BALKARS, INGUSH AND KARACHAYS

NORTH CAUCASUS

North Caucasus embraces seven Russian republics: Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkariya, North Ossetia, Ingustetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. The configurations of these republics were primarily the work of Stalin when he was the nationalities commissar in the 1920s. His idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too busy fighting among themselves to threaten the Soviet state and to require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

The Balkars live with the Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkariya and the Karachays live with the Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia even though the Cherkess and Kabardins speak similar languages and the Balkars and Karachays speak similar languages. Northeast Caucasian groups also include the speakers of Nakh-Vaynakh languages, namely the Chechens and Ingush.

The Balkars and the Karachay belong to the same overall Turkic group, although the latter live in the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia immediately west of Kabardino-Balkaria on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains. Like the Chechens and the Ingush, the Karachay were exiled to Central Asia during World War II. The Cherkess and the Karachay were reunited when the latter were returned from exile in 1957. Established in 1992, the republic is mainly rural, with an economy based on livestock breeding and grain cultivation. Some mining, chemical, and wood-processing facilities also exist. The population, which was estimated at 422,000 in 1990, was 42 percent Russian, 31 percent Karachay, and 10 percent Cherkess. The capital city is Cherkessk. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Balkars

The Balkars are a small tribe that live on the slopes of Mt. Elbrus in the central Caucasus Mountains. There are about 71,000 of them, most of them in Kabardino-Balkaria. They are related to the Karachays. Eighty percent of their territory is above 2,000 meters. The Balkars, also known as the Malkars, are mostly Muslims and speak the Karachay-Balkar language, a member of the Altaic-Turkic family of languages.

The Balkars are Sunni Muslims but they converted very late, in some cases not until the end of the 19th century. Traditional beliefs that have endured include the ritual of dressing up dolls as frogs and dousing them in water to bring rain; protecting homes from the evil eye with horse’s skulls; placing a horse at the entrance of a home for good luck; giving amulets to their animals; and banging on pans during a lunar eclipses to prevent the monster Jelmauuz from consuming the moon.

The Balkars also maintain beliefs in their traditional gods. According to legend the Balkarian people were sent by their gods to earth from the constellation known as the She-Bear to communicate with the mountains.

History of the Balkars

The origins of the Balkars is still a mystery. Some have connected them with the Huns, Bulgars and Khazars. Most scholars trace their origin to the Iranian-speaking Alans and the Turkish-speaking Black Bulgars and Western Kipchaks. Before the invasion of the Mongols in the 13th century they were a member of the Alan union of tribes, but after the Mongol invasions they retreated into the deep canyons of the Caucasus and there forged their own identity and were able to avoid trouble.

In the fifteenth century, Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Turks brought Sunni Islam of the Hanafi school to the territory that is now Kabardino-Balkaria, but Muslim precepts have been observed rather superficially since that time. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996]

The Balkars struck in deal with the Russians in 1837 and were able to stay above the fray during the Caucasus Wars. Under the Soviets, the Balkars and other Caucasus people were forced to leave their villages, previously organized by clan, and join collective farms.

In 1944, the Balkars were forced to move to Central Asia, with most ending up in Kazakhstan, along with a number other Caucasus groups.. They were allowed t return to their homeland beginning in 1957. One Balkar told the Los Angeles Times, "The soldiers gave us a half-hour and told us to get in the trucks. They drove us to the trains station in Nlachik. Then we rode the rain to Kazakhstan. We lived there for 14 years."

There is some rivalry and animosity between Balkars and Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkariya that has been exacerbated by bombings blamed on Chechen fighters.

Balkar Life

The Balkars have traditionally been animal herders. Agricultural land took painstaking effort to create through terracing and maintain. This land was quite valuable and could be inherited by individuals while pasture land was communal. The Balkars were also good hunters. Mountain goats were regarded as a delicacy. When an animal was slaughtered the joints were broken in such a way that 16 or 24 pieces formed a relut (an ancient Turko-Caucasus custom). Balkars ae also fond of aryan (sour boiled milk) and kefir (a fermented milk drink made with kefir "grains").

Traditional Balkar settlements were built in a terrace-like fashion on mountain slops. The Balkars built fortresses with defensive towers between three and five stories in positions that guarded entire canyons. In the summer herders traditionally moved into stone-and-waddle “tents while their animals grazed in the high pasture. In the winter some families lived in semi-subterranean structures for protection from the cold. Each dwelling was divided into an “honored part” for men and an “nonhonored part” for women.

