Oleg Bubenok, Ph.D. (Hist.), Agafangel Krymskiy Institute of Oriental Studies, Ukrainian Academy of Sciences

Karachais and Balkars: Turkic-Speaking Population of the North Caucasian Center

I am convinced that the Karachais and Balkars living on the northern slopes of the Caucasian Range and speaking a Turkic language hold a special place among other local ethnic groups. There is an opinion that they share a language that belongs to the Kipchak sub-group of the Turkic group of the Altaian language family. Their territory is divided by Mount Elbrus. The Karachais live to the west of it and the Balkars, to the east. Statistics says that late in the eighties there were 109,200 Karachais living in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. There were 131,100 of them in the entire Soviet Union. Today, there are 129,000 living in Russia (mainly in Karachaevo-Cherkessia). There are also small ethnic groups of Karachais in Central Asia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Syria and the United States. There are no more than 150,000 of them in the world. Late in the eighties there were 59,700 Balkars in Kabardino-Balkaria (66,000 in the entire country). Late in the nineties there were 70,800 Balkars in Kabardino-Balkaria (78,300 across Russia). There are 3,000 Balkars in Kazakhstan and 2,100, in Kyrgyzstan, which brings their total number up to 80,000.1

The Karachais call themselves Karachailyla, the term being undoubtedly Turkic. There are several versions of its origin. According to one of them, it originated from the name of a drink karachai. According to another, it is derived from the name of a river (Kara in the Turkic languages means black, chai, water or river). There are people who believe that this ethnic name was derived from the name of Karchi, a legendary ancestor of the ethnic group.2 Until quite recently the Balkars did not call themselves that. They, and even their neighbors Karachais, used the name Tauli (Taulu, Taulula) meaning mountain people. There were groups of Balkars that used other names to describe themselves (Malkarlyla, Byzyngychyla, Kholamlyla, Chegemlyla, Urusnalyla, Baksanchyla, etc.). N. Volkova believes that the names were derived from the names of the gorges of the rivers Malka, Bizingi, Kholal, Chegem, and others, while the generally accepted name Balkars are derived from Belker, a Kabardianian word. It may be connected with a Turkic ethnic name Malkarlyla meaning people living in the Malka gorge.3 There are researchers who support the idea V. Miller formulated over 100 years ago. He said that the name was derived from the name of an ancient Turkic people Bolgars.

The Digor Ossets call Balkars Asiag, or Aesson, their country is always referred to as Asi (Asia). The Yron Ossets call Balkars Balkhairag. The Megrels call Karachais (ethnically close to the Balkars) Alans. The closest neighbors of the Balkars and Karachais use the following names to describe them: Saviars used by the Svans and Basiani, by the Georgians.4

The Karachais and the Balkars are Sunni Muslims, their everyday cultures are also very close. In Soviet times, they were regarded as two separate ethnic groups or peoples despite an obvious closeness of their languages and cultures, and the common roots and territory.5 To predict the course of events not only among the Turkic-speaking population of the center of the Northern Caucasus but also among their neighbors (Cherkesses, Kabardins, and Ossets) we have to establish whether the two peoples are close relatives or not. I am convinced that the problems in Karachaevo-Cherkessia were caused by the Russian authorities inability to correctly interpret the processes that had taken place there in the last decades. We should not ignore a possibility of a confrontation between the Turkic- and Adighe-speaking groups in neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria. This will make it extremely hard to forecast possible repercussions. Much will depend on whether the Karachais and the Balkars unite or whether the confrontation remains local. They can unite if they recognize that they are a single people; confrontation may appear if ethnic division among the Turkic-speaking population of the center of the Northern Caucasus has entered its final stage. In other words, much depends on whether the Balkars and the Karachais are individual but kindred ethnoses or two sub-ethnoses of one Turkic-speaking ethnos.

