Saturday, February 22, 2020

Russian Diplomat’s Suggestion that Circassians Voluntarily Left Their Homeland in 1864 Outrages Their Descendants

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 15 – Circassians both in their North Caucasus homeland and in the diaspora around the world are outraged by the suggestion of Aleksey Yerkhov, Moscow’s ambassador to Turkey, that their ancestors left their homes in 1864 on a voluntary basis and therefore have no complaints against the Russian state on that basis.

            “Some decided to leave, and they left, true often suffering hunger, cold, illness both on the way and on arrival,” Yerkhov said. “Others decided to remain – and they remained. They too  suffered together with the other peoples of Russia and the Soviet Union for other reasons” ( and

            Circassians say and ever more international observers and even some governments accept that the expulsion of the Circassians was not voluntary as the ambassador claimed but an act of genocide in which thousands died. His other comments about the Circassians were equally ill-informed and full of ill-will.

            Circassian groups around the world have responded with fury. (See the commentaries and statements at,,

            Given that the Circassian reaction to Yerkhov’s words was entirely predictable and ensures that ever more Circassians will be radicalized as a result, the question arises: why did Moscow decide to have its ambassador to Turkey make these remarks now.  There are clearly two answers, one involving Turkey and the second Moscow itself.

            The answer regarding Turkey is that Moscow may very much have wanted to send a message to Ankara that it shares the Turkish government’s suspiciousness of members of ethnic minorities and that therefore it is a more reliable ally than the West which does care about such groups whatever problems there may be in the bilateral relationship at the moment.

            Related to that and perhaps explaining why it was the Russian ambassador to Turkey who made these outrageous remarks is a Moscow hope that Ankara will prove less hospitable to the Circassians and other North Caucasians who have refuge there and who provide important support to the intensifying national movements in the North Caucasus.

            The answer regarding Moscow itself is related by slightly different and perhaps more important. This week, while Circassians were expressing outrage at Yerkhov’s  falsification of history, there was an announcement that the Russian authorities will not allow more Circassians from Syria to return to their homeland (

            In that context, the Russian ambassador’s statement may have two purposes. On the one hand, it distracts attention from the even more inhumane policy of the current Russian government by focusing attention on historical issues, something that may exercise many Circassians but that is less likely to animate others.

            And on the other hand, the fact that Moscow had its ambassador in Ankara make this remark – and one can be certain that his words were not a chance remark by Yerkhov personally – the Russian government may be signaling that it intends to adopt a much harsher line toward the Circassians in the future and is testing the waters to see how the world will react.

            If people of good will in the West denounce both the statement and the action as they should, Moscow can always disown the words of its representative in Ankara. That is one of the reasons that governments have their diplomats say things like this because they can dismiss an ambassador’s words if they feel they have to.

            But if there is no such reaction to both, then Moscow will undoubtedly assume that it can become even more repressive with impunity, lying about the past and mistreating Circassian victims of wars in the Middle East.  And that means that both the historical record and the Circassian nation today will suffer even more in the coming months.

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