Saturday, January 11, 2020

Religion and Nationality Crosscutting Cleavages in Kabardino-Balkaria

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 9 – The basic fault line in Kabardino-Balkaria is the ethnic one between the dominant Circassian Kabardins and the minority Turkic Balkars, but cutting across that division is a religious diversity perhaps greater than any other republic in the North Caucasus, one that profoundly affects how the ethnic divide plays itself out.

Mark Grozinsky of the Caucasus Post provides a useful summary about the religious affiliations of the groups.  Until the 16th century, both Kabardins and Balkars were primarily animists or Tengrians. Then, Sunni Islam began to be introduced by the Crimean Tatars and then by Ottoman missionaries (

The Kabardins who as now then lived in the lowlands were almost completely Islamicized but the Balkars, most of whom lived in the mountainous regions, were not, the journalist says, with many remaining animist and their religion reflecting a combination of animist and Islam.

At present, there are two Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs), each of whose followers includes members of both nationalities. There is the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the KBR and the Muslim Community (jamaat) of the republic. The first has the allegiance of most of the 147 mosques in the republic; the latter is newer and leads several thousand young people.

The two groups divide in terms of their attitudes toward the proper role of Islam. The MSD supports what Soviet and Russian authors call “traditional Islam,” that is a religion that is largely ceremonial and not involved in social and political life. The latter in contrast believes that religion and politics cannot be separated.

As of 2012, 55 percent of the KBR residents were Muslims. But what is striking is how religiously diverse the remainder is. Twenty percent of the population are Christians, of whom 80 percent are Russian Orthodox.  There are 24 ROC MP churches and one ROC MP monastery.
There are also three Roman Catholic Churches, and 27 Protestant churches.

            And there are also small communities of followers of the Armenian Apostolic church and the Georgian Orthodox church. There are also approximately 1,000 Jews, including one community of Mountain Jews, most of whom left in the 1980s and early 1990s. Sixteen percent of KBR residents say they believe in an unspecified higher power, and seven percent are atheists.

            Because these religious lines do not perfectly correspond to ethnic lines, they act as a brake on some national assertiveness; and that may be one of the reasons why the authorities have shown greater tolerance both for the jamaat and Protestant groups in the KBR than is the case elsewhere in the North Caucasus.

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