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

In Search of a Lost Paradise

Adygeans returning to the land of their forefathers can expect a frosty reception from their ethnic kin
By Natalia Nagoeva

Hadji-Murat was brought up on fairy-tales of his Adygean homeland.


All through his childhood, his grandparents told nostalgia-tinged stories of life in the shadow of Mount Elbrus. And they proudly described the heroic feats of Circassian tribesmen who dared to stand up against the Russian empire and died with the words "Sell your life to buy your honour" on their lips.


Now, more than a century after his great-grandfather fled to Turkey to escape Tsarist persecution, Hadji-Murat has come home.


"By coming back to Kabardino-Balkaria and staying here, I am fulfilling the dying wishes of my father, grandfather and great-grandfather," he said. "I know that the spirits of my ancestors will rejoice and that my father -- who was unable to return here during his lifetime - will be proud of me."


Hadji-Murat is one of thousands of ethnic Adygeans attempting to find a lost paradise in the North Caucasus. Some hope to build a new life for themselves amongst their ethnic kin, others are simply drawn by curiosity and inherited nostalgia.


But the authorities have shown few signs of welcoming the ex-patriates and the Russian press has hinted darkly at a "mass return to the North Caucasus with the aim of establishing a Greater Cherkess State".


Consequently, the majority of those who make the pilgrimage find themselves hurrying back to their adoptive countries within a few months.


The Adygean peoples - which include the Cherkess, the Abazins and the Kabardinians - share a tragic history. After fiercely opposing the Russian invaders until the latter half of the 19th century, thousands fled south to Turkey, Syria and Jordan.


A second exodus came during the Soviet era when Josef Stalin instituted a policy of divide and rule across the North Caucasian republics before deporting entire minority groups to Central Asia in 1944.


Most historians agree that, while the Adygeans remaining in Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachaevo-Cherkessia number just a few hundred thousand, there are at least three million living abroad.


The first emigres returned to the North Caucasus in the early 1990s and there has been a steady stream ever since. In 1998, the Russian authorities approved the repatriation of 100 ethnic Adygeans from war-torn Kosovo.


In general, however, local immigration laws make no exception for the descendants of former Russian subjects. Adygeans hoping to return to Kabardino-Balkaria have to wait up to eight years before receiving citizenship. Only in Adygea have the authorities made any attempt to speed up the process.


Immigrants who fall foul of the system are swiftly deported. Hadji Bairam, an Adygean born in Jordan, went to the Nalchik police to report that his travel documents had been stolen. He was told to leave the republic within 24 hours.


Only after Bairam had made a personal appeal to President Valery Kokov and argued his case before a local court was he allowed to stay.


Adygean ethnic associations such as the Adyge Khase have formed special commissions to deal with repatriation cases but such moves have served to give the issue a political context which does little to help the immigrants.


The population at large is equally suspicious of the newcomers. With unemployment at an all-time high, they are understandably jealous of their jobs and wary of competition.


Many of the Adygeans come to study, expecting to easily make friends amongst their ethnic kin. However, most are housed in hostels with other immigrants and find themselves marginalised by their fellow students.


The immigrants are often targeted by thieves and crime cartels who see them as wealthy foreigners.


One 30-year-old man who came to Nalchik from Turkey saved up for seven years to buy himself a small house and car. One night, a gang of burglars broke into the premises, loaded all his possessions into the car and drove off. However, they failed to drive the man away - a few months later, his relatives joined him from Ankara.


This stubbornness is shared by many of the immigrants. For them, the most important thing is the right to call themselves Adygeans and to speak in their mother tongue - rights that were denied to their fathers and grandfathers who lived as virtual exiles all their lives.


Natalia Nagoeva is an independent journalist based in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria


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