Forward By John Colarusso
For those of us who study the Caucasus there is often present in our minds, no matter what part we focus upon, an abiding sorrow at the turmoil and suffering that have afflicted this region. Even the public in the West can appreciate these feelings in so far as most are aware of the two most recent Russo-Chechen wars, the first conducted under the late Boris Yeltsin and the second under Vladimir Putin. Some may even be aware of the wholesale deportations that swept the region during World War II under the direction of Joseph Stalin, born Dugashvili, himself from the Caucasus and of Ossetian and Georgian extraction. A few lay people may also be aware of romanticized accounts of the nineteenth-century resistance to Tsarist expansion mounted by the Daghestanis and Chechens under Imam Shamil. Only professionals, however, seem to be aware of the ferocious war that swept through the Northwest region of the Caucasus at roughly the same time as Shamil’s resistance in the Northwest, and which ended with the defeat and ethnic cleansing of virtually all of the Circassians and their kin, the Ubykh, Abkhazians, and Abazas, so that today only remnants of these once numerous peoples survive as divided entities in their former homelands, while the vast majority persist with neither political nor cultural coherence as minorities in Turkey and the Middle East.
Dr. Richmond is the first scholar to examine the history of the Northwest Caucasus in depth through an exhaustive study of virtually all the Russian sources and accounts. He has been able to take our vision of this region and its region and its peoples back to remote antiquity. What he shows is a vista of stress and privation afflicting the peoples of the Northwest Caucasus from a remote period. The present plight of these peoples takes on an aspect of the incredible, not because of any issue of veracity, but because their sheer survival in any form at all down to the present day seems astounding given what Dr. Richmond shows us of their past. What emerges from his work is a detailed account of a group of small, distinct peoples subject to the ambitions and machinations of more powerful neighbors, while also, especially in the case of the Circassians and their kin, suffering from intense and multi-dimensional internal stresses, social, cultural, and economic. He shows clearly that, at times, this internal turmoil prevented the emergence of states of state-like entities in the region and seriously compromised any efforts at resistance to external forces. At other times, it is evident that the larger actors, chiefly Russian and Ottoman Empire, used the Northwest Caucasus as a region for testing the mettle and resolve of one another, without any regard whatsoever for the needs or hopes of the local peoples. While the Northwest Caucasus to this day may be fairly characterized as obscure in Western minds, even in those who are pre-occupied with the affairs of Russia and Eurasia generally, Dr. Richmond succeeds us the prospective of Moscow or Istanbul towards this region. He has made it clear that henceforth any grasp of hegemonic ambitions from a regional power near to this region, be it a renewed Russia, a potentially expansive Iran, or a possibly resurgent Turkey, will focus on this region because of its significance as the geopolitical focus of Western Eurasia: control the Northwest Caucasus and one can control the entire North Caucasus; control the north and one can control the entire Caucasus. With the Caucasus as a base, one can from the north project power and influence south into the Middle East and beyond. If the would-be power lies in the south, then the vast steppe region is open to hegemonic penetration. It is only the Northwest Caucasus that has the topography and ports that permit the easy logistics needed to realize such grand ambitions for a Eurasian power. It is this combination of position and geography that has given the region its tragic and remarkable history and which today continues to make its strategic-ally vital, for the time being, to Russia.
This book is extraordinarily, rich. Dr. Richmond begins his book with dramatic eyewitness accounts of the deportations of the nineteenth century and of World War II, followed by a brief account of present-day ethnic and political tensions that have resulted from them. As an almost every following chapter he makes an important observation in this introduction: Russian rule contains a profound element of irony, because policies that, at their face value, are intended to protect ethnic identity and to insure inter-ethnic peace have in fact threatened such identities at the same time that they have exacerbated inter-ethnic conflict.
Chapter 1, on the remote history of the area, starts with archeology of the region and leads into accounts of the ancient Meotians, Sindians, and Bosporans, along other enigmatic but fascinating peoples, treated here in unprecedented detail. The Sindians are clearly a relic Indo-European people, (Indic Sindh “ava”, Irish Sionan “Shannon”). We learn, for example that one of their kings bore the name Gekatie, and that he and his wife, Tirgatao of the Iranian Iksomat tribe, were set in conflict with one another through the machinations of the Bosporan king, Satir. The Meots and Bosporans had extensive links with the ancient Greeks, and the picture that emerges is a mixture of the exotic with the familiar. By contrast the Zikhs are the first linguistically identifiable Circassians to emerge in this era of the first millennium, and they seem to stand as a people apart. The Huns and the enigmatic Khazars make their appearances, followed by the rise and fall of the kingdom of the Alans, the last flourishing of Iranian culture in the region and the ancestors of the present-day Ossetians.
