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ETHNONYM: Qarachaylï


Identification and Location. The Karachays inhabit the northern Caucasus in the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast (AO) of the Stravropolski Krai, in the following districts (raions ): Karachay, Malo-Karachay, Zelenchuk, Ust'-Jegutin, and Prikuban. In 1990 the Karachay-Cherkess AO became an autonomous republic, the Karachay-Cherkess ASSR. Contemporary Karachay occupies three ecological zones. The first is the high mountain zone, Great Karachay, containing one of the major peaks of the Caucasus, Mount Elbruz (5,133 meters), rich alpine pastures, and the source of one of the major rivers of the western Caucasus, the Kuban. The second zone, the Little Karachay, is comprised of low mountains and hills, with a mild climate and land suitable for cultivation. The third zone consists of plains with a dry climate and winter pastures.

Demography. There were 55,000 Karachays listed in the 1926 census; this had increased to 125,800 by 1979.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Karachay language belongs to the Kipchak (Qïpchaq) or Northwestern Group of the Turkic languages. Specialists have noted numerous borrowings from the Ossetian language. In the past, when their language lacked a writing system, the Karachays used Arabic (also the language of instruction in the Muslim schools), whereas Russian was used for business purposes. (The first Russian school was opened in 1879.) A Karachay alphabet with Latin characters was devised in 1924 but was replaced in 1939 with a Cyrillic-based script. There is some discussion at present (1992) of returning to a Latin-based alphabet.

History and Cultural Relations

Various points of view exist in contemporary scholarship regarding the origin of the Karachays. Some think that the primary role was played by the Kipchaks or Polovtsiansgroups which, under pressure from the Mongols in the thirteenth century, went into the mountains of the central Caucasus, where the Iranian-speaking Alans were living. Groups of Alans, assimilated by the Turkic Polovtsians, constituted the nucleus of the Karachay people. In the opinion of other scholars it was earlier Turkic-language groups that took part in the formation of the Karachay ethnic group: Hunns, Bulgars, and Khazars, who were living in the northern Caucasus in the ninth to twelfth centuries. The historical territory of the Karachays is located on the upper reaches of the Kuban: the settlements of Kart-Jürt, Uchkulan, Jazlïk, Khurzuk, and Duut. In the nineteenth century the Karachays began to migrate to lands on the middle course of the Kuban and its tributaries, such as the Teberdï River in Little Karachay. In the 1920s Karachays with little or no land began to settle on lands that had been assigned to them after the October Revolution. These are the settlements of Uchkeken, Tereze, El-Tarkach, Kichi-Balïk, Kumïsh, Sarï-Tüz, and others, a total of over twenty. In 1943 the Karachays were deported to regions of Central Asia and Kazakhstan, and their autonomous oblast was liquidated, not to be reestablished until 1957 as the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast. After the return to the northern Caucasus, part of the Karachay community remained in Central Asia and Kazakhstan.

The deportations, many believe, dealt a serious blow to Karachay ethnic identity, weakening the transmission of language and culture. Another tragic consequence of this event was the destruction of Karachay graves and sacred sites by those who resettled the territory during the time of exile. With the rise of nationalism in the early 1990s, the deportations, as an event experienced by all strata of society, have considerable resonance as a rallying point for the Karachays.


The settlements in Great Karachay were large and included several quarters (tiyre ), each of them settled by the members of one familial-kinship commune. Houses in the settlements were laid out haphazardly, abutting closely on one another. There were no gardens. Livestock were kept at camps, that is, at the temporary dwellings of herdsmen outside the settlement, and, in summer, in the alpine pastures. Around the settlements were plow lands and irrigated hay fields. The settlements in Little Karachay were not as compact nor divided into patronymic quarters.

The dwelling, or yuy, was constructed of pine, which grows in abundance in the Karachay Mountains. The traditional dwelling was oblong and of cut timber. The roof had two sloping surfaces to allow the heavy rains to run off, and an earthen cover a meter thick. Along the front side the inhabitants attached an awning on supporting pillars. Light penetrated the dwelling through a smoke hole above the fire. Small windows could be closed with sliding shutters. Within the house there was a large space, to which was adjoined a storeroom for food. For heat there was a fireplace built into the wall, with a wide chimney fashioned out of withies and daubed with clay, which rose high above the roof. The more archaic sort of hearth consisted of an open fire that was kindled in the middle of the dwelling on the earthen floor. This hearth was used for a long time in the older buildings and in the camps. The inner space of the Karachay house was divided into two halves. Farther from the door, behind the hearth, was the honored male half (tër ), where the men and the male guests were seated (unless there was a special guest area or guest house, the qonoq yuy ). The bed or couch of the head of the family, resembling a wooden sofa with three backrests, was located here as well. Closer to the door was the half for women and children, where household jobs were performed and the dishes and kitchen utensils were kept. In a large undivided household, a special dwelling for the married sons with a separate exit into the yard was constructed next to the main dwelling in which the parents, unmarried young people, and children lived. This special building, the otoú, was used for sleeping and for preparing food, whereas the main house served as the center of family life.

