Tribes and Dialects
Order the book
The habitat of the Abazians lies in the foothills of the main range of the Great Caucasian mountains on the upper reaches of the Big and Little Zelenchuk, Kuban and Kuma rivers. Most of the Abazian people live in 13 villages of the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Area, Stavropol District, but some of them live scattered in Kabardinian, Nogay and Adyghian villages. Two Abaza villages are situated near Kislovodsk.
Population data exists only since the end of the 19th century:
The data is indicative of a continuous growth in population and a rather high, although decreasing, number of mother tongue speakers.
Anthropologically the Abazians belong to the Balkano-Caucasian race and bear the features of the Pontic and Caucasian type. They have relatively light skin, a round head and are of medium stature.
The religion of the Abazians is Sunnite Islam, embraced in the 17th--18th centuries to replace Christianity. Yet both the earlier Christianity and the later Islam are heavily mixed with pagan customs and beliefs the influence of which can be observed even today.
The ethnological development of the Abazian people resembles that of the Abkhaz people. Both peoples are descended from the proto-Abkhaz tribes who in the first millenium BC inhabited an area near the Black Sea (from the present-day Tuapse to Sukhumi). By the 8th century four different tribal groupings (Apsil, Abazg, Svanig, Misimian) had produced the Abkhaz and by the 8th--9th centuries the Abaza people. The central part in the development of the Abazians is considered to belong to the Abazgi tribe living in the northwestern part of Abkhazia from the Bsyb river to the present-day Tuapse. The territory remained home for the Abaza until the 13th century at which point there was a mass migration to the northern Caucasus. According to archaeologists, there are traces of movement in that direction dating back to the 8th century, yet the 13th--14th centuries witnessed the resettlement of the whole Tapanta tribe, to be followed by the Shkaraua tribe. 18th-century written records of the northern Caucasus already contain the names of all Abaza tribes. Part of the Shkaraua-Abaza people, however, remained to live on the coast of the Black Sea and were assimilated by the Abkhaz and Cherkess. Records from the 15th--16th century depict the Abaza as a strong and militant nation. Constant home troubles and hostilities lowered them to dependence on the Kabardian sovereigns in the 17th century. In the 18th--19th centuries the Abaza territory became an knot of discord in the imperial policies of Russia and Turkey. To subordinate the resistance of the Abaza people arms were used by both powers, yet the most popular way was the deportation of the people to territories under the conquerors' rule. As a result whole Abazian villages were resettled either to Turkey or to Russia. Although the victory belonged to Russia, the Abazians felt more akin with the losing party, which was also reflected in their extensive resettlement to Turkey. The emigration was accelerated by a government order of 1862 demanding that the Abaza people leave the area between the Labo and Belyi rivers and go either to Kuban or abroad. As a result of the massive exodus only 9,000 of the 50,000 people were remaining on the territory by 1880. Indirectly it has been concluded that the number of Abaza emigrants to Turkey was about 30,000--45,000. The Kuban lands given to the Abazians by the tsarist government were populated by 9,921 people, two thirds of whom belonged to the Tapanta people. The mass migration destroyed the traditional tribal division of the Abazians. Only four villages remained ethnically pure. The territories emptied of the Abaza people were filled by immigrants from Russia, mostly Slavs. This meant a radical change in the ethnic map of the region.
The economic life of the Abazians was shaped by their environment. Before the 1860s when they lived in the mountains rich in pastures the main emphasis was laid on raising livestock. There were flocks of sheep and goats, and there were also some bigger horned animals. The Abaza were also famous for their herds of pedigree horses. The Tapanta who lived on flatter lands dealt more with field cultivation. The main crop was millet, ousted by maize in the 19th century. Free land being abundant the usual practice was to use one field 2--3 times after which a new plot was ploughed up.
