The republic of Karachay-Cherkessia is located in the north-western part of the North Caucasus highlands. In the east separated from the Balkars and the Kabards by Mt. Elbrus, in the north and west they border with the Cherkess, Nogay and Abaza, in the south with the Abkhazians and Svanetians.

The Karachay are closely related to the Balkars, and also to Nogay and Kumyk. Descendants of local Caucasian tribes settled since the Bronze Age and pastoralist tribes (the Alans, Bulgarians, Kypchaks). After the Mongolian invasion Karachay ancestors were driven to canyons in the North Caucasus. In the 16-18th c., they resisted Crimean khans and had contacts with Dagestan, Transcaucasia, Greater Kabardia, and Russia.

The Karachay came under Russia's control in 1828 and many left for Turkey after the land reform of the 1870s which gave the Karachay land to tsarist officials. The Soviet administrative policy separated culturally and linguistically related peoples to prevent any resistance in the North Caucasus. Administrative units after the Revolution: Karachayevo Okrug (1920), Karachayevo-Cherkessiya AO (1922); Karachayevo Oblast (1926) had 55,000 Karachais and was liquidated in 1943 in connection with Stalin's deportations of the Karachay to Central Asia and Kazakhstan (tens of thousands died).

After the return of Karachay to their historical homeland in 1957, the Karachayevo-Cherkessiya AO was re-established. In 1991, the Karachay were completely rehabilitated and the AO assumed the status of autonomous republic. Karachay identify themselves according to the clan/canyon where they live (four clan groups) rather than with the whole ethnic group. Strong anti-Russian and anti-Soviet sentiment.

Karachay have perceived themselves as victims of prejudicial treatment, particularly with respect to entrance to universities and employment. They have been unable to assume socially or politically sensitive positions. The directors of many Karachay schools have been Russians. The Karachay have announced their desire to secure their separate autonomy and to secure "complete rehabilitation". The Karachay-Cherkess Supreme Soviet supported the Karachay demands and potentially conflicting territorial claims appear to have been resolved peacefully.

The Cherkess 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. Those Adygey that stayed in the west, became known as the Cherkess. Early in the 16th c., the Cherkess came in contact with the Ottomans through the Crimean Khanate, and by the early 1800s they had converted to Sunni Islam.

During the mid-19th c., when the Shamil Revot against Russia spread throughout the Caucasus, the Cherkess maintained neutrality. But still, after the Russians had established firm control over the region in the 1860s, there was a mass exodus of Cherkess and other Circassians to Turkey. The early Soviet period brought many changes to the Cherkess and the other Circassian peoples, as the region became heavily industrialised, and due to Bolshevik campaigns against Islam. Before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Cherkess were generally lumped together with the Adygey and the Kabards 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.

The Cherkess were subjected to a seemingly endless round of administrative manipulations designed to keep them separate from other Circassian peoples and at the same time always in a minority position within administrative borders. It started in 1922, with the establishment of a Cherkess AO that was almost immediately merged with the Adygey AO. In 1928, the Cherkess AO was reestablished, and later the Cherkess were combined with the ethnically distinct Karachay in the Karachay- Cherkess AO. The administrative borders thus separated the Cherkess from the other Circassians, the Kabards and the Adygey.

Karachay-Cherkessia was occupied by the Germans from 1943 to 1944, and when the Red Army recaptured the area, Stalin decided that the Turkic peoples had been disloyal. Many Karachay were deported, accused of collaborating with the Germans. The Cherkess population was never deported. The situation of titular nationalities in the Northern Caucasus has been complicated by the sharing of territory by more than one titular nationality (Karachay and Cherkess). They are currently in the process of negotiating their separation. Inter-ethnic relations in the republic have been relatively peaceful. Perhaps as a consequence of this, representatives of the non-Russian nationalities have devoted much attention to the development of national culture. As in Kabardino-Balkaria, the most prominent movement for nationality in Karachaevo-Cherkessia is that of a formerly deported group - the Karachay.

The Abazas are very close to, and often included in, the group of Circassian peoples (together with Cherkess, Adygey and Kabards). They are also very close to the Abkhaz, and both these groups call themselves "Apswa". The Abazas are aboriginals of the Caucasus, and until the 14th century lived on the Black Sea coast in the area between the rivers Tuapse and Bsybyu. From the 14th-17th century they migrated to the rivers of Laba, Urup, the Big and the Little Zelenchuk, Kuban, and Teberda in present-day Karachay-Cherkessia - their present location. Here they came into contact with Islam, to which the majority was converted during the 18th c. There was still a Christian population in the Ashkharsk group up to the 19th c. The territory of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya was annexed by Russia in the first half of the 19th century, but Russian, Ukrainian and Cossack settlements had begun already in the 16th c. The Abazas were outnumbered already in the 18th c., and there were frequent smaller conflicts over land rights and cultural differences. During the Russo-Turkish wars in 1828-29, the Abazas along with the other Circassians fought against the Russians. The Abazas, living on the open steppes, were especially vulnerable to exterminatory attacks by the Russians. During the Shamil revolt from 1834 to 1858, the Abazas were split, as the Tapanta sided with the Russians, while the Ashkawara supported Shamil. In the 1840s and 50s, the Abazas still didn't have a defined territory, Abaza villages were to be found along many rivers. After the Caucasus wars of 1817-1864, 30-45,000 Abazas emigrated to Turkey. Also in the 1860s many Abazas were moved/deported from the mountains to the plains, where bigger villages were established artficially. By the end of the 19th c., the Abazas had been drastically reduced in numbers. From the very beginning, Soviet policy was committed to the Russification of Abaza culture, but government attempts to assimilate the Abazas have not been successful. They are still committed Sunni Muslims, continue to function in traditional economic ways, speak their native language, and remain loyal to their family traditions.

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