Farm buildings were either separate from the dwellings or added on to them. As late as the nineteenth century, covered courtyards (bashï jabïlghan arbaz ) with towers, dwellings, and byres, like a closed-off polygon, were common. The closed-off courtyard was covered with an earthen roof supported by thick pillars; its main exit to the street had massive doors. The arbaz could be 4 or 5 meters high. There were no windows, although sometimes openings were made in the roof. Within these covered yards hay, firewood, wool, felt, felt coats, and other property were stored. During family festivals, dances and reception of guests took place there. The arbazes were occupied by individual family groups with many members and, when necessary, served as fortresses. Formerly livestock were kept in the arbaz during winter, for which it was divided with poles into sections, each serving for one type of livestock. In the nineteenth century separate houses for married sons began to be built, which did not always adjoin the arbaz.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century the traditional Karachay dwelling began to change. Large glass windows and wooden floors and ceilings were introduced, and within the house Russian cooking ranges replaced fireplaces. There also appeared a new type of house, built of wood and stucco with an iron roof, not infrequently two stories high with a porch running around the entire house. Even when the dwellings include a modern house with a gas stove, rural Karachay women do most of their cooking on the hearth, in the room with the earthen floor.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economic base of the Karachays was distant pasturing of livestock (sheep, goats, cattle). In summer the livestock were taken to mountain pastures; during winter they were kept in the forested fields of the southern slopes or on pasturelands rented in the valleys. Livestock were sold in Transcaucasia. Dairy products were prepared at homecheese, ayran (sour milk), kefir, and butter. Agriculture was weakly developed because of the inadequacy of arable land (used, in general, to raise barley and maize). Wheat was purchased in the valley settlements.

Clothing. Karachay clothing was, for the most part, of the traditional northern Caucasian type. One component of both female and male apparel was a tunic-shaped undershirt and underpants. Men's outer clothing included a quilted overcoat (qabdal ), beneath which was worn a long narrow collarless Circassian coat (chebken ) and cotton pants. The chebken was worn with a leather belt with silver ornamentation, from which a dagger was hung. Shepherds had a special outfit: a long felt cloak or wrap with a hood. In winter at the camps or on the road during rainfall they would don a felt greatcoat (jamchï ). The headgear (bërk ) was a sheepskin winter cap, and in summer a felt hat with a brim (except in bad weather, when a cloth cowl was worn). Footwear was fashioned out of rawhide, like a peasant bast shoe, with stitching down the middle of the sole. This shoe, the chabïr, was worn on the bare foot with a cushioning layer of dried grass. The more prosperous Karachays wore footwear of morocco leather with a soft sole. Women's outer clothing consisted of a dress worn open near the top, like the men's chebken, and a long gown, like a man's quilted coat. Women girded themselves with a silver belt (kämar ), although poorer folk wore a sash of ordinary weave. In winter the older women wore a sheepskin coat or a long quilted coat, whereas young women threw a warm shawl over their shoulders. Headgear varied according to social status and age. Women of the more privileged classes wore high velvet caps decorated with gold or silver stitching or low caps with flat tops. Over the cap they would tie a kerchief. After the birth of her first child the woman donned a black kerchief instead of a cap, tied around the head by a special knot (chokh ). Above this the woman put on another kerchief, the manner of binding depending on the time of year and her age. Their footwear was of rawhide, although upper-class women wore shoes with wooden supports. Depending on social class and condition, dresses were sewn from domestically produced cloth or expensive purchased fabriccalico, velvet, or silk. A costly holiday dress would be decorated with galloons, gold stitching, and silver bosses, and the caftan gown was fastened with silver clasps over the breast. At festivals women wore long embroidered appendages (jeng uch ) attached to the sleeves.

In the Soviet and post-Soviet periods clothing styles have modernized. Urban dwellers wear European-style clothing, as do men in the countryside. Rural teenage and adult women, without exception, cover their heads in public. Only the elderly women continue to wear the traditional black head scarf. It should be noted that rural Karachay women take great pride in their long, thick hair. They say that keeping the hair of girls very short, until about age 7, subsequently causes the hair to grow thick and strong.

Food. The products of animal husbandry always constituted the base of the traditional diet. Sour milk (ayran) from goats was especially prized. (Ayran was also prepared from cow's and sheep's milk.) It was eaten every day, either as a separate dish or with cornbread. Often the Karachays would crumble a flat cake into a cup of sour milk, to which they added sour cream, honey, or sugar. This dish was called chanchkhan. Ayran was also eaten with grits (kak ). Another popular dairy product was kefir (gïpï ). Cheese from sheep's, goat's, or cow's milk was an everyday food, and sour cream, curds, and cream could be purchased in the urban markets of the northern Caucasus. The Karachays also churned butter. They prepared a dish known as mereze from curds fried in butter, to which maize flour was added. Meat dishes were important in the diet, especially mutton but also beef and game. A traditional type of sausage was made from liver. Meat was boiled and fried, and mutton and goat meat were dried and jerked for winter consumption. Bread was prepared from wheat flour, maize, millet, and barley, which were purchased from the inhabitants of the valley settlements. Of these, wheat was the most prized. In addition to unleavened bread, a type of leavened dough (ekmek ) was commonly made, which the Karachays learned about from the local Russians. Pies (khïchïn ), filled with cheese, meat, beet greens with cheese, or potatoes with cheese, were often baked, as were short-bread pies stuffed with eggs, rice, and raisins. To celebrate the end of springtime field labor, the Karachays baked a special so-called spring pie (khïchaman khïchïnlï ). Wild fruits, berries, and herbs were collected in the forests. In the Soviet period store-bought goods such as groats, sugar, and candy entered everyday life. The traditional drink was the beerlike boza, which the women prepared from barley or zïntkhï, a type of millet.

