Walt Richmond’s Address to the Conference “Circassians in the 21st Century: Identity and Survival—In the Homeland and Diaspora,” Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden, November 2017

Thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk about my research, and especially to Professor Hansen for inviting me here today. It’s encouraging to see the field of Circassian studies grow since so much I first started working on Circassian history, when there was in English only Stephen Shenfield’s 1999 article on the ethnic cleansing in Circassia in 1864 and a long-forgotten dissertation on the same subject. Even my own work has focused on this one issue, and so I’m very glad to see that interest in the Circassians has not only persisted, but is branching out into other aspects of Circassian history and society. I was honestly concerned that the study of the Circassians would remain limited to this one event, in essence reducing the significance of the Circassians to their status as victims of a crime against humanity, rather than as a unique and fascinating culture that has played a role in international events over the centuries, which could very well play a significant role in the future of the Caucasus, and which serves as a test case for the strength of national aspirations even when the people involved have faced and continue to face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

While today’s conference is focused on the future of the Circassian nation, a full understanding of the past is essential for setting a course for the future. Research into the creation of national identity has repeatedly shown ethnic groups move toward true nationhood only after their history and folklore have been chronicled and studied. It gives them a foundation they can all agree upon, look back upon with pride, and use to create a model for unity of identity and purpose. I think that historical research into Circassian history has been too narrow, focused almost exclusively on the tragic events of the 19th century, giving a skewed impression of who the Circassians are and muting their long, complex history. Creating a record of this long history will give the Circassians a much more comprehensive view of their own society and the forces that have held it together through so many challenges and tragedies. It will also clarify their historical relations with other peoples who’ve played a role in their history: on the local level, their fellow Caucasians, and on a broader level their relations with Russia, Turkey, the Middle Eastern states and the western powers. Such work in these areas is essential to counter the tendentious, partisan accounts that have proliferated recently and which are the subject of Valerii Dzidzoev’s 2004 study Кавказ Конца 20 века: Тенденции Этнополитического развития. In fact, much of the material I’ve come across generated by writers from the Caucasus merely repeat, in edited or distorted form, already-published material, placed in contexts to achieve a desired polemical effect. One good example is book that Dzidzoev examines and claims to be the first study of its kind. The author then goes on to plagiarize word for word an earlier publication that contains a large amount of patently false information. Dzidzoev makes the astute remark that if you’re going to lie, why don’t you make up your own lies instead of plagiarizing someone else’s? Likewise, there are many books written by genuinely sincere people, but which lack scholarly rigor and rely on myths and oral narrations, starting with Khan Girei’s 1836 book O Cherkesii. If you aren’t familiar with this work, Khan Girei wrote it as an officer in the Russian Army to paint a picture of the Circassians for the Tsar himself. The book was rejected for publication and only came to light fairly recently. Oddly, the chapter in which Khan Girei discusses a possible method for a peaceful resolution of the Russo-Circassian war was apparently destroyed, as it wasn’t with the rest of the manuscript and has as far as I know never been located. In any event, a true “history” of the Circassian people still remains to be written and will be of monumental importance as the Circassians move forward in the 21st century.

So today I was asked to talk about materials that I’ve obtained from the Georgian State Archives and their significance for future studies of the Caucasus in general, and Circassia in particular. My own first foray into Caucasus studies was focused on a very contemporary issue: the deportation of the Karachay people during World War II and particularly the aftermath as it manifests itself today in heightened tensions between the Karachays and their Circassian and Cossack neighbors. However, I found that the events of the 19th and early 20th centuries were of great importance in understanding the full nature of Karachay-Circassian animosity. I continued researching back in time until I found myself in 3000 BC, looking at theories of the ethnogenesis of the Circassians, which as it turns out is also a contentious issue. As just an aside, what seemed to be to me the obvious conclusion that the base population of the Adyghe-Abkhaz ethnic group was a portion Hattian culture of Anatolia who fled the Hittite invasion, Russian studies dismiss this theory, probably because it would make the Adyghe-Abkhaz one of the oldest indigenous groups in the Caucasus. One study I read actually postulates the origins of all the different peoples of the Caucasus except the Adyghe-Abkhaz, making it appear as though they simply materialized out of thin air at some point in time. Of course, you can see how this sort of narration would serve contemporary political ends.

