Karachay-Cherkessia is a republic on the Black Sea coast of Russia’s North Caucasus region. Last month, activists announced the creation of a new organisation, the Coordination Council of Circassian Activists, in the republic’s capital.
One of its priorities, they announced in Cherkessk, is to support a campaign to abolish the use of ethnic terms to artificially divide the Circassian people into four different groups: Adyghe, Kabardians, Shapsughs and Cherkess. For these activists, this is an anachronism dating back to Soviet-era “nation building”.
Circassians have long been an international ethnic community, who have a wide network with considerable economic and political potential. But de jure, in Russia the name Cherkessy is only used to refer to Circassians living in Karachay-Cherkessia.
Whether the active part of the Circassian community can use this potential to become a new and united political nation will depend on how attractive the organisation’s ideas are – and the political and economic methods they will embrace.
Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.
It’s more than just a name
Over the thousands of years that the Circassians have been part of world history, they have been given many names by those who came into contact with them: Zygians, Kassogians, Petyhorcy. But the term “Circassians” (Cherkessy) has been used in the written traditions of various peoples since the 13th century. In the 15th century, the Mamluk-Burji dynasty and its Egypto-Syrian Empire also used the term. By the 17th century, “Cherkessy” had squeezed out all the other names of this people in other languages - the word had become synonymous with the people and their country all over the world. And it remains so today, including for Russian speakers.
In the 1920s, after the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Soviet authorities adopted a policy of creating new ethnicities on the basis of Circassian enclaves. These communities had been dispersed as a result of the ethnic cleansing that followed the end of Russia’s wars in the North Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Soviets attempted to symbolically and administratively divide the remaining Circassians, and the ethnic nomenclature system created at the time still serves Moscow’s purposes today.
Moscow’s logic is clear: the name of a people is always more than just a name. A name encompasses rights and responsibilities; a declaration of its dignity; claims to a legacy and prestige and a blueprint for the future.
Even after the demise of Circassia in 1864 and the deliberate oblivion to which it was consigned in the Soviet period, the shadow of this formidable opponent of the Russian Empire in the western Caucasus still hangs over Russia’s southern territories today. And the issue of legitimacy of its control by Moscow remains open.
Like it or not, however, Russia's war in the Caucasus, which led to Circassia being “removed” from the map, is still at the heart of Russo-Circassian relations. Memories of the tragedy and the profound resentment caused by its consequences, which are not open to re-evaluation, is a central element of Circassian identity to this day.
Neutralising the Circassian factor and maintaining an “ethnic balance” in the region, the result of a “total ethnic cleansing” of Circassians in their homeland, was and still is Russia’s policy on the “Circassian question”. There is nothing to suggest that it might change under the present government. The very word “Circassian” is instinctively seen as a threat. The victory of the Empire over those who bore that name came at too high a price.
This is why in Russia today, if someone calls themselves a Cherkess, but they don’t live in Karachay-Cherkessia, they are making a political statement - even if they have no interest in politics.
A novel in letters
The revival of the Circassian national movement as a political factor in today’s Russia began nearly 30 years ago, when the First International Circassian Congress came to a close in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in May 1991. This was a landmark event, one that promised the beginning of a renewed unified structure for this exiled people who have been scattered to the four corners of the earth: today, 90% of Circassians live outside their historic homeland.
The congress brought together delegates from Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Germany, the US, Yugoslavia and Israel, as well as various regions of the Soviet Union – Moscow, the Krasnodar and Stavropol Krais, Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria itself. Conference delegates decided, among other things, to revive the name by which they had been known for centuries, “Circassians” (Cherkessy).
Although those attending the congress may have believed that the issue was in principle resolved, as Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria were represented by government delegations who voted unanimously to reject the ethnic term forced on them by Moscow, time has shown that things were not what they seemed.
Initially, in the 1990s, the International Circassian Association (ICA) formed at the congress lived up to its name and was actively engaged in creating a new agenda for the Circassian national movement. Today, in my opinion, it has become a mere adjunct to the Russian propaganda machine. But back then, the association put together numerous submissions to the Russian government at all levels, including demands for the restitution of an official single Russian name to describe themselves.
A symbol of faith
In 1997, on the initiative of the ICA, the Secretary General of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) Michael van Walt van Praag wrote to Egor Stroyev, chairman of Russia’s Federation Council, asking Russia to not only recognise the 1864 Circassian Genocide, but also to recognise the Circassians as a people in exile and create reasonable conditions for their repatriation. Van Walt van Praag’s missive included the following requests:
“To recognise as one people those who are at present known as Cherkessy in Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardians in Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygeans in Adygea and Shapsugs in the Krasnodar Krai, as well as ethnic Circassians (Adygheans) living in the Russian Federation and outside it who traditionally refer to themselves as Adyghe, but are regarded as Cherkessy by others, given that all Cherkessy (Adygheans) share a common language, culture, etiquette and, most importantly, an epic, the Nart Saga.”
The UNPO document is interesting for the fact that it practically defined the “credo” of Circassian nationalism: a profound certainty in the indissoluble spiritual link between every man and woman who considers themselves a Circassian, whatever their citizenship, faith or country of residence. Links that will sooner or later lead to the physical reunification of the exiled people with their homeland, since no Circassian will ever regard their forced separation as permanent. To accept such a situation could mean a person’s lifelong exclusion from the Circassian community.