Industrial Arts. The production of woolen goods, such as hats and shawls, remains an important cottage industry, performed by women in the home. Some Karachay women claim that in winter, when yard work is minimal, a woman can knit up to twenty-five shawls a month, using homespun hand-dyed wool. In 1991 a woolen shawl, sold through middlemen in urban markets, could fetch up to 250 to 300 rubles (the average Soviet monthly salary). The Karachays generally perceive themselves as a people distinguished by their diligence and industriousness.

Division of Labor. There was traditionally a gender division of labor: the men worked in animal husbandry, agriculture, and wood carving; women took care of the home, prepared dairy products, made felt and cloth, embroidered, wove galloons and other adornments, and raised the children. Only women cooked food, but only men were permitted to slaughter sheep.

Land Tenure. Land ownership was of several kinds: feudal, communal, mosque property (waqf ), and private. The prominent feudal families had large plots of land of up to 1,000 hectares. Arable lands were held by families and could be sold and inherited. Forests, pasturelands, and hay fields constituted communal property. At the present time there are state farms, collective farms, and privately held property.


Kin Groups and Descent. Each Karachay belongs to a familial kinship group (tukhum ), the members of which have a common name. Earlier the tukhum occupied a section of the settlement and had common hay fields and a cemetery. Marriages are forbidden within the tukhum. The members of the tukhum are obligated to help one another. A kinship group has its own brand for marking cattle and horses. If a member of the tukhum wanted to sell a plot of land, the land had to be offered first to other relatives within the tukhum, and only if they refused to buy it could it be offered to more distant relatives, neighbors, or strangers. Around the beginning of the twentieth century the tukhums lost the characteristics of a kinship grouping; existing social structures were dissolved and the functions of the tukhumdefense, distribution of land, and general decisions concerning the villagepassed to the village commune, which maintained possession of the forests and specifically communal pasturelands. The lands of families that had left Karachay passed into the possession of the communes. The commune helped its members with irrigation projects, saw to defense, organized the upkeep of trade routes in the mountains, and so on. After the annexation of Karachay by the Russian Empire in 1828, the basic form of government became the assembly, replacing the popular gathering.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship in the patronymic group is reckoned in both the paternal and maternal lines. The kinship terminology is Turkic, the basic terms being ata (father), ana (mother), egech (sister), qarnash (brother); these could be combined to give atanï qarnashïdan tuughan (father's brother's son), ananï egechinden tuughan (mother's sister's son), and so on. Affinal kinship terminology, arising from marriage bonds between two families, uses the terms for blood relations with the addition of the word qayïn: qayïn ata (husband's or wife's father), qayïn qïz (husband's or wife's sister), and so forth.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The marriageable age for men was regarded to be about 18 to 20, and for women, about 14 to 15; in practice, men married at age 22 to 23 and women at 18. An order of marriage was observed within the family: the younger did not marry before the elder. Several marriage arrangements were common: by agreement with payment of a dowry or bride-price (qalïn ), by abduction (without the woman's consent), or by elopement (with her consent, though staged as though it were an abduction). Agreements to marry contracted between underage people were not rare (including infant betrothals), and there were also leviratic marriages. The amount of the bride-price depended on social status. A large bride-price could ruin the groom's family and yet not enrich the family of the bride, since her father was obligated to spend a great deal on gifts and hospitality. On the other hand, giving a woman in marriage without a bride-price was considered shameful. During the courtship period negotiations took place concerning the amount of the bride-price and gifts to the bride's familyusually horses to be given to her father, brothers and "milk mother" (the woman who nursed her, not necessarily her real mother). The bride-price could also be paid in livestock, money, arms, and sometimes land. The bride was supposed to bring a dowry (berne ) to her new household: dress, plates and dishes, and domestic utensils. The parents selected the bride for their son, with trusted persons serving as matchmakers; the courtship could sometimes go on for years. When an agreement was reached, a meeting for formal betrothal was arranged, attended by persons empowered to act on behalf of the fiancé. During this meeting a marital pact was concluded according to Muslim ritualin particular, the bride-price was agreed upon and the day of the wedding was set.

The wedding ceremony was presided over by the effendi in the presence of witnesses. For several days before the wedding designated persons notified the invited guests and prepared food: pies, beer, meat (mutton), and boza (a fermented beverage). Horsemen with banners met the bride at her home, although the groom himself did not participate in the procession. He met the bride at his home, where various rituals took place: a dagger was held above the bride's head, and she was showered with candy, money, and nuts. The bride, veiled by a silk kerchief, was taken to one corner of the room and remained standing there throughout the entire wedding. The wedding feast lasted three to seven days. Ten days later, the groom's family arranged a large banquet in honor of the bride's induction into their household. Before this banquet the bride was greeted by her husband's parents: the mother-in-law presented ritual pies, and the father-in-law a cup of boza or mead. One of the relatives cut off the bride's veil with the blade of his dagger, and she was again showered with candy, money, and nuts. The bride (kelin ) returned to her room; from then on she functioned as a member of the household.

The groom at first avoided his wife's parents: he kept out of their sight during the wedding and for a few days thereafter, remaining in the home of a relative or close friend. Only three or four days after the bride arrived in his home did the groom come to her, secretly at night, escorted by his friends. After that he still did not call his wife by name, addressing her by a nickname. She, for her part, observed certain obligatory avoidance practices: she could not speak to her husband's parents or elder relatives (in the case of her father-in-law, this prohibition might continue for a lifetime). After several months the bride, wearing a new dress, returned to her parents' home. Only after the son-in-law was invited by his wife's relatives to receive hospitality did his avoidance of them come to an end. The bride remained with her parents up to two years before settling permanently in her husband's household.

