Searching for Circassians
By Tom Peter
It is not easy to find Circassians in historical Circassia, a densely vegetated land of rolling hills and mountain slopes soaring to snowy heights along the northeastern coast of the Black Sea. The region of Greater Sochi used to be the homeland of the Circassian people before their expulsion by the Russian army in the 19th century. Modern Sochi has an ethnic make-up of staggering diversity; besides Russians, there are people from numerous other Caucasus nations, as well as Armenians, Georgians, Cossacks, Jews and Ukrainians.
But the people who resisted Russia’s expansion into the land of their fathers for some forty years are largely gone. The last Circassian forces surrendered to the Russian army in 1864 on a glade in the mountains above Sochi, later named Krasnaya Polyana. In a matter of weeks it will be the site where athletes compete for Olympic gold in the skiing events.
The highlanders’ defeat heralded a campaign of forced eviction on a massive scale. “Perhaps as many as 300,000 Circassians died from hunger, violence, drowning and disease when Russia expelled them from their lands,” writes journalist and author Oliver Bullough in his book about the Caucasus, “Let Our Fame Be Great”. Circassian groups have called for the killings to be recognized as genocide.
The majority of the Circassian nation was sent on ships to the Ottoman Empire. Only a scattering was allowed to stay in Russia on the condition that they relocate to the lowlands north of the mountains. Most Circassians live today beyond Russia’s borders, mainly in the Middle East, with smaller communities dotted across Europe and North America.
When Russia was awarded the right to host the 2014 Winter Games, an outcry went through many in the Circassian diaspora. They demanded the Games be moved unless Moscow apologized for the death of their ancestors. Some Circassians even compared the Sochi Games to hosting a sporting competition on the grounds of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. The closest that Russia has come to apologizing for the killings was in the 1990s, when former President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged that resistance to tsarist violence was justified.
In the streets of Sochi, an urban sprawl that snakes some 145 km (90 miles) along the coast, you are unlikely to hear the language of the indigenous people. Tkhagapsh, however, is one of the few settlements on this side of the mountains where Circassians are still in the majority. Nestling in the foothills some 85 km (83 miles) northwest of Sochi, the village is home to 180 inhabitants and boasts a small wooden mosque, a culture center and a memorial commemorating village ancestors who died at the hands of Russians and Soviets.
Tkhagapsh native Madin Chachukh, a retired Soviet Army officer turned Circassian folklore writer, keeps his mind on the challenges of the present instead of pondering the tragedies of the past. “Our biggest danger is that we forget our language,” he said over tea with cognac in the kitchen of the house where he grew up. “We wish the government gave us money to help us preserve our language and thereby our culture.”
His people will never forget the destruction of their nation, but one should accept the course of history, he said. “The Russians have done the same to us what American settlers have done to the Indians. That’s what empires do, they take all the resources and land they can. At the time it was considered normal.”
But Anzaur Alyal, 32, who is active in groups that strive to preserve Circassian culture, insists that Tkhagapsh remains, in a cultural sense, Circassian land.
“We tell tourists who come here: ‘Welcome to Agygea’ (the name Circassians use to describe their land). This upsets some patriotic Russian visitors. But we ask them to accept that they are standing on the soil of our fathers and forefathers, and they were not Russian. This is logical, isn’t it?”