Monday, February 11, 2013

Window on Eurasia: ‘Greater Circassia’ from an NKVD Invention to a National Dream?

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 11 – Circassians, even those who aspire to the restoration of their common homeland in the North Caucasus, do not use the term “Great Circassia.” That word combination does not exist in their language, but the term was used by the NKVD in the 1930s in fabricated cases and is used now by Russian and Balkar opponents of the Circassians.

            In an attempt to find out whether contemporary references to it are “smoke without fire” or whether instead there is “some sort of ‘fire’ in them,” Avraam Shmulyevich, Israel-based expert on the Caucasus, interviewed two Circassians, Almir Abregov, a historian in Maikop, and Aslan Beshto, an activist now in Nalchik (

            A former academic secretary of the Abkhaz State Museum and director of the National Museum of the Republic of Adygeya, Abregov said that “neither as an historian nor as a reader of historical leadership had [he] ever encountered any term like ‘Greater Circassia.’” And he said he is convinced that no document with that term exists, with one notable set of exceptions.

            The term, he said, is “a fabrication” which was used by the NKVD during the 1930s as an invented charge “against scholars, thinkers, historians, philosophers, linguists, and party leaders” from Circassian areas in the North Caucasus.  Abregov said he had first encountered its use by the Soviet security forces involving a first secretary of the Abkhaz oblast party committee who was repressed in 1937.
            According to the secret police files, this party official, whose name was Vladimir Ladaria, had formed an underground organization to create “Greater Circassia,” detach that land from the Soviet Union, and transfer it to Turkish control.  Abregov said he was surprised that the NKVD didn’t talk about Ladaria pursuing a Greater Abkhazia, but then he realized why: the police at that time had come up with “Greater Circassia” and applied it as equivalent to “enemy of the people” across the region.

            Given this origin of the term, the Circassian historian said, he was surprised when certain people inside and outside of Circassian areas began to talk in recent years about “’Greater Circassia,’ about the existence of which the Circassians themselves did not even suspect.”  One can only guess, he said, to what purpose such calls might again be put.

            “It seems to me,” he said, “that the time has come for the leaders of Adygey (Circassian) organizations to show some interest [in this question] and clarify when, where and by whom was begun the renewal of this old and so false and terrible idea which led to the shedding of blood” among the peoples of the Caucasus.

            That is all the more immediately the case, the Circassian historian continued, because “again cases are being fabricated against the Adygey elite” and Circassians in general “must know about this.”

            The first new references to a “Great Circassia,” Abregov said, were made not by Circassians but by the leaders of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya as part of their effort to block “the process of the exit of Adygeya from Krasnodar kray and its transformation into a [separate] republic.”  One can only guess where they got this idea from the 1930s!

            Abregov said that he feels it would be “unwise” to begin to talk about “any territorial pretensions against the republics of the North Caucasus” which the restoration of a single Circassia would require because “this would mean the beginning of a war of all against all” and no one would benefit.

            But he said that to the extent that Circassians were justified in talking about the restoration of “the land of Circassia” with one qualification. It should never be referred to as “Greater” because that name has been given it not by the friends of the Circassians but by their enemies past and present who want to suggest that the Circassians want to destroy Russia.

            “The idea of restoring the former historical-cultural space of the Adygs [Circassians] undoubtedly lives in the hearts of the Adygs,” Abregov said, and its achievement “must become and perhaps already has become the task of Circassian activists.”

            One such activist, Aslan Beshto, the former president of Adyge Khasa in Abkhazia who now lives in Nalchik, agreed with Abregov’s analysis, but he insisted that “Circassia must be territorially reestablished in its borders” and that he does not see “any alternative to that” however difficult it may be.

            “The first phase” of the resolution of that task, he continued, is the recognition of the genocide that was committed against the Circassians in the 1860s.  It was a good thing that Georgia did this, but “the most important thing” is that “the genocide of the Circassianpeople is [now] recognized above all by the Circassian people itself.”

            Restoring the territory of Circassia won’t be easy, “but it is not beyond resolution,” Beshto insisted, especially because “none of the Circassians asserts that Circassia must be mono-ethnic.”  The Circassian people have a tradition of welcoming representatives of other nations to their homeland, and that view continues.

            The borders of Circassia should be those of 1763, “at the moment of the beginning of the Russian-Caucasian War.”  That land would include all the Circassian areas either depopulated by the Russian Imperial authorities or divided up and persecuted by the Soviets. And it would be much larger than any of them now, although not so large as to justify the term “greater.”

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