Domestic Unit. The basic domestic unit was the nuclear family of parents and children; extended families comprised of three or four generations were rare. The head of such an extended family, the yuy tamada, was the oldest male (grandfather, father, oldest brother or son): he managed the economy and the family finances and assigned the family members their tasks. The activities of the head of the family were controlled by the family council, comprised of the men of the oldest generation and the oldest woman. The family group collectively owned the house, livestock, land, and movable property. The senior woman held considerable power within the household and was in charge of the preparation and distribution of food. Because traditions of hospitality constitute an important aspect of Karachay social relations, the senior woman plays a significant role in safeguarding family pride and honor.

Socialization. Education in necessary tasks was an important aspect of traditional upbringing. From the age of 6 children assisted their parents. Boys helped care for livestock, living in the camps with older men; girls helped with the housework and learned how to make kiyizï (cloth) and how to embroider. Great significance was attached to moral education, familiarity with Karachay traditions, the cultivation of attitudes of respect to elders, hospitality, and the ethical norms governing relations.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social life was regulated by adat (customary law). Only in certain spheresfamily and inheritancewas Muslim law (Sharia) given preference: the Sharia court reviewed cases of divorce, guardianship, division of property, and adoption. Adat allowed for punishment by fines and other sanctions: the guilty individual could be barred from the mosque, prevented from entering the home of a deceased person to pay condolences, excluded from attendance at village festivities, subjected to a general boycott, and deprived of Muslim burial rituals. In cases of murder, the commune attempted to reconcile the hostile parties and have the matter resolved by payment of a blood-price. After rendering this payment, the murdererbareheaded, wearing a cerement over his shoulder, his hair and beard unshorn as a sign of mourningcrawled through the crowd of villagers to the parents of the victim. The latter, as a token of reconciliation, would cut his beard with scissors. If the victim's parents did not agree to the payment, then the murderer would try somehow to touch his lips to the nipple of a breast of the murdered person's mother (or of any woman of that family). Should he succeed in doing so, the murderer was considered a relative and the hostilities came to an end.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion. The Karachays are Sunni Muslims. There was traditionally a mosque in every quarter of the village. The effendis were usually immigrants from Daghestan, Turks, or Kazan Tatars. Many pagan beliefs were maintained in the culture. There were cults associated with trees and stones, for example, the qarachaynï qadaú tashï ("fundamental stone of Karachay"), pieces of which are placed under the corners of a house during construction, and the sacred pine tree (jangïz terek ) near the village of Khurzuk (Narody Kavkaza, vol. 1, 263). The Karachays also made sacrificial offerings at the time of driving cattle to pasture, performed rituals to bring rain or sun, and believed in evil spirits (almastï ) and in Apsatï, the guardian of wild animals (a divinity widely known among the peoples of central and western Caucasiathe Abkhazians, Adygheans, Ossetes, and Svans). The Karachays also worshiped the god Aymush, the guardian of livestock. Among the old Karachay divinities are some deriving from an ancient Turkic stratum. The chief god, Teyri, can be equated with Tengri, the sky god of the ancient Turks. Traces of Christianity have also intermingled with pagan beliefs (e.g., the cults of saints Elias (Elia), Nicholas (Nikkol), and George (Gürge).

Arts. Among the applied arts, the most developed was the making of decorated felt with geometrical designs, stylized ram's heads, and horns. Floral designs were rare. The colors used included black, white, grey, and red. Other applied arts were gold stitching and the weaving of gold galloons for clothing. With the dissemination of factory-produced goods and the decline of traditionally made clothing, these highly artistic products passed out of the Karachay way of life. Today only the tradition of making decorated felt remains. Karachay folklore is diverse and includes the Nart epics (shared with neighboring tribes), tales, riddles, proverbs, and sayings. There is a genre of didactic poetry known as algïsh: in ancient times it functioned as a hymn to the god Teyri, but with time became part of the wedding ritual (the ritual of unveiling the bride in the presence of her parents-in-law). There are also several types of songs: work songs, prayers (for example appeals to Apsatï for a successful hunt), and the song of Inai to accompany the beating of felt. Epic songs recounted events in Karachay history, such as the struggle against the Crimean khan, Abazin-Kyzylbek raids, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

Medicine. Magical techniques included various spells and rituals, but also more "rational" means such as herbal remedies. Dislocations and breaks were set with bone splints. Ayran was considered a remedy for burns, upset stomach, poisonous stings, and leprosy.

Death and Burial. The effendi would be invited to read the Quran to a dying person. The deceased was covered with a white covering from head to foot and transported from his or her bed on a large piece of felt. News of the death was circulated by a "harbinger of sorrow." Within the village everyone put aside their work and went to the home of the deceased to express their condolences and participate in the funeral. The women wept loudly, keened, tore their clothing, and scratched their faces. The body, wrapped in a felt coat or piece of felt, was carried on a special stretcher to the patronymic cemetery (the privileged classes practiced burial in vaults). If possible the burial occurred on the day of death, before sundown. Six or seven days later the first funeral repast was held, with another on the fifty-second day and then another a year after death. Mourners wore black and men let their beards grow for a year.


Akiner, Shirin (1986). Islamic Peoples of the Soviet Union: An Historical and Statistical Handbook. 2nd ed., 202-207. London: KPI.

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

Borovkov, A. (1932). "Karachaevo-balkarskii iazyk" (The Karachay-Balkar language), lafeticheskii Sbornik (Leningrad) 7.

