Karachay-Cherkessia is a semi-autonomous Russian republic located in the Northern Caucuses. According to the 2010 Russian Census, Karachay-Cherkessia’s population is
just under 480,000 people (Wikipedia). The main ethnic groups in Karachay-Cherkessia are Karachay (31.3%), Russian (23.6%), Cherkess (9.5%), Abazin (8.1%), and Nogay (3.7%). Karachay-Cherkessia has three main languages: Russian, Karachay, and Cherkess (BBC News). Like other republics in the North Caucuses, the region’s ethnic diversity has also lead to occasional ethnic tension and violence.
Karachay-Cherkessia has an area of 14,300 square kilometers, is located between the Black and Caspian Seas, and is bordered by Georgia, Krasnodar Kray, Stavropol’ Kray, and Kabardino-Balkaria (BBC News). Of these four neighbors, only Georgia, which makes up Karachay-Cherkessia’s southern border, is not part of the Russian Federation. Karachay-Cherkessia is mostly mountainous and has a wealth of rivers and lakes. Karachay-Cherkessia is also home to the Caucuses’s highest mountain, the dormant volcano Mount Elbrus (BBC News). The republic’s capital, Cherkessk, is located towards the northern border with Stavropol’ Kray and is the political, economic, and cultural center for Karachay-Cherkessia. Cherkessk was founded as a Russian military fortification on the Kuban frontier in 1790. In 1825, Cossacks from the Stavropol’ region officially founded a settlement called Batalpashinskaya, named after the nearby army outpost. Batalpashinskaya went through several name changes over the next century. In 1931, Batalpashinskaya became Batalhashinsk and received city status. The name changed again in 1934 to Sulimov, after the chairman of Sovnarkom. In 1937, Sulimov was arrested and shot, which sparked yet another name change, this time to Yezhovo-Cherkessk. However, in 1939 Yezhovo-Cherkessk was officially renamed to just Cherkessk because Yezhovo, one of the city’s namesakes, was arrested (Welcome to Russia). Throughout Karachay-Cherkessia’s history, Cherkessk has been central to its history.
The two main ethnic groups in Karachay-Cherkessia, the Karachay and the Cherkess, are two separate Muslim peoples. The Cherkess peoples, descended from Circassian tribes, are ethnically and culturally related to the Kabarda and Adygey peoples (BBC News; Waldman, 175). The Cherkess have been subject to numerous invading forces including the Greeks, Romans, and Mongols. During the 17th century, the Cherkess, who were under Ottoman rule at the time, converted to Islam. The Karachay are a Turkic-speaking peoples related to the Balkars (BBC News; Waldman, 795). It is believed that the Karachay peoples are descended from “a mixture of Huns, Bulgars, Khazars, and Kipchaks” (Pohl, 73). The Karachay converted to Islam under the Karbardians but continued to practice pre-Islamic traditions, such as worshipping pagan deities and eating pork, which is against Muslim law.
Tsarist and Soviet Rule
Around the middle of the 19th century, the Northern Caucuses came under Russian imperial rule. Many local Muslims fled to the Ottoman Empire to escape from their new Christian overlords. During the October Revolution, many tribes in the Northern Caucuses formed the Mountain Republic. In June 1920, the Bolshevik forces invaded the territory and gave the Mountain Republic autonomous status (Richmond, 453). By 1922, however, the Soviets began their policy of “divide-and-rule tactics” which consisted of “weakening resistance by splitting related groups and joining unrelated ones in shared administrative units” (BBC News). This policy divided the Mountain Republic. The Karachay-Cherkessia Autonomous Oblast was created on 22 January 1922 from this division.
On 25 April 1926, the Karachay-Cherkessia Autonomous Oblast split into the Karachay Autonomous Oblast and Cherkess National Okrug. The Cherkess received the status of an autonomous oblast in 1928. However, with the German advances towards the Caucuses in World War II, many local Muslim populations began to revolt against Soviet rule. Some Karachay nationalists created the Karachay National Committee, or the KNK, and began an “insurgency against Soviet rule” months before the Germans even arrived in the Caucuses (Pohl, 75). Once the Germans arrived in the Karachay Autonomous Oblast, they received administrative assistance from some local nationalists who opposed Soviet rule. These actions angered the Soviet leadership and, after the war, prompted the systematic deportation of the entire Karachay nation from the North Caucuses to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The Stalinist regime punished all “ethnic Karachays with exile to the interior of the USSR” even though only a small number of Karachays actively assisted the Germans (Pohl, 74). In fact, the Soviet regime only uncovered 300 collaborators out of 37,249 adult Karachays (Pohl, 76).
After the deportation of the Karachay peoples, most of the territory of the Karachay Autonomous Oblast was divided between Stavropol’ Kray and the Georgian SSR. In 1957, Kruhschev reestablished the Karachay-Cherkessia Autonomous Oblast and allowed the exiled Karachay people to return. He did so, however, without “compensation or repossession of their property” (Richmond, 453). The Soviet regime’s oppressive government “smothered any potential conflict” until 1991 (Richmond, 453).
After the fall of the Soviet Union, Karachay-Cherkessia gained republic status within the Russian Federation. Vladimir Khubiyev, the Communist leader from the Soviet era, was reappointed as president of Karachay-Cherkessia by Boris Yeltsin and remained acting president until the first direct presidential elections in 1999. Protests and allegations of fraud followed this election in which Vladimir Semenov, a Karachay and former commander of Russian ground forces, defeated Stanislav Derev, a Cherkess businessman (BBC News).
In 2004 a crisis arose when seven businessmen from Cherkess were murdered “in controversial circumstances” in 2004 (BBC News). The bodies were found in an abandoned well in the Karachayevskiy District in early November 2004. It was established that businessmen were killed at the country house of Aliy Kaitov, the son-in-law of Karachay-Cherkessia President Mustafa Batdyyev (“Russia: North Caucasus mass murder trial due on 20 May”). Kaitov was later convicted of organizing the murders and was sentenced to 17 years in prison.
In February 2011, Boris Ebzeyev stepped down as president of Karachay-Cherkessia. His presidency was “plagued by violence” and was unable to “cope with the task” of improving the republic’s living conditions (BBC News). To fill his place, Medvedev, Russia’s president, nominated Rashi Temerzov. Temerzov was a member of the United Russia Party, had worked in Karachay-Cherkessia’s financial and constructions institutions, and pursued a career in politics. Additionally, he changed his title from “president” to “head” of the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic in an attempt to reorganize the republic’s government (BBC News).
- BBC News, “Regions and territories: Karachay-Cherkessia,” British Broadcasting Corporation, last modified 22 November 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/country_profiles/5381570.stm#media.
- J. Otto Pohl, Ethnic Cleansing in the USSR, 1937-1949 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1999).
- Simon Richmond, Mark Elliott, Patrick Horton, and Steve Kokker, Russia and Belarus (Melbourne: Lonely Planet Publications, 2006).
- Carl Waldman and Catherine Mason, Encyclopedia of European Peoples (New York: Facts on File Publishing, 2006).
- Welcome to Russia, “Cherkessk city, Russia (Cherkesk),” accessed 29 March 2012, http://russiatrek.org/cherkessk-city.
- Wikipedia, “Karachay-Cherkessia,” Wikimedia Foundation, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karachay-Cherkessia.
- “Russia: North Caucasus mass murder trial due on 20 May,” British Broadcasting Corporations, 18 May 2005, http://global.factiva.com/ha/default.aspx.