ETHNONYMS: Self-designation: Lakk (sing.), Lakkuchu (pl.). Former self-designations: Ghazi Kumukh or Qazi Qumukh, from the Arabic ghazi (warrior of the faith) and the Lak "Kumukh" (the cultural and political center of the Lak territory).
Identification. Ethnically speaking, the Laks are the descendants of Caucasie peoples who have inhabited central Daghestan since at least the Bronze Age. The Laks are closely related ethnically, linguistically, and culturally to the Dargin, Kubachin, and Kaitak peoples of central Daghestan; they are more distantly related to the various Avar peoples, Lezgins, Tsakhurs, Rutuls, and Tabasarans of highland Daghestan.
Since the 1920s the Laks have been known by the general ethnonym "Lak." Russian variants are "Laktsy" and "Kazikumukhtsy." The term "Lak" may derive from the ancient Daghestani people called "Leki" (however, this term may have referred to a different group or to a variety of peoples). Prior to the Russian Revolution, most northern Caucasian peoples, like the Laks, had no specific self-designation as an ethnic group, but rather referred to themselves by tribe, clan, religious group, or territorial designation. This is reflected in the numerous and diverse ethnic designations applied by the neighbors of the Laks to them. The Avars call them "Tumaw" (pl., "Tumal"); the Dargins "Vuluguni" or "Vulechuni" (depending on the local Dargin dialect); and the Lezgins "Yakholshu."
Location. The Laks live primarily in the basins of the upper Kazikumukh, Tleusarakh, and Khatar rivers in Lak and Kuli districts in the mountainous central region of Daghestan. Other settlements are found in Tsudakhar, Akusha, Rutul, Kurakh, Charoda, and Dakhadaev districts in central Daghestan. In this region of high mountains and plateaus dissected by many rivers and their tributaries, there is little rainfall and drought conditions are common. In Daghestan, a very poor region, good agricultural land is rare. There are few forests, but scrubs, bushes, and weeds abound. Transhumant sheepherding was the traditional life-style of the majority of Laks, whereas local artisanry provided the basis of village and town life. The Laks also have a long history of economic out-migration to neighboring areas (the highest rate among all Daghestanian peoples). In 1944 many Laks were resettled in the steppes and foothills north of the Andi ridge in what is now Novo-Lakskiy (New Lak) District in the far northeastern part of Daghestan.
Demography. According to the 1979 census there were 100,148 Laks living in the USSR (of whom 83.3 percent lived within the Daghestan ASSR). Although the Laks are reputed to be the most linguistically Russianized of all of the peoples of Daghestan, in 1979 only 4.1 percent of the Laks listed Russian as their native language (95.0 percent listing Lak). Most Laks, however, are also fluent in Russian, and many also speak Avar, Kumyk, Dargin, Lezgin, or Azeri. The Laks are among the most multilingual peoples in the former Soviet Union.
Linguistic Affiliation. The Lak language belongs to the Dargino-Lak (Lak-Dargwa) Group of the Northeast-Caucasian (Nakh-Daghestanian) Language Family, which also includes Dargin, Kubachi, and Kaitak. There are five distinct dialects of the Lak language: Kumukh, Ashti Kuli, Balkhar, Vitskh, and Vikhli.
History and Cultural Relations
The early history of the Lak people is unclear; however, as noted above, they have lived in Daghestan since at least the Bronze Age. Although Christianity had been introduced by Armenians and Georgians starting in the sixth century, in 777, according to legend, the Laks were conquered by the Arabs under the leadership of Abu-Muslim. Islam was introduced among the Laks at that time, making them reputedly the first people of Daghestan to encounter Islam. The final conversion probably took place in the thirteenth century, with some pagan and Christian traditions surviving until the fifteenth century. According to legend, Shah Baala was the first Muslim ruler of all of Daghestan; he was the founder of the Shamkhal dynasty, which reigned at Kumukh until the seventeenth century. He renamed the village of Kumukh "Kazikumukh" (Qazi Kumukh or Ghazi Kumukh). In the fourteenth century the rulers of Kazikumukh adopted the title "shamkhal" (supposedly derived from "Sham," meaning Syria, suggesting descent from former Arab rulers). During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, at the time when the Shamkhals ruled a large part of central and coastal Daghestan, a second capital, which also served as a winter residence, was established at Tarku (Tarqu) in the Kumyk (Qumuq) territory. In 1640 the Laks broke away from the rule of the shamkhalate, replacing it with appointed khakhlavai (from the Arabic khalq, "people," and the Lak lavai, "supreme"). With the death of the last Kazikumukh khan, Agalar, the Lak territory was formally incorporated into the Russian Empire. In 1842 the Laks joined the Muslim rebellion in the northern Caucasus led by Sheikh Shamil and his Murids. This movement was aimed against both Russian (czarist, Christian) rule and the feudal aristocracy of the Caucasus that served what were perceived as Russian interests. The native Daghestani (including the Lak) aristocracy was deposed. At this time there was also a significant Sufi (Naqshbandiyah) movement taking place in Daghestan aimed at removing all pre-Islamic holdovers in the religious practices of the people. In 1877 another revolt took place against czarist rule. It was put down, resulting in further integration of Daghestan into the Russian Empire. During the Russian civil war, between 1918 and 1922, many Laks took part in yet another Islamic uprising in the northern Caucasus, this time against the Bolshevik regime.
