Monday, 28 January 2008

Circassians Seek Reburial of 1917-19 Mountaineer Republic Leader

Paul Goble, Window on Eurasia

Baku, January 28 – Circassians across the North Caucasus are uniting behind a Kabardinian call for the reburial of Pshemakho Kotsev, the president of the 1917-19 Mountaineer Republic, who died in emigration and whose grave is now in Istanbul, in his native land.

Because Kotsev and his short-lived government -- it was suppressed by the Whites but also opposed by the Reds during the Russian Civil War -- sought to unite not only the Circassians but all the nations of the region, he remains an important symbol of a unity that the Soviet and the Russian government have sought to destroy.

Consequently, Moscow will oppose this latest effort. But the fact that some Circassians have made it and other Circassians are backing it highlights the limits of the ability of the Russian authorities to control the way in which people in the region define themselves and want to order their lives.

At the end of December, Valery Khatazhukov, a human rights activist in Kabardino-Balkaria, published an open letter to Arsen Kanokov, the president of that republic, urging him to correct an injustice by supporting Kotsev’s reburial in his homeland ( and
Noting that even now, “many of the pages of the history of Kabardino-Balkaria connected with the revolution, civil war and repressions remain closed and unknown to the majority of residents of our republic, Khatazhukov argues that burying Kotsev in that republic would help people to understand their past and thus build a better future.

And there are good precedents for such a step: In post-Soviet Russia, the Kabardinian activist points out, many „who were forced to emigrate after the October Revolution and Civil War (1918-1920)“ and who were buried in foreign countries are now being re-interred at home.

Pshemakho Kotsev (in left) with his brothers. (

The peoples of the North Caucasus welcomed the February 1917 revolution because they believed it would lead to the creation of a federal state in which all peoples would have their rights protected, the activist said. „The mountaineers did not see their future being outside of Russia.

But „the situation changed in a radical way after the Bolshevik putsch in October 1917.“ Immediately recognizing that Lenin’s regime would bring the peoples of the Caucasus „innumerable misfortunes, hunger, repression and terror,“ they on May 11, 1918, proclaimed an independent North Caucasus (Moutaineer) Republic.“

Led by Kotsev, the republic put up what Khatazhukov describes as „a heroic resistance“ against both the Reds and the Whites, but a year later, the forces of the latter, committed to „a united and indivisible Russia,“ suppressed the Mountaineer Republic and forced Kotsev to emigrate first to Georgia and then to Turkey where he died in 1962.

Koptsev and his wife, Lutsi Misakova, were buried in Istanbul’s Fiikur cemetery, where Khatzhukuov said Circassian activists had found their graves in February 2004. Over Koptsev’s grave is a simple marker with the inscription: „Pshemakhov Kotsev, the former President of the North Caucasus Republic.“

Khatazhukov’s appeal was reported by the Russian news agency, by the Turkish press, and by several news portals in the North Caucasus, including And it has clearly touched a chord with many Circassians at home and abroad.

A week ago, the Adyge Khase social movement decided to support the reburial of Koptsev and his wife. The group said that the fact that this couple united in their own marriage two peoples of the Caucasus – he was a Kabardinian and she a Balkar – would help unite the region now (,

And then on Saturday, Circassian Radio reported that this initiative is gaining ever more support, with the Cherkess Congress also planning to send a letter to the Kabardino-Balkarian government urging that it allow Kotsev to be reburied there (, January 26).

Despite or perhaps especially because of this growing support, both Moscow and its officials in the North Caucasus are unlikely to give their backing for this step lest the reburial of Kotsev and the publicity that it would attract in the North Caucasus threaten the ethnic divisions the Soviet system imposed and that they support.

As part of his divide and rule strategy there, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin worked hard to divide the Mountaineers into a variety of ethnic communities and to split up the Circassians in particular into the Adgyei, the Cherkess, the Kabard, the Abaza, the Shapsug, and the Abkhaz nationalities.

To the extent that the people of this region overcome these divisions, such an achievement would present the current Russian government with a far more united front of opponents there, something that neither Moscow nor its local agents like Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov or Ingushetia’s Murat Zyazikov could possibly want.

Consequently, the former president of the Mountaineer Republic will likely remain in his Turkish grave at least for now, but the increasing attention he and his activities are attracting means that the life and activities of the first president of the Mountaineer Republic are continuing to have an impact on his homeland.

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