The Balkars are a Turkic people descended from the Turkic-speaking Alans, and share their language with the other Turkic tribes. In Turkic, "Karachay" means "Black River".
The state of Alania was established in the Middle Ages and had its capital in Maas, which some authors locate in Arkhyz, the mountains currently inhabited by the Karachay. In the 14th century, Alania was destroyed by Timur and the decimated population dispersed into the mountains. Timur's incursion into the North Caucasus introduced the local nations to Islam.
According to native ethnogenetic traditions, the Balkars originally settled in the basin of the main Balkar canyon, where the hunter Malkar found success and called his companions Misaka and Basiat of Majar (or Madyar) to join him. The oldest written information about this canyon dates from the fourteenth century and can be found in a Georgian epigraph on a golden cross in the Cathedral of the Assumption in Tskhovati: the text refers to the canyon in question as "Basianian". In more recent times, in Russian sources, the Balkar population is also referred to as "Basian" and "Balxar".
Legends and chronicles describe the irruption into the fastnesses of Tamerlane's men, who intended to ascend the heights of Mount. Elbrus. The Balkars are mentioned in west European and Turkish chronicles at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1827 the Balkars finally became Russian citizens, fixing their loyalty through the institution of amanat (with hostages). At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a small segment of the Balkars (Chegems and Basians) emigrated to Turkey and Syria. After the civil war and the establishment of Soviet power in 1920, the Balkars were integrated into the structure of the USSR and assigned their own national-territorial unit. In early 1944 Joseph Stalin accused the Balkars of collaborating with Nazi Germany and the entire population was subjected to a mass deportation to parts of Central Asia, especially Kazakhstan. The territory was renamed the Kabardin ASSR until 1957, when the Balkar territory was reestablished and most Balkars returned to their native localities.
In 1944, the Soviet government forcibly deported almost the entire Balkar population to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Omsk Oblast in Siberia. Starting on 8 March 1944 and finishing the following day, the NKVD loaded 37,713 Balkars onto 14 train echelons bound for Central Asia and Siberia. The Stalin regime placed the exiled Balkars under special settlement restrictions identical to those that it had imposed upon the deported Russian-Germans, Kalmyks, Karachais, Chechens and Ingush. By October 1946 the Balkar population had been reduced to 32,817 due to deaths from malnutrition and disease. The Balkars remained confined by the special settlement restrictions until 28 April 1956. Only in 1957, however, could they return to their mountain homeland in the Caucasus. During 1957 and 1958, 34,749 Balkars returned home (Bugai, doc. 64, pp. 279–280).
In the Cyrillic alphabet as used by the Karachay-Balkars there are eight vowels and twenty-seven consonants. In the past the official written languages were Arabic for religious services and Turkish for business matters. From 1920 on Balkar has been the language of instruction in primary schools; subsequent instruction is carried out in Russian. Until 1928 Arabic letters were used to write the Balkar language and after that (in 1937), Cyrillic. Ninety-six percent of the population is bilingual in Balkar and Russian. Organs of mass culture, secondary school texts, newspapers, and magazines in both Balkar and Russian continue to increase in number.