Lavrov, L. I. (1969). "Karachai i Balkariia do 30-x godov XIX veka" (Karachay and Balkaria up to the 1830s). Kavkazskii Etnograficheskii Sbornik (Moscow and Leningrad) 4.

Tekeev, K. M. (1989). Karachaevtsy i Balkartsy (The Karachays and Balkars). Moscow.

NATALIA G. VOLKOVA (Translated by Paul Friedrich and Jane Omrod)

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LOCATION: Caucasus mountains between Russia and Georgia (Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic)
POPULATION: 169,000 (2002)
LANGUAGE: Karachai; Cherkessian; Russian


The Karachai people live in the Caucasus Mountains. Th rough-out the history of the Karachai, the mountains have helped to protect them from outside forces. Thus, the Karachai have been able to preserve their language and culture remarkably well.

In 1917, the Karachai supported Soviet power and fought against the Tsarist forces, who had repressed them for decades. For the Karachai, the first 10 years of Soviet power were peaceful and productive. They were granted a shared state status with the Circassian people to form the Karachaevo-Cherkes-sian Autonomous Region. They were permitted to publish Karachai books and newspapers and to open schools that taught in the Karachai language. However, as Joseph Stalin rose to power in the late 1920s and 1930s, the rights of the Karachai to develop their language and culture were curtailed. The Karachai were pressured to use the Russian language.

During World War II, the Karachai joined the Soviet Army to defeat Nazi Germany. Despite this contribution to the Soviet war effort, Stalin's government suspected the Karachai of secretly supporting the Germans. As punishment, and also to prevent any future betrayal of the Soviet Union, the entire Karachai population was deported in the spring of 1944. In a few days, the Soviet army and secret police rounded up all Karachai citizens, loaded them into boxcars, and shipped them hundreds of miles away to Kazakhstan or Siberia. Families were often separated, and many never saw their relatives again. Many died in transit, and others died of exposure or starvation when they arrived in their new locations, as the government did not provide them with food or shelter. Those living in exile were treated as traitors and suffered severe discrimination. They were not allowed to assemble in groups, participate in local politics, nor engage in their traditional cultural practices. The tragedy of the deportation, combined with the destruction of the Caucasian Wars in the 19th century, fueled a Karachai distrust of Russia that is still evident.

After Stalin's death, Nikita Khrushchev's government reconsidered the decision to deport the Karachai. Th us, in 1956, the Karachai were permitted to return to their homeland in the Caucasus Mountains. Th ey left their places of exile in massive numbers, usually returning to the villages where they had lived prior to 1944. The Karachai spent years rebuilding their local communities and economy, which had suffered during the years of deportation. Although the Soviet government under Khrushchev was considerably less repressive than the Stalinist regime, the Karachai were nevertheless pressured to adopt the Russian language and Soviet culture. Moscow frequently appointed Russians to important political positions in the Karachai territory, and this was resented by many Karachai.

In the last years of Soviet power, under Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet ethnic groups were given greater freedom to express their language and culture. The Karachai seized this opportunity eagerly. They expanded their publishing houses, developed a new Karachai education program and opened new mosques. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic achieved even greater cultural and economic autonomy from Moscow. The Karachai have continued their cultural development and assumed an active political role in the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic. While they retain their own ethnic identity and practices, they are open to modernization, particularly in economic activities.


The Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic is located to the south of Russia and north of the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus Mountain Range, between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Karachai live in mountainous terrain in the south of the republic with the capital city named Karachevsk. The traditional occupation of the Karachai is sheep farming, and the alpine meadows of the Caucasus provide ideal terrain for grazing. Sheep farming remains a source of employment for many Karachai. Many Karachai have now migrated to the towns and cities to seek modern amenities and work.

According to the 2002 census, the Karachai population was 169,198. They comprise 38.5% of the entire population of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic (Russians account for 33.6%, Circassians for 11.6%, and Abazas for 7.4%), the Karachai population is concentrated in the southern region of the Republic in conditions of relative ethnic homogeneity. Karachai Diaspora still remains in Kazakhstan about 21,000, approximately 10,000 live in Turkey, and 20,000 in the United States (primarily in New Jersey).


The five official languages of the Karachaevo-Cherkessian Republic are Karachai, Circassian (Kabardian), Russian, Nogai, and Abaza. Most Karachai use their own language and are also fluent speakers, readers, and writers of Russian. Some Karachai have a command of Circassian. The Karachai language is part of the Kipchak Turkic language group. Karachai bears a strong resemblance to Turkish, with a similar structure and many similar words. In the late 1920s, under Stalin, the Karachai were required to change their alphabet from Latin (similar to modern Turkish) to Cyrillic (similar to Russian), and the Karachai still use the Cyrillic alphabet. Since the collapse of Soviet power, Karachai linguists have been working to replace words adopted from Russian with Turkic Karachai variants.

Traditionally, Karachai names were often of Muslim origin, such as the male name Khasan or the female name Zara. During the Soviet period, pressures to assimilate into Russian culture resulted in the frequent use of Russian first names, such as Yuri or Irina. More recently, as the Karachai have been able to express their culture more actively, traditional names have regained popularity. All children take the surname of their father. Upon marriage, most women do change their last names.


