Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Circassians Press Genocide Claims

North Caucasian people say a historical crime against them has gone unremembered.
By Marina Marshenkulova
On May 21, Kabardino-Balkaria commemorated the 143rd anniversary of the end in 1864 of the bloody Caucasian War, which some historians say resulted in the deaths of over two million Circassians and the deportation of at least a million more to Turkey and the Middle East.

Circassians – or “Adygs” as they call themselves - from three autonomous republics of the North Caucasus, Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygeia, used the anniversary to press their demands that the killing of Circassians by tsarist Russian forces in the 19th century should be acknowledged as genocide.

Activists of the nationalist Circassian Congress movement and its leader Ruslan Keshtov, all of them wearing black mourning ribbons and many carrying Circassian flags, gathered for an unsanctioned rally – an unprecedented thing for Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria - in front of the memorial to Circassian victims in the city’s Freedom Park.

“You sometimes hear people saying it’s too early to raise the genocide of the Circassian people as an issue, and that we should postpone it for ten years or so until conditions are favourable,” said Keshtov.

“But we don’t see any willingness on Russia’s part to resolve the Circassian issue. It’s as though we were not a people of Russia, unlike any of our neighbours in the Caucasus, for whom historical justice has been restored.”

The Circassian Congress was angry that after it sent a request to the Russian parliament, the State Duma, asking for it to recognise the “Circassian genocide”, the parliamentarians sent a reply in which they said the Circassians had not been subject to genocide during the Second World War – almost a hundred years after the actual event.

Nowadays, many more Circassians still live abroad than in the North Caucasus, which is home to less than a million of them. That is one reason why the issue of gaining recognition for the suffering they endured in the 19th century is a live political issue, as it could be seen as encouraging the diaspora to return to Russia.

Zamir Shukhov, who is president of a public organisation called the World Adyg Fraternity, told IWPR that the genocide issue had moved up the agenda because the various countries where Circassians live are becoming more democratic, so that they can now demand protection for their culture in a way that they could not before.

“Circassians have begun talking more openly about their history, about their past, present and future,” he said. “I think the Circassian people are now going through a period in which their national consciousness and sense of national identity are awakening. We are a minority in all the countries where we live, including even our historical homeland – the Caucasus.

“We’ve come to understand that preservation of the Adyg nation should be priority number one for any Circassian patriot.”

In Russia, the campaign for genocide recognition has been opposed at many levels.

Earlier this year, the Circassian Congress sent a letter to Russian president Vladimir Putin. In late April, they received a reply from the domestic policy department of the president’s representative to the Southern Federal District saying, “Russian legislation does not contain normative legal acts that would define a way of addressing the problems you have set out in your letter to the president.”

Scholars at the Southern Scientific Centre, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, added their expert opinion that events during the 19th century Caucasian war did not constitute genocide as understood by the United Nations.

Circassian activists and historians were further angered by plans for a commemoration later this year of the 450th anniversary of the “voluntary accession to the Russian state” of the three republics with Circassian populations, an occasion they have called a “fabrication of history” with a Russian nationalist agenda.

Mukhamed Khafitse, head of the Adyge Khase group in Kabardino-Balkaria, complained, “For 101 years, Russia fought with might and main to conquer the Circassians. Nine out of ten Adygs either left their homeland or were killed on the battlefield.

“There even was an order to exterminate Circassians to the last man if they refused to move down to the plains where they were told to go to live. If this is not genocide, then what should it be called?”

Khafitse said the acknowledgement of genocide would give moral satisfaction, if nothing else, to the Circassians.

There are some sceptical voices, however. Svetlana Akieva, a scholar in Nalchik, sounded a note of caution about defining as genocide an event that she said was a “great disaster” which came as the result of a destructive war.

“It seems to me that we have been abusing this word recently,” said Akieva. “There ought to be certain selection criteria. I agree that this was a very great loss for the genetic stock of the people but it’s hard to say if it was actually genocide.

“Genocide is destruction on a purely ethnic basis and I don’t think that however bad the tsarist regime was, it set itself the goal of exterminating the Circassians and other Caucasian tribes at all costs. A state is the embodiment of violence, and unfortunately this violence has no limits. History shows us many extreme examples of the kind of violence which caused thousands and thousands of innocent people to die.”

Osman Mazukabzov, director of the Kavkazweb Internet portal, argued that the recognition of genocide should be focused on achieving practical results for Circassians.

“It’s no secret that the main challenges facing Circassian society are the reviving the economy and reducing corruption,” he said. “Without an economic base, the people won’t be able to restore their culture and language. To my mind, that is what recognising the genocide means.”

Valery Khatazhukov, a well known human rights activist in Kabardino-Balkaria, does not believe the genocide issue will be resolved soon. He predicts it will become a steadily more sensitive political issue as the Russian state seeks to curtail the powers of the republics of the North Caucasus.

Feeling that their identity is under threat, Circassian organisations have already waged a successful campaign against proposals to merge the autonomous republic of Adygeia with the neighbouring Krasnodar region.

“The genocide issue is going to find stronger and stronger support among various parts of the intelligentsia and youth,” predicted Khatazhukov.

Marina Marshenkulova is a correspondent for Sovetskaya Molodezh newspaper in Kabardino-Balkaria.