views updated May 23 2018


ETHNONYMS: The Balkars or Malkars are designated by other peoples in over a dozen ways, including Alan, Asi (Osi), Asiat, Balqar, Basiani, Basman, Belkyur, Bulgar, Malkan, Malqar, Musavi, Osson, Ovsi, and Saviar. Their most general self-designation is "Taulu" (i.e., mountaineer). The term "Malkar" (or Balkar) in the past was used only for the inhabitants of the ravine on the East Cherek River. Russian documents on the Balkars call them "Mountain Tatars" or refer to the "mountain communes of Kabardia."


Identification and Location. The Balkars or Taulus are a constituent population of the former USSR, administratively part of the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, which is part of the Russian Republic. A small number of Balkars live in Central Asia and Kazakhstan. The northern part of the population is located in the highest mountain strip of the central Caucasus. Most of the Balkars live in the mountains and foothills of the southwestern part of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Over 80 percent of Balkar territory lies more than 2,000 meters above sea level. The main Caucasus chain includes the mountains Elbrus (5,633 meters), Shkhara (5,200 meters), Dykhtau (5,198 meters), Koshtau (5,145 meters), and others. The river valleys are cut deep into the mountains, forming gorges, pits, and canyons, the majority of which are very eroded. Avalanches and mountain torrents follow the courses or channels of these formations. The canyons afford protection from the cold northern winds in winter and from the heat of the flatlands in summer; the climate in these valleys is temperate-continental.

The vegetative zones are made up of strips of forest brakes and yellow rhododendron, changing to conifers as the elevation increases, then to subalpine meadows with thickets of Caucasian rhododendron and low-lying alpine grasses, which in turn yield to lichenous scree.

The mountain fauna include various birds, most noticeably the indigenous Caucasian ular. But the most characteristic animals of the high mountains are the varieties of Caucasian mountain goats: the chegemo-bezengli, the balkar, and the sugam. Also inhabiting this region are wolves, brown bears, stags, wild boars, andrarelylynx and leopards.

Demography. The population is small: in the middle of the nineteenth century, the number of Balkars did not exceed 10,000; in 1897, the census counted 23,100; in 1926, 33,300; in 1939, 42,600; in 1959, 42,400; in 1979, 66,000; and in 1989, 86,000. Today more than half of the Balkars live in the foothills and in the cities of Nal'chik, Chegem, and Baksan. In terms of physical anthropology, the Balkars are typical representatives of the Mountain Caucasian type.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Balkars speak the Karachay-Balkar language, which belongs to the Kipchak Subgroup of the West Hunnic Branch of the Turkic Language Family. The Karachay-Balkar language inherited traits of the Kuman, Bulgar-Khazar, and Oghuz languages. The Balkar lexicon contains words borrowed from Iranian (Ossetic), Arabic, Greek, Caucasian, and Slavic languages. The following dialects can be distinguished on phonological grounds: Baksan-Chegem, Malkar, and the mixed dialect Khulamo-Bezengi. There is a distinct dialect for almost every valley. Among dead languages, the closest to Karachay-Balkar are Old Bulgar and Kuman-Kipchak, and among living languages the closest are Kumyk, Crimean Tatar, and the Karaite languages. In 1979, 96.9 percent of Baikars claimed Baikar as their native language (Bennigsen and Wimbush 1986, 203).

History and Cultural Relations

The origins of the Balkar people have not yet been definitively established: various hypotheses have associated them with the Huns, the Khazars, the Bulgars, the Alans, the Zikhs, the Brukhs, the Kipchaks (Qïpchaqs, Polovtsians), the Vengrians, the Chekhs, the Mongol Tatars, the Crimean Tatars, and Turkicized Japhetic groups. Some contemporary scholars attribute their origin to a cultural conglomeration of northern Caucasian tribes with the Iranian-speaking Alans and with Turkish-speaking tribes, among which the most significant were probably the Black Bulgars and the Western Kipchaks. Elements of Balkar culture indicate a long association with the Near East, the Mediterranean, the rest of the Caucasus, and Russia. In the pre-Mongol period (before the thirteenth century) the Balkars were part of the Alan union of tribes, but after the Mongol invasion they retreated into the canyons of the central Caucasus.

According to native ethnogenetic traditions, the Balkars originally settled in the basin of the main Balkar canyon, where the hunter Malkar found success and called his companions Misaka and Basiat of Majar (or Madyar) to join him. The oldest written information about this canyon dates from the fourteenth century and can be found in a Georgian epigraph on a golden cross in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Tskhovati, South Ossetia: the text refers to the canyon in question as "Basianian." In more recent times, in Russian sources, the Balkar population is also referred to as "Basian" and "Balxar."

Legends and chronicles describe the irruption into the fastnesses of Tamerlane's men, who intended to ascend the heights of Mount. Elbrus. The Balkars are mentioned in west European and Turkish chronicles at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Balkars together with the Kabardians mounted a resistance to the Crimean Gireys and maintained relations with Georgia and Russia. In 1827 the Balkars finally became Russian citizens, fixing their loyalty through the institution of amanat (with hostages). Since that time the Balkars have avoided the various tumultuous Russian-Caucasian events of the last century. Only a few persons from leading families took part on the side of the Russian armies in the Crimean War (1854-1856), the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878), and the Russo-Japanese War (1905). At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a small segment of the Balkars (Chegems and Basians) emigrated to Turkey and Syria. After the civil war and the establishment of Soviet power in 1920, the Balkars were integrated into the structure of the USSR and assigned their own national-territorial unit. In early 1944 the Balkars were subjected to a mass deportation to parts of Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan. At the beginning of 1957 the Balkar territory was reestablished and most Balkars returned to their native localities.

Language and Literacy. In the Cyrillic alphabet as used by the Karachay-Balkars there are eight vowels and twenty-seven consonants. In the past the official written languages were Arabic for religious services and Turkish for business matters. From 1920 on Balkar has been the language of instruction in primary schools; subsequent instruction is carried out in Russian. Until 1928 Arabic letters were used to write the Balkar language and after that (in 1937), Cyrillic. Ninety-six percent of the population is bilingual in Balkar and Russian. Organs of mass culture, secondary school texts, newspapers, and magazines in both Balkar and Russian continue to increase in number.


The traditional Balkar settlement was in the mountains and could comprise one or several kinship groups. Since the end of the nineteenth century settlements in the foothills and, in part, in the plains have been increasing. Traditional Balkar settlements are terraced and compact, located on the slopes of mountains. At the end of the nineteenth century there were eighteen hamlets (Russian: otsyolki ) in Cherek, seven in Khulamo-Bezengi, twenty-two in Chegem, and twenty-three in Baksan. Such settlements are either single- or multiclan units. In the multiclan villages there is evidence of territorial organization according to individual clans (tukhum), which together constitute a neighborhood (tiyre). Settlements are found in places that are not suitable for agricultural use. For safety reasons, residential and farm buildings of the family commons constitute a complex with a closed-off courtyard, the jabïlghan arbaz.

On mountain slopes and amid dwellings, medieval stone towers and fortresses (qala ) were preserved: both square (in Chegem) and narrowing toward the top (Kyunlyum and elsewhere). The towers are ascribed to individual families (Abaev, Balkarukov, Zhaboev, etc.), whereas fortresses (e.g., at Torturkala) were intended for the defense of the entire canyon from attack from both the mountains and the plains. Towers and fortresses were built with three to five stories, depending on the period. The Balkars were also situated according to seasonal settlements: winter or summer nomad "tents" (stone or wattle-and-daub structures with open hearths). Dwellings were daubed with clay on the inside and the outside. The one-meter-thick earthen roof of the house called for a massive crisscross structure of wooden beams and vertical supports.

The older types of Balkar dwellings were semisubterranean, stone, one-room houses. Next to the main one-room dwelling, a row of dwellings for young couples (otoú ) would be built. The construction work was carried on through collective help (ziuyu), and even today the laying of the foundation takes place with a ceremonyan evening of sacrifices and oblations, the salutation (alghïsh), and a special dance, the tepana. The interior of the dwelling was reminiscent of the ancient culture of the nomads. The living room was divided into two parts, one for men and one for women, that is, an "honored part" and a "nonhonored part." On the honored side, beside the sacred hearth, the guests and older men were seated, whereas the women and children were in the nonhonored part. Food for the extended family was prepared in the main quarters but special places were set aside for the preparation of ritual food. Food was taken on low stools, in a strict order starting with the children.

