Circassians

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.

 

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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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Circassia and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Yesterday’s post referred to the Ossetians as a people of “profound world-historical significance,” a phrase that fits their neighbors, the Circassians, even better. That members of the so-called White race are called “Caucasians” stems largely from the widespread nineteenth-century European notion that the Circassians, natives of the northwestern Caucasus, somehow represented the ideal human form. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Circassians were well known in Europe and the United States, celebrated for their bravery and especially their beauty. Mass-marketing advertisement campaigns hawked “Circassian lotion,” “Circassian Hair Dye,” and “Circassian soap”; P.T. Barnum even exhibited fake “Circassian beauties.” Yet in our time, this once-famous group has virtually vanished from view; when I recently asked a class of 160 Stanford undergraduates if anyone had heard of them, not a single hand was raised.

The Circassians’ world-historical significance derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the singular niche they occupied in the eastern Mediterranean from late medieval to early modern times. To put it starkly, Circassians served as elite slaves in the major Muslim states of the region. Although the notion of “elite slaves” may seem self-contradictory, unfree individuals could rise to very high positions. Muslim rulers had long staffed their armies in part with enslaved soldiers – Mamluks – and at several times and places such troops essentially took over the state. The Mamluk Burji dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by, and composed largely of, Circassian soldiers of servile background. Circassian women who were exported into servitude could end up as concubines or even wives of Ottoman and Persian sultans. Such women could become powerful in their own right, especially if one of their sons rose to the top position.

The Circassians’ downfall came at the hands of the Russians in the 1860s. The Russia Empire reached across the Caucasus to encompass Christian Georgia in the early 1800s, but – as the map above indicates – it failed to subdue Circassia. (Note that the map incorrectly places Chechnya and adjacent areas within Circassia.) Having fought the Circassians for roughly a century, Russia’s leaders decided to expel the population. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced out; most found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but nearly half died in the process. Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000. In Turkey, roughly two to four million people are of Circassian descent, and the Circassian community in Jordan numbers about 150,000. It is doubtful, however, whether Circassian culture can survive outside of the Caucasian homeland.

Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. They hope to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – once a Circassian port – to bring their historical plight to global attention. As Sufian Zhemukhov reported in the Circassian World website in September, 2009, “Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Games on the grounds that they will take place on ‘ethnically-cleansed’ land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work [that] could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, … Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.” (http://www.circassianworld.com/new/general/1382-circassian-dimension-2014sochi-szhemukh.html)

More immediately, Circassian activists want Russia to create a single internal republic for the four legally defined ethnic groups (the Adyghe, Cherkesm, Shapsugs, and Kabardin) that together constitute the Circassian people. That complicated issue, however, must be the subject of a later posting.

 

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