Stephen D. Shenfield
The Circassian “genocide” is no longer as badly neglected as it was
Interview by CircassianWorld, November 2009

Stephen Shenfield, author of the famous article ''The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?'' thinks that increased Circassian nationalism has generated a threat perception that makes Russian policy harsher and more repressive. He shared with his thoughts on factors that may bring about a positive change in Russian policy toward the Circassians. CW gratefully acknowledges the insights that Mr. Shenfield has kindly shared with us.

I think your article ''The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?'' which was published in the book ''The Massacre in History'' was the first extended work about the ‘Circassian Genocide’ which was written by a Western writer. How did you decide to write about it and will we see similar works in the future? 

STEPHEN SHENFIELD: First of all, I was not the first Western scholar to write about the Circassian “genocide.” A substantial article on the topic by Willis Brooks appeared in the journal Nationalities Papersin 1995. I cite it in note 8 to my essay. Perhaps there were others over the years whose works attracted little attention at the time and later sank into oblivion. Only a thorough bibliographical search, covering the various Western languages, would enable us to determine who was first.

I acquired an interest in Circassian history through my love of maps. I have been fascinated by maps ever since I discovered their existence as a child. A friend of mine at Brown University had a sideline dealing in antiques. He was not very successful in this endeavor and decided to give up and sell off his stock cheap. I bought from him a number of 18th and 19th century maps of Europe, Russia, and the Middle East.

Poring over these maps, I discovered that there used to be quite a sizeable country in the Caucasus called Circassia that grew smaller and finally disappeared altogether, swallowed up by Russia. Curious to learn more, I searched the university library for literature on Circassia. I found a number of books by 19th century authors who had traveled in the Caucasus, and also a Russian-language edition of a book by the Circassian historian Trakho. I realized that I had stumbled across a whole dimension of history that seemed to have been almost completely forgotten, at least in the West.

I do not plan any similar works in the future. Since leaving Brown University in 2000, I have been working freelance. I earn my living mostly by translating academic texts from Russian for the translation journals published by M.E. Sharpe of New York. So I am not well placed to devote myself to in-depth scholarly research. But from the point of view of historical scholarship that doesn’t matter, because there are now several new people working in the field. In particular, I would draw attention to the important work of Irma Kreiten of the University of Southampton, whose article appeared recently (June 2009) in the Journal of Genocide Research.

So the Circassian “genocide” and Circassian history in general are no longer as badly neglected as they were. I am glad to have played my part by helping to revive interest in these subjects.

CW: How might Circassians use the Sochi 2014 Olympics as a platform to voice their concerns regarding their homeland and create a dialogue with the Russian Federation with regard to their concerns?

Assuming that the Olympics do take place, which is by no means certain in view of the economic situation, I expect them to be preceded by the detention of many potential protestors and accompanied by a massive police presence. I also expect that known Circassian activists from abroad will not be allowed to enter the country. So it will be extremely difficult to use the games as a platform. A few people may slip through the net and mount a brief protest before they are bundled away. If the incident is noticed by the media, it may bring a little publicity to the Circassian cause. But I do not see what it will do to promote a dialogue.

The first question to ask about dialogue is whether it is possible at all, and if so under what conditions and with whom exactly? You cannot conduct a dialogue with a country, but only with specific people.

I do not think that dialogue is possible with those who rely on a policy of terror, repression, and intimidation and are incapable of understanding anything else. Under Putin such people were in the ascendancy. The situation now is more ambiguous.

When Medvedev took over as president, he and Putin came to an agreement on the division of authority between them. Russian analysts call this system a “tandemocracy” (from the word “tandem” – a bicycle made for two). The details of this agreement are secret, but it seems reasonable to suppose that the “force structures” – the police, armed forces, and security agencies – remain under Putin’s control, even though the Russian constitution places these structures directly under the president, not the prime minister.

So Medvedev is not a “real” president. He may gradually become a real president, but only as the result of a protracted power struggle. As he appoints more officials on whose loyalty he can count, his real power should increase. But can he avert the threat of Putin’s return to the presidency?

Although Medvedev tries to avoid public confrontation with Putin, it is clear from the views he has expressed that the two men have quite different approaches to policy. Medvedev is more liberal, open-minded, and conciliatory. He has a much more sober appreciation of the depth of the problems that Russia faces. And he is more inclined to be honest about the past, as shown by his opposition to the recent attempts to rehabilitate Stalin.

Therefore I think there is a chance of fruitful dialogue with Medvedev and his people. A start might be made by contacting one of the think tanks with which he has links. Of course, those who seek such a dialogue must be “respectable” in Russian terms. Above all, they must constantly emphasize that they respect the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.