The Theory of Ethnos and Ethnic Identity

A theory of ethnos was formulated in Soviet times at the Institute of Ethnography, U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences, under Academician Iulian Bromley. Guided by Marxism scholars described the ethnos as a social phenomenon. Despite this, and as distinct from Western anthropologists concerned with other problems, they supplied the theory with well-founded arguments. Today, the arguments are recognized and used by ethnologists and anthropologists all over the world. According to the theory elaborated by Academician Bromley, an ethnos, or people, is a historically formed community that includes many generations. It is characterized by the following features: a common territory, relatively stable culture, including the language, common psychological makeup, shared self-identification which means that they are aware of their community that sets them apart from other similar human groups.

When talking about sub-ethnoses Academician Bromley said that they were created by an awareness of specific cultural features that set one groups away from others. He described the sub-ethnoses as former ethnoses that gradually lost their role of basic ethnic groups, or as former ethnographic groups that have recognized their community, or as social communities with distinctive cultural features.6

According to Academician Bromley, the Karachais and Balkars should be regarded as two parts of the same ethnos (sub-ethnoses) because they share three out of four major ethnos-determining features (stable culture and language, psychological makeup, and the territory). However, they lack the fourth basic feature, namely, a common self-name. This probably explains why Soviet ethnographers regarded them as two kindred, but separate, ethnoses.

Lets have a look at more recent theories of the ethnos as applied to the Karachais and the Balkars. There is a popular Western idea that an ethnos is a biological population. This makes the Karachais and Balkars a sum total of numerous individual ethnoses living within the traditional territory to the west of Mount Elbrus and in the gorges of the Malka, Bizingi, Kholal, Chegem and other rivers. According to this theory, the ethnoses were mostly endogamous. This means that the groups of Karachais and Balkars living separately should have been married within their isolated territorial groups. It was quite recently that it became possible for them to establish wider ties thus developing into two independent ethnoses.

One has to recognize that the currently used self-namesKarachai and Balkarcreate methodological problems for those who look at them as a single people (ethnos) called Karachai-Balkars. Their ethnogenesis is much more complicated than that of the neighboring Ossets because in the process they embraced three major components: Caucasian, Iranian (Alanic), and Turkic. In the late Middle Ages the ancestors of the Turkic-speaking Karachais and Balkars lived to the south of the Kabardins, near Mount Elbrus as a compact ethnic entity. The authors of the Ocherki istorii Karachaevo-Cherkessii (Essays on the History of Karachaevo-Cherkessia) are inclined to regard them as a single people with a language of its own that belonged to the Kipchak linguistic group.7 During the last 500 years the ethnoses have been occupying the same territory, yet it was at that time that it had become obvious that geography alone was not responsible for their specifics. Their ethnic history was very much responsible for them: these Turkic-speaking groups might have assimilated groups of Iranian speakers (Alans and Ases) and some mountain people with different ethnic roots.

Administrative-Territorial Changes in the Northern Caucasus Before and After the 1917 Revolution. Their Effect on the Karachais and the Balkars

Until the early nineteenth century the Karachais and Balkars were living high in the mountains near Mount Elbrus driven there by the Adighe-speaking population that dominated the adjacent plain. For a fairly long time Balkar communities remained vassals to Kabardinian princes. In the nineteenth century Karachai and Balkaria finally joined Russia, the decision prompted by the repressions of czarist authorities against the Adighes (Cherkesses and Kabardins). According to the authors of the essays on the history of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Karachai officially became part of the Russian Empire in October 1828 after the only battle with the Karachais that they lost.8 The Istoria Kabardino-Balkarskoi A.S.S.R. (History of the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R.) published in Soviet times contains no date when Balkaria became part of the Russian Empire. Volume 4 of the Brokhaus and Efron encyclopedic dictionary says that Balkaria is populated by Balkars, a Kabardinian tribe conquered by the Russians in 1882. The Soviet history of Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R. says that in the latter half of the nineteenth century Russian administration moved Balkars from the mountains down to the plain. The authors of Volume 1 believed that that was an echo of the land reform of the 1860s that deprived 400 Balkar families of the land. It was decided to move them to Kabarda where they were given the plots of land.9

In 1861, according to the ethnic and territorial changes, the North Caucasian lands became part of the newly formed Terek and Kuban regions: Kabarda was made part of the Nalchik, Vladikavkaz, and Grozniy districts of Terek Region. Balkaria joined with Kabarda to form a single whole in the upper reaches of the Cherek River, a Baksan tributary, while Karachai was made part of the Batalpashinsk division (Kuban Region).10 In this way the administrative division of the Northern Caucasus had little in common with the ethnic territories of the Kabardins, Balkars, and Karachais. It was at that time that the fairly kindred Balkars and Karachais became divided into two independent territorial groups.

