Tag Archives: 2014 winter Olympics

A Crush on Syria, by Sergey Markedonov

Russia’s Motives for Supporting Syria’s Current Regime Are Pragmatic, but Diplomats Are Failing to Articulate Them Properly

Comment by Sergey Markedonov
Special to Russia Profile

The Russian Foreign Ministry declared last week that it considers the statements by the United States and its European allies regarding the illegitimacy of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad unacceptable. According to Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, such statements “are counterproductive as they give a false signal to the opposition that there is no reason to engage in dialogue, that it’s better to expect help from NATO and the West, as was the case in Libya.” So why is Russia so stringently opposed to Western intervention in this Arab country?

Civil strife in Syria has lasted for a year now. The United Nations estimates that over this period about 5,500 people have been killed. Right from the start of the conflict Moscow has been consistently opposed to foreign military intervention and regime change. It called for the rejection of any one-sided assessment in favor of dialogue by the opposing sides and shared political responsibilities between them. This raises a legitimate question: what determines the Russian diplomats’ stance?

As Daniel Treisman, a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, aptly put it: “Western commentators typically attribute such behavior to Vladimir Putin’s personal paranoia or to attempts to rekindle the nation’s wounded pride and assert Russia’s superpower status. Look a little closer, however, and Russia’s actions seem motivated more by calculated – albeit sometimes miscalculated – realpolitik than by psychological impulses.”

Attempts to explain Moscow’s position on the Syrian issue from the perspective of the Putin regime’s non-democratic nature are out of touch with reality. Sure, Moscow is in league with China or Venezuela on this. But the United States and other NATO countries also identify themselves with Bashar al-Assad’s opponents like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which do not share Western democratic values.

Meanwhile, one year ago Saudi Arabia sent 1,000 troops, while the United Arab Emirates dispatched some 500 police officers, to intervene in the internal political struggle in Bahrain, which resulted in a harsh crackdown on anti-government protests. Eight activists were sentenced to life in prison. It’s telling that neither Washington nor Brussels showed the slightest concern about the “suppressed Bahraini democracy and human rights.”

What, then, are Moscow’s motives, if they are not just a question of supporting “a spiritually close dictator?” From my point of view, “the Syrian question” in Russia is a three-dimensional phenomenon. The first dimension, strictly speaking, has nothing to do with Syria. It concerns Moscow’s long-running dispute (often together with Beijing and New Delhi) with the West about the relationship between sovereignty and intervention in the domestic political process. That controversy dates back to the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans.

For the sake of objectivity, it is worth noting that Moscow has not always been consistent. In August of 2008 it recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, even though over the previous 17 years it built its relations with Georgia on the basis of Georgia’s territorial integrity. Yet in 2008 the Kremlin did not push for regime change in Georgia by supporting the alternative “people’s government.” In any case, in most situations Russia does not take kindly to regime change imposed from the outside.

It is perhaps no secret that international institutions erode state sovereignty. Much has been said about the ineffectiveness of the United Nations. However, preserving the integrity of the United Nations has never been of abstract, but of practical significance to Moscow. While that may not be much, it does allow Russia to hold on to the status of a beneficiary in global politics, gained by the Soviet Union in 1945. Without that, Moscow’s voice in international politics would be much weaker.

The second has to do with bilateral Russian-Syrian relations. As Treisman rightly said, “Russia has real commercial interests in Syria. Contracts to sell arms to Damascus – both those signed and under negotiation – total $5 billion. Having lost $13 billion due to international sanctions on Iran and $4.5 billion in canceled contracts to Libya, Russia’s defense industry is already reeling. Besides arms exports, Russian companies have major investments in Syria’s infrastructure, energy and tourism sectors.” But that’s not all. The Russian naval forces have a base on Syrian territory. The base in the Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only military object in the Mediterranean Sea. And there have so far been no alternative proposals from Moscow’s other partners.

The third has an internal Russian dimension to it. It is related to the situation in the North Caucasus, the most problematic region of the country. From the moment Russia first launched the first military operation in Chechnya in late 1994, Moscow faced the problem not only of such decisions’ internal legitimacy, but also of how to minimize the risk to its foreign policy. In this case it is about a region inhabited by millions of Muslims, connected to the wider Muslim world through thousands of networks. There was never a common position in relation to Russia’s North Caucasus policy in the Arab world (and there is none now), considering the diverse interests of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Qatar.

But while Damascus supported the territorial integrity of Russia and condemned the terrorist attacks carried out first by separatist forces and later by the Islamic underground, Qatar played host to one of the leaders of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Moreover, Bashar al-Assad clearly took Russia’s side during the “five-day war” with Georgia in 2008, calling it a “guarantor of peace” in the North Caucasus Region. Now that growth in Islamic sentiment is more or less the only practical result of the “Arab Spring,” the defeat of the secular Assad regime cannot but be a cause for concern in Moscow.

One interesting fact: during the presidential campaign in Russia, Mikhail Prokhorov, who positioned himself as a liberal, sharply attacked Western policy in Syria. His argument then was largely based on those concerns, especially since among the opponents of secular power in Syria there are many people who are willing to support the “just struggle of the brothers in faith” in the North Caucasus.

Another equally important Syrian “Caucasus factor” is the situation of the Circassian community in that country. The community, which has been loyal to the Syrian authorities, is now suffering from the civil conflict. It’s no coincidence that the Circassian community has appealed to Russian leadership with requests for repatriation. According to Sufian Zhemukhov, a political analyst and journalist, the “‘Syrian question’ has given the Kremlin the only real chance to decouple the Circassian problem from the Sochi Olympics. This will not solve the Circassian question, but it will remove the issue from the agenda before the Olympics games. The resettlement of the Circassians from Syria to the Caucasus will marginalize anti-Russian activists in the Diaspora.”

Thus Russia’s interests in Syria should not be viewed solely as “phantoms of the Cold War” and the complexes of Russian leaders. To a large extent, Moscow’s approaches are pragmatic. Unfortunately, until now Russia has been unable to articulate its interests in an understandable way and to defend them with well-formulated arguments.

Sergey Markedonov, Ph.D., is a political analyst and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC.

Source: Russia Profile


Russia, The South Caucasus and the Caspian: A Handbook, by Patrick Armstrong

Russia, The South Caucasus and the Caspian: A Handbook

Patrick Armstrong Ph.D.

Ottawa, Canada, August 1998

Executive Summary

The Caspian Sea area is shaping up to be one of the biggest sources of oil and gas in the world. A conservative estimate gives about one-sixth the amount of oil as there is in the Gulf area. Every major oil-connected company (including many Canadian companies) is involved today in the oil business in and around the Caspian. Other interests will pull the West, into the area.

The Caspian area – particularly the Caucasus – is extraordinarily complicated: there is no other like it anywhere. Dozens of distinct peoples claim it as their home. Many more peoples have arrived “recently” (ie in the past millennium). Since 1991, six wars have been fought in the Caucasus and none of them has produced a final settlement. There are at least nine outstanding border disputes – ten if one counts the Caspian Sea itself. The area is so uniquely complicated, with such an entanglement of ethnic and historical concerns, that ignorance of its complexities can be fatal for wise policy.

This paper is intended to be a reference guide and not to be read straight through; continuous reading would, therefore, reveal a good deal of duplication. The Table of Contents has been arranged so that the reader can directly turn to the sections of concern.

The sections are summarized below.

  • Oil and Gas” discusses current expectations of Caspian hydrocarbon reserves. It is thought that the Caspian area contains at least 100 billion barrels of oil and 500-600 trillion cubic feet of gas. But, as much is not yet explored, there may be more.
  • The Land” gives an overview of the geography of the territory under discussion.
  • The Peoples of the Caucasus” describes the extraordinary ethnography of the Caucasus in which are found, at least, twenty-six distinct peoples who call the area home. In addition to the “natives”, the years in the Russian and Soviet Empires means that many other peoples now make the area home.
  • History” sketches the major events of the Caucasus from early times to the present. Generally speaking, the Mountaineers (the peoples of the North Caucasus) were independent until conquest, after a tremendous resistance, by Russia in the Nineteenth Century. The South Caucasus had lost its independence centuries before to Ottoman and Persian power. It was conquered (if Muslim) or “liberated” (if Christian) by Russia during the Nineteenth Century until, by 1900, for the first time in history, one power ruled the whole Caucasus. All peoples tried for independence after the collapse of the Tsarist Empire but were brought under communist power. Demands for independence re-appeared after the fall of the Soviet Empire.
  • Memories are long in the Caucasus and the section “National Dreams and Nightmares” recounts the national myths of the area. Georgians dream of the Greater Georgia of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries. Armenians cannot forget the massacres of Armenians by Turkish power. Azerbaijanis seek to find their identity whether as Turks, as Caucasians or as Muslims. Mountaineers dream of a Mountain Republic, free from outside power. The collapse of Soviet power liberated all these dreams and nightmares.
  • Diasporas” speaks of the large and influential populations of Armenians and Mountaineers who have transported their national myths to their new countries.
  • Soviet legacies” briefly touches on the problems and – even – the benefits of seventy years of communist rule on the area.
  • Sufism-Wahhabism – An Islamic Fissure” discusses a tension that has already caused strife in Chechnya and Dagestan and may cause much more. The traditional form of Islam in the east North Caucasus – Naqshbandi Sufism – appears to be under threat from a rigorously purist form of Islam from Arabia – Wahhabism.
  • Post 1985 wars” gives a brief account of the wars fought in the area since the Gorbachev reforms began to release the pressures built up by the communist system – the Karabakh war between Armenians and Azerbaijanis; the Ingush-Ossetian troubles; the Russo-Chechen war; the Georgian civil war; the war between the Abkhazians and the Georgians and between the Ossetians and the Georgians. This section is the most argumentative portion because the fairly widely held belief that Moscow started and maintained these troubles must be combated. In most cases, these wars have their origins in Stalin’s border decisions, which the world recognized in 1991 and 1992.
  • Potential Border Disputes” deals with some potential war-causing territorial and ethnic disputes. These have not so far caused any great amount of violence but could explode.
  • Historical Hatreds” attempts to describe the attitudes that Armenians and Azerbaijanis; Georgians and Russians; Chechens and Russians have towards each other. These attitudes – hatred or contempt for the most part – greatly affect relations in this small area.
  • The sections “Kalmykia” and “Tengiz Oil and Gas Field” move the reader out of the Caucasus proper to the north end of the area. The Tengiz field is already producing and one of the possible pipeline routes from it passes through Kalmykia. Output may also be connected to the central Caspian fields and so this area may become connected to the Caucasus.
  • Caspian Sea Borders” discusses one of the initial problems: the littoral states cannot agree on how to divide up the Sea. However, now that Moscow has virtually agreed to the position that Baku has held all along, this issue is close to settlement and the entire area will likely be exclusively divided among the littoral states.
  • Pipeline Routes” briefly discusses the principal routes suggested for the exit of the oil and gas to their customers. A vexed question which has attracted some extreme statements, it seems that the Russian and Georgian routes will certainly be used while the others depend on the price of oil.
  • National Interests” sets out what the players can expect to gain from the Caspian hydrocarbons. President Aliyev of Azerbaijan has very cleverly involved almost all players in almost all possibilities. This represents a force for stabilization as nearly all can become “winners” of something. But, three players – Armenia, Karabakh and Abkhazia (and the last two are the local military powers) – have been altogether left out. Russia’s involvement is also discussed and it is argued that Moscow’s involvement is no more or less malign than anyone else’s and that any attempt to cut Moscow out of the profits is, simply, impossible.
  • Federalism” highlights what is probably the only stable long-term solution for the area in which a mono-ethnic “homeland” state can only be established by war.

A number of appendices complete the Handbook.

If there is as much oil and gas in the Caspian as there seems to be, the Caspian, and all the peculiar problems of the peoples who live nearby, will be the stuff of headlines, international meetings and briefings for years to come.

>>Download the full-text document in PDF format (1. 06 MB)

Patrick Armstrong received a PhD from Kings College, University of London, England in 1976 and started working for the Canadian government as a defence scientist in 1977. He began a 22-year specialisation on the USSR and then Russia in 1984, and was Political Counsellor in the Canadian Embassy in Moscow from 1993 to 1996.

The Circassian Dimension of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, by Sufian Zhemukhov

The Circassian Dimension of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, by Sufian Zhemukhov


PONARS Policy Memo No. 65 – Georgetown University

Sufian Zhemukhov
Kabardino-Balkarian Institute of Humanitarian Studies
September 2009

In 2014, the popular Russian Black Sea resort city of Sochi will host the Winter Olympics, signifying Russia’s increasingly high international profile. The honor of hosting the Olympics is a challenge and opportunity for the host country, which must be ready for a number of unexpected, if inevitable, domestic and foreign challenges. Criticisms and controversy accompany the run-up to every Olympic Games. China, for example, withstood intense pressure from international nongovernmental organizations before the start of the 2008 Beijing Olympics due to the situation in Tibet. In 2002, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) suggested that the Winter Games be relocated from Salt Lake City, since the United States was a country at war (with the Taliban in Afghanistan). Earlier, in 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter asked the IOC to move the Olympic Games from Moscow after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The 2014 Olympics in Sochi are still five years away, but they have already become one of the most discussed issues on the Russian political agenda.

Circassian Memory and the Sochi Olympics

The Circassian question is one of the less appreciated issues highlighted by the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Historical Circassia today is divided between six regions of the Russian Federation. In Soviet times, the Circassians were split and subdivided into several Soviet narodnosti (nationalities) with different ethnonyms in Russian – Kabardin, Adyghei, Cherkess, and Shapsug – and spread over several administrative units. Today, most of Russia’s 700,000 Circassians form ”titular nationalities” in the Republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adyghea, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia, while a lesser number live in the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions and in North Ossetia.

However, nearly 90 percent of the global Circassian population lives outside Russia. Most live in the states of the former Ottoman Empire – mainly Turkey, Syria, and Jordan – to which they were deported in the nineteenth century. As a share of total population, the Circassian diaspora is the largest in the world. It is also the second largest diaspora from Russia, after the 25-million strong ethnic Russian diaspora itself. Since the end of the Cold War, the Circassian world has developed an ideological unity based upon a shared memory of deportation and the fragmentation of its remaining territory. Repatriation and unification of the native land have become the primary goals of the Circassian nation.

The Circassian question is closely related to the Sochi Olympics in several symbolic ways. By an irony of history, the 2014 Olympic Games will mark the 150th anniversary of the Circassian defeat in 1864, when, after over a century of fighting, Tsar Alexander II declared victory for Russia. Every year on May 21, Circassians around the world light 101 candles and observe a minute of silence in memory of the 101-year war. Sochi itself was the site of the war’s last battles, and its port was the place from which the Circassians were deported to the Ottoman Empire. Krasnaya Polyana (Kbaada in Circassian), the area that will be the center of the 2014 Olympic Games, was where, on May 21, 1864, a parade of Russian troops celebrated the end of the war with Circassians.

In addition to its association with the war, Sochi is emblematic of the Circassian homeland. The city is named after the Circassian ethnic group Shache, who lived there until 1864. It was also the last capital of independent Circassia (1861-1864). At present, there are about 15,000 Circassian Shapsugs living around Sochi who demand the restoration of the Shapsug National District (1924–1945) and the historical Circassian name of their capital Psyshu, renamed Lazarevskoye after Admiral Mikhail Lazarev, notorious for destroying coastal Circassian villages.

The Revival of the Circassian Question

The Circassian question, practically dormant before Russia won the Olympic bid in 2007, has actively reemerged in recent years. One of its first mentions followed discussion of government plans to “amalgamate” some of Russia’s federal regions. This discussion sparked Circassian discontent, as the possible merger of Circassian Adygeia with the largely Russian Krasnodar region was raised. Moscow analysts have noted that the Winter Olympics will prevent this merger until after 2014; if Adygeia were to join Krasnodar, Circassians would most likely oppose the Olympics. At the same time, intellectuals from various Circassian communities have suggested that the idea of a single Circassian republic could also be raised within the framework of the amalgamation of existing regions, eliminating the ethno-territorial divisions imposed under Joseph Stalin. This idea to unify the Circassians into a single federal subject was publicly declared in November 2008 at an Extraordinary Session of the Circassian People’s Congress.

Also generating a Circassian response was the failure of the Russian media to mention the Circassians’ historical presence in the region and its presentation of Sochi as historically a part of ancient Colchis, inhabited by ancient Greeks. Circassian organizations argued that symbols of Circassian history and culture cannot be ignored and should be included in the format of the Sochi Olympics, just as Australia highlighted its indigenous population in the 2000 Summer Olympics. The media’s discussion of the celebration of Sochi’s 170th anniversary also provoked protest from Circassian NGOs. In March 2008, leaders of the Shapsug Khase (Shapsug Council) recalled Sochi’s official 150th anniversary, when the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History announced that 1838 was not the founding year of Sochi but the date of its conquest by Russian troops (the Circassians recaptured it after the Crimean War but lost it again in 1864).

Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Grames on the grounds that they will take place on “ethnically-cleansed” land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work at Krasnaya Polyana, as it could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, about 200 Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.

Softening Discontent

Participating in the Circassian Olympic debate are several groups with motivations that shift, expand, and sometimes (but not always) coincide. These groups consist of local elites and the intelligentsia, members of the international diaspora, and politicians and businessmen who have something to gain through the power plays surrounding the Sochi Olympics. These groups are converging on the importance of raising the Circassian question, but fissures could reappear in the future.

For example, Circassians and Abkhaz may be unified in terms of the Abkhaz conflict with Georgia, but they are not necessarily unified in their attitude toward the Olympics. Abkhazia, located just thirty kilometers from Sochi, has supported the 2014 Olympics from the start, perceiving it as an excellent economic opportunity. The Winter Games can bring much-needed investment to Abkhazia through increased demand for construction materials, workers, and territory for Olympic use. The governor of the Krasnodar region, Aleksander Tkachev, and Abkhazian president Sergei Bagapsh signed a cooperation agreement in May 2008, according to which Abkhazia will provide assistance for the construction of Olympic facilities in Sochi. Thanks to Abkhazia’s enthusiasm, some analysts have even suggested that it risks losing support from Circassians who oppose the Sochi Olympics.

Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia has considerably softened the position of the Circassian world toward the Sochi Olympics. Though having adopted a more supportive view, Circassians continue to use the run-up to 2014 as a means to spread information about and draw attention to their cause. In April 2009, the author of this memo and Aleksei Bekshokov, the leader of the Union of Abkhaz Volunteers, proposed that a Circassian Olympic Games be held in 2012, including competition in twelve sports, to correspond to the number of stars on the Circassian flag, and that Circassian elements (twelve stars and three arrows) be included in the emblem of the Sochi Olympics to remind the world about the area’s native inhabitants. A series of presentations on the project took place in cities throughout Russia, including Sochi, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.

Some also view the economic aspect of the Sochi Olympics as a potential benefit for the wider Circassian world. According to Adygeia’s president Aslan Tkhakushinov, “The Olympic Games bring countries a colossal income. It’s probably worth taking a look at this side of the coin as well. The Olympics should not hurt anyone’s national interests. It should be a festival.”

The Olympics may well provide economic opportunities for the Circassian regions of Agygheia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia. One idea has been to develop mountain tourism in these republics in association with the Winter Games. A major question, however, is how to connect these areas to Sochi. On a map, the Circassian capitals of Maykop, Nalchik, and Cherkessk are relatively close to Sochi, but, separated by the Caucasus mountain range, they are distant in terms of road connections and available transportation. A direct road connection would transform the region into one large mountain and sea resort where tourists could swim in the Black Sea and then drive half a day to ski on the slopes of Mount Elbrus. Experts are studying three different projects for connecting the Circassian regions to the Black Sea. Cherkessk-Adler and Maykop–Adler were the principal routes that were discussed prior to the onset of the financial crisis. The third possible project is the reconstruction of the old military highway linking Cherkessk to Abkhazia, a popular tourist route during Soviet times that fell into disrepair after the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93.

For now, however, such prospects remain mere possibilities. Due to the financial crisis and a subsequent 30 percent reduction of the budget for road construction in Russia, most specialists say that none of the road projects are realistic. In general, deputy chairman of the International Circassian Association Nalbiy Guchetl has been less optimistic about the economic opportunities for Russia’s Circassian-inhabited regions, remarking that “investing billions in Sochi will create an even greater economic gap between Krasnodar and Adygeia, providing new arguments in favor of abolishing Adygeia on the grounds that it is an economic failure.”

Sochi and the Future of the Circassian Question

Despite these considerations, the Circassian question has been bypassed in most discussions of the Sochi Olympics. While Circassian NGOs have been concerned about construction work that may endanger burial sites, the agenda of the environmentally-driven anti-Olympic movement in Russia does not include the Circassian question. Not a single Circassian signed the petition that forty-seven Russian organizations sent to the IOC against the Sochi Games out of concern for its potential ecological impact. Thanks to the small Circassian electorate in Sochi, it was also easy for all candidates in the city’s April 2009 mayoral election to avoid the Circassian question. Even opposition candidates who tended to exploit any problematic aspect of the Sochi Olympics in their campaigns ignored the Circassian question.

However, the election still indirectly had a Circassian component, which revealed that the Kremlin was not entirely neglectful of the issue. Six months before the election, Jambulat Khatuov, an ethnic Circassian, was appointed acting mayor of Sochi for three months; he later became a deputy governor of the Krasnodar region that includes Sochi. In mostly Russian Krasnodar, the population of which is less than one percent Circassian, there are now two Circassian deputy governors. The other, Murat Akhejak, directed the campaign of the Kremlin candidate during the mayoral election.

At the moment, the Circassian dimension is a relatively minor issue relative to the others that surround the Sochi Olympics. Only a few intellectuals and social groups are mobilizing around the cause, while other constituencies, like the more powerful local governments, evince far more enthusiasm.

Why, then, is the Circassian issue important in policy terms? First, the intellectuals and diaspora activists that are “globalizing” the Circassian discourse in connection with the Olympics may ultimately pose a challenge to the Russian state. They could potentially cast Circassians as the “indigenous people” of the Northwest Caucasus, for example, or use the term “genocide” as a rhetorical tool. This could lead to an internationalization of the questions of Circassian unification and diaspora return.

Second, a disjuncture between official and NGO/diaspora discourse regarding Circassian history and identity appears to be growing. If the Sochi Olympics become an issue for intellectuals and community activists, local officials will have to find ways to respond. They might end up “capturing” the discourse for their own political purposes or, unintentionally, in a way that puts them in a difficult position vis-à-vis Moscow.

The state has sought indirectly to both co-opt and suppress discussions of Circassian issues, demonstrating the level of relative importance it assigns to this matter in the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics. However, this discourse can be seen less as a threat to the Sochi Olympics and more as an opportunity to develop a new strategy regarding the Circassian question, as well as to launch a much-needed modernization of the region. Two policy changes can help make this happen. First, the Russian government should take steps to address the main issues of the Circassian world – repatriation and unification. Second, the economic opportunities of the Winter Games should provide social and economic benefits to the North Caucasus regions, particularly to its ethnic republics.

If addressed strategically, the Sochi Olympics can open a new era in the history of the Caucasus by resolving the 250 year-old Circassian question. If ignored, the Circassian challenge will become even greater after the Sochi Olympics, and that much harder to solve.

PONARS Eurasia publications are funded through the International Program of Carnegie Corporation of New York.

© PONARS Eurasia 2009

Source: Eurasian Strategy Project (PONARS Eurasia)

Reflections on the Caucasus: 21 May 1864-2010

Reflections on the Caucasus: 21 May 1864-2010


I had a dream last night. I can’t tell it to you, because it was in Ubykh,” said the last speaker of the Ubykh language, Tevfik Esenç. When he passed away in 1992, the unique language of the the Ubykh people, the indigenous people of Sochi, where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games will be held, also died. This was one of the consequences of the fall of the Caucasus, which was celebrated by the Russian armies with triumphalism and a procession in the Valley of Kbaada, now called Krasnaya Polyana on May 21, 1864.

What the 21st May brings to the mind of the Adyghes (Circassians), the Abkhazians, and the Ubykhs, who have been scattered all over the world and struggling to preserve their cultures and languages today, must be exile and genocide… But what do experts have to say about 21 May, about the Adyghes, Abkhazians and Ubykhs? And what are their thoughts?

This project is the outcome of a desire of CircassianWorld.com, which has always tried to publicize academic works from the very day of its inception, to provide a platform for academics, researchers, politicians, journalists, and executives of NGOs from various countries to express their opinions about the 21st May, the North Caucasus, and its peoples.

I would like wholeheartedly to thank all of the following people who have contributed to this project proferring their valuable thoughts for inclusion on this site.

Metin Sönmez,
CircassianWorld.com & AbkhazWorld.com

The authors were given complete freedom regarding the content of their texts whose maximum length was specified as around one page.  Their views in this project do not necessarily reflect the views of the CW website. The texts have been listed alphabetically according to the names of the authors.

Anssi KullbergAntero LeitzingerAyhan KayaCem ÖzdemirCharles KingDaniel MüllerEiji MiyazawaErol TaymazFethi AçıkelGeorge AnchabadzeGeorgi Derluguian,Georgy ChochievHakan KırımlıIrma KreitenJohn ColarussoKarlos ZurutuzaKemal KarpatKhasan KasumovLaurent VinatierLiana KvarcheliaMark LeveneMax Sher,Michael KhodarkovskyMohydeen QuandourMoshe GammerMuhittin ÖzsağlamMurat PapşuMusa ShanibovNaima NeflyashevaNeal AschersonOliver BulloughPatrick ArmstrongPaul HenzePaula GarbRadosław Żurawski vel GrajewskiRieks SmeetsSeteney ShamiSibel SiberStephen ShenfieldSufian ZhemukhovThomas De WaalWalter RichmondYakov Gordin.

The articles in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (1.23 MB)

21  May 1864 – 2010



The occasion of the Circassian Memorial Day on 21 May brings to our minds some of the worst experiences of modern history. It is particularly important to remember the events known as the Circassian genocide in the latter half of the nineteenth century,  because they were fully comparable, both in numbers and in proportions, to the catastrophes that later faced the Armenians and the European Jews, even though only the latter two remain widely known to the  public. Several other nations, who similarly to the Circassians fell victim to the unscrupulous imperial policies, hold memorial days of their respective genocides or atrocities, such as the Chechens in February, the Armenians in April and the Assyrians in August.

Each one of these memorial days refers to similar disturbing developments due to the imperial policies that were endorsed since the late eighteenth century. The Jewish Holocaust is probably the best known example of the consequences that resulted from such policies. However, most of the other devastating events belonging to the same historical series of crimes took place on all the four sides of the Black Sea.

It could probably be said that the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula marked the beginning of a new kind of ethnic cleansing in Europe, with the expulsion and killing of Muslims and Jews in the fifteenth century. This was followed in the seventeenth century by the expulsion and killing of the Moriscos, former Muslims who had at least nominally converted to Christianity. Keeping the Iberian precedents in mind, the era of “modern” genocide in western Eurasia seem to have started on the other side of Europe, during Catherine II’s reign, with the conquest of the Crimea by the Russian Empire in 1783. Long before that the Ottoman Empire, Russia’s southern rival, had already turned the Crimean Khanate into their vassal, but the Crimean Tatars had not been subjected to forceful Turkification or ethnic cleansing as a result.

When the Russian tsarina’s armies took over the Crimea, the Tatars still constituted 98 per cent of the population on the peninsula. Within days from the formal annexation of the Crimea to the Russian Empire – in late April 1783 – thousands of Crimean Tatar intellectuals, noblemen, officers and clerics were arrested, gathered to Karasubazar and executed. The banishment of the Crimean Tatar elite launched a period of systematic policy that aimed at complete destruction of the state structures of the Crimean Khanate as well as the Tatar society and culture. The act was similar in character and intention to the Katyn massacres of 22,000 members of the Polish elite by the Soviet Union in 1940.

The 1830s witnessed systematic and organized campaigns of confiscating and burning Crimean Tatar literature, books and manuscripts. More than 900 mosques and schools were abolished. As many as 75 per cent of the Crimean Tatars fled to the territories of the Ottoman Empire during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. The first half of the nineteenth century also saw the Russian conquest of the Caucasus.

At the time of the Crimean conquest, the prevalence of religious notions over national ones may have contributed to the fact that most Crimean Tatars opted for exile in Ottoman territories rather than large-scale resistance. However, this was not the case with the North Caucasians, who put up a fierce resistance against the invading Russians. Campaigns of terror and genocide as well as fierce resistance took place in Chechnya and Dagestan, where it continued until the capture of the most legendary leader of this resistance, Imam Shamil in 1859.

In 1860, the Russian Empire launched similar policies against Circassians to the west of the Chechens and Dagestanis. Prior to their persecution, the Circassian peoples inhabited and ruled the entire eastern coast of the Black Sea; from the Taman Peninsula to Abkhazia, in addition to the inland areas that extended east to the princedom of Kabarda.

The Circassians, who were fortified in their capital Sochi, appealed to Turkey and the Western powers for protection, but apart from symbolic gestures and references in literature, their appeals were ignored. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians had to flee from the conquered areas to the Ottoman Empire. Many settled in the area of current Turkey, forming a sizeable diaspora there, while others ended up far around the empire, in the Middle East, Iraq, Egypt and the Balkans.

In 1862, the campaign against Circassian populations included use of the notorious “fire and sword” tactics, something similar to what would later be known as “torched earth.” Cavalry units and Cossacks were used to ravage the area, destroying villages, massacring, raping and looting, burning fields, granaries and gardens. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians perished as a result of famine, whilst others died on their desperate trails over the mountains into Turkey.

Russia finally crushed the Circassian resistance on May 1864, although it would still re-emerge many times over the following century, often in tandem with their eastern brethren the Chechens. Within four years, 1860—1864, an estimated one and half million Circassians were killed and around one million ended up in exile, mostly in the territories of the Ottoman Empire. (Exact numbers, as in the case of most atrocities in the region, remain disputed.)

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, similar purges that the Russian Empire had launched in the Crimea and the North Caucasus became increasingly common also in the south of this region in the eastern territories of the Ottoman Empire; increasingly nationalist Turkey launched pogroms and atrocities against the Christian populations of Anatolia, including Armenians, Assyrians and Pontic Greeks. Many of the Anatolian Christians were perceived as tools of Russian policies against Turkey, but similar to what happened in the Russian Empire, innocent civilians were branded and targeted, which led to devastating results.

Turks as well as other Muslims of the Balkans and the Caucasus were targeted, too, with hundreds of thousands killed or expelled. When many embittered populations ended up in exile, there were cases where the refugees, in turn, targeted minorities perceived as linked with their enemy, causing chain reactions of revenge. Over the same period Europe also saw the emergence of pogroms against Jews. All this formed a continuous trend over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reaching its peak in the industrialization of genocide by the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

Several factions on many sides committed crimes against other populations over this period. Entire nationalities, in areas where Christians and Muslims had previously coexisted for centuries, suddenly became victim to imperial rivalries. It was certainly not necessary to have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people murdered and expelled for the sake of the general political and military circumstances that have often been used to justify previous atrocities. The great powers that took part in these imperial rivalries bear the biggest responsibility.

Those particular leaders, who were directly responsible for giving the orders that led to genocides around the Black Sea, the Caucasus and Anatolia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are no long er alive and cannot be brought to justice, and neither can the individuals who executed their orders. The same is true for the persons responsible for Nazi and Stalinist crimes. The fact that these people are dead should make it even less excusable for current leaders to avoid remembering and acknowledging the crimes that took place in the past, for which they cannot be blamed. Memory is part of human dignity. Therefore, remembering past injustices should not be seen as revenge or conspiracy against the states whose precursors were responsible for so much destruction. History deserves to be known to all.

Yet it raises concern if the issue of acknowledging historical truth is subjected to polling by foreign parliaments, since politicians would vote with limited or biased knowledge, and their vote would in many cases be based on motives qu ite different from historical facts. Many would vote from the platform of religious bigotry or great power rivalry. Therefore, such politicization of historical atrocities could open wounds rather than heal them, and repeat the policies that once led to these crimes rather than serve to prevent them from being repeated.

The least that states and political leaders today should do in respect to recognizing past crimes is to refrain from similar policies. Unfortunately, pogroms, ethnic cleansings and genocidal tendencies are still present in the conflicts of the twenty-first century, resulting in millions of refugees and internally displaced people. What happened to so many populations in the past also does not excuse them, or the states and leaders speaking on their behalf, from waging similar crimes against civilian populations today. National hatred is a dangerous double-edged sword, and therefore when generations change, reconciliation should prevail over revenge. Anssi KULLBERG, Analyst and co-founder of the Research Group for Conflicts and Terrorism in Turku, FINLAND. The article represents the author’s opinions and does not necessarily reflect those of his current or former employers.

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The Circassian genocide is certainly one of the least remembered genocides in world history. Of course it can not be called completely forgotten, as we would, logically, not be able to recall such a genocide in the first place. It is a universal tragedy, that nations get destroyed or diminished and dispersed throughout history, for various reasons and often with gravest injustice. So, is there something special in the fate of the Circassians, and can it be compared with the better-known repeated massacres of Armenians in 19th and early 20th century, with the pogroms and Holocaust of Jews, or with the erasing of several nations by Stalin?

In all fairness, we should avoid the temptation of a genocide rivalry. Nor should we spend too much energy for body counts or formal recognitions by political entities. Premeditated mass murder or reckless deportations of populations based purely on their nationality, regardless of sex and age or military considerations, is a crime against humanity no matter how long ago it was committed and how many families it affected.

