Special Report: The Plight of the Circassians

Circassians in Turkey march on Genocide Day in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

By Natascha Tahabsem
BU News Service

May 21 marks the Circassian Day of Mourning, also known as Genocide Day, a time of remembrance for the victims of the Caucasian War. In this special report, Natascha Tahabsem unravels the accounts via the voices of scholars, activists, and historical documents.

THEY CALLED THEM FLOATING GRAVES. The vessels – small, two-masted brigs – carried thousands at a time under sealed hatches. Silence fell on board, save for the slap of winter waves against wood. Babies gnawed at the hardened breasts of their mothers’ corpses. Women in labor convulsed quietly, exposed to the sea. Warriors lined the deck, white-eyed and diseased,  their skin wet and covered “half-inch deep with vermin.” Around the vessels, bodies undulated in the black waters, only to be washed ashore. 

For months on end, the Circassians, indigenous to the North Caucasus, endured these conditions.  It was 1864, and the Russian czar, Alexander II, had already obliterated most of Circassia in an effort to pacify its inhabitants. He did this through village raids, massacres, systemized expulsions to the coast of the Black Sea, and an empire-wide call for the ethnic cleansing of Circassians. 

“The advance of the Russians actually started in the 16th century, but during the Russo-Circassian wars in the 19th century, it became more powerful, more forceful and the Russians ended up occupying the whole of Circassia, from the east to the west,” Zeynel Abidin Besleney, a scholar of Russian, Turkish, and Caucasian politics from the newly established Center for Global  Circassian Studies in Turkey, says in an unwavering tone. “In terms of scale, you are looking at around 85% of the people being expelled or killed, their country invaded and colonized. And it’s well documented what happened there. We have seen the consequences, which are  not very different from the consequences that the Armenians or Jews have suffered.” 

But whether the Circassians were subject to genocide remains a matter of heated debate among  scholars and politicians.  

The term “genocide” was coined in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who lost 49  family members in the Holocaust. He believed that the Nazi crime against the Jews, which went  “well beyond typical acts of repression,” deserved its own legal category that separated it from  mass murder. 

For years, Lemkin worked tirelessly to legalize the term, and on Dec. 9, 1948, the United Nations officially approved The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,  defining genocide as the crime of destroying a group of people and its identity. 

This step brought to light the idea of genocide recognition and encouraged groups such as the  Armenians – who were subject in the early 1900s to mass deportation, large-scale killings and the loss of identity – to call for the legal designation of their suffering as genocide. 

With time, the consensus among genocide scholars, such as Gregory Stanton and Jack Nusan  Porter, became clear: If you deny one genocidal event, you deny all others, and denial is “the single  best predictor of future genocide.” 

Lidia Zhigunova, a professor at Tulane University who is Circassian and grew up in Soviet Russia, says the reason why Circassians are still asking for recognition is because they see the injustice and want to set the historical record straight. 

“This is about our future, about our people who are still living in those colonial, imperial  conditions,” she said, citing the scattered state of the Circassian diaspora. “And this is also a moral  question. We can’t keep silent and forget about something that we know has happened. Evil needs  to be named as evil. It’s human nature to recognize it as such. Otherwise, we’d be allowing others  to falsify our history.” 

In his research, Sufian Zhemukhov, associate research professor of international affairs at George  Washington University, also lists genocide recognition as one of the three strategic goals a  Circassian movement must set for itself to move beyond 15-minutes-of-fame. Other strategic goals include the repatriation of the diaspora to the North Caucasus – a continued effort by Circassians to return to their homeland, often quashed by the Russian government – and the unification of the  Circassian territories in Russia, which are divided into three modern republics. 

“Yes, recognition is important,” said Zhemukhov. “But it is also worth doing the research and  finding out what goals the Armenians and Jews set for themselves when their struggles were finally  recognized.”  

A painting of a Circassian with a horse from 1858. (Lluís Ribes Mateu / Flickr)

THE WORLD IS SPECKLED WITH AS MANY AS 4 MILLION CIRCASSIANS TODAY.  Most of them reside in Turkey, while the rest are scattered across Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq,  Israel, the United States, and the Russian republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkess,  and Adigeya, among others. 

Each year, on what is known to them as “Genocide Day,” members of Circassian communities across the world raise their Green-Golden banners to commemorate the events of 1864. Some leave their homes to engage in peaceful protests outside Russian embassies. Others mourn the loss of land and life with their families and friends. 

Their banners, which often pepper their living rooms or car bumpers, take the shape of a charged bow with three golden arrows and an arch of 12 golden stars, each representing a Circassian principality. The green is for the forests of the Caucasus. The gold is for a bright future.