The epic folktale is the central, traditional expression of Karachai folklore. Such tales are lengthy stories of a hero who encounters and defeats obstacles and enemies in order to restore personal or family honor. These tales were usually passed on orally from generation to generation. As the Karachai suffered tragic experiences during the deportations, the epic tales incorporated details of these events. The traditional folktale has become a means of both preserving Karachai history and teaching Karachai values of honor, bravery, and family loyalty. The Karachai retain an ancient set of myths, the Nart sagas.


The Karachai are almost exclusively Muslim. For most of the 20th century, the Soviet government prohibited the Karachai from openly practicing Islam. Religious celebrations of weddings or funerals were often conducted secretly. Th erefore, most Karachai do not adhere strictly to Islamic ritual. For example, most do not participate in prayers five times daily, and many women, especially younger ones, do not wear head coverings. In the late Soviet and post-Soviet years, Karachai began to open and attend mosques. Some Karachai observe major Islamic festivals, such as Ramadan and Eid. During Ramadan, adults fast during daylight hours. Eid marks the end of Ramadan and is celebrated with large feasts.


During the Soviet period, the major holidays were October 7, in recognition of the 1917 revolution, and May 1, the day of international socialism. People did not work or attend school on these days, and local governments often organized displays of music, dancing, and fireworks. Although Soviet power has collapsed, these holidays continue to be observed, and local officials are trying to create non-religious holidays to replace the Soviet celebrations. New Year's Eve is widely celebrated, as people invite guests to their homes to dine.

One of the most respected holidays among the Karachai is the Day of National Resurgence, which the Karachai celebrate on May 3 in honor of the day in 1957 when the first train of Karachai repatriates came from Kazakhstan to Karachaevsk.


Shortly after birth, boys are circumcised according to Islamic requirements, and this ceremony introduces the baby into the community. Even in the Soviet period, the Karachai adhered to the practice of circumcision. There is no similar ceremony for girls. The birthdate and name of a baby is registered with local authorities.

Traditionally, children would spend time with their parents, learning the tasks that they would be expected to perform as adults. Alongside their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers, girls learned to cook, spin, weave, knit, and run the household. Boys were gradually included in the sheep farming activities of adult males. Children moved quickly into adulthood, with no distinct teenage stage. By the time they entered puberty, most young people had assumed many adult responsibilities and were encouraged to marry by their mid-teens.

In the second half of the 20th century, however, the traditional activities of children and teenagers have changed greatly. Children are required to attend school beginning in grade one, and many also attend nursery school and kindergarten. While children may, occasionally, be kept home from school to help with chores, most parents want their children to receive a good education. Rather than moving straight from childhood to adulthood, teenagers attend high school, a huge percent of Karachai youths continue their education in universities. Although many marry by their late teens, most young people do have years of relative freedom in their early and mid-teens before moving on to the responsibilities of adult life.

Death is almost always marked by a religious ceremony and burial, practices that were observed even during the Soviet period. The family of the deceased is expected to hold a large feast to which all members of the community are invited.


Men usually greet one another with a handshake, and women also often shake hands with one another. Men and women rarely shake hands. According to traditions, a woman is expected to stand respectfully when a man enters a room, even if the man is her brother. This custom, however, is no longer widespread, particularly in towns and cities.

Traditionally, men and women did not dine together. Instead, men ate together in the dining room, and women and children stayed in the kitchen. The women appeared in the dining room only to bring food or clear the table. Although most families no longer observe these formalities, many will observe this segregation on formal occasions when guests have been invited to the house. If all the adult males are absent, which can occur when the sheep are grazing high in the mountains, then the oldest son will sit in the dining room with the guests while the women and other children remain in the kitchen.

The Karachai take great pride in traditions of hospitality toward guests. When important guests arrive in a home, a lamb or sheep may be slaughtered in their honor. The traditional dish with which to honor the guests is a grilled sheep's head. Female guests will usually join the other women in the kitchen, but, if a female guest is not Karachai and is unfamiliar with local customs, she may be invited to eat in the dining room with the men.


Until the mid 20th century, most Karachai lived in small mountain communities. Each family had its own enclosed square courtyard that housed a number of buildings, including a barn, a cooking house (for large-scale food preparation, storage, and cooking in the heat of the summer), and a main house for sleeping and daily living. The ideal Karachai house was at least two stories tall, with a long second-floor balcony that extended around the perimeter of the house. Outhouses were located outside the main house, in a discreet spot in the courtyard. Most Karachai now have indoor plumbing.

Over the past 50 years, the Karachai have gradually begun to move to the larger towns or cities to take advantage of educational and employment opportunities. In these urban areas, people generally live in apartment buildings or houses. Despite this migration of Karachai to urban settings, a large proportion of Karachai continue to live in the country, and almost every Karachai person has relatives in rural areas.

During the Soviet period, the Karachai were not permitted to build two-story private dwellings. Even in rural areas, the Karachai were limited to single-floor, bungalow-style homes. After the collapse of Soviet power, these restrictions were removed and a flurry of building activity began in the early 1990s, as Karachai families began to rebuild the traditional, two-story homes.


Among the Karachai, the extended family is the traditional social and economic unit, with grandparents, parents, and children living within a single courtyard or house. When sons married, they would bring their wives home, and the new couple would live together with the son's parents and other family members. When a daughter married, she would leave her home to live with her husband's family. This remains the dominant pattern of family life in rural areas. As urbanization trends continue, more and more young Karachai couples move out on their own. However, urban housing is always in short supply and young urban couples will frequently live with parents for many years. Even urban Karachai adhere to the tradition of living with the parents of the son, since it is considered shameful for a man to live under the support of his in-laws.