          I intended for my first book, The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, Future, which was published in 2008, to be a first attempt at the creation of a comprehensive history of the region. It turned out that the book would have been about 1000 pages, but unfortunately, my publisher insisted I shorten the text to to only 100,000 words. The book that resulted is, I feel, a cursory overview of the subject, whose main merit lies in providing a series of topics concerning the history of the Northwest Caucasus that merit further, more detailed research. Of those topics, I did the obvious thing and focused the ethnic cleansing of 1864, its causes and its aftermath. I chose this topic for two reasons, by the way: Mr. Ali Berzeg had just given me a large number of documents from the Georgian State Archives, and the Sochi Olympics were approaching and, troublemaker that I am, I wanted to publish it almost in conjunction with the Olympics. I also published an article that chronicled the multiple human rights and environmental violations that occurred in the preparation for the Olympics that was published in a multi-author volume edited by Robert Ware called The Fire Below. I did this partially for personal reasons: I wanted to do something to embarrass the International Olympic Committee in some small way, since I feel they’re not the most honorable organization.

Back to the first book: even though I feel that I provided more than enough evidence to label the events of 1863 and 1864 genocide, even under the restrictive UN definition, I didn’t examine in great detail how the Russian proposal to resettle the Circassians resulted in a near-total elimination of the Circassians from their homeland, and particularly which group bore the majority of the blame: the Russian Ministry of War or the Caucasus High Command. I examine this question in detail in my second book, The Circassian Genocide, which as I mentioned was published in 2013. Here is where the material from the Tbilisi archives played a central role in deciphering this question, although I had to use other materials to complete the argument I try to make in the book, that the entire tragedy of 1864 was the brainchild of one man, Nikolai Evdokimov, and that he was supported only by a very small number of military commanders in the Caucasus. While I feel I made the argument successfully, there is still more work to do to fully unravel Evdokimov’s role, particularly in light of Russian studies that deny the action was genocide and that seem to be supported by solid documentary evidence. Furthermore, what I discovered in examining the archival materials was the possibility that a great deal of scholarship on the Caucasus has relied upon documents that cannot be considered accurate. This is perhaps the biggest discovery of all: the Акты, собранные кавказскою археографическою комиссиею, supposedly a complete record of documents pertaining to Russia’s activities in the Caucasus, is more of a group of selected excerpts of documents, which themselves paint a skewed and occasionally completely false picture of Russian policy. More about this in a bit.

          The materials I have were originally obtained by Mr. Ali Berzeg in 2008, when the Georgian government decided to open the archives to foreign researchers. The archive contains copies of documents that are also available in Moscow archives, where they were (and most likely still are) inaccessible to foreign researchers. (Even if they were available, the Russian government’s recent actions—arrests and expulsions of scholars researching sensitive issues—makes it impossible to conduct significant archival research there.) STORY FROM OTTO Although most of the documents prior to 1865 are handwritten, they were transcribed by professional copiers, many apparently by the same person who had quite good handwriting, and so they’re quite legible. I’m not a Russian native speaker and I can read them quite easily. One set I have consists of field reports from the 1830s, when Russian troops were trying to assess just how many Circassians there were. For the most part, the Russians found nothing, and they weren’t terribly useful except in one instance, where one of the commanders during the deportation of the Circassians in the 1860s who claimed at the time he was unaware of the harsh weather conditions on the Black Sea Coast filed one of the 1836 reports about the harsh weather conditions on the Black Sea Coast. Another set, dating 1865 and later, consists of reports concerning the settlement of Cossacks in Circassia after the ethnic cleansing. These are typewritten, but weren’t much use for my topic except for some details that explain the fate of the  Khakuchi, a Shapseg clan that evaded deportation and ultimately settled among the Cossacks. It turns out the Cossacks begged St. Petersburg to let them remain after a  proposal to deport them was filed. This contributed to their survival today in Krasnodar Krai.