Omar Muhajer, a 22-year-old biology student, has one tucked on a top shelf inside his closet. Every once in a while, he takes it out, smooths it, and wraps it around his shoulders. 

“I think the fact that people are still voicing their sorrow serves as a reminder that there are those who need to be held accountable,” he said. “Is it affecting change? From what I see on social media, Circassians in the homeland are being heard. As for those in the diaspora, it may seem that they’re not doing enough. But I think it’s hard to make a change when you’re halfway across the  world.” 

Today, two major forces drive the Circassian activist movement in the North Caucasus and across the rest of the world.  

The first is the markedly apolitical movement, operating under the International Circassian  Association (ICA), also known to Circassians as Xase. It increasingly finds itself under scrutiny from pro-Moscow Circassian elites, and therefore only concerns itself with “the cultural and linguistic needs” of the Circassian community. The second is what Besleney calls the second generation of Circassian activists, which has “a different follower base,” pursues different recruitment strategies, and engages with international political actors for its cause, all of which distinguishes it from the ICA, according to Besleney. 

And while most of its leading figures are veterans of early 1990s activism, the second movement has been gaining traction, especially in the North Caucasus, among the younger, tech-savvy generation. 

According to Besleney, because they are, more often than not, censored and denied Circassian specific media outlets, figures of the second movement rely on the internet for their activism,  where they can be vocal about their politics and call for reparations, repatriation, and recognition,  among other things. 

Yet mentioning the plight of the Circassians is a risk in Russia, under President Vladimir Putin’s government. 

Some of the leading figures of the second movement, such as activists Murat Berzegov and Fatima  Tlisova, were forced to move to the United States after being subjected to threats.

A group of armed Circassian men poses for a photo in Baku in the late 19th century. (Romanovempire.org)

IT WAS 1833. COLONEL GRIGORY ZASS TENDED TO HIS CANARIES AT THE  PROCHNYI OKOP FORTRESS. Stationed that year as regional commander of the Kuban  Military Line, a military base in the Caucasus appointed by the czar, he often cared for the little birds, fed them, and loved them to a puzzling extent.

Yet, Zass loved nothing, even the birds, more than his anthropological collection of piked Circassian heads, which decorated his residence at the fortress. A comrade of his, Nikolai Lorer, recalled once how they “stared at us horribly with glassy eyes,” their beards blowing in the wind. 

The colonel also kept some of the heads in a large chest under his bed which reeked of an  “intolerably offensive smell,” according to Lorer. He would boil them, clean them, and send them  to “anatomical offices” and his “academic friends” in Berlin. 

Zass’s chief military objective was to “fill Circassians with terror.” And to this end, he was successful, earning himself among them the title of “Iblees,” or the devil. 

“It was not typical of Circassians to leave bodies behind on battlefields. But in the rare cases where  they did, Zass would pay the soldiers to cut the heads off,” said Zhemukhov. “And since Circassians were Muslims, and Islam did not allow burying people without heads, their relatives  would go to the fort to negotiate to buy the heads back. Each head cost two cows.” 

This established what Zhemukhov dubbed the “head economy,” a profitable market financing the  Kuban Military Line in the North Caucasus. 

Zass’s rationale for carrying out these acts was well-documented in Russian military logs. To the Russian czar, petrifying the Circassians, burning their children alive in mass graves, and destroying their settlements were simply moments of military innovation. And Zass acted on a deep-rooted conviction that Circassians were a lower race, deserving no land to call their own, according to  Zhemukhov. 

The grisly innovations Zass introduced into the 1830s set a precedent for the Russian military.  Later in the mid-1800s, during the mass expulsion of Circassians, generals such as Alexei Velyaminov utilized the tactics in different principalities across the North Caucasus. 

“Zass and Velyaminov were the two generals who innovated Russian genocidal colonization,” said Zhemukhov. “And these methods were very similar to what the Nazis did to the Jews. They  were similar in that the Nazis meticulously thought out the logistics behind each killing.” 

In his book, “The Circassian Genocide,” Occidental College historian Walter Richmond writes that the acts of Zass and Velyaminov “were emblematic of the direction the [Russo-Circassian war] took” beyond the 1820s. He also writes that the harvesting of Circassian heads for study presaged “the infinitely more horrific practice of the Nazi medical experiments.”

McMaster University professor and Circassologist John Colarusso said, “If you drive an ethnic  group out, and make no preparations for them to survive, you are leading into a genocide.” 

Following a similar logic, Zhemukhov likes to set passions aside and look at the facts. 

He says until the 1820s, the conflict between the Russians and Circassians was strictly a war over  North Caucasian land, albeit a bloody one. Beyond that, it transformed into Russian colonial  subjugation. 

For Zhemukhov, it was the foundation of the Kuban Military Line that pushed czarist Russia into  genocide – a turning point in Russian history. 

“THERE’S ALWAYS SADNESS AROUND THE EXILE, AROUND WHAT HAPPENED  TO OUR PEOPLE,” Circassian activist Dana Wojokh says softly, her eyebrows often clashing together like dark spears. Zack Barsik, the founder of the Circassian Cultural Institute in New Jersey and an eminent figure of the second movement, listens intently as Wojokh speaks. Her pauses take the room to a different time, filling it with distant cries and the clanging of swords. “I felt like our history was hidden from us, either intentionally or whatever other way there was.  That’s when I really got involved with the Circassian Cultural Institute.” 

Back then, when she was in her early 20s, Wojokh knew little about Circassia and even less about  Sochi, her ancestral capital, where Circassians were either loaded on ships or killed. So, the time she spent at the institute, researching with “like-minded Circassians,” was revelatory for her. 

“Once we learned all that, we really latched on to it. It hit us that [Sochi] was sacred, sacred ground,” Wojokh says and nods her head between words. 

In July 2007, Sochi – Circassian for “seaside” – was selected as the host city for the 2014 Olympics.  Wojokh and Barsik, among others, saw this as an opportunity to put their activism to work. 

As with every historic event, they thought, there must be a record out there detailing what had happened to their people. 

Now, Barsik takes the lead. His tone is silvery yet matter-of-fact, and it matches his eloquence: “Every Circassian home had a sad story, but no one knew how to put it on paper or explain it, because our oral history was disappearing, especially among the generations that were passing,”  he says.

Through Ali Berceg, a young Circassian activist and law student, Barsik discovered that most of the Russian military archives from the 1800s were located in Tbilisi, now the Republic of Georgia’s capital. That year, joined by Berceg, Barsik met with the ambassador of Georgia in Washington, D.C. 

Within days, they were granted access to the archives. Within months, they went through them all. 

“One image stood out most to me,” Barsik said and braced himself. “To save bullets, soldiers would grab children by their ankles and smash their heads against trees, just like you would an  animal.” 

Barsik refers to what they uncovered in Tbilisi as proof of genocide. He said the information they found immediately drove him, Wojokh, and others to “kick into a campaign,”  reach out to genocide experts, such as Walter Richmond and Alex Hinton and seek out genocide recognition. 

Georgia is the first and only country to officially recognize the genocide, in 2011. 

Since then, Wojokh and Barsik have worked alongside members of the second Circassian activist movement on several projects calling for the global acknowledgment of the Circassian plight. One of their most prominent campaigns was “No Sochi 2014,” a series of online and physical protests that raised awareness during the 2014 Olympics about Sochi’s harrowing past. 

But in the face of a reticent world, the question of genocide recognition hangs heavy still for  activists like Wojokh and Barsik.  

THE WATERS OF THE BLACK SEA carried what remained of the Circassian nation – men, women, and children – into the Balkans, inner Anatolia and the Middle East throughout the 1860s.  There, a tottering Ottoman Empire welcomed the influx, itching for an increase in population. 

As it turned out, the ferrying of Circassians was premeditated. The Ottomans had struck an accord  with Russian officials in the late 1850s, negotiating a treaty of en masse Circassian migration into  designated, internal provinces of the empire. 

Yet the inundation was just as overwhelming to the Ottomans as it was exhilarating. At one point, the number of ferried Circassians surpassed the 50,000 mark the empire had agreed on. 

New Zealand’s Otago Daily Times reported on December 6, 1865, that “the emigration of the Circassian  [principalities] continues unabated. The latest arrivals in Turkey make the total number of  Circassian emigrants encamped on the Asiatic shore of the Black Sea 172,000.”

When a group of Kabardians, members of the largest Circassian principality, intimated their desire to join the others, the port replied that “it cannot receive them before next year.” 

And often when ships took on water, captains would throw sick and elderly Circassians into the sea to maximize survival – one of the many atrocities they faced, said Besleney. 

On the vessels and across uninhabitable coasts alone, at least 400,000 Circassians perished of hunger and disease. 

“Whether this was a genocide or not, it was at least a genocide of policy with an objective to attain a Circassia without Circassians,” Besleney says, now through calculated pauses. He says that if there is one thing that needs to be established, it is this: “Circassians lived on the periphery of Eastern Europe, but not outside of time or history. But because of what happened, Circassia was, literally speaking, cleared off the map. It took Circassians almost a century to crawl back into history.

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