Moscow’s Favoritism Towards Cossacks Mocks Circassian History

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 30

On July 19, the Circassian republic of Adygea marked the 90th anniversary of the 131st motorized rifle brigade of Cossacks located in Maykop, the region’s capital. Although this Cossack brigade is a regular part of the Russian armed forces it does have one distinguishing characteristic. Regular recruits cannot be enlisted in this brigade because only those who can prove that they are hereditary Cossacks and who grew up in the Caucasus can become members of the 131st brigade.

The history of this brigade dates back to Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus and in this particular case to the Russo-Circassian war of 19th century. That war lasted 101 years and resulted in the ethnic cleansing and massive deportation of the Circassians, but won the Cossacks the best lands of the Northeastern Caucasus and complete freedom of behavior. The fate of the remaining Circassians, who were mainly helpless elderly people, women and children, was in the hands of the Cossacks, who surely did not treat them with excessive consideration. The Cossacks continued ethnic cleansing and mass violence targeting the defeated and almost entirely (close to 90 percent) annihilated people even after Russia’s official victory over Circassia in 1864. The operating motto of the butcher of the Caucasus, General Yermolov, was to leave no one alive who could raise a sword against Russia for the next 200 years and thereby turn a lion into a lamb. This motto was primarily meant for the Northeastern Caucasus and the Cossacks implemented it with a zeal that often went beyond the requirements of their military mandate. Unthinkable methods were used against the Circassians in order to break the spirit of the survivors. These barbaric practices included the deliberate spread of infectious diseases in the population, the destruction of crops and gardens and wholesale slaughter of domestic animals. As a result of these draconian measures entire villages perished from hunger.

The Cossacks used to say that a Circassian and a horse together cannot be defeated, and that is why one of the main tactics entailed the expropriation of horses from the Circassians. According to recorded accounts from the older generation of Circassians, Cossack brigades often encircled the Circassian villages at night and by dawn they would visit every courtyard and shoot the horses. For the Circassians, in whose language a horse and a brother are denoted by the same word, this was a real tragedy, similar to the loss of a family member. The systematic elimination of Circassian horses also took place during the years of Stalin when, under the pretext of confiscation, entire herds of thoroughbred racing horses were driven away and killed for meat, which was used in the production of sausages. In some Circassian regions today there are places called “Horse’s Tear,” which is how Circassian people kept memory of the locations of mass slaughter of innocent animals. This practice led to a catastrophic situation by the early 1980s, when the once famous Circassian horses numbered only in the dozens.

Assassinations, abductions and violence were essential elements of Cossack raids everywhere. The Cossack troops received the highest regalia from the Tsarist government for ridding the Northwestern Caucasus of the Circassians. The 131st Maykop Cossack brigade is the most decorated: from the Tsarist government it inherited the order of the famous Russian Field Marshal Kutuzov and from the Soviet authorities it received the order of the Red Star.

This historical background is necessary in order to explain the 90th anniversary of the 131st motorized rifle brigade of Cossacks celebrated in Maykop on July 19. The descendants of the most irreconcilable enemies together commemorated the jubilee. Does this mean that we can now speak of the triumph of tolerance and the Communist period’s legacy of “friendship among peoples”? More evidence exists to the contrary, because friendship can truly exist only between equals; otherwise, it is a result of either obeying orders or gratification. It is impossible to call the Cossacks and Circassians equals either in Adygea or in any other Circassian republic. The privileged position of the Cossacks in the Caucasus is legitimized in the Russian Constitution. The Cossacks have the right to possess and carry weapons—something that is a criminal act if done by members of other ethnic groups. Cossack children enjoy privileges when it comes to admission into military academies, and they can serve their mandatory military service at home while all other young people, upon reaching the age of 18, must serve in military units located outside their native regions. The list of state privileges bestowed upon the Cossacks is a long one, but two of them are worth noting. In accordance with a special law, the head of each region in the Caucasus must have an advisor on Cossack affairs on his staff and a budget for supporting the Cossacks, while the first deputy head of the local administration in every settlement must be a Cossack ataman. There are no similar special privileges for any other people in the region. Thus the celebration in Maykop was not a celebration of friendship between Cossacks and Circassians.

