Social stratification

The Karachay-Balkar social stratification, their feudal structure evolved in the 17−18th centuries and retained its social significance until the late 19th century. The emergence of social strata was mainly attributable to political, military and economic causes.

Earlier, the Karachay segment of the Karachay-Balkars used to live on areas above the Bashan (Baksan) valley at the eastern foot of the Elbrus. According to historical legends, this area was peopled in the 17th century by the Karcha, Navruz, Budyan, Adurhay, Botash clans of the Kipchak branch of the Golden Horde and by the Abkhaz Tram tribe. They were joined by the Georgian-Svan Özde and the Kabard Tohchuk and Tambiy tribes, and these fusions produced the core of the Karachay people. Later the Karachays drifted from Upper Bashan to the western side of Mount Elbrus, to the Upper Kuban and Hurzuk valleys where they multiplied into what we know as the Karachay people today.

At the beginning, there were three social strata: biy or tavbiy (lord), özden (one of a good line) and kul (servant, slave). Those in the biy or tavbiy group regulated the political structure of the Karachays. Members of the özden group, even if some of them were mightier economically than the lords, had no voice and were tied to the lords. The kul were not free and had no property, being sold and bought mostly after having been seized from neighbouring Caucasian groups as captives.

The Karachay-Balkar social structure resembles that of the neighbouring Kabards. The biy ‘lord/prince’group of the former corresponds to pshi among the Kabards, the özden of the Karachay-Balkars were the vork among the Kabards, the Kabard stratum of kul ‘serves’ being the pshitl.

As the population increased, the former establishment of biy-özden-kul strata changed both politically and economically, with the emergence of diverse subgroups.

From the early 19th century the Karachay-Balkar society changed to display the following layers: biy or tavbiy (lord, prince), chanka (lord of secondary rank), özden (from a good family), özden (commoner, of a family of secondary rank), azat (person liberated by a lord), chagar (serf bound to the soil), kazak-karavash (serf without any freedom whatsoever) (Kudashev 1991: 160). This modification of the social strata was strongly influenced by the Kabard social development.

The Karachay-Balkars lived in suzerainty to the Kabard princes before Russia invaded them in 1828. In 1792 an official of the Ottoman Empire, who visited the Caucasus, Seyid Halil, sent a map showing the Caucasian tribes around the Kuban River to Khodja Yusuf Pasha. About the Karachays indicated in the map he wrote:

“Those called Karachay are also of the Islam faith they live here, pay tax to the Kabards as their subjects but do not belong under Moscow. The place called … is a pass, very steep. The number of families is estimated at three thousand. Mount Elbrus is here, the foot of which stretches down to the castle of Shogujak.” (Mattei 1994: 50)

The document confirms that in the late 18th century the Karachays were subordinated to the Kabard princes. The same is demonstrated by J. Kalproth’s account who travelled in the Caucasus in 1807−8. Klaproth noted that the Balkars called Bassiani by the Georgians paid a tribute of a sheep per family to the Kabard princes Kurgokue and Kaytuk (Klaproth 1814: 281). Klaproth found the following about the relationship between the Karachays and the Kabard princes:

“The Karachay princes are to be called biy. Kirimavhal, Orusbiy, Mudar are the best known family names. The common people do not pay tax or other contribution to either the biys or the özden families of good lineage. Nevertheless, when a prince takes a liking to someone’s horse, he can borrow it. By contrast, the Karachays pay a predetermined annual tax to the Kabard princes called bek.

Whether prince, a freeman of a good family, or anyone of the commoners, they are all under Kabard suzerainty. They look upon the beks as their own lords. In general, every Karachay family pays five heads of sheep to the Kabard princes a year. The more affluent also pay a fine horse, an ox, a felt gown, a fur costume, copper cauldron or some other similar objects. Though the Karachays of good lineage are not obligated to pay such tax to their lords, in military campaign they are subordinated to them. The Karachays always give as rich a treat to the biys as possible everywhere.

The friendship of the Kabard beks ‘princes’ are important for every Karachay. They therefore strive to establish good relations with the leading Kabard families, and in disasters or other difficult situations they solicit their help. No one dares to criticize the Kabards overtly or covertly. It is often seen that people of lower ranks rise to higher social positions with the help of Kabards. Since the Abkhazes and Noghays are also afraid of the Kabards, they refrain from attacking and plundering the Karachays.” (Klaproth 1814: 285)

Russian archival sources reveal that until 1829 every Kabard prince received a sheep from each Karachay-Balkar family annually (Kasumov 1992: 35).

