The Circassian Genocide: Yesterday and Today
Walter Richmond, Occidental College, Los Angeles
June 18, 2012 – 7th Circassian Day at European Parliament
Thank you for allowing me to speak on this very important subject. I would like to make a few observations based upon my historical research that will appear in my forthcoming book, The Circassian Genocide. While there is a great deal I could say, I’ll center my comments on two related points. First, all the archival materials and eyewitness reports confirm that genocide, in the sense of the term according to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, was committed by the Russian military against the Circassian people between October 1863 and April 1864. It was during this time that the Russian Caucasus Command—specifically, Commander-in-Chief Grand Prince Mikhail, Staff Commander General Alexander Kartsov, Field Commander General Nikolai Evdokimov, and commanders Babich, Tikhotsky, and Geiman—despite having been repeatedly warned that large-scale death would follow, conducted an ethnic cleansing of the mountains of Circassia. This action was approved by War Minister Dmitry Milyutin. During this action there were numerous massacres of unarmed men, women and children by bayonet and cannon. The long-standing myth that the Russians gave the Circassians the choice of settling north of the Kuban River, a standard excuse used to blame the Circassians themselves for the disaster on the coast, is conclusively disproven by the accounts of the commanders themselves and the memoirs of eyewitnesses Ivan Drozdov and Mikhail Venyukov. The Circassians were not allowed to take any provisions as they were driven down the mountains, in some cases in heavy snow. As Venyukov reported:
The war was conducted with implacable, merciless severity. We went forward step by step, irrevocably cleansing the mountaineers to the last man from any land the soldiers set foot on. The mountaineers’ villages were burned by the hundreds, just as soon as the snow melted but before the leaves returned to the trees . . . We trampled and destroyed their crops with our horses. If we were able to capture the villagers by surprise we immediately sent them via convoy to the shore of the Black Sea, and farther, to Turkey. . . . Sometimes . . . there were atrocities bordering on barbarity.
Drozdov corroborates Venyukov’s assertion of atrocities, confirming that they were intended to terrorize the Circassians:
Dawn, the troops move toward the targeted village, shouts of hurrah!, shots, the glow of burning huts, the cries of children, the wailing of women—what could be more terrible, more effective than this picture?
Field Commander Evdokimov admitted to driving entire clans to the coast who had never fired a shot at the Russians and who were willing to submit to any terms and refused to allow them to take any provisions. Unknown thousands died en route to the shore, and after Evdokimov was repeatedly told of this tragedy, he did nothing to alleviate it. Once at the shore, the Circassians were left in the open air, without food, water, and often even clothing. Disease and starvation ran rampant. Word got back to Emperor Alexander II, who ordered his brother Grand Prince Mikhail to investigate. Mikhail reported back that there was no disease or starvation, deliberately concealing the crime. At the same time, Evdokimov continued to drive Circassians to the coast, compounding the disaster. Reserve Commander General Milenty Olshevsky placed the blame directly on the decisions of the high command, stating that the disaster “was exclusively because of the hurried and premature movement of our troops to the sea prior to the spring equinox.”
The entire northeastern coast was covered with refugees until summer 1864 and the Russians took no steps to feed them. The Circassians died in large numbers from typhus and smallpox, and the epidemics followed them into the boats that began arriving in January. Not only refugees but entire crews were wiped out. After a Russian captain and crew met this fate in April the Russians refused to transport any more on state-owned ships and left the rest of the deportation to the Turks. Evdokimov investigated the possibility of hiring ships to transport the Circassians, but his quibbling over fees delayed the exploitation of private boats for several months. However, he requested no food, water, or medical help.
Based upon all the documentary evidence, my conservative estimate is that between 320,000 and 400,000 people died in the period October 1863—April 1864. Many more died en route to Turkey and after their arrival there, increasing the estimated death toll to a minimum of 625,000. Assuming an 1860 population of 1.5 million and an annual growth rate of two percent, the current population of Circassia would be approximately thirty million. The actual Circassian population worldwide, by contrast, is between four and six million, with only 700,000 living in theRussian Federation.
This leads me to my second point. While the death toll over this short period was enormous, it must be viewed as the acute moment in a centuries-long genocidal process. By the first decade of the nineteenth century General Sergei Bulgakov was conducting a genocidal campaign against the Circassian Qabartay tribe by blockading food and salt shipments and burning villages during a devastating plague. As a result of his actions, and the more aggressive military actions of his successor Alexei Yermolov, the Qabartay population was reduced by ninety percent, from 300,000 in 1790 to 30,000 in 1830. Yermolov particularly aimed his attacks on wholesale murders of Circassians through his subordinate, Mikhail Vlasov. Vlasov violated every rule of war–in one instance he turned his cannons on unarmed Circassians who were gathering their dead.Vlasov’s actions were so devastating that a committee sent by the Emperor to assess the situation concluded that “troops under the command of General Vlasov have incited in various ways hatred toward the Russians among the mountain peoples.” In the 1830s several Russian generals put out bounties for Circassian heads, which they sent to medical research facilities as if they were animals. By 1840 Admiral Lazar Serebryakov first proposed genocide by forced starvation. The Russian assault on the Circassians was sustained, deliberate, and total.
Nor did the genocidal process stop after the 1864 deportation. The Circassians who remained in the North Caucasus—perhaps only five percent of the original population—were subjected to official assimilationist policies and unofficial but permitted persecution by the Cossacks who had been settled in place of their deported and dead compatriots. As a result, the 1880 Circassian population in Russia was even less than the 1864 population. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the Soviets artificially divided the Circassians into four fictional subethnic groups and created administrative borders to impede their ability to develop a unified culture. As for the deportees and their descendants, the Russian and Soviet governments rejected petitions to allow even small numbers of Circassians in the Ottoman Empire to return to their homeland in 1888, 1904, 1917, 1936, and 1938. Currently the Russian government is doing all it can to thwart the most recent attempt by Circassians to return home from Syria. The Russians are playing a waiting game, hoping that the Circassians will ultimately be assimilated and the problem will go away. Unfortunately, the threat that this may happen is very real.
Since renaming Qbaada Meadow Krasnaya Polyana (Red Meadow) in remembrance of all the Circassian blood spilled there in May 1864, the Russian and Soviet governments have conducted a methodical campaign to obliterate all references to the Circassians’ 5000 year presence in theCaucasus. On occasion, Circassian place names have even been replaced by the names of the generals and admirals who slaughtered them in the nineteenth century. In the days before the International Olympic Committee’s announcement that Sochi was awarded the 2014 Games, a Russian news program showed a documentary on the history of the Sochi region that did not even mention the Circassians’ existence. In his acceptance speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin implied the original inhabitants of the region were Greeks. The Russians are determined not only to erase the Circassians’ presence in their homeland, but even their memory.
Since the Circassian community began actively to campaign against the Sochi Olympics, the Russian government’s reaction has been to label the activists nationalists and terrorists. As just one example, a Russian citizen who reproduced my interview on Radio Free Europe concerning the results of my research on his blog was charged with extremism. Russian NGOs speaking for the Kremlin have used every excuse from denying there ever was a genocide to arguing that because Georgians served in the Russian Imperial army during the genocide the Georgian government had no right to recognize it. Moscow held its own roundtable on the Caucasus wars on February 14, 2011. After concluding that the Russo-Caucasus War wasn’t a war after all but rather a “clash,” roundtable organizer Ruslan Kurbanov tried to dismiss the entire movement to expose the Circassian genocide as an attempt to create chaos in the North Caucasus:
Recently tough questions concerning the history of the peoples of the North Caucasus have become instruments of political manipulation, and they are being used to justify ethnic separatism and to inflame interethnic hostility in the region. . . . Unfortunately, since there is an absence of scholarly works, pseudo-historical works are being thrown into the field of information, inflaming interethnic hostility.
Russian historian Alexei Malashenko went even further, claiming that Circassian efforts to recognize the genocide were directly tied to plans for a terrorist attack on Sochi. Moscow continues to portray the activists working to have the genocide recognized, as well as scholars interested in the subject, as either extremists or agents of the CIA. The Russian government created the “Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests” in 2009 as an official channel to discredit efforts of historians such as myself to uncover the truth. Most recently Russia has issued warnings to theRepublic of Turkey not to allow the Circassians to express their right to freedom of speech there as well. Moscow is attempting to silence the issue, hoping that once the Olympics are over it will go away and assimilation will continue. In every sense, Russian actions are not simply genocide denial but a continuation of the process of genocide that began in the early nineteenth century.
It is my belief that all efforts must be taken before the Games to shine the international spotlight on the travesty that is about to take place in Sochi, where athletes from around the world will compete and celebrate on the site where so many innocent men, women, and children died needlessly, on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy.