Friday, February 20, 2009

Oral History of the Karachai Community in Kyrgyzstan: Remembering the Deportations 65 Years Ago

On 2 November 1943, Soviet security forces forcibly resettled almost the entire Karachai population of nearly 70,000 people from their North Caucasian homeland to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Less than 69,000 survived the trip of which over 45,000 arrived in Kazakhstan. The NKVD settled the remaining nearly 23,000 deportees in Frunze Oblast, Kyrgyzstan. The Soviet government then dissolved the Karachai Autonomous Oblast and divided its land among other administrative territories. It also changed many of the geographical place names of within the region. It completed this ethnic cleansing by sending the Karachais living outside their national oblast or serving in the Red Army to join the rest of their kin in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In exile in Central Asia the Karachais came under a series of legal disabilities that separated them from most other Soviet citizens. Classified as “special settlers” the Soviet regime imposed severe restrictions on the residency and movement rights of the Karachais. They also lived in conditions of extreme poverty and thousands died prematurely of malnutrition, disease and exposure. In the years after Stalin’s death there arose a movement by Karachai activists to lobby Moscow for the right to return to their former homeland. The Soviet government allowed the Karachais to return home to the Caucasus only after 1957. They, however, did not restore the borders of the Karachai Autonomous Oblast. Instead the Soviet government created a Karachai-Cherkess Autonomous Oblast by combining most of the former territory of the Karachai Autonomous Oblast with the Cherkess Autonomous Oblast. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the Karachai population in exile in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan opted to return to their ancestral homeland during the next few years. By 1960 over 80% of the Karachai population lived in this new administrative region. For more than a dozen years virtually the entire Karachai population lived as exiles and second class Soviet citizens in Central Asia far from their Caucasian homeland.

Not all the Karachais, however, returned to the Caucasus. A significant number remained in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Relatively little has been written specifically about the experience of the Karachai special settlers in Kyrgyzstan and their relationship to the local authorities and population. Thus we have formed a group consisting of three students and one faculty advisor to study the following question regarding the Karachai special settlers in Kyrgyzstan from the Caucasus during the years 1943 to 1961. How did the legal structures of the special settlement regime implemented by the authorities in the Kyrgyz SSR affect the day to day life of these deportees in relationship to the surrounding population? We are particularly interested in issues of economic integration, social capital, physical segregation, ethnic discrimination and political mobilization. This study will focus on the life experiences of the deported Karachais and will make extensive use of interviews with survivors. Published archival material, memoirs and scholarly literature on the deportation will supplement the information gathered by the group in the course of interviewing survivors of the deportation. We have already made preliminary contact with five interview subjects. This study will result in a scholarly journal article on the exile experiences of the Karachais in Kyrgyzstan. The group will also present its findings at a round table discussion at American University of Central Asia and at the student conference on migration sponsored by the Social Research Center. Further publication based upon this project may also result if substantial new material is unearthed.

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