The situation changed to a certain extent in the early twentieth century. A. Tsutsiev has said in this connection: By the 1910s it had become obvious that the ethnic principle of administrative division of the Terek Region prevailed over the civilian one. The administrative borders of the mountainous districts of the region nearly totally coincided with the ethnic territories of mountainous peoples. These administrative-ethnic districts served a ready-made pattern to be used by the Bolsheviks when they started creating autonomies as ethnic territorial units. It should be said that there were districts in the Terek Region that failed to coincide with ethnic territories of indigenous population. For example, the Nalchik District was home mainly to Kabardins and Balkars.11

The events that followed the October 1917 revolution affected, to a great extent, the Central Caucasian peoples. It was in that period that the mountaineers of the Northern Caucasus started a national self-determination movement. In November 1920, the Terek Region Popular Assembly in Vladikavkaz proclaimed an autonomy of the regions peoples. In January 1921, the Presidium of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. made the Gorskaia and the Daghestanian A.S.S.R. legal. At that time the former included the Chechen, Ingush, Osset, Kabardinian, Balkar, and Karachai districts. Later it also included the Sunzha District and the cities of Vladikavkaz and Grozniy as independent districts. Later, in 1921-1924 the republic was divided into autonomies of individual peoples, the Kabardinian National District being the first of them, followed by the Balkar District.12

The very fact that the Adighe-speaking Kabardins and the Turkic-speaking Balkars were united into a single autonomy confirms that, on the one hand, the Bolsheviks were apprehensive of a powerful movement of kindred ethnic groups for ethnic consolidation. At the same time they wanted to pass their administrative territorial division of the Northern Caucasus for an ethnically based one. On the other hand, Soviet authorities would have preferred purely territorial units in which the larger ethnos would finally assimilate a smaller one. No wonder the Karachais and the Balkars were not joined in one autonomy.

On 16 November, 1922, the All-Russia Central Executive Committee of the R.S.F.S.R. passed a decision on Balkarias withdrawal from the Gorskaia A.S.S.R. to become part of the newly established Kabardino-Balkarian Autonomous Region. The decision officially proceeded from the geographical factor. Kabarda occupied the plain part of the Nalchik District while Balkaria was up in the mountains, which allegedly made it difficult for Balkaria to communicate with the Gorskaia Autonomous Republic as Kabarda had become an independent autonomous region. An official document said: Historical development of the economies of Kabarda and Balkaria has resulted in their mutual dependence and close economic ties between them. The unification process was completed at a regional Congress of Soviets opened on 5 December, 1922. The Congress elected regional executive committee and set up other necessary structures. In 1936 in the process of endorsement of the Stalin Constitution the autonomous region was transformed into the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R.13

The Karachaevo-Cherkessian Autonomous Region was also separated from the Gorskaia A.S.S.R. in 1922. It united the Turkic-speaking dwellers of the Central Caucasian mountains (Karachais) and the Adighes living in the plain along the left bank of the Kuban in its upper and middle reaches. In 1928, this autonomy was divided into the Karachai Autonomous Region, Cherkessian National District and Batalpashinsk District.

It should be said that during World War II it became obvious that unification of the Kabardins and Balkars, Karachais and Cherkesses into autonomies had not been completely voluntary. Under German occupation there were plans to separate Balkaria from Kabarda and unite it with Karachai with an aim to transfer the new entity under Turkish protectorate. No wonder, after the Northern Caucasus had been liberated the Balkars and Karachais were accused of collaborating with the Nazis. As a result, in 1944 the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R. was transformed into the Kabardinian A.S.S.R. while the Karachai Autonomous Region was liquidated. It was at the same time that the Balkars and Karachais were deported to Central Asia. The Elbrus and Nagorny districts of Kabardino-Balkaria were transferred to the Georgian S.S.R. One should say in all justice that the leaders of the North Caucasian republics never encouraged settlement of the lands abandoned by the Karachais and Balkars that helped avoid many problems their repatriation might have created.

