The Caucasus

Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1

(Note to Readers: As I have been invited to give a talk at an academic conference on the Black Sea region to be held in Batumi, Georgia in early June, I will be blogging extensively on this part of the world over the next two months. I begin today by posting several simple economic maps of the Republic of Georgia.)

The Republic of Georgia is a middle-middle-income country; according to the IMF, in 2022 its per capita Gross Domestic Product (in Purchasing Power Parity) was just below the global average (19,789 current international dollars for Georgia as compared to 20,886 for the world.) As country-level economic figures obscure regional variation, I looked for a map of “per capita GDP in Georgia by region” but did not find one. After some searching, I did locate an English-language version of a site called “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” that provides the data that can be used to make such a map. (Unfortunately, there are some minor informational discrepancies on this site; I used the “comparison of regions” feature rather than the map-based information portal, but I do not know which one has more accurate or up-to-date information.)

My main reason for making this map was to see if there is a significant economic distinction between eastern and western Georgia. As will be explored in later posts, these two halves of the country have very distinctive histories and geographies. I expected to find the highest levels of economic development in and around Tbilisi, located in the central part of eastern Georgia, which is by far the largest city in the country. I also expected to find a relatively high per capita GDP figure for the Adjara region in the southwest, where the tourist-oriented city of Batumi is located. Otherwise, I had no expectations.

The GDP map that I made, posted below, does show Tbilisi as having a significantly higher level of economic development than the rest of the country. Adjara also has a higher level of per capita GDP than the national average, although not by much. Overall, the map reveals Georgia as having relatively minor economic differentiation by region. Overall, the western part of the country has slightly higher per capita GDP figures than the eastern half, with the exceptions of Tbilisi and the region just to its north (Mtskheta-Mtianeti).

Regional per capita GDP figures can be misleading, however, as they do not necessarily reflect average income levels. Fortunately, the “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” website also has data on the “Average Monthly Remuneration of Employed Persons.” Mapping this information also shows relatively low levels of differentiation across the country, but in this case eastern Georgia comes out slightly ahead of western Georgia.

In both maps, the western region of Guria is shown as having Georgia’s lowest economic figures. Guria’s relatively low level of economic production might seem to defy the stereotype of the region in Georgian popular culture, which emphasizes the ability of its inhabitants to accomplish tasks very quickly. As noted by Bedisa Dumbadze in an article in Georgian Journal:

The explanation of the region’s name “the land of restless” is absolutely suitable for Gurians. Their smart and comical character is well-known throughout Georgia. The inhabitants of the area are thought to be relatively fast in contrast to the inhabitants of other regions. They have special habit of doing everything in a very fast manner. Sometimes it is really difficult to understand what Gurian person is talking about because they speak really fast. There are many jokes about Gurians always being in a hurry. As a result, they manage to do everything in a very short period of time.

Finally, I use the same data source to make a map of unemployment rates by region. As can be seen, Georgia as a whole has a high level of unemployment, with figures varying widely from region to region. I was surprised to see that Tbilisi has a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Even more unexpected was the relatively low unemployment rate it the eastern region of Kakheti, which is shown as having relatively low economic indicators on the other two maps.

I hope to reach a better understanding of these patterns as I continue to learn about the Republic of Georgia. I also want to see if clearer economic patterns might emerge through more fine-scale mapping. The data source that I used today also has information at the municipal level. As Georgia is entirely divided into 76 separate municipalities, such a map can be constructed for the entire country. Making this map will take some time, but I hope to be able to post it within the next week or two.

Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1 Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1)

[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.

religion in russiaBut France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.

Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the Kavkaz-uzel.ru (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.

Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by Kavkaz-uzel.ru. The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,

“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of  fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the  Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.

Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,

“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”

Map of Circassian RepublicsWith the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here  war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.

At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.

Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.

The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,

“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.

Tatarstan_locationTatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.

Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.

Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third  do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.

(To be continued…)

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1) Read More »

The Sochi Olympics and the Circassians: A Media Failure?

Circassian ProtestWhen lecturing on the Caucasus last fall, I asked my Stanford students if any of them had ever heard of the Circassians. Out of a class of roughly 100 students, two raised their hands. I then told that class that the Circassians had once been an extremely well known if often misunderstood ethnic group, and I predicted that by February 2014 they would again be in the news, owing to the fact that the Sochi Olympics would be held in their ancestral homeland. I trusted Circassian activists to get their story out, and I was reasonably sure that the mainstream media would pick it up, due both to the controversial nature of Russian ethnic policies and especially to the fact that Circassian history is both tragic and absolutely fascinating.

Thus far, I have been disappointed, as it seems that most mainstream media organizations are content to downplay if not ignore the Circassian issue. To be sure, several outlets have posted excellent articles on the topic, including Frankie Martin’s “The Olympics’ Forgotten People” on CNN and Kathrin Hille’s “Sochi Stirs Circassian Nationalism” in the Financial Times. (Of particular note in the latter article is the important but rather understated observation that, “Russia is working on a new set of history textbooks after Mr. Putin demanded they be reworked to present a unified set of evaluations and reflect a more patriotic world view. Circassian hopes to have their full story told could collide with this.”) In an interesting article in Time magazine, Ishaan Tharoor appropriately characterizes the Circassians as “a forgotten community.” (See also this article in The New Republic.)

Most news organizations, however, apparently prefer to ignore or downplay the issue. A Washington Post video entitled “The Sochi Olympics, Explained in Two Minutes,” for example, fails to mention the Circassians. An NBC article on a hacking attack on the Russian media does mention the group, but just barely, claiming that, “the official Twitter feed of Anonymous Caucasus said the action was a protest at the 19th Century deportation of thousands of native Circassians from the region.” The implication that mere “thousands” were merely “deported” is both misleading and insulting: in actuality, hundreds of thousands were brutally expelled, with many dying in the process.

NY Times Caucasis religion mapAn important February 5 article in the New York Times, “An Olympics in the Shadow of a War Zone,” Steven Lee Myers does a reasonable good job of explaining the situation in Chechnya, and we are pleased that his article used a modified GeoCurrents language map in its on-line version. But the article still fails the Circassians, dispensing with their situation as follows: “Many of the ethnic groups in the Caucasus are related to the Circassians, who consider Sochi part of their homeland, conquered by the Russians in the 19th century after what activists today hope to publicize as an act of genocide.” Unfortunately, the characterization is again misleading if not simply inaccurate. The vast majority of the ethnic groups of the Caucasus are not “related” to the Circassians in any sense other than that of living in the same general area, and the Russian conquest of the area came before not “after” the events that most Circassian activists consider genocidal. The religion map that accompanies the article (in the on-line version), moreover, fails to show a Muslim minority in the Russian Republic of Adygea, which forms something of a rump homeland for a mostly Muslim Circassian group. (Adygea is actually only about a quarter Circassian by population, and, according to official statistics, about 13 percent of its population is Muslim.) The New York Times map is based on the comprehensive cartography of M. Izady, but unfortunately Izady’s map does not extent far enough to the northwest to include Adygea.

Caucasius religion mapThe New York Times article in question focuses on Islamist militants in Chechnya and Dagestan, which is understandable at one level, given the security threats that they pose. But Sochi is relatively far from Chechnya and Dagestan, and, as the Times own maps show, the Sochi region has seen few terrorist attacks or insurgent strikes. Historical Circassia, on the other hand, encompasses Sochi and its environs. Equally important is the fact that the Circassian strategy has been, as far as I can tell, completely non-violent, in utter contrast to the situation in Chechnya. Surely that is noteworthy in its own right. If news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: “If you want our attention, kill someone!”

Map-of-all-terrorist-attacks-near-Sochi-since-Russia-awarded-Winter-Olympics-Jun-07-ImgurRegardless of such ethical considerations, the saga of the Circassians is a fascinating story. As outlined in earlier GeoCurrents posts, the Circassians were once famous over in many areas for their supposed physical beauty and regal bearing. They also filled an unexpected but highly significant historical role as elite slaves, both male and female, in the Ottoman Empire and Mamluk Egypt. (It would take a dull mind indeed not to find the topic of “elite slaves” intriguing!) The ability of Circassians to rise to relatively high positions in the Ottoman Empire and subsequently in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan is also of some interest. The current plight of the 40,000 to 130,000 Circassians in Syria, moreover, is grossly under-reported in the global media. Religion among the Circassians is another captivating topic. Although most Circassians are Sunni Muslim, conversion came relatively late and, according to some sources, was somewhat superficial in some areas. Of significance in this regard is Adyghe Khabze (or Xabze) the traditional ethnic “code of conduct,” described on one Circassian website as “the epitomy of Circassian culture and tradition.” Most interpretations view Adyghe Khabze as a secular institution that is not at all incompatible with Islam, but the Wikipedia article on the subject portrays it as a religion in its own right, influenced by ancient Greek philosophy. The same article also claims that an Adyghe Khabze movement is growing rapidly, and that some of its leaders have come under deadly attack from Sunni extremists. A 2010 report by the Jamestown Foundation claims that “some observers detected in the latest killings [of an Adyghe Khabze advocate] in Kabardino-Balkaria an attempt by Moscow to play off Circassian nationalists against the Islamists.”

I would be very interested in readers’ ideas about why the Circassian issue has failed to gain the attention of most major news organizations. I suspect that the one reason is that many reporters and editors feel that the story is simply too complicated, and that as a result they fear that it would unduly burden their readers. The storyline of the Caucasus that the media has embraced focuses on extremism and violence in Chechnya and environs, and thus has little room for anything that would complicate that accepted narrative. Such tunnel vision seems to apply to other parts of the world as well. Thus in Sudan, the media periodically reports on Darfur, but hardly ever mentions the on-going horrors of the conflict in the Nuba Hills (South Kordofan)– despite the fact that George Clooney has struggled to bring it to global attention. And Sudan’s Eastern Front rebellion receives even less attention.

If this interpretation has any merit, the situation is most unfortunate. The reading public deserves more comprehensive information, and the failure of the mainstream media to provide it is perhaps one reason why many established news organizations are declining, while the often-disparaged “blogosphere” continue to rise.

 

The Sochi Olympics and the Circassians: A Media Failure? Read More »

Chechnya’s Questionable Votes—and Investments

Returns from the recent elections in Russia indicate significant “irregularities” in the voting process. Nowhere was fraud more widespread than in Chechnya, which recorded a 99.6 percent voter turnout, and which Vladimir Putin took by 99.76 percent.