The Karachay-Balkars who bear the title biy are also called aksüyek ‘white boned’. The wives and daughters receive the rank of biyche. The lords decided matters directly. When someone of the villagers turned against his lord, he was summoned to the töre ‘law’, the council of elderly, and was banished from the village (Musukayev-Shamanov 1987: 123).

The lord whose daughter was married off donated a horse to his oldest servant, and in return, all servant families were to give an ox to the lord (Karachaevcy 1978: 203).

The lord whose daughter was married off donated a horse to his oldest servant, and in return, all servant families were to give an ox to the lord (Karachaevcy 1978: 203).

“The Karachay-Balkar lords collected tax from the people grazing their own livestock on their own summer pastures and on other pastures. That could be live lamb or ox, or cheese, butter, cream or other produce prepared by the villagers.1

The Karachay-Balkar lords exercise their power over the people thanks to the support and might they receive from the Kabard princes. When in 1709 the people revolted against the descendants of Aydabol, one of the Balkar lords living in the Cherek valley, they asked help from the then strongest Kabard prince Aslanbek, son of Kaytuk, to suppress the revolting people.2 Relocated from the Bizingi valley to the Bashan valley of Balkaria, the Balkar lord of the Orusbiy tribe took brides from the Georgian-Svan lords and gave brides to them, so through this milk-relation they got into kinship. Among the Georgian-Svan lords the Orusbiy tribe got into relation with the Dadeshkeliyans, and thereby received support against the so-far oppressive Kabard princes, too. Instead of being oppressed by the Kabard Hatohshuk princes, Ismail bey, son of Orusbiy lived a happy life in the Bashan valley.” (Abaev 1992: 11)

An English alpinist D.W. Freshfield travelled in the Caucasus in the late 19th century. Of the social status of the leading stratum of the Orusbiy tribe in the Upper Bashan valley he wrote the following:

“The population living here and in neighboring valleys regard themselves to be of a different race from the Cherkes (Adyghe) people of the plains and the western mountains. Those who live here claim they are the oldest inhabitants of the region, but when the Cherkes tribes (Kabards) coming from the Crimea invaded the area they deprived them of their primacy. Their language is Tatar3, their religion Muslim. Their leaders are highly tolerant and open-minded. The suppression of the Russian Empire is hardly effective here in the mountains, and they simply pay a little tax to be exempted from military service. The local system might be termed feudal, but it may perhaps be more correct to call it patriarchal. The lords are the accepted leaders of society. They live in four times larger houses than the rest, and they own the largest herd of sheep and cattle in the village. This wealth is the basis of their duty to give a treat to any stranger who comes by. Nevertheless, their word is not the law, they cannot force their village neighbours and have to persuade them to comply.” (Freshfield 1896: 355)

Freshfield summarized the difference he observed between the Karachay-Balkar and Svan lords in the following words:

“We were standing outside the gate with my host chatting, and I was introduced to a Svan prince of Dadeshkeliyan origin whom they got into relationship through marriage. These princes are the owners of Betscho village in a branch of the Ingur valley, who often contacted the northern tribes of the mountains. The Svan prince looked conceited and behaved like a presumptuous aristocrat. This tall erect man was ostensibly stupid and self-important. The local (Upper Bashan) lords (Orusbiys) were by contrast the cleverest people I had seen in the Caucasus. These lords also had a good taste. One was an excellent musicians, the other with Russian schooling and a military character concealed knowledge acquired there.”(Freshfield 1896: 354)

Towards the end of the 19th century the Karachay-Balkar lords of Orusbiy origin who welcomed Freshfield were the most civilized and cultured of all Karachay-Balkars.

In earlier periods, unlike the Kabard princes, the Balkar lords could not be models for the people in customs and protection of the traditions (Kudashev 1991: 161).

The Balkar scholar B. Batchaev found in his investigation of the social and political situation of the Balkar lords that it was similar to that of the Kabard vorks (nobles). Another Balkar scholar Ismail Miziev firmly contradicted this view. Eventually, Klaproth’s research in the early 9th century confirmed Batchaev’s position. Klaproth also put down that Karachay lords married daughters of Kabard noblemen and vice versa (Klaproth 1814: 289).

