Saturday, February 23, 2019

Naima Neflyasheva Explains Why She is No Longer an Adyg but Rather a Circassian

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 23 – Circassians, long subdivided into numerous nationalities by the Soviets in order to prevent them from acting as a single, strong nation in the North Caucasus, are calling on members of these communities to identify themselves as Circassians in the upcoming 2020 census (

            They face an uphill battle because Russian census takers may simply decide to code their responses on the basis of where individuals live: If someone lives in Kabardino-Balkaria but says he is a Circassian rather than a Kabardin, for example, the census taker will simply put down Kabardin regardless. And so too for the Adygs, Cherkess, Shapsugs, and others.

            That is one of the ways the Soviet authorities fought the common Circassian identity in the past, and there is no reason to think they won’t resort to a similar tactic in the future, especially given the attitudes of some in Moscow who don’t want to see the Circassians united (

            But the Circassian effort appears to be gaining support and will constitute a major step in the direction of national re-consolidation.  In order to understand how this is working, one can do no better than to read the reflections of Naima Neflyasheva, a historian who specializes on the North Caucasus, on how she made the transition from Adyg to Circassian.

            Neflyasheva says in her blog that she doesn’t have to make that shift in 2020 as she made it in the last Russian census where she responded to the question about nationality by writing down that she is a Circassian. Her path to that while undoubtedly individual is instructive (

            The historian relates that she studied in a Soviet school in Maikop in Adygeya. Her school like most largely ignored the regional and national aspects of life and acted as if “the history of Adygeya” began in 1917 “when the Soviet authorities supposedly pulled out of darkness, slavery and ignorance the unhappy and backward mountaineers.”

            “In the best case,” she continues, “we knew the names of the heroes of the civil war” and heard about the heroic times of the early Soviet period. But knowledge about the history of our peoples was a family matter and passed down from grandparents to parents to children almost exclusively.

            That probably remains true for many, she suggests; but Neflyasheva had the good fortune to enroll in Leningrad University. In one of the first lectures she attended, Professor Rudolf Its told her and her fellow students that “the names of peoples are an inexhaustible source of knowledge for the historian.”

            They are both self-designations and the designations others give to them, Its continued; and in a long list of such endo- and exo-ethnonyms, he said that “the Adygs are Circassians.”  That sent her to the rich library holdings of the northern Russian capital, and she found confirmation of that reality.

            As she continued with her studies, Neflyasheva says, she learned that “the ethnonym ‘Adygey’ is an exclusively Soviet construct,” one the Bolsheviks imposed to control the Circassians by trying to set one group of them against another and combining peoples who were and remain dissimilar.

            Only in 1922 did the Circassians of the Adygey Autonomous Oblast begin to be called and to call themselves Adygeys.  Few made the transition quickly or easily. And at least until 1928, even the local paper was called Cherkesskaya Pravda – the Circassian Pravda. That was true in official documents as well.

            But even having made this discovery, Neflyasheva says, she continued to identify as an Adyg because that was the custom.  Everything changed when she attended a scholarly conference in Istanbul at the end of the 1990s. There the word “Circassian” was an open sesame to a magical and much bigger world.

            “Are you Circassian?” people asked. And they often said “Circassians! Beautiful! Unbelievable!”  And during that visit, she read in an English guidebook to the city words that changed her life:

            “Istanbul,” the book stated, “is a city of ancient traditions and at the same time a contemporary city. This reflects the wisdom of the Greeks, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Armenians, and the aristocratic spirit of the Circassians.” Neflyasheva says she has never forgotten that sentence even though regrettably she didn’t get the citation.

            From them on, she has been a Circassian, not an Adyg. The latter was and is a Soviet term designed to deprive her of her nationhood and personal identity.  Adygs are a subgroup of that nation, but one would not label oneself by a part when the whole is available, especially when that nation has such a tragic, dignified and complex history.

            The ethnonym “Adyg” played its role, she says; but that role is over. Now, she and all who have been confined within it need to reassert their identity as Circassians. Their time is still ahead. 

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