The Russian government has been pouring money into Chechnya in recent years —US$21 billion by some accounts. Many of these investments have been questionable. A recent report indicates that, “the swanky, 32-story-high Hotel Grozny City, with its three restaurants and five-star service, is pretty much always 90 percent empty.”

On the electoral map, note that Moscow was the only part of Russia to give less than half of its votes to Putin.

 

 

 

 

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The Centrality of the Caucasus

London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the Caucasus

London to Mumbai Great Circle Route, Passing Through the CaucasusFor the past month, GeoCurrents has focused on the Caucasus, exploring the region’s history, languages, cuisines, and more. Two additional posts will conclude the series. We will subsequently pause to introduce some new features of the blog, and then we will move on to examine a different part of the world.

The current series began by asking a seemingly banal question, “Where Is the Caucasus?” Although the region is easy to locate on a world map, its geographical categorization is tricky, as the Caucasus straddles the conventional divide between Europe and Asia and can plausibly be placed in different regions of the world. The initial post concluded by suggesting that the Caucasus might be regarded as a world region in its own right.

After inspecting the Caucasus for the past month, I am more convinced than ever that it merits such a designation. Despite its compact size, the Caucasus contains as much human diversity as most recognized world regions. Its role in world history has been profound—and deeply underrated. When we append the Caucasus to some other part of the world, its distinctiveness tends to fade away, leaving a vague peripheral zone of rugged landscapes and obscure peoples. In the process, the region’s larger significance is lost.

The seeming obscurity of the Caucasus is an artifact of our inherited and rarely questioned schemes of global division. Newer ideas about the geographical structures of the pre-industrial world, however, can help reposition this historically important region. In the traditional Western imagination, the Caucasus is situated between Europe and Asia: the two major divisions, along with Africa, of the Eastern Hemisphere. World historians posit instead an “Afro-Eurasian ecumene” of loosely linked civilizations that encompassed most of the so-called Old World. Within this mega-region, the primary divide is increasingly seen not as that separating Europe from Asia, but rather that marking off East Asia from everywhere else. Physical geography played a role here; the mountains between India and China are so formidable that travelers between them often detoured thousands of miles through the Silk Roads of Central Asia. In demographic terms, Europe and India were the twin anchors of this rump ecumene (without East Asia), constituting its major population centers.

Population Map of Eastern Hemisphere Circa 1648 by Colin McEvedyTo the extent that the area encompassing Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian Peninsula formed a historically coherent sphere of interaction, the Caucasus served as its fulcrum. That centrality is evident on the first map posted here, made by  Jake Coolidge for GeoCurrents, which shows the most direct line, or great circle route, between London and Bombay (Mumbai). Such a pivotal location was an advantage, if a minor one, for the Armenian merchants* who helped knit together the Afro-Eurasian ecumenical societies.

*Although Tbilisi, situated near the mid-point of the London-Mumbai axis, is a Georgian city, its population was predominately Armenian until the second half of the nineteenth century.

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The Many Armenian Diasporas, Then and Now

Wikipedia map of the recent Armenian Diaspora

Wikipedia map of the recent Armenian DiasporaArmenians have long been scattered over many countries, whether as permanent migrants or temporary sojourners. Today, only about a third of their population lives in Armenia, with the rest spread over a wide area, as can be seen on the map posted here. This pattern largely reflects the movements caused by deadly mass expulsions of the early 20th century that most scholars call the Armenian Genocide. As a result, standard reference sources on the “Armenian Diaspora” focus on the deadly Ottoman deportations into the Levant and the subsequent dispersion of survivors to the far reaches of the world. But earlier Armenian diasporas had completely different geographies that were of great historical significance. Today only vestiges of the earlier movements remain, yet at the same time new patterns are emerging as Armenians once again leave their homeland in large numbers. The Armenian diaspora, it would seem, is always in flux.

One change over the past few decades has been the reduction of the once sizable Armenia communities in the Middle East generated by the Ottoman expulsions. Lebanon is the key locale here, still hosting some 150,000 Armenians, or about four percent of the national population. Before the Lebanese Civil War of the late 1970s and ‘80s, the community was substantially larger. But despite its recent decline, the Beirut community remains culturally vibrant, publishing three Armenian-language daily newspapers. Each paper is linked to a different Armenian political party, typifying the fractious and sectarian nature of Lebanese politics.

Modified Wikipedia map of the Armenian Kingdom of Cilicia, Circa 1200 CEHistorically speaking, the Armenians are no strangers to mass deportations and refugee crises. Robin Cohen traces the Armenian “victim diaspora” back to the actions of the East Roman Emperor Maurice, who resettled Armenians in Cyprus and Macedonia in 578 CE.* The Seljuk Turkish invasion of the Armenian homeland in the eleventh century resulted in a much larger refugee flow. Many settled in Cilicia in what is now south-central Turkey. There they built their own kingdom, which emerged as a fairly powerful state called Cilician Armenia (or Little Armenia) in the 1200s. After Cilician Armenia fell to the Mamluks of Egypt in late 1300s, the more prosperous members of the community fled to the cities and towns of Europe. Central and Eastern Europe were major destinations. Poland-Lithuania, desperate to populate its vast expanse, welcomed many. So did Hungary and the Romanian principalities. So many migrants settled in the Transylvanian city of Gherla that it became known as “Armenian-town” (Armenopolis, Armenierstadt or, in Armenian, Hayakaghak). As late as 1850, Gherla had an Armenian majority; subsequently, most of the community was assimilated into the Magyar (Hungarian) population.

Modified Wikipedia map of Armenians in Transylvania 1850But not all Armenian mass movements were “victim diaporas.” When historians of the early modern period discuss the Armenian diaspora, they usually have in mind a dispersion rooted more in economic opportunity than political persecution. This Armenian “trade diaspora,” based on long-distance exchange across nodes of ethnic kin, was vast, stretching the breadth of Eurasia. When European adventurers first reached such seemingly isolated states as Tibet and Ethiopia (Abyssinia) they found prosperous Armenian outposts. Such settlements were sometimes founded on trade in highly specific commodities. The Armenians of Tibet, for example, dealt mainly in deer musk, a once precious substance used as a perfume fixative, incense ingredient, and medicine, and which was also thought to be an aphrodisiac.

This early modern Armenian mercantile diaspora was largely voluntary, but it did include some episodes of coercion. In 1606, Shah Abbas I of Safavid Persia forcibly deported** tens of thousands of Armenians from his empire’s contested border zone with the Ottomans. The shah recognized the economic potential of the Armenians, and hoped to turn it to his own advantage. Resettled in New Julfa, a suburb of the Safavid capital of Isfahan, the Armenians were treated with toleration and encouraged to trade. Before long, the New Julfa merchants were carrying out most of Persia’s vital silk trade, establishing outposts as far afield as Manila and southern China. The deep extent of the historical Armenian presence in Iran is evident in the large number of Persian loanwords in the Armenian language.

The Safavid Empire was not the only major Muslim polity to want an Armenian presence. India’s Mughal emperor Akbar invited Armenian merchants to settle in Agra in the late 1500s, offering substantial inducements: “By an imperial decree, Armenian merchants were exempted from paying taxes on the merchandise imported and exported by them, and they were also allowed to move around in the areas of the Mughal empire where entry of foreigners was otherwise prohibited.” Many came, and the South Asian Armenian community thrived though the 1800s.

In the twentieth century, most of the foreign outposts established by this early-modern Armenian system withered, undermined by modernizing trade and transportation practices and by the hardening of ethno-national lines. Most Asian-based Armenians again relocated, usually to the Western Hemisphere, Australia, or France. The Armenian community of India now numbers all of around 100, challenging the survival of such venerable cultural institutions as the Armenian College of Kolkata (Calcutta). A similar situation is found in Ethiopia, where the remaining Armenians struggle to support their school, church and social club. The Armenian population of Iran is more stable, numbering between 40,000 to a little more than 100,000. Still, an estimated 350,000 “Armenian Iranians” now live abroad. In the Armenian communities of Europe, partial assimilation has generated a more ambiguous situation. Poland, site of one of the oldest diasporic communities, found only 1,082 Armenian residents in its 2002 census; some Armenian sources, however, claim that the actual number is closer to 100,000.

While many foreign Armenian communities are disappearing, others are being replenished by emigration from Armenia itself. Since the late 1980s, an estimated one million Armenians have moved abroad, fleeing the poverty of their homeland. Most have relocated to Russia, long a focus of Armenian dispersal. As a result, the population of Armenia itself has dropped substantially in recent years. Demographers estimate that 25,000 to 30,000 people permanently leave the country each year. In 2010, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) officially advised the Armenian government to “improve the socioeconomic situation and strengthen the rule of law” in order to avoid further depopulation. Considering the fact that its total fertility rate is only about 1.5, Armenia’s demographic future does seem grim.

The current Armenian exodus has a distinct gender imbalance, with men predominating. In some rural areas, women now form a clear majority. As one local informant recently told a reporter, “It’s a total matriarchate. We even joke that our village’s name should be changed from ‘Canyon of Roses’ to ‘Canyon of Women.’”  Counterbalancing this trend has been a marked upturn since independence in the sex ratio at birth; far more Armenian boys are being born than girls. This trend is found throughout the southern Caucasus: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan now vie with northern India and eastern China for their natal sex imbalances. The exact reasons for this seldom-noted Caucasian phenomenon are not clear, although son-preference obviously plays a major role.

* Robin Cohen, Global Diasporas: An Introduction. 1997. University of Washington Press, page 44).

** Persian sources often claim that the Armenians came on their own, fleeing persecution by the Ottoman authorities, but most historians doubt such accounts.

 

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The Role of the Caucasus in Russian Cultural and Intellectual History

(by guest blogger Vitaliy L. Rayz, in collaboration with Martin W. Lewis)

The present GeoCurrents series has focused on the peoples of the Caucasus, examining Russia and Russians only insofar as they have impacted the region. But the Caucasus has played a significant role in the politics of Russia, and in its cultural history as well. The most prominent Russian poets and writers, including Alexander Pushkin, Michael Lermontov, and Lev Tolstoy, traveled through the region and described it in their renowned books. The “cultural exchange,” moreover, went both ways: many members of the Russian elite served, worked, or vacationed in the Caucasus, while quite a few Caucasians made it to the top ranks of Russian society.

