21 MayResearchAcademic studiesExile2010 | Colarusso, Reflections on the Caucasus: 1864-2010

John Colarusso
Thoughts on May 21st, 2010. The 146th anniversary of the expulsion of the Circassians, Abazins, and Ubykhs. "Reflections on the Caucasus: 1864-2010" CircassianWorld

The long and grievous war against the Adyghey people and their kin was waged at the height of European Imperialism. In many ways the outcome of the war was foreseeable. The bravery and sacrifices of the Adyghey peoples in the conflict were noble. These were as clear a manifestation of their culture and character as any cultural traditions could have been. A small and divided people, the various Adygheys, resisted a massive and modern European power, Russia, as she expanded across the Steppes. All the advantages lay with Russia. Defeat for the Adygheys was inevitable.

The war itself represented a marked turnaround in Moscow’s relation with the Adyghey princes, who had for more than two hundred years enjoyed amicable ties with the Tsars. This changed, however, at the start of the 19th century. The conquest of the Caucasus was geopolitically crucial for Russia if she was going to expand farther into Central Asia. The Tsarist elite seems to have understood this and taken whatever measures were necessary to achieve the conquest of the Caucasus, with the Adygheys forming the last resistance, and therefore suffering the worst consequences. Russia was not magnanimous in victory. In fact, her ethnic cleansing of the Adygheys was exceedingly harsh and reminiscent of the sorts of annihilatory campaigns waged by the 19th century United States and others nations in the New World.

As with any war of the past the anguish, the screams of suffering and the memories of the dead, grow muted and recede into a distant background. Yet this background persists as a crucial element in the identity of all Adygheys today, both those in the Caucasus, and the vast majority in the diaspora. This anniversary attests to this persistence. In an interconnected world far different from that of their ancestors the modern Adygheys find themselves still facing a legacy of sorrow and injustice. Russia has made some amends: the introduction of writing and literature, the formation of small republics, and founding of museums and cultural centres. For brief periods there have even been programs that offered some form of repatriation. Nothing from Russia, however, has directly address the simple fact of the war and its consequences. It is hard not to conclude that in many ways Russia still fears the Adygheys as much now as she did 146 years ago. With modern warfare such as it is, such fear, real or not, seems absurd, especially for a nation, such as Russia. The need for force in the open plains of western Eurasia has formed an integral part of political and strategic culture of Russia from the inception of the Principality of Muscovy. Clearly the Adygheys, scattered and integrated into many other nations, or fragmented and small in their multi-ethnic republics can mount no serious threat to Russia. The most they can do is mount a symbolic protest, and in a shame culture such as Russia’s, such a protest presents political challenges that the Kremlin seems to find difficult to address. This is understandable because Russia’s reliance on force has concomitantly led to an impoverishment of her symbolic repertoire and her ability to utilize and assess symbolic action.

Canada is an example of an heir to an imperial legacy, wherein the indigenous peoples suffered. The circumstances of these numerous and varied peoples have changed from that of their ancestors, but their grievances have not all been answered by any means. The Canadian government, however, heirs to the rich symbolic repertoire of the British Empire, have dignified them with the name of ‘First Nations.’ More tangibly, the full panoply of such peoples, following the example offered by Beijing, was given the place of honour at the Vancouver Olympics. They had a chance, as we say, to strut their stuff and to show the world that they indeed still exist.

The contrast with the upcoming Sochi Olympics could not be greater. Russia would do well to learn the politics of symbolism from Canada and China, and to use Sochi as an opportunity to extend to the Adygheys a modicum of respect and a gesture of repentance for the wrongs of the past. In doing this, Russia would elicit from the Adygheys a modicum of gratitude and even of loyalty. She would help the diaspora come to terms with its past and win the allegiance of the Adygheys and others who still dwell in the North West Caucasus. She would do well to keep in mind too that one of the most prominent features of Adyghey culture is loyalty.

If Russia does not make some gestures in this regard at Sochi, she risks giving the Adygheys a free forum in which they can air their grievances to the entire world. The Adygheys have become a sophisticated people, who have emerged in the past twenty years with an electronic identity through the various media of e-mail and the web. They are well positioned to present their case. They will surely do so, because another prominent feature of Adyghey culture is memory, especially of wrongs suffered. In Canada we live with this sort of memory as well: every license plate in Québec says “Je me souviens,” (I remember). The Anglo-French wound still lies festering. Russia risk creating a new motto for the Adygheys: /segW qéc@&Jez@Je/ ‘I remember’. To leave this wound of memory to fester would be as tragic for the Russians and Adygheys as it would be unnecessary.

Professor, Department of Anthropology, and Department of Linguistics and Languages, McMaster University, CANADA.