On 28 April, 1956 the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet passed a decision that rehabilitated the peoples repressed during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). The Karachais and Balkars could go back home. On 9 January, 1957 the Presidium of the U.S.S.R. Supreme Soviet passed a decision On Transformation of the Kabardinian A.S.S.R. into the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R.14 The Adighe-speaking Kabardins and the Turkic-speaking Balkars had been living together in this autonomy until the Soviet Union fell apart. The Karachaevo-Cherkessian Autonomous Region was restored within the Stavropol Territory and survived until the Soviet Unions collapse.

The Present Day of Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. What Next?

Despite the separatist sentiments of the leaders of ethnic minorities, in post-Soviet times Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria continued to exist. On 3 July, 1991 the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Autonomous Region withdrew from the Stavropol Territory and became the Republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia. The Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R. preserved its status of a subject of the Russian Federation and was transformed into the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.

The latest events in Karachaevo-Cherkessia have testified that the continued existence of polyethnic republics in the Northern Caucasus is no longer justified. In the nineties both the Cherkesses who are in the minority in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and the Karachai majority expressed their desire to live separately in mono-ethnic republics. On 17 November, 1990 a congress of the Karachai deputies of all levels proclaimed a Karachai autonomy; the Cherkess leaders did the same in October 1991. Other ethnic groups joined in the process that resulted in seven autonomous units on the territory of Karachaevo-Cherkessia: Karachai, Cherkess, Abazin, Nogai, Zelenchukskaia-Urup, and Batalpashinsk republics and the Batalpashinsk Cossack division.

As a result of the Karachai ethnic self-determination movement on 5 February, 1992 when Karachaevo-Cherkessia had already withdrawn from the Stavropol Territory President Yeltsin submitted to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation a draft law on restoring the Karachai autonomous unit within the Russian Federation. This initiative was not approved: V. Khubiev whom the president had appointed head of the local administration failed to reconcile the rival ethnic groups of Karachais and Cherkesses. Their confrontation lasted till 1999 when Karachai V. Semionov won presidential elections in the republic. Obviously, while the Karachais hailed the results the Cherkesses objected to them as illegal. The republic was facing a crisis. Ethnic Cherkesses called mass protest rallies and insisted on a withdrawal from the republic and setting up a Cherkess autonomous region. Commenting on these demands M. Botashev has written: There is no doubt that a different outcome [of the presidential elections] would remove the question of the Cherkess Autonomous Region restoration from the agenda.15

To prevent an ethnic conflict the federal authorities dispatched riot police to the republic.16 This confrontation is easily explained by the fact that the Turkic-speaking Karachais dominate in the republic while the Adighe-speaking Cherkesses are in the minority. Division into two independent autonomous units looks quite logical.

According to M. Botashev, in 1995 the Presidium of the Council of Ministers of the autonomous republic was formed on the parity basis, something that met the interests of the Cherkesses who are in the minority in relation to the Russians and the Karachais. The newly elected President Semionov, a Karachai, formed its government according to the principle of proportionate representation, which meets the interests of the Russians and Karachais to a greater extent than the interests of the Cherkesses.17 This may urge the Cherkesses to revive the issue of their autonomy in the nearest future.

Similar developments are possible in Kabardino-Balkaria where the more numerous Adighe-speaking Kabardins cherish their domination over less numerous Turkic-speaking Balkars. This factor has already consolidated the Balkar ethnic movement.

In August 1990, a conference of the Balkar peoples deputies suggested that the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R. should transform into a sovereign federal state within the R.S.F.S.R. and the U.S.S.R. In March 1991, the delegates of the First Congress of the Balkar people formulated several demands addressed to the Supreme Soviet of the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R. They wanted to restore the administrative-territorial division of Kabardino-Balkaria abolished in 1944, set up a parliament with parity representation of Kabardins and Balkars in one of the chambers, and introduce rotation of Kabardins and Balkars as the republic head.

