On May 21 the Circassian peoples of the North Caucasus will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the end of what is now called the Caucasian War, which had begun back in 1763 and thus lasted 101 years. The fact that few people have heard of the Circassians demonstrates that they did not win this war against the Russian Empire, but the fact that it is being publicly commemorated demonstrates that it is still of great importance to some – as it prevents them facing the realities of the present day, a situation most people would like to be in.
The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has dedicated decades to the hunt for Nazi war criminals and everyone else involved in the holocaust. Not a few of them, every single one. It is right to do so, but the Centre itself does not maintain that the Holocaust is still going on, or that modern day Germany has the same orientation as the Nazi-era state.
If the Jewish community of today treated every German or non-Jew as a prospective Nazi none of them would be able to tolerate living in their homelands, even Israel, for very long, as any behaviour can be deemed Nazi to some extent if someone wishes to see it that way. Jews deal with the world of today, including actual manifestations of anti-semitism in front of them, rather than saying that because the Holocaust happened all those who aren’t one of them must be alike.
The same principle often applies in exile communities. Young people are brought up following certain traditions on the grounds that “this is what we did back home”, the implication being that if you are a true member of your community, rather than a traitor who went over to the side which exiled you, this is what you do.
When those same young people visit the fabled ancestral home they find that their own people no longer follow these traditions, but are not all traitors. This can be a confusing experience, and can often swing people in the other direction – making them reject both the norms they were brought up with and any others, as they find they are still the same person if they do. But clinging to the practices of a largely mythologised era prevents people dealing with the present day – if we can’t do something, either it is not for us or it is part of the same conspiracy which exiled us.
The Circassians hail from an area now in southwest Russia between the Black and Caspian Seas. They are also known as the Adygey (Adyghey, Adyghe) and Russian history documents how they and others have suffered at the hands of the games of competing empires.
Though it had long sought to subjugate the North Caucasus, Imperial Russia’s interest in the area intensified during the reign of Catherine the Great, for the usual Russian reasons. A country so big, surrounded by so many and so diverse neighbours, always feels vulnerable to anyone or anything different and so seeks to shut off any potential threat, even if it is very small and represented by a much smaller group of people, who are always, nevertheless, more numerous than the Russian ruling class of any era.
The historic lack of connection between Russia’s rulers and its people has left them as wary as the old Ottoman rulers, who similarly conducted many campaigns of self-defence which are regarded as aggression by everyone else. The Circassians were the victims of one such campaign, in which neither side was able to understand the viewpoint of the other because one was a vast multinational empire and the other a small autochthonous state, struggling for a separate existence, which had little sympathy for the problems of the empire to the north.
Count Leo Tolstoy, who would live to write War and Peace, saw action in the war in 1850–51. At this point the Russian Army was conducting systematic search and destroy raids against the Circassian “rebels” with the help of Russian Cossacks living in the area. They flushed out the fighters by relocating whole tribes and conducting lighting raids aimed at destroying their villages, kidnapping their animals and clearing the forests.
Tolstoy described how “It had been the custom to rush the mountain villages by night, when, taken by surprise, the women and children had no time to escape, and the horrors that ensued under the cover of darkness when the Russian soldiers made their way by twos and threes into the houses were such as no official narrator dared describe.”
It is this conduct, rather than the fact of the war itself, which is the focus of the Circassian commemorations of the conflict. The forced removal of their people to the Ottoman Empire and the destruction of their property have never been reversed, the effects are still visible in the size and geographical spread of the Circassian diaspora and the lack of social and economic development of the North Caucasus even today.
Circassians are right to commemorate these crimes and to demand some form of moral reparation from Russia. Whether they should use it to commit or advocate terrorism against individual Russians of today, or indiscriminately support every other people they see as small and oppressed in their every action, both characteristics of the various “Circassian Cultural Centres” in different parts of the world, is another matter.
Russia saw the Caucasus, the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, as being of strategic military and economic advantage, and therefore of strategic military and political disadvantage to itself if controlled by others. Its continual attempts to resolve this problem by annexing it led to the emergence of a strong local resistance movement under Muslim leader Shamil, who united the hill tribes.