Chapter 2, entitled simply “Culture”, is one of the most thorough accounts of these various cultures available. Herein many long-standing puzzles that have resisted solution by Western specialists become clear on the basis of extensive Russian and native work utilized by Dr. Richmond. This chapter contains a complete account of all the ethnic groups in the region, along with all the tribes and sub-tribes of the Circassians, and others. This information can be found in no other Western sources. Perhaps his most successful achievement here is his account of the kinship system and resulting social hierarchy of the Circassians, among the most complex known. The conflicts and turmoil that ensued in this culture due to the sheer complexity argues strongly against the currently fashionable view derived from the neo-Darwinian sociobiology that cultural institutions are adaptive. Whatever the origins of the elaborate Circassian social hierarchy, which was shared by the Ubykhs, Abazas, and Abkhazis, may have been and whatever adaptive role it may once have played, it persisted for centuries as an impediment to coherent defensive action and was by any sensible estimation maladaptive.
Chapter 3 begins with the aftermath of the disintegration of the Mongol Empire. The old ethnic names, Zikhs, Alans, etc., have vanished and modern ones have appeared. Along with the emergence of familiar peoples came the conflicts which would shape their history down to the present day. The Circassians in the west came under repeated and devastating attacks from the Crimean (Krim) Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. Genoese merchants appeared and played a benign role, but were eventually crowded out by the larger powers. Those Circassians in the east, the Kabardians, also suffered and sought an alliance with Russia, an emerging power. The political success of the Kabardians (a Kabardian princess even became a wife of Evan the Terrible) and the consequent enhanced prestige of their pshis, “princes,” would work against this incipient nation by aggravating the animosities inherent in their hierarchical society even more so than those found among their kin to the west. Russia proved to be an ally of vacillating commitment. When Persia began to assert herself in the region, Moscow’s reaction was generally conciliatory at the expense of the local peoples. When Sweden went to war with Russia, the Circassians were left to the mercy of the Ottomans. The flight serfs from the heart-land of Russia to her margins in the Northwest Caucasus created the various groups of Cossacks. These settlers, usually admixed with locals, were to play a crucial role in the growing hostilities of the eighteenth century. Thus was set early on a tradition of shifting alliances, distrust and ethnic rivalry that was to lead to the great tragedy of the Russo-Caucasian War of the nineteenth century.
The next three chapters cover in great detail the devastating war between Russia and the Northwest Caucasus. Efforts to incorporate efforts into the Russian Empire began with the reign of Catherine the Great in 1762. Forts and Cossack settlements began to appear on the northern marches of the Circassian lands. The Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74 exacerbated relations between the Russians and the Circassians. These grew worse when Sheikh Mansour, a Chechen, led his warriors across the North Caucasus into western Circassian territory, where he was greeted as a hero. His rebellion was short-lived, however, (1785-91). Cossack raids began in earnest in 1800 and these gradually escalated into the full scale warfare of the nineteenth century, ending with the ethnic cleansing of 1864. This period of 102 years is characterized by peasant revolts among the various Circassian and Abaza tribes against their rulers. These princes often sought allegiance with Russia as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Kabardians were struck by plaque. Treaties, truces, and petitions were all dishonored by both sides almost before their ink was dried. The Ottomans, their power waning in the region, still staged raids and offered false hopes. So too did the British, who offered the Circassians moral support, but little else. In this turmoil it is a wonder that the Russians did not conquer within a few months. That the conquest took over a century is testimony both to the fighting spirit of the Northwest Caucasians as well as to the ineffectuality of the Tsarist forces. After the devastating expulsion of most of the indigenous populace the fate of the remnants that remained behind is detailed through the rest of the Tsarist period and through the Soviet era.
Dr. Richmond begins by laying out the three great misconceptions that led Russia into what was for its soldiers a prolonged and devastating war and what was for the inhabitants of the region a tragedy without precedent. First, they assumed that the West Circassians were subjects of the Ottomans, which some inquiry would have shown not to be the case. Second, Russia failed to grasp the fluidity of alliances and allegiances among the various tribes of the region, a condition toward which she herself was in part a contributor. Third, she pursued her imperial ambitions without any knowledge of the culture or history of the region, relaying instead upon a sense of her own cultural superiority and military might. What is striking is that, with the exception of the first assumption which can, of course no longer hold in the absence of the Ottomans, the last two assumptions seem to have been true of the Kremlin’s Caucasian policy even down to the wars that racked the Caucasus beginning in the 1990s. The failure of the Russian elite to learn from the history of the region, from the work and knowledge of its own specialists, is absolutely baffling.
Dr. Richmond offers demographic data on the devastating effects of the ethnic cleansing that began in 1864. With a few notable exceptions the generals who led the Russian forces in the final stages of this war planned this ethnic cleansing in terms that Dr. Richmond argues that are genocidal by modern standards. Given the conduct of this time of imperial powers and large nations, such as the United States, such actions are reprehensible, but they were not unheard of. What is striking, however, is that the severe treatment of Northwest Caucasian native peoples was to continue after the war had left them as relics on their own land.
During the remainder of the Tsarist period and throughout the Soviet era, Russian Governance took the form of prejudicial and repressive treatment. The Northwest Caucasus, even in its decimated post-conquest conditions, was never fully pacified, whether under stringent Tsarist measures inspired by the culture of imperialism or under the brutal measures dictated by the communist ideology of the Soviets. What emerges from Dr. Richmond’s account is a striking failure of Russia down to the present day to evolve away from her fundamentally imperial mentality, in contrast with developments in other former imperial powers. As far as the Northwest Caucasus is concerned, Russia is still locked in the nineteenth century. Laws and institutions ostensibly in place to ensure justice and human rights seem to function only in a superficial way and to be mere window dressing when local issues arise, that cause concern to Moscow or to her representatives in the area. This frozen state of political culture calls for an explanation.
Conceivably, the lack of natural bound that enabled Russia to become history’s largest contiguous empire also rendered the Russian heartland chronically vulnerable, thus elevating her military to an exalted position that rendered it effectively sacrosanct and beyond civil accountability. Such an untethered military tended toward corruption and autocracy. Russia’s strategy of conquest, decimation, and incorporation also rendered external threats into internal ones, and froze her political culture into an outmoded pattern obsessed with security and trustful of no one. She stands alone without true allies and with latent suspicion toward all. This archaic character of her political and security cultures might therefore be seen as a consequence of her geography and of her history. The modern factors have rendered this old geographical dynamic obsolete does not seem to have taken root in the minds of the Russian political elite. The West’s assurances of friendship and its articulation of shared interests have been undercut by her other actions intended to fill the power vacuum left behind by the USSR in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. During the Yeltsin era, there was a prospect for a shift in the Russian worldview, but under Putin the military and security forces have come to the fore, so that Russia have reverted to her traditional posture along with a strong Slavic nationalist theme. This reversion bodes ill for Russia’s internal relations with her non-Slavic minorities as well as relations with the rest of the world, particularly with the United States. It also explains the enhanced repressive measures taken in the Northwest Caucasus and elsewhere. The old patterns have been set back in place.
The penultimate chapter deals with the period from 1986 to 2000, the period Dr. Richmond terms the “Rise of Nationalism.” Here one finds an overview of the turmoil that emerged in the region at the end of the Soviet era and the emergence of the Russian federation under Yeltsin. Particular problems are addressed, such as those of the Karachay and of Adygheia. While full-blown warfare has not erupted in the Northwest Caucasus, he makes it clear that the region is rife with the same tensions and heavy-handed ruling policies that have been its heritage for the past 300 years or more. If anything, the potential for sudden, extensive, and intense violence is greater now than at any time since the Russo-Caucasian War. Gr. Richmond again articulates three blunders that Moscow has made in assessing this region. First, Moscow, ethnocentrically, sees Islam as merely another local ideology and fails to appreciate its uncompromising moral force among adherents. Second, Moscow sees the local Islamic movements as monolithic, when in fact they are diverse and often poorly defined, rendering Moscow’s policies in the sphere “crude” and ineffective. Third, Moscow, again ethnocentrically, assumes that Islam has a hierarchy of authority resembling that in the Orthodox Christian Church. The result is the vesting of nominal authority in Muslim figures that are seen as dupes by the local population, whose needs and grievances thus go unaddressed. One might observe here that most Western capitals have made similar assumptions based on ignorance when dealing with Islam generally.
The final chapter notes the ebbing of strong nationalists aspirations, but discusses the ongoing, “frozen” crisis of corruption and strife that beset the three titular republics of (from west to east) Adegheia, Karachaevo-Circassia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The events documented fit well into older patterns despite the veneer of modernity. Moscow’s proclivity for direct interference in local affairs has if any thing grown stronger under Putin, with an effort to abolish the Republic of Adegheia, and with efforts to hand-pick local officials. Nevertheless, as the title of the chapter alludes to, the region now is in the twenty-first century and there are new factors. As a result of Tsarist policies, Moscow now faces large Diaspora of Northwest Caucasian peoples that fall outside her control and which contains many individuals of wealth or influence in their adoptive countries. An international organization has emerged, the International Circassian Organization Dunayem Adyghe Khase that that represents the culture and aspirations of dispersed Circassians and their kin, and which has chapters in the Northwest Caucasus. The Internet facilities cultural and political ties among this Diaspora and has enabled the emergence in the past 15 years of a sort of virtual Circassian nation, in which other Northwest Caucasian peoples participate. The foment in the Muslim world also washes up against the Northwest Caucasus and threatens to trigger violence cloaked in religious terms. The Northwest Caucasus itself remains beset with problems that reflect the new modernity: educational issues, corruption issues, unemployment, maintenance of cultural institutions established during the Soviet era, poor infrastructure, and interference from the Kremlin.
As of 2006 when Dr. Richmond closed the research for this book, none of these issues had been resolved and prospects for future amelioration or mitigation appeared unpromising. One can only wonder what the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi will be like, since this city sets on the site of the 1864 center of ethnic deportations. It also occupies the center of the Ubykh territory, the one people of the Northwest Caucasus that are culturally and linguistically extent. The other Northwest Caucasian peoples see them as the victims of Russian Genocide. The Sochi Olympics will therefore take place in a hostile and politically unstable environment. Moscow’s role in this choice might best be seen as one more instance of its continued ignorance of and indifference to this region.
25-February-2009<?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = O />