The next step was made on 17 November, 1991 when the deputies of the congress of the Balkar people adopted a declaration that created a Balkarian republic within the Russian Federation. The parliament of Kabardino-Balkaria annulled the declaration in 1994. It was in the same 1991 that a National Council of the Balkar People was gathered to set up the Republic of Balkaria on the territory where the Balkars had lived before their deportation in March 1944.18 In December, the results of the referendum among the Balkar communities prompted an address to the Congress of the Peoples Deputies of the RF with a request to pass the Law on Formation of the Republic of Balkaria. Some time later, the Balkar ethnic movement experienced an ebb that lasted till 1995. A. Skakov says: This was largely promoted by the harsh and consistent, but not always democratic, actions of the republics leadership.19 Today, the Balkar ethnic movement does not display the same degree of radicalism that was typical of it in the early nineties.

This situation prompts a question: Why does the Center want to preserve the polyethnic republics in the Northern Caucasus? An answer can be found in A. Skakovs article where he says: Dividing Kabardino-Balkaria and particularly unifying Balkaria and Karachai are very unrealistic, economically unjustified and dangerous projects. It is much easier to predict the consequences of dividing two-constituent republics: further deterioration of ethnic relations and an increase in coercion on the poorly protected Russian population, which will be under immense pressure from the mono-ethnic elites. Moreover, the plans for uniting the Adighes or Karachaevo-Balkars into a single state formation, even within the Russian Federation, is fraught with significant danger.20 Obviously, today or in the nearest future the Center will not change the administrative-territorial division in the Northern Caucasus.

In this far from simple situation the Turkic peoples of the central Northern Caucasus have displayed a certain amount of unity. In 1999 when the Karachais were losing their positions during the presidential elections in Karachaevo-Cherkessia the Balkar ethnic organization Tere warned the federal government that it would demand the restoration of the Balkar autonomy in the same way as the Cherkesses were doing this.21 The Karachais and Balkars acted together on many other occasions. From this it follows that if Karachai and Balkaria become autonomies, their Turkic-speaking populations aware of their kinship may unite to form one republic. The pan-Turkic ideas may play a significant role in this. The problem is: Will Moscow support this?


To answer the question about the contemporary Karachais and Balkars being two independent ethnoses or parts of one ethnos (sub-ethnoses) we should look at the ethnic processes that took place on their territories throughout the last millennium. It seems that the theoretical propositions elaborated by the Moscow school of ethnology are the most relevant despite the fact that they were formulated in Soviet times and are rooted in the Marxist-Leninist ideas of ethnic policies. The theory of ethnos that Academician Bromley formulated seems to be the best argumented among other similar theories.

The Moscow school believes that ethnic processes may take the forms of ethnic transformation and ethnic evolution. The former alters ethnic self-identity while the latter causes considerable changes in certain features of an ethnos without completely altering its self-identity. Accordingly, ethnic transformations create new ethnoses while ethnic evolution brings about qualitative transformation of ethnoses.22 These propositions can be used to trace the ethnic and cultural evolution of the Karachai-Balkar community throughout its history.

It seems probable that until the end of the tenth century the territory of Karachai and Balkaria was populated by the autochthonous tribes that had inherited the Koban culture and Iranian-speaking Alans and Ases that were alien to them. The latter wielded political power in the sub-region thus indirectly affecting the autochthonous peoples culture and language. They were not completely assimilated, yet ethnogenetic mixing had definitely taken place. For a long time written sources mentioned only the Alans and Ases as the only dwellers in the region. Strange as it may seem the local people have not preserved the ethnic terms Alans and Ases as self-names. The local self-names have been used and are used today.

