The Caucasus mountain region in southern Russia has witnessed many of post-Soviet Eurasia’s most violent inter-communal conflicts. From Abkhazia to Chechnya, the region fractured ferociously and neighboring communities took up arms against each other in the name of ethnicity and religion. In the midst of some of the worst conflict in Europe since 1945, the semiautonomous, multiethnic Kabardino-Balkar Republic in the North Caucasus remained a relative oasis of peace. This is not to say there were no tensions—there is no love lost between Kabardians, Balkars, and Russians, Kabardino-Balkaria’s principal communities. But, why did these communities, despite the agitation of ethno-political entrepreneurs, not resort to force to solve their grievances, while many neighboring ones did? What institutions and practices have facilitated this peace? What role have state officials and state structures played in, on the one hand, producing inter-communal conflict, and, on the other hand, mediating and defusing such conflict? And why has land played such a crucial rule in inter-communal relations in the region over the longue duree? More than enhancing our knowledge of a poorly-understood yet strategically important region, the questions I ask of Kabardino-Balkaria are windows on larger issues of enduring global relevance. What processes affect peace and stability in regions of ethno-confessional diversity? What role do states play in forging and manipulating ethnic, national, and religious affilitations? What are the dynamics of governance in multiethnic and multiconfessional states? When and why do group identity categories, such as ethnicity and religion, matter?
This dissertation explores the themes of inter- and intra-communal relations, the expansion and evolution of imperial rule and governance, and the causes of peace and violence. I explore these themes particularly through the socioeconomic relations that developed around land use and ownership in central Caucasia, a region of extraordinary ethno-confessional and social diversity. In order to explore the deep roots of contemporary issues of governance, inter-communal relations, nationalism, and conflict in the Caucasus region, this study examines these issues over the longue duree, from the extension of Russian rule in the late eighteenth century through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This periodization of over two centuries allows for a comparative exploration of these themes over different regimes: the pre-colonial Kabardian princely confederation, the tsarist state, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia.
My dissertation offers three broad conclusions to these questions. First, it argues that peace has prevailed in Kabardino-Balkaria because Kabardians, Balkars and Russians were interdependent stakeholders in a system of inter-communal relations, each occupying their own economic niche. Each group benefited from this system and had a stake in its preservation. Second, my research shows that the Kabardian majority has worked to ensure the continued inclusion of ethnic minorities in this system. Third, I demonstrate that imperial conquest and governance had both destructive and creative effects on inter-communal relations, by weakening some relationships, strengthening others, and, through colonization and resettlement, creating new ones. Finally, I argue that the category of ethnicity had little intrinsic importance on an everyday level for the diverse peoples of this region. Indeed, for much of the period examined in this study, class or estate categories and confessional affiliations usually had far greater meaning in society than ethnic or national ones. But ethnic and national cateogiries could become important political tools and, often, catalysts for conflict in the hands of elites of various stripes.