Circassians Recall Long-off War

Are Circassians losing their rights once again as they commemorate the anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War?

Circassians Recall Long-off War

Are Circassians losing their rights once again as they commemorate the anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War?

A boulder on a hill outside the village of Khakhandukovsky 50 kilometres from the capital of Karachai-Cherkessia has endured years of political feuding.


In the Communist era, local villager Mikhail Khutov hauled the boulder here using his tractor, and put a cast-iron plaque on it saying, “In memory of all Circassians who died in the Russian-Caucasian War.”


After Khutov placed his makeshift monument on a hilltop, the boulder became an unofficial shrine, and he received frequent visits from secret police agents threatening him with imprisonment or exile. On several occasions the boulder was removed and dumped elsewhere and the plaque was destroyed, and each time Khutov and his friends found it again and restored the monument.


When the Soviet Union fell apart, the primitive shrine received official blessing and was replaced by a new marble one – but Khutov’s plaque with the phrase “Russian-Caucasian War” was removed and replaced by the more neutral-sounding inscription “Caucasian War.”


The hill is fenced in and kept impeccably tidy. It has become a place where Circassians – or Adygs as they more usually call themselves - remember their forefathers and the tribulations they endured.


Local villagers volunteer to take care of the monument, and IWPR met an old man here trimming trees around the shrine. He quietly summed up his views, saying, “It’s all fine as long as we don’t have a second Chechnya here.”


The Caucasian War ended 140 years ago last week, but the ongoing conflict in Chechnya and the centralising policies of the Russian government in the North Caucasus have made the commemoration of the event more than just a historical anniversary.


In the 19th century, the war between tsarist Russia and the mountain peoples of the North Caucasus had two main theatres – Chechnya and Dagestan in the east, and the western lands known as Circassia.


The surrender of legendary Dagestani warrior leader Imam Shamil in 1859 marked the end of the war in Chechnya, but the Circassians fought on for another five years. In 1864, victory was finally declared and the Russians held a victory parade at Krasnaya Polyana on the Black Sea coast on May 21.


The 140th anniversary has stimulated debate about the rights of Circassians in the three republics of the North Caucasus where they have large populations – Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygeia.


The Circassians suffered grievously during the Caucasian War and were then subjected to mass deportation once it was over. According to various estimates, more than six million Circassians are scattered around the world, but only 700,000 of them live in the Caucasus, with many more in Turkey.


Khizir Khapsirokov, a Cherkessk-based history professor who publishes a newspaper and magazine at his own expense, is in no doubt about what his people suffered.


“There is ample historical evidence of genocide against the Circassian people,” he said. “The figures alone speak volumes. Of the four million Adygs living here when the war started, just over 400,000 survived. But apparently, this is not enough to have the fact of genocide recognised officially, or to inspire fellow-Circassians outside Russia to return to their historical homeland.”


There is a common view that it would be dangerous to turn a historical grievance into a present-day political programme


The head of the International Circassian Association, ICA, Zaurbi Nakhushev, who is also a deputy in the Russian parliament, says bluntly, “The Adygs must learn the lessons of history. They have no other future but to stay with Russia. There is no other option.”


The ICA, founded more than a decade ago, has lost its official status, and now focuses entirely on culture.


Nina Konovalova of the Slavic Union of Adygeia agrees. “Too much information about history and, specifically the Caucasian Wars, could make young people [in the Caucasus] hate Russians,” she told IWPR.


However, others warn that there is creeping discrimination against Circassians from Moscow, which could lead to them losing their political rights.


Valery Khatazhukov, who runs a human rights centre in Nalchik, used to head Adyge Khase, a Circassian rights group in Kabardino-Balkaria. He told IWPR, “Nothing has really changed from the time of the Russian-Caucasian War. Russia still treats the Caucasus like a colony.


“I’m not talking about Chechnya, but we have the same problem, only in latent form. As recently as a few years ago, our republics had independence as ethnic self-governed entities, but not anymore. The local puppet authorities voluntarily ceded their powers to Moscow.”


Almir Abregov, a political analyst from Adygeia said, “Most of the laws we passed in the early to mid-Nineties to conserve and promote the Adyg language and culture, and conserve the Adyg ethnicity as such, have since been repealed under surreptitious pressure from Moscow.”


Abregov said that villages had been renamed after Russian generals who fought the Circassians in the 19th century and that a monument was still standing to Admiral Lazarev, a particularly hated Russian commander. Whenever the locals tore it down, the authorities re-erected it. “For the Adygs, this is the same as a monument to Hitler in downtown Jerusalem would be for the Jews, and we are forced to live with it,” said Abregov.


The issue of diaspora Circassians returning is now much more sensitive than it was a few years ago. Some who have already come back say they are having problems.


An American Circassian living in the North Caucasus, who asked not to be named, told IWPR, “We feel we are constantly watched by the intelligence agencies. How can we be sure that one day, on some crazy pretext or none at all, they won’t simply deport us? We already have something to lose here: our businesses and homes. All our plans are tied to our homeland. So we try to be very careful and lie low.”


He has good reason to be circumspect. Bolat Haji Bairam, a repatriate from Turkey, was deported from Nalchik for breaking passport regulations. He was taken away in just his pyjamas and slippers, and handcuffed. They wouldn’t even let him bring his cash and papers. Haji Bairam is now taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.


Ludmila Mamkhyagova, editor-in-chief of the local newspaper “Cherkessk Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow”, is a Russian born in a Circassian community and married to a Circassian. She remembers a time when school history books featured a whole chapter on the Russian-Caucasian War. “It makes no sense to black out these memories, you cannot erase them. But I am against drawing parallels with the present time, particularly with Chechnya. The truth is that local ethnic communities have no independent future. For us in Karachai-Cherkessia, the only option is to join Russia’s Stavropol Province.”


Adygeia and Karachai-Cherkessia used to be part of the Krasnodar and Stavropol regions, respectively, and periodically there is talk of abolishing their autonomous status and returning them to their former status.


On May 21, the Stavropol Local Studies Museum opened a exhibition dedicated to the end of the Russian-Caucasian War, featuring the personal belongings of Imam Shamil – his crimson flag with a golden lacework of Arabic letters praising Allah, a leaf from a tree with a handwritten note from the Imam on it, and many other exhibits.


A display next to it is devoted to the ongoing war in Chechnya and features a green bandanna with the same inscription as the old flag, ammunition and hat belonging to Shamil Basayev, the Chechen warrior who led the raid on the town of Budyonnovsk in 1995.


In a television report on the exhibition opening, a tour guide joked, “We’ll try to make one hundred per cent sure this hat belonged to Shamil, to be doubly sure.” The historic parallels are so fresh in everyone’s mind that they understood that he was referring not to the historic Imam Shamil but to Shamil Basayev.


Fatima Tlisova is a freelance journalist based in Cherkessk


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