The Circassians were a link in a chain reaction or vicious cycle of genocides around the Black Sea, maybe already starting from the mythical Troian War, but certainly during a century launched by the Crimean War. Their fate was not unique, but to acknowledge this and the historical connections between nations and tragedies in a wider region, does not in any way belittle the sufferings of individual Circassians or make them collectively less important as a study object. Actually, the way Circassians always interacted with neighbouring nations linguistically, religiously, politically, and culturally, stresses the need to understand their role in a broader context, as victims of a long-term homicidal strategy of political expansion.

Time should heal but not erase memories. Descendants of the victims in the 1860s should continue to cherish the memories of their ancestors, but also learn from their experience and teach solidarity between nations in similar circumstances. Instead of just bitterness and exclusivity, Circassians have a history of survival and interaction that deserves some merit. Already before the Crimean War, they had appealed for international recognition of their right to self-determination, and for European intervention. So did the Poles and Hungarians around the same time. Today, many other nations – Chechens, Uyghurs, Tibetans, etc. – may face the risk of (sometimes slower but nevertheless equally tragic) annihilation, and Circassian studies should be of interest for all of them. That way, Circassians of the 1860s did not fight and die in vain, but their example might still save lives by raising important issues of ethics, touching the conscience of distant people, and paving the way for a better understanding and handling of the root causes of genocidal politics.

In a way, reflecting the words of President John F. Kennedy on the Berlin Wall almost half a century ago, we are all Circassians. Antero LEITZINGER. Political historian and researcher for the Finnish Immigration Service. He is the author of “Caucasus—An Unholy Alliance.” He is a history researcher on topics from Russia to Islam. FINLAND.

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Circassians experienced one of the greatest tragedies of humandkind. Millions of people had to leave their homeland, and thousands of them died during the exodus. The tragedy of exile has always remained intact, being tranmistted from one generation to the other. The despair of exile has given the entire Circassian diaspora disperssed around the whole world from Turkey to the USA a common identity. This is unique to a handful of classical diasporic communities. As someone who worked on the production and articulation of Circassianness in the Circassian diaspora settled in Turkey, I have to underline that I am amazed by the collective memory of the Circassians, and their ability to revive their language, culture and memmory throughout more than one century. Circassians remember the tragedy of the 21st of May every year, and by doing that each time they confirm the sense of belonging to the Circassian community. The flowers thrown into the sea every year on the 21st of May is a way of easing the souls of those people who lost their lives during the exodus in one way or another. I am dreaming of a world free of involuntary and forced migrations. Prof. Dr. Ayhan KAYA. Director of the European Institute, Department of International Relations, Istanbul Bilgi University, TURKEY.

Kabardian Circassians

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The 21st May is for Circassians around the world a day of sad remembrance of the expulsion which began that day in 1864. It is a day where one recalls all the suffering, but also the fact that the memory of the Circassians and their culture and history has been effectually preservated down to the present day. For this to succeed in the future Circassians have to exert themselves for the preservation of the unique nature of the Caucasus, especially during the Olympics in particular ways. However, they also must argue that all minorities and cultures around the world including their own are protected and recieved and they must fight for the fact that war and nationalism are finished once and for all. Considering that Circassians only know too well which suffering humans can cause towards other humans. Cem ÖZDEMİR, Co-leader of the German party Alliance ’90/The Greens.GERMANY.

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Circassians around the world are rediscovering their cultural heritage and reexamining many of the most painful episodes from their past, including the experience of exile from the 1860s forward. The ease of communication–from text-messaging to webpages such as this one–have helped to create a genuinely global Circassian community in ways that no one, not least the Russian officials whose terrible acts helped create the Circassian displacement, could have imagined. Circassians left their ancient homeland as tribes and clans, with primary attachments to particular hills and valleys or to their own lineage groups. But in the early twenty-first century, they are rapidly becoming a globally connected and self-conscious nation. May 21 has emerged as a major rallying point, just as the Sochi Olympics will focus attention on the horrors of imperial expansion and the dispersal of indigenous peoples from the Caucasus highlands and Black Sea coast. Not all Circassians will have the same point of view of these events; any national group is always composed of many voices, some calling for national revival, others calling for Circassians to maintain the ‘‘multi-local’’ identities that they have cultivated for the past century and a half–with connections ranging from Russia to Turkey and from Jordan to New Jersey. It is clear, though, that a strong and patriotic sense of Circassian identity is emerging even despite a long history of exile, assimilation, and cultural change. Charles KING. Professor of International Affairs and Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of the books ”The Ghost of  Freedom: A History of the Caucasus” & ”The Black Sea: A History”. USA.

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My contribution is not (as perhaps some may expect who know me from my contribution to George Hewitt’s book on the Abkhazians) linked to historical statistics or demography; quite the opposite. I want to share a simple observation, namely, how politics has incurably infected the writing and remembering of history including, of course, the remembrance of human suffering. Even professional historians cannot, as a rule, overcome this; sadly enough, most do not even seem to try. The suffering ‘their’ people inflicted is ignored, explained away, belittled, justified, denied – whatever. Surely it takes a rare gem of a human being to be equally disturbed by Sumgait and Khodzhaly. This author for one has never met such a person. Generally, people are either outraged by Sumgait or by Khodzhaly (or, of course, by neither event).

May 21 is a case in point. The lists of people publicly remembering that sad day of exile for the Northwest Caucasians will, then, be full of the names of the usual suspects. Armenians e. g. will be missing because they know that most people expressing solidarity with Muslim victims (although, of course, not all Northwest Caucasians were/are Muslims, in 1864 or today) of a ‘Christian’ power would never dream of joining an April 24 declaration to remember the suffering of Armenians and others in the genocide of 1915 ff.; most or all Georgians and Georgia-lovers (or Saakashvili-paid spin doctors, this being so hard to distinguish these days) will also stay aloof, for as much as they love to see Russia discomfited, their PR frame imperiously calls for the Russian bear vs. tiny Georgia, so that the mere mention of Abkhazians and others evokes the danger of exploding their heartrending fairy tales.

The author’s wish, then, would be for everyone, the Cherkess of the world included, to grant the dignity of victim status to those of the ‘wrong’, politically inexpe dient, side also (including, of course, the Georgian victims of the wars unleashed by Georgia in 1992 and 2008). Dr. Daniel MÜLLER, Research & Teaching Assistant, Institute of Journalism, TU Dortmund University, GERMANY.

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The more I learn about the Circassian exodus from their historical homelands in the North Caucasus, the less I feel that I understand what was that which really happened. According to some scholars, it was an expulsion, and according to others, an emigration. However, it was certainly one of the most tragic events in the history of mankind, no matter how much multi-dimensioned the process was. Visit any of almost-deserted Circassian villages in Anatolian highlands, and listen to people who say “We’re still being driven out.” You immediately realize, human sufferings continue till today, 146 years after Circassian exodus. May peace prevail in the North Caucasus and the world. Dr. Eiji MIYAZAWA. Visiting Staff, Institute of Asian Cultures, Sophia UniversityTokyo, JAPAN.


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21 May: A Tragedy to Remember

21 May is a day of remembrance to mark one of the worst human sufferings in the history. The Circassians resisted desperately and fiercely, for more than a century, against the gigantic Tsarist Empire without any organized army and without any significant external support. But this freedom loving nation was deported en masse into f oreign lands following the occupation of their homeland in the mid-19th century. The deportation of the Circassian people was among the largest exodus in modern times. Almost 90 percent of the population was deported, and a third of them perished during the exodus from disease and starvation. 21 May 1864 is the symbol for the tragedy of the Circassian people.

The Circassians who were deported from their homeland were dispersed into various countries, and forced to live under extremely unfavorable conditions. But they have resisted against all odds, and have survived as a people. In spite of a long period of denial and oppressions, the Circassians have never forgotten what they had to live through, and kept alive the memory of their beloved homeland since the day of departure.

The first large scale commemoration in the diaspora was held by the Caucasian Association in Ankara with the participation of many organizations from the homeland and other diaspora countries in 1989. That meeting gave birth to the first ever Circassian organization uniting the Circassian associations separated by artificial boundaries, the World Circassian Association. Although the Circassians were remembering and commemorating the Great Exodus the first time in 1989, they did not consider 21 May only as a day of mourning, but they took is as a day of remembrance, to understand what happened in the past and what they could build in the future. I will follow the same tradition, and share my feelings about what happened in the past and what we could do for the future.

There are three root causes for the current ethnic and cultural problems of the Circassians. The first and foremost important one is 21 May. 21 May is the day of occupation of Circassia and the subsequent separation of the Circassians from their homeland where they lived since time immemorial, and developed their unique language and culture that reflects the history and geography of the Caucasus.

The Circassians were settled all around the Ottoman lands, from the Danube river in the Balkans all the way down to Amman, as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s settlement policy. The dispersion of the Circassians has broken their community links, and made it very difficult to protect and to reproduce their culture and way of life under new conditions. This is the second major factor behind their current problems.

The tragedy of the Circassians alongside with their basic rights have been denied for a long time. The oppression they face with after the tragedy of the Great Exodus made them a muted people. This is the final decisive obstacle for the survival of the Circassian people.

The Circassians have to address all these issues if they would like to survive as a people: they have to guarantee and protect their rights wherever they live in, they have to concentrate their population in the homeland up to a minimum necessary level, and they have to undo historical injustice of the Great Exodus. These are the the tasks for each and every 21st of May. Prof. Dr. Erol TAYMAZ, Member of the Caucasian Center for Strategic Studies (KAFSAM) TURKEY.

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Towards the 150th Anniversary of the Caucasian Exile

The Russian-Caucasian Wars, which lasted for many decades, ended with wide scale forced deportation of the native peoples of the Northern Caucasus, particularly the Circassians. The wars that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Caucasians, is surprisingly not well-known enough not only among the scholars, but also among the world public opinion. The same lack of knowledge is also the case for the rich language and culture of Circassians, which are sadly now on the edge of extinction. Now the Circassians, who were settled mostly in Anatolia, and the Middle East and the Balkans after the tragic events of 1864, live along the peoples with whom they share a new destiny, and without exception, have been actively contributing to the social and political lives of the countries in which they live. Having said that Circassians, dispersed across the world from today’s Russian Federation to Turkey, and from the Middle East to Europe and the USA, unfortunately, did not, or could not make known the sad and almost forgotten history of the forced migration and the tragic human losses resulted from it. This people’s primary goals are to save their languages from extinction, to be known, and to be recognized in a race against time. Their struggle against times is becoming more interesting in the 21st century. While doing that they seem to be very well aware of the fact that these can be achieved not only through memorizing the sad stories of forced migration of the 19th century, but also through constructing stronger cultural-political ties and communication-channels with the peoples with whom they are now living, the Turks, Russians and Arabs. The way to enable this is to devise amicable and democratic approaches without being hijacked by diasporic fanaticism and blind radicalism, and without allowing their consciousness to become dominated by a morbid psychology of mourning and retribution. The diasporic strategies the Circassians are improvising nowadays will succeed, as they also admit, so far as a firm subscription the politics of cosmopolitan citizenship and peaceful coexistence among the peoples of the region is assured. Strengthening the relations between the peoples of the region, particularly between Turkey and the Russian Federation, will further help developing a new awareness of pluralist citizenship without giving up the most humane demands of the Circassians for cultural-linguistic preservation and the recognition of what had happened in the 19th century. It is in this sense that the 21 May presents an opportunity to the peoples of the region not merely a date to commemorate, but also a new invitation for cosmopolitan citizenship, which hopefully all peoples of the region, including the Circassians, will benefit from and contribute to. Fethi AÇIKEL, Associate Professor, Ankara University, Faculty of Political Science, Political Studies and Public Administration, TURKEY.

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Because of his current work-load, George Anchabadze wishes his contribution to this project to be the 5th chapter of his book ‘‘The Vainakhs (The Chechen and Ingush)’’. The whole book will be published on CW in due course. MS.

The Chechens and Ingush in the Caucasian War

The beginning of the Caucasian (Russian-Caucasian) War is dated in different ways, mainly within the first quarter of the 19th century, though according to our consideration the warfare broke out in the 80s of the 18th century, when uncoordinated resistance to the tsarism exceeded the bounds of separate regions (the  Kuban Region, Kabarda, Chechnya, Daghestan) and turned into an all-North Caucasian movement advancing the precise religious-political slogans.

So, in spring of 1785 a Moslem preacher, Sheikh Mansur, or Ushurma, appeared in Chechnya, who, striving for unification of the highlanders to fight against the tsarist colonialists, called upon them for “hazavat”, i.e., “sacred war” against the “unfaithful” enemy. Thus through Islam taken as an ideological basis, politically separated Caucasians of different tribes partially consolidated in the struggle against the colonial power.

In the Northern Caucasus (in Daghestan) Islam began to spread yet in times of the Arab Caliphate, though for the majority of the native peoples it was established as an official religion considerably later. Thus the Vainakhs inhabiting in the plain and foothill zones of the Caucasus apparently came into contact with this teaching not earlier than in the 15th – 16th centuries; as to the inhabitants of the mountainous part of Chechnya and Ingushetia, the influence of Mohammedanism on the highlanders was rather weak even in the 17th – 18th centuries. As is generally known, in the 18th to the early 19th century the Ingush elders swore not to the Koran but to their pagan gods despite the fact that Islam had already existed among a certain part of the Ingush.

A striking and mysterous person of Sheikh Mansur gave rise to a number of fabulous versions about his non – Caucasian origin as far back as the end of the 18th century. He was believed to be an Italian adventurer (soldier or monk) who had adopted Islam. Some considered him a descendent of Shah Nadir, the ruler of Persia, others attributed him to the Poles. It was also rumoured that he had come from the Orenburg steppes. However, these considerations have been rejected scientifically as having nothing in common with the historical truth. It is proved scientifically that Mansur was Chechen by birth.

Ushurma was born in 1760, in a poor family, in the village of Aldyi (the Chechen Plain). In his youth he pastured cattle and tilled the soil. He got married at the age of 22 and had three children. Owing to his mode of life of high moral standards, wit and strong character, Ushurma was held in high respect by the countrymen even when he was young in years. Although Ushurma was illiterate, he was a brilliant orator and subtle psychologist.

In 1785 Ushurma began an active religious and political activity. Due to his preachings Ushurma became far-famed and enjoyed the support of the influential mullahes and theologians of Chechnya, who declared him sheikh and gave him the name “mansur” which means “victor” in Arabian.

The highlanders, not only peasants and ordinary people but also the representatives of feudal nobility, came from everywhere to listen to Mansur. Apart from the Chechens, among his numerous followers were the Kumyiks, inhabitants of mountainous Daghestan, Adigeys, Ingush, Ossetes, Nogais… The Russian command kept vigilant watch of the processes taking place over the river Terek and in summer of 1785 sent a military unit three thousand strong under the command of Colonel Pierry against the village of Aldyi, where the Imam had his seat, to capture the “false prophet and restore calm and order violated by him in that region”. Having left part of the troops for guarding the crossing across the Sunzha, Pierry and his main armed forces (three infantry battalions and a Cossack sotnia (squadron) with two guns) burst into the aul abandoned by the inhabitants and committed it to the flames. The chastisers failed to find Mansur, but on their way back when moving through the forest, they fell into the ambush laid by the Chechens. Pierry was killed in the battle and it ended in an utter rout of the Russian detachment. According to official data, 8 officers and 414 soldiers were killed, 162 of the enemy were made prisoners and an overwhelming majority of the survived were wounded. The highlanders captured both of the guns.

This victory has brought a great fame to Mansur. The Russians had not been defeated in the Caucasus since their unsuccessful campaign organized against Daghestan in the early 18th century, therefore, the fellow-fighters of the Sheikh did not fail to proclaim the results of the battle to be the fulfilment of his prophecy. The number of Mansur’s supporters and followers was increasing at still faster rates. That was the period of the utmost general enthusiasm.

Striving for exploitation of his success, Mansur assaulted the centre of the Russian domain in the North-Eastern Caucasus, Kizlyar, but the storm was repelled. The highlanders managed to capture one stronghold only, which covered the Terek crossing in the environs of the city. At night the army of the Sheikh got lost in the marshland when, all at once, was attacked by the Cossacks. So, the mountaineers, having suffered heavy losses in killed and wounded, had to retreat.

The same fate befell the mountaineers when taking Kizlyar by storm for the second time and when they were breaking through Kabarda to join the local rebels. In the battle which took place in the vicinity of ancient ruins of Tatartup, the Russian forces defeated the detachments of the highlanders (Chechens, Kabardians, Kumyiks and others) and threw them back. In 1787, Mansur was impelled to flee to the Kuban Region where, at the head of the Adigey detachments he, in alliance with the Turks (the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1791 was in progress), continued to fight against the Russians, though in 1791 in the battle for Anapa Mansur was captured by the Russians and died in casemate of the Schlusserburg Fortress. (According to another information Mansur died on the Solovetski Islands).

Proceed from the afore-said Sheikh Mansur, or Ushurma, a Chechen from the village of Aldyi, was the first great organizer of the liberation movement of highlanders against tsarist Russia in the Northern Caucasus. The activity carried out under his command, though religious but anticolonial in its essence can be in fact regarded as the beginning of the Caucasian War. Read more… George ANCHABADZE (ACHBA), Professor of history at the Ilia State University, GEORGIA.


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Although I am a historical sociologist, let me abstain from analysis and instead suggest a real-life story. Once while visiting Turkey I found myself in the extraordinary company of young men and women who had just graduated from the Turkish police academy. It was supposed to be an academic lecture on contemporary issues such as European integration, transborder crime and human rights. But I could not help wondering whether my audience also realized that my name is Armenian. Yes, they did as became clear from the cautiously asked question: What do you think about this issue of the so-called Armenian genocide? I paused, my heart beating uneasily, and then asked: Please, raise your hands, how many among you here have Circassian heritage? I already knew that it would be probably more than one. Still, the show of hands was overwhelming. More than half readily raised hands, their eyes suddenly glimmering with excitement. The silence was broken and stories poured about the grandmother in a village outside Ankara who still spoke Circassian, about the taste of Circassian cheese and about Circassian dances. Well, I said finally, now I have two confessions to make. First, I grew up on the other side of the Black sea, in the beautiful place where your ancestors had once lived. I love this land which is now my native and some of my best childhood friends were Adyghes. Secondly, my own ancestors were the Armenians from Artvin which is now a Turkish town. How do we feel about all this? What can we tell each other? What would be a humanly decent attitude?Georgi DERLUGUIAN, Professor of Sociology, Northwestern University, Chicago, USA.

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May 21, 1864 is not simply a date that ended the long and bloody colonial war in Caucasia… Just as the valley of Kbaada is not simply a name of an area lost in the mountains of the North-Western Caucasus, which was destined to become the site of the last resistance and the last massacre of that war… These are two symbols of the human tragedy of appalling scope that are linked with one another forever. These are the quintessence of a crime, quite calculatingly committed in an enlightened and civilized age in behalf of imperial grandeur of one nation at the price of humiliation of the other and destruction of the unique, nowhere else and never again repeatable culture. These are sorrowful reminders of the event, obviously not singular in the modern history, but unlike most of its ilk, almost forgotten and unknown nowadays in the world, in Russia itself, and even in the Caucasus to some extent. Unfortunately, hardly a great many of those people, to whom Sochi is well known as a beautiful resort and the future Olympic capital, realize or are willing to reflect on why streams, hills, woods and even some settlements in the region still bear such “unexpected” non-Slavic names, seemingly whispering something in native language from the depths of epochs. And for what reason a handful of men and women living among the masses of Russian-speakers in several scattered villages in the coastal valleys between Tuapse and Adler, protect with such persistence and trust their “mountaineer” dignity and the title of Circassians. Or why millions of Çerkez citizens of Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries turn so sensitive and emotional, when another adversity or a new pain befalls the Caucasus. There is apparently something deeply wrong, unfair and calling for correction in all these “mismatches” and “strangenesses”. Maybe a certain error of time and place has occurred: the land bereft of its indigenous inhabitants nurtured and moulded here for thousands of years, and the nation in exile torn from its ancestral soil… It is true that the past never turns back. Nonetheless, we can work to restore what is possible, and to build on this basis a new homeland with a more fortunate and peaceful future. Realization of this noble and humane idea requires unity, wisdom, patience, courage and self-sacrifice. It also requires understanding and cooperation with all concerned parties, who are ready for dialogue. But perhaps above all it requires the memory, including the memory of dates like May 21, 1864… Then we can trust that one day the “error” of history will be overcome, so that the long-suffering ground of North-Western Caucasus will regain its genuine name of Circassia, descendants of the desperate defenders of Kbaada scattered now around the world will reunite freely in their ancestral country, and the peoples of the Caucasus will recover again their brothers that were absent in their home for so long. With a hope of coming true… Dr. Georgy CHOCHIEV, North Ossetian State University(Vladikavkaz), NORTH OSSETIA, RUSSIA.

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Its intrinsic historical importance notwithstanding, 21 May 1864 marks neither the beginning, nor the end of the Caucasian emigrations. In fact, the emigrations of the Caucasian peoples at large, or the Adyghes in particular, to the Ottoman Empire took place in very significant dimensions before and after this date. Nevertheless, the symbolization of the “21 May” signifies more than a mourning for a long bygone tragedy. By underscoring the “21 May”, the descendents of those masses who had been forced to leave their homelands and who had been deemed to vanish in the course of time, now blare before the world their determination as a dignified people not to get lost in the dark labyrinths of history. For the peoples whose diasporic populations far exceed those remaining in the homeland, such symbols denote the societal unity and memory. Hakan KIRIMLI. Associate Professor Doctor, International Relations, Center for Russian Studies, Bilkent University, TURKEY.

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May 21 in 1864 was celebrated by the Russian imperial society as a day of joy marking the end of the so-called Caucasian Wars. The festivities held in Akhchipskh in order to commemorate this ‘historical event’ consisted of a church service thanking god for bestowing victory upon the Russian troops, a military parade and a banquet in honor of the royal family and those responsible for the ‘final subjugation’ of the Caucasus. All in all, Russian officials showed themselves extremely proud of their achievements and had high-flying plans for the creation of a ‘well-ordered’, economically thriving colony at the Eastern Black Sea shore. The region was now deemed ready to “enter the blissful path of all-enlivening civilization”. [1]

These enlightenment-informed visions had shown absolutely no consideration for the fate of the local Caucasians. Russian troops had systematically uprooted the Circassian population by the burning of villages, deliberate destruction of the means of subsistence and by military purges, forcing the majority of the Circassians to seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire. At the same time then that imperial society was celebrating its ‘civilizational’ achievements, the tragedy of the Circassians had taken on lethal dimensions with refugees dying in hundreds each day.

My wish is that 21 of May will become internationally known as day of sorrow commemorating the colonial policy of ‘cleansing’ and the willful destruction of Circassian lives and culture. I hope that in the near future it will no longer be acceptable to speak and write of the Circassian exile as ‘voluntary migration’ or to pride oneself on colonial ‘civilization’, and I equally hope that any talk of state rationale and geopolitical ‘necessities’ in this context will be thoroughly discredited.

However, May 21 should not only be taken to commemorate the Russian conquest of Western Caucasus as singular event of high visibility. It should also make us question the cultural context in which these colonial excesses were embedded and from which they arose. That is, if we want to learn a lesson from our colonial pasts for our lives today, we should not refrain from questioning the underlying narratives of civilization as progress and the rhetoric of ‘development’. Ultimately, the Russian proceeding in the Caucasus was nothing but a continuance of pan-European traditions of military conquest and cultural imperialism for which the whole of the ‘Western world’ must assume responsibility. Irma KREITEN, Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Genocide Studies, Southampton University, UK.

[1] Po povodu okonchaniia kavkazskoi voiny. In: Voennyi sbornik 1864, t. 38, No. 8, otd.3, pp. 136-148, here p. 137.

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Thoughts on May 21st, 2010. The 146th anniversary of the expulsion of the Circassians, Abazins, and Ubykhs.

The long and grievous war against the Adyghey people and their kin was waged at the height of European Imperialism. In many ways the outcome of the war was foreseeable. The bravery and sacrifices of the Adyghey peoples in the conflict were noble. These were as clear a manifestation of their culture and character as any cultural traditions could have been. A small and divided people, the various Adygheys, resisted a massive and modern European power, Russia, as she expanded across the Steppes. All the advantages lay with Russia. Defeat for the Adygheys was inevitable.


The war itself represented a marked turnaround in Moscow’s relation with the Adyghey princes, who had for more than two hundred years enjoyed amicable ties with the Tsars.  This changed, however, at the start of the 19th century. The conquest of the Caucasus was geopolitically crucial for Russia if she was going to expand farther into Central Asia. The Tsarist elite seems to have understood this and taken whatever measures were necessary to achieve the conquest of the Caucasus, with the Adygheys forming the last resistance, and therefore suffering the worst consequences.  Russia was not magnanimous in victory. In fact, her ethnic cleansing of the Adygheys was exceedingly harsh and reminiscent of the sorts of annihilatory campaigns waged by the 19th century United States and others nations in the New World.

As with any war of the past the anguish, the screams of suffering and the memories of the dead, grow muted and recede into a distant background. Yet this background persists as a crucial element in the identity of all Adygheys today, both those in the Caucasus, and the vast majority in the diaspora. This anniversary attests to this persistence.  In an interconnected world far different from that of their ancestors the modern Adygheys find themselves still facing a legacy of sorrow and injustice.  Russia has made some amends: the introduction of writing and literature, the formation of small republics, and founding of museums and cultural centres. For brief periods there have even been programs that offered some form of repatriation.  Nothing from Russia, however, has directly address the simple fact of the war and its consequences. It is hard not to conclude that in many ways Russia still fears the Adygheys as much now as she did 146 years ago. With modern warfare such as it is, such fear, real or not, seems absurd, especially for a nation, such as Russia. The need for force in the open plains of western Eurasia has formed an integral part of political and strategic culture of Russia from the inception of the Principality of Muscovy. Clearly the Adygheys, scattered and integrated into many other nations, or fragmented and small in their multi-ethnic republics can mount no serious threat to Russia. The most they can do is mount a symbolic protest, and in a shame culture such as Russia’s, such a protest presents political challenges that the Kremlin seems to find difficult to address.  This is understandable because Russia’s reliance on force has concomitantly led to an impoverishment of her symbolic repertoire and her ability to utilize and assess symbolic action.

Canada is an example of an heir to an imperial legacy, wherein the indigenous peoples suffered. The circumstances of these numerous and varied peoples have changed from that of their ancestors, but their grievances have not all been answered by any means.  The Canadian government, however, heirs to the rich symbolic repertoire of the British Empire, have dignified them with the name of ‘First Nations.’ More tangibly, the full panoply of such peoples, following the example offered by Beijing, was given the place of honour at the Vancouver Olympics. They had a chance, as we say, to strut their stuff and to show the world that they indeed still exist.

The contrast with the upcoming Sochi Olympics could not be greater.  Russia would do well to learn the politics of symbolism from Canada and China, and to use Sochi as an opportunity to extend to the Adygheys a modicum of respect and a gesture of repentance for the wrongs of the past.  In doing this, Russia would elicit from the Adygheys a modicum of gratitude and even of loyalty. She would help the diaspora come to terms with its past and win the allegiance of the Adygheys and others who still dwell in the North West Caucasus. She would do well to keep in mind too that one of the most prominent features of Adyghey culture is loyalty.

If Russia does not make some gestures in this regard at Sochi, she risks giving the Adygheys a free forum in which they can air their grievances to the entire world.  The Adygheys have become a sophisticated people, who have emerged in the past twenty years with an electronic identity through the various media of e-mail and the web.  They are well positioned to present their case. They will surely do so, because another prominent feature of Adyghey culture is memory, especially of wrongs suffered.  In Canada we live with this sort of memory as well: every license plate in Québec says “Je me souviens,” (I remember). The Anglo-French wound still lies festering.  Russia risk creating a new motto for the Adygheys: /segW qéc@&Jez@Je/  ‘I remember’. To leave this wound of memory to fester would be as tragic for the Russians and Adygheys as it would be unnecessary. John COLARUSSO. Professor, Department of Anthropology, and Department of Linguistics and Languages, McMaster University, CANADA.

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Keep it up, Abkhazia!

People are always curious. “But why Abkhazia?” they ask.  It is indeed a tough question, not one I can answer in any very coherent way. Before I even start, hundreds of images swirl through my mind. Images of Strabo’s army of 70 translators, Jason’s Argonauts in Colchis, but also the Genoese and the Turks, Keraban the Terrible and Konstantin Paustovsky. Did you know that Paustovsky once got drunk with Isaac Babel in the monastery hostel in Novy Athos?

So I secured my clearance letter, mailed to me as a PDF document, and that granted me Maxim Gunjia’s warm welcoming in Sukhum. And then came that picnic day with Aljasur, a Chechen war veteran from Grozni. “We came on foot from Chechnya to help,” he said, pointing to a mountain path that skirted an achingly beautiful lake called Ritsa. That day I saw offerings to both Ajargi and Ananagunda, two of the Abkhaz old divinities, and learned about local hunters speaking a language that, they said, “their prey would not understand.” Would they dare to speak it in Khabug’s presence? Probably not, for Sandro of Chegem’s old mule was nobody’s fool.

And there was also that Abkhaz superb linguist who spoke every local lingo but also lots of very foreign ones…even Basque! Among a million things he told me was the tale of the Estonians who lived at a tiny village called Salme. Unfortunately, the Estonians had left by the time I first visited Abkhazia.

A bottle of brandy shared with an Armenian painter from Gulripsh and a green eyed Greek sailor from Gagra. We toasted for Hayastan, for Dioscurias, and for many other places that I cannot now recall. But I do remember a wonderful dusk light over a sumptuous Mingrelian meal. That was in Gali.

You have given me so much, Apsny-Abkhazia! Let independence be the tool to keep all your treasures safe and, at the same time, open to the rest of the world! Karlos ZURUTUZA, Freelance correspondent specializing in the Caucasus and the Middle East regions. BASQUE COUNTRY.

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The First Landing of the Cherkes in Turkey (Kefken-Kelken)

A few years ago in 2004 the Cherkes Federation [KAFFED] in Ankara invited me to speak about the forced eviction of the Muslim peoples from their ancestral homes in the Caucasus. “Ancestral home” is a word that can cover any period of time extended from a few decades to thousands of years. In the case of the Caucasus it is impossible to quantify the length of time that its inhabitants inhabited the Caucasus Mountains. In fact, many scholars believe that the peoples of the Caucasus are the original inhabitants who lived there continuously for tens of thousands of years and even more. Strabo (b. 63BC) the Greek geographer-philosopher provides (based on older sources) a description of the Caucasian peoples which is similar with the information provided by the more recent, contemporary sources. In sum, the Caucasians, divided into numerous groups and languages, are among the oldest peoples in the world to inhabit their original lands since time immemorial. That was the case until 1864 when the Czarist government after killing hundreds of thousands forced most of the remaining out of their lands. Their forced emigration, which is a typical case of ethnic cleansing, peaked out in 1868 but continued sporadically well into the 20th century. The ousting began after the Caucasian resistance to Russian occupation embodied in Sheik Shamil’s twenty five year rebellion ended in 1859. The Caucasians coming to the Ottoman lands were Muslims and the sole reason for eviction was their Islamic faith which in the eyes of the Czar made them susceptible to the religious-political-military instigation of the Sultan-Caliph in Istanbul. There is no question that the Muslims of the Caucasus held the Sultan-Caliph in high esteem and that thousands had settled in the Ottoman lands in the previous centuries and occupied high social and political positions there. They maintained their ethnic and regional identity as seen in names such as Gurcu Ahmet, Cherkes Hasan, Abaza Selim etc. But there is no proof that Istanbul or Persia planned to use them or their kin in the Caucasus to incite a rebellion against the Czar. The purpose of my brief essay here is not to repeat the information I provided in the lengthy talk to the Cherkes Federation in Ankara which commemorated the first Cherkes landing in Turkey. My intention is to provide a brief description of the commemoration ceremony of the first Caucasian landing in Turkey. The commemoration was organized by the sons and grandsons of the original immigrants who had landed who gathered every year at Kefken one and half a century ago. The commemoration has become an annual event.

The experience was extraordinarily moving for me as I witnessed in person the landing sites, and the profound emotion of the participants. So the rest of this writing will in the form of personal reminiscence of the commemoration at Kefken.

I planned to spend the day after my speech in Ankara seeing old friends and visiting the universities where I had taught. However, in the morning, the driver of the car and his friend who had brought me to Ankara the previous day called to say goodbye before they drove back to Istanbul. They told me that they planned to stop at Kefken on the way back to attend the commemoration at the site of the landing of the first group of Cherkes refugees who had managed to survive the hazardous trip across the Black Sea. This was an excellent unique opportunity for me to visit Kefken, the landing site of the first Caucasian (known generally as Cherkes) refugees in 1864. The landing site is generally known as Kefken, a small ancient port on the southern shore of the Black Sea at about seventy miles east of Istanbul. The actual landing site is an isolated beach at about 10-15 miles north east of Kefken. To reach the beach, the driver left the main highway between Ankara and Istanbul at Izmit and drove north to Kandira a town in the Kocaeli peninsula that stretches for about 70 miles into Anatolia east of Istanbul. From Kandira we drove another 20-30 miles to Kefken and then a few miles more to the landing site. A large number of people had already gathered on the volcanic rocks overlooking the beach when we arrived. The emotions run high. Some prayed, others carried flowers and cried while a few engaged in mournful guesses as to where the ship bringing the Caucasian refugees had stopped and how the refugees managed to reach the shore. The crowd consisted mainly of Caucasian, men and women, who came from all over Turkey, a sure indication that the memory of the catastrophe of being evicted from the ancestral homes and the landing on a bare beach and facing an unknown future was till alive in the minds of the refugees’ descendents. The refugees who landed apparently stayed first in tents then built houses and lived in the area for a while before they settled permanently elsewhere. After seeing the landing site the entire gathering moved to the cemetery. The scene was sad and truly moving. The cemetery is located at some distance inland from the beach. Some of the tombs had inscriptions bearing the name of the defunct while other tombs were unmarked. I presume that the total number of the tombs amounted to more than one hundred. The district administrator (kaymakam) spoke at some length followed by the leaders of the Cherkes community who described the plight of the Caucasians in their original homeland some century and half ago, and expressed their thankfulness for being alive and well in their new home or vatan, Turkey. The sadness and the pain in the faces of the present were aggravated further by dark clouds that had descended on the peak of the surrounding mountains. The commemoration ended with the prayer of the imam and the loud salavat of everybody present. For me a long time student of the forced ousting of the Muslims from the Crimea, Caucasus and the Balkans, the commemorative experience at Kefken turned the theoretically studied tragedy suffered by the Caucasians since 1864 into a human, palpable and real experience that embodied the deep pain still living in the heart of the sons and great sons of the Caucasian refugees. The ceremony continued later with launching of a wreath of flowers into the Bosphorous in Istanbul and other speeches. For me the Kefken remembrance ceremony was an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. Professor Kemal KARPAT. Emeritus Professor of History, University of Wisconsin Department of History, USA.