There is no point in reminding people of all the stages of correspondence with the Moscow authorities: it had almost no practical effect. And the lack of success that resulted in the ICA’s work turning into a meaningless ritual “for the initiated”, unclear and of no interest to the masses, allowed the Russian government in the end to co-opt it with little trouble.
No one can say how long things might have continued in this way, but eventually Circassian nationalists were rescued by American technology. This painful picture was radically changed by the rapid spread of the internet and Russia’s success in winning the competition for the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, which coincided with the rise of a new generation.
During the 2000s, Circassian youth had full access to the possibilities provided by the internet, which had finally spread like wildfire among them. First internet forums, and then social media groups became a focus for meeting people and exchanging ideas for crystallising a core of a new generation of Circassian nationalists.
For the first time in 150 years, people living in dozens of countries around the world, but mostly in Turkey and Russia, suddenly had an opportunity for direct contact and could coordinate their positions and plan public actions together without any mediation from “professional Circassians” in the pockets of the Turkish and Russian authorities. The majority of Circassian activists who appeared in the 2000s and 2010s were trained in the school of internet battles. All that was left was to find an agenda to organise around. And one soon appeared. It was presented to them by Russia itself, when Sochi chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Black Sea city of Sochi holds a special place in Circassian history. It was the home of the “Great Free Assembly” (1861), i.e. the parliament of the independent Circassian Confederation. The last battles of the Caucasian War took place here. The whole of the city’s famous beaches are one big cemetery, where thousands of people lie in common graves. These people were driven onto the shore by Russian troops and died as they awaited deportation to the Ottoman Empire. Here, in the mountains, Grand Duke Mikhail Romanov took the victory salute in 1864, celebrating the destruction of Circassia and the culmination of the colonisation of the Caucasus.
The Sochi Olympic Games were planned to coincide with the 150th anniversary of those celebrations, although, as it turned out afterwards, there was no specifically Circassian component planned for the event. The whole thing appeared to be – and indeed was – an attempt to comprehensively wipe the memory of the Circassian people from the history of these parts. But it had the opposite result.
“I’m a Circassian, are you?”
In 2007, the news from Guatemala announcing the choice of venue for the Olympics brought an instant reaction on the internet. At first, no one knew what to do about it, but soon a protest action was put together, demanding the recognition of the Russian Empire’s genocide of the Circassian people. This demand, breaking like thunder during the 1990s but gradually becoming quieter in the 2000s, spread through the international press.
These events gave new momentum to the process of integration in the Circassian community, mobilising the most active people. They also coincided with a campaign leading up to the 2010 Russian census, when the internet provided opportunities for publicity and recruiting of supporters, as well as coordinating activists’ efforts in other countries were used to their fullest.
Both these subjects later dropped from the headlines as the Circassian community’s attention switched to helping evacuate people from Syria, home to one of the largest Circassian diasporas in the world. Thanks to the efforts of private donors, coordinated through social media, around 2,000 Syrian Circassians were repatriated to their historic homeland, albeit as labour migrants and restricted by quotas originally allotted to Adygea and Kabardino-Balkaria.
This tragedy allowed the subject of Circassian repatriation to be raised with Moscow, but in 2012 it was already clear that Russia wasn’t interested in talks. The futility of hoping for a constructive dialogue with the current Russian government had already been proven.
Later, in correspondence with the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, a problem emerged: Syrian Circassians are nowhere officially treated as Circassians in Russia. This has complicated the assertion of their interests, which in its turn has reminded Russian Circassians of their own situation.
Today, when a new campaign for a single Russian language term for Circassian ethnic identity has started in the run up to Russia’s national census in 2020, a new hashtag, #ImACirassianAreYou (#яЧеркесАты)? has appeared - and a new resource devoted to this issue has been opened, a thematic mail-out has been organised and now there is an entire galaxy of Circassian groups on social media and messaging services, as well as close coordination with the media. Today’s technology and resources are reaching their target audiences so much more easily than nine years ago, helped, apart from anything else, by the appearance of smartphones.
The arrival on the internet of new people, including members of an older generation who knew life in the USSR and have little idea of today’s Circassian national discourse, makes it imperative to repeat a lot of stuff that internet veterans have known for ages. But at the same time, practically every Circassian family in Russia is now aware of the issues.
The prospects for nationalism
Boston University professor Liah Greenfeld, a leading specialist in nationalism, has written in her work Nationalism. Five Roads to Modernity, that “Nationalism is the foundation of today’s world... It is nationalism that has created our world as it is ... Nationalism is the defining principle of modernity”.
I have quoted this extract in order avoid explanations of why and in what context the term “Circassian nationalists” comes up. People involved in the creation or reconstruction of a nation are everywhere described as nationalists – before the nation has been built, at any rate. The idea of a nation has no meaning outside of nationalist discourse. And without a political nation it is impossible to build a modern democratic society.
The crisis that the Circassian community finds itself in can be resolved either by its complete destruction or an innovative breakthrough. Today’s unwilling pioneers are forced to operate in a terra incognita, as they have no examples to copy. Neither Jewish, Armenian, Irish or Tibetan experience are any use here as direct models, although they are all worthy of study, as is the role of Overseas Chinese in the rise of the Chinese economy.
The alternative to a totally predictable, dependable and ignominious disappearance after a bleak and wretched existence has to be a move into the unknown and experimentation.
This article was produced in partnership with OC-Media.
Get our weekly email