On May 20-21, Circassian activists around the world commemorated the 148th anniversary of the end of the Russian-Circassian war in 1864. As the Winter Olympics in the former Circassian territory of Sochi approach, the Circassians’ historic memory and its political reverberations have also intensified. Even Circassian officials in the North Caucasus who are essentially pro-Russian now have to show some support for the historical grievances that are becoming more widespread among the Circassians. At a recent gathering of an estimated 3,000 people in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, the republican minister for culture, Ruslan Firov, stated that the Caucasian war put the Circassian people on the brink of extinction. Republican officials were anxious to reiterate contemporary Circassians’ peaceful attitude toward Russia and the Russians, but their very observance of the anniversary of the end of the Russian-Circassian war inarguably contributed to giving official status to Circassian grievances (https://kabardino-balkaria.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/206913/, May 21). In Adygea, the commemorative event gathered 300 people, and a monument to the victims of the Caucasus war of the 19th century was dedicated in the village of Ulyap (https://adygeia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/206924/, May 21). The anniversary of the war’s end was celebrated even in the Russian-speaking Krasnodar region, the area from which the Circassians were practically removed completely in the 19th century (https://www.aheku.org/page-id-3017.html, May 22). Circassians also held rallies in Turkey, the United States and Europe to mark the anniversary.
Unexpectedly, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, where ethnic Circassians comprise a minority, was the republic where local officials reportedly made the boldest statements. The head of the republic, Rashid Temrezov, an ethnic Karachay, stated that the capital of the republic, Chekessk, should have a monument to the victims of the war in the Caucasus. More importantly, Temrezov, referring to the Circassians and other ethnic groups that were expelled from their homeland in the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire, stated: “We must win the right for those who want to return to their historic homeland, retain their language, [and] teach their children Caucasian etiquette” (https://karachaevo-cherkesia.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/206914/, May 21).
The less complacent Circassians now have a neighboring country where they can freely express their feelings toward their tragic past – Georgia. On May 20, 53 people from Adygea, Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria set out for Georgia to participate in the events scheduled there (https://ratmistr.livejournal.com/2962878.html, May 20). On May 21, celebrations of the 148th anniversary of the Russian-Circassian war’s end took place in the Georgian resort-city of Anaklia, which is situated on the Black Sea coast in close proximity to the ancestral lands of the Circassians. As part of the celebrations, an exhibition featured Russian Imperial archival materials that are stored in Georgia. Eyewitness accounts from the 19th century noted that corpses of Circassians were scattered along the Black Sea coast for hundreds of miles following the final Russian conquest of the area. Relying on solid historical evidence, coming mostly from Russia’s own sources, the Georgian parliament officially recognized the Circassian “genocide” in May 2011. On May 21, 2012, the Georgian State Ministry for Diaspora Affairs, Tbilisi-based Circassian Cultural Center and Ilia State University held a conference on the results of the Georgian recognition of the Circassian “genocide” (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/206940/, May 22). This year, even mainstream Western media paid some attention to the Circassian issue: the radio program The World, co-produced by WGBH-Boston, Public Radio International and the BBC World Service, featured a program on the Circassians on May 21 (https://www.theworld.org/2012/05/circassian-nation/, May 21). Oliver Bullough, author of a landmark book on the Circassian issue, “Let Our Fame Be Great,” published an article on the issue in Newsweek magazine (https://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/05/20/sochi-2014-winter-olympics-the-circassians-cry-genocide.html, May 21).
The Russian government’s response to rising Circassian activism in the North Caucasus and abroad has been best exemplified by a recent report from the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. The report, titled “The ‘Circassian’ Question and the External Factor,” was unveiled in Moscow on May 16. In it, Russian experts specified the causes of the Circassian issue that pose a danger to Russian security in the North Caucasus. First, according to the authors, “a network of radical Circassian organizations” has been formed, largely due to advances in communication technologies. Second, Georgia’s recognition of the Circassian “genocide” made the issue much more acute. Third, the authors of the report highlighted the role of the Jamestown Foundation, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America in airing the Circassian issue – which, according to the report’s authors, would otherwise have had no significance (https://www.riss.ru/?newsId=659, May 21). While indulging in the conspiracy theory that Western governments are trying to undermine Russia’s position in the North Caucasus, the Russian experts dismissed the importance of the Circassian question, saying it would eventually fade away after the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Yet, they called on the government to counter what they described as a fairly successful Georgian strategy in the North Caucasus that is already making locals consider imitating Georgia’s reforms in their respective regions (https://www.regnum.ru/news/polit/1532239.html#ixzz1vOQwSahK, May 18).
The overwhelming response among the North Caucasian Circassians to any sign of external support for the Circassian cause is inevitable, but it is not related to malevolent external actors. Rather, it elucidates the climate of fear in the North Caucasus, which keeps the public from discussing important questions freely. So when there is external support, people in the region are grateful. The proper answer to the Circassian issue for Russia would be at the very least to democratize and liberalize the North Caucasus, including the Circassian lands. Unfortunately, the current political regime in Moscow largely precludes such developments in the near future, so we are likely to hear more conspiracy theories and see more pressure put on Circassian activists in the North Caucasus.