Entering the household of her in-laws, a young bride may encounter conflict and tension with her husband's mother and other female relatives. Traditionally, the newest female in the household performs most of the heavy, demanding, or unpleasant household chores, and her opinion carries the least weight in the household. However, young wives may look forward to the day when they are in charge of the household and can rely on daughters and daughters-in-law to help with chores.

Women are responsible for cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and tending vegetable gardens. If the family possesses livestock other than sheep, such as chickens or a milking cow, the care of these animals also falls to women. Karachai women take pride in hard work. In addition to the household and courtyard chores, many women contribute to the household economy through the cottage industries of spinning and knitting. Shawls, hats, and gloves knitted with the soft wool of Caucasian sheep often bring a good price in urban markets.


The traditional Karachai male costume includes tall, black leather riding boots and loose-fitting trousers. High-collared, long-sleeved shirts are topped with a short-sleeved, vest-like jacket. The jacket is decorated with rows of fabric loops that hold bullets. The jacket is belted, and a highly decorated silver sword is worn at the belt. The outfit is completed with a tall sheepskin hat.

The female costume consisted of a long, wide-skirted, high-necked dress with a fitted bodice and long, flared sleeves. The head covering, which was always worn outside the privacy of the home, included a pill-box style hat, over which was draped a long veil. Although head covering was essential, women did not cover their faces.

Since the last half of the 20th century, the Karachai have adopted Western dress for both informal and formal occasions. Some Karachai women, especially the older ones, still choose to cover their heads with a simple scarf or kerchief, and many men still wear the traditional sheepskin hat.


The Karachai observe Islamic dietary restrictions. Th erefore, they do not eat pork or pork products. The staple meats of the Karachai diet are lamb and mutton, and these meats are always served to honor guests. Only men are permitted to slaughter sheep, while the women perform the tasks of cooking. The Karachai prepare roasted lamb and shish kebab (called shashlik). Shorpa is a traditional stew made from lamb, rice, and potatoes, and tursha are large potatoes that are stuffed with a mixture of ground lamb, garlic, and onion. The organ meats of sheep are ground together with onion and garlic, stuffed into intestinal casings, and served as sausages.

The Karachai also prepare various flatbreads and make their own cheese, which resembles cottage cheese. Tomatoes and green peppers are common vegetables, and such herbs as parsley and fresh coriander are often eaten raw as vegetables. Tea is a favorite Karachai beverage and is consumed in great quantities during celebrations. In the towns and cities, meat may be difficult to obtain. However, as most Karachai have relatives in the countryside, they can usually obtain meat for special occasions.


Until the 1920s, few Karachai received formal education. In particular, girls seldom attended school. The Soviet government made primary education mandatory. Today, education is mandatory for 11 years and children are instructed in both the Karachai and Russian languages.

After graduating from high school, young people have a variety of options. Some choose to receive further education at a trade institute or university. Although the Karachai region has its own university and many institutes, students sometimes attend post-secondary institutions in one of the larger cities within the Russian Federation. Other young people may choose a traditional occupation, living and working on the family farm.


The deportation and exile of the Karachai from 1944 to 1956, combined with years of cultural repression under the Soviet regime, have had a disastrous effect on the development of Karachai culture. While the Karachai participate in music, dance, and literature, they have been unable to develop these cultural forms fully. Since the late 1980s, liberalization and cultural reform have given the Karachai opportunities to express their cultural identity and record cultural achievements.

The history of the deportations have been of great interest to the Karachai people. Only recently have Karachai scholars been allowed access to the records of these events. Th ey are now permitted to write their histories according to their own interpretation, rather than through the interpretation of the central government. Many projects are underway, including interviews with survivors of the deportations. Other scholars are working to collect and record folklore, as many of the people who know traditional Karachai folktales and practices are very old.


Traditionally, each Karachai family unit ran its own sheep-farming operation. The sheep were used for wool, milk, and meat. Karachai household income was supplemented by such cottage industries as spinning and knitting, and many families maintained gardens and various livestock for family consumption.

During the Soviet period, employment for each citizen was guaranteed, and urban employment opportunities grew throughout the 20th century. With the availability of higher education, Karachai began to move to towns and cities. However, most families retained ties to the countryside, as many people were still employed in agriculture. The collapse of the Soviet economy meant a decline in state-sponsored jobs. As a more Western-style, market economy has replaced the state-directed economy, people throughout the former Soviet Union have experienced the challenges of a changing work environment. The Karachai, who take pride in their willingness to work hard, have learned many strategies for surviving in new economic conditions. Rural Karachai sell produce and hand-knit garments in cities as far away as Moscow. Othershave begun import-export businesses, especially with countries such as Turkey, where many ethnic Karachai reside. Some Karachai have grown wealthy in the post-Soviet era and some have moved into politics.


Karachai children enjoy physical activity and informal contests of strength and skill in sports. Girls and boys play together until about age 10, when they begin to develop different interests and are encouraged to learn adult social roles. Soccer is an especially popular sport, both for players and spectators.

Horseback riding, especially jumping and trick riding, is popular among rural youths. Because horses are used to assist with the herding of sheep, youthful riding games help young people gain an important skill.


Even in urban areas, there are few restaurants, cafes, or clubs. Although there are theatres and cinemas in larger towns, even these are relatively few. Therefore, the Karachai do not usually go out for dining or entertainment in the evenings. Most entertainment takes place in the home, and neighbors and friends visit each other frequently. Because traditions of hospitality are important to the Karachai, visits are reciprocated.