Many Balkars have lived to be over 100. But now there are fewer centenarians than there used to be. Balkar women were regarded as skilled seamstresses. They spun and made cloth and decorated it using a number of techniques. In the old days men were known as gunsmiths and bullet makers. Marriages traditionally were arranged and sex before marriage was not uncommon.

Kabardino-Balkaria

Kabardino-Balkaria, the territory of the Kabardin and Balkar peoples, is located along the north-central border of Georgia and the northern slope of the Caucasus Mountains. Occupying about 12,500 square kilometers, the autonomous republic was established in 1936 after fourteen years as an autonomous oblast. In 1944 the Balkars, like certain other North Caucasus groups, were deported to Central Asia because of their alleged collaboration with the Nazis, and the region was renamed the Kabardin Autonomous Oblast. Republic status was restored in 1957 when the Balkars were allowed to return. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

In 1992 both the Kabardins and the Balkars opted to establish separate republics within the Russian Federation, using an ethnic boundary established in 1863, but the incumbent parliament of the republic declared the separation unlawful. Since that time, the issue of the republic's configuration has awaited a referendum. In 1994 Kabardino-Balkaria signed a bilateral treaty with Russia defining respective areas of jurisdiction within the federation. *

Despite Russian immigration into the republic, the Muslim Kabardins and Balkars now constitute nearly 60 percent of the republic's population, which was estimated at 800,000 in 1995. Of that number, 48 percent were Kabardin, 9 percent Balkar, and 32 percent Russian, according to the 1989 census. *

The economy of Kabardino-Balkaria is based on substantial deposits of gold, chromium, nickel, platinum, iron ore, molybdenum, tungsten, and tin. The main industries are metallurgy, timber and food processing, the manufacture of oil-drilling equipment, and hydroelectric power generation. The republic's capital is Nalchik. *

Karachay

The Karachay are an ethnic group that lives in the plains, foothills and mountains in the northern Caucasus. There are about 276,000 of them, about half of them in the in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. They are related to the Balkars.

The Karachay, also known as the Qarachayli, are mostly Muslims. They speak a Karachay-Balkar language, a member of the Altaic-Turkic family of languages. Some traditional beliefs such as cults that worship trees and stones endure. They have practiced rain-making rituals, made sacrificial offering in pastures where their animal grazed and placed special stones in the foundation of house to be constructed. Traces of Christianity can be found in the worship of saints such as Elias and Nicholas.

The Balkars live with the Kabardins in Kabardino-Balkariya and the Karachays live with the Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia even though the Cherkess and Kabardins speak similar languages and the Balkars and Karachays speak similar languages.

History of the Karachay

The early history of the Karachay is thought to be similar to that of the Balkars. See Balkars Above.

The traditional homeland of the Karachay was in the upper valley of the upper Kuban River. Until the Russians reached them they lived in wooden huts in the mountains and subsisted mainly on meat and milk from their animals. After the Caucasus Wars ended in the late 19th century the Karachay began expanding into the lowlands. Those with little or no land settled on land designated as theirs by the Soviets in the 1920s.

In 1944 the Karachay were exiled to Central Asia, mostly Kazakhstan, along with other Caucasus groups for allegedly siding with Germans. They were allowed to return in 1957. Outsiders moved on their land and desecrated their graves and sacred tombs. Their ethnic identity and culture was also weakened by the exile experience. A community remained behind in Kazakhstan.

There is some rivalry and animosity between Karachays and Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia that has been exacerbated by bombings blamed on Chechen fighters.

Karachay Life

The Karachay have traditionally lived in very large settlements in houses made of pine, which has traditionally been in abundance in the places they lived. The women’s quarter was close to the entrance, the men’s area was further back. Herding was the main economic activity with animals taken to summer pastures in the summer and kept in sheltered forest fields in the winter.

The staples of Karachay’s diet are sour milk, cheese, butter, curds and sour cream made from the milk of the goats, sheep and cattle they raise. They were also fond of cornbread, sausage made with liver, mutton jerky and boza, a beerlike drink made of barley or millet. In the summer the collect wild berries and fruit in the forest.

Men have traditionally kept their daggers in a leather belt with silver decorations. In rough weather herders wear a long felt cloak with a hood and a sheepskin cap. Shoes have traditionally been worn with a layer of dried grass rather than socks. The clothes and headgear worn by women varies with status. For example some high status women wear a velvet cap decorated with gold or silver stocking. After their first child is born they replace the cap with a black kerchief. They way the kerchief is worn varies with the age of the woman, their wealth and region.