Several Georgian nobles, for example, gained fame for their service to the Russian Empire. Prince Pyotr Ivanovich Bagration (“Prince Pyotr”), depicted on the left, a descendant of the Georgian royal family, became one of the most successful Russian generals during Napoleonic wars. In 1812 he led one of the Russian armies fighting the invading French troops. Bagration heroically fought in the bloody battle of Borodino, where he commanded the left wing of the Russian position. After repelling more than half a dozen massive attacks led by the most talented French marshals, Bagration was mortally wounded.

 

As the Russians advanced into the Caucasus in the first half of the 19th century, their armies included a number of nobles. For many, service in the North Caucasus—a land of unrelenting war—was itself a form of punishment, entailing exile from the capital. Some Russian nobles serving in the region were actually de-ranked from the officer class and reclassified as ordinary soldiers. Such a penalty could stem from many kinds of misbehavior, ranging from participation in a duel to the holding of “untrustworthy” political views.

Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s best-loved poet, visited the Caucasus twice and described its snow-covered mountains and proud highlanders in poetry and prose. In his famous poem “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” he describes a Russian captive who falls in love with a Circassian girl. “A Journey to Arzrum,” written during his second visit in 1829, provides a detailed account of his trip. In this remarkable work, the ever sharp-witted and discerning Pushkin describes different peoples, their traditions, and their cuisines. He also had sharp words for the relationship between the Russians and the Circassians:

The Circassians hate us. We have pushed them from free pastures; their villages are devastated, whole tribes are exterminated. With every hour they get higher and higher in the mountains and from there launch their raids. Friendship with the “pacified” Circassians is not reliable: they are always ready to help their violent kinsmen.

In order to safely get to Vladikavkaz in what is now North Ossetia-Alania, Pushkin had to join a regular military convoy, protected by infantry, mounted Cossacks, and a cannon. After crossing the formidable Caucasus range, Pushkin was delighted to see the “fair-looking” Georgia. After arriving Tiflis (Tbilisi), he described the city’s inhabitants:

The Georgians are warriors who had proven their courage under our banners… They are in general of cheerful and sociable spirit… The wines from Kakheti and Karabakh are not inferior to some of the Burgudian ones. … In Tiflis the main part of the population is Armenian: in 1825 there were up to 2500 Armenian families… The Georgian families are no more than 1500. The Russians do not consider themselves to be local inhabitants.

On his way to Armenia, Pushkin ran into a gruesome procession, one carrying the body of another famous Russian poet, Alexander Griboedov.  Griboedov had lived in the Caucasus for many years.  Owing to his knowledge of the region, he was sent as a Russian ambassador to Teheran, where he was murdered by a crowd storming the embassy.

In Michael Lermontov’s book A Hero of Our Time, widely considered one the best examples of Russian prose, a St. Petersburg aristocrat named Pechorin travels to the Caucasus. Pechorin undergoes a variety of adventures, dueling in Pyatigorsk, serving in a small fort at the frontier, and even getting involved with a beautiful Circassian girl. He kidnaps the girl, according to the local custom, only to see her killed by an avenging kinsman.

In the late 19th century, Lev Tolstoy published his own work entitled “The prisoner of the Caucasus,” echoing some of the themes deployed earlier by Pushkin. Again, a Russian military man is captured by local insurgents. They keep the unfortunate officer, in hopes of getting a ransom from his family, but he eventually escapes with help from a young daughter of his captor who had taken pity on him. Interestingly, Tolstoy refers to the Chechens as “Tatars”, a term familiar to his Russian readers, based largely on their Muslim faith. Tolstoy had also served as a soldier in the Caucasus, and the story is said to be based on real events. Tolstoy’s final work, the posthumously published Hadji Murat, also takes place in the Caucasus.

The very same themes of the Russian-Caucasian war, captivity, and love between a Caucasian beauty and a Russian hostage are further explored in yet another “Prisoner of the Caucasus”, a 1996 film directed by Sergei Bodrov and based loosely on Lev Tolstoy’s story. This film is set during the First Chechen War and was shot in the mountains of Dagestan, only a short distance away from the then-ongoing battles of that war, giving it an eerie almost-documentary quality.

Quite a few Caucasians numbered among the revolutionaries fighting in the Russian Civil War and serving in the subsequent Communist regime. These figures include: Anastas Mikoyan, a shrewd politician, who managed to survive in the top echelon of the Soviet government from the time of Lenin to that of Brezhnev; the infamous henchman Lavrentiy Beria, chief of the Soviet secret police apparatus (NKVD); Politburo member Sergo Ordzhonikidze; the terrorist and master-of-disguise “Kamo” (Semeno Aržakovitš Ter-Petrossian); and, of course, comrade Stalin himself (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili). (As was brilliantly said by one of his Georgian countrymen, Stalin became a murderous tyrant only in Russia; in Georgia he was merely a petty criminal.)

In Soviet times, the Caucasus became the prime attraction for mountain climbers from the western USSR, as the loftier Tian Shan and Pamir were too far away. The Soviet government wanted to train climbers capable of fighting in alpine terrain. In pursuing this goal, it established a number of alpine training camps along the ridge of the Great Caucasus Range. Many intellectuals from Moscow, Leningrad, and other large cities in Russia and Ukraine regularly spent a few weeks a year in such camps. In addition to climbing the challenging mountains, they enjoyed relative freedom from the oppressive grip of the regime: on the steep slopes they could freely talk with friends and make decisions independent of the government and the bureaucracy. As the brilliant poet Vladimir Vysotskiy put it, “You trust only in the strength of your hand, in a hammered piton and the hands of a friend and pray that a rope belay will never betray”.

Professional mountaineering instructors supervised the training of the alpinists, and a rigorous system of ranks and examinations ensured that the abilities and experience of a climber would correspond to the difficulty of the climb. Considering the casual disrespect for human life in the Soviet Union, this strict system kept the number of casualties relatively low. Many songs were dedicated to courageous mountaineers, describing beautiful mountains such as Ushba (see picture on the left) and Shhelda. Quoting again from Vysotskiy: “The one thing that can be better than mountains is mountains that nobody has climbed yet”.

Many Soviet intellectuals and other members of the elite who were not interested in mountaineering would still regularly visit the Caucasus.  Most would head for the warm Black Sea coast of Georgia, where they would enjoy authentic Georgian food, fine Georgian wines, and unparalleled hospitality.

Georgian poetry was highly respected by Russian literary figures. The works of the best Georgian poets, Shota Rustaveli, Titsian Tabidze, Ilia Chavchavadze and others, were translated into Russian by the finest Russian masters, including the Nobel-prize winner Boris Pasternak. In the second half of the 20th century, Russian culture came to be influenced by prominent intellectuals and artists with Caucasian roots. The list is long, but a few deserve special mention: the poet Bulat Okudzhava, a revered founder of the “singing poetry” genre (see picture on the left); the famous Abkhazian writer and thinker Fazil Iskander; the celebrated theatre directors Georgiy Tovstonogov and Yevgeny Vakhtangov; the beautiful actress Sofiko Chiaureli; and the talented film director, Georgiy Daneliya, who showed authentic Georgian culture in such films as “Mimino”. These names are recognized by most Russian intellectuals, celebrated as cultural leaders who had helped form their views and beliefs. Current Russian public figures of Caucasian background include the novelist Boris Akunin (Grigory Chkhartishvili) and the famed chess champion Garry Kasparov, who is also an important leader of the Russian opposition.

On maps of the both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, the Caucasus appear to be a small and rather insignificant place. In Russian cultural and intellectual history, however, it looms large indeed, having profoundly influencing the development of Russian civilization.

(Translations by Vitaliy Rayz)

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Sochi 2014: A Subtropical Winter Olympics?

Wikipedia map of the Subtropics

Wikipedia map of the SubtropicsIn 2010, Foreign Policy magazine asked Russian opposition leader and Sochi native Boris Nemtsov why he opposed the 2014 Winter Olympics in his hometown. Nemtsov’s reply was broad ranging. He decried the displacement of 5,000 people while warning that corruption and organized crime would devour most of the construction funds showered on the city. He began his critique, however, with Sochi’s climate:

“[Putin] has found one of the only places in Russia where there is no snow in the winter. He has decided to build these ice rinks in the warmest part of the warmest region. Sochi is subtropical. There is no tradition of skating or hockey there. In Sochi, we prefer football, and volleyball, and swimming. Other parts of Russia need ice palaces — we don’t.”

Sochi does indeed have a subtropical climate, with average winter temperatures well above freezing, complicating Olympic plans. As Nemtsov elaborates, most of the skating facilities are being built in the Imereti Valley, which is warmer than Sochi itself. Cooling, needless to say, will be expensive. The ski venue might seem to be even more of a problem, as Olympic-quality skiing requires natural snow in copious quantities. The snowy Caucasus Mountains, however, lie just to the northeast of Sochi.  The main skiing facilities at Krasnaya Polyana, thirty-seven miles (sixty kilometers) from the city center, will probably have adequate snow.

Tabular Comparison of Climate in Sochi Russia and Portland Oregon, Wikipedia DataBut while Sochi qualifies as subtropical by strict climatological criteria,* it can be misleading to characterize it as such, at least in the United States. If I were to use the term “subtropical” in class, my students would imagine Miami or perhaps Los Angeles at a stretch. Certainly those native to California’s Bay Area would never consider their winter-chilled homeland as “subtropical” in any sense. Yet the Bay Area is actually much warmer in winter than Sochi. In Palo Alto, the average February high temperature is 62°F (16°C), far exceeding Sochi’s 49.8°F (9.9°C). In terms of annual temperature range, Sochi is closely analogous to Portland, Oregon, as can be seen in the paired tables reproduced here. In the United States, the notion that Portland has a subtropical climate would seem quaint if not ludicrous.