When the weather is warm, many people take strolls in the early evenings. Along the way, they meet friends and chat. People of all ages enjoy strolling, as it is a way to get outdoors and meet people.


Many Karachai women are proficient spinners, knitters, and weavers. They produce creative, artistically finished products. Although such woolen goods are unique works of folk art, they are also a form of cottage industry. A proficient craftswoman can make high-quality woolen articles very quickly and receive a good price for each article.


One of the greatest challenges faced by the Karachai is coming to terms with the deportations of 1944. Many Karachai still bear resentment toward Moscow and Russia for this tragedy. Some Karachai groups feel that the Karachai people have not been fully compensated for the damages that deportation brought upon them. Some have even suggested that the Karachai region should demand autonomy from Russia. Such demands could result in aggressive exchanges between Russia and the Karachai. However, demands to separate from Russia seem to represent the opinion of only a minority of the Karachai population. The advantages of economic partnership with Russia appear to outweigh the difficulties of living within the republic of a historic enemy.


In recent years, Karachai women have received higher education and taken employment outside the home. Although these women may receive salaries equal to those of their husbands, most domestic and childrearing tasks continue to be performed by women. Traditionally, the Western Caucasian women have more freedom, compared to those in the eastern regions of the Caucasus. For example, you will never see a woman driving a car in Dagestan, Chechnya, or Ingushetia. But among Ossetians, Circassians, and Karachai, women have their own cars and it is considered to be prestigious to know how to drive. Nevertheless, gender problems of the Western Caucasian women are in many ways similar to the overall situation of women in the Caucasus.

Karachai women, much like the women of Dagestan, face discrimination in mountain villages. They must perform heavy work at home and simultaneously earn a living by knitting and selling clothes. In mountain villages, girls at the age of five are taught to knit and, for the majority, knitting remains the main source of income during their lives. Each Karachai woman in a mountain village does up to 12 hours of knitting per day. Women bring knitwear things to the cities, where they are sold at the markets. These items are then exported to Siberia, Moscow, and other cold regions of Russia where they are in great demand.

About 86% of Karachai women refer to the lack of jobs as the largest problem that they face. The level of employment of Karachai men is about 40% higher than the level of employment for women. Karachai women are virtually unrepresented in politics. The traditions of Karachai society, where a woman plays the role of an obedient wife for her husband, remain relatively strong in rural areas, while in urban areas it is increasingly possible to observe signs of freer ideas. Some Karachai girls dress similar to like young people in Europe. Scarves and long skirts for women are not required even after marriage. However, the traditional requirements of a strict dress code are still at work for village and elderly women.


Bennigsen, A., and S. E. Wimbush. Muslims of the Soviet Empire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

Kozlov, V. The Peoples of the Soviet Union. Trans. P. M. Tiffen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Nekrich, Alexander. The Punished Peoples. New York: Norton, 1978.

Wixman, Ron. Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980.

—revised by J. Colarusso and F. Tlisova

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The Karachai are a small Turkic nationality of the central North Caucasus. They speak a language from the Kypchak group of the Altaic language family and are closely related to the Balkars. They inhabit high-elevation mountain valleys of the upper Kuban and Teberda river basins, and their pastures once stretched up to the peaks and glaciers of the northern slope of the Great Caucasus mountain range.

Their remote origins can be traced to Kypchakspeaking pastoralist groups such as the Polovtsians, who may have been forced to take refuge high in the mountains by the Mongol invasions in thirteenth century. At some point before the sixteenth century, the Karachai came under the domination of the princes in Kabarda. The Crimean khanate claimed nominal jurisdiction over much of the northwest Caucasus and, correspondingly, Karachai territories, until its demise in 1782. Conversion to Islam took place gradually, gaining momentum during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A series of military incursions into their territories motivated several Karachai elders to sign a capitulation agreement and nonaggression pact with Russian forces in 1828. Although they were officially considered subjects of the tsar from that moment, various forms of resistance to Russian rule continued until 1864. A Karachai-Cherkess autonomous region was established in 1922 and in 1926 was divided into two distinct units. Karachai territories were occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany between July 1942 and January 1943. While many Karachai men served in the Red Army, others joined bandit and anti-Soviet partisan groups. In the fall of 1943 the Supreme Soviet of the USSR ordered the deportation of the Karachai people for alleged cooperation with the Germans and participation in organized resistance to Soviet power. The Karachai autonomous region was abolished in 1944 and virtually the entire Karachai population was deported to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In 1956 party members and Red Army veterans were allowed to return to their homeland, and in 1957 others were legally given the right to return. In 1957 the joint Karachai-Cherkess autonomous region was reestablished and the mass return of the Karachai was initiated. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Karachai-Cherkess autonomous region became a republic of the Russian Federation.

Traditionally, Karachais subsisted on a combination of agriculture and stock-raising. As late as the first decades of the twentieth century, only one-fourth of all Karachai had adopted a completely stationary lifestyle. The rest of the population seasonally relocated from summer to winter pastures with their herds of horses, cattle, sheep, and goats. During the Soviet period, the Karachai remained one of the least urbanized groups: Less than 20 percent lived in cities. Clans were a central component of traditional Karachai social organization. Although some clans and their elders could be recognized as more prominent or senior than others, the Karachai did not have a powerful princely elite or nobility. In the twentieth century the Karachai population grew from about 30,000 to about 100,000. A Karachai literary language was developed and standardized in the 1920s.

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


Wixman, Ronald. (1980). Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus. Chicago: University of Chicago.

Brian Boeck