Language and Literacy
Until the nineteenth century Laks, like all Daghestani Muslims, wrote in Arabic. A rich didactic as well as religious literature had already appeared in the eighteenth century. Among these early writers were Omar of Balkar, Ghazi Sa'id Husain, and Hadji Musa Hadji. The first documents written in the Lak language appeared in the mid-nineteenth century (using the Arabic script). Because the village of Kumukh was the cultural, political, and economic center of the Lak territory, the dialect of Kumukh became the basis of the newly established Lak literary language and remains the standard for the modern literary language. Lak lyrical literature appeared in the late nineteenth century (e.g., Yusuf Qad, Murquli), as did historical literature (e.g., Shafi'i Nitsovri). Lak literature of the Soviet period was established by Harun Sa'id (Saidov), who was both the first Daghestani dramatic author and the author of the first Bolshevik Daghestani journal—Ilchi (The Messenger). Other Lak authors include Said Gaviev, Abutalib Gafurov, Abdurahman Omarov, and E fendi Kapiev (who wrote in Russian only). Although a distinct Lak literary language exists, few works are actually written in it. The majority of Lak writers write in Russian, and the vast majority of books and articles appearing in the Lak language have been translations from other languages (most notably Russian). This is understandable as there are so few speakers of the Lak language—to have a wider readership, authors write in other languages. In 1928, as part of its anti-Islamic campaign, the Communist regime forced all of the Muslim peoples of the USSR, including the Laks, to use the Latin script rather than the Arabic. In 1938, as part of a similar policy, Cyrillic orthography was imposed on all of their languages. During this time, Russian words were substituted for words of Arabic and Persian origin. Scientific and political terminology had to be spelled as in Russian, even if this did not fit the phonetic structure of the borrowing language. Written Lak, therefore, differs greatly from the spoken form.
Because the traditional Lak lands are mountainous and very dry, agriculture was of secondary importance in the traditional economy. In the mountainous regions, the economy was dominated by the raising of sheep and goats, and also some horses, cattle, and mules. Meat and milk products were major components of the Lak diet, although they also grew barley, peas, wheat and some potatoes. Most animal husbandry was the responsibility of males, whereas agriculture was mostly that of women. The Lak territory had no forests, and there was a chronic shortage of wood for building and fuel. Wheat and fruits and vegetables were grown in the lower areas, especially in the new Lak areas in northern Daghestan. The practice of transhumant sheepherding required that for several months each year, males migrate to the lowlands to pasture their animals. Here they came into contact with different Daghestani peoples. Other Daghestani mountaineers grazed their sheep along with those of the Laks in the lands of the Kumyks. This is the reason most Lak males were multilingual. Many villages specialized in artisanry and crafts. Kumukh was famed for its jewelers and coppersmiths; Kaya was known for its merchants and markets; Unchukatl for saddle and harness makers; Ubra for masons and tinsmiths; Kuma for candy makers; Shovkra for shoe- and bootmakers; Tsovkra for acrobats; and Balkar for ceramics and jug makers. Lak women also engaged in cottage industries such as rug weaving, spinning, textile making, and ceramics, whereas the men engaged in leather working and tool making.
Many of these traditions survived during the Soviet period because it was difficult to develop the Lak territories, which are isolated and have few resources. Textiles and clothing, leather working and shoe making, and the production of meat, cheese, and butter are still the dominant industries in this region. Many Laks continue to migrate (both permanently and seasonally) to other areas of Daghestan (and in particular to the cities) and to other surrounding areas to find employment. Whereas in the traditional pattern of transhumant animal husbandry Lak males and their animals walked over the treacherous mountain passes and forded rivers, the herds are now taken by truck to their winter pastures in the lowlands and similarly brought back in the spring. Traditionally, extended families held the limited amount of agricultural land, the pastures, and the herds in common and did not have a strong sense of individual ownership. The Laks nevertheless resisted Soviet collectivization policies.
Traditional Laks, like most Daghestani highlanders, lived in patriarchal clan units (tukhums ) comprised of a large extended family having a common ancestor, either recently deceased or still living. All members had the same patronymic and all property was owned mutually by the clan; decision making was the responsibility of either the elder patriarch or the elder males. Clan members were expected to provide mutual assistance in work and in family affairs, and to assume collective responsibilty in vendettas, as prescribed by adat (traditional Daghestani customary law that predates Islam). The term for close family members within the tukhum is kk'ul, and they refer to each other as usursu (sibling). The importance of tukhums is today being eroded by modernization and continuing out-migration.
Marriages were traditionally arranged by the families of the couple, with the oldest women taking the most prominent role in the decision making. The bride and groom were most likely to be from the same clan. The custom of paying kalïm (bride-price) persists to a limited degree but the transaction is more symbolic than financial.
The Laks are reported to have been the first Daghestani people to establish a feudal system. Their feudal society was comprised of the khans; the bagtal (beks ), who were the khan's family and the nobility; the chankri (children of marriages between beks and women of lower social orders); the uzdental (uzden ), who were free peasants (numerically the largest of all classes); the rayat (serfs); and the laghart (slaves). This feudal system coexisted with a system of free societies, which were comprised of the more democratic tukhums. These free societies were military and economic arrangements that were fluid in structure and worked on a democratic and voluntary basis. The laws governing the relations of groups within these free societies were codified in adat.
Laks belong to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam, within which they have long maintained a Sufi component. Sufism has served as a buffer between the Laks and the authoritarian structures of Muslim clerics and the Soviet state. Although traditional Islamic institutions, Sufi orders encouraged group solidarity and provided protection from the government apparatus; their members help each other find work and housing, arrange marriages, pay the kalïm, maintain burial societies, resolve disputes, and so forth. Rural Laks still observe many pre-Islamic planting, harvest, animal-breeding cycle, shearing, and rituals.
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