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The analysis of the sources and literature, the scientific reflection of the obtained data, the adaptation of the corresponding theoretical conceptions and methods of investigation to the history of interrelations on the line Russia – North Caucasus allowed to make a conclusion that the complicated process of formation of a new system of relations of the power and the so called “disciplinary practices” having as well the discourse dimension begins in the Russian empire in the end of the 18th – the first half of the 19th century. The process of differentiation in physical and social space, inspectorate and punishment, discipline and training reveals in the most distinct way in the suburbs of the empire, and in North Caucasus in the particular, where the Russian macropower and macropolitics comes into collision with the quite different types of public, social and cultural relations (quasi-state unions of Central and North-East Caucasus, the highland societies of North-West Caucasus). The objects of colonial conquering and domination so become the aims of new biopolitics of the power (micropower). Such an implicit system of the power leads to the appearance of the complex “power – knowledge” in Russia, which is formed on the level of practices of the power through observation (ethnography, geography, statistics, history), control, differentiating, classification, domination (administrative measures etc.).

Cultural, social, ideological and ethnic foundations of “places of memory” allowed to reveal two main directions in the development of the historiographic discourse about “the Caucasian War” as a social-historic construct: institutionalized history and counter-history.

The historical reality is mediating in the system of historic education, belles-lettres style about the Caucasus, in museums, monuments, architectural constructions, folklore and etc.

Plural “cultural practices” and their systems of signifying in the cultural space which in this or that extent deal with the problems of the concept “Caucasian War” have been studied in this context. Various aspects of functioning of such “cultural practices” have been revealed both in the Russian society and in the societies of North Caucasus. Dr. Khasan KASUMOV. Russian language and literature, Fatih University, Istanbul. Author of the book ‘‘Genocide of Adyghes’’ (Genotsid Adygov: iz istorii bor´by adygov za nezavisimost´ v XIX veke) TURKEY.

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‘‘Europeans do not understand us’’. That’s what Sergei Shamba, former Minister for Foreign Affairs and now vice-President of the Abkhaz Republic, told me during an interview last Summer. Indeed he is completely right. Europeans do not seem to see that Abkhazia reintegration into Georgia is simply impossible at least for the coming years. Abkhaz independence reminds me of the Chechen Ichkerian struggle. Europeans should understand that, viewed from the Caucasus, Abkhaz and Chechen (national) fights for independence are absolutely not in contradiction. Dr. Laurent VINATIER. Senior Research Associates, Thomas More Institute, Paris, FRANCE.

Abkhazians who took part in the 1866 Likhni uprising.
Photo by D. I. Yermakov (1867)

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Do ‘‘freedom’’ and ‘‘independence’’ mean something new today? Are they about controlling one’s own resources only? Many people here would probably say that just like for our ancestors, who were dying for freedom in the battle-field a hundred years ago, freedom is about DIGNITY. Dignity means a lot of things: preserving one’s own culture and language, living in security, having conditions for development, respecting the “others” the way you would like them to respect you, communicating with the rest of the world as an equal, learning from the world and offering one’s own experiences, etc.

Abkhazia’s path to recognition has not been easy. We have survived a bloody war, a decade of sanctions and international isolation. We almost became international pariahs. Not because we were a threat to anybody, but because our persistence to have our own say in defining our destiny, challenged the international world of double standards, in which one’s external loyalty matters more than one’s past or the present. If we want to have a future, we need to realize, that what we have achieved so far is only a beginning. Knowing this and by working hard our way forward, we will pay tribute to our fathers and grandfathers, and create the future for the coming generations.” Liana KVARCHELIA, Deputy Director of the Center for Humanitarian Programs, Sukhum, ABKHAZIA.

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It’s not just popular depiction: historical writing, too, often has a particularly bad habit of parcelling up groups of people into good guys and bad ones, perpetrators and victims. Circassians, when they’re not simply airbrushed out of history altogether, generally end up on the negative side of this equation, the violent bully boys of the Near East, ready and willing to fall on Armenians, Greeks, even Turks, at the drop of a hat.  Historians also have another risky habit of setting down markers: the Aghet, the destruction of the Armenians, for instance is now regularly broadcast as the first genocide of modern times,  as if the story began here and not somewhere earlier. Perhaps most tragic of all in the assumptions we, including historians, often make, is the idea that somehow groups of people were born this way to be killers and the killed, abusers and abused, when actually the truth is so very much more complex. Arnold Toynbee, that now much undervalued observer of the great sweep of history put it well when he characterised what happened to all these communities as the culmination of ‘a prolonged epidemic… from the time when they lost their indigenous civilisations until they became acclimatised to the intrusive influence of the West’. Could it be that the  growing destabilisation and then breakdowns of polities and societies which occurred in the Caucasus and Anatolia in the 19th and early 20th centuries has as much to do with forces working from the outside, forcing peoples into modes of thinking and action which went against their own already well-formed, spiritually-sound and historically tolerant sense of self and other?

The genocidal paroxysm that befell the Circassian peoples in 1864 was thus not self-inflicted. It was an aspect of a military and political reshaping of the world in which the ill-treated survivors had little choice but to adapt to a  social Darwinian framework that was  presented to – and essentially imposed upon them. Brutalised, marginalised, or simply made invisible, the greater purpose of an event such as the 21 May commemoration, must surely be not just towards reconciliation between Circassians and the other peoples of the Caucasus and Anatolia who have suffered so much, but  towards a recognition that home-spun conviviality does not have to begin and end with some defensive idea of the ‘nation’. But this is not just of local issue. The great power struggle for the spine of Central Asia with its dark, contemporary resonances, should be a reminder to Europeans and other westerners of our ongoing responsibility for what happened in the great sweep of  Caucasian, Ottoman and post-Ottoman tragedies from 1864 to 1923 and indeed beyond to the present-day. Facing up to the ugliness of what happened then,  is as much our legacy in the West, as those who belong to this shattered region. Perhaps, in doing so we can all work towards a  political, societal  and indeed environmentally sustainable future in which the goal is  not  living ‘against’ or at ‘the expense of’ but ‘alongside’ and ‘together with’ other peoples. Mark LEVENE, historian of genocide, and co-founder of Crisis Forum  (‘The Forum for the Study of Crisis in the 21st Century’)http://www.crisis-forum.org.uk UK.

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As a Russian citizen, I am sure that one day my country, under the current or future government, will show its wisdom and make further steps – quite easy, one must admit – to reveal the truth about the 19-century Circassian tragedy to the broad public, especially that, back in 1994, President Yeltsin has already admitted Russia’s moral responsibility saying in a special statement that the mountaineers’ resistance during the Caucasian War had been a ‘‘courageous struggle for survival in their native land’’. In 1998, the Russian government has lent its support to repatriating Circassians from the war-torn Kosovo to their homeland. It should also be noted that May 21 is officially marked in Russia’s Circassian-populated areas.

I am also sure that Circassians, for their part, will also show their wisdom and will avoid sliding themselves into the position of an eternal victim or turning multi-faceted history into a black-and-white political myth. History must be remembered but the best way would be to focus on the present and future, to self-organize into civil society groups, to spread knowledge, to make education and cultural initiatives, to fight corruption and lawlessness for human rights, rule of law and dignity. Max SHER, Photographer, author of the ‘‘Circassians: a Holocaust in Paradise.’’ RUSSIA.


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It was by no means obvious from the vantage point of the 1830s that the imperial instructions of September 25th, 1829 prescribing to the commander of the Caucasus Corps, General Paskevich, pacification or extermination of the indigenous population, would indeed be carried out.  Certainly, Fedor Tornau, who understood the Caucasus and its inhabitants better than any other Russian officer, did not share the emperor’s view.  In 1839, after having been rescued from captivity, Tornau was summoned to St. Petersburg to meet Nicholas I.  During the audience, Tornau, skeptical of the emperor’s confidence that the Caucasus would be subdued in three years, had pointed out that even three decades might not be enough to achieve this goal.  Not until much later, Tornau had to confess writing in 1881: “ . . . at that time it never occurred to me that this burning issue would be so favorably resolved by exterminating one half and exiling the other half of the Caucasus’ indigenous population.”[1] A century and half since the Russian annexation of the North Caucasus, an earnest history of Russia’s conquest and rule remains a tabu topic in Russia.  It is like a festering wound that have been covered with a bandage but can not heal on its own.  Sometimes it is necessary to open the old wound, to reexamine it carefully, to consult the patient on the treatment, and to apply the right medicine so that the wound can finally heal, and the sad chapter of the region’s history brought to a close. Professor Michael KHODARKOVSKY. History Department, Loyola University Chicago, USA.

[1] Fedor Tornau, Vospominaniia Kavkazskogo ofitsera (Moscow, 2000), pp. 297-98.

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21 May is a Day for remembering our tragic losses as a nation and for looking back into our history closely. Yes we should remember, but not with hate and bitter feelings; rather with opened minds, and with understanding of the historical facts, so we can learn from the mistakes that were made in the past.

Yes my heart is full of pain, when I remember what happened to us. I am one of those born in the Diaspora because of the tragedy of our painful forced emigration…

But at the same time, I am proud to say I never forgot who I am and where my roots are. I dedicated myself to share this knowledge with the world; who we are as Circassians. That happened because I grew up with a strong upbringing by my parents as to who I am and what I should carry as my main mission in this life.

And this is the message I want to give to the young generation. We should learn to appreciate our own culture, our own language, each other… and have a belief in our future. Don’t open your hearts for hate or a new conflict, but open it for love for your motherland and your nation, who survived despite all the tragedies and hardships. Keep your spirit and be proud of who you are as a Circassian. You are part of a great past and and the future is in your own hands. Only love and dedication will keep our people alive.

God bless my people. And God bless our motherland. Dr. Mohydeen I. QUANDOUR. Author, Film Director, Composer. UK.

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From the very beginning of its conquest of the Caucasus Russia led what Marc Pinson termed ‘‘demographic warfare’’[1] that is, the transfer of populations from their native lands to other territories.

Such transfers involved two categories of populace. One was populations deemed loyal, which were moved from abroad into the empire. Thus, following the wars with the Qajars (1805-13, 1826-8) and the Ottomans (1807-12, 1828-9) the retreating Russian forces rounded up many Armenians from Anatolia and Iran and Pontic Greeks from the Turkish Black Sea coast and led them into Russian controlled areas in the Caucasus.

The other category concerned populations which resisted Russian conquest and later rule — that is, mainly the highlanders of the Caucasus. Their treatment varied from forced resettlement in the plains, where they could be tightly controlled, to exile of individuals and groups – in some cases entire villages – accused of rebellion against Russian rule into Central Russia and Siberia. In some cases the Russian authorities would have actually liked to carry out what at the present would be called “ethnic cleansing” by removing the entire populace and resettling it in the interior of the empire, but logistics and the then technology rendered it impossible.[2]

The expulsion of the Circassians to the Ottoman Empire was unprecedented not only in the long Russian conquest of the Caucasus but in Russian history in general. First, it involved a huge number of people – between 0.5 and 1.5 million Circassians were forced to leave their homeland. Second, it was the only case of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Russia in the Caucasus in the nineteenth century.[3] Third, it ran against the Russian tendency not to loose control over the populace, and definitely not expelling populations abroad.

The reason for this reluctance to let people out of its grip should perhaps be looked for in the Mongol origins of the Muscovite state. Moscow rose within the system and in the service of the nomadic Chinghizid state known to modern scholarship as the ‘‘Golden Horde’’. Together with many of its administrative, military and organizational features Moscow borrowed also its political culture and frames of mind from its Mongol masters. Although reshaped and enveloped in other borrowings first from the Byzantine heritage and then from the modern West, these original Mongol mind-sets remained at the root of Russian political culture.

One of these is the attitude to populations. Unlike states of settled societies, nomadic states did not define themselves by territory, but rather by the tribes they controlled. In other words, the nomadic ruler reigned over tribes and they formed his state. The state’s territory was in constant flux since its borders were located wherever the tribes belonging to it wandered. Thus, although territory and fixed borders were central to the Russian and Soviet states, they never abandoned the urge to keep and control the population. That is why the ‘‘Iron Curtain’’ had existed long before the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917.

How come than that Russia resigned its control over, and expelled a large martial population to a hostile country, thus reinforcing an enemy?

The reason lay, probably, in the Russian decision makers’ loss of hope to make ‘‘civilized’’, ‘‘peaceful’’ obedient subjects of the Circassians. After all, they were by far more numerous then the other ethnic groups in the Caucasus. Furthermore, unlike the other Caucasian groups to the east who were landlocked and surrounded by Russian territory, the Circassians had access to the Black Sea and the Ottoman Empire, the Russian blockade notwithstanding. This meant that the solution used in other parts of the Caucasus — to decimate the local population, get rid of the ‘‘most unruly’’ elements and thus ‘‘pacify’’ the remainder — would not work here.

Unable to ‘‘swallow’’ the Circassians and lacking the means to exile them en masse into the empire, the “civilized” Russian authorities under Alexander II would not stoop to ‘‘truly barbaric’’ measures of the times of Catherine the Great that is, to ‘‘merciless slaughter’’.[4] Rather they adopted the ‘‘humane’’ and ‘‘civilized’’ solution of making the Circassians ‘‘an offer they could not refuse’’ — emigrate to the Ottoman Empire. The result of this ‘‘humane’’ solution was the death of dozens of thousands of men, women and children and the exile of an entire people from its homeland. Professor Moshe GAMMER, Dept. of Middle Eastern and African History, Tel Aviv University, ISRAEL.

[1] Marc Pinson, ‘‘Russian Expulsion of Mountaineers from the Caucasus, 1856-66 and Its Historical Background. Demographic Warfare — An Aspect of Ottoman and Russian Policies, 1854-66’’, Ph. D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1970.

[2] Thus, already in the 1780s Count Potemkin (the cousin of Catherine the Great’s famous lover) suggested to transfer the entire Chechen population into the internal parts of the Russian Empire as the only way to crush their resistance and subdue them. This suggestion was repeated several times during the nineteenth century. Only twentieth century technology combined with the brutality of the Soviet Union under Stalin enabled to carry out such ethnic cleansings: during the Second World War five groups– the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachay and Meskhetian Turks — were deported from the Caucasus to Central Asia and Siberia.

[3] In fact, the Russian conquest of the Caucasus started with not merely an ethnic cleansing but with a full blown genocide. In 1783 Suvorov, Catherine the Great’s famous general, carried out a ‘‘merciless slaughter’’ of the Nogays – the nomads roaming the steppes north of the Caucasus. Stalin’s “deportations” were carried out in the 20th century.

[4] This was the self view of the Emperors and their elite. Nicholas I, for example, was extremely proud of abolishing the capital punishment in Russia, which did not perturb him from sentencing people to run the gauntlet hundreds of times, and thus to a certain death.

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The 21 May 1864 is conventionally seen as the beginning of “The Great Circassian Exile”, when Circassians were forced to migrate to Ottoman territories by the Russian Empire. But the tragedy of the Circassians is not well known in the world at large or even within the ex-Ottoman territories… During my childhood, my grandfather and my great-uncle used to tell me their family-memories. Those memories were connected with the tragedies they experienced while travelling to Cyprus from their home-regions in the Caucasus… My grandfather always spoke about the death of his great-uncle on board ship before reaching Larnaca (Cyprus). His great-uncle died from malaria, and his body was cast into the sea … We can still hear many such stories from the descendants of the victims of 21 May 1864 now living in Cyprus. But, unfortunately, the descendants have not only forgotten the culture of their ancestors, they don’t even know the historical facts nowadays…But recently the descendants have begun to engage with the culture and the tragedy of their ancestors…advances in technology and possibilities of communication allow people to learn from one another… The collapse of the Soviet Union and also recent events in the Caucasus have facilitated this awareness… Today the descendants of exiled Circassians in Jordan, Syria, Jordan, European countries, the USA and Canada have an opportunity to make contact with the people who live in the motherland (Caucasus), and they also have the opportunity to visit that motherland.