Every communal group (rarely, every settlement) had a place for its mosque and a small square, the nïghïsh, where the men assembled. Since the end of the nineteenth century the structure of the new settlements in the plains has been undergoing modernization; two-storied, multiroom houses with porches have been appearing. The roofs of the houses were covered with iron or planks, later with tile and slate. The interior of the contemporary dwelling is in the urban style. Buildings are being constructed of stone (particularly the first floor), brick, and, rarely, wood. The plan of the house must include rooms for the guest (s) (qonaq yuy)y for the large table (ullu yuy), and for the small table (khant yuy).


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Balkars practice animal husbandry, raising Karachay sheep, mountain goats, cattle, horses, and donkeys. Winter pastures used to belong to the whole clan, whereas irrigated hay fields were owned by individual households. Livestock remained out of doors on the summer pasture grounds from May to October, but during the winter they were kept in temporary shelters; permanent structures were found only in the family's winter quarters.

These mountaineers used extraordinary care in preparing the land for cultivation. The plots, which had been won from a harsh nature, were heritable property. The price of this much-exploited soil was fabulously high. Such plots were measured in terms of the quantity of sheaves harvested. Renting of the land was practiced (begenda), as was communal pasturage. The traditional branches of the economy still play the basic role today, but a large part of the population works on sovkhozy, kolkhozy, cooperatives, etc.

Clothing. The Turco-Caucasian tradition can be observed in the clothing of the Balkars. Quilted coats and Caucasian felt coats and cowls were traded with neighbors; these items, together with fur hats and cherkeskas (long collarless coats), constituted the military outfit of the Cossacks. Women's clothing, particularly the ceremonial apparel of young girls, was identical to that of the Kabardians and Ossetes. Wealthy women wore a large bib (tyuyme), with long fastenings and large ornaments, and a decorative silver belt (kyamar). The young woman's cap was in the form of a high or truncated cone, richly decorated with festoons and gold or silver stitchingthe remnant of an ancient Turkic tradition.

Food. The Balkar cuisine is a synthesis of ancient Turko-Caucasian and contemporary cultures. The basic diet included meat: mutton, beef, goat, and horse meat; the meat of the roe deer, Caucasian mountain goat, and the stag were considered delicacies, as was boar meat before the Islamic period. When skinning and cutting up the carcasses of sheep and goats, they preserved the ancient Turko-Caucasian technique of separating the joints so that sixteen or twenty-four portions would result. Important components of the Balkar diet were sour boiled milk (ayran ) and kefir.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, Balkar women were known in the region as skillful seamstresses. They spun wool, made cloth, and fulled the large pieces of felt for which they are renowned; they then adorned this felt with rolled-in designs, encrusted ornaments, or appliqué work. The ornamentation of felt included various geometric and stylized animal, plant, and flower designs. Wool or fabric was tinted with plant dyes (and, since the end of the nineteenth century, artificial dyes). The Balkars have created a new economic base in the working of wool and down and the manufacture of formerly unknown products such as sweaters, jumpers, jackets, women's dresses, caps, scarves, socks, mittens, and so forth. The work of master seamstresses is in great demand in the resort markets of the Caucasus and in the North and the Far East. Since ancient times the Balkar mountaineers have extracted lead, cast bullets, made gunpowder from saltpeter, and smelted steel from iron ore. Gunsmiths made rifles for trade with neighbors. As in earlier times, Balkar women tend to be occupied with domestic workfamily care, kitchen chores, needleworkwhile at the same time engaging actively in small trade involving the output of female arts and crafts.