CW: Under what conditions should Russia solve the three main goals of the Circassian nation: 1) the recognition of the genocide 2) the repatriation of the Diaspora, and 3) the re-unification of the Circassian territories into one region in Russia?

On the question of the genocide, I should first say that I never reached the categorical conclusion that what the tsarist government did to the Circassians qualifies as genocide. I consider it a borderline case. The tsarist government resolved to expel the Circassians from their homeland, as quickly as possible and without regard to the suffering involved, but not to wipe them out to the last man, woman, and child.

Raising the question of genocide in such a borderline case gets you into nitpicking arguments that can go on forever without being resolved. We see this in the argument between Russian and Ukrainian nationalists over whether the famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s was genocide. That is another borderline case.

I suggest asking the Russian authorities to recognise not “the genocide” but the fact of the cruel, ruthless, and unjust treatment of the Circassians by the tsarist government. Even this will be far from easy, given the attachment of so many Russians to a false idealized view of Russia’s imperial past.

The return of the Diaspora and the unification of the Circassian territories are even more difficult. At present, it is quite an achievement simply to preserve the autonomous ethnic territories in face of the official campaign to abolish them altogether. Many Buryats wanted to unite their three territories in eastern Siberia. Now there is a single Buryat territory because the other two (Ust Orda and Aga Buryat) have been abolished.

Another problem is that even relatively liberal-minded Russians tend to view ethnic territories as archaic and inherently discriminatory. Western ideas about ethnic groups as “invented” or “imaginary” communities have further legitimized this attitude. A case in point is my friend and colleague Valery Tishkov, director of the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In his recent writings he appeals to us to “forget the nation.” He takes a firm stand against violations of the human rights of members of ethnic minorities, but he does not recognize ethnic communities as political actors with specific collective rights.

CW: How can Circassians work together with other ethnic minorities within the Caucasus to help protect their rights as an indigenous people of the Caucasus and eventually to create a unified republic?

SHENFIELD: The important thing is to understand that nothing can be achieved except by working together with the other peoples of the Caucasus in pursuit of shared goals.

Even those who might be sympathetic to Circassian aspirations in principle – and that includes myself – worry about the possible exacerbation of conflict over land between Circassians and neighboring ethnic groups such as the Karachai and Balkars. Such conflicts already exist and they are surely bound to get worse as more and more Circassians return to their ancestral homeland – unless a clear understanding is reached with the other peoples living in the Caucasus. An understanding on the use and allocation of land, water, and other vital resources as well as on the distribution of political power.

That is why dialogue with public organizations representing all these other ethnic groups is at least as important as dialogue with the Russian authorities.

CW: If you were advising President Medvedev, what policy with regard to the Northwest Caucasus would you recommend and why?

I would not venture to give him advice, except to point out to him that Russia has its own real experts on the region, people who have spent their lives studying the region and its problems, who know its history, languages, cultures, ecology, economy, and so forth. Let President Medvedev and his colleagues listen to them and pay heed to what they say.

I am not a real expert on the Caucasus, by the way. I am sometimes considered one, but that is because – to quote one of my favorite Russian proverbs – “in the absence of fish, even a crayfish is a fish” (pri bezrybii i rak ryba).

CW: Do you see a change in Russian policies toward the Northwest Caucasus in light of increased Circassian nationalism in the homeland and abroad.

I think it has generated a threat perception that makes Russian policy harsher, more repressive.

CW: Do you see Circassians being threatened with the rise of a Cossack national movement making it more difficult to preserve their own way of life, customs and languages?

To the extent that it is just a matter of dressing up in Cossack costume (which was in fact copied from Circassian costume), singing and dancing, the Cossack movement is no threat. But as an indoctrinated, organized, and armed paramilitary force, the Cossack movement is a threat to all non-Slavic minorities – and not just to their customs and languages, but to their physical security, even their lives. We see this most clearly from the Cossack attacks on the Meskhetian Turks.

The Cossack movement is also an obstacle to recognition of the cruel and unjust treatment of the Circassians and other mountain peoples of the Caucasus under the tsars. After all, it was above all the Cossacks who meted out those cruelties. It is hard to see how an undiscriminating emotional attachment to the Cossack heritage can be combined with an honest recognition of historical truth.

CW: The proposed shortfalls in financial aid in the form of subsidies from the Centre to Republican elites in the North Caucasus could become a catalyst which increases the cycle of violence in the North Caucasus. Do you think that the rise of nationalism and religious fervor in combination with this could make it impossible for Russia to control the North Caucaus?

I don’t think that is yet an immediate prospect, but over the long term anything is possible.

CW: How does the independence of Abkhazia affect Circassian thinking in both the diaspora and in the North Caucasus?