Finally, Circassians have come face to face with their historical catastrophe and tragedy… Now is the time to rectify the negative impact of this catastrophe and tragedy on new generations of Circassians who have lost their mother tongue and culture as well… Circassians have to raise their voices and demand their democratic rights, including return to their homeland, by utilising international institutions and law… But that should not be done by deploying chauvinist discourses… they should also be open for dialogue with the Russian Federation. Dr. Muhittin Tolga ÖZSAĞLAM, Department of International Relations-Near East University, NORTH CYPRUS.

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This year is the 146th anniversary of the “Circassian Exile” symbolised by 21 May 1864. “Emigration”, “forced emigration”, “exile” and “genocide”, which have been used successively from past to the present, are also indicators of how the Circassian Diaspora politicized. No matter how it is called, this population movement, the most massive period of which was between 1858-1865, and through which more than one million people flowed to the Ottoman lands, is a great tragedy and crime against humanity whose consequences are still felt today.

A proverb says “One who loses his homeland loses everything”. The Circassians faced the danger of losing everything left by losing their homeland. But, their commemoration of their lost homeland and people even after one and half century later disproves their own proverb in a way. Murat PAPŞU, Researcher-Translator, Editor of the book “Vatanından Uzaklara Çerkesler’’ (Circassian Away From Their Homeland, in Turkish, 2004). TURKEY.


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The revival of the memory of the events of May 1864 among contemporary generations of Circassians enables us clearly to understand that the Circassians are one of the world’s richest peoples in terms of their great and tragic history and at the same time one of the poorest in terms of awareness of their own history. This is the chief obstacle to our future in the third millennium. For without a shared historical memory a people cannot be united. And a fragmented people is doomed to extinction. Musa SHANIBOV. Former president of the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus. KBR, RUSSIA.


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The Caucasian War, along with the Muhadjir-movement that followed after it, was the greatest tragedy for the Adyghes (Circassians). A people possessed of enormous cultural, intellectual and demographic potential for development, lost not only the greater part of their native lands; their traditions, including the unique institution known as the ‘Adyghe Habze’, which creates among the uniform Circassian ethnos a uniform consciousness, have been deformed, and the social elite, being the basic carrier and the transmitter of these traditions, has either been destroyed or migrated to the Ottoman Empire. Today Adyghes living in Russia face the challenges of globalisation.

Circassian society has become very diffused and segmented; economic difficulties induce people to travel beyond the frontiers of the Caucasus, which, on the one hand, engenders in those who leave a feeling that they are mere accessories to the Circassian world and, on the other hand, generates risks of their assimilation. The traditional tools for exercising social control over Circassian culture have become insufficient to play their time-honoured role.

We are in need of a new, thoroughly modern project to integrate the values of our Circassian culture, to preserve that advantage which has always been peculiar to the Circassians, as is lauded in many literatures of the world, and to be welded into the global contexts of high technology and quality education. Such will be the first step along the path that will allow the Adyghes to define the vector of their future development.  Dr. Naima NEFLYASHEVA, Center for Civilizational and Regional Studies, RAS, Moscow, RUSSIA.


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I would like to see the Abkhazian government act more boldly to establish its own contacts and communications with the outside world.  It’s  good to go round Latin America seeking diplomatic recognition. But it would be far more important – for example – to start a regular ferry service between Sukhum and Trabzon, to organise  that service without waiting for Russian approval, to send the first ship and see which navy will try to stop it – Russian, Georgian? The reality of Abkhazian independence is not an abstract  fact but a project made out of the concrete actions which a normal state would take. The government of Abkhazia has a historic opportunity to take those actions,. But this opportunity is not for ever; it is a window which will close after a few years. Genuine, effective Abkhazian independence could begin to free the whole southern Caucasus from its crisis of ethnic confrontation driven by Great Power manipulation. Neal ASCHERSON, journalist, and author of Black Sea: The Birthplace of Civilisation and Barbarism. UK.


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May 21 is a day that should not only be remembered by Circassians, for whom it means destruction and despair. All Europeans should know the date of the continent’s first modern genocide. More importantly though, Russians too should remember it, not because it was when their army won the 19th century’s long Caucasus War, but because it sparked a terrible tragedy. Russian leaders have — albeit, sometimes grudgingly — apologised for the horrors committed under Stalin, but never for those committed under Alexander II. The Circassian nation was shattered by the Russian government, and that is a crime that must be recognised. Until that recognition comes, the victory of May 21 1864 will remain a stain on the honour of a great nation. Oliver BULLOUGH. Caucasus Editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and the author of Let Our Fame be Great, journeys among the defiant people of the Caucasus. UK.

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I do not think such commemorations are a good idea because the memory of yesterday’s miseries can lead to tomorrow’s.

Warfare is one of the engines of history – people live in this place and not that, speak this language and not that, have this religion and not that as the consequences of victory or defeat in war. The Circassians lost a long and brutal war and many of them went into exile as miserable refugees. But all peoples have the same past; all have been losers, all have been winners. My own ancestors, Border Reivers, were dispossessed of their lands and driven from Britain 400 years ago. It aids no one to dwell on these past miseries and injustices.

Therefore, commemorations of past tragedies can fuel present disputes that will lead to future tragedies. They should be matters of history to be dispassionately remembered and assessed. These events happened and, in most cases, had the losers been the winners, they would have done the same to their enemies. Patrick ARMSTRONG, Political analyst, CANADA.

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Circassians Have Survived Exile and Division

Circassians fought the Russian advance into the Caucasus five years longer than the great Shamil, who surrendered in 1859. They continued their resistance to the advance of the Tsar’s armies until 1864. The greater portion of the Circassian population was  then forced to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire, where they settled not only in what is the Turkish Republic today but in distant areas such as Jordan and Arabia. A lively community continues to exist in northern Israel, where they still speak their language and maintain their traditions. In Jordan Circassians have important political and military influence. Some Circassian groups managed to remain in their original territories. When he began to divide up the Caucasus into administrative units, Stalin followed a policy of keeping these Circassians divided.  In each administrative division he joined them with other ethnic groups to whom they were not related. In some cases, they were hostile to the groups with which they had to share their regions. It not surprising, therefore, that when the Soviet Union collapsed, Circassian groups became eager to restore close ties among themselves and also to make contact with Circassians living abroad. As a result a strong movement has developed for unity among Circassians, including  restoring linkes with countrymen living in Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. Within Russia this movement has taken the form of a campaign to establish a unified Circassian republic where all Circassians live together, cultivate their language and their traditions. Circassians have a distinguished history which goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  They will continue to press Russia to recognize their claim to united status. They deserve success. Dr. Paul B. HENZE. Historian and former diplomat. USA.

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This is to express my admiration for the Circassian people and their leaders who have kept alive the language, culture and history of the diverse Circassian groups.  This has been accomplished despite the adversities endured during the wars defending their land, the great exodus from their ancient homes, and life as immigrants for several generations. As Circassians around the world mark the events that brought tragedy and grief to all their families, those of us who have come to know and love Circassian cultures wish success in all efforts to ensure all Circassians access to their homelands and to preserve their distinctive cultural heritage. Paula GARB, Lecturer in Anthropology and Co-Director of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of CaliforniaIrvineUSA.

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Polish-Circassian Relation in 19th Century

Till the begining of 1830s the region of Caucasus was not present in the Polish political thought. After the fail of Polish November Uprising against Russia (1830-1831), all the political camps of the so called Polish Great Emigration (ca. 10 000 people – the political, military and cultural elite of the country who decided to go to exile mainly to France and Great Britain) started to look carfully at the North Caucasus, where the Circassians and Chechens were still waging the war against Russia. The main reason of that attention was a presence of about 9 000 of former soldiers of the Polish Army, who after the desaster of the uprising – had been forcibly sent by Russian authorities to fight the Caucasian Mountainards. Their military service in the ranks of the Russian army was the form of persecution and punishment imposed on them after the collapse of Polish uprising. Many information about the numerous desertions of those soldiers which soon reached Western Europe, turned the attention of the head of the right wing of Polish Emigration – prince Adam George Czartoryski on the Caucasus question. The Eastern Crisis connected with the conflict in Ottoman Empire between the Sultan Mahmud 2nd and the Pasha of Egypt Muhammad Ali, produced a seriuos political tension in Russian-British relations especialy after the treaty of  Hünkâr İskelesi (1833). That situation offered to the Czartoryski’s “diplomacy” a possibility of developing its activity unofficially supported by Foreign Office. The Poles in collaboration with David Urquhart and some British Circessophiles menaged to publish “The Portfolio” – the paper that contained a series of Russian secret diplomatic correspondence captured by insurgents in Warsaw in 1830, and many articles against Russian conquests in Caucasus. Count Władysław Zamoyski – the nephew of Czartoryski and the group of Urquhart organised famous “Vixen” expedition to Circessia to provoke even more tention in English-Russian relations and if possible to give the reason for war. From the Polish point of view, the war between Russia and any European power was a precondition of any future uprising in Poland to regain the independence of the country. War in Caucasus offered the hope, that it could be developed into the British-Russian war so necessary for the Polish aims. Still the Poles failed in their attempts to obtain more effective support from Foreign Office for the organisation of Polish detachments created with the deserters from Russian army to fight as the allied troops on the side of Circassians and Chechens against Russians.

Nevertheless in 1844 Czartoryski menaged to send his emissary Ludwik Zwierkowski to Shapsugs. In 1846 Zwierkowski heavy wounded returned to Istanbul. Than Kazimierz Gordon – another agent of Czartoryski was send to Imam Shamil to Dagestan, still he menaged to reach the territories of Ubykh only, where he was killed by a Russian agent. So the attempts to create the direct Polish-Circassians relations in fourthies failed, still Czartoryski was succesful in creating the place to live for Polish deserters from Russian army in Caucasus. In 1842 he obtained a small village at Asiatic bank of Bosphorus where, under the name of Adampol – Polonezköy, the Poles who menage to escape from Caucasus were settled down. This village still exists today and about 40 of its inhabitants still speak Polish.

The idea of the Polish Legion in Circassia came into being not earlier than after the end of the Crimean War. In 1857  the detachement organised in Ottoman empire, commanded by Teofil Łapiński has landed near Circassian village Tuapse. This Legion (about 120 soldiers) fought against Russians in the 1857-1860 campaigns. The last act of Polish-Circassian bratherhood in arms took place during the January Uprising in Poland (1863-1864). On October 1863 next Polish detachement commanded by colonel Klemens Przewłocki was organized and sent to Circassia with the iniciative of prince Witold Czartoryski – the son of Adam George. It fought in Caucasus till March 1864. The anti-Russian armed resistance of bothe peoples – the Poles and the Circassians came to their bitter end in the same time and resulted in national catastrophes in 1864 – the Circassian resistance in Caucasus ended with a massive exodus of the mountaniards to the Ottoman Empire and the failure of Polish January Uprising in Russian part of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commenwealth resulted in the darkest period of persecutions and Russification of the country when the very neme of Poland was forbiden and replased by Russian invented term – the Vistula Country and the Polish language was erased from the schools and the public space. The only place where it was allowed were churches. So the Poles could pray in Polish and both the peoples – Poles and Circassians believed and still believe that God is great – greater than Russia. Radosław Żurawski vel GRAJEWSKI, Professor of Lodz University Ph.D. Author of the in Polish: Wielka Brytania w “dyplomacji” księcia Adama Jerzego Czartoryskiego wobec kryzysu wschodniego (1832-1841), Warszawa 1999, (Great Britain in the “diplomacy” of prince Adam George Czartoryski towards the Eastern Crisis (1832-1841). POLAND.


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21 May is in an appropriate occasion to remember the Ubykh, who have been hit worst of all peoples involved in the Caucasian War. Their numbers, which were initially already lower than those of their immediate relatives, were first reduced dramatically by the losses inflicted during the defense of their homeland, then during the exode and its aftermath, and again during the turbulent period in Turkey following the First World War. The survivors lived in a few pockets of villages dispersed over distant Turkish vilayets, which left their language with little chances for survival. Many Ubykh gradually  assimilated to things Circassian and all of them eventually developed into Turkish citizens cherishing their Ubykh(-Circassian) descent. Thanks to men like Uslar, Dirr, Mészaros, Dumézil, Vogt, Charachidzé and other linguists, and thanks to Tevfik Esenç, the last speaker and guardian of the language of the Ubykh, the language as well as oral traditions and many aspects of the social and cultural practices of the Ubykh were well documented.

While the other North-west Caucasian languages, Adyghe and Kabardian and Abkhazian and Abazinian, outside the Caucasus area are severely endangered, with most states concerned not promoting actively  minority languages, this day also invites us to take stock of the actual situation in the Caucasus itself. There – nowadays – the situation seems most promising for Abkhazian, with the Abkhazians having taken irreversibly the future of their language in their own hands.

For Adyghe and Kabardian, as for Abazinian, the situation is more complicated and the recently published Unesco Atlas of Endangered Languages marks the status of all of them as vulnerable. In spite of the losses caused by the Caucasian War, the situation cannot be characterized as hopeless, which is largely due to positive effects of early Soviet language policies. Concerted efforts from authorities, local organizations and institutions are needed to help these languages regain their impaired viability. A thorough analysis of the actual situation, and the development and execution of policies aimed at the promotion and safeguarding of these languages, may help them, and the cultural expressions expressed through them, survive and further develop. If Kabardian, Adyghe and Abazinian are no longer intensively transmitted within the family, if they are not given fully-fledged roles in public life, education and the media, one may fear that these languages will survive in the Caucasus only by a few generations more than in the Diaspora. Dr. Rieks SMEETS. Linguist and expert in cultural heritage. He is the first secretary of UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. NETHERLANDS.

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On Commemorations and Nations: A Brief Note on Remembering May 21, 1864

In the life of nations, commemorations can be seen as “coming of age” rituals that mark and symbolize stages of maturation. Commemorations have been described as the process by which nations come to know themselves.

It is remarkable how widely and deeply May 21 has become established as the principal commemoration event for Circassians across their far-flung localities. Small or large, Circassian communities now mark the day in various ways that work to validate three important dimensions of the Circassian experience today: the memory of the homeland, the significance of local community and the embrace of the diaspora. It is interesting and, I believe, important to pay attention to the ways in which this day is being organized in the different Circassian localities as well as how it is represented virtually on the worldwide web. The content of the activities organized and the speeches made are an important articulation of the state of the diaspora/nation.

Much has been written by historians and social scientists about the nature and importance of commemorations for nations: they are simultaneously symbols and events; collective and personal; political and cultural. Most importantly however they are both about the past and the future. The way in which the past of a nation is remembered is instrumental in the making of its futures. Therefore, while marking with grief the dispersal of the Circassians from their homeland, let May 21 also represent the joy of a nation that is coming to know itself. Seteney SHAMI, Social Science Research Council, Eurasia Program DirectorUSA.

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My mother was very beautiful. I remember her vaguely. She was tall and had big, green eyes. She had long dark hair coming down to her waist. During the Great Circassian Migration, my mother and father, together with their two children, set sail for the unknown.

They were forced to abandon their homeland, leaving behind their roots, memories and everything they possessed. In spite of all the suffering they had gone through, they never lost their hope. Because, they knew that losing hope was synonymous with death. As they sailed for the unknown, trying to hold on to life in boundless seas, diseases arouse in their vessel. Hunger, misery, diseases and death were following them.

This is how my great grandmother used to recount her memories of the Circassian migration. She was a little child during the migration but had suffered the greatest of pains that left deep scars in her life.

Her beautiful, long dark-haired mother also got sick. My grandmother’s eyes used to become foggy while telling the story… “I was only four years old but I remember them throwing her into the sea… Her long dark hair entangled with the waves… Those on the ship watched her lifeless body until it disappeared… I remember weeping with my brother on our father’s lap… I was furious and outraged, crying ‘Why did you throw my mother into the sea?’

She then remembered coming on land on her father’s shoulders. They had continued their journey of hope without her mother. In spite of all the hardships, the father and the two children had managed to hold on to life on a small island (Cyprus) very different from their homeland.

This is the story she used to tell us. And I used to visualize that ship and my beautiful, long-haired Circassian great-grandmother in my head. Although living through is always much more painful than the stories told, I could feel the magnitude of the pain suffered by the Circassian people. Dr. Sibel SİBER, Member of Parliament, Republican Turkish Party (CTP, Left Wing), NORTH CYPRUS.

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Let us remember not only the Circassians and Ubykhs but all who have been dispossessed, massacred, colonized, enslaved, or driven from their homes — in the name of race or religion, civilization or progress, geopolitics or security (not for them), history or destiny, “population exchange,” economic development (not theirs), revenge or redemption (for wrongs not committed by them) — or simply for sport. Let us remember especially those who were wiped out to the last man, woman, and child: the indigenous Tasmanians, the Taino and Arawak of the island the conquerors called Hispaniola.

