Staunton, May 21 – It is now common ground that Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and subversion of southeastern Ukraine have done more to boost and solidify the national identity of Ukrainians and their commitment to taking the steps necessary to be part of the West than have the actions of anyone else.
But it is important to note, especially today on the 150th anniversary of the genocide of the Circassians by tsarist forces, that Putin has played an equally key role in the launch of the modern Circassian national movement, one that embraces both the 800,000 Circassians in the North Caucasus still under Russian control and the seven million members of that nation abroad.
Indeed, it is possible that Putin’s actions and their unintended consequences for the Circassians may prove to me an even more serious threat to his rule, especially if Russians recognize that his incautious policies are destabilizing not only Ukraine but their own country and providing a cover for him to impose even more repression on them.
Several years ago, relatively few people knew who the Circassians were and relatively few Circassians around the world believed that they would ever be in a position again to take control of their destiny. But now, thanks to Vladimir Putin, a growing number know who they are and the Circassians are increasingly well-organized and self-confident.
For this remarkable development, one that few would have predicted only a few years ago and yet one that could reorder the North Caucasus and call into question Moscow’s rule there more seriously than did the Chechens in the 1990s, the Kremlin leader has only himself to blame.
By securing the agreement of the International Olympic Committee to hold this year’s Winter Olympics in the subtropical city of Sochi, the site of the 1864 genocide of the Circassian people, Putin unintentionally attracted international attention to that act and equally unintentionally gave the Circassian nation a focus and a cause.
Beginning at the Vancouver Winter Games four years ago, when a small group of Circassian activists protested the awarding of the games to Russia because of the choice of Sochi as their site, and continuing in an uninterrupted fashion since that time, Circassians have been able to spread the word about the genocide and continuing Russian oppression of their nation.
They have been able to tell the story of how the Russian authorities after fighting a century-long war against the Circassians deported that nation, killing many in the process, and they have been able to describe Stalin’s cruel ethnic engineering that divided and deported their nation in Soviet times.
The Circassians have become organized in ways they never were before, forcing the Russian authorities to counter by denying the historical record, seeking to penetrate and divide Circassian organizations, killing a Circassian activist earlier this month, most recently confiscating anniversary badges and sparking fears of provocations on this 150th anniversary of the genocide.
But these latest Russian efforts are backfiring just as Putin’s Olympiad did. The Circassians are organizing more effectively both in their North Caucasian homeland and in Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United States, they are participating in groups like American European Solidarity Council, and they are seeking international support.
Given Putin’s brutality, it would be wrong for anyone to suggest that the Circassians once they achieve their national goals erect a statue to the Russian leader. But it would be a mistake not to see the unintentional role the Kremlin leader has played in making that better future possible.
Russians who believe that Putin is the embodiment of the Russian national cause may ultimately recognize that as well. Indeed, the only person who seems incapable of understanding that the consequences of Putin’s actions is Putin himself.