From the Russian perspective, however, Sochi definitely is subtropical. If anything is mentioned about Sochi in the Russian press, it is generally its sub-tropicality—and for good reason, as it is essentially the only place in the country with a non-freezing winter. Climate evaluations turn out to be variable, relative to one’s personal experience. I once spent a summer in the Nunamiut (“Inland Eskimo”) village of Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, where the locals found their own summer climate delightfully temperate and that of the adjacent Yukon Valley oppressively hot. In Anaktuvuk Pass, July temperatures rarely exceed 50°F (10°C). Yet one day during my sojourn the winds died down, the sky cleared, and the temperature soared to a delightful 75°F (24°C)—or so I thought. The villagers were not pleased at all with the brutal heat.

The (US) Wikipedia article on Sochi describes its climate not only as subtropical, which is technically true if slightly misleading, but goes on to characterize it as being of the “Mediterranean–type”—which is simply incorrect. Mediterranean climates are characterized by dry summers, and those of Sochi are distinctly wet. True, Sochi gets a bit more rain in the winter than in the summer, but its average July precipitation of 4.9 inches (124 mm) is hardly meager. In most climate classification schemes, a Mediterranean climate cuts off at 30 to 40 millimeters (1.2-1.6 inches) of precipitation in the driest month. (Note that by such criteria, Portland Oregon is definitely Mediterranean, yet few Americans would place such a wet city in that category.)

Beyond ice-rink cooling costs, the Sochi Olympics faces a number of problems. The Circassian protests have already been discussed in previous posts, and issues surrounding organized crime and corruption are noted above. But according to Boris Nemtsov, the mire runs much deeper. In a 2011 television interview, he claimed that the total costs could exceed U.S. $30 billion—ten times the figure of the Vancouver Olympics. Nemtsov also highlights the cultural and environmental damage suffered by the city and its environs, as roads are pushed through nature reserves and old residences are demolished without replacement. Such disruptions, he claims, have already undermined the summer tourism industry, the lifeblood of the local economy. Construction, moreover, is running behind schedule, worrying Russian leaders. In mid-January 2012, “President Dmitry Medvedev … ordered the government to ensure facilities for Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were finished on time, in a rare official show of impatience with the sluggish progress.”

Sochi is not the only part of the Caucasus impacted by ambitious winter tourism designs. Russia plans to build major downhill ski resorts elsewhere. According to a January 14, 2013 article:

[T]he draft project of the tourism cluster in the south of Russia envisages the construction in 2011-2020 of five world-class mountain resorts in Lagonaki (Krasnodar Territory, the Republic of Adygea), Arkhyz (Karachaevo-Cherkessia), Elbrus-Bezengi (Kabardino-Balkaria), Mamison (Republic of North Ossetia-Alania), Matlas (Republic of Dagestan). The length of all the ski slopes will total nearly 900 km. 179 elevators will be installed. Hotels of various levels of comfort designed for 89,000 places will be constructed. … Each year the North Caucasian tourist cluster will accept 5-10 million tourists.

            Such plans seem overly optimistic, as security concerns, inadequate infrastructure, and poor hotel management may make it difficult to attract many tourists. Some critics think that Russia would be much better off building additional winter sports facilities in the Khanty-Mansiysk area in the Ural Mountains of western Siberia. Khanty-Mansiysk, capital of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug, boasts of its mountain skiing facilities and the fact that it has successfully hosted several world biathlon championship. It is also an oil-boom town located in the Russia’s richest administrative district. As such, it would seem to be a more reasonable place for winter resort development than the violence-plagued northern Caucasus.

*One prominent climate classification scheme, for example applies the subtropical label any place where the average temperature of the coldest month is between 6°C (42.8°F) and 18°C (64.4°F), while another uses the range between 2°C (35.6°F) and 13°C (55.4°F).

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for translating Boris Nemtsov’s interview.)

 

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The Circassian Mystique and Its Historical Roots

Although little known today, the Circassians were once a famous people, celebrated for their military élan, physical mien, and resistance to Russian expansion. In the nineteenth century, “Circassophilia” spread from Europe to North America, where numerous writers expressed deep admiration for the mountaineers of the eastern Black Sea. Prominent physical anthropologists deemed Circassian bodies the apogee of the human form. Promoters and hucksters capitalized on the craze, marketing a number of Circassian beauty aids and even creating fake “Circassian Beauties” to exhibit in circus sideshows.

Map of Mamluk Empire Circa 1400Although their mountainous homeland is noted for its rugged, isolating topography, the Circassians have long been well integrated into the wider world. Circassia fronts a large stretch of the Black Sea, an area that has attracted merchants and settlers from the Greek world and beyond since antiquity. In the later Middle Ages and into early modern times, Genoese traders frequented the Circassian coast. Politically, the region is usually depicted as backwater, as the Circassians never created a powerful state of their own. Yet they were no strangers to statecraft at the highest levels, having largely run the Mamluk Empire of Egypt from 1382-1517. Even after their defeat by the Ottomans, Circassians continued to form much of Egypt’s political elite. Ostensibly their power came to an end in 1811 when Mohammad Ali massacred most of the Mamluks. Still, as Kadir Natho argues in Circassian History, Circassians later reclaimed important Egyptian military and administrative positions. Vestiges of their clout in North Africa linger to this day. As Qaddafi’s power was tottering in 2011, his agents reached out to the remnants of the Circassian community of Misrata, hoping to rally its members to the Libyan regime.

Admiration for Circassian beauty and bravery in the West was widespread during the Enlightenment. Voltaire took it for granted that Circassians were a comely people, a trait that he linked to their practice of inoculating babies with the smallpox virus. In the nineteenth century, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the founder of physical anthropology, invented the concept of the “Caucasian race” partly in reference to the Circassians. He reckoned that the peoples of the Caucasus, particularly the Circassians and Georgians, represented something close to the ideal human form, having “degenerated” less than others since the creation. Early anthropologists thus sought to elevate Europeans by linking them to the Circassians in a common racial category.

Circassophilia” in the English-speaking world is often said to date to the Crimean War (1853-1856), when the British were allied with the Circassians against the Russian Empire. But travel accounts show that the attitude has deeper roots. Admiration for the Adyghe people stemmed in part from the general respect accorded to independent mountain peoples who resisted eastern empires, which in turn was linked to the disdain that most Westerners felt for Asian—and Russian—civilization. Still, the esteem granted to the Circassians in many of these works went well beyond the norm. Consider, for example, Edmund Spencer in Travels in Circassia, Krim Tatary, Etc., (1836):

It was also the first time that I had seen the Circassians mingling on friendly terms with the Russian soldiers; and assuredly a more striking contrast than the two people presented, both in physical appearance and moral expression, it is impossible to conceive. The one, with symmetrical forms and classic features, seemed breathing statues of immortal Greece; the other, coarse-looking, short, and thick-limbed, appeared like an inferior race of beings. But if the physical line of demarcation was broad, the moral was still broader. The mountaineer, free as the eagle on the wing, stepped and moved, as if proudly conscious of his independence, with a dauntless self-confidence not unmixed with scorn, that none but a child of liberty could exhibit in his bearing…  (p. 291).

Both the Circassian reputation for beauty and their heritage of holding political power outside of their homeland stemmed in part from their curious niche in the political economy of the Middle East. The Circassians, to put it bluntly, specialized in providing elite slaves for the powerful states of the eastern Mediterranean world. Mamluks, literally meaning “slaves,” were men recruited in bondage to serve as elite fighters but who later turned the tables and took over the state itself, after which they continued to replenish their own ranks by importing slaves from the homeland. Circassians were by no means the only Mamluk soldiers of the Muslim world, but they were the dominant group in Egypt over an extended period of time.

Circassian women were equally renowned as high-status slaves, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. Many, of course, did not reach elevated standing, and the oppression that they could experience was likely extreme, but many Circassian women ended up in the imperial harem, a center of real political clout. Those whose sons went on become sultans could exercise substantial power in their own rights. Elite Circassian wives, moreover, were not limited to the imperial family. As Reina Lewis writes, “In 1870, Sir Henry Elliot, the British ambassador to Istanbul, realized how indelicate it might be to raise the subject of Circassian slavery since the grand vizier’s Circassian wife had been a slave and so had been or were the wives of many other important officials”  (p. 132).

The reasons for Circassia’s intensive participation in the slave trade are debated. Some writers stress the poverty, crowding, and deep class divisions of the region, which compelled the poor to sell their children. Others counter that the trade was largely voluntary: “it would seem that maids were seldom forced into bondage, instead they themselves opted to enter into this state out of goodwill. They were lured by tales of opulence and luxury in the harems, in which their legendary beauty was at a premium.” Historian Charles King, in his engaging history of the Black Sea, recounts an episode in which six female slaves on a transport vessel intercepted by a Russian warship refused liberation, preferring to take their chances in the slave markets of Istanbul (p. 118).

Whatever its propelling factors, the slave trade deeply influenced social relations in Circassia. According to the British writer John Longwort (in A Year Among the Circassians [1840]), commoners were often unabashedly assessed in terms of market valuation:

 When you hear of their being so many hands high, or worth so many purses, you naturally conclude that they are cattle being spoken of. A Circassian has original notions on the subject: both men and women have their value as property … and it may be some consolation to the latter to know, that with any pretension to beauty, they have ten times the value of the former (p. 57).

         The stereotypical beautiful Circassian woman had dark luxuriant hair juxtaposed against smooth, pale skin. As a result, Circassian-branded hair and skin products came to be widely marked in Europe and the United States. Such connotations even made their way to gastronomy; the dish called “Circassian Chicken” is named not for its place of origin, but rather for its smooth texture and light color. By the late 1800s, “Circassian Beauties” had become circus attractions in the United States; such “performers” were not from the Caucasus, but were rather local woman of light complexion who dyed their hair and then teased and coiffed it into elaborate halos. Charles King again provides insight (in The Ghosts of Freedom, pp. 138-140), noting that Phineas T. Barnum himself took credit for “introducing the Circassians into American popular culture.” The appeal, King shows, was primarily erotic, as the so-called Circassian Beauties would recount to the crowds the “the prods and examinations” that they had experienced “in the slave bazaar.” The origin of their hairstyle is less clear; King suggests that it might have been derived either from the “tall, fuzzy hats” worn by the men of the Caucasus, or from an attempt to “Africanize”—and thus further sexualize—this quintessential Caucasian people. What is clear is that Western marketers of Circassian themes often had no idea what they were selling, as is evident in the French “Koringa” poster reproduced here.