Kin Groups and Descent. Residues of clan (tukhum ) organization have survived among the Balkars. The tukhums are divided into smaller structures: patrilineages, patriarchal communes (antaul), and monogamous families (yuyur). Each tukhum has its own cemetery. Some of the patrilineages are traced back patronymically to a founding father or matronymically to a founding mother and enjoy great prestige and communal privilege. The names of clan founders are thus preserved in the dual system of the Balkars, although blood ties on the father's side are considered more prestigious than those on the mother's side. A system of unequal kinship groups was the basis of Balkar class structure but has now lost its former significance.

Kinship Terminology. The bilateral kinship terminology of the Balkars is descriptive: ata (father), ana (mother), qart ata [qart, "old"] (grandfather), qart ana (grandmother), etc. Collateral kin terms include: qarïndash (brother), and egech (sister); in the next generation: ata qarnash (father's brother), ana qarnash (mother's brother), etc. The second cousin is called eki qarnashdan tuughan, "one born from brothers," and so forth. The terms for affinity through marriage preserve traces of the common Turkic system: kelin (daughter-in-law), kyuey (son-in-law), qayïn ana (mother-in-law), qayïn ata (father-in-law), qayïn (brother-in-law), and qayïn qïz (sister-in-law).

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage before coming of age (16-17 years old) was not approved. Premarital relations between younger people were relatively free. Matchmakers participated in arranging the marriage. The groom's mother's brother was considered the honorary matchmaker and, thereafter, co-parent-in-law. Traditionally marriage was monogamous. Quranic norms (Sharia) were not widely observed, but customary law (adat ) enforced strict exogamy. The nobility (tuabiy ) only married within their social class. Kinship with the Ossetian Badilyats and Aldars was considered prestigious, as were relations with the Kabardian Pshi and Tlokothlesh. Divorce was not common. The initiative for it came from the husband, and resort to legal bodies in matters of divorce was rare.

Domestic Unit. Residence was patrilocal. Although the small (nuclear) family prevailed, Balkars preserved the tradition of the extended family until the end of the nineteenth century. In Khulam, for example, an eighty-three-person household with a courtyard was noted. In the days of extended families, the head was the oldest male, and this practice continued in small families in the Soviet period. When an extended family separated, plots of land were divided among the men according to the laws of inheritance, with the youngest son eventually inheriting the parents' share (atalïq-analïq ). The final decline of the extended family commune occurred in the Soviet period.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Balkar society was traditionally divided into a "white bone" (aq syuek ) and a "black bone" (qara syuek). The aristocratic class consisted of basiyat (elders) and the tuabiy (mountain prince). The uzden (free peasant) class was the most numerous. The dependent class was divided into freed slaves and domestic slaves. Even now social memory preserves in a residual form awareness of the former social ranks, especially in regard to marriage arrangements.

Political Organization. The elders held the powers of government, which in earlier times were confirmed at a public assembly and later were designated by central authorities.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Balkars are Masgaba Khanbali (Sunni Muslims). Islam took a long time to become established and only definitively triumphed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Traces of pagan concepts can be seen in rituals: at times of drought people say prayers; they douse each other with water; they dress up dolls or frogs and "drown" them in water. The household is protected from the evil eye by means of a horse's skull; a horseshoe is nailed over the threshold for good luck; people and livestock wear amulets and talismans (dua). During a lunar eclipse the Balkars make noise with metallic objects so that the monster Jelmauuz will not devour the moon. To prevent harm to livestock that have strayed from the herd, they have recourse to the ritual of "binding the teeth" of predatory animals. Balkar mythology, like Balkar art as a whole, has preserved to the present day components of diverse epochs: the high godhead of the ancient Turks (Teiri or Tengri) and lesser deities that have been adapted to the Caucasian milieu. The most recent addition is the Islamic eschatology with its terminology and customs.

Arts. Together with other peoples of the Caucasus, the Balkars inherited the heroic epics of the Narts, preserving both the sung and the prose versions. The performers of the N art songs are men called zhekuao.. There are also professional keeners, ritual lamenters called sarïnchïla. In the Soviet period the singers, both male and female, have formed professional musical and theatrical ensembles and independent collectives: the repertoires of O. Sottaev and A. Biychekkueva include about a thousand folk songs, and Z. Altueva knows hundreds of lyric songs. Balkar literature includes the works of folklorists, bards (zhïrchï), and writers of various genres. The first works appeared toward the end of the nineteenth century (Orusbievy, K. Mechiev, M. Abaev). Among contemporaries the following stand out: S. Shakhmarzaev, K. Kuliev, I. Otarov, T. Zumakulova, Z. Zalikhanov, etc. Among prominent scientists are the geophysicist M. Zalikhanov, the nuclear physicist S. Eneev, and many professors of medicine, biology, etc.

