Staunton, February 4 – Three days before the opening of the Winter Olympiad at the site of the expulsion and death of Circassians 150 years ago, Russia’s senior ethnographer acknowledges that this was “an enormous tragedy” in the history of the Circassians but that it was not a genocide in modern terms and that calls for “historical justice” cannot be realized.
In an essay on the Nazacent.ru portal yesterday, Academician Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, says the tsarist authorities did not have as their goal the extermination of the Circassians but rather the establishment of Russian control on the Black Sea coast (nazaccent.ru/column/26/).
And the Moscow ethnographer argues that the Circassians themselves and the Ottoman government for a variety of reasons, including economic, political and religious ones, sought to leave what had become part of the Russian Empire, thus further limiting the responsibility of the Russian authorities for what took place.
Despite that and what he says is the impossibility of the restoration of “historical justice,” Tishkov says the “Circassian question” is being “politicized” and used, especially in advance of Sochi, “by those interested in weakening Russia and provoking inter-ethnic and inter-religious strife in the Caucasus region.”
Since Vancouver, what Tishkov calls “the Circassian question” has attracted ever greater attention internationally and in the North Caucasus, the historical homeland of the Circassian peoples. In the last few days alone, there have been articles about and demonstrations in support of the Circassians in the US, Europe, Turkey, the Middle East, and even China and Japan.
Academician Tishkov has provided the intellectual foundation for Russian rejections of Circassian arguments that what happened in Sochi in 1864 constituted a genocide and that Russia must both acknowledge that crime and restore historical justice by allowing the return of Circassians to their home area and the restoration of a single Circassian republic there.
Tishkov’s new article thus represents a summation of his views and provides some clues as to the ways Moscow is likely to counter the Circassians whose national movement has taken off over the last several years and especially to deprive that nation of the support it has been garnering from other countries.
In an article entitled “The Results of the Caucasus War and the Resettlement of the Mountaineers of the Caucasus,” Tishkov says that what took place 150 years ago was a complicated outgrowth of the century-long war between the Russian Empire and the predominantly Muslim North Caucasians.
Unfortunately, he continues, this complexity has been ignored and the issues involved “often politicized” for a variety of goals, including “anti-Russian ones.”
Tishkov begins his essay with a discussion of “muhajir,” the term the Circassians and other North Caucasians have used to describe themselves. This word, he says, “has an Arabic origin (referring to resettlement, emigration, and exile) and an Islamic historical-religious connotation.”
In the middle of the 19th century, those in the North Caucasus who were forced as a result of the advance of Russian forces to leave their native villages and then the Caucasus as a whole adopted this term in order to link themselves “with the heroes of early Islam” who fled with the Prophet Mohammed “from pagan Mecca to Yasrib, the future Muslim Medina.”
When Russian forces conquered the North Caucasus, Tishkov says, they adopted a series of policies intended to integrate the region “into the state organism of the Russian Empire. The underlying principle of [Petersburg’s] Caucasian policy became centralization and the unification of the region with the all-Russian legal and administrative system.”
Among Circassians, the idea of flight from Russia grew out of their earlier experiences of fleeing from their homes when Russian forces had conquered them. Consequently, Tishkov argues, everyone involved in the Caucasian wars “used mass displacement of the population for political goals, including the Circassians themselves.
In Tishkov’s telling, “the Circassians found themselves before a choice: either to remain on lands controlled by Russian forces or to move to Turkish ones,” and “the initiative for mass emigration ... most often came from the Circassian elite” which had lost its power with the end of serfdom and Muslim leaders who “didn’t want to remain under an Orthodox tsar.”
Turkey too was interested in promoting Circassian emigration from the North Caucasus, and the muhajir movement “became part of the continuing Russian-Turkish competition in the Near East which was exacerbated by the actions of the Western powers who were trying to weaken Russia.
The Ottomans used the Circassian arrivals to boost the share of Muslims in portions of their empire that were heavily Christian, to engage in punitive actions against those and other peoples of the empire who sought independence, and to boost the war-fighting ability of their own army.
But Tishkov says, the Ottomans did not always treat the Circassian arrivals well and many Circassians sought to return from what they had been assured as a “Turkish paradise” back to Russia. At the same time, Russian forces were glad to see the Muhajirs leave because that made establishing control over the North Caucasus easier.
“The mass emigration and high level of mortality during [this process] undoubtedly is an enormous tragedy in the history of the Circassian people,” Tishkov says. “However, the tsarist government hardly made its goal the elimination of the Circassians.” Rather, “its main task” was to “secure the Black Sea coast” within “the new borders of the empire.”
The actions of the Russian side, the Moscow ethnographer continues, “thus cannot in any way be considered as a genocide in the strictly juridical understanding” established by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention” because the Russian authorities “did not have and could not have an intention to exterminate the Caucasian peoples.”
Despite this history, Tishkov argues, “historical memory about the mujahid idea remains alive in the Circassian diaspora abroad and in the Western Caucasus,” and it is “actively used for political purposes by those interested in the weakening of Russia and the exacerbation of inter-ethnic and inter-confessional strife” in the region.
Moreover, he says, “the calls of irresponsible populist politician who have been interfering in the internal affairs of the Russian Federation to restore “historic justice’” are “impossible to realize” because the Circassians abroad have integrated into the societies in which they live and the Caucasus has changed so much.
Many who read Tishkov’s words are likely to conclude that there wasn’t a genocide, that the Circassians, Turks and Western powers are as much to blame for what happened as are the Russians, and that any quest for justice by a group that he describes almost exclusively in Islamic terms is dangerous.
In a world where many see balance as the same thing as objectivity, Tishkov’s argument is certainly going to be used both in Russia and the West where many will find all or part of it persuasive or at least a justification for rejecting Circassian claims as little more than part of the Islamist challenge in the war of civilizations. Indeed, Tishkov’s narrative may become dominant.
But Circassians, their supporters and many students of the history of the Caucasus know that there would have been no emigration and no mass deaths had their not been Russian aggression against their nation in the first place, and they are unlikely to be reassured by the idea that Russian forces only wanted to pacify their territories rather than expel or kill them.
Consequently, the argument Tishkov makes may give Moscow some temporary advantages – given how close the opening of the Sochi Olympiad, that may be all that some in Moscow care about – but it does so only at the price of exacerbating divisions that the Moscow ethnographer says are the fault of others.