Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Western Powers, Circassian Elites to Blame for 1864, MGIMO Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – In what may become a new theme for Russian propaganda, MGIMO historian Vladimir Degoyev says that the departure of hundreds of thousands of Circassians from the North Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire was the result of the Great Game between Russia and the West in the 19th century and of the shortcomings of Circassian elites.

            In an article in the new issue of Yuzhnorossiiskoye obozreniye, Degoyev attacks what he describes as the politicized oversimplification by Circassian activists of what happened 150 years ago following the Russian occupation of the Circassian portions of the North Caucasus ( pp. 84-91).

            Circassians and most independent historians say that what happened was the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Circassians by Russian forces, a process that they describe as a genocide because the population was driven from its homeland and in the course of which tens of thousands died.

            But that is too narrow a view, Degoyev says, arguing that the departure of the Circassians reflected the confluence of two things: the continuing challenge to Russia presented by the Western powers and the Ottoman Empire as part of the notorious “Great Game” that threatened Russia’s ability to develop and aspects of Circassian society that many prefer to overlook.

            With regard to the first, Russia having suffered a defeat in the Crimea War and having launched the reforms of the 1860s needed peace – or at least a respite from the Western-backed ethnic challenges in its south.  The Circassians were the most serious of these and so Russian forces had to deal with them.

            With regard to the second, there are two aspects Degoyev focuses on. On the one hand, the Circassians unlike other North Caucasians never elevated any one leader who could eventually declare the conflict over and thus set the stage for peaceful coexistence between his people and the Russian state.

            And on the other, he says, Circassian elites were fearful that they would lose their incomes as a result of the end of serfdom in Russia in 1863 and so promoted the departure of their people to the Ottoman Empire both in the mistaken hopes that they would retain their incomes and gain an ally that would eventually allow them to return.

            By placing the blame for the exodus on the West and on Circassian elites, Degoyev not only ignores the role the Russian military played in forcibly expelling the Circassians via Sochi but also seeks to drive a wedge between the Circassians at home and in the diaspora and Western governments and between ordinary Circassians and the descendants of their earlier leaders.

            He and Moscow are unlikely to succeed in doing either, but they may sufficiently muddy the waters that some in the West who support the Circassians in their drive for historical justice may begin to question their choice. Indeed, given Degoyev’s perch in a Russian foreign ministry institution, they may be his and Moscow’s real target.

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