The Karachais and Balkars entered a new stage of their ethnic history when the Polovtsians had moved up from the plains to the Central Caucasian piedmont and mountains in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It was at that time that their Turkic-speaking ancestors living near Mount Elbrus formed two groups thus entering a period of ethnic partition. The local Alan Caucasian people were probably exposed to Turkization, that is, they became assimilated in the process of partition. The local people and newcomers in Karachai and Balkaria were differently affected by the process. The Turkic geographic name Karachai appeared in the late Middle Ages and, after a while, developed into a self-name Karachailyla assumed by the local people. Obviously, the autochthonous population of Karachai changed its ethnic self-identification under pressure of the numerically stronger Turkic-speaking newcomers. A new ethnic name appeared. This was a process of ethnic transformation. At the same time the Turkic-speaking newcomers were exposed to ethnic evolution. A multitude of ethnic self-names of Turkic origins in Balkaria testifies only to the fact that its population accepted the Turkic tongue. The Balkars have preserved their common self-name Tauli (Taulu, Taulula), which confirms that among the autochthonous people the process took a form of an evolution while among the Turkic-speaking newcomers it brought ethnic transformations.

Under Soviet power the Adighes were living side by side with the Turkic-speaking Balkars and Karachais in the Kabardino-Balkarian A.S.S.R. and the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Autonomous Region. One can look at this period as one of ethnic mixing. Soviet ideologists expected that this would bring about ethnogenetic mixing that would end with new ethnoses composed of non-kindred peoples. Even if this could happen, the processes would have required a very long period of time.

An administrative division of the Turkic-speaking people into the Karachais and Balkars that had taken place in the Soviet Union transformed their ethnic self-identity reflected in the use of two self-names: Karachai and Balkar. At the same time both groups are perfectly aware of their common roots. One has every ground to believe that the process of ethnic partition among the Karachais and Balkars is still going on, which means that they still have a common tongue, culture and territory and that they are sub-ethnoses of the same ethnos. In other words, if in the course of time the Karachais and the Balkars form a single republic, we shall have a chance to observe a process of consolidation inside an ethnos in which two ethnic units will blend into a single nation.

1 See: Narody mira. Istoriko-etnograficheskiy spravochnik, Moscow, 1988, pp. 84, 203; Narody Rossii, Moscow, 1994, pp. 102-105, 184-186; Korennye narody Rossii [].

2 See: N.G. Volkova, Etnonimy i plemennye nazvania Severnogo Kavkaza, Moscow, 1973, pp. 87, 97.

3 Ibidem.

4 See: Ibid., pp. 94, 97, 107.

5 See: Narody mira, pp. 84, 203.

6 Ibid., p. 83.

7 Ocherki istorii Karachaevo-Cherkessii, Vol. 1, Stavropol, 1967, p. 112.

8 Ibid., p. 288.

9 See: Istoria Kabardino-Balkarskoi A.S.S.R., Vol. 1, Moscow, 1967, p. 307.

10 See: A.A. Tsutsiev, Osetino-Ingushskiy konflikt (1992-...), ego predistoria i faktory razvitia, Moscow, ROSSPEN, 1998, p. 36; Kavkazskiy krai, Entsiklopedicheskiy slovar, Vol. XIIIa, F.A. Brokhaus and I.A. Efron Publishers, St. Petersburg, 1894, p. 820.

11 See: Ibid., pp. 37, 176.

12 See: M.M. Kuchukov, Natsionalnoe samosoznanie i mezhnatsionalnye otnoshenia, Nalchik, 1992, pp. 129-131.

13 See: Ibid., pp. 137, 139, 142, 146.

14 Ibid., pp. 178-179.

15 See: M. Botashev, Ethnic Conflict in Karachaevo-Cherkessia: From Its Sources To Our Days, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 6, 2000, p. 131.

16 [].

17 See: M. Botashev, op. cit., p. 132.

18 See: A. Skakov, Kabardino-Balkaria: Threats to Stability, Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 1(7), 2001, p. 167.

19 Ibid., pp. 167-168.

20 Ibid., p. 172.

21 See: M. Botashev, op. cit., p. 132.

22 See: Iu.V. Bromley, Ocherki teorii etnosa, Moscow, 1983, pp. 233-243.

SCImago Journal & Country Rank