Moscow’s Effort to Debunk Circassian ‘Genocide’ Backfires

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 22

Russian efforts to discredit Circassian arguments that that nation was subjected to an act of “genocide” by Tsarist forces in 1864 in Sochi, the site of next February’s Winter Olympiad, have backfired on Moscow. Not only have Russian books and articles provided additional evidence that Tsarist forces did carry out “genocide” against the Circassians, but they have offered new information as well on other acts of “genocide” by the Russians against the peoples of the North Caucasus over the last two centuries. And perhaps most important, they have called into question the highly restrictive definition of the crime of “genocide” that Joseph Stalin insisted upon at the end of World War II in an effort to prevent anyone from ever holding Russia or the Soviet Union accountable for this most horrific of crimes.

In a new 7,500-word and heavily footnoted article, Yevgeny Bakhrevsky, a senior researcher at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, exemplifies the Russian effort to discredit those who are calling attention to Russia’s historical acts of “genocide” against the Circassians. And like that broader ongoing effort, his words unintentionally undermine the Stalinist definition of “genocide,” one that an ever greater number of scholars, international lawyers and governments now say prevents the international community from responding in an appropriate way to all forms of mass murder (

Like other Russian authors writing on the Circassian “genocide,” Bakhrevsky adopts a three-pronged attack.  First, he says that the events of 1864 do not fully correspond to the 1948 United Nations declaration and, in any case, took place almost a century before the international community recognized “genocide” as a crime. Because the Circassians had been fighting the Russian army, Russia’s killing of some of them and expulsion of others cannot legitimately be called a “genocide.” Circassians are using that term now as “an instrument of victimization” designed to mobilize that nation and to attract international support for its cause, the Institute for Strategic Studies researcher writes.

Second, in a variant of the “everybody does it” argument, Bakhrevsky provides a list of all the groups in the Caucasus who have claimed to have been victims of “genocide.”  In addition to the Circassians, these include the Armenians, the Azerbaijanis, the Mountain Jews, the Talysh, the Lezgins, the Kumyks, Karachays, Balkars, Nogais, Chechens, Ubykhs, Abazas, Ingush, Georgians, Abkhaz, Ossetians, Meskhetian Turks, Cossacks and ethnic Russians. Not only does such a list allow Bakhrevsky to say there were multiple causes and multiple perpetrators of mass murder and ethnic cleansing, thus distracting attention from the role of Russia, but it also guarantees that some who recognize one “genocide” will not be prepared to recognize another and thereby make it more difficult for the international community to take a united approach. Moreover, Bakhrevsky adds, many who claim to have been victims of “genocide” often seek to use such recognition as a “get out of jail free card,” allowing their own members to act as they wish afterwards.

And third, Bakhrevsky points out that “at the present moment,” the international community generally recognizes only three “genocides”: that of the Jews and Roma by the Nazis, that of Croatians and Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, and that of the Tutsi in Rwanda.  But even in these cases, he notes, “there are countries that cast doubt” on the appropriateness of applying the term “genocide” even to those three.  Thus, Iran does “not recognize the genocide of the Jews in the Third Reich and officially calls the Holocaust ‘a myth and a legend.’” Consequently, the Russian writer says, there is little will to extend the application of the term, especially if the events took place a long time ago and the possibility of an effective response beyond condemnation is not available.

But each of these arguments collapses upon examination. The definition of “genocide” the world now uses was, as Stanford scholar Norman Naimark shows, was the result of Soviet vetoes. As a review of his 2010 book, “Stalin’s Genocides,” points out, “All early drafts of the U.N. genocide convention included social and political groups in its definition. But one hand that wasn’t in the room guided the pen. The Soviet delegation vetoed any definition of genocide that might include the actions of its leader, Joseph Stalin. The Allies, exhausted by war, were loyal to their Soviet allies—to the detriment of subsequent generations” (

Moreover, Bakhrevsky’s discussion of the Circassians “genocide” constitutes “a non-denial denial,” a dismissal of the applicability of the term “genocide” but not the facts that that term covers. And lastly, as his ultimate defense against the application of Russian acts of “genocide” against the Circassians and other North Caucasians, the Russian writer points to Iranian objections to the Holocaust—a rather slim moral reed, indeed. And that, in turn, may be the least palatable aspect of Bakhrevsky’s argument: by denying that Russian forces committed “genocide” against the Circassians, he is providing an opening for genocide deniers more generally.