A Russian Discussion on the History of the Caucasian War, by Stephen D. Shenfield

Special to CircassianWorld.com

On May 27, 2010, the Russian Information Agency “Novosti” hosted a combined “Round Table” and press conference devoted to the theme “The Circassian Question. To whose advantage is it to falsify the history of the Caucasian War?” This title, which is reminiscent of the style of Soviet propaganda, leads one to expect a series of diatribes against “enemies of Russia” who deliberately falsify history in order to besmirch Russia’s good name and damage its international prestige. However, examination of the transcript reveals something more complex and more interesting.

The moving force behind the event was Igor Shatrov, president of a “think tank” known as the Livadia Club.[1] Shatrov explains that he acquired an interest in the Circassian question during a visit to Abkhazia, where Abkhaz colleagues raised the issue with him. He decided to organize the Round Table – the first in a series of planned events – in response to a conference held in Tbilisi on March 20-21 by the Jamestown Foundation and the Ilia State University’s International School for Caucasus Studies, devoted mainly to the Circassians.[2] This conference, which culminated in the Circassian participants signing an appeal to the Georgian parliament to recognize the Circassian genocide, was part of a campaign to build anti-Russian alliances between Georgia and its “Caucasian brothers” in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008. Shatrov notes that Russia has a presidential commission that is supposed to handle such matters,[3] but a non-governmental organization like the Livadia Club is capable of responding more quickly and it is better for the response to come from professional historians rather than from politicians and bureaucrats.

The two main speakers at the Round Table, besides Shatrov himself, were Larisa Tsvizhba and Yuri Agirbov. Tsvizhba is an Abkhaz historian who lives in Moscow; she works at the Russian State Military-Historical Archive and specializes in the Caucasian War. Agirbov is an economist who taught at the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy for over forty years and is now chairman of the Council of Elders of the Circassian (Adyg) Diaspora in Moscow.[4] (According to Adygeya NatPress,[5] other participants were: Taras Shamba, president of the World Congress of the Abkhaz-Abazin People; Zurab Argun, president of the Abkhazian Media Club “Ainar”; and Sokrat Djingolia, head of the Abkhazian branch of the Institute of Eurasian Research. However, the transcript shows no sign of their presence.)

In addition, two individuals spoke at length from the floor -- Fasikh Badyrkhan, a researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies and author of a book entitled The North Caucasian Diaspora in Syria, Turkey, and Jordan[6]; and Sulieta Kusova, a former history teacher and television journalist, now director of the Union of Journalists’ Center for Ethnoconfessional Problems in the Mass Media and a co-chair of Caucasus House in Moscow. Badyrkhan identifies himself as a descendant of Circassian exiles, while Kusova (despite her Ossetian surname) belongs to the Shapsugh Chukho clan.

In short, with the exception of Shatrov, this is a meeting of members of the Abkhaz and Circassian intelligentsia in Moscow. While they all express loyalty to Russia, their viewpoint is very distinct from that of the Russian nationalist politicians and bureaucrats who sit on the presidential commission for counteracting historical falsifications. Unlike the latter, they seek full official recognition of the suffering of the Circassians and other mountain peoples at the hands of the tsarist empire. At the same time, they do not agree with the assertion that the Circassians were victims of “genocide” – a modern term, argues Tsvizhba, that is inapplicable to the mid-nineteenth century. They call for dispassionate professional study of the history of the period and object to its political exploitation. For example, Badyrkhan complains that quotations from his book have been used out of context on the internet in order to impute to him views that he does not hold.

Thus, the discourse of the Round Table participants is directed simultaneously against two targets. First, against the Georgian politicians and historians and their Western backers, who have never shown any concern about the Circassians before but are now “playing the Circassian card” for their own purposes. Second, against the Russian politicians and historians who glorify the tsarist regime and ignore, gloss over, or minimize the terrible things done by that regime in the Caucasus.