All this notwithstanding, there are examples of irregularities in the relationship of Kabard and Karachay-Balkar princely families. The mother of the mentioned Aslanbek, the most powerful Kabard prince of the 18th century, was the daughter of a Balkar lord Aydabol, and the mother of a 19th century Kabard prince Djanbolat, son of Hatohshuk, was the daughter of a Karachay nobleman called Karamirza.

In Karachay-Balkar society the stratum of özdens those issued from good families, belonged to the lords. Every özden had to provide a mower to cut the necessary hay for the lord’s livestock. He had to deploy another servant to gather and transport the hay with his oxen. To prepare the soil for the sowing of the autumn barley and wheat, every good family had to put an ox and a man at the disposal of the lord. The özden wives did the household chores for the biy. The Karachay-balkar özden biyni ekinchi kulu the one from a good family is the lord’s second servant mirrors the social situation faithfully. In return for these services, the lord protected the good families (Karachaevcy 1978: 205).

Some of the good families were as rich as the lords, or sometimes even richer. These were labelled bash özden ‘foremost good family’, siyli özden ‘dear good family’, sirma ‘most noble family’. Those beneath them were called orta özden ‘medium noble’or töben özden ‘lesser noble’.

When an özden married off his daughter, half of the head money he had got had to be surrendered to the lord. When someone of the lord’s family died, the özdens were obliged to kill a sheep to provide for the mourners. In winter months when the feeding of the livestock was most difficult every özden family had to keep a sheep or cow of the lord. In the summer months, they had to give a sheep to provide for the men sent to the hayfields (Karachaevcy 1978: 205).

The stratum called karakiši4 ‘peasant’ was not bound so tightly to the lords; they were villagers who had a little land. The karakiši stratum earlier wholly dependent on the lords became a free social layer. They tilled the lord’s soil. The land a karakiši received from the lord was passed down to his sons who had to share it. A karakiši was not allowed to change lords and offer his service to another one (Kudashev 1991: 161).

When a karakiši married his daughter off, he had to give an ox to his lord from the head money he had received. When he worked in the lord’s fields, he did not get meals but had to provide for himself. When the lord married off his daughter, the karakiši was obliged to give the baš baylagan ‘tying up the hair’ present. A present was due to the nurse digiza, a court lady in the retinue of the lady. Usually a two- or two-and-a-half-year-old cow was given to the lord’s daughter and a two-year-old cow to the digiza (Kudashev 1991: 162).

The karakiši was liable to accompany the lord and provide a horse for him. In warfare he had to be at arms. When he stole something from the lord, he had to repay six times as much. If he stole his horse, he had to give a boy at least four spans in height as a slave. When he stole something from the lord’s guest house, he had to provide a five-span high boy as a slave. When he broke into his lord’s house, and stole something from the female suite, he became the slave of the lord for life. When a karakiši killed his lord, the punishment hit all his relations, too (Kudashev 1991: 162).

With the liberation or redemption of some strata of serfs the social layer of azat evolved who were under the özdens and karakišis. (Karačaevcy 1978: 206).

In Karachay-Balkaria the collective stratum of servants, the kul, was differentiated into yasakči ‘tax collector’, chagar ‘slave’, ülgülü kul ‘soil-bound slave’, bašsiz kul ‘foreign slave’, kazak ‘purchased slave’ and karavaš ‘slave woman, slave child’.

The group of yasakči comprised people who had land but had to pay tax to the landlord after the grain and pasturing.

The group of čagars lived from the land received from the lord for services rendered. They were in charge of all work around the lord and had to deliver half the produce.

There were some families in the čagar or kul stratum in Karachay-Bal­ka­ria who were more affluent than those in the özden and karakiši groups. When in 1867 the slaves were liberated, they purchased land, a few acquiring larger holdings than the landowners (Abaev 1992: 32).

The bottom stratum of society were the slaves, divided into two groups: ülgülü kul ‘land-bound slave’ and bašsiz/yolsuz kul ‘widows or those who may not marry’. Bašsiz kul was a slave captured or bought from a neighboring people. The lord could sell them or kill them without any consequence, but if someone else killed one of them, he had to pay its price to the owner (Karachaevcy 1978: 207).