The bulk of materials consist of letters between commanders and field reports, the most extensive of which is Document 1177, which are General Evdokimov’s field notes from 22 June to 30 October 1863. (The remainder of Evdokimov’s field notes were published in 5000 copies in 1994 by Tugan Kumykov in his short work Выселение Адыгов в ТурциюПоследствие кавказской войны.

While the notes in Document 1177 provide a week-by-week account of troop movements, there are very few mentions of battles, certainly no mention of any atrocities, and inconsistent and occasionally cryptic tallies of Circassians encountered as the Russians moved through Circassia. So for example, in one entry Evdokimov writes:

Between October 19 and 26, in view of the total expulsion of the natives from the Abinsky Squadron’s territory, the following movements were planned: in the forest around Krymskaya Stanitsa from the Abinskaya and Litkhirskaya Rivers to the Khablskaya, and then to the south along that road. . . . Several columns followed this route, penetrating into the most hidden places and forcibly cleansing the Cossack lands of the natives. During the operation forty-seven people of both sexes were taken prisoner.[i]

The obvious question is: what happened to the rest of the people? The area Evdokimov describes here is over 300 square kilometers, in the heart of Shapseg territory. There had to be more than 47 people, so where’d the rest of them go? The comment “of both sexes” appears in some tallies; some tallies include women and children as separate categories, and some make no distinctions.

Furthermore, Evdokimov was not a master of the Russian language, and as a result the notes are sometimes confusing and even ungrammatical. If you look beyond the vague way in which Evdokimov writes, the field notes simply add concrete details to events no one disputes: the Russian army swept through Circassia, the result being a near-total annihilation of the Circassian population in their homeland. It’s only on rare occasions that Evdokimov tallies the number of Circassians who chose to resettle to the lowlands and those who “chose” to go to the Ottoman Empire; in most occasions he states that all the people in a certain location chose deportation. So the field notes are of limited use for creating an accurate picture of the operation. By the way, the question of “choice” concerning the deportation is, in a word, nonsense. You can “choose” to fight and die, as many Circassians did. That doesn’t mean it’s a free and willing choice. But the argument that the Circassians “chose” to “emigrate” is still made today by some, both in Russia, where the argument is used to delegitimize the argument that they should be granted the right to return, and in the Middle East, where the story of faithful Muslims making a hijra to the Dar Al-Salam became a convenient myth for the leadership of the Ottoman Empire and its successor states.

One thing Evdokimov never mentions, with the exception of a few battles, are acts of violence against the population. I have been told by a source I trust that in the archive are documents confirming atrocities, but unfortunately I didn’t see them and so I couldn’t include the reports he conveyed to me, which I will just say are inhuman. In order to understand this aspect of the operation, other texts are far more significant, particularly the accounts of Ivan Drozdov, a Russian officer and participant in the ethnic cleansing. His memoirs, “Последняя борьба с горцами на западном кавказе,” originally published in the 1880s but currently available both online and in book form, describe in graphic detail aspects of the Russian campaign in Circassia. This particular document provides the best evidence that the campaign was conducted, as expressed by Stephen Shenfield, “with brutal disregard to human suffering.”

The real value of the archival materials I’ve read is in the correspondence between field commanders and the Caucasus High Command in Tbilisi. This is where Volume 12 of Акты, собранные кавказскою археографическою комиссиею, which includes correspondence between these same field commanders, and the Caucasus High Command, with St. Petersburg, becomes a central concern. An obscure text made me intensely suspicious of the documents contained in the Akty, which presents itself as a complete compilation of correspondence and reports from the Caucasus. The text in question is Из воспоминаний М. И. Венюкова, published in Amsterdam in 1895. This led me to a second text by Veniukov, “К истории заселения западного кавказа,” published in the journal Русская старина in 1878. Veniukov played a unique role in the events of the 1860s in the Caucasus. He was an experienced cartographer who had spent most of his career up till then mapping Siberia. He was sent to the Caucasus to map out areas in which the different Circassian tribes would be settled. In the Akty, several letters from Evdokimov to St. Petersburg indicate that Evdokimov fully intended to settle the Circassians, even the extremely hostile Shapsegs, in the lowlands, and Veniukov was sent to coordinate where the different tribes would be sent. As he began his project, he reported that Evdokimov told him not to bother, as it was his intention to drive all the Circassians, even the tribes that had already agreed to accept Russian suzerainty, to the Ottoman Empire. I knew without even referring to the Akty that this contradicted official policy, and so I began closely comparing the official correspondence between Tbilisi and St. Petersburg with the correspondence between Evdokimov and Tbilisi.

What I found is that the Caucasus High Command, first under the leadership of Alexander Baryatinsky and then Grand Prince Mikhail, was conducting its own policy concerning the Circassians while informing St. Petersburg that they were following the official plan that had been drawn up by the Ministry of Defense. ELABORATE I felt this was a significant discovery, since it rendered nearly all scholarship that relied upon volume 12 of the Akty suspect. At this point in my work on the book, I was more concerned with placing this new evidence in the context of my argument, and didn’t pursue a close comparison of the Akty with the archival materials. However, this work is essential to create an accurate picture of the era and to counter works, primarily Russian, that use the Akty to argue that the Russian government had no intention of deporting all the Circassians (an impression which the materials in the Akty clearly make). This, in my opinion, is the most critical task for anyone researching this period in the Tbilisi archives.   

Similarly, any research into the entire Caucasus War should be subjected to this same process of verification through the archives. In my own work I found that Alexei Ermolov considered the Caucasus a sort of private fiefdom under his direct rule and misinformed St. Petersburg on numerous occasions. Research in Tbilisi could lead to a reinterpretation of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus as a whole.

Clarifying the events of the past are of great importance when attempting to chart a course into the future. Because of the conflicting and often incorrect information available currently in studies of this period, the catastrophe of 1864 has been interpreted in multiple, often mutually exclusive ways. Thus, among the Circassian community, I’ve found that there is no consensus about what happened, why it happened, and who specifically is to blame. Clarifying these issues may contribute to future agreement about the direction efforts to chart a future should go.

Other tasks remain as well. The precise nature of Russo-Kabardian relations prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1763, another point of contention among scholars of the period as well as Russian politicians and Circassian activists, has never been thoroughly studied despite the republication of all relevant documents in 2006 by the Russian Academy of Sciences. The fate of the Circassians in Bulgaria during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 has likewise never been fully analyzed, although all the pertinent documents were compiled by Bilâl Şimşir in 1968. I started this project myself, but felt my Turkish language skills were not sufficient to interpret many of the documents. WHY THIS PERTAINS TO 1864 Also, the sources of Circassian-Karachay animosity, which reached its peak in the 1920s, have never been addressed, much less studied thoroughly. The answer to this question, which I have been unsuccessful in identifying in my own research, could provide a foundation for a reconciliation between these two peoples and a platform from which their united efforts could achieve a more rational method for governance in the dual-titular republics.

Another direction for research is application of theoretical approaches to understand the state of affairs in the Circassian community worldwide. I was already thinking about analyzing the various, often mutually exclusive, narratives about Circassian history by employing theories of communication by Mikhail Bakhtin, when yesterday I heard a presentation by Shota Kakabadze in which the author applies post-structuralist discourse theory to the problem of contemporary images of Stalin in Georgia. I think a similar approach to the problem of conflicting historical narratives in the Circassian community could help in systematizing the evolution of such narratives. I also think that it is past time to start using theoretical approaches to examine many of the issues I and others have raised, and I can’t tell you how encouraged I was to see the next generation of Caucasus scholars taking this step.

Returning to the theme of this conference, I believe the only way forward is cooperation between all the peoples of the Caucasus, built upon their shared customs, history, and challenges. Their small numbers as individual nations requires them first of all to see a common future and to build it together. Whether that happens or not is up to the people themselves. However, our research can provide important pieces in the puzzle of where Circassia, and all the Caucasus peoples, should place their hopes for the future.

[i] Ibid., 142.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s