The Circassian-Russian conflict over historical monuments has resurfaced again, with the chairperson of the Council of Elders of the Circassian Cultural Diaspora in Moscow, Yuri Agirbov, lodging an official complaint over the public statements of a popular Russian designer, businessman, and blogger, Artemiy Lebedev. According to Agirbov’s lawyer, the Russian Security Service (FSB) is conducting a preliminary review of the complaint. The Circassian activist has asked the investigators to charge Lebedev with extremism, hate crimes, and the “desecration of the symbols of military glory.” Agirbov argues that the Russian blogger denigrated Circassians and the symbolic monument in Volgogrod dedicated to World War II, “Motherland Calls!” (RIA Novosti, September 11).
At the start of July, the administration of the Black Sea resort town of Sochi dismantled a monument commemorating the Russian soldiers who conquered the area in the 19th century. The memorial “Monument to the Feat of Russian Soldiers” had been erected in late June at the site of a fortress that was reportedly established by Russian troops in 1837, during the Russian-Circassian War. The monument featured a pedestal with a relief of a miniature map of the historical fort. After multiple protests from Circassian activists, however, local authorities decided to take down the monument (see EDM, July 9). The leader of the Circassian organization in the Krasnodar region, Majid Chachukh, expressed his satisfaction with the authorities’ decision. For Circassians, the Russian-Circassian War—which their ancestors ultimately lost, resulting in massively negative consequences for their nation—such monuments bring up painful memories. Far from being confrontational, Chachukh suggested that, instead of the divisive memorial, the authorities should put up a unifying symbol for Russians and Circassians (Kavkazsky Uzel, July 8).
In their turn, some Russian nationalists were quite adamant about defending the demolished Sochi monument. Young members of the Russian Democrats organization held a small protest in St. Petersburg. The demonstrators notably accused Circassian activism of bearing similarities to the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States (Politnavigator, July 15). In turn, the aforementioned blogger Artemiy Lebedev produced a short video denigrating the Circassians using expletives and also claiming that protests in the US were a bad influence on Russian society (YouTube, July 27). Some bloggers came up with their own videos, countering Lebedev’s insults (YouTube, July 19).
Less than a month after this scandal, Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded the medal of the Order “For Services to the Fatherland” (Za Zaslugi Pered Otechestvom II) to Lebedev (Lenta.ru, August 29). Circassian activists promptly launched a petition to recall the state award. The authors of the address also noted that the policy of glorifying tsarist generals who killed many people in the Caucasus comes from Putin himself. They suggested that the Kremlin leader wants to divide the peoples of the Russian Federation by fueling nationalism in order to prolong his tenure in power (Change.org, accessed September 17). Lebedev shot back with another expletive-filled video. The Russian blogger alleged that, during the 19th century, the Circassians were engaged in the slave trade while Russians were purportedly only protecting themselves and Ukrainians (whom he called “Little Russians”) from being abducted (YouTube, September 10).
Historical myths in Russia about savage Caucasus peoples and other native populations in the conquered territories continue to be regurgitated and renewed. This widely popularized narrative usually portrays the subjugated nations as backward and uncivilized, while the Russian influence was supposedly always benign and benevolent. The conquest of the North Caucasus usually is termed as “accession” or “joining” of these territories to Russia. The usage of essentially genocidal practices by the Russian Empire, such as the spread of famine, disease, mass killings and expulsions, is usually dropped from the Russian version of the history of the North Caucasus.
In the case of Circassians, for example, it is well known among historians that, since at least the reign of Catherine II the Great in the 18th century, up until the early 20th century, the Russian Empire harbored a desire to conquer and control the Bosporus and the Dardanelles in northwestern Turkey. The waterway connects the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Moreover, at the time of the Russian-Caucasian war, a large portion of the Russian population was subjected to serfdom. Serfs were formally freed only in 1861. So, the claim that the Russian conquest of the Caucasus was driven by the need to end slavery is highly dubious.
As a result of the Russian subjugation of the North Caucasus in the 19th century, the Circassian population of the region was decimated. According to estimates, only around 5 percent of the prewar Circassians survived and stayed in their homeland, the rest were killed, starved to death, or were expelled to the Ottoman Empire. The last fierce battles between the Russian army and Circassian groups were fought around modern-day Sochi, on the Black Sea coast. With little international support and no modern military equipment or organization, the small Circassian nation stood no chance against one of the leading world powers of that period. Circassian activists have called on the Russian government to recognize the actions of the Russian Empire as “genocide” to no avail.
The modern Russian state’s failure to address the historical grievances of the Circassians has created new anger and misunderstandings. Tensions over erecting monuments for historical figures throughout the North Caucasus have been building for years (see EDM, September 26, 2013, March 30, 2015, November 8, 2016). Over time, the conflict has sharpened and become increasingly intractable, with no end in sight. Instead of addressing these issues, Moscow appears to be taking a distinctly repressive approach to the view of history. Illustratively, the Russian Investigative Committee recently established a special unit that will fight “history falsification” (RBC, September 10). For now, it seems the unit will focus mainly on the history of World War II; but nothing prevents the repressive apparatus of the Russian state from eventually starting to prosecute minorities for their views of the past.