Monday, May 27, 2019

Reviving Circassian Equestrian Tradition Can Block Radicalization in North Caucasus, Neflyasheva Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 26 – One of the most interesting if not always the most successful tactics the Soviets employed to pacify and control Muslim populations within the USSR was to alternatively play up national traditions to weaken Islam and, more rarely, to support some Muslim activities to weaken nationalism.

            Now, in an updated version of this, Naima Neflyasheva, a senior specialist on the North Caucasus, is proposing that Moscow make use of one of the oldest and proudest traditions of Circassian culture – attachment to horses and equestrian events – as a means for blocking the radicalization of young people there (

            At a time when rapid social change has broken down many of the traditional links between generations and opened the way for the radicalization of young people, the senior scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences Center for Civilizational and Regional Research says, promoting equestrian events can restore ties that help prevent such a development.

            The Circassian traditions of horse breeding and riding, Neflyasheva continues, can do a great deal because “they are attractive for contemporary young people and have a foundation in traditional culture.” Young people who get involved in horse breeding, riding and especially well-organized processes of horses simply view their past and present differently.

            Such activities, like the Khase riders program established in 2017, she says, “can work not only as a mechanism for the preservation, reproduction, and translation of stable forms of culture but provide a new direction for a better future and not simply making sense of a legendary past.”

            That program involves young people in taking care of horses and then participating in rides with others through various places where the horses and riders are celebrated as national heroes. Young men with that experience, the scholar says, are far less likely to be tempted by any Islamist message.

            “The goal of the Khase is the revival of the Kabardin breed of horses, the promotion of the etiquette of horse and rider and the rebirth of traditional crafts connected with horse-breeding,” Neflyasheva says.  Among its most prominent features are mass horse riding expeditions in which young men can easily be drawn.

            “Why do we consider that such horse matches can be considered as a practice which has a prophylactic effect on young people?” she asks rhetorically. Because, she continues, such activities are not new. Instead, they draw on an old tradition in which the male rider has always enjoyed prestige.

            “The deep psychological interconnection between horse and rider is shown already in the expression of the Nart epics – ‘whatever the horse is like so is the man.’ Historical sources are full of testimonials that even Circassian princes … never looked down on the physical work required to look after their horses.”

            Thus, promoting the revival of this tradition will give young people something to hold on to that will allow them to withstand the siren song of the Islamists. But things must be organized carefully, Neflyasheva says. Otherwise the celebration of this aspect of national culture could lead to clashes as it did last September (

            She is obviously correct that the promotion and development of Circassian culture would block the spread of Islamist ideas among the young. But unfortunately, it is all too likely that many Russian officials are going to view the rise of Circassian national identity as just as much a threat as the Islamists to their control of the region.

            And if that proves to be the case, this most useful idea will either be rejected entirely or implemented only in part and thus reduced in its impact. But the fact that such ideas are now being discussed shows the Hobson’s choice confronting Moscow in the North Caucasus: if it doesn’t allow national cultures more room to develop, it will face a new Islamist challenge.

            But if it does allow them to do so in order to block the spread of radicalization, Moscow will face another challenge, one that may be just as subversive of Russian control.

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