A special government commission was set up in Adygea to prepare for the anniversary. The budget for the jubilee was never made public, but the press service of the government of Adygea reported regularly about the commission’s meetings and decisions. There were also no reports from the site of the celebration on local television even though the president of Republic of Adygea, Aslan Tkhakushinov, accompanied by the republic’s entire cabinet of ministers, attended it. Other dignitaries invited to the celebration from various regions included Krasnodar Krai Governor Aleksandr Tkachov, Moscow Oblast Governor Boris Gromov and the head of the Russian armed forces’ North Caucasus Military District, Sergei Makarov. The pompous jubilee, which included an awards ceremony, a parade by the Cossack brigade and a concert, was held for a small circle of officials in a closed zone of the 131st brigade’s compound. The authorities simply did not dare to bring the holiday to the streets of Maykop.

The local authorities, who follow the Kremlin’s instructions and ignore the will of the people, have accumulated enough experience of dismal failures from similar events. But first we need to go back in time. We have briefly outlined the history of the Russo-Circassian war above. Yet the present state of affairs also demands a brief background introduction. First of all, Russia never acknowledged its responsibility for crimes against the Circassian people or took steps to make up for these crimes. On the contrary, Russia impeded and continues to impede the repatriation and establishment of ties between the Circassians of the Caucasus and their diaspora abroad. As a result, only about three percent of Circassians reside in their historical homeland, while 97 percent are in the diaspora communities abroad. A declaration about recognition of the genocide that Circassian organizations sent to the president of Russia and the State Duma was categorically rejected. Adygea’s political status as a republic has been under the threat of disappearance for the fourth year in a row now. Only fear of mass riots and the pressure from the influential Circassian diaspora in Jordan forced the Kremlin to delay the official process of merging Adygea and Krasnodar Krai.

However, the aggressive absorption of the region by the neighboring territory continues covertly. The Kremlin hypocritically vows not to revoke Adygea’s status as a republic while practically all state structures have been officially transferred to the jurisdiction of Krasnodar and their representative offices in Adygea have either lost their status or simply been disbanded. In addition, discrimination against Circassians is especially evident in the cultural sphere. There is a constitutional ban on the official use of the Circassian language at all state institutions. It is clear that the complete infringement of civil and ethnic rights cannot have a positive impact on a people’s social esteem. Similarly, the state’s hypocritical nationalities policy cannot contribute to friendship between the Cossacks and the Circassians. Not only the Circassians, but all indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus view the Cossacks with suspicion and caution. In the eyes of the local population, an armed-to-the-teeth Cossack is a descendant of those who killed and raped their ancestors and is likely to do so again if he receives a corresponding order from the Kremlin.

This situation explains why the authorities decided not to turn the anniversary of the 131st Cossack brigade into a people’s holiday: they would simply have failed to compel people to celebrate something that the local officials commemorate only because they are bound by duty.

The reckless Soviet and then Russian governments tried a number of times to impose common values, but all such attempts ended in failures. One example is the village of Lazarevskoye, which was named in honor of Mikhail Lazarev, the Russian admiral who distinguished himself by notable sadism in burning Circassian villages on the Black Sea coast. Lazarevskoye was a Shapsug village (the Shapsugs belong to a branch of the Circassian people that was essentially destroyed) that rose from ashes, and the Russians renamed it in honor of its executioner. However, the monument to Lazarev has not remained in the village unmolested for even a month. Despite being guarded, the monument has been repeatedly thrown off its pedestal and destroyed or covered with paint. The authorities, with the same stubbornness, refurbish it. The standoff has continued for years. There are many examples of this kind and they cannot be categorized merely as acts of vandalism, which is how they are portrayed by the Russian authorities. This is the response of a people deprived of its right to have its own history. And if responses like this continue to multiply, the entire responsibility for this will rest only with the Kremlin.