Besides their innate physical traits, posture and bearing also played a role in the Circassians’ reputation for beauty. As numerous videos on the internet confirm, Circassian dancers typically hold their bodies in a strikingly upright manner. John Longwort noted the same characteristic in everyday life while sojourning in the region in the early 1800s. As he wrote of one local woman, “She was tall and well, though slightly, shaped, and held herself, like all Circassians, men or women, very erect” (p. 59).

As the Circassians seek to maintain their identity and bring their situation to global notice, the traditional Circassian modes of dance and dress are increasingly cultivated and disseminated on the internet. Graphic artists are also developing visually arresting Circassian themes and motifs. It will be interesting to see whether the Circassian cause and style re-enter the Western consciousness as the Sochi Olympics approach.

King, Charles. The Ghosts of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford, 2008. Pp. 138-140.

King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Oxford, 2004

Lewis, Reina. Rethinking Orientalism: Women, Travel, and the Ottoman Harem. I. B, Taurus, 2004

Natho,  Kadir. Circassian History. Xlibris,  2010

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Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014

Map of the Circassian Republics in Russia

Map of the Circassian Republics in RussiaThe resurgence of Circassian identity in recent years faces daunting obstacles. Many Circassians believe that the long-term sustainability of their community requires a return to the northwestern Caucasus, but both the Russian state and the other peoples of the region resist such designs. Circassians are thus focusing much of their efforts on global public opinion, building a protest movement in preparation for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

Requests by Circassian exiles to return to the Caucasus began to pour into Russian consulates not long after the expulsion of the community in the mid-1800s. Until the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, re-migration in any numbers was not feasible. In the early 1990s, however, thousands of Circassians from the Middle East managed to move back, although some later abandoned the effort, discouraged by the poverty of the region. Return migration slowed after the war in Chechnya heated up in the mid 1990s, and was again constricted in the early 2000s by the imposition of restrictive Russian laws. Would-be immigrants must abandon their foreign citizenship and learn the Russian language. Quotas are imposed as well. Local opposition by non-Circassians also inhibits the movement. The “Union of the Slavs,” founded in 1991, seeks to forestall any return, warning others that the Circassian returnees plan to overwhelm the region and then marginalize local Russians. The Union has also fought proposals to increase the autonomy of the existing Circassian-oriented Russian republics, only one of which, Kabardino-Balkaria, actually has a Circassian majority.

Map of Kuban CossacksCossacks have long been at the forefront of the anti-Circassian movement. Cossacks—Slavic-speaking people who had adopted the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the steppes—were instrumental in the expansion of the Russian Empire, and the northwestern Caucasus was no exception.  The Kuban Cossack Host, established on the edge of Circassian territory in the late 1700s, figured prominently in the Russo-Turkish (and Russo-Circassian) wars. During this long period, local Cossacks borrowed extensively from their Circassian enemies. Even the uniforms of Kuban (and Terek) Cossacks are a form of the traditional Caucasian garb known as “chokha.” Historical emulation, however, did not entail peaceful coexistence. When the Tsarist government decided to clear out the Circassians in the 1860s, the Cossacks were in the vanguard. Their assaults usually began with the mass theft of horses—according to a local adage, “a Circassian and a horse together cannot be defeated”—and ended with the burning of villages and the expulsion of the people. As a result, Cossack communities acquired some of the best lands in the northwestern Caucasus.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks themselves became the victims of a fierce “decossackization” program. In an ironic twist, a number of Cossacks fled south from the Kuban region to avoid the purges and ended up assimilating with the Abkhazians, who are closely associated with the Circassians. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Kuban Cossack traditions and identity quickly rebounded. Mounting Circassian activism and return migration immediately after 1991 help provoke the re-militarization of local Cossack contingents, angering and often intimidating the other peoples of the region. According to a 2008 article by Fatima Tlisova, Cossacks now have a privileged position that they use against Circassians activists. Yet Cossack relations with the Abkhazians remain strong. A 2008 YouTube video about the Kuban Cossacks boasts that, “1500 Kuban Cossack volunteers are now serving in aid to Abkhaz freedom.”

Circassian activists have sought to enhance group solidarity by diminishing the differences among the various Circassian sub-groups. The Russian state has long divided the Circassians into four categories: the Kabardins, the Adyghe, the Cherkes, and the Shapsugs. (Three of these terms are reflected in the names of the three “Circassian,” or partly Circassian, Russian Republics: Republic of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkar Republic, and Karachay-Cherkess Republic.) Members of the Circassian community increasingly insist on the ethnonym “Adyghe” for the entire group, and they hope for the eventual unification of the Circassian parts of the three republics. A related movement involves the quest to craft a new literary trans-Circassian language, as currently two standardized official languages, Kabardian and Adyghe proper, co-exist within a broader continuum of local dialects.

The drive for unification encounters a potential snag in the Abazas and especially the Abkhazians. These peoples are historically and linguistically linked to the Circassians, but have generally been regarded as separate groups. Over the past several decades, the general tendency has been to try to fold all of the indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus into one broad ethnic or national formation. More recently, however, tensions have mounted between Circassian and Abkhazian nationalists. Abkhazia is now a self-declared independent country of its own that functions as a client state of Russia, and Russia is seen as the main obstacle to Circassian unification.

A recent article suggests that tensions have arisen between Circassians and Abkhazians over Krasnya Polyana, the main skiing facility of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some Abkhazian politicians have evidently claimed that Krasnya Polyana is rightfully Abkhazian, while Circassians view it as a monument to their own tragic history, the site of the last major battle in the Russian-Circassian war. In one sense, neither view is fully correct: before the expulsions of the 1860s, the larger Sochi area had been the home of the Ubykhs, the one northwestern Caucasian people to disappear entirely in the diaspora.

Circassian nationalists differ in their ultimate goals. Some demand nothing less than an independent Circassia blanketing the northwestern Caucasus, but others would be content with political and cultural autonomy within the Russian Federation, coupled with a right for members of the diaspora to return. Even these more limited aspirations, however, face long odds. The three nominally Circassian republics all have limited autonomy, two are officially shared with non-Circassian groups, and all include many Russians and other non-indigenous peoples. Such diversity makes for complex local politics, which often devolve into three-way struggles among Russians, Circassians, and Turkic groups such as the Balkars. Russian activists have tried to dismantle the nominally Circassian Republic of Adygea, situated near the middle of Krasnodar Krai. Circassian officials in Adygea subsequently attempted, without success, to annul the immigration quota for Circassian returnees, hoping to bolster their own numbers in the fragile republic.

Although their national ambitions face deep challenges, the Circassian community possesses many resources of its own. The diaspora includes many influential and wealthy persons. The proposed merging of Adygea and Krasnodar Krai, for example, was forestalled in part by the lobbying of Jordanian Circassians. The Circassian internet presence, moreover, is extensive and impressive, conveyed by many websites and YouTube productions. Yet as the lessons of “Virtual Tibet” show, it is extraordinarily difficult to translate internet activism into real political clout when faced with the concerted opposition of a powerful state.

Despite the sophistication of the Circassian outreach program, their cause has hardly penetrated into the consciousness of the global community. I doubt that one person in a thousand in the United States has any knowledge of the Circassian people. But I do anticipate an upsurge in both information and interest as the 2014 Winter Olympics approaches. Circassians view Sochi and especially the ski resort at Krasnya Polyana as the focal points of their tragic history, and they are already denouncing the upcoming “Genocide Olympics.” Sizable demonstrations against the event have occurred in Istanbul and other cities, and more are on the way. Olympic competitions have long served as theaters of political demonstration, and the Sochi event promises to be particularly theatrical.

Protests against the Sochi Olympics will likely draw on historical themes and motifs associated with the Circassian people. Although the Circassians are little-known in the West, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s the group was so famous that it inspired brand names, as we shall see in Monday’s post, the final offering on the Circassians.

Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014 Read More »

The Politics of Genocide Claims and the Circassian Diaspora

Map of the Caucasian Language Families

Map of the Caucasian Language FamiliesAllegations of genocide are often politically charged. On January 23, 2012, the French parliament voted to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In Turkey, by contrast, it is illegal to assert that the same acts were genocidal. The Turkish government remains adamant, threatening to impose unspecified sanctions on France for passing the new law. Turkish critics meanwhile accuse France of having engaged in a genocidal campaign of its own against Algerians in the 1950s. France is one of twenty-one sovereign states to officially recognize the Armenian genocide, but is the only one to specifically outlaw its denial. Most countries offering recognition are in Europe and Latin America; many, France included, have substantial Armenian populations. Although the United States has not acted, forty-three U.S. states have passed Armenian genocide acknowledgement bills.

The mass killing of Armenians is not the only example of a politically contested charge of genocide in the Caucasus. In May 2011, the Georgian legislature voted unanimously to classify the Russian assaults on the Circassian (or Adyghe-speaking) community in the 1860s as acts of genocide. The only legislator to speak against the bill warned that it would offend Georgia’s Armenian community, considering the fact that Georgia has not acknowledged the Armenian case. Thus far, Georgia is the only country to officially consider the expulsion and slaughter of the Circassians as a case of genocide. Critics charge Georgia with self-interested behavior, noting that its intractable struggle with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia provides incentive to denounce the past actions of the Russian government in the Caucasus. Hard-core Turkish partisans have also highlighted the Circassian massacres, in their case to downplay the Armenian example; according to one blogger, the Circassian genocide was “infinitely worse than what happened to the Armenians,” yet it has been almost entirely forgotten by the international community.

Controversies surrounding the “genocide” label are often definitional, hinging on whether actions must be consciously aimed to exterminate an entire people to be so classified. Yet regardless of the formal label used, the massacres and evictions of Armenians in the early twentieth century and of Circassians in the mid nineteenth century were horrific. Based on the original definition of the term, the “genocide” label does seem appropriate. Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1943 in reference to the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but he began working on the idea much earlier, in response to the catastrophic expulsions of the Armenians and the massacres of Assyrians in northern Iraq in the 1930s. (Like the Circassian genocide, that of the Assyrians has garnered little international recognition, apart from Sweden in 2010.)