The joining of Kuban with Russia brought about a considerable increase in Slavic immigration. During 1867--1897 the Abazians found themselves living in the newly-created Batalpashinsk Area, the population of which was 69.3 % Russian. During the land reform carried out on the former Abaza territories the new settlers got more than two million acres of land. The Abaza were concentrated into communities that were given land on the same basis as the new settlers. The reform turned the Abaza economy topsy-turvy. Livestock-breeding as a means of livelihood was reduced to an irrelevant status as the pastures had passed into private hands and the rent had become prohibitive. Land tillage grew in popularity. In 1866 a pecuniary state tax was enacted which speeded up the development of financial and commercial relations in the village. The reform also changed the structure of the Abaza village. According to government standards one community had to contain at least 200 households and so several smaller villages were united. As a result kinship systems were destroyed and mixed villages appeared. Eight Abaza villages were formed: Kuvin, Loov-Kuban, Shakhgireyev, Kuma-Abazin, Loov-Zelenchuk, Dudarukov, Klychev and Biberdov. Of these only the first four were ethnically pure Abaza villages.
History. On February 7, 1918, Soviet power was proclaimed in Batalpashinsk. This was followed by a civil war. There were Abaza soldiers fighting both in the Red Guards and the White Guards. Two White mounted regiments called Tapanta and Bashkhyag achieved considerable fame. The Abazians displayed no ambitions toward national independence. Although the major White troops were defeated by the 1920s, some of the White forces continued to be active in the region until 1930 when they were finally liquidated after a failed mutiny.
Several administrative changes took place. The Abaza villages were divided between two new administrative units: the Karachay Autonomous Region and the Cherkess National Area. The Abaza were joined together as one administrative unit only on January 9, 1957, when the Karachay-Cherkess Autonomous Region was set up.
In the middle of the 1920s several Abaza villages were renamed on ideological grounds as the former names alluded to sovereigns or nobles. Some new Abaza vilages emerged on the lands emptied during the ideological struggle and the extermination of the kulaks.
The main changes in Abaza society over the past 70 years were effected by two Soviet-style campaigns: collectivization and cultural revolution. Collectivization aggravated the antagonism between different social layers. A solution was found in the deportation and execution of people unacceptable to the central authorities. The atmosphere of terror hastened the formation of kolkhozes.
The aim of collectivization was the consolidation of the Soviet economic system while the ideological struggle was to be won by means of education and culture. The education available to an Abaza person before the advent of Soviet power was the village school or the mosque. Occasionally a luckier or brighter student could also enter secondary school. In 1918 the aim was set at secondary education delivered in the local vernacular. This, however, became possible only after 1923 when Talustan Tabulov created a Latin-based Abaza script. Vernacular education for the Abaza lasted for six years only. In 1938 the central government ordered that the Abaza literary language adopt the Cyrillic alphabet and Russian be made the official language of instruction (the Abaza language and literature were retained as subjects in the curriculum). In spite of that, there was in the Abaza cultural life: vernacular prose developed (Tabulov, Zhirov) and an Abaza theatre was established. In 1938 a newspaper was published in the Abaza language. On the other hand, the more advanced education system helped the central power to realize its ideological objectives.
Imperial policy as well as the Pan-Slavic and Soviet propaganda have left an impact on both the everyday life and mentality of the Abaza people. Their clothing and household appliances reflect the advance of European culture. The mass produced factory goods certainly do not bear the imprint of a centuries-long tradition. Homes can be built only according to one of three standardized designs approved by the state. The traditional villages where households were situated haphazardly and sometimes quite far apart have been replaced by Russian-style gridded villages. Religion is retreating before Soviet ideology. Of the traditional rites and customs those connected with funerals seem to display the most resistance. The identity and unity of the Abaza people may soon be endangered by two tendencies that have emerged during the past two decades, notably the growing number of mixed marriages and urbanization. In 1979 people living in towns made up 21 % of all Abazians against the near zero figure of the turn of the century.
introduction | abazians | abkhaz