Obituary: On Barasbi Bgazhnokov (1947-2020), by Sufian Zhemukhov

Barasbi Bgazhnokov (1947-2020)

I still cannot get used to the fact that Barasbi Bgazhnokov has passed away. While his death on December 8th this month is certainly a national loss, for many, including me, it is also a personal one, for Barasbi was one of my dearest friends who profoundly influenced my life, including my principles, academic approach and my understanding and practice of civil engagement.

Bgazhnokov's philosophy emerged as a response to his own personal identity crisis. He was 12 when his father Khachim (1915-2002) received the honorary title of Hero of Socialist Labor, the highest Soviet distinction at the time for achievements in national economy, for a long career as an executive of various factories and kolkhozes, and the chairmanship of party organs and state councils. However, constant relocations from city to city was one of the downsides of his father’s prominent career that pushed his children down into the machinery of Russification and Communist ideology. Barasbi confessed that he graduated high school illiterate in his native Circassian language and only learned it later at the Kabardino-Balkaria State University while studying for his MA in Russian. Continuing on an academic path, he defended his doctoral thesis, The Psychological and Linguistic Problems of Communication, in 1974 at the Institute of Linguistics of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

Along with linguistics, he studied his ethnic group’s social norms. "I am not a person of etiquette," Bgazhnokov used to joke but ironically, he published his most famous book, The Circassian Etiquette in 1978, which became a standard text to teach young people Circassian mannerism: how to shake hands, sit at the table and communicate with elders and the opposite sex. Bgazhnokov introduced a new term into the Circassian language, shchenkhabze (etiquette). Later he wrote The Essays on the Circassian Anthropology of Communication (1983) and defended his post-doctoral thesis, Communication Culture and Ethnicity (1985).

Young Bgazhnokov’s public lectures gathered large audiences. I was one of those students who attended the ones on comparative studies of social norms. Then I finally met him in person when he was working on his book, The Circassian Festival (1991). “Dance is one of the foundations of identity, and it is disappearing as we speak,” Bgazhnokov lamented. Having never learned to dance in my Soviet youth, I appreciated Bgazhnokov's determination to preserve the dance culture, after I witnessed how dance provided a new sense of identity to post-Cold War generation of young Circassians across Russia’s North Caucasus and deep into the Circassian diaspora stretching from Turkey, Jordan, and Israel to New Jersey.

It would be many years later, however, that I truly grasped the real impact of Bgazhnokov's book, thanks to my American colleague Charles King, whose book, Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus received a favorable review from Bgazhnokov. Having visited Russia’s North Caucasus in 2008, King was in awe of the Circassian festivals (adyge jegu) taking place weekly in downtown Nalchik, the capitol of Kabardino-Balkaria. The American professor befriended a local choreographer, Kazbek Balkarov, and organized with him Circassian street dances accompanied by the Scottish bagpipes. Charles also introduced to me a fascinating theory that most of the "old" artifacts are, in fact, a recent invention, such as the famous plaid fabric of the Scottish men's skirt. King suggested we research the phenomenon of adyge jegu which led to an unexpected discovery - the term adyge jegu turned out to be simply a back translation into Circassian of the Russian title of Bgazhnokov’s 1991 book The Circassian Festival. Prior to that, the words “adyge” and “jegu” were never used together. Zalina Sherieva, one of the original organizers of the grassroot dance movement, revealed how they had “revived” (but actually created) adyge jegu in 2005 on the basis of Bgazhnokov’s book.

Bgazhnokov was a remarkably versatile figure. In the early 1990s, he became a prominent political figure in the Circassian national movement and the Abkhaz struggle for independence. In the following decades he retired to academia, heading the Institute for Humanities Research in Nalchik (2007-2014), and researching Caucasian moral traditions in his books Circassian Ethics (1999) and Anthropology of Morals (2010); chapters from the latter have been translated into English and published in the U.S. In 2008, he edited a volume on and organized a conference to commemorate the Battle of Kanzhal (1708), initiating another grassroot movement which would organize Circassian horse processions in 2008 and 2018.

Bgazhnokov’s life and work became a personal response to Circassians identity crisis as a people. His ideas shaped generations of young Circassians, through the Soviet totalitarianism, the uncertainty of perestroika years, and the troubled decades of post-Communist era. Streets and squares will bear his name, and books and dissertations will be written about him. Undoubtedly, future generations will benefit from Bgazhnokov's legacy that has helped define social and moral principles of the Circassian national identity in these turbulent times.