Wikipedia Circassian diaspora map The Russian-Circassian conflict dates back to the mid-1700s, part of a much broader struggle pitting the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire. After roughly 100 years of war, the Russian government decided in the early 1860s to drive the Circassians into Ottoman territory. Russian forces and Cossack irregulars systematically burned villages and slaughtered civilians. According to an article posted in the Circassian World website, these actions were “the first intentional large-scale genocide of the modern times. … It was also the largest single genocide of the 19th century.” By most accounts, some ninety percent of the Circassian population was either killed or driven out, effectively depopulating most of the northwestern Caucasus. A few Circassians, especially members of the eastern Kabardin group, were able to remain, and in time their numbers grew. Nonetheless the expulsion was devastating. Of an estimated 3.7 million Circassians worldwide today, only 700,000 live in the homeland. The remainder reside primarily in Turkey and other lands of the former Ottoman Empire, particularly Syria and Jordan.

The depopulation of the northwestern Caucasus in the 1860s is reflected in the modern linguistic map. The distribution of the northwestern Caucasian linguistic family today is markedly discontiguous. Whereas the northeastern Caucasian and the Kartvelian languages (Georgian and its relatives) cover relatively solid blocks of territory, the northwestern Caucasian languages appear in small pockets surrounded by areas in which people speak Russian and other languages. Even in the Russian republics of Karachai-Cherkessia and Adyghea, ostensibly based on Circassian ethnicity, Circassians constitute only about a quarter of the total population. Yet before the events of the 1860s, the Circassians and their relatives had occupied a large block of contiguous territory in the mountains and the adjacent lowlands of the northwestern Caucasus.

Map of Circassian Areas in Turkey The Ottomans generally welcomed the Circassian refugees, valuing their military expertise against the Russian enemy, and hence offered them haven in scattered locales. Yet in their unwilling diaspora, the Circassians have had some difficulty maintaining their language and ethnic identity. This has been particularly true in Turkey, where a politically enforced nationalism has meant categorization as Turks, regardless of self-identity. In the past, many Circassians in Turkey have been willing or even eager to assimilate; a result, the use of northwestern Caucasian languages in the diaspora has declined sharply.  Many younger Circassians in Turkey, however, are now reclaiming their identity. In April 2011, “Circassians in Turkey staged a rally … in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district to demand broadcasting and education rights in their native language…” One participant claimed that “The denials, exiles, betrayals, insults, policies of assimilation and social exclusion that have taken place during the 87 years that have passed since the foundation of the Turkish Republic nearly amount to a gallery of sins.”

According to some sources, Circassian identity has been more easily maintained in Jordan, Syria, and Israel, whether due to the less homogenizing political cultures of these countries or simply to the greater cultural distances separating the Circassians from their majority populations. In 2010 Jordan opened a Circassian academy, featuring classes in Adyghe. Such classes may be a challenge to pull off, however, as even in Jordan relatively few Circassians have preserved their language. In both Jordan and Syria, Circassians have tended to form privileged communities, marked by some political and even military clout, encouraging assimilation in the long run.

The position of the Circassian community in Syria, however, may be in danger. Like the Christians and Alawites, the Circassians have tended to support the al-Assad regime, which—brutal through it may be—has generally kept the lid on sectarian and ethnic strife. Several Circassian leaders in Syria are now seeking permission from Russia for re-migration to the northwestern Caucasus. Such a request reflects both the insecurity of present-day Syria and the lure of the homeland; as Circassian ethnic consciousness grows, many Circassian are concluding that long-term cultural survival is possible only within Circassia itself. Russia, however, has placed firm limits on return migration, angering Circassian activists. As we shall see in a later post, Circassian activism is increasing in Russia, generating concern in the country’s political establishment. Any returnees, moreover, might find disappointment; some of the Jordanian Circassians who recently moved to the Caucasus later returned to Jordan, having discovered that the reality of their homeland and their dreams about it did not coincide.

GeoCurrents will continue to explore the Circassians for the next week or so. The Circassians are of major—although woefully under-appreciated—world historical significance, and they were once well-known in Europe and North America. They may become noted again; Circassian protesters are already gearing up for the Sochi Winter Olympics, situated in what they consider to be the epicenter of their genocide. In winter 2014, the global press may have a few words to say about the forgotten Circassians.

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Historical Clues and Modern Controversies in the Northeastern Caucasus: Udi and Ancient Albania

Map of Hurrian Kingdoms, 2300 BCE

Map of Hurrian Kingdoms and Neighbors, Circa 2300 BCEThe Caucasus is rightly called a “mountain of languages.” Linguistic diversity reaches its extreme in the Russian republic of Dagestan and adjacent districts in northern Azerbaijan. The nearly three million inhabitants of Dagestan speak more than thirty languages, most of them limited to the republic. Such languages may seem inconsequential to outsiders, mere relict tongues of minor peoples. Yet a few of them are of historical significance, and the broader linguistic geography of the region provides evidence of important historical patterns stretching back for thousands of years. Historical linguistic relationships here are also implicated in the current-day political struggles of this troubled region.

Although the languages of Dagestan include members of the widespread Turkic and Indo-European families, most belong to the Northeastern Caucasus family. Many linguists include the Nakh languages of neighboring Chechnya and Ingushetia in the group; others essentially limit it to languages spoken in Dagestan and the mountains of northern Azerbaijan. Despite its restricted distribution, the NE Caucasian family is deeply differentiated, including six clearly separate subfamilies in addition to Nakh. Three of these groupings (Lezgic, Dargin, and Avar-Andic) include one or two “major” languages, spoken by hundreds of thousands of people, along with an assortment of local tongues used by only a few thousand. According to the Wikipedia, four Dagestani languages (Avar, Dargwa, Lezgin, and Tabasaran) are “literary,” employed to some extent for written communication.

As a remote area with many small ethnolinguistic groups, the northeastern Caucasus is distinctive but hardly unique. Other areas of forbidding topography with similar levels of linguistic diversity include the highlands of New Guinea—a vastly larger area—and the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Most such areas are assumed to be historical backwaters, but that is not the case in regard to the northeastern Caucasus. If the “Alarodian” hypothesis is correct, two of the most important  peoples of the ancient Near East spoke languages, now long extinct, that were closely linked to the Northeastern Caucasian family.

The ancient languages in question are Hurrian and Urartian. “Hurrian” may not be a household word, but various Hurrian states were rivals of the Babylonians, the Hittites, and other Bronze-Age “super-powers.” The Hittite Empire itself probably included large numbers of Hurrian-speakers, although its official language was Indo-European. The main body of the Hurrians, living in what is now northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey, also seems to have been over-run by Indo-Europeans, chariot-riders who established the powerful Kingdom of Mittani circa 1500 BCE. The Mitanni rulers had Indo-European names, but they soon adopted the Hurrian speech of their subjects, as revealed by the remarkable Amarna Correspondences preserved in Egypt.

Map of Ancient UrartuThe Mitanni Kingdom of the Hurrians disappeared in the conflagration that marked the end of the Bronze Age, circa 1200 BCE, a time of massive population movement, de-urbanization, and the retreat of literacy. By the tenth century BCE, however, a powerful new kingdom using a closely related language emerged in the area around Lake Van in what is now eastern Turkey. This Iron-Age kingdom of Urartu was noted for its mineral wealth and for its bitter rivalry with the Assyrian Empire. Urartu persisted until it was conquered by the Empire of the Medes, the immediate predecessor of the Persian Empire, circa 590 BCE. At roughly the same time, the land of Urartu seems to have been linguistically transformed by the spread of proto-Armenians from the west, a people perhaps linked with the ancient Phrygians who spoke a language in an outlying branch of the Indo-European family. In the twentieth century, Armenian nationalists began to glorify ancient Urartu as the deep font of Armenian culture. In doing so, they sought to highlight the antiquity of their claims to territory in what is now eastern Turkey. Without endorsing such political claims, it is only fair to acknowledge a close historical connection between Urartu and Armenia.

Map of Albania in the Caucasus and Neighboring Kingdoms, Circa 300 CEThe linkage between NE Caucasian languages and ancient kingdoms is strongest in Caucasian Albania, a state that covered much of what is now Azerbaijan from the fourth century BCE to the eighth century CE. Like Armenia and the Georgian kingdom of Iberia, Albania was politically caught between, and deeply influenced by, the Persian world to its east and the Greco-Roman world to its west. We know from ancient Greek writers that the Albanians eventually acquired their own script, but knowledge of this writing system was lost until 1937. At that time, a Georgian scholar discovered a reproduction of the Albanian alphabet in a medieval Armenian manuscript. Subsequently, a few stone inscriptions were found that used the same script, but the language itself basically remained a mystery until the early 2000s.

Map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus Circa 300The story of the recovery of Albanian writing begins in 1975, when a fire damaged a number of manuscripts in a neglected basement cell in the famous Eastern Orthodox monastery of Saint Catherine’s in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The heating of the manuscripts helped reveal the fact that some were palimpsests, parchment manuscripts that had been scraped over and then re-inscribed. Fifteen years later, unknown letters were noticed under a Georgian text in one of the documents. In 1996, the Georgian scholar Zaza Alexidze determined that the underlying passages were in Albanian. After several years of concerted effort, he recovered and translated the entire hidden layer of the palimpsest. What he found was an Albanian Christian lectionary, a church calendar with specific scriptural readings keyed to specific dates. Some scholars believe that this long-forgotten and thoroughly erased text, which dates to the late forth or early fifth century, is the oldest Christian lectionary in existence.

Map of NE Caucasian Languages, Including UdiAlexidze’s translation was facilitated by the existence of a living tongue strikingly similar to the language used in the lectionary. The literary language of the ancient Albanians, it turns out, lived on among the Udi, a group of eight thousand persons inhabiting two villages in Azerbaijan. As the years passed, the Udi language diverged from old Albanian, but not by much. The surviving Udi people also retained the faith of their ancestors. Although they live in a largely Muslim area, the modern Udi belong to their own Udi-Albanian Christian church.

Christianity originally spread to Albania from Armenia. The Albanian church eventually separated from the Armenian, affiliating instead with the Orthodox Christianity of the Greek world. After the Muslim conquest of Albania in the 600s, such an affiliation became politically fraught, as the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire was the main principal rival of the Muslim Caliphate. As a result, the Albanian Christian population was again placed under the ecclesiastical authority of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Over time, it seems, much or perhaps most of the Albanian population assimilated into the Armenian community. Those who resisted Armenian religious control seem to have evolved into the modern Udi. Yet the Udi population continued to decline, as many members adopted Islam and were absorbed by the Azeri community. Today, the Udi language is regarded as gravely endangered.

