Staunton, September 24 – The Soviet division of the Circassian nation into multiple peoples living in separate republics in the North Caucasus is a far larger problem and far better known, but a similar Soviet division of the Turkic Karachay-Balkars into two republics, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, is potentially explosive as well.
Sergey Zharkov, an observer for the Prague-based Caucasus Times, says that while the Karachays and Balkars have been given different ethnonyms by the Russians, they view themselves as a single Turkic people speaking a common Turkic language marked only by minor dialectal differences (caucasustimes.com/ru/odin-narod-dve-vershiny/).
The biggest difference anyone can point to in their way of life is that the Karachays who live in wooded lowlands build their houses from wood while the Balkars who live in areas without major forests build their houses out of stone, Tamara Geriyeva, an elder of the Balkar people says.
The name Karachay comes from the Turkic “kara” which means black or great and “chay” which means “river.” Thus, the name Karachay translates roughly as “Great River.” Balkar in turn comes from the original self-designation of the people as Malkar, which some link to the name of the local river but the influence may have flowed in the opposite direction.
When the Karachays and Balkars speak among themselves or with each other, they refer to themselves as Alan. But there is a historical difference that led the Soviets to divide them as it has. The Balkars living north of the river and fearing Russian attack joined Russia voluntarily while the Karachays living south of it fought until they were conquered.
In Soviet times, they remained divided administratively: the Karachays lived within the Karachayevo-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast which was part of Stavropol Kray while the Balkars lived in the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Republic, which was an independent region within the RSFSR.
After the USSR disintegrated, on April 21, 1992, Karachayevo-Cherkessia was elevated to the status of an autonomous republic. According to the 2010 Russian census, there are 125,000 Balkars in the KBR and 218,000 Karachays in the Karachayevo-Cherkess Republic, for a total of 343,000.
After 1991, the divided people gained the opportunity to form common interregional organizations. The most important of these, linking the Karachays and Balkars together and promoting a common Turkic identity is Elbrusoid, which even has its own radio station (elbrusoid.org/).