The czarist administrators used to view the Khakas as a conglomeration of feudal units or tribes, each of which had a territory and leadership of its own. Such tribes included, in the first place, the Kacha in the central part of the Khakas territory, the Kyzyl in the northwest, the Sagai and the Beltir in the southwest, and the Koibal in the southeast. The historical background of these tribes is complex, and just how they were classified and named is somewhat artificial (reflecting, for instance, administrative convenience). The same principle of tribal division was applied all over southern Siberia, which ultimately led to the separation of the Chulym Turks in the north and the Shors in the west from the Khakas proper. The tribes later became purely territorial units, for a time known as "steppe dumas." Finally the Soviet government established a single administrative unit for the Khakas, initially called the Khakas Uyezd (1923), then the Khakas Okrug (1925), and subsequently the Khakas Autonomous Oblast (1930). The Khakas Autonomous Oblast, or Khakassia, which has an area of 61,900 square kilometers, comprises the western half of the Minusinsk Basin and corresponds to the historical main territory of the Khakas proper.


The medieval Yenisei Kyrgyz had several large fortified settlements that appear to have been abandoned long before the arrival of the Russians. The traditional dwelling of at least the cattle-breeding Khakas was the movable yurt of the Central Asian type. The Khakas yurt was covered by felt or birch bark. Under the influence of Russian culture, the movable yurt was abandoned and replaced first by the immovable log yurt and later by the Russian peasant house. Similar developments took place among some of the neighboring ethnic groups, notably the Altai Turks and the western Buriat. Also under Russian influence, houses started to be grouped to form villages, now the prevailing type of settlement across rural Khakassia. These Khakas villages tend to be comparatively monoethnic Khakas-speaking units. The Khakassian countryside is also populated by other nationalities, however, including Chuvash and Germans. A similar multiethnic composition under Russian dominance is characteristic of the modern cities of Khakassia. The capital, Abakan (with a total population of 136,000 in 1981), for instance, has only a few percent of Khakas among its inhabitants, whereas the number of Khakas in new industrial centers such as Sayanogorsk is even less.


The traditional economy of the Khakas was based on a combination of cattle breeding with hunting and fishing. There were, however, marked territorial differences that also corresponded to the administrative division of the population into tribes. Thus, the Kacha had access to fertile grasslands and were typically engaged in intensive cattle breeding. Not surprisingly, they were considered the richest group among the Khakas. By contrast, the Sagai lived near forests and were mainly poor hunters and fishermen. The Sagai economy was similar to those of the Beltir and the Shors, although these two groups had as their members some of the best blacksmiths in the region. The original economic system of the Kyzyl and the Koibal is difficult to reconstruct, for these were the first Khakas groups to yield to Russian influence. The other tribes followed suit later, and today most rural Khakas live a life similar to that of any Siberian Russian peasant. Gardening, small-scale agriculture, and cattle breeding are the main occupations.

Kinship and Sociopolitical Organization

It used to be claimed by Soviet scholars that the Yenisei Kirghiz whom the early Russians forced out of the Minusinsk Basin were a local feudal aristocracy, and today's Khakas population is descended from the "exploited" classes of the old society. Whether or not this is true, by the October Revolution of 1917 Khakas society was once more characterized by considerable economic and social distinctions. There were the hereditary rich (often Kacha) cattle breeders with large herds and extensive land-use rights, but also the poor (often Sagai) hunters and fishers with little capital and low social standing. Nevertheless, all the Khakas were ultimately bound together by a complicated network of patriarchal kinship ties, and it was common for the better-off individuals and families to provide assistance to their poorer relatives. The wealthier, pre-Revolutionary Khakas produced an incipient native intelligentsia, something that only two other indigenous peoples in Siberia, the Yakut and the Buriats, also had. During the Soviet period, this early intelligentsia and its descendants were destroyed and a new type of "proletarian" intellectual was created.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Khakas used to be adherents of shamanism in its southern Siberian form. The last active shamans are reported to have survived only until the Stalin period; shamanist traditions have been more resistant. The Khakas have conceived of a pantheon of helping spirits (tös ), each of which had a canonic representation in the form of a small idol. These idols were supposed to protect their owners in case of illness and other problems, and beliefs connected with them have existed until recent times. The significance of shamanist beliefs was gradually undermined by the influence of Orthodox Christianity, which was actively propagated among the Khakas during the last decades of czarist rule. By the October Revolution all Khakas had officially adopted Christianity, although the mixing of Christian conceptions with shamanist beliefs frequently resulted in syncretic ideas. The Soviet regime subsequently tried to extinguish both shamanism and Christianity among the Khakas, but these efforts were not totally successful. The period of Stalinist terror was followed by revived interest in Christianity, and even Protestant sects, notably Baptists, have gained some foothold among the Khakas. The details of these developments are still uninvestigated.

Arts. The cultural heritage of the Khakas involves a rare combination of southern (Central Asian) and northern (Siberian) elements, built upon an exceptionally rich and ancient local foundation. In many cases the Khakas seem to occupy an intermediate position between the two regions, and in several particulars display their idiosyncracies. The Khakas traditional ornament, with its curved lines and flowery patterns, is one such feature. Another may be found in the Khakas musical patterns, which differ markedly from those of the neighboring peoples. Of course, there are also examples of a profound areal affinity between the cultures of the Khakas and those of the neighboring peoples of the Sayan-Altai region. For instance, the Khakas share with the Tuvans and the western Mongols a tradition of overtone singing. Both overtone and normal singing are accompanied by a traditional string instrument (chatkhan ) that is similar to instruments used by Tuvans and Mongols. Also, the Khakas folkloric traditions are characterized by the same basic types of heroic poems, tales, and proverbs as those of neighboring peoples.


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