Tag Archives: Circassian exile

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


Western Caucasian Dolmens, V.I. Markovin

Western Caucasian Dolmens, V.I. Markovin


Anthropology & Archeology of Eurasia, vol. 41, no. 4 (Spring 2002), pp. 68– 88.
© 2003 M.E. Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1061–1959/2003

Vladimir Ivanovich MARKOVIN

Western Caucasian Dolmens
Mysticism, Scientific Opinions,
and Perspectives on Further Study

If a scientific thought has sustained the touchstone of criticism,
it will remain a link in the golden chain of knowledge. 

—Arnold Joseph Toynbee, A Study of Historya

Every type of monument from the western Caucasus gains certain popularity from time to time. When this happens, it receives extensive coverage in the media and newspapers, radio, and television run endless stories on it. This was the case with the tower structures in Chechnya and Ingushetia in the 1960–70s. Lively debates about the Alans’ antiquities were held and are still being held in the Northern Osetia, Karachai-Cherkessia, and Kabardin-Balkaria. Recently in Krasnodar region and Adygeia, enormous interest in the dolmens has arisen. The region surrounding the town Gelendzhika was especially lucky in this regard. The interest was caused not by specialists’ scientific research, but by small books by Vladimir Megre, published as part of the series “Ringing Cedars of Russia” (Megre 1997a,b; 1998). Enjoying great success, these books caused a sensation, not so much among local inhabitants as among vacationers. The dolmens’ sites became a place of pilgrimage, and the monuments themselves, a place of worship. People adorn their foothills with flowers and turn to them with their questions and requests. Such touching scenes were shown once on the television show “Travelers’ Club.” They were so impressive that they attracted the attention of the Dutch archeologist Albert Becker, who was visiting Russia. He managed to visit a “Black Sea Mecca” and photograph “pilgrims” praying near the dolmens (Trifonov 1999).

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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.