Black Sea Exotica

The last remnants of the Cherkess population on the Black Sea coast find themselves the unwilling stars of a cheap tourist pantomime

Black Sea Exotica

The last remnants of the Cherkess population on the Black Sea coast find themselves the unwilling stars of a cheap tourist pantomime

Near the settlement of Bolshoy Kichmai, in the Park of the Thirty-three Waterfalls, the locals have built a model village to give visiting tourists a taste of "traditional Cherkess life".

Attractions include a working smithy and windmill, a smoke-house for home-made cheeses and a barn on stilts. In the village square, there's a wooden cage containing a wolf-cub with a heavy chain around its neck. The animal is scrawny, its yellow eyes dull with misery. It has already learned to wag its tail and drop to the ground when approached.

The wolf-cub is symbolic of the Cherkess population as a whole. The descendants of the proud tribesmen who once controlled this part of the Black Sea coast are today forced to scrape a living as sideshow curiosities in a tourist hinterland which stretches from Anapa to the River Psou.

Numbering just 10,000 people, the Cherkess residents of the Black Sea coast make up less than one per cent of the total population. It is a far cry from the days of Tsar Alexander II when the Cherkess inhabited 76 settlements in the region and cultivated the fertile land around the river valleys.

Their roots can be traced back to 2,000BC when their ancestors, the Khatts, came north from Anatolia. The Khatts' great contribution to civilisation was the discovery of a process for smelting iron and its subsequent use to make weapons and tools.

The Cherkess or Adygeans who settled in the Caucasus survived the depredations of successive invaders - the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols, the Crimean Khan and the Ottoman Empire - gaining a fearsome reputation for military prowess.

However, during the Tsar's first military expeditions into the Caucasus, the bulk of the Cherkess coastal dwellers were driven southwards into Turkey while their ethnic homelands were settled by Cossack clans.

Traditionally inhabitants of the open steppe, the Cossacks soon abandoned the wooded coastline and were replaced by Greeks and Armenians - Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire who had been lured to the Caucasus by promises of free land.

It was in the latter half of the 19th century that the Black Sea coast became a premier tourist destination for Russia's social and political elite. And the stunning slopes of the Caucasus mountains became little more than the backdrop for a banal operetta which was played out there every summer.

The Communist nomenclature also developed a lasting affection for the region which was soon littered with state dachas and luxurious sanatoria. The local population had little choice but to seek employment in the busy service industry which grew up around the resorts.

Over recent years, the region has lost much of its prestige. The nouveau riche prefer to relax abroad and the Black Sea resorts are now frequented by less affluent Russians with a keen eye for a bargain.

The locals have sensed this change, offering cheap rooms for between 50 and 100 roubles a day whilst providing indifferent standards of service.

The older Cherkess, for their part, affect to despise both the tourists and "their lackeys". They complain that the Circassian epics of days gone by have been replaced by prosaic modern-day legends - tales of Victor Chernomyrdin's hunting expeditions in the forests or the magnificent mansion built by some Ossetian water baron.

The old agricultural traditions have been eroded, together with the ancient beliefs and the values of a patriarchal society.

But economic hardships have forced the Cherkess to swallow their pride and join in the seasonal carnival. They stand at the doors of the "traditional village", offering tourists the chance to be photographed in "authentic surroundings" or even on horseback wearing ethnic dress with a brass "kinzhal" (dagger).

These living relics of ancient Circassia play heavily on their military legacy. Typical costumes include the "cherkeska" - a long-sleeved tunic with felt powder casings sewn to the breast - a "bashlyk" hood and the "burka" - a felt coat which was so thick that it could protect the wearer from spears and arrows.

Some of the more amenable Cherkess will even demonstrate the virtues of the traditional mail shirt, which could withstand pistol shot at up to four paces; the curved sabre, which could cut through the barrel of a gun, and the murderous-looking kinzhal which, among other things, was used for shaving and lighting fires.

Finally, the legendary Cherkess story-tellers will regale their audiences with accounts of the great confrontation between the Adygeans and the Amazons when a bloody war was averted by a soothsayer's vision and the two peoples became one.

Meawhile, the Sochi city administration collects 15 roubles from anyone entering the Park of the Thirty-three Waterfalls and local entrepreneurs have opened a rough-and-ready car-lot where they charge motorists a flat fee.

And the Cherkess, once the masters of all they surveyed, watch forlornly as Russian tourists carve their initials on the rocks above the waterfalls and litter the pagan stone circles with assorted debris.

Askerbi Minasharov is an independent journalist based in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria

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