Window on Eurasia, by Paul Goble
Baku, May 21 – Today, in more than 50 countries around the world, the five-million-strong Circassian community is remembering that nation's more than 100-year-long resistance to Russia's southward advance, the destruction of their historical homeland, and their expulsion from it which led to the death of almost half of their population.
On May 21, 1864, Aleksandr II declared victory over Circassia and the Circassians after more than 100 years of fighting and approved plans to deport the entire Circassian nation through the port of Sochi to the Ottoman Empire, thus beginning what some have called the first modern genocide and creating the model for ethnic cleansing elsewhere. Despite being vastly outnumbered by the Russian army, the Circassians resisted for more than 100 years, inflicting nearly a million casualties on their enemies. But by 1864, five years after the surrender of Imam Shamil, whose struggle with Imperial Russia is far better known, the Circassians were defeated.
The tsarist authorities expelled nearly 90 percent of all Circassians, restricted the remainder to approximately 10 percent of the territory on which Circassia had been, and instituted Russian rule throughout. Of the 1.5 million expelled, more than half died, with the remainder scattered throughout the Ottoman Empire.
In Soviet times, Stalin subdivided the remaining Circassians in the North Caucasus into a series of ethnic groups – the Adygei (the self-designation of most Circassians), the Cherkess, the Kabards, the Shapsugs, and several others – as extension of the classic divide-and-rule policy of nearly all empires.
Today, there are only about 600,000 Circassians in the North Caucasus, compared to more than 4.5 million abroad. And according to some studies, 88 percent of the Circassians now live outside of the borders of their historic lands, the largest percentage of any nation living outside their homeland in the world.
In 1914, Nicholas II celebrated the 50th anniversary of the defeat of the Circassians as one of the empire's greatest victories. And except for Boris Yeltsin who acknowledged in 1996 that the war in the North Caucasus had lasted 400 years and was a tragedy, most Russians before and since have preferred either to ignore this date or present it in an upbeat manner.
Until near the end of the Soviet period, Circassians living in the Russian Federation did not have the opportunity to mark in any public way the tragedy their people and country had experienced, although many in the emigration did so, and none in either group ever forgot either the resistance they had offered or the way the Russian state had sought to end it.
But in 1990, Circassians across the North Caucasus declared May 21st a national day of mourning, an event they have marked every year since. But this year, not only are more and more Circassians there and across the world celebrating this date, they are stressing different aspects of its meaning (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1217152.html). Most officials in the region are talking about it simply in terms of a long-ago tragedy, something that should be marked by a Day of Memory. Circassian activists in contrast insist that it should be a Day of Memory of the Fallen in the struggle against Russia. And still others are focusing on this day as the beginning of the Russian genocide directed against them.
As Circassian activism has increased and as Circassians around the world have sought to exploit increased attention on their region given Moscow's plans to organize an Olympic Games in Sochi, the site of the beginning of the genocide conducted against them, the Circassians have expanded their efforts to call attention to what happened.
This year, some are urging that resistance to Russian plans to offer celebrations rather than commemorations of May 21st
(www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=14207). Others are suggesting that the event be classified no longer just as a Day of Mourning but now also be declared a Day of Hope (www.circassianworld.com/Mourning.html).
And Circassians both in their historical homeland and abroad have demanded and secured official approval for this date to be a day off from work. (For the status of this day in the North Caucasus, see www.caucasustimes.com/article.asp?id=14132. For arrangements elsewhere, including in Israel, see www.natpress.net/stat.php?id=3448.)
Beyond any doubt, today will feature many wise observations by Circassians and their friends and supporters around the world, but they will have to go a long way to surpass the eloquence of one offered already last week by an unknown Circassian in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria (www.runewsweek.ru/rubrics/?rubric=country&rid=2536).
Since last year, pro-Moscow officials there have been putting up posters with the legend "450 Years of the Voluntary Joining Together of Kabardino-Balkaria to Russia. Together Forever!" But someone has been periodically crossing out the words "voluntary joining together" and writing instead "1785 – 1864."
Those were the years when the Circassians struggled against the Russian empire's advance, and the latter, of course, is the date, commemorated today, when the imperial government began to expel the Circassians, a crime against humanity whose echoes grow louder with each passing year.