As might be expected, the Albanian heritage of the eastern Caucasus has generated a contemporary political controversy among Armenian and Azerbaijani partisans, focusing on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Eastern Armenians, according to some Azerbaijani stalwarts, are not so much genuine Armenians as transformed Albanians—like much of the Azeri population. Armenian scholars charge Azerbaijani historians with greatly exaggerating the extent of Albanian assimilation, and with trying to “de-Armenianize” much of the historically constituted Armenian region.

To the neutral bystander, the issue might seem moot; ethnic groups and nations often expand by assimilation, and the mixing of peoples is more the norm than the exception over the long term. Primordialist nationalism, however, retains a strong hold on the imagination, especially when faced with intractable military conflicts. As the “frozen war” between Armenia and Azerbaijani is now going into its third decade, it is not surprising that the ancient Albanians would be recruited into the conflict.

Historical Clues and Modern Controversies in the Northeastern Caucasus: Udi and Ancient Albania Read More »

The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

Map of the Former Greek Communities in Georgia, CaucasusReaders who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek population of Georgia has plummeted from over 100,000 to less than 20,000, due largely to emigration to Greece. Many of the remaining Georgian Greeks are elderly, and a few locales are reported to have only a handful of remaining Greek residents, putting the survival of the community in some doubt

But regardless of the community’s future, its Greek nature raises some interesting issues about identity. Members of the group consider themselves Greek, generally belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and use the Greek script when writing their own language; they are also reckoned as Greeks by the Athens government. As a result, their homeland has been accurately mapped as “Greek” on ethnic maps. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to linguistic maps, as most of the Greeks of south-central Georgia speak a Turkic language called Urum. They are not unique in this regard. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Greeks expelled from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s were actually Turcophones. Today, the remaining Turkic-speaking Greek population is concentrated in three areas: south-central Georgia, the north Azov area of southern Russia, where the community was reported to be 60,000 strong in 1969, and in Donetsk Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, which Ethnologue claims contains 95,000 Urum speakers.*

Map showing the Empire of Trebizond circa 1235 CEThe Greek presence in the area that is now Georgia apparently dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were a maritime people who established outposts all along the shores of the Black Sea, many of which survived, in one form or another, into the modern era. The focus of this so-called Pontic Greek community was the coastal strip of what is now northeastern Turkey, an area that enjoyed its heyday from 1204-1461 as the Empire of Trebizond, a prosperous and highly cultured Byzantine successor state. After the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond in 1461, some of its Greek residents abandoned Greek for Turkic dialects while remaining Map of the Aborted Republic of PontusChristian and Greek-identified, others retained both Christianity and their distinctive Pontic Greek dialect (or language), others converted to Islam and adopted the Turkish language, and still others became Muslim while continuing to speak “Rumca,” the local term used to denote Pontic Greek.** Those who retained Greek identity tried to build a Republic of Pontus during the chaotic years from the end of World War I until the early 1920s, but were unsuccessful. After repelling the Greek invasion from the west in 1922, the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a firm hold over Anatolia. Turkish assaults at this time on the Greek community in the northeast have been deemed by some the “Pontic Genocide”; in the end, most of the Greeks of Turkey were expelled to Greece, just as the Turks of Greece were expelled to Turkey. Today, Trebizond is an ethnically Turkish area described by the BBC in 2007 as a football-mad hotbed of Turkish nationalism.

The Pontic Greeks were not limited to northeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands lived in the coastal areas of what are now Georgia, Abkhazia, southern Russia, and Ukraine. These communities also suffered periodic bouts of persecution in the twentieth century. Under Stalin, as many as 100,000 Pontic Greeks were exiled to Central Asia in two waves, the first in the late 1930s and the second in the late 1940s. Even after Stalin’s death, Greeks in the Soviet Union faced discrimination. According to one source, “Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies.” Ronald Suny, however, notes that Greek interests were accommodated in Georgia under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1970s and early 1980s (see The Making of the Georgian Nation, p. 313).

One of the main centers of Greek culture in the early Soviet Union was the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, formerly part of the Georgian Soviet Republic and now a self-declared independent state aligned with Russia. Before World War II, Sukhumi’s Hellenic community of some 65,000 supported Greek schools, theaters, newspapers, and libraries. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Sukhumi still had some 17,000 Pontic Greeks. As Georgians, Abkhazians, and Russians began to struggle over the fate of Abkhazia in 1991, the local Greeks began to flee, even though “[they] were encouraged by both sides to remain in the area throughout the conflict, and were even offered high ministerial and administrative positions.” In 1993, the Athens government carried out “Operation Golden Fleece” to evacuate most of the remaining population from the conflict zone. By 2003, only around 2,000 Greeks still lived in Abkhazia.

Although the Greek communities of the coastal zone are of long standing, those of interior Georgia date back only to the late eighteenth century. In 1763, Heraclius II, one of the last independent Georgian monarchs, enticed a sizable contingent of Pontic Greeks to settle in the area that now straddles the border of Georgia and Armenia, where he was developing silver and lead mines as part of an aborted modernization program. A second group fled the Ottoman Empire for Russian-ruled Georgia in 1829-1830, after the Greek War of Independence triggered the harassment of Anatolian Greeks. These refugees settled mostly in the Trialeti Plateau region of south-central Georgia, with the multi-lingual and now majority Armenian city of Tsalka forming their hub. Although these so-called Tsalka Urums were almost entirely Turkic-speaking—as the label “Urum” indicates—late Soviet ethnographic studies found that “36% of them considered Greek their mother tongue despite their lack of knowledge of that language, [and that] 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.”

With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia, the Tsalka Urums began to forsake Georgia for Greece. According some reports, the Greek community of south-central Georgia declined from 35,000 in 1989 to 3,000 in 2002, although the 2002 Georgian census still listed 7,415 “Greeks” in the Kvemo-Kartli administrative unit. The reasons for this precipitous decline are debatable. Some Greek sources claim that the Tsalka Urums were basically driven out by other ethnic groups. According to an April 2005 report in the Hellenic Resources Network, “Greek families have been massacred and others have been forced out of their villages, according to local ethnic Greek organizations.” Another report on the same site claims that internal migration within Georgia added to the community’s woes: “The remote Tsalka … became attractive for the Svanja, the domestic immigrants from western Georgia, and the Adjarians. … The squatters committed acts of violence … to force the ethnic Greeks to abandon their homeland.” The same sources, however, also mention an economic rationale for the migration, noting that retirees in the area receive pensions equivalent to twelve Euros a month, far less that what they are able to collect in Greece.

Maps showing ethnic changes in GeorgiaSeveral lessons can be drawn from the story of the Pontic Greeks of Georgia. The first is that ethnic mapping often fails to keep pace with events on the ground. Older maps depicted a substantial Greek population in south-central Georgia, as was indeed appropriate. More recent maps tend to copy from these sources, failing to capture such recent changes as the near disappearance of this Greek community. Recent maps also generally fail to note the disappearance of the southernmost area of Ossetian inhabitation in Georgia. I have accordingly changed one of the most widely used ethno-linguistic maps of the Caucasus, erasing the “Greek” and “Ossetian” areas from Georgia proper. I have also deleted the “Georgian” area from South Ossetia, as a significant degree of ethnic cleansing has occurred here as well.

A second lesson concerns the complex relationship between ethnic identity and language. One might assume that an area labeled “Greek” on an “ethno-linguistic map” would be Greek-speaking, but that is not the case in regard to Tsalka. Strictly speaking, such a designation is incorrect, as Urums are Greek only in the ethnic sense. Yet polling data from the late Soviet period indicated that many people here proclaimed a Greek linguistic identity even though they did not actually speak Greek, but merely hoped to learn it. Also important was their use of the Greek script to signal group membership.

Finally, the plight of the Georgian Greeks also speaks to the broader reduction of the Greek community abroad. The Greeks, like the Jews, the Armenians, and the Lebanese, are one of the great diasporic peoples of western Eurasia, their communities historically scattered over a vast territorial expanse. But ethnic persecution and economic hardship abroad, coupled with enticements from the national homeland, have reduced the extent of the Greek diaspora. In the process, the modern ethnic map of the Caucasus has become less intricate than that of the recent past.

In a similar process, many members of the Armenian community living in other parts of the Caucasus have relocated to Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh), a movement that has been going on for some time. Yet Armenia is now to sending many more migrants abroad than it takes in, thus perpetuating the Armenian diaspora in a different manner, as we shall see in a subsequent GeoCurrents post.

* The 2001 Ukrainian census lists 91,000 “Greeksfor the country as a wholewhereas the 1989 census counted 98,500 Ukrainian Greeks, only 14,286 named Greek as their native language. Whether the others are Turkic or Russian speakers was not mentioned.

* Some sources claim a few thousand Rumca speakers, many of them elderly, still live in northeastern Turkey, although the comprehensive Ethnologue has no information on the group.

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From Sarmatia to Alania to Ossetia: The Land of the Iron People

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late Antiquity

Map of the Sarmatian Tribes in Late AntiquityThe Caucasus is often noted as a place of cultural refuge, its steep slopes and hidden valleys preserving traditions and languages that were swept away in the less rugged landscapes to the north and south. Such a depiction generally seems fitting for the Ossetians, the apparent descendents of a nomadic group called the Sarmatians that dominated the grasslands of western Eurasia from the fifth century BCE to the fourth century CE.

The Sarmatians were probably not a single ethnic group, let alone a unified nation, but rather a collection of related tribes that spoke closely related Iranian languages and followed similar pastoral ways of life. Discussed at length by ancient Greek and Roman geographers, the Sarmatians were depicted as a proud and warlike people, noted by some for sending young women into battle. (Recent archeological investigations seem to bear this out, as many Sarmatian graves contain skeletons of women dressed for war.)

Long after they seemingly disappeared from history, the Sarmatians retained significance in the European imagination. In the seventeenth century, most members of the Polish nobility convinced themselves that they had descended not from the Slavic tribes that had given rise to their nation’s peasantry, but rather from the Sarmatians; as a result, they widely adopted modes of dress and manners that they associated with this ancient group. The resulting style, called “Sarmatism,” remained influential until the 1800s and has not completely disappeared. In its modern guise, however, the movement has been widened, with various central and eastern European nationalists claiming Sarmatian ancestry for their entire societies. Neo-Nazis also look back to the group; a “Sarmatians” image-search on the internet yields numerous links to the infamous Stormfront website.