The slaves called ülgülü kul could have a small house, land, family. The former group bašsiz kul had nothing, lived in the stable of the landlord were not allowed to marry or keep animals or land. When the ülgülü kul was done with his service, he could pursue his own chores. Several of the industrious ones could get rich and even buy a slave, who was a slave’s slave kulnu kulu. Slaves had no voice in Karachay-Balkar society.

When a wedding was held in the lord’s household, the slave had to contribute a sheep. When the slave married off his daughter, he had to deliver three sheep for the head money he got for her (Karachaevcy 1978: 207). When a slave killed a sheep at home, he sent the most valuable part, the shoulder ǰavorun, to the lord. When the slave fermented a barley drink boza at home, he was to give the lord a big bowl of it. From the second quarter of the 19th century slaves were also liable to pay tax in money, too.

The kazak (male) and karavaš (female) slaves were the lowermost stratum of society. They were not allowed to start a family of their own, rendered the hardest, dirtiest work around the landowner’s house. They also worked on the land. The lord could not sell them to other Karachay nobles.

The word kazak means ‘solitary, homeless, powerless’. The lord could donate land to the kazak for farming. The kazak was obliged to carry out any instruction of the lord, both around the house and in the fields. Kazaks were the landowner’s property; serf women had no rights, either, being bought and sold for money. The house servants were not allowed to marry. The lord was entitled to sell a kazak’s daughter (Kudashev 1991: 163). When the Karachay-Balkars came under Russian rule, the lord who killed a serf could also be brought to court for punishment. Serfs could not be sold to other areas or abroad (Karachaevcy 1978: 207).

The growing inequality in Karachay-Balkar society fed discontent which broke out in a revolt in 1851, escalating to real war between the serfs and their lords in the Karachay Huzuk area (Karachaevcy 1978: 208). In 1840 and 1855 the servants in Chegem and Holam rebelled against their lords for the magnitude of tax they were imposed. In 1862 the rebels in Girhoyan flatly refused to go on serving their masters (Mokaev 1976: 95). After the revolts in Balkaria many rural families fled to Chechen and Daghestanian areas (Kasumov 1992: 48).

When the Russians seized the Caucasus in 1864, they extended their rule to this area as well. In the Karachay-Balkar country those who struck a compromise with the new power enjoyed several benefits. The landowners and good families had the opportunity to increase their rank and property which intensified the social tensions (Shamanlanı 1987: 144). The Russians gave official assignments and positions to the Karachay-Balkar lords. Their children could attend Russian schools free. The widow of a landowner was given annuity by the Russian government, all in an effort to gain the loyalty of the Karachay-Balkar lords while the discontent of the lower strata with their lords kept increasing (Karachaevcy 1978: 208).

In 1865 the Russian governor of Karachay country N. Petrusevich reported to the Russian tsar that the Karachays lived in a feudal system. He listed the names of all families who disposed over landed property in Karachay country (Shamanlanı 1987: 120).

With a decree of 1867 in Balkaria and of 1868 in Karachay land the Russian government abolished serfdom. Only, it was also stipulated that the soil-bound serfs and lowermost strata had to pay indemnity for liberty. The indemnity was called yuluw in Karachay, and the money to be paid was baš yulgan ‘head-money’. Paying ransom for the liberation of slaves was a widespread practice in ancient Turkic societies as well. This indemnity was called yulug in Old Turkic and Uyghur.

In 1868 the following tariffs were used in the Karachay area, payable to the lord for the freedom of the serf: 30-year-old woman serf: 150 rubles, serf-woman of 30−35: 100 rubles, 35-year-old male serf: 95 rubles, 40-year-old male serf: 15 rubles (Bayramuklani 1987: 283).

Serfs under 7 and above 50 paid no indemnity, while for those in the bašsiz kul group could be charged up to 200 rubles. Land-holder and herder serfs had to relinquish to their lords half their property in addition to the ransom (Karachaevcy 1978: 28).

At that time, a sheep cost 1 ruble, which clearly shows the magnitude of indemnity to be paid by serfs. In those years serfs paid a total of one and a half million rubles to the 76 landowners in Balkaria (Mokaev 1976: 96).

N. Petrusevich’s report reveals that the census in Karachay country in 1867 found the following social stratification: biy-čanka ‘lord’ – 653; people of good descent ‘nobles’ – 9978; freemen − 1801; ülgülü kul ‘soil-bound serfs’ – 1828, and bašsiz kul ‘purchased serf’ – 582, totaling 14 728.

