Historical and ethnological research on Balkar origins suggests that they are descendants of a complex fusion of Hunni, Karachay, Kypchak, Khazar, Bulgarian, Alan and Caucasic peoples. Linguistic roots are Turkic.

Until the mid-18th c., the Balkars were pastoralists who followed an animist religion, when Crimean Tatars and Nogay introduced Islam among them. Because of ethnic tensions, the Balkars gradually migrated to higher altitudes in the mountains.

During the years of the Shamil revolt in Dagestan (1834-58), conversion to Islam accelerated. In 1827, Balkariya became the first North-Caucasian area to be conquered by the Russians. Due to large-scale immigration of ethnic Russians, more and more pastoral land was converted to agriculture, and the Balkar's traditional lifestyle changed increasingly towards farming and stock raising.

In 1921 the Balkar District was established under Soviet power. In 1922, it became part of the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous province, that in 1936 was made an autonomous republic. In 1943/44, many Balkars were deported and scattered throughout Kazakhstan and Central Asia, accused of having cooperated with the Germans. This caused a severe population decline. For a period the Balkars weren't even recognized as a separate people.

In 1957 - after Stalin - they were permitted to return. There are still a few Balkars scattered around Central Asia, but the majority now live in the Kabardino Balkar autonomous republic. Today, the ethnic identity is growing stronger, but there is hardly any political outlet for it, as the Balkars constitute only 9% of the population in Kabardino-Balkariya. Because of that demographic reality, many Balkar leaders are opting for Pan-Turkic nationalism. In 1991, they joined the Assembly of Turkic peoples, which consisted of Azerbaijanis, Kumyks, Nogay and Balkars.

The Kabards are descended from Caucasian tribes who called themselves Adygey. They originated in the Kuban basin, adopted Christianity in the 12th c. They were pressed eastward by the invasion of the Mongol Golden Horde in the 13th c. Some of the Adygey mixed with local Alan peoples (from whom the Ossetians developed), and eventually became known as the Kabards. By the 15th c., the region on the left bank of the Terek river became known as Greater Kabardia, while the region on the right bank was known as little Kabardia. Those living in the westernmost parts became known as the Cherkess.

Early in the 16th c., the Kabards came in contact with th Ottomans through the Crimean Khanate, and by the early 1800s they had converted to Sunni Islam.

In 1739, the Treaty of Belgrade established Kabardia as a neutral state, a buffer zone, between the Ottomans and Russia. In 1774, Kabardia became Russian territory through the Treaty of Kucuk Kainardji. During the mid-19th c., when the Shamil Revot against Russia spread throughout the Caucasus, the Kabards maintained neutrality. But still, after the Russians had established firm control over the region in the 1860s, there was a mass exodus of Kabards to Turkey.

The early Soviet period brought many changes to the Kabards and the other Circassian peoples, as the region became heavily industrialised, and due to Bolshevik campaigns against Islam. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Kabards were generally lumped together with the Adygey and the Cherkess as a Circassian people, but in the 1920s, the Circassians were redefined by the Soviets into two ethnic groups, the Cherkess and the Kabards. Late in the 1930s, Soviet authorities again redrew the ethnic lines subdividing the Circassians, now creating three groups - Adygey in the west, Cherkess in the middle and Kabards in the east. In 1921, the autonomous territory of Kabardino-Balkaria was created, and in 1936 it was upgraded to an autonomous republic. The administrative borders thus separated the Kabards from the other Circassians, the Cherkess and the Adygey.

Source: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs [NUPI] - Centre for Russian Studies
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