Though several conflicting faiths, including Russian Orthodoxy, were practiced among Circassians prior to this the emergence of Shamil as a national hero has created an identification between Islam and Circassian ethnicity very similar to that which prevails between Orthodox Christianity and Russians. Therefore the capture of Shamil in 1859 is seen as the capture and enslavement of the people as a whole. Though the war lasted for another five years, Circassians were not able to be what they considered themselves to be from that point, thus reducing what they could fight for, and their effectiveness in doing so.
With their homeland gone, Circassians were left with little else but memories of heroism and victory. They may have lost the war, but they won the game. Forced into exile, they now had someone to blame for all the problems which were previously their responsibility. These problems will never be resolved, in Circassian thinking, because the Russians are still there. They do not have to be addressed in the present day because everything is the fault of the Russians, so they should resolve them unilaterally.
Though the commemorations of the conflict focus on the methods used during it, the message of doing so is that Circassians are helpless and therefore cannot be blamed for anything. They were certainly wronged in the Caucasian War, but the wrong will not be righted by using it to attack everyone considered to be on the other side, and support everyone considered a fellow sufferer, for the sake of doing so, without addressing the real problems Circassians face today.
The reason everyone should commemorate the Caucasian War, and the Circassian national tragedy which was a part of it, is that the response to it still damages the Circassian people today. However, the official Circassian diaspora organizations feel they have to justify their existence by adopting the mindset known as “Handsworth Logic”. This is the term used to describe the way of thinking in which the “big” side in any conflict is always wrong and always behaves badly, while the “small” side is always right and justified in its every action, simply because the sides are big and small.
We all love an underdog, so most of us have great sympathy with this view. But it is not actually true that big is bad and small is good in each individual case. For example, in former Yugoslavia “big” Serbia was accused of everything under the sun while “small” Croatia, Bosnia etcetera committed just as many documented crimes, however much the documentation is hidden. The victims of the crimes of the big side are supported by international structures, the victims of the small side told they don’t exist, or are considered not worthy of attention in the big picture, though both are equally human.
Furthermore, Handsworth Logic, which is coined after a now-disadvantaged suburb of Birmingham England whose inhabitants tend to think in this way, is self-defeating. If big is always bad and small good, nothing will ever change unless you yourself become the big side, and therefore become equally bad. The record of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe demonstrates where such thinking actually leads, as he even refused to give up power after losing the elections because he was once on the “small” side, fighting against the colonial power, and must therefore be inviolable. This is not the world Circassians really wish to live in, but their response to their tragedy has painted them into a corner – to remain true to their people, their rhetoric has nowhere else to go.
The continuing tragedy of the Circassians was demonstrated in their representatives’ response to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. As Sochi was the last capital of an independent Circassian state and the site of the last battle of the Caucasian War, Circassians justifiably felt insulted and called for the cancellation or moving of the Olympics, recognition of the genocide of their people and various things in between and in addition to these.
In themselves, these were not unreasonable demands, at least as reasonable as Western demands that the Beijing Olympics be moved or cancelled in protest against the killing of protestors in Tiananmen Square. But when Chechen Islamist leader Doku Umarov called for terror attacks against the Sochi Olympics on the grounds that the Olympic facilities were built on the bones of dead Moslems, there were few Circassian voices distancing themselves from these comments, which they have reciprocated in regard to the Chechen conflict and deportations involving other “small” peoples.
On May 20, 2011 the Georgian Parliament officially recognised the Circassian people’s genocide by the Russian Empire, but it has still not recognised the Armenian Genocide. Once again, few Circassians were bothered by this inconsistency. When Glen Howard, President of the neocon Jamestown Foundation, pointed out that Krasnya Polyana, the town where many of Sochi’s mountain events were held, translates to “red glade” and gets its name from the blood spilled by Russian invaders, these comments were welcomed by Circassians, despite the number of US cities created by wholesale massacres and deportations of native American Indian tribes as part of the policy of manifest destiny– the 19th-century doctrine or belief that the expansion of the United States throughout the American continent was both justified and inevitable.
The Circassian people should never have suffered the tragedy they did, but its commemoration should demonstrate how they have risen above it. By using it as a means to beat “big” Russia with, when Russia will always be bigger, the Circassian local governments in Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygeia and diaspora organisations throughout the world are simply condemning themselves to permanent misery.
Circassians have put themselves in a position where there is no solution to their historic problems. As their history is all they now have, they will have no contemporary future either unless their virtues in the here and now are equally celebrated.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.