Karachay Marriages, Feuds and Funerals

Karachay marriage can include the payment of a bride price or a dowry, depending on what the families involved agree on. Men have traditionally been in their 20s and girls in their late teens when they were married. In the wedding the bride wears a silk veil and is escorted to the home where the ceremony is held by horsemen with banners.

During the wedding ceremony daggers are held over the heads of the couple and the bride is unveiled in front of the groom’s parents and showered with candy and nuts. The wedding feast lasts for three to seven days. After the wedding the couple avoid their parents and don’t speak each other’s name for several months, lest it bring bad luck.

A great effort has traditionally been made to avoid blood feuds. In the case of murder, the murderer’s family was required do pay a blood price. In may cases the hostility was considered over when the murderer touched his lips to the mother of the person he murdered. At funerals women wept loudly, keened, scratched their faces and tore their clothing. Men expressed their sorrow by allowing their beards to grow for one year.

Karachayevo-Cherkessia

Until 1992 an autonomous oblast, the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia occupies 14,100 square kilometers along the northern border of Georgia's Abkhazian Autonomous Republic. A single autonomous region was formed in 1922 for the Cherkess (Circassian) and Karachay peoples; then separate regions existed between 1928 and 1943. The regions were recombined in 1943 as an autonomous oblast. The Cherkess converted to Islam after contacts with Crimean Tatars and Turks; the Karachay are an Islamic Turkic group. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The Balkars and the Karachay belong to the same overall Turkic group, although the latter live in the Republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia immediately west of Kabardino-Balkaria on the north slope of the Caucasus Mountains. Like the Chechens and the Ingush, the Karachay were exiled to Central Asia during World War II. The Cherkess and the Karachay were reunited when the latter were returned from exile in 1957. Established in 1992, the republic is mainly rural, with an economy based on livestock breeding and grain cultivation. Some mining, chemical, and wood-processing facilities also exist. The population, which was estimated at 422,000 in 1990, was 42 percent Russian, 31 percent Karachay, and 10 percent Cherkess. The capital city is Cherkessk. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Ingush

The Ingush (Ingushetians) are ethnic kin of the Chechens. They live in the Northeast Caucasus and speak a Nakh-Vaynakh language. There are about 200,000 of them. Ingush have a repudiation or being wealthier than the Chechens. They too are mostly Muslims and follow blood feud traditions. Their language is nearly identical to that of the Chechens. Both the Ingush and Chechens were accused together of cooperating with the Nazis in World War II and deported to Central Asia. What was left of the original population was allowed to return in 1957.

The Chechens and Ingush belong to ancient Caucasian peoples, mainly Muslim, who have lived in the same region in the northern Caucasus Mountains since prehistoric times. The two groups speak similar languages but have different historical backgrounds.

Ingushetia is a semi-autonomous republic in the North Caucasus and the home of the Ingush people. It used to be part of the Checheno-Ingushetian republic, which was divided in 1992 into Chechnya and the Ingushetia republic. It has a population of around 467,000 and was the home of refugees fleeing troubles in Chechnya and North Ossetia.

In the 1990s, a leader in Ingushetia said that bride kidnapping was still common there and said it should be legal again.

Chechens and Ingush

The Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Oblast was established in 1934 by combining two separate oblasts that had existed since the early 1920s. In 1936 the oblast was redesignated an autonomous republic, but both ethnic groups were exiled to Central Asia in 1944 for alleged collaboration with the invading Germans. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

The republic was reinstated in 1957. In the three decades following their return, the Chechen and Ingush populations recovered rapidly, accounting in 1989 for 66 percent of the population of their shared republic. At that time, the Chechen population was about 760,000, the Ingush about 170,000. This proportion reflects approximately the relative size of the two regions after they split into separate republics in 1992. (Ingushetia occupies a sliver of land between Chechnya and North Ossetia; in 1995 its population was estimated at 254,100.) In 1989 Russians constituted about 23 percent of the combined population of Chechnya and Ingushetia, their numbers having declined steadily for decades.

The most important product of what now is known as the Republic of Chechnya (and officially called the Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria within the republic) is refined petroleum. The capital, Groznyy, was one of the most important refining centers in southern Russia prior to its virtual annihilation in the conflict of 1995-96. Several major pipelines connect Groznyy refineries with the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and Russian industrial centers to the north. The republic's other important industries are petrochemical and machinery manufacturing and food processing. When the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic split in June 1992, Chechnya retained most of the industrial base.