What is done cannot be undone: all our tears shall not wash out a word of it (Omar Khayyam). Few of the victims, and none of those who suffered worst, are still here to be compensated. So why do we remember? We remember in order to claim and mourn the victims as our own. We remember in order to restore their good name, for the conquerors justified themselves by insulting and defaming their victims. We remember in order to curse the memory of the conquerors, even if — especially if — the conquerors were our own ancestors. And we do all these things in order that the conquest should stop, to preserve the little that is still left to preserve.  Stephen SHENFIELD. Independent researcher and translator. Editor of JRL Research & Analytical Supplement. USA.

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Майм и 21

(«Псэм и т|асхъап|э» усэ тхылъым щыщ)

Дэпщэщ мы щ|ым щызэщ|ифынур

Уэлбанэ лъыпсу зыуфэнщ|ар?

Тенджыз Ф|ыц|эжьым щитхьэщ|ынур

Хьэдэ лъэмыж абы телъар?

Къэтэджыжынукъым ди л|ахэр,

Сабырщ толъкъунхэр, яжьэр псыфщ,

Ит|ани нэпс мыгъущыжахэр

Уэлбанэ дыгъэм иримыф.

Т|эк|у нэхъ дысакъыу зедвгъэгъасэ

Щыди|эк|э дыщ|эщыгъуэн.

Тхьэм дяпэк|э дыхуимыгъазэ

А гуауэр тщызыгъэгъупщэн.

Жэмыхъуэ Суфян, адыгэ щ|эныгъэл|, усак|уэ

Sufian ZHEMUKHOV, Circassian scholar and a poet, KBR, RUSSIA.

May 21st

(From the poetry book ‘‘The Soft Spot of the Soul’’)

When will the earth of this land be able

To swallow up the bloody drizzle that drenched it?

When will the Black See be able

To wash away the bridge of corpses that was laid down upon it?

Our dead will not rise up again.

The waves are quiet, and the ashes are wet.

And yet the scorching Sun

Cannot dry up our tears.

Let us train ourselves to be more sensitive.

Let us mourn the tragedy we now have.

May the future not bring us a grief so great

That it should overwhelm our present sorrow!

Translated by John Colarusso

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May 21 2010

History is full of black spots and absences. Acts of commemoration and memory are all about honouring those who have fallen into these black holes of collective oblivion. When Hitler reportedly said “Who speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he was trying to invoke an executioner’s prerogative to have his victims forgotten.

Who remembers the Circassians? Theirs was a name that was readily recognizable to much of the world a century and a half ago but sadly that is no longer true. So it doubly important on May 21 to remember the hundreds of thousands of Circassians who were deported from their homeland and killed by the Russian imperial government in 1864 and subsequent years. The guilt of Russia is shared by many others. My own country, Great Britain, gave the Circassians unrealistic promises and then forgot about them—and it has many acts of colonial mass murder on its conscience too. What happened to the Circassians is far too little known by the wider world. I would like to see monuments to those who suffered placed along the Black Sea coast and for Russia’s leaders to give orders for this missing page to be put into Russia’s history books. Collective remembering can help soothe this big historical wound. Thomas De WAAL, Senior Associate, Caucasus, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, USA.

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Having thoroughly examined all the records, reports and memoirs written by eyewitnesses and the architects of the actions of the Russian Army in Circassia in the 1860s, I can come to no other conclusion than that the Russians committed genocide against the Circassian, Ubykh, and Abaza peoples. Attempts by Russian scholars and, unfortunately, at least one American scholar, to portray it as a regrettable miscalculation by General Nikolai Yevdokimov and his staff are easily refuted by the General’s own words and actions, as well as the eyewitness reports of the officers involved in the deportation. Historical accuracy demands that the current Russian government recognize the actions of the Russian Imperial Army in the 1860s against the Circassians, Ubykhs, and Abazas as genocide, and Yevdokimov should be labelled a war criminal. Walter RICHMOND. Assistant Professor of Russian Area Studies, Occidental College, Los Angeles, USA.

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It can be said with certainty that — until Stalin’s deportation of the repressed nations — there was no civilizational and demographic disaster in the modern history of Russia and Europe comparable with the expulsion of the Circassians of the Western Caucasus from the places where they had lived for many ages.

This monstrous deed, the chief ideologue and executor of which was General Yevdokimov, who persuaded Tsar Alexander II of its expediency, was carried out in opposition to the opinion of thoughtful military intellectuals such as General N.N. Rayevsky, Junior, commander of the Black Sea line, and General Filipson, chief of staff of the Caucasus Corps.

The Western Caucasus was depopulated. This deed was not only an act of criminal cruelty; it was also deeply inexpedient even from the point of view of the Russian state. The mass colonization of the Western Caucasus was a failure. An ancient and unique civilization was destroyed. Russia deprived itself of hundreds of thousands of people who under a rational policy could have become its citizens, shared with Russia their special experience, and, in particular, contributed hardy and courageous soldiers to its army.

It is time to draw conclusions from this bitter experience. Yakov GORDIN. Writer, historian, author of books on Russian history. RUSSIA.

The articles in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (1.23 MB)

© Circassian World

The Circassian “genocide” is no longer as badly neglected as it was. – An interview with Stephen Shenfield

November 2009

Stephen Shenfield, author of the famous article ”The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?” thinks that increased Circassian nationalism has generated a threat perception that makes Russian policy harsher and more repressive. He shared with CircassianWorld.com his thoughts on factors that may bring about a positive change in Russian policy toward the Circassians. CW gratefully acknowledges the insights that Mr. Shenfield has kindly shared with us.

The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Circassian World.

Profile: Stephen D. Shenfield comes from Britain, where he initially qualified as a mathematician. In the 1970s he worked in the Government Statistical Service. Later he specialized in Soviet Studies, obtaining a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham. In the 1990s he went to the USA to take up a position as researcher at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International Studies, also teaching in the university’s International Relations Program.

Since 2000 he has been a freelance translator and writer. He produces the Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List, an e-mail listing on Russian affairs (for an archive of past issues, see http://www.cdi.org/russia/johnson/jrl-ras.cfm).

He is the author of two books – The Nuclear Dilemma: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) – as well as numerous articles, book chapters, etc. A collection of his recent articles on political and economic issues is online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/16325984/World-Socialism-40

  I think your article ”The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?” which was published in the book ”The Massacre in History” was the first extended work about the ‘Circassian Genocide’ which was written by a Western writer. How did you decide to write about it and will we see similar works in the future?

STEPHEN SHENFIELD:  First of all, I was not the first Western scholar to write about the Circassian “genocide.” A substantial article on the topic by Willis Brooks appeared in the journal Nationalities Papers in 1995. I cite it in note 8 to my essay. Perhaps there were others over the years whose works attracted little attention at the time and later sank into oblivion. Only a thorough bibliographical search, covering the various Western languages, would enable us to determine who was first.

I acquired an interest in Circassian history through my love of maps. I have been fascinated by maps ever since I discovered their existence as a child. A friend of mine at Brown University had a sideline dealing in antiques. He was not very successful in this endeavor and decided to give up and sell off his stock cheap. I bought from him a number of 18th and 19th century maps of Europe, Russia, and the Middle East.

Poring over these maps, I discovered that there used to be quite a sizeable country in the Caucasus called Circassia that grew smaller and finally disappeared altogether, swallowed up by Russia. Curious to learn more, I searched the university library for literature on Circassia. I found a number of books by 19th century authors who had traveled in the Caucasus, and also a Russian-language edition of a book by the Circassian historian Trakho. I realized that I had stumbled across a whole dimension of history that seemed to have been almost completely forgotten, at least in the West.

I do not plan any similar works in the future. Since leaving Brown University in 2000, I have been working freelance. I earn my living mostly by translating academic texts from Russian for the translation journals published by M.E. Sharpe of New York. So I am not well placed to devote myself to in-depth scholarly research. But from the point of view of historical scholarship that doesn’t matter, because there are now several new people working in the field. In particular, I would draw attention to the important work of Irma Kreiten of the University of Southampton, whose article appeared recently (June 2009) in the Journal of Genocide Research.

So the Circassian “genocide” and Circassian history in general are no longer as badly neglected as they were. I am glad to have played my part by helping to revive interest in these subjects.

CW: How might Circassians use the Sochi 2014 Olympics as a platform to voice their concerns regarding their homeland and create a dialogue with the Russian Federation with regard to their concerns?

  Assuming that the Olympics do take place, which is by no means certain in view of the economic situation, I expect them to be preceded by the detention of many potential protestors and accompanied by a massive police presence. I also expect that known Circassian activists from abroad will not be allowed to enter the country. So it will be extremely difficult to use the games as a platform. A few people may slip through the net and mount a brief protest before they are bundled away. If the incident is noticed by the media, it may bring a little publicity to the Circassian cause. But I do not see what it will do to promote a dialogue.

The first question to ask about dialogue is whether it is possible at all, and if so under what conditions and with whom exactly? You cannot conduct a dialogue with a country, but only with specific people.

I do not think that dialogue is possible with those who rely on a policy of terror, repression, and intimidation and are incapable of understanding anything else. Under Putin such people were in the ascendancy. The situation now is more ambiguous.

When Medvedev took over as president, he and Putin came to an agreement on the division of authority between them. Russian analysts call this system a “tandemocracy” (from the word “tandem” – a bicycle made for two). The details of this agreement are secret, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the “force structures” – the police, armed forces, and security agencies – remain under Putin’s control, even though the Russian constitution places these structures directly under the president, not the prime minister.

So Medvedev is not a “real” president. He may gradually become a real president, but only as the result of a protracted power struggle. As he appoints more officials on whose loyalty he can count, his real power should increase. But can he avert the threat of Putin’s return to the presidency?

Although Medvedev tries to avoid public confrontation with Putin, it is clear from the views he has expressed that the two men have quite different approaches to policy. Medvedev is more liberal, open-minded, and conciliatory. He has a much more sober appreciation of the depth of the problems that Russia faces. And he is more inclined to be honest about the past, as shown by his opposition to the recent attempts to rehabilitate Stalin.

Therefore I think there is a chance of fruitful dialogue with Medvedev and his people. A start might be made by contacting one of the think tanks with which he has links. Of course, those who seek such a dialogue must be “respectable” in Russian terms. Above all, they must constantly emphasize that they respect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

CW: Under what conditions should Russia solve the three main goals of the Circassian nation: 1) the recognition of the genocide 2) the repatriation of the Diaspora, and 3) the re-unification of the Circassian territories into one region in Russia?

  On the question of the genocide, I should first say that I never reached the categorical conclusion that what the tsarist government did to the Circassians qualifies as genocide. I consider it a borderline case. The tsarist government resolved to expel the Circassians from their homeland, as quickly as possible and without regard to the suffering involved, but not to wipe them out to the last man, woman, and child.

Raising the question of genocide in such a borderline case gets you into nitpicking arguments that can go on forever without being resolved. We see this in the argument between Russian and Ukrainian nationalists over whether the famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s was genocide. That is another borderline case.

I suggest asking the Russian authorities to recognise not “the genocide” but the fact of the cruel, ruthless, and unjust treatment of the Circassians by the tsarist government. Even this will be far from easy, given the attachment of so many Russians to a false idealized view of Russia’s imperial past.

The return of the Diaspora and the unification of the Circassian territories are even more difficult. At present, it is quite an achievement simply to preserve the autonomous ethnic territories in face of the official campaign to abolish them altogether. Many Buryats wanted to unite their three territories in eastern Siberia. Now there is a single Buryat territory because the other two (Ust Orda and Aga Buryat) have been abolished.

Another problem is that even relatively liberal-minded Russians tend to view ethnic territories as archaic and inherently discriminatory. Western ideas about ethnic groups as “invented” or “imaginary” communities have further legitimized this attitude. A case in point is my friend and colleague Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In his recent writings he appeals to us to “forget the nation.” He takes a firm stand against violations of the human rights of members of ethnic minorities, but he does not recognize ethnic communities as political actors with specific collective rights.

CW:  How can Circassians work together with other ethnic minorities within the Caucasus to help protect their rights as an indigenous people of the Caucasus and eventually to create a unified republic?

  The important thing is to understand that nothing can be achieved except by working together with the other peoples of the Caucasus in pursuit of shared goals.

Even those who might be sympathetic to Circassian aspirations in principle – and that includes myself – worry about the possible exacerbation of conflict over land between Circassians and neighboring ethnic groups such as the Karachai and Balkars. Such conflicts already exist and they are surely bound to get worse as more and more Circassians return to their ancestral homeland – unless a clear understanding is reached with the other peoples living in the Caucasus. An understanding on the use and allocation of land, water, and other vital resources as well as on the distribution of political power.

That is why dialogue with public organizations representing all these other ethnic groups is at least as important as dialogue with the Russian authorities.

CW:  If you were advising President Medvedev, what policy with regard to the Northwest Caucasus would you recommend and why?

  I would not venture to give him advice, except to point out to him that Russia has its own real experts on the region, people who have spent their lives studying the region and its problems, who know its history, languages, cultures, ecology, economy, and so forth. Let President Medvedev and his colleagues listen to them and pay heed to what they say.

I am not a real expert on the Caucasus, by the way. I am sometimes considered one, but that is because – to quote one of my favorite Russian proverbs – “in the absence of fish, even a crayfish is a fish” (pri bezrybii i rak ryba).

CW:  Do you see a change in Russian policies toward the Northwest Caucasus in light of increased Circassian nationalism in the homeland and abroad.

  I think it has generated a threat perception that makes Russian policy harsher, more repressive.

CW:  Do you see Circassians being threatened with the rise of a Cossack national movement making it more difficult to preserve their own way of life, customs and languages?

  To the extent that it is just a matter of dressing up in Cossack costume (which was in fact copied from Circassian costume), singing and dancing, the Cossack movement is no threat. But as an indoctrinated, organized, and armed paramilitary force, the Cossack movement is a threat to all non-Slavic minorities – and not just to their customs and languages, but to their physical security, even their lives. We see this most clearly from the Cossack attacks on the Meskhetian Turks.

The Cossack movement is also an obstacle to recognition of the cruel and unjust treatment of the Circassians and other mountain peoples of the Caucasus under the tsars. After all, it was above all the Cossacks who meted out those cruelties. It is hard to see how an undiscriminating emotional attachment to the Cossack heritage can be combined with an honest recognition of historical truth.

CW:  The proposed shortfalls in financial aid in the form of subsidies from the Centre to Republican elites in the North Caucasus could become a catalyst which increases the cycle of violence in the North Caucasus. Do you think that the rise of nationalism and religious fervor in combination with this could make it impossible for Russia to control the North Caucaus?

 I don’t think that is yet an immediate prospect, but over the long term anything is possible.

CW:  How does the independence of Abkhazia affect Circassian thinking in both the diaspora and in the North Caucasus?

  I don’t know. It may be too early to tell. If Abkhazia remains within Russia’s sphere of influence, Circassians may become more inclined to pursue their goals within the framework of the Russian Federation, and that in turn may help to bring about a positive change in Russian policy toward the Circassians. The Abkhazian authorities may even assist in this process and act as a mediator between Russia and the Circassians.

CW:  Currently, the Circassian community in Russia is becoming increasingly adamant about the recreation of a single Circassian political entity, and Moscow appears firmly opposed to this. Since the Circassians and Abkhazians see their causes as interrelated, could this increasing tension within Russia cause the Moscow government to withdraw their support from Abkhazia?

 Maybe, but the Kremlin has other, countervailing strategic and economic motives for supporting Abkhazia, and these may grow stronger over time – for instance, as a result of increased Russian investment and military deployment in Abkhazia. Some Russian experts pointed to the Circassian problem as a reason for caution in extending recognition to Abkhazia, but Moscow went ahead just the same. So there is potential for a positive outcome to interactions within the “Russia – Abkhazia – Circassians” triangle.

CW:  Do you think it is wise for Abkhazia to remain independent rather than to incorporate into the Russian Federation? Does Abkhazia have the resources to create a viable state or will it need the infusion of large amounts of foreign aid?

  Incorporation into the Russian Federation would only be wise if Abkhazia could count on ethnic and regional autonomy within the RF, and the recent experience of centralization in center—regional relations suggests otherwise.

I think Abkhazia needs an infusion of resources, but not necessarily in the form of aid. It needs foreign investment, from Russia or elsewhere, to restore its capacity in tourism, tropical agriculture, etc. – the  areas in which it specialized within the Soviet Union.

CW:  Does anyone in America really think that Abkhazia/S. Ossetia will ever return to Georgian control?

  “Ever” is a long time. If the US builds up Georgian military might as the “Israel of the Caucasus” while Russian power in the North Caucasus collapses, then why not? But in the current economic climate I think the US will also be forced to retrench and reduce its foreign military commitments.

