Two lives that changed radically
Winter 2017-2018 Newsletter on the Balkar project

IBT, which translated the Balkar New Testament in the 1990s, has recently restarted its involvement in the Old Testament translation project.

The Balkars, a Turkic-speaking people whose ethnogenesis remains unclear, currently constitute approximately 10% of the total population of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic in southern Russia. Balkars and Kabardians are both historically Muslim, but they are not ethnically related. Even their language groups are different. The Balkar language belongs to the Turkic group, while Kabardian belongs to the Circassian language family. The Balkars have lived in their current area since the 13th century, while the Kabardians arrived three hundred years later from the Circassian lands on the Black Sea coast. In 1944 the Soviet government accused the Balkar people of treason and inability to resist the Nazi army. On Stalin’s orders, the entire Balkar population of 37,713 people, 52% of whom were children, with no exclusion even for war veterans and heroes, was deported from their native land in the Caucasus mountains, mainly to Central Asia. Kabardian-Balkaria was renamed the Kabardian Republic. After Stalin’s death, the Balkars were allowed to return and the former name of their republic was restored, though the full rehabilitation of the Balkars took place only in Gorbachev’s time.

Alim was born in 1950, which speaks for itself: he was a child of the Balkar deportation. His family lived in Kyrgyzstan. It was there that Alim got acquainted with marijuana, since cannabis grew naturally in this area and was freely available at local markets. When the Balkars were allowed to return to their native land, Alim’s father left to work in the mines trying to provide for his large family. Alim missed his father’s love and authority and became a drug addict. His life went from bad to worse. He added theft and alcoholism to his drug addiction, and one imprisonment followed another… In the meanwhile he managed to marry and have several children, but his family life was ruined by another prison term, and his wife returned to her sisters’ house. Neither Alim nor any of his relatives believed that his life could be restored. All that followed resembled the story of the prodigal son. Alim’s liberation from the abyss of sin and despair, subsequent reconciliation with his family, and total restoration occurred in several stages, but the very first glimpse of hope was given to him by another native speaker of Balkar, one of the few existing Balkar Christians, who by God’s providence visited Alim’s prison in the early 1990s and addressed him in his mother tongue. From this person he received his first Gospel (still in Russian, of course), read it and came to faith in Christ, who came “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Lk 4:18). Now Alim is a pastor, the head of the local evangelical group, and, like his heavenly Master, is a vivid illustration of the verse in Hebrews which states that “because he himself suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” Indeed, Alim is successfully helping people to be healed from drug and alcohol addiction, and even Muslims of the neighborhood turn to him for advice and prayer. The very small group of Balkar Christians struggles to practice their faith in a culture where every aspect of life from birth, to marriage, to death, is governed by folk-Islamic and Balkar traditions. Their church is an example of warm family relations in the whole neighbourhood. Such is Alim, the local coordinator of the Balkar Bible translation project.

Another hero in the story, Makhti, has a completely different personal background, but the commonality between these two people is that he too is one of the very few Balkar Christians, and also a pastor. He received his first assignment from Alim to be tested as a potential translator. After he completed his first trial translation (the book of Daniel), Alim brought him to Moscow for IBT’s introductory seminar in February 2017 and introduced Makhti with the words, “It was our tremendous fortune to find such a precious pearl in the Caucasus.” Indeed, Makhti is a budding scholar with a good command of NT Greek and full of desire to serve the Lord in his native land. Being an ethnic Balkar, he is a perfect candidate for a mother-tongue translator, but more than this, he is constantly learning. His seminary education, his Biblical studies background and his knowledge of Greek made it absolutely clear at once that he was skilled enough to become either an independent translator (one who doesn’t need the help of an exegetical advisor), or an exegetical advisor for other translators in the Balkar project and possibly even in other projects in the Caucasus in the future.

Makhti’s first higher education was at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, the top university in Russia and the former USSR in the field of physics. After graduation, Makhti had excellent prospects for professional growth in Moscow. However, the Lord had another plan for him. At age 17, Makhti had a personal encounter with Christ. This is how he describes the influence of this conversion upon his life:

In the next year and a half my values changed radically. I found the true meaning of my life in serving God and people. I can’t call it anything other than a “new birth.” From the very beginning of my spiritual life I have been praying about reaching my fellow Balkars with the Good News, and for this I gave up all my prospects in Moscow and returned to my homeland. It was also at this time that I first started thinking about translating the Bible into Balkar, but until recently this remained a mere interest and I couldn’t find any ways of putting it into practice. It was when I got acquainted with the Institute for Bible Translation in Moscow that I became involved in the translation process itself.

Makhti has a Master’s degree in religion and he is currently studying in the long-distance D. Min program. The church he pastors has 83 members and is active in social service. He has three children, and the youngest is just 8 months old. Despite his other responsibilities Makhti has made the time to train in exegesis for his new IBT involvement, but he also needs to study biblical Hebrew. By the time that his IBT involvement began, he had already received a week-long crash-course in Hebrew from the seminary. With IBT’s encouragement, Makhti started an online course of biblical Hebrew, and he successfully finished two levels, so that by August 2017 he had gained enough knowledge to pass an entrance exam in elementary Hebrew grammar to the Hebrew University’s program in Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Center for Bible Translators is ready to accept him as their student for this half-year intensive course in Israel in 2018.

In the meanwhile Makhti continues his active involvement in IBT’s Balkar translation project, currently working on the book of Numbers. He shares, “My burning desire is to bring the Word of God into the homes of my fellow countrymen in our mother tongue. I want to take part in the project of translating the Bible into Balkar until the full Bible is finally published. I try my best to work on the translation every day, and to improve my mastery of the Biblical languages. I see this opportunity to study at the Jerusalem Center for Bible Translators as an important resource for conveying the message of God’s Word to my people as accurately as possible and a chance to bring the full Balkar Bible publication closer to realization.”

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