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

Religious Row Splits Adygeia

A quarrel over a statue reveals deeper political and ethnic divisions between Circassians and Russians.
By Oleg Tsvetkov

A row over the construction of a monument to a Christian saint in the small North Caucasian republic of Adygeia has caused an unprecedented row, exacerbating political tensions.


Adygeia is a small autonomous republic in the North Caucasus, with a population of 450,000. About 65 per cent of the population are Russians, many of whom are Orthodox Christians, and about 23 per cent are Adygeis (or Circassians), who are Muslims.


Until recently, any tensions between the two religious groups have remained below the surface.


However, on July 14, a group of 15 – 20 Muslims demonstrated publicly against the construction of a statue of the Christian saint, Nicholas the miracle worker, in the capital Maikop. Their demands were backed up by influential Circassian voices and the local authorities suspended the work.


The protesters argue that Russia is a secular state and that the erection of a monument of a Christian saint is offensive to them. Others echo the ethnic concerns of Aramby Khapai, a wrestling trainer, who said, “Fifty years from now people will ask us, 'How come there are Circassians in a Slavic state?””


Observers share the concerns of Semyen Khrupin, associate professor at Adygeia State University, that “overly sharp words from the opposing parties could stir up the emotions of a large number of people”. In recent months, the authorities have been engaged in a struggle against Moscow politicians who want to see Adygeia abolished and reintegrated into Krasnodar region, of which it was part until 1991. (See Adygeia: Special Status Under Threat, CRS 282, April 15, 2005)


As part of their campaign against unification, the republican authorities have argued that the Adygeis were brutally colonised by Russia during the Caucasian war of the 19th century and therefore have the right to their own ethnic homeland.


The Maikop authorities recently scored a success when one of their critics, Anatoly Odeichuk, the Kremlin's representative in the republic, had his powers curtailed.


The initiative for building a statue in Maikop came from the St Nicholas the Miracle Worker Foundation, whose headquarters are in Moscow. Valentin Selivanov, a representative of the Foundation, told IWPR by telephone that the organisation plans to put up statues of St Nicholas along all Russia’s borders.


Selivanov said, “St Nicholas is particularly respected in Russia, and building statues of him should help protect Russia from all evil forces.” He stressed that the activities of the organisation have the blessing of Aleksy II, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church.


Selivanov also said that the Foundation was “surprised at the protests against putting up the statues”.


Yevgeny Bestuzhev, assistant to the bishop of Adygeia responsible for construction, said the plan was for the statue of St Nicholas to be put somewhere else in Maikop, near the Georgiev cathedral.


The land around the Georgiev monastery is used by the armed forces. As Bestuzhev said, “the leadership of the Adygeia diocese has agreed a plan for the construction of the statue with the commanders of the military unit.”


Meeting officials and Orthodox clergy, leaders from the nationalist organisations Adyge Khase and the Circassian Congress, proposed that the statue should be built near the Orthodox church.


Nurby Emizh, the Muslim community leader for Adygeia and the Krasnodar region, told a press conference after the meeting, “If I had to put up a statue of the prophet, I would put it next to the mosque. But we Muslims don't make images of the prophet or of God.” Almir Abregov, an activist from the Circassian Congress and director of the National Museum of Adygeia, told the press conference, “The republic's indigenous people are Sunni Muslims. Why are they putting this statue up in a Muslim republic, not in Moscow or St Petersburg? It wouldn’t hurt to ask the opinion of the local people.”


However, the head of the Orthodox Adygeia diocese Vladik Panteleimon, argued, “In every religion people respect righteous men, and this figure [St Nicholas] could not possibly be the cause of ethnic discord or violence.”


Nina Konovalova, head of the Slavic Union of Adygeia, an influential Russian rights organisation, described the atmosphere of the meeting as “frightening”. “I have never seen Adyge Khase and the Circassian Congress behave so badly in public. They behaved like warriors in a town they have conquered. They made boorish ripostes - even going so far as to tell their opponents to ‘Shut up!’” she told IWPR.


Konovalova’s described the debate as a “hysterical discussion of the ethnicity question”.


“My Adygei opponents,” she told IWPR, “started shouting about the aggressive nature of the Russo-Caucasian war in the 19th century, and demanding that the leadership of the Russian Federation apologise for the ‘genocide’ of the Adygeis and finance the repatriation of descendants of the Caucasians who fled the Tsar’s army to countries in the Middle East.”


Konovalova said she was worried about radical Adygei youth and noted that “strong young people were a noticeable presence amongst those protesting against the construction of the statue of St Nicholas”.


Vladimir Karatayev, head of the executive committee of the Slavic Union and editor of Zakubanye newspaper, also struck a note of alarm saying that “you can see how the authority of the city ends as soon as even a small group of Adygei radicals pop up”.


Nonetheless, Karatayev agreed that the issue of the construction of the statue had been badly handled and said that most of the inhabitants of Maikop “had no idea about the plans for the statue of St Nicholas”.


For all its passion, the conflict has left many ordinary people indifferent. “Statues don’t hurt anyone,” commented one local Adygei. And a women, whose ethnicity was unclear, selling cigarettes on a street in Maikop, told IWPR, “People haven’t got time to worry about statues. They've got children to feed.”


Oleg Tsvetkov is an independent political analyst in Maikop, Adygeia.