I don’t know. It may be too early to tell. If Abkhazia remains within Russia’s sphere of influence, Circassians may become more inclined to pursue their goals within the framework of the Russian Federation, and that in turn may help to bring about a positive change in Russian policy toward the Circassians. The Abkhazian authorities may even assist in this process and act as a mediator between Russia and the Circassians.

CW: Currently, the Circassian community in Russia is becoming increasingly adamant about the recreation of a single Circassian political entity, and Moscow appears firmly opposed to this. Since the Circassians and Abkhazians see their causes as interrelated, could this increasing tension within Russia cause the Moscow government to withdraw their support from Abkhazia?

Maybe, but the Kremlin has other, countervailing strategic and economic motives for supporting Abkhazia, and these may grow stronger over time – for instance, as a result of increased Russian investment and military deployment in Abkhazia. Some Russian experts pointed to the Circassian problem as a reason for caution in extending recognition to Abkhazia, but Moscow went ahead just the same. So there is potential for a positive outcome to interactions within the “Russia – Abkhazia – Circassians” triangle.

CW: Do you think it is wise for Abkhazia to remain independent rather than to incorporate into the Russian Federation? Does Abkhazia have the resources to create a viable state or will it need the infusion of large amounts of foreign aid?

Incorporation into the Russian Federation would only be wise if Abkhazia could count on ethnic and regional autonomy within the RF, and the recent experience of centralization in center—regional relations suggests otherwise.

I think Abkhazia needs an infusion of resources, but not necessarily in the form of aid. It needs foreign investment, from Russia or elsewhere, to restore its capacity in tourism, tropical agriculture, etc. – the areas in which it specialized within the Soviet Union.

CW: Does anyone in America really think that Abkhazia/S. Ossetia will ever return to Georgian control?

“Ever” is a long time. If the US builds up Georgian military might as the “Israel of the Caucasus” while Russian power in the North Caucasus collapses, then why not? But in the current economic climate I think the US will also be forced to retrench and reduce its foreign military commitments.

CW: Is it likely that the US position regarding recognition for Abkhazia (in particular) and S. Ossetia (secondarily) will alter?

This position follows from US support for Georgia as a client state. It could change as a result of either general US retrenchment or yet another upheaval within Georgia (or a combination of the two).

CW: Mikheil Saakashvili has publicly stated that he has learnt a lot from Richard Holbrooke, whom he regards as his mentor. Since Holbrooke has long been close to the Clintons, will it be necessary for Holbrooke to leave the Administration before any change is likely to take place?

Saakashvili will suck up to whoever is in power in the US. If and when there is a change in US policy, I think it will arise primarily from a change in circumstances rather than personalities.

CW: Since the US/EU stance on the two above-territories since the collapse of the USSR has effectively achieved the precise opposite of what that stance was designed to achieve (by pushing the regions into ever closer ties with Russia), how can there be any logical defence of continuing that policy?

The precise opposite of what that stance was OSTENSIBLY designed to achieve. The “logic” is that Saakashvili is “our man” in the Caucasus – “a son of a bitch but our son of a bitch,” as J.F. Kennedy once said (if my memory does not fail me) – and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep him happy.

CW: For many years it was assumed that there would be no solution for any of the 3 Transcaucasian hotspots (Abkhazia, S. Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh) without a solution for all three. Is it still felt in America that all three must be treated alike? Since it is surely inconceivable that Abkhazia/S. Ossetia will ever return to Georgian control, how does this affect the future of Karabakh?

I don’t think that America really cares very much about consistency in its policy toward various conflicts. Otherwise why did it recognize Kosovo? Karabakh is a headache for US policy, with Azerbaijan’s oil pulling in one direction and the domestic Armenian lobby in the other. Perhaps Turkey will sort it out for them?

- Thank you.
Metin Sönmez, CW

Profile: Stephen D. Shenfield comes from Britain, where he initially qualified as a mathematician. In the 1970s he worked in the Government Statistical Service. Later he specialized in Soviet Studies, obtaining a Ph.D. from the University of Birmingham. In the 1990s he went to the USA to take up a position as researcher at Brown University’s Watson Institute of International Studies, also teaching in the university’s International Relations Program.
Since 2000 he has been a freelance translator and writer. He produces the Research and Analytical Supplement to Johnson’s Russia List, an e-mail listing on Russian affairs (for an archive of past issues, see
He is the author of two books – The Nuclear Dilemma: Explorations in Soviet Ideology (Routledge, 1987) and Russian Fascism: Traditions, Tendencies, Movements (M.E. Sharpe, 2001) – as well as numerous articles, book chapters, etc. A collection of his recent articles on political and economic issues is online at