Balkars to Honour NKVD Victims

How a summer's day in 1942 turned the Balkar people into a nation of outcasts

Balkars to Honour NKVD Victims

How a summer's day in 1942 turned the Balkar people into a nation of outcasts

In a bid to rally their ethnic kin in Kabardino-Balkaria, the Balkar nationalists have found that tales of past injustice are often more persuasive than promises of a better future.

In this context, the Cherekskaya Tragedy of 1942 serves their purposes well. And the upcoming anniversary of the NKVD massacre has given the new torch-bearers of the Balkar independence movement a golden opportunity to "honour the martyrs".

The truth about the Cherekskaya Tragedy only came to light in the early 1990s when KGB files were opened and post-war cover-ups were unmasked.

According to Balkar historians, the NKVD swooped on the North Caucasus as units of the 37th Army fell back from their positions around Rostov-on-the-Don.

Among the retreating troops were around 700 survivors of the shattered 115th Kabardino-Balkarian Cavalry Division which had been engaged in running battles with German tanks and motor rifle units.

According to reports sent by the NKVD - the forerunners of the KGB - to police chief Lavrenty Beria in Moscow, the so-called deserters were largely ethnic Balkars who took refuge in settlements across the Caucasian foothills.

Beria promptly dispatched "execution squads" to three Balkar villages -- Sautu, Kyunyum and Cheget-El - where they shot more than 1,500 men, women and children in the space of three days.

Tani Baisieva, 66, remembers, "I was seven years old at the time. There were 60 of us gathered at my grandmother's house. The Red Army soldiers said they wanted to hold a village meeting and got everyone out into the street. We were standing by a wall when the troops opened fire. My mother fell down, covering me with her thick shawl. Then they left us there to die.

"I remember hearing my mother whispering for a drink of water, then she died along with my two younger sisters. Meanwhile, the soldiers gorged themselves on food they had stolen from our homes. I was the only one to survive. When relatives from a neighbouring village took me home, they found five bullet wounds in my body."

Another survivor, Mukhadin Gazaev, 76, said, "We ran off to Irtsibashi, in the mountains and lived there for a week with no food. When I came back, I found my sister Maru dead with her youngest son in her arms. The other two boys were also dead -- one had been shot together with his grandmother. We wrapped their charred remains in kaftans and buried them."

And Khalimat Zhangurazova, 71, hid in a ditch and watched as more than 60 members of her family were gunned down on the third day of the pogrom. They shot the Balkars in the courtyard, then burned their corpses nearby.

"It was impossible to breathe from the stench of burning bodies," said Zhangurazova.

After the Soviet Army reoccupied the Caucasus, Stalin was quick to accuse the Balkars of collaborating with the Nazis and deported them en masse to Central Asia. Thousands died from cold and hunger as they struggled for survival on the inhospitable Kazak steppe.

The Balkars were officially rehabilitated in 1957 when they returned to Kabardino-Balkaria - only to find that many of their traditional territories had been appropriated by Kabardinian and Russian settlers.

Over the past few years, Balkar leaders have been calling for Moscow to recognise the Cherekskaya massacre and admit that the commanders of the NKVD units -- Fedor Nakin, Lieutenant-Colonel Shikin and his adjutant, Captain Tyazhelov - were guilty of war crimes.

They argue that allegations of Nazi collaboration are "a stain on the honour of the Balkar people" which later made them outcasts in their own society.

The nationalists say that more than half of the 100,000 Balkars in the republic consider themselves to be the victims of discrimination. Their main enclaves are concentrated in the Elbrus and Chereksky regions from where they hope to build an independent Balkaria - a goal which has eluded them for nearly a decade.

Yuri Akbashev and Askerby Minasharov are regular IWPR contributors

Support our journalists