The Balkar musical instruments that merit mention are the sïbïzghï (a kind of flute), the sïrïyna (a reed instrument), the qobuz (accordion), the qïlqobuz (similar to a violin), and the khars (a rattle, to beat out time). Rare indeed is the mountaineer man or woman who cannot dance such popular dances as the abezek and (Lezginka), dances for couples such as the ayaq byukgen, and group dances such as the tegerek, tepzey, and the sandïraq.

Medicine. In the fight against illness, believed to result from the machinations of spirits, some Balkars use magic techniques such as casting spells and divination. Methods derived from Oriental medicine are also in use (bloodletting and the use of heat, fats, and potions). There were also bonesetters and midwives. Scientific medicine is making advances: medical workers practice in all villages and in the larger settlements; in the cities there are clinics and hospitals. There have been notable successes in the area of surgery.

Death and Afterlife. For the dead, wakes and funeral banquets (ash) are held on the seventh and fifty-second days; there is a monthly ritual (chëk ) and a yearly one, at which time the maulut is readthe Balkar-Karachay variant of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. Belief in an afterlife takes the form of distribution of gifts to the have-nots (sadaqa ) and payments for the support of the mosque (zekat). Certain dietary restrictions are observed.

See also Karachays


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 226-230. London: KPI.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush (1986). Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, 201-204. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

IBRAGIM MAGOMEDOVICH SHAMANOV (Translated by Paul Friedrich)


views updated Jun 11 2018


The Balkars are a small ethnic group in the northwest Caucasus. They are one of the titular nationalities of the autonomous Karbardino-Balkar Republic in the Russian Federation. In the 1989 Soviet Census, they numbered 85,126. Of that number, 93 percent considered Balkar to be their native language, while 78 percent considered themselves fluent in Russian as a second language. This means that nearly all adults spoke Russian to some extent.

The Balkar language is essentially identical to the Karachay language, spoken in the Karachay-Cherkess Republic. This split is an example of the way in which some languages were fractured into smaller groups for the sake of creating smaller ethnic identities. The Karachay-Balkar language itself is a member of the Ponto-Caspian group of western Turkic languages. Other languages closely related are Kumyk in Dagestan, Karaim in Lithuania, and the Judeo-Crimean Tatar language of Uzbekistan.

Following the general pattern of alphabet politics in the Soviet Union, Balkar was written with an Arabic script until 1924, from 1924 to 1937 with a Latin alphabet, and finally from 1937 to the present in a modified Cyrillic. A modest number of books were published in Balkar during the Soviet period. From 1984 to 1985, for example, fifty-eight titles were published. This is a reasonable number in the Soviet context for the size of their group and for sharing an ethnic jurisdiction. This number is higher than some of the Dagestani peoples who had larger populations, but no jurisdiction of their own.

The Balkar people, as Turks, find themselves surrounded by Circassians and their close neighbors in the northwest Caucasus. They are linguistically a remnant of Turkish groups who migrated along the Eurasian steppe. Historically, in addition to the disruptions of the nineteenth-century Russian conquest of the Caucasus, the Balkars were one of the peoples who suffered deportation at the end of World War II for their alleged collaboration with the Nazis. They were allowed to return in the 1950s, but only after experiencing a significant diminution of their population. The alienation of exile has been compounded by the ongoing difficulty of returning to territory that had, in the meantime, been occupied by outsiders. Post-Soviet ethnic conflict has followed along these contours.

See also: caucasus; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist


Ethnologue <>.

Hill, Fiona. (1995). Russia's Tinderbox: Conflict in the North Caucasus and Its Implication for the Future of the Russian Federation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

Karny, Yo'av. (2000). Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Paul Crego