Nogay

[Liz Owerbach]

The Nogay (or Nogai, Noghai) are a Turkic steppe people indigenous to Northern Dagestan, Chechnya, and Stavropol Krai. Related to the Kumyks, the Nogay originated during the decline of the Golden Horde when the Kipchak peoples of the steppe mingled with the Mongols and formed the Nogay Horde. The Nogay people trace their lineage back to Nogay, the grandson of Genghis Khan and leader of the Nogay Horde in the late 1300s. Historically, the Nogay were divided into three groups: the White Nogays of the West, Central Nogays of the center, and Black Nogays of the East (Minahan, 493-494). As a nomadic Central Asian people, the Nogay forged a complex relationship with the Muscovite and Russian Empires.

As a Turkic-Mongol people, the Nogays were loyal to Astrakhan in the latter days of the Mongol Empire. However, Nogays of the Volga Steppe began trading with Muscovite boyars as early as the 14th century. The Muscovites would trade their fur, cloth, and Walrus tusks for Nogay horses. The Boyars referred to their Nogay contacts as “friends” or “brothers”, suggesting a positive trade relationship (Sunderland, 15-16). The Nogays maintained their nomadic steppe lifestyle for the next few centuries, roaming the lands between the Danube River and the Caspian Sea. The Horde split into two groups: the Great Horde in the lower Volga region, and the Little Horde in southern Ukraine and east of the Sea of Azov (Minahan 494). Though the Hordes opposed Russian expansion in general, they formed strategic alliances with the Russians when it benefited their interests. For instance, the Great Horde assisted Ivan IV in conquering Kazan’ in 1552, and Astrakhan in 1556, where the successful overthrow lead to the Nogay replacing the Khan with one of their own Moscow-friendly leaders. The Russians offered great benefits to the Nogay who pledged shert (loyalty) or paid iasak (tribute), and the Great Nogay Horde came under nominal Russian domination in 1557 (Sunderland, 22). The Russians, however, were not so successful in enlisting the loyalty of the Lesser Horde; these Nogay had aligned with the Crimeans, and assisted them in raiding Moscow in 1592. The resistance of the Lesser Horde persisted until 1634, when a Kalmyk invasion forced them to rejoin with their Great Nogay brethren (Minahan, 494). Still, Nogay resistance continued even after Russian conquest; certain sects allied with the Tartars to raid Russian strongholds through the reign of Catherine the Great (Sunderland, 25).

The Nogays were able to maintain their Nomadic lifestyle with relative consistency through the period of enlightened colonization in the 1700s. For the Nogays of the Caucus Province, living on land that was undesirable and removed from areas of peasant settlement, sedentarization and Russification efforts were not pursued until the 1830s. Conversely, Nogays living in Azov were given special attention beginning in 1805. Living in a rapidly growing district and considered “inadequate Cossacks,” the Nogay were given a special administration to introduce “this rude people…to the great advantages of the settled over nomadic life (Sunderland, 153).” Russification efforts included forced housing projects and teaching the Russian language to children. Due to perceived security threats, Russia did not pursue conversion to Orthodoxy with the Nogay. In fact, Russia enacted a policy of “intentional inaction” to rid the nation of Muslim influence. From 1859-1860, 50,000 Nogays led one of the larger exoduses out of the Tauris province, relocating in Turkey (Sunderland, 154). For the Nogay who remained on Russian territory, tensions often rose with the administration. In one instance, a Nogay overseer, angry at the lack of progress on a housing project, burned the tents of the Nogay population, “making stationary housing the only option.” Despite Russian assertions that the administration was a success, the Nogay maintained many of their linguistic and cultural characteristics, and retained their nomadic way of life longer than most other steppe minorities. While the Russians began renting land from the Nogays in the mid-1800s, they did not begin the concentrated effort of confiscating Nogay land until the 1890s. This marked a last-ditch imperial effort to consolidate steppe land and to “assimilate these…half-savage nomads.” (Sunderland, 194).

The early Soviet era left the Nogay people virtually neglected. Soviet authorities forcibly relocated Caucasians to the region during in the 1960s – leading to ethnic tensions between the Nogay and the new settlers – but few other Soviet policies specifically affected the Nogay people (Minahan, 496). This proved to be a double-edged sword. While infrastructure and economic development for the steppe people were stagnant – quality roads and telecommunication were virtually non-existent – the Nogay had the opportunity to preserve their language and culture. This preservation became essential in the 1970s, when a new influx of immigrants and Soviet assimilation pressure seriously threatened the Nogay homeland. The Nogay people organized into the Unity (Birlik) Movement, a political organization that works to grant greater autonomy to the Nogay people (Minahan, 496-497).

As of 2000, there are about 76,000 Nogays living in the North Caucasus region of Russia, 128,000 in Europe, and 50,000 in Poland, Ukraine, and Turkey (Minahan, 493). About 80,000 speakers of the Turkic Nogay language remain (Nogai-English Dictionary). Though not recognized by the Russian Federation as an autonomous people, the Nogay continue to fight to keep their culture alive.

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Works cited

  • James Minahan, One Europe, Many Nations: a Historical Dictionary of European National Groups (Greenwood, 2000).
  • “Nogai-English dictionary: features of this dictionary.” Freelang.Net. 2009. Freelang.Net. 17 Mar 2009 <http://www.freelang.net/dictionary/nogai.php>.
  • Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field: Colonization and Empire on the Russian Steppe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).

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