Circassians in Turkey commemorating an anniversary of the Russian genocide of their people in 1864 (Image: worldbulletin.net)
One hundred sixty-two years ago today, tsarist forces defeated the Circassians in the North Caucasus after the latter had successfully resisted the Russian advance for 101 years and then the Russian government expelled most of them to the Ottoman Empire, completing the genocidal policy that St. Petersburg had decided upon early on.
Russian officials to this day can’t admit this not only because to do so would allow many of the five million Circassians in the diaspora to return home, changing the ethnic balance in the North Caucasus away from Moscow, and because such honesty would inevitably provoke more questions about Russia’s imperial policies elsewhere.
But on this anniversary in particular, one that pro-Moscow groups even more in the past are seeking to limit the commemoration of within Russia and beyond and to confuse the issue in the minds of many, Ukrainians should take the lead in recognizing what Russia did as genocide not only on moral grounds but because of the role Circassians have played in Ukrainian history.
That is the thrust of an article by Avraam Shmulyevich, an Israeli expert on the Caucasus, in a message to Ukrainians on the TSN news portal. It is one with which people of good will in Ukraine, Russia and around the world can only agree.
The Israeli scholar points out that the Circassians resisted the expansion of Russian power in the Caucasus longer than anyone else, from 1763 to 1864, thus earning the grudging respect of those who took part in the battles against them but also the undying hatred of the Russian state which decided that it could only hold the region by getting rid of its residents.
Already in September 1829, Shmulyevich says, Nicholas I wrote that “having finished one glorious task [the war with Turkey], we now have another, just as complicated and in terms of direct benefit to us much more important the suppression of all the mountain peoples and the destruction of the disobedient.”
Nicholas I did not live to see that day; and Russia’s greatest poet, Aleksandr Pushkin in his “Passage to Arzrum” put the Russian “task” even more clearly: “The Circassians,” he wrote, “hate us. We have driven them out of their customary fields, their auls have been burned, whole tribes have been destroyed.”
As a result, the poet continued, “there is almost no way to pacify [the Circassians] even after they are disarmed as were disarmed the Crimean Tatars.
At the end of the 101-year war, the Russian army in the North Caucasus numbered some 300,000 men and was suffering annual losses of 30,000. The Russian state was spending a sixth of its budget on the task of defeating the Circassians and their allies, and it was prepared to be brutal, Shmulyevich says.
“In the course of military operations,” he writes, “the Russian army burned auls together with their residents,” and it “widely applied the tactic of the terror famine [holodomor] by destroying crops and reserves of food, condemning the mountaineers to hunger.” And not least, “the tsarist government took the decision to completely cleanse the Caucasus from its indigenous residents, the Circassians, to physically destroy an entire people.”
Those it couldn’t destroy in this way, the tsarist authorities decided, must be expelled beyond the borders of the empire. As one Russian general put it, the Russian state needs the lands of the Circassians, but it has no need for the Circassian people and so they must be killed or expelled.
Tsarist historians had no problem talking about this and about the losses involved. According to Russian government accounts of those times, more than 400,000 Circassians were killed and 497,000 forced to leave the empire. From what had been an autochthonian nation in the region of more than a million remained “about 80,000” Circassians.
A large number of Circassians who were expelled to the Ottoman Empire, Shmulyevich says, never made it to their destination. Only about a third of those who were put on ships in Sochi arrived alive on the other side of the Black Sea. The rest died from hunger, disease, and drowning [Some reports say that entire shiploads of Circassian refugees who boarded Russian ships on their way to exile “disappeared” and were never seen or heard of again. – Ed.].
This was an obvious case of genocide, the physical destruction of a people on the basis of its identity alone. Unfortunately, the Russian authorities continue to deny that their predecessors committed a genocide and have gone further by dividing up the Circassian nation into five parts in five different administrative districts.
Circassians– and they number more than 500,000 in the North Caucasus and five million in the diaspora — Shmulyevich notes, are “struggling for unity, for the right to return to their historical Motherland, for the preservation of their culture and historical memory and for recognition of the most horrible crimes committed against them – genocide and a terror famine.”
For a variety of reasons, the Israeli analyst continues, “the much suffering Ukrainian people–as no one else–can with sympathy and understanding relate to the tragedy of the Circassian people which has been deprived of its rights to return to its Motherland and even to the right of historical memory.
There are ancient ties between Ukrainians and Circassians, he says. Indeed, the Circassians played a major role in the ethnogenesis of the Ukrainian nation. That is obvious from the toponym “Cherkassy,” but there is far more to these links than that.
“Many groups of Circassians who settled in Ukraine became part of the Ukrainian people,” he writes. Circassians first came to Ukraine in the ninth century as is mentioned in the chornicles, and as people with a longstanding military tradition even then, they helped form the Cossacks of the region.
In the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, there were “several waves of Circassian military emigration” to Ukraine; and these settles “assimilated among the constantly increasing Slavic population” as shown by the use of ending “-ko” which in Circassian means “son of” and the appearance of Ukrainian names of Circassian origin like Mazepa.
More recently, Circassians were to be found in the ranks of the Ukrainian Partisan Army (UPA) resisting Moscow, Shmulyevich says; and the Circassians have also developed “very close relations with the Crimean Tatars.”
In 2011, Georgia became the first country to officially recognize what the Russians did to the Circassians as genocide. Now, Ukrainians should become the second, the Israeli analyst argues, not only on moral grounds but also for deeply practical ones.
“A country battling foreign aggression needs to find new friends,” he writes, “and the Caucasus can become an ally of Ukraine against imperial Moscow.” The Ukrainian parliament should recognize this reality and adopt a resolution recognizing the Russian treatment of the Circassians as genocide.
“May 21,” he concludes, “is a day of sorry and memory not only of the Circassian people but of all peoples who have become victims of the pitiless and destructive Russian colonialism, victims of Russian aggression.”
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