Both the Chechens and the Ingush remain strongly attached to clan and tribal relations as the structure of their societies. Primary use of their respective North Caucasian languages has remained above 95 percent, despite the long period that the two groups spent in exile. Chechnya was fully converted to Islam by the seventeenth century, Ingushetia only in the nineteenth century. But the region has a two-century history of holy war against Russian authority. When the indigenous populations were exiled in 1944, Soviet authorities attempted to expunge Islam entirely from the region by closing all mosques. Although the mosques remained closed when the Chechens and Ingush returned, clandestine religious organizations spread rapidly. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Despite the close ethnic relationship of the Ingush and Chechen peoples, the Ingush opted to remain within the Russian Federation after Chechnya initially declared its sovereignty in 1991. In June 1992, Ingushetia declared itself a sovereign republic within the Russian Federation. At that time, Ingushetia claimed part of neighboring North Ossetia as well. When hostilities arose between the Chechens and the Ingush following their split, Russian troops were deployed between the two ethnic territories. Ingushetia opposed Russia's occupation of Chechnya, but it supported the regime of President Boris N. Yeltsin on other issues in the mid-1990s. The capital of Ingushetia is Nazran.

Ingush Troubles

The Ingush were exiled to Central Asia and Siberia in 1943-44 after being unfairly accused of collaborating with the Germans in World War II. When the Ingush returned to their homeland in 1957 they found their farms and homes occupied by Ossetians.

After the Chechens declared independence in 1991 after the break up of the Soviet Union and both the Chechens and Ingush called for independence, the Checheno-Ingushetian republic was divided in 1992 into Chechnya and the Ingushetia republic. The Ingush supported their right to self rule and demanded an autonomous republic in Russia for themselves.

Many Ingush are loyal to Russia and quite angered by all the trouble the Chechens have stirred up and upset by the influx of refugees to Ingushetia. Other have embraced extremist Islamic and regard the Chechens as their persecuted brothers.

Disputes Between the Ingush and Ossetians

Ossetians have clashed with Muslim Ingush, who claim part of North Ossetia. The Ingush were exiled to Central Asia and Siberia in 1943-44 after being unfairly accused of collaborating with the Germans in World War II. When the Ingush returned to their homeland in 1957 they found many of their farms and homes occupied by Ossetians.

In the 1980s, Ingush in Prigorodny in North Ossetia began demanding more autonomy from the Christian Ossetians and reincorporation into the Ingush republic. Ingush in Ossetia attempted to reclaim in Prigorodny—an area on the right bank of the upper Terek River in far eastern North Ossetia—taken by the Ossetians when the Ingush were exiled to Central Asia in the 1940s and 50s.

Moscow enacted legislation that promised to return the Ingush their land in North Ossetia in 1991 but never implemented it. The Ingush also attempted to unify with their Ingush brothers in Ingushetia republic, which created in 1992.

Ingush and Ossetian Violence

In October 1992 there was a 10 day war between Ossetians and Ingush when the Ingush tried to return to land taken from them in the 1940s and occupied by the Ossetians. Bloody clashes that lasted for about a week left hundreds dead (the human rights group Memorial estimated 583 were killed and 939 were injured). Russia imposed a state of emergency to stop the violence. Russian troops were brought in, According to some reports they sided with the Ossetians and committed atrocities against the Ingush. The Ingush were brutally repressed.

Almost the entire population of 60,000 Ingush in North Ossetia was forced to move to Ingushetia, already burdened by an influx of 60,00 refugees from the conflict in Chechnya. The Ingush in Ossetia where forced to live as refugees themselves in Ingushetia. Around 20,000 remained there as of 2004. Most of their property in North Ossetia was destroyed or confiscated. A few Ingush remained in an area called Kartsa

In 1992 the Presidents of Ingushetia and North Ossetia signed a friendship agreement but tensions remained. In 2004, Aleksei Malashenko, a Caucasus specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center told the New York Times, “A lot of armed men are walking around in Ossetia and Ingushetia. Both nations are prepared for conflict. There is a huge feeling for revenge—which is important in the political culture for local ethnicities.” There are fears that if serious fighting broke out between the Ingush and Ossetians violence could ignite a wider conflict in the Caucasus.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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