CW:  Is it likely that the US position regarding recognition for Abkhazia (in particular) and S. Ossetia (secondarily) will alter?

  This position follows from US support for Georgia as a client state. It could change as a result of either general US retrenchment or yet another upheaval within Georgia (or a combination of the two).

CW:  Mikheil Saakashvili has publicly stated that he has learnt a lot from Richard Holbrooke, whom he regards as his mentor. Since Holbrooke has long been close to the Clintons, will it be necessary for Holbrooke to leave the Administration before any change is likely to take place?

Saakashvili will suck up to whoever is in power in the US. If and when there is a change in US policy, I think it will arise primarily from a change in circumstances rather than personalities.

CW:  Since the US/EU stance on the two above-territories since the collapse of the USSR has effectively achieved the precise opposite of what that stance was designed to achieve (by pushing the regions into ever closer ties with Russia), how can there be any logical defence of continuing that policy?

  The precise opposite of what that stance was OSTENSIBLY designed to achieve. The “logic” is that Saakashvili is “our man” in the Caucasus – “a son of a bitch butour son of a bitch,” as J.F. Kennedy once said (if my memory does not fail me) – and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep him happy.

CW:  For many years it was assumed that there would be no solution for any of the 3 Transcaucasian hotspots (Abkhazia, S. Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh) without a solution for all three. Is it still felt in America that all three must be treated alike? Since it is surely inconceivable that Abkhazia/S. Ossetia will ever return to Georgian control, how does this affect the future of Karabakh?

 I don’t think that America really cares very much about consistency in its policy toward various conflicts. Otherwise why did it recognize Kosovo? Karabakh is a headache for US policy, with Azerbaijan’s oil pulling in one direction and the domestic Armenian lobby in the other. Perhaps Turkey will sort it out for them?

– Thank you.
Metin Sönmez, CW


John Colarusso, Irma Kreiten, Stephen Shenfield and Glen Howard at a conference on Circassians held at Harvard Kennedy School.


Further Reading

– The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?, by Stephen D. Shenfield 
– JRL Research & Analytical Supplement – Special Issue: The Circassians, RAS Issue No. 42 
– Tataria and Chechnya – A Comparative Study, by Stephen D. Shenfield 
– Origins and Evolutions of the Georgian-Abkhaz Conflict, by Stephen D. Shenfield


Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements

by Stephen D. Shenfield (M.E. Sharpe, 2001 – Armonk, New York and London)

“How strong,” asks Shenfield (Soviet studies, Univ. of Birmingham, U.K.; The Nuclear Predicament: Explorations in Soviet Ideology) “are fascist traditions, tendencies, and movements in Russia today?” The author concludes that fascist tendencies are alive and well in Russia yet have weak roots and shallow support. In The Faces of Janus: Marxism and Fascism in the Twentieth Century (Yale Univ., 2000), James Gregor invoked the popular definition of fascism, which focuses on the outward manifestations of totalitarianism, imperialism, and xenophobia, and tied it to Soviet institutions. Shenfield, however, differentiates between this popular definition and the more precise academic one, which sees fascism as “an authoritarian populist movement that seeks to preserve and restore premodern patriarchal values within a new order based on communities of nations, race or faith.” This precise definition allows him to compare Russian political parties and organizations accurately to each other and assess the depth of fascism in Russia. The beginning and end of the book are exciting, though the middle bogs down a bit. Recommended for academic and public libraries. Read more…

Tevfik Esenç – the last person able to speak the Ubykh language

Tevkif Esenç
The Last Ubykh

He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh

Tevfik Esenç (1904 – October 7, 1992) was a Circassian exile in Turkey and the last known speaker of the Ubykh language.

Esenç was raised by his Ubykh-speaking grandparents for a time in the village of Haci Osman  in Turkey, and he served a term as the muhtar (mayor) of that village, before receiving a post in the civil service of Istanbul. There, he was able to do a great deal of work with the French linguist Georges Dumézil to help record his language.

Blessed with an excellent memory, and understanding quickly the goals of Dumézil and the other linguists who came to visit him, he was the primary source of not only the Ubykh language, but also of the mythology, culture and customs of the Ubykh people. He spoke not only Ubykh but Turkish and the Hakuchi dialect of Adyghe, allowing some comparative work to be done between the two languages. He was a purist, and his idiolect of Ubykh is considered by some as the closest thing to a standard “literary” Ubykh language that existed.

Esenç died in 1992 at the age of 88. The inscription that he wanted on his gravestone read as follows: This is the grave of Tevfik Esenç. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh.

Ubykh sample sound file (Spekar: Tevfik Esenç, Recorded by Georges Dumézil / Lacito Data Archive)

LACITO Data Archive – Ubykh Records, Lacito Archiving project

In memoriam: Ubykh (Tevfik Esenç)

Martin Haspelmath, Freie Universität Berlin, 1993-06-09

Perhaps it is not inappropriate to post not only obituaries of linguists, but also obituaries of languages.

Since October 7, 1992, when its last native speaker (Tevfik Esenç) died, the north-western Caucasian language Ubykh must be considered extinct.

The fate of Ubykh is particularly sad not only because of its structural peculiarities that make it so interesting for us linguists, but also because its extinction is the final result of a genocide of the Ubykh people. Until 1864 they lived along the eastern shore of the Black Sea in the area of Sochi (north-west of Abkhazia). When Russia subjugated the Muslim northern Caucasus in the 1860s, tens (or hundreds?) of thousands of people were expelled and had to flee to Turkey, no doubt with heavy loss of life. The entire Ubykh population left its homeland, and the survivors were scattered over Turkey.

Our knowledge of Ubykh owes particularly much to Georges Dumézil (La langue des Oubykhs. Paris 1931) and Hans Vogt (Dictionnaire de la langue oubykh avec introduction phonologique. Oslo 1963). Until recently, the last native speaker, Mr. Tevfik Esenç worked with several linguists so that as much as possible of his people’s language could be recorded. The 1991-92 (No 6-7) issue of the Revue des Études Georgiennes et Caucasiennes was dedicated to Tevfik Esenç.

The most striking structural feature of Ubykh is/was its large consonant inventory, consisting of 81 segments according to John Colarusso (“How many consonants does Ubykh have?”, in George Hewitt (ed.) Caucasian perspectives. Unterschleissheim: Lincom Europa, 145-55). To elucidate some of its puzzling features, Mr. Esenç even allowed himself to be x-rayed while articulating. For many years Ubykh was thought to be the world record-holder of consonant inventory size. Now it seems that some African languages surpass Ubykh in this respect, but still, Colarusso remarks, “any rigorous account of human phonetic percepual capacity will have to take into accountthis precious marvel, Ubykh”. This precious marvel is now lost forever.

Tevfik Esenç 1982

Language will die with man now 82
By John-Thor Dahlburg, the Associated Press., ca. 1987.

BANDIRMA, Turkey – When 82-year-old Tevfik Esenç dies, what linguists say is the world’s rarest living language will become a dead one.

A century and a half ago, the Oubykh language belonging to the Caucasian group of languages was spoken by as many as 50,000 Oubykh tribesmen in the Caucasus valleys east of the Black Sea.

Now a frail farmer in Turkey is the last known speaker, and language scientists visit Esenç in a hamlet in Asia Minor to register his every word.

“Because Oubykh today is just one man and he will one day disappear, all of this fuss may appear trivial, even useless,” said Georges Dumézil of the Académie Française, who has studied Oubykh and other Caucasian tongues for more than 50 years. “But from a scientific point of view, each and every language has great importance.”

For researchers like Dumézil, Oubykh’s fascination lies in its extreme variety of sounds, or phonemes. English has about 30 different phonemes, while Oubykh boasts more than 80, including four different pronunciations of the twinned letters “sh.”

There are 82 consonants, but only three vowels. Transcribers have had to use both Greek and Latin letters, plus some signs of their own invention, to capture the wealth of sounds.

“Oubykh is doubly interesting, first because only one person still speaks it, and second because there is that huge number of phonemes,” said Dr. Luc Bouquiaux, deputy director of the Paris-based Laboratory for Languages and Civilizations of Oral Tradition.

It was the French center’s 40 researchers who identified Oubykh as the world’s rarest language – “unquestionably the rarest because there is only one man who can speak it,” Bouquiaux said.

The Caucasian tongue is also “among the richest, if not the richest, language we know in terms of the sounds you have to make to speak it,” Bouquiaux added.

Oubykh’s decline started with the exodus of the Moslem herders and farmers from czarist Russia in 1864 after the Crimean War, and their resettlement in Ottoman Turkey near the Sea of Marmara.

There, the need to speak Turkish to be understood, plus competition from other Caucasian languages, made a knowledge of Oubykh useless. Today only Esenç has complete mastery of the tongue, though four or five other tribal elders still remember some phrases.

“No one is really responsible for the death of our mother tongue,” said Esenç in a recent interview in Bandirma, speaking Turkish through an interpreter. “It happened because of our poverty, and our being dispersed several times by the Russian czars and the Turks.”

To preserve as many scraps of the dying language as possible, linguists have taken Esenç to Oslo and to Paris, where he has been four times. Others have trooped rutted tracks to the farm village of Haci Osman where the last of the Oubykh speakers lives in a hut with a dirt floor.

When Esenç dies, Dumézil said, “much will be lost. But much has already been saved, and unlike ancient Greek or Latin, we have Oubykh speakers on tape.”

There is no chance, scholars and native speakers agree, of resurrecting Oubykh as a living language.

“Turkish authorities aren’t interested, and our own young don’t want to learn it,” Esenç said. His three sons are incapable of carrying on a conversation in their father’s tongue.

Scholars praise the cooperation of Esenç and other villagers in helping them pierce the mysteries of the dying language before it is too late. “Tevfik immediately understood the importance of helping us,” said Dumézil, who has thousands of Oubykh words inscribed on file cards awaiting incorporation into a French-Oubykh dictionary.

Esenç hopes to die where he was born – in the hilly village of Haci Osman near Bandirma. He says he already has written the inscription he wants carved on his tombstone of white marble:

“This is the grave of Tevfik Esenç. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Oubykh.”

Photo credits:

Tevfik Esencc at 57, from Georges Dumézil. 1962. Documents anatoliens sur les langues et les traditions du Caucase. Vol. 2: Textes Oubykhs. Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie.

Tevfik Esenç at 82, from Associated Press, printed in The Arizona Daily Star, 1987.

Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey

Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864.

London, Printed by Harrison & Sons.

The full original papers in PDF can be downloaded by clicking here (1.61 MB)

Sir H. Bulwer to Earl Russell. – (Received April 23)

Constantinople, April 12, 1864

My Lord,

The continued advances of the Russians in Circassia, and the ill-treatment experienced by the natives from Russian troops, have led to an almost complete emigration from the country: 25,000 have already reached Trebizond, and others are endeavouring to escape in small boats at every risk. The conglomeration of vast quantities of these people, who have no industrial habits, threatens the health and peace of any one locality, and the loss of life which is occasioned by their hazardous attempts to escape from their conquerors isshocking to humanity. The Turkish Government is therefore about sending vessels to Trebizond to remove the emigrants thence, and place them in different parts of the Empire; and it is also in negotiation with the Russian Chargé d’Affaires here, in order to be able to adopt some measures by which those unfortunate people, who, after the most heroic attempts in defending the country where they were born, are at last obliged to abandon it, may be able to seek asylum with safety in the Ottoman dominions.

I understand that the Russian Chargé d’Affaires has shown no difficulty, as far as he is concerned, in entering into arrangements with the Porte, and has applied to his Government for further instructions.

(Signed) Henry L. Bulwer

PS. – I may take this opportunity of transmitting to your Lordship a Petition which has been addressed to Her majesty the Queen by the Circassians, together with a translation of the same.



“Our most humble Petition to Her Magnificent Majesty the Queen and Emperor of England is to the effect that —

It is now more than eighty years since the Russian Government is unlawfully striving to subdue and annex to its dominions Circassia, which since the creation of the world has been our home and our country. It slaughters like sheep the children, helpless women, and old men that fall into its hands. It rolls about their heads with the bayonet like melons, and there is no act of oppression or cruelty which is beyond the pale of civilization and humanity, and which defies description, that it has not committed. We have not, from father to son, at the cost of our lives and properties, refrained from opposing the tyrannical acts of that Government in defence of our country, which is dearer to us than our lives. But during the last year or two it has taken advantage of a famine caused by a drought with which the Almighty visited is, as well as by its own ravages, and it as occasioned us great distress by its severe attacks by sea and land. Many are the lives which have been lost in battle, from hunger in the mountains, from destitution on the sea-coast, and from want of skill at sea.

We therefore invoke the mediation and precious assistance of the British Government and people – the guardian of humanity and centre if justice – in order to repel the brutal attacks of the Russian Government on our country, and save our country and our nation together.

But if it is not possible to afford this help for the preservation of our country and race, then we pray to be afforded facilities for removing to a place of safety our helpless and miserable children and women that are perishing by the brutal attacks of the enemy as well as by the effects of famine; and if neither of these two requests are taken into consideration, and if in our helpless condition we are utterly annihilated notwithstanding our appeals to the mercy and grace of the Governments, then we shall not cease to invoke our right in the presence of the Lord of the Universe, of Him who has confided to your Majesty sovereignty, strength, and power for the purpose of protecting the weak.”

“We beg your Excellency [Sir Henry Bulwer] to be the medium of making known to the great British Government and to the glorious British nation our condition of helplessness and misery, and we have therefore ventured to present to your Excellency our most humble petition. A copy of it has been submitted to the Sultan’s Government and to the Embassies of other Powers.”

(Signed by the people of Circassia)                                        29 Sheval, 1280 (April 9, 1864)


Papers Respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Pages 2 and 3.

Enclosed  in  Despatch  No.3  From  Sir  Henry  Bulwer  to  Earl  Russell,  Constantinople,  April 12, 1864 (FO 881/1259)


Consul-General Murray to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Odessa, April 29, 1864.

My Lord,

I have the honour to report that information has reached me that Vardan and Sochyi have recently been occupied by the troops under the command of Major-General Heyman, who encountered no resistance. The mountaineers are in most distressing condition, and are emigrating to Turkey as fast as boats can be found to take them away.

Grants of land in the conquered districts will now be offrerd to such of the Azoff Cossacks as desire to settle in the South if the Caucasus, and every encouragement will be given them to do so.

His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Michael has recently made a tour of inspection in the South.

(Signed) E.C. Grenville Murray.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 4.

Consul Dickson to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Soukoum-Kalé, March 17, 1864.

I feel it is a painful duty to report a deed that has come to my knowledge, which has so exasperated the Circassians as to excite them to further resistance, however desperate their case may be.

A Russian detachment having captured the village of Toobeh on the Soobashi River, inhabited by about 100 Abadzekh, and after these had surrendered themselves prisoners, they were all massacred by the Russian troops. Among the victims were two women in an advanced state of pregnancy, and five children. The detachment is question belongs to Count Evdokimoff’s army, and is said to have advanced from the Pshish valley.

As the Russian troops gain ground on the coast, the natives are not allowed to remain there on any terms, but are compelled either to transfer themselves to the plains of the Kouban or emigrate to Turkey.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 2.

Consul Dickson to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Soukoum-Kalé, April 13, 1864.

The Ubikh and Fighett tribes are fast embarking for Trebizond. In fact, after their land having been laid waste by fire and sword, emigration to Turkey is the only alternative allowed to those mountaineers who refuse to transfer themselves to the Kouban steppes and contribute periodically to the militia.

The condition of these poor people is described by eye-witnesses as most distressing. In the hurry of departure the overcrowding of boats is so little heeded as to lead to frequent disasters, while such of their horses and cattle as war and famine have spared are being sold for a few paper roubles.

In some instances the emigrants, sooner than see their weapons (may be heir-looms in the family for centuries) exchange hands with the enemy, have flung them into the sea.

With a view of introducing Russian colonization in the conquered districts the Government offer grants of land and other privileges to the Azoff Cossacks who may desire to settle there. Government employés indiscriminately, who may have served ten years in the Caucasus, will be entitled to claim an allotment if the land.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 3 and 4.

Consul-General Murray to Earl Russell. – (Received May 17)


Odessa, April 29, 1864.

My Lord,

I have the honour to report that information has reached me that Vardan and Sochi have recently been occupied by the troops under the command of Major-General Heyman, who encountered no resistance. The mountaineers are in most distressing condition, and are emigrating to Turkey as fast as boats can be found to take them away.

Grants of land in the conquered districts will now be offrerd to such of the Azoff Cossacks as desire to settle in the South if the Caucasus, and every encouragement will be given them to do so.

His Imperial Highness the Grand Duke Michael has recently made a tour of inspection in the South.

(Signed) E.C. Grenville Murray.


Papers respecting the Settlement of Circassian Emigrants in Turkey.

Presented to the House of Commons by Command of Her Majesty, in pursuance of their Address dated June 6, 1864

London, Printed by Harrison and Sons. Page 4.

>>Download the full-text document in PDF format (1.61 MB)