Agirbov refers with approval to a declaration that President Yeltsin addressed to the peoples of the Caucasus on May 18, 1994 – the 130th anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War. This address was indeed a remarkable document by comparison with the official stance of the Kremlin both before (under Stalin and his successors) and after (under Putin).[7] True, the word “genocide” does not appear, but forced deportation is acknowledged. In describing the Caucasian War as “a courageous struggle of the peoples of the Caucasus for survival on their native soil and preservation of their unique culture,” Yeltsin clearly implies that it was a just war on the part of the mountaineers and an unjust war on the part of Russia. He says that all the states that struggled for control over the Caucasus – Russia, Britain, France, Iran, and Turkey – “bear their share of responsibility for the great suffering of the mountain peoples.”

Agirbov also praises the Russian government for facilitating the return of diaspora Circassians to their homeland, especially the rescue during the Yugoslav war of over 130 Circassian families from Kosovo, who were resettled around Maikop and granted citizenship. At the same time, he subtly urges the authorities to go further in this regard: “We would very much like ... our compatriots to know and feel that they can return to their historical homeland at any time and that the federal and local authorities will do all they can to assist them.”

Kusova (although she too professes her loyalty to Russia) stands out from the other speakers by using a much sharper tone to voice Circassian grievances. She says that the four Shapsugh villages that used to exist near Krasnodar “are already practically assimilated and extinct.”[8] She is fed up with the overcautious language habitually used to describe what happened to the Circassians. “It was a war, a colonial war. Why are you frightened of the word? ... I have been hearing all these historical exercises since childhood. I grew up in the family of a historian. My grandfather, Autlev, was director of a research institute in Maikop. What could be said aloud, what could not.” She recounts how she went on an excursion to Sochi and “the girl tour guide never mentioned that Circassians once lived here.” When will we adequately discuss these painful matters in Russia? -- she asks.

One of the questions discussed at the Round Table was what attitude to take toward the Sochi Olympics planned for 2014. Kusova tells us that Caucasus House has proposed to hold Circassian and North Caucasian cultural events alongside the games, thereby demonstrating to visitors the presence of the mountain peoples in the region. They have obtained the support of Tkhakushinov, the current president of Adygeya, and met with the head of the cultural department of the Olympics Committee. Agirbov calls for a monument to be erected in 2014 at Krasnaya Polyana[9] to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Caucasian War – a monument that commemorates the victims but also looks forward to a peaceful future.

 

Notes

1. Its full name is the Center for the Study of Communication Technologies and Integration Processes in the Post-Soviet Space and the European Union. Its website (www.livadiaclub.ru) is under reconstruction, but according to Shatrov’s blog the center was established in 2006 as “an independent expert-analytical organization engaged in assessing and forecasting the development of political, socioeconomic, and cultural processes at the regional and geopolitical levels.” It promotes “initiatives aimed at raising the quality of state governance, developing the institutions of civil society, and supporting interregional and international interaction at all levels” (http://b2blogger.com/pressroom/release/63178.html).

2. The title of the conference was: “Hidden Nations, Enduring Crimes: The Circassians and the Peoples of the North Caucasus Between Past and Future.” (How, by the way, is it possible for anyone not to be “between past and future”?) For more information, see: http://jamestownfoundation.blogspot.com/2010/03/should-georgia-recognize-circassian.html.

3. It is called the Commission to Counteract Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests. It was established by presidential decree in May 2009.

4. There are over 30,000 Circassians living in Moscow.

5. http://natpress.net/stat_e.php?id=5609

6. In Russian: Severokavkazskaia diaspora v Sirii, Turtsii i Iordanii (2001). It is available online at http://www.adygaabaza.ru/forum/6-14-1.

7. For the Russian text of Yeltsin’s address, see: http://heku.ru/forums.php?m=posts&q=1624. In repudiating Russia’s imperial legacy, Yeltsin can be compared only with Lenin or (to some degree) Gorbachev.

8. In the 1920s there was a Shapsugh autonomous district, but it was eliminated in 1943. The near-disappearance of the Shapsughs is at least partly due to the fact that repeated calls for the restoration of the autonomous district were ignored.

9. Literally: Red (or Beautiful) Glade – the place at which the tsarist troops (including, as Agirbov points out, Georgian regiments) held their victory parade.