As many other Turkic peoples, the Khakass were called Tatars for centuries under tsarist Russia and were referred to as "Tadars " by other neighbouring Turkic peoples in southern Siberia. The Khakass did not identify themselves as such. The term Khakass ("Khyagas", an old Chinese name for the Yenisey Kyrgyz) was introduced during the first years of soviet power to describe indigenous population of the middle Yenisey valley.

A process of ethnogenesis, creating the Khakass people, has been at work since the late 17th c. The Kacha and Kyzyl tribes have developed mainly from different Ket and Uygur peoples in South Siberia. The Beltir tribe is closely related to the Tyva, while the Sagay and Koybal tribes have a more complex ethnic background, including many different Shor groups. The religious beliefs of the Khakass reflect their complex background, with a mixture of Buddhism and traditional animism.

The area that make out present-day Khakassiya, in the middle reaches of the Yenisey river basin, was conquered by the Mongolians in the 13th c., and the territory became part of the Mongolian empire. The Khakass land (Khongoray) was annexed to Russia under Peter I in 1727. Russian imperialism became a new problem for the Khakass. Tribute payments, seizure of the best agricultural land, imposition of Christianity, other groups exiled to the area by various tsars and so on, was a serious problem for the people of Khakassia. After the Trans-Siberian railway was built through the area in the 1890s, increasing numbers of ethnic Russians settled, making the Khakass a small minority in their own land.

Soviet rule brought dramatic changes to the Khakass. In 1923, the Khakass National Okrug was established, and in 1930 it was upgraded to Autonomous oblast within Krasnoyarsk kray. Collectivization in the 1930s and industrialization after World War 2, brought major socio-economic changes.

The sense of national identity among the Khakass is determined by a strong identification with clan and family systems. There are also strong assimilationist forces at work, with over 70% of the Khakass speaking Russian, and with more than half of them marrying ethnic Russians. After Glasnost and the fall of the Soviet union, various Khakass cultural groups have become active, working for reforms and to promote Khakass cultural institutions. There have been demands for independence, and measures to ensure that Khakass occupy leading political posts in the province, and there have been attempts at forming special Khakass militias. In response, special military units have been formed by Russians claiming to be Cossacks.

The Turkic-speaking Shor ethnic group was formed from Samoyedic, Turkic and Ugrian peoples who were living in south-central Siberia.

Sustained contact with the Russians began in the 17th c., when a large influx of Russian settlers started. The Shors had by then been known among neighbouring peoples as the "Blacksmith Tatars", because they used to supply the others (Oyrots, Kyrgyz and Teleuts) with finished iron products. They were unable to compete with the Russians, though, and most of them turned to hunting fur-bearing animals for a living. They had to pay a fur tax to the Russians, and anti-Russian sentiments grew strong. Russian missionaries worked hard to convert the Shors to Christianity, but what emerged was an ecclectic fusion of folk beliefs and chrisian doctrine.

Developments after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 had a devastating effect on Shor ethnicity. The Soviet government wanted to exploit the rich iron ore and coal deposits. In the beginning, they tried to take measures to protect Shor culture, and established a national region in 1929. But conflicts arose quickly. Shors did not want to cooperate with the Russian geologists in localizing the deposits. And then, when the deposits were found, the government started importing large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian workers. The Shors' share of the population fell from more than 50% in 1915 to only 13% in 1938. In 1939, the national region was abolished. Shor ethnic identity is in sharp decline, and in 1989, only around 45% of the Shors spoke the Shor language, while virtually all of them spoke Russian.

Source: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs [NUPI] - Centre for Russian Studies
Photos: Igor Shpilenok, Rob Badger, Oleg Kosterin

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