Staunton, September 11 – “’Rossiyane’ is a much broader category than ethnic Russians, and our compatriots,” Sergey Arutyunov says, are not only Russians in Canada or Argentina but Tuvins in Xinjiang, Buryats in Shemekhen and Circassians in Syria or the United Arab Emirates — at least as long as they want to consider themselves to be such.”
This simple fact that ethnic and political identities are not the same, is something which “must be understood by journalists and ministers, and neo-Cossacks and even governors, the head of the Caucasus Department of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, says in a remarkable review of three recent books on Circassians and their historical memory.
In this case, a continued refusal by Russian officials to recognize Circassians as compatriots with a right of return, from a fear that the influx of a large number of them could further destabilize the North Caucaus, risks alienating not ony the more than five million Circassians who live abroad but also the 500,000 plus who live in their traditional homeland.
That is just one of the observations that Arutyunov makes in a review essay which may seem abstract and theoretical but which has enormous practical consequences and which, to the extent they are acknowledged, could open the way to a better future for those peoples.
The three books he considers in the 4300-word review essay are Emilia Sheudzhen’s “The Adygs (Circassians) in Historical Memory” (Moscow and Maikop, 2010), Fatima Ozova’s “Studies on the Political History of Circassia” (Pyatigorsk and Cherkessk, 2013), and Marina Khakuasheva’s “In Search of Lost Meaning” (Nalchik, 2013).
All three are in Russian but mostly published in the North Caucasus, all three are by young Circassian women scholars, and all wrestle with the problems of history and historical memory as these two themes are playing out in the contemporary lives of what was once the largest nation in the region and is still a terribly important one.
The issues these three raise take on added importance, the Moscow ethnographer says, because “alongside the classical diaspora people, the Jews, [the Circassians] are the people with the largest share of their number living abroad, by certain estimates up to nine-tenths of their total number.”
And their significance is elevated still further by two additional realities: the Circassians bore the brunt of “the struggle with the colonial policy of Russian stardom,” and they have achieved in recent years “greater successes in restoring and establishing anew their culture, writing, oral and literary language, and multi-faceted historical tradition.”
Earlier this year, Arutyunov notes, people in the Caucasus and around the world marked the 150th anniversary of the end of the Caucasian war. Because they suffered “the greatest losses” in that conflict and because most of them were then expelled from their homeland at its end, the Circassians took the lead in seeking to recover memory about these events.
And because the Sochi Olympics were held at the same time as the anniversary and on the place where the expulsion of the Circassians took place, “the anniversary received broad international coverage.” Some of this coverage was tendentious, Arutyunov says, but the three books he reviews are examples of a more judicious approach.
In her book, Sheudzhen notes “with great that the majority of people strongly underrate the importance of preserving memory about their genealogy and do not consider it necessary to devote serious importance to the preservation of diaries, manuscripts, and photographs of ancestors.” Thus, recovering the Circassian past is extraordinarily difficult.
But Arutyunov says that to be fair, one should note that “the situation in this regard is still worse among the majority of peoples of the Russian Federation and above all among the ethnic Russians themselves than among the Circassians and other peoples of the North Caucasus.”
Ozova focuses on a somewhat different set of issues, the Moscow scholar continues. She devotes most of her attention to the Caucasian war and to the expulsion of the Circassians at its end. A major problem, she says, is that there is no shortage of materials that allow those who want to to present one or the other side as totally good or totally bad.
Consequently, the selective publication of documents almost inevitably has the effect of promoting one vision or another and reflects the views of their compilers about “contemporary counter-terrorist operations” and “the activity of any separatists and terrorists,” and about “the fanatics of Islam and its no less fanatic oppressors.”
But neither of the extreme views, that one side was totally good and the other totally bad, “can justify the colonial character of the conquest of the North Caucasus by tsarist Russia,” Arutyunov argues.
And he cites with obvious approval Ozova’s conclusion that “it is obvious that the single path of the preservation of [the Circassians] lies through their reunification and rebirth on the land of their fathers in the Caucasus,” a view that challenges the continued division of the Circassians there by the Russian state and Moscow’s opposition to a Circassian return.
The third book Arutyunov reviews, that of Marina Khakuasheva, is different. It is a collection of 60 essays, most of which had appeared in the media earlier rather than a single historical study. Not surprisingly, it is somewhat more emotional in tone than the other two, he says, but that tone is entirely justified given the facts.
Khakuasheva is terribly concerned about the problem of the survival of the Circassian language. As she points out, UNESCO in 2009 declared that “all the North Caucasus languages,” including Circassian, are dying,” predicting the Kabardinian dialect to have only 25 to 50 more years of life.
But instead of trying to reverse this decline, she reports, Russian officials have accelerated it: Since the 1970s, the number of places for students of Kabardinian has fallen from 75 to 38 at the Kabardino-Balkaria State University and Moscow is now calling for more hours of Russian instruction in the schools at the expense of Circassian.
And instead of facing up to the expulsion of the Circassians and its murderous consequences, Khakuasheva continues, Moscow has not been willing to deal with this issue even as it criticizes Turkey for its failure to discuss “the theme of the genocide of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.”
The key events of Circassian history, she says and Arutyunov clearly agrees, require not only repentence but compensation for the horrific actions of “imperial (including social-imperial) and colonial (including paternalistic) ideology and practice.”
“This is the demand of the times themselves and not of some small group of nationalistically hostile intellectuals,” Arutyunov says, adding that “not only do the times require repetence but repentence requires time,” but the longer the Circassians have to wait, “the greater opportunities we will be offering to the enemies of a unified Russia.”