On November 21, the authorities in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi erected a monument to Russian Tsar Alexander II. The monument was part of a larger project called the Alley of Russian Fame (Alleya Rossiyskoy Slavy). The head of the project, Mikhail Serdyukov, told the Kavkazsky Uzel website that “the primary merit of Alexander II was that he concluded a long and bloody Caucasian war and started the economic assimilation of the Caucasus. We think that Sochi is the most appropriate place for such a monument.” The city authorities, however, have ignored the opinion of the indigenous population of the area, the Circassians (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 20).
Majid Chachukh, a Circassian (Shapsug) activist in Krasnodar region, of which Sochi is a part, told Kavkazsky Uzel that he learned about the monument from news reports days before it was unveiled and said the Circassian community was against erecting such a monument in an area where thousands of their ancestors were slaughtered. “The city administration should have acted more tactfully, for example, by asking the opinion of the indigenous population,” he said. “Perhaps a monument could be erected—after all, Alexander II is a historical figure, who did much good for Russia—but they should not have forgotten about our dead ancestors. They cannot ignore us, as if our nation does not exist at all.” Another Circassian activist, Aranbiy Khapai told Kavkazsky Uzel that the authorities should have erected a monument to the Russian tsar in St. Petersburg, but not in Sochi, where the Russian army exterminated the Circassians. The respected Russian academic ethnographer Sergei Arutyunov said that Tsar Alexander II was indeed known for his progressive reforms, especially the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861, but that there were no serfs in Sochi, so the purpose of the monument was not clear at all (Kavkazsky Uzel, November 20).
Circassians were once the largest ethnic group in the North Caucasus and dominated the region, especially the central and the western parts. However, after the Russian state conquered the region in a long and bloody war that spanned the 18th and 19th centuries, the Circassians were reduced to a small ethnic group in the area. After dealing the final blow to Circassian forces near modern-day Sochi in 1864, the Russian government expelled the remaining Circassian population and replaced them with Cossacks and ethnic Russians, who were quickly dispatched to the area. By 1870, an estimated 2 percent of the Circassians’ prewar population remained in their homeland (Onkavkaz.com, December 1). The rest were either killed, starved to death or expelled to the Ottoman Empire. Currently, the Circassian diaspora in Turkey is several times larger than the Circassian population remaining in the North Caucasus. Even within the North Caucasus, the Circassians are split among four regions, which also irritates many Circassian activists.
Discussion of their lost homeland has become especially popular among Circassians due to the ongoing war in Syria, which has influenced Circassian self-consciousness in a big way. Since Syria used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, it had a substantial Circassian population. After the war started there, Circassians pushed for the evacuation of the estimated 100,000 Circassians in the affected areas. However, Moscow allowed only a handful of the Syrian Circassians—about 1,000—to resettle in their homeland. Moreover, they do not have full residency rights, and constantly have to pay various fees as temporary residents (Facebook.com/psekups.kulokova, December 1).
Given the Circassians’ historical losses, the Russian government adds insult to injury by commemorating the Russian political figures who were especially keen on effacing the Circassians from their homeland—including Tsar Alexander II, General Ivan Lazarev and others. Today, Circassians comprise less than 0.5 percent of the total population of their historical areas, such as the Krasnodar region. They are also a minority in Adygea, where they are about a quarter of the total population, and in Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Only in the easternmost republic with a Circassian population, Kabardino-Balkaria, are Circassians the majority. The demographic retreat of the Circassians from their homeland that Russia engineered is already quite stressful for many Circassians to recall, but propagandistic actions like installing monuments dedicated to Russian heroes and Circassian foes in historically Circassian areas makes it even harder for them to swallow. Indeed, some Circassian activists equate Russian policies in the region with fascism (Facebook, December 1).
The Russian policy of supplanting the memory of Circassians in their homeland with Russian cultural artifacts may seem to be a natural policy for the conquerors to pursue. However, it certainly does not help to improve interethnic relations in southern Russia or produce a sustainable peace.