Wikipedia map of the Alan Migrations The Sarmatian hold on their grassland home was apparently lost to others in the fourth century. It was around this time that certain Sarmatian groups became known to history as the Alans. From the west, the Germanic Ostrogoths moved into the steppes and took up a largely equestrian way of life, while the Huns invaded from the east, threatening Sarmatians and Ostrogoths alike. Pastoral polities of the time, however, were often quite fluid, allowing peoples of different language groups to join together, whether in semi-institutionalized confederacies or mere armed aggregations of coercion or convenience. A few Alan groups evidently joined the Huns, but most fled west into Europe to avoid domination. They moved not as a single people, however, but in numerous contingents, many of which attached themselves to the Germanic tribes that were also fleeing the Huns into the dying Western Roman Empire. Some Alans allied with the (Germanic) Burgundians to establish a strong presence in Gaul. Others moved into the Iberian Peninsula, ruling over a short-lived Alanic kingdom in the early 400s. Many more joined forces with the Vandals, accompanying them in their invasion of Roman North Africa in 429 CE.

Wikipedia map of Kingdoms in Iberia, Early 400s  The various Alan groups that moved into the Roman world in the late 300s and early 400s did not maintain their language or identity for long. In most cases, they merged with the more tightly unified Germanic peoples and were eventually subsumed into the general populations of the areas in which they settled. They did leave marks, however, as suggested by numerous place names along the lines of “Alainville.” They also seem to have figured prominently in the development of the medieval ideals of chivalry.

If C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor are to be believed, the cultural legacy of the Alans in Europe was profound. In a fascinating and controversial book entitled From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail (Arthurian Characters and Themes), Littleton and Malcor argue that most of the Arthurian corpus derives from the stories and myths of the Alans. Although criticized for downplaying the Celtic aspects of the legends, Littleton and Malcor present abundant evidence leading back to the Alans. Guinevere, they allow, was a Celtic figure, but Lancelot and many others seem to have a Sarmatian origin. As they show, the north Caucasus’s own epic writings, the Nart Sagas, bear a curious resemblance to the Arthurian stories, abounding in magical swords and supernatural chalices.

Map of Medieval AlaniaAlthough most of the Alans swept into Western Europe and North Africa in late antiquity, others evidently sought refuge in the deep valleys of the Greater Caucasus range, where they intermarried with the indigenous peoples of the region. In time their descendants were able to establish a state of their own. By the 700s, the Kingdom of Alania linked the central Caucasus Mountains with a broad swath of the steppe zone of the north. Alania was soon embroiled in a complex geopolitical contest for the larger region, involving the Arab Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire, and the Khazar Khanate (an empire based in the northern Caspian Sea region whose ruling elite adopted Judaism). Alliance with the Khazars evidently resulted in numerous conversions to Judaism among the Alans, but Christianity triumphed in the higher circles of Alania, based on strong connections with both the Greeks and the Georgians, although pre-Christian beliefs and practices did not vanish entirely. Medieval Alania was already well integrated into the diplomatic circles of the Orthodox Christian realm. Several Alan princesses married into royal houses in Russia, Georgia, and the Byzantine Empire.

German map of the Kingdoms of the Caucasus, Circa 1000 CEAlania was devastated by the Mongol invasions of the early 1200s and essentially destroyed by the incursions of Tamerlane in the late 1300s. As had happened in the fourth century, some Alans fled the invading armies; others sought refuge in the remote Caucasian valleys; still others became incorporated into the conquering society. Joining forces with the Mongols, more than a few ended up in China, where “30,000 Alans formed the royal guard (Asud) of the Yuan court in Dadu (Beijing).” Another sizable group received refuge in Hungary; their descendants, the Jassic people or Jász, are still viewed as a distinct ethnic group, numbering some 85,000.

The Alans who retreated into the Caucasus after the Mongol assaults were unable to reconstitute their kingdom. Instead they split into petty polities and came under the partial domination of their Kabardian neighbors. They eventually divided into two distinct ethnic groups, the Iron and the Digor, marked by differences in dialect and territory. Ossetian religion came to be marked by a strongly syncretic bent, with the names of Christian saints commonly identified with pre-Christian gods. After the Russian conquest in the late 1700s, Orthodox Christianity experienced a revival, especially among the Iron. Islam also spread into Ossetia, passing from the Kabardians to the Digor especially. Syncretic beliefs and practices, however, persist among both groups, alongside mainstream Islam and Christianity. Such syncretism has historically been common through much of the North Caucasus, although more orthodox forms of faith have been spreading rapidly over the past few decades.

In the late Soviet period, Ossetian intellectuals began to reclaim their Alanian heritage, and in 1994 North Ossetia was officially renamed “North Ossetia-Alania.” This move may have been meant to help fuse the Digor and Iron into a single nationality, as the two groups remain divided by dialect and to a certain extent by religion as well. Loyalty to the Iron people rather than to the Ossetians as a whole is evident in a disarming hip-hop video found here. Although labeled “Ossetian Rap” in the English-language YouTube service, its actual title, in Cyrillic script, is “Iron Rap” (ИРОН РЭП).

 

(Many thanks to David Erschler for his corrections to the original post.)

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Keystone of the Caucasus: Ignored Ossetia and Its Snow Revolution

Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia

Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia If the arch of the Great Caucasus can be said to have a keystone, it would have to be Ossetia. This east-west range presents a formidable barrier to traffic between southern Russia and the Middle East, as it is pierced by few negotiable passes. By far the most important route across the mountains extends along the Darial Gorge through the so-called Caucasian Gates, which passes directly through Ossetia. After seizing northern Ossetia in the late 1700s, Russian empire builders founded the fortress-city of Vladikavkaz at the northern terminus of this route; the city’s name literally means “ruler of the Caucasus.” In 1799, Russian engineers began building the inordinately expensive Georgian Military Road through the Darial Gorge. This roadway allowed Russia in 1801 to annex Georgia, which had been recently devastated by an Iranian invasion, and hence to dominate the Caucasus over most of the next two centuries.

Google Earth Image of Darial Gorge, Georgia and North OssetiaMilitary control of the Caucasian Gates passed among several imperial powers over the centuries. For many hundreds of years, however, the pass and its environs have been the territory of the Ossetians, a people generally regarded to be the descendants of the medieval Alans. From the 700s to the 1200s, the powerful kingdom of Alania ruled a broad area of the north-central Caucasus and the adjacent plains to the north, profiting handsomely from trans-Caucasian trade. Alania never recovered from the blows of the Mongols in the 1200s and 1300s, but the Ossetians remained ensconced in their remote mountain valleys. Today they are the only Caucasian ethnic group whose territory spans the Great Caucasus Range.  North Ossetia-Alania forms a semi-autonomous Russian republic, while South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country whose territory is considered by most of the international community to belong to Georgia.

Events in Ossetia rarely make the international news. In 2008, South Ossetia briefly made headlines when the Russian army moved in to block Georgia from reclaiming the area. Over the next two years, a few sources noted South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, as well as its official acknowledgment by a handful of countries other than Russia, specifically Venezuela, Nicaragua, Tuvalu, and Nauru (with Russia paying Nauru an estimated fifty million dollars US for the gesture). Several years earlier (2004), the Beslan School Hostage Crisis in North Ossetia received widespread attention—as well it should: over 1,100 persons, mostly children, were taken hostage by Chechen and Ingush militants, and some 385 died when Russian security forces stormed the school. The crisis heightened the power of Russia’s federal government and helped Vladimir Putin cement his iron grip on power. Yet most international news stories framed the event strictly as part of the Russian-Chechen conflict, rarely mentioning the fact that the victims were mostly Ossetians, not Russians, and seldom noting the possibility that the attackers meant to intensify a local conflict pitting the mostly Christian Ossetians against their Muslim neighbors.

More recently, South Ossetia’s “Snow Revolution,” as it was dubbed by the Russian press, went almost unnoticed outside of the region. This conflict emerged in December 2011 after the South Ossetian Supreme Court nullified the presidential election of opposition leader Alla Dzhioyeva in favor of the Moscow-backed candidate, Anatoly Bibilov. Dzhioyeva proceeded to lead massive street protests as thousands of her followers “camped out for 10 days in sub-zero temperatures on the central square in Tskhinvali, the republic’s capital, to protest that Supreme Court ruling.” Anger in South Ossetia had evidently been building for some time, focused on the authoritarianism and corruption of the outgoing regime of Eduard Kokoity. A political standoff ensued between supporters of the two leaders, punctuated by calls for renewed Russian intervention. In the end, Kokoity stepped down in favor of a caretaker government, and new elections were scheduled for March 25, 2012—shortly after the upcoming Russian presidential contest.

Ossetia may seem to outsiders like a small, obscure, and unimportant place. North Ossetia covers only 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) and is home to only 700,000 people, while South Ossetia is half that size and contains only a tenth the population. But despite its modest extent, Ossetia is geopolitically significant, sitting at the crux of the restive Caucasus region, and embroiled in a conflict that involves not just the Russian Federation but also the United States and its allies. After the 2008 war, the U.S. government suspended the sales of military equipment to Georgia, but in December 2011, the American Congress passed a bill featuring a provision calling on the U.S. to normalize military relations with Georgia, including the sale of weapons. This move was denounced by both Russia and South Ossetia, with the South Ossetian foreign minister claiming that it would “push” Georgia to engage in renewed aggression against the break-away statelet. Georgia, of course, was pleased. The Georgian government insists that South Ossetia is an integral part of its own territory and worries about the threat posed by Russian troops stationed in the break-away republic.

Map of ethnic groups in the Caucasus, emphasizing Georgians and OssetiansThe conflict between the Georgians and the Ossetians is made more complicated by the geographical distribution of the two groups. As can be seen in the map to the left, the territory occupied by the Georgians is elongated east to west and is almost pinched off in the middle, while that of the Ossetians runs north to south, almost cutting the Georgian zone in two. As long as relations between the Georgians and the Ossetians are hostile, this unusual pattern enhances the vulnerability of each group.

Beyond its international significance today, Ossetia’s world-historical role was once much greater, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

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