Karachay

[Ken Lin]

The Karachay are an ethnic group of Turkic peoples whose homeland is situated in the northwest region of the North Caucasus. They are almost uniformly Sunni Muslim, and they arrived in the Caucasus after being chased by the Mongol invaders (Karachay).

From the time they settled in the North Caucasus in the late 13th and early 14th century, the Karachay living environment in the mountainous regions prevented the development of a widespread agricultural system, requiring them to trade livestock-based products for grain from neighboring groups. Judging from archeological evidence in the form of bone fragments, the Karachay raised a wide variety of livestock in addition to the primary cattle, including sheep, goats, and horses, as well as pigs up until the diffusion of Islam among the Karachay due to an influx of Muslims from the south. Folklore and spiritual practices were heavily based around their livestock-rearing society. The deity known as “Siyrigin” was the guardian of large cattle, while the deity “Aimush” watched over their small cattle. A sacrificial offering of the first lamb every season was made in the name of “increase head”. In 1913, it was estimated that the ratio of cattle to people among the Karachay was 130 to 1 (Miziyev).

The Karachay were also proficient hunters, mainly of big game such as bears and deer. Outstanding hunters were particularly honored by folk songs and the observance of the cult of “Absati”, the deity of hunters. The mountainous region provided the Karachay with ample metal resources, namely bronze, lead and copper, which they used to make a wide variety of tools and equipment. Dwellings were often made of stone, although framework houses were also observed in some areas (Miziyev).

Imperial Russia annexed the region in 1828, leading most of the Karachay to participate in violent uprisings against their Russian overlords alongside many other Caucasian peoples. These resistance efforts persisted until the 1860s, when large numbers of Karachay began emigrating south to the Ottoman Empire in present-day Turkey to escape repression by the Russians (Chronology).

The vast majority of Karachay currently live in the Karachay-Cherkessia republic, a part of the Russian Federation, where they coexist with a sizeable population of fellow Muslims, the Cherkess peoples. This country originally began as an administrative territory under the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. Today the Karachay number 150,000 in the republic, making them nearly a majority of the population (Karachay).

The Soviets forcibly uprooted the Karachay from their homeland in the final years of World War II. Due to their cooperation and involvement with invading German forces in the Caucasus in the early stages of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin marked the Karachay, among other Turkic peoples, as collaborators. When Red Army forces retook the Caucasus in late 1943, the NKVD was tasked with deporting the Karachay to Central Asia, where they were placed in spetskommandantskii (special commandant) camps, causing many to suffer and perish. With the death of Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khruschev’s efforts to implement de-Stalinization, the Karachay were among the groups allowed to return to their homelands, beginning in 1957-8, with the re-creation of the Karachay-Cherkessia governing territory (Williams, 340-4).

In November 1990, the Karachay declared themselves to be a sovereign republic, and began efforts to consolidate the nation’s political structure. The early 1990s proved to be a period of reorganization for the republic, until March 1996 when Karachay-Cherkessia became among the last of the former Soviet republics to form their own constitution (Chronology). Following the collapse of Soviet Union, the Soviet-appointed president ruled until 1999 when the first democratic elections in the republic occurred. Former military commander Vladimir Semenov, an ethnic Karachay, was elected president against Cherkess businessman Stanislav Derev in an election that was tainted by allegations of fraud (BBC).

Recent developments among the Karachay have not been positive. Increasing levels of membership in extremist Islamic organizations, coupled with the overall levels of violence in the Caucasus, have led to widespread crime and civil unrest in Karachay-Cherkessia, mostly in the form of limited-scale terrorist bombings. Ethnic Karachay also have one of the highest mortality rates among all ethnic groups in the Caucasus, due to underlying socioeconomic conditions and a lifestyle that may be incompatible with changing conditions (Assessment).

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Works cited

  • Brian Glyn Williams. “The Hidden Ethnic Cleansing of Muslims in the Soviet Union: The Exile and Repatriation of the Crimean Tatars.” Journal of Contemporary History, 37, 3 (July 2002): 323-347.
  • British Broadcasting Company. “Regions and territories: Karachay-Cherkessia.” Last modified November 22, 2011. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/5381570.stm.
  • I. M. Miziyev . “The History of the Karachai-Balkarian People from the Ancient Times to Joining Russia.” Mingi-Tau (Elbrus), 1 (January 1994): 7–104, 206–213. http://kcr.narod.ru/miziev/miz-e.htm.
  • Karachay on the web. “Republic of Karachay-Cherkess.” Last modified July 29, 2003. http://kcr.narod.ru/.
  • Refworld. “Assessment for Karachay in Russia.” Last modified December 31, 2003. http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/topic,463af2212,469f2ef12,469f3ac7c,0,,,.html.
  • Refworld. “Chronology for Karachay in Russia.” Last modified 2004. http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/topic,463af2212,469f2ef12,469f38d2c,0,,,.html.

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