Staunton, May 18 – Three days before Circassians around the world mark the anniversary of the expulsion of their ancestors from the Russian Empire at the end of the 101-year-long Russian campaign against their nation and state, the For KBR Rights portal has reposted a study about how that history continues to affect Russian and Circassian communities.
In his 2018 article, “The Caucasian War in the Historical Memory of the Adygs and in the Russian Communications Sphere” (in Russian; Politicheskaya nauka 3 (2018): 129-156), Amiran Uruzhadze says that the refusal of the Russian side to recognize the centrality of this date for Circassians is radicalizing the latter and deepening the divide between them and Russians.
The historian at the Southern Federal University in Rostov points out that no one should ever forget that “history in the Caucasus is more than history.” As Faulkner put it, the past is not history; it is not even past (zapravakbr.ru/index.php/30-uncategorised/1674-pomnit-nelzya-zabyt-kavkazskaya-vojna-v-istoricheskoj-pamyati-adygov-i-rossijskom-prostranstve-kommemoratsii).
In Soviet times, the subject of the Caucasus war was largely ignored except for a brief period in the 1950s. It was judged too dangerous because it called into question Moscow’s notion of a common Soviet people and international friendship of the peoples. Since 1991, the Russian government with rare exceptions has taken the same position.
But given greater freedom to explore issues of importance to them, the Caucasus war has become even more important for the Circassians not only as a nation but also as components of the population in several North Caucasus republics and hence as a political base or threat for the elites in those republics.
In the 1990s, the elites backed the intelligentsias in their search for truth about the Caucasus war, not only allowing but promoting the preparation and publication of histories but also organizing anniversary commemorations and backing Circassian demands that May 21 become an all-Russian holiday, something Moscow has consistently refused to do.
Then, with the rise of Vladimir Putin, Moscow put pressure on republic elites to stop doing this, leading to a demobilization of the Circassian movement that lasted until the run-up to the Sochi Olympiad which not only took place on precisely the lands from which the Circassians had been expelled but on the round, 150th anniversary of their expulsion.
That led to a resurgence of Circassian interest in the past and the expansion of ties between Circassians in the North Caucasus homeland and the Circassian diaspora. And those ties prompted Vladimir Putin to denounce the Circassians for their focus on the past, given that their views completely contradicted his own.
Putin’s approach had three consequences, Urushadze says. First, it eliminated much of the official support for Circassian nationalism in the republics. Second, it effectively ended research on and discussion of the Caucasus war in Moscow and other Russian centers. And third, it led to the radicalization of Circassians, dividing them in fundamental way from the Russians.
A different approach from Moscow, one that acknowledged the genocide of 1864 and the differences between Russians and Circassians at that time, might have allowed the two sides to come together. But as Urushadze makes clear in his heavily footnoted article, Putin’s approach has likely made that impossible for the foreseeable future.