Moscow academics acknowledge circassians are one people not four
by Paul Goble
The Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences has declared that the Circassians are one people with a single ethnonym (“Adyge”) and not five peoples – the Adygey, the Cherkess, the Kabardinians, and the Shapsugs – subdivisions of that people that the Soviet system used to divide the Circassians.
The announcement came almost a month ago in response to a query from the International Circassian Association, and this academic conclusion, one that ethnographers outside of the Russian Federation will certainly welcome, does not by itself necessarily point to a shift in Moscow’s policy.
But there are three reasons that this statement will have enormous and immediate policy consequences. First, it will encourage the Circassian peoples to declare themselves “Adyge” in the upcoming census, thus undermining further the Soviet-imposed divisions of a community with more than five million co-ethnics abroad.
Second, it will add fuel to the fire of Circassian objections to the Sochi Olympics because it is the Shapsugs on whose territory the 2014 Olympic venues are being built. Moscow has tried to play divide and rule politics against the Circassians to limit such protests, but this announcement almost certainly will broaden them.
And third, Circassians are now going to feel even more justified in calling first for the end of the bi-national republics of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria in which they are combined with Turkic groups and then for the formation of a single Circassian Republic in the North Caucasus.
Such calls by themselves will further destabilize that region because they would require a radical redrawing of borders. But perhaps even more, they will likely lead other ethnic groups in that region and perhaps more generally in the Russian Federation to press for broader identities and the formation of republics in which those groups will be the titular nationality.
In a commentary posted on the Elot.ru portal today, Circassian commentator Khamid Bzhakho writes that “one cannot say that this event has passed absolutely unnoticed, but it still has not received broad resonance among the Circassians themselves and among experts” (www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1827&Itemid=1).
But he suggested that is only a question of time. Circassians will see this as an acknowledgement of what they have always insisted on, and more than that, he writes, they will see it as representing a Russian acknowledgement of the “unscientific” mythology about the Circassian past that Moscow has long promoted.
“Consider this statistic,” Bzhakho continues. “For a hundred years, representatives of one ethnos have been told my official propaganda that they belong to related ethnoses as if one were speaking about Russians, Serbs, and Bulgarians. For a hundred years, this approach served as the basis of national-state policy in the region,” with all the problems that created.
Thus, by making this acknowledgement of the truth, the Russian academy of Sciences has admitted that “for a hundred years” Moscow has been promoting and basing its policies on “a lie.” And that acknowledgement “creates a new ethnographic, demographic, socio-cultural, and political reality at a minimum in the Caucasus.”
By doing this, he argues, “the Russian Federation has made an enormous step toward the restoration of historical justice in relation to the Circassian people.” And that step will be followed by others by the Circassian people themselves because of the new possibilities the Russian scholars’ acknowledgment creates.
In addition to recognizing the Circassians as a single people, the Moscow ethnographers also gave an assessment of the actions of the tsarist authorities during the Caucasian war of the 19th century. They described “the mass exodus of the Circassian population into the Ottoman Empire as forced resettlement,” that is, “a deportation.”
That statement, Bzhakho argues, allows one to hope “that the Federation will finally adopt a legislative act about the right of the descendents of the deported Circassians to repatriation,” a step that would be “a fundamental step toward the moral-psychological and demographic rehabilitation of the Circassian people.”
But officials in the North Caucasus, he says, must not just wait for Moscow to act. The heads of the three republics where Circassians live must issue decrees specifying that the Circassians are one people with a common ethnonym and must use that name in their republic names and on other official documents.
And these same officials, Bzhakho adds, must carry out explanatory work so that all Circassians will be ready to declare themselves Circassians during the upcoming All-Russian census now scheduled for October of this year. That will help end the divisions in the Circassians that Moscow had promoted help Circassians see themselves as a single people.