THE KARATASThe self-designation is khkhiridi and their language is called khkhirlhi matshtshi. Karata belongs to the Andi subgroup of the northwest Dagestan languages (the Avar-Ando-Dido languages) in the Caucasian language family. Two dialects (Karata, Tokita) and four subdialects (Anchikh, Archi, Ratsitl and Rachabalda) are distinguishable. The Karata and Tokita dialects differ both in regard to phonetics and morphology, but they are mutually comprehensible. The Karatas do not have their own written language, the need is served by Avar which is widely known. The ancient vocabulary of the Karatas is fairly well preserved. There is a notable Avar and Russian influence especially in the vocabulary relating to everyday life and social-political terminology.
The Karatas inhabit ten villages in the Akhvakh and Khazavyurt districts of Dagestan. Nine of them lie on the left bank of the Andi-Koisu river: Karata, Rachabalda, Archo, Anchikh, Mashtada, Tshabakoro, Ratsitl and Tokita. The only Karata village located in the Khazavyurt district is Siukh. Their neighbours to the east and north are the Andis, to the west the Avars, and to the south the Akhvakhs and Bagulals.
Anthropologically the Karata belong to the Caucasus type of the Balkano-Caucasian race, characterized by fair pigmentation, a big head and high stature. Some characteristics of the Caspian type have been noted.
The first and the last census that counted the Karatas separately was carried out in 1926. After this they were counted as Avars. In academic publications since World War II there have been some cursory remarks about their number, but these are usually very approximate estimates.
In 1926 (official census data) -- 5,305, 100 % speakers, in 1958 (according to Y. Desheriyev) -- 6,000, in 1967 (according to Z. Magomedbekova) -- 5,000.
Denominationally the Karatas are Muslim (Sunnite). The first Islamic missionaries arrived on the banks of the Andi-Koisu in the 8th century but Islam became established only in the 16th century. In the 8th and 9th centuries Christianity was introduced into the northwestern part of Avaria and Karata with the help of Georgian and Kakhetian rulers in the west. Christianity lost ground after the campaigns of Timur (Tamerlane) and the disintegration of Georgia in the 13th and 14th centuries.
Ethnologically the Karatas and the Avars are very similar. This is evident in both the material culture and folk traditions. There are some local differences, but they are minimal.
The Avars and the Karatas share a similar history. Avaria as a territory and the Avars as an ethnic group were mentioned in the works of classical authors. It is not known when the Avar language separated from the Karata language. It is assumed that the multi-lingualism in the Andi-Koisu basin has been caused by long-term territorial isolation. This theory is refuted by the historical contacts and close economic integration among the Ando-Dido peoples in the Andi-Koisu basin. The Karata villages were only isolated from the lowlands by natural barriers. Today theories which support the endogamic organization of the community (L. Lavrov) or a polystructural political system (M. Aglarov) are more popular.
Between the 8th and 12th centuries Avaria was under the control of Arab conquerors. In the course of the Mongol-Tatar conquests of the 13th and 14th centuries and the Turkish-Persian invasion in the 15th century, the Avar khanate was formed. This was centred on the Karata habitat and, not later than the 18th century, a kind of social organization, a 'free community', had been established there. During the following centuries the Karatas were engaged in warfare with neighbouring Ando-Dido peoples. Conflicts arose chiefly because of controversy over grazing rights on alpine pastures. In the 18th century the Karata formed an alliance with the Gidatl community against the Akhvakh. The whole of the 19th century is characterized by unrest in northwestern Avaria due to the activities of the muridi (Islamic mystical brotherhood) under the leadership of Shamil, and the continuous warfare in the Caucasus. In spite of the fact that officially Dagestan and Avaria were joined with Russia in 1806, an administrative structure did not develop there until the 1870s.
The economic activity of the Karatas has always been dependant on natural conditions. The availability of good pastures in summer and winter, gave rise to the importance of seasonal stock farming. Sheep were kept, and in villages, cattle and horses also for work and transport purposes. Since there was a shortage of cultivable land and natural conditions were unfavourable, agriculture was only of secondary importance. A part of the problem was solved with irrigated terraced farming. Wheat, rye, flax, and later potatoes and vegetables, were grown. The prevailing type of economy was barter. Household handicrafts occupied an important place and were highly developed. People tried to improve their financial situation by doing odd jobs in other districts and towns of Avaria. The annexation of Dagestan to Russia gave the economy a boost as it laid a new basis for trade and finance. However, there was no rapid economic development, which might be attributed to the relative isolation of the area. On the other hand, the annexation did introduce colonialism which advocated the interests of central authorities, not the needs of local people.
The smallest unit of Karata society was the village community (dzhamat) whose highest organ was the village assembly (rukken). The assembly elected the village elder (chaubi) and his two helpers. The religious life of the community was directed by the qadi (an Islamic leader). With the establishment of Russian administration these institutions were linked to the Russian bureaucracy.
Soviet supremacy was officially recognized in Dagestan in 1920. There were several hindrances to the assertion of the new power. These hindrances were focused in nationalist and religious movements whose goal was independence. A strong separatist movement arose in the Ando-Dido area which sought to establish links with the Mountain State formed in Georgia in 1917. In order to strengthen its control Moscow used both force and more peaceful methods. The former prevailed before World War II, the latter following. Two campaigns were launched: collectivization and cultural revolution. Resistance to collectivization and an uprising in west Avaria in 1930 enabled the Soviets to openly employ armed force and to crush the nationalist movement.
Today, the key issues for the survival of the Karatas are: the vitality and preservation of their language; the preservation of material ethnic culture against the advance of European urban culture (clothing, furniture, household appliances, housing); the preservation of folk traditions against encroaching Soviet traditions. The most important of these is the preservation of the language, as this is the only thing that distinguishes the Karatas and the Avars. Today, Karata is only spoken at home. For communication outside the home and for administrative purposes the Karatas use Avar. The result is widespread bilingualism. The Soviet-style educational system adopted by the Avars helps the advance of other languages (primary education in Avar, secondary education in Russian). The Karata tongue is not taught at schools. At the same time, the Soviet educational system serves as a tool for centralized ideology and propaganda; it is dismissive of local national peculiarities and opposes free thought.
The encroachment of European urban culture is linked to the growth of towns, the loss of territorial isolation and the influx of mass-produced goods. Domestic handicrafts are dying out or acquiring the status of arts. The Soviet variant of the urbanization process continues and is to be seen as a furtherance of colonial policies.
Ethnic culture has been further damaged by the forcible inculcation of Soviet traditions. Old customs have been ridiculed and there has been strong atheistic propaganda. Schools have played a key role in shaping new attitudes. The results are apparent in the different attitudes to folk tradition expressed by the older and the younger generations. The old keep traditions alive while the young have abandoned them and have gradually adopted Soviet customs. The crisis is yet to come, but what has taken place already points to the complete eradication of any national characteristics.