Serfs made up 15.72% of society. In 1868, 2806 serfs were liberated in Karachay country, as Petrusevich’s report claims.

To clarify the wrangling over wealth and landed estates among the feudal classes before a commission set up in Terek County after the liberation of serfs in 1867, Hamurza Shakman and Gürgoka Abay were delegated. The representatives of Balkar lords demanded that the Kabard and Ossetian representatives recognize the Balkar landlords as equal in rank to the Kabard princes. All representatives on the commission rejected this claim. After this negotiation, the Balkar landlords were regarded as equal to the tlakotleš class of the Kabards. This correspondence implied social, political rights and customs. The decision was corroborated by the representative for the Caucasus of the Russian Empire, too. From then on, the rank of Balkar nobles was not the knyaz of Kabard princes but dvoryan ‘noble’ (Kudashev 1991: 164).

The official abolition of Karachay-Balkar serfdom upon Russian initiative did not cause substantial changes in the social structure. Most of the serfs were able to redeem their freedom from the lords and nobles. Moreover, Petrusevich granted aid for the indemnification from subsidies he requested from the government. Nevertheless, there were serfs who could not be freed as they failed to pay the indemnity. In exchange for the amount to be paid for freedom, they remained in the service of their lords for another 6−8 years. In the meantime the Karachay lands designated by the Russian government were distributed among the liberated people, but those who were freed later got no land any more (Tekeev 1987: 91).

Although most serfs officially gained freedom, the more productive land, summer pastures, plow-lands remained the property of the lords. The earlier landless serfs or those who had to yield all their holdings to their lords for freedom had no other choice but hire the land from them and live on as the lord’s servants to be able to pay the lease. Thus, in the Karachay-Balkar area a kind of concealed serfdom came about.

Fearing the revolts of the landless masses, the Russian government deliberated the idea of founding new villages and distributing land among the villagers. Thanks to Petrusevich’s efforts, the Russian land allotment committee re-distributed 40,000 desyatin land in 1868−70 from the land reserves expropriated earlier for Russia. Some of the Karachay landlords and rich persons made agreements with the Russians to confer their control over these lands. On the remaining land they established four villages, Teberdi in 1868, Sinti and Tashköpür in 1870 and Mara in 1875 (Besleneev 1971: 7).

In the old Karachay-Balkar villages the descendants of the biy ‘lord’ and özden ‘good family’ strata were only willing to settle on areas designated by their forebears. The traditional villages evolved from the merger of these family areas called tiyre in Karachay-Balkar.

Settling down in tiyre pattern was customary among Karachays in the villages of Hurzuk, Kart Yurt and Uchkulan in their earliest territory called Ullu Karachay ‘Great Karachay’. In the newest villages founded after 1868 no large tiyres evolved. There were about 150 tiyres in Great Karachay in the early 20th century, 50 in Kart Yurt, 44 in Uchkulan and 53 in Hurzuk.

Every tiyre was named after the family settled there, e.g. tiyre of the Kirimshavhals, that of the Hasans, tiyres of the Samans, Tohchuks, Teks, Akbays. In the village, every tiyre had its mosque, and J̌uma Meǰgit Friday mosques’ were also built for bigger attendance. The lords had private mosques (Tekeev 1987: 95).

Each large family had their burial ground in their own tiyre. Those who died elsewhere were brought home to be buried. Until the liberation of the serfs in 1868 the serfs also lived in their lord’s tiyre. They did not have their own tribal tukum name before the liberation but used the tukum designation of the lord who owned them (Tekeev 1987: 92).

1 A text recorded in Bizingi, a village in the Balkar area in the mid-19th century describes the situation as follows: While the Süyünch family was in control, 80 wheels of cheese for the grazing of the sheep. In the Holam, the servants of the Djodjai, Hapar, Kochmen, Djapa, Ozay, Teke, Deppu, Djazu, Djeti families drive sheep for their lords, chop wood, render all kinds of chores while they just lie on their backs (Boziev 1962: 54).

2 The mother of Aslanbek, son of Kaytuk also issued from the Balkar Aydabol tribe.

3 In 19th century Russia all languages of Turkic origin were called Tatar.

4 In the administrative and social system of the Golden Horde the term karakiši also crops up, but there it designated the lords at the disposal of the ruler (Togan 1999: 47).