Last night, I spoke to the GB-Russia Society, and talked again about one of my favourite nations. I don’t remember when I first discovered the Circassians, but it was probably some time in 2007. It was a revelation. Here was a European nation whose history had been completely forgotten. That transfixed me. How often do you stumble across a historical scoop?
For people who haven’t read my book, the Circassians are one of the peoples I focus on in telling the history of the North Caucasus. In the 19th century, they were famous: the Libyan rebels of their day. Their battles against the Russians, who were determined to conquer their homeland, made front-page news. But their defeat in 1864 was total. A third of them died, a tiny rump population stayed on in their homeland. The rest was scattered across the Middle East, and vanished out of popular knowledge.
Of course those Circassians continued to exist as individuals, and their children knew the history of their expulsion, but the genocide of 1864 shattered them as a nation. Their language withered away over the next century. Another generation, and they would pretty much have ceased to exist even in their own minds.
The Internet and modern communications came along just in time. The Circassians had been divided by the borders that split up the old Ottoman Empire, and then by the frontiers of the Cold War, but facebook and email allowed them to re-unite. The nation was like a clay vessel smashed and thrown onto the ground. The pieces might be small but, when re-assembled, their patterns still matched each other. Circassians were amazed to discover people with their same music, customs and dances had survived in other countries. I was lucky enough to get in on this process when it was still new.
In 2008, I spent some months wandering across the Circassian world. I started in Kosovo, meandered through Turkey then visited Israel and Jordan before taking the slow boat to Sochi, and seeing what they call their ancestral homeland. The Circassians I met were open, welcoming, fun, passionate, generous and informative.
I wrote up my experiences. They form the core of Let Our Fame be Great’s first section. By rights, I should then have moved on to new topics and a new book. But I couldn’t seem to let them go, not least because Circassians who read my book befriended me on facebook, and gave me access to their internal discussions, and allowed me to watch as their nation gained fresh confidence and new coherence.
I wanted to meet more Circassians and write more about them, so I travelled to New Jersey to meet the American community. Then I returned to Turkey with a wonderful group of New Jersey-ites to see them protesting alongside their Turkish compatriots against Russia’s decision to hold the Olympics in their old homeland. To me, this is a story that has everything: dirty politics; idealistic young activists; forgotten history; gorgeous mountain scenery; dancing. I wanted to write an article about them, and describe how extraordinary it is to see cousins who had been separated by a century in time and a continent in space, meeting each other at last.
Sadly, it was not a story that grabbed magazine editors’ attention, so I just chunter about it to anyone who will listen. The Turkish man who runs the shop near my house in London even calls me Circassian, while I could have kept talking all night to the 60 or so Londoners who came to see me speak yesterday.
Among them were half-a-dozen Circassians – from Turkey, Syria and Russia — some of whom I’d met before, others I hadn’t. It was great to wake up this morning and see that members of the Circassians UK group had already discussed the evening, and that they were welcoming the chance it had given them to meet more members of their nation.
In my book, I discussed how the scattered Circassian nation is rebuilding itself. Now I find that Circassians are coming to see me talk about my book, meeting each other and thus assisting in rebuilding their nation. I have become an, albeit very small, part of the whole process.
The difference between journalism and history is that journalism is part of the events it describes, whereas history is removed from them. That means I’m a journalist, rather than a historian, and I’m glad about it. It’s a lot more fun this way.
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