Seven things to know about the Circassians — and their struggle

This week, Circassians are commemorating the ethnic cleansing of their people.

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

The ethnic group has several associations in Turkey which aims to preserve Circassian national heritage.

Updated May 24, 2017

1. Who are the Circassians —  and why are they commemorating their expulsion?

The ethnic group, who also self-identify as the Adyghe, come from the North Caucasus region and the northeast shore of the Black Sea. It’s an area in the southwest of Russia. They’re predominantly Sunni Muslim. The majority of Circassians were forced to flee their homeland in 1864, and have never been able to return.

2. What happened in 1864?

A tragedy began in 1817, when Tsarist Russia invaded the Caucasus.

That incursion led to the Caucasian War, which resulted in Russia’s annexation of parts of the area. The Imperial Army drove hundreds of thousands of Circassians out of their homelands, where they boarded ships sent from the Ottoman Empire.

In April 1864, a Circassian delegation wrote a letter to appeal to the Queen of England where they invoked the assistance of the British government and people. But no help was forthcoming.

Circassians were left with no alternative but to seek refuge with the Ottoman Empire.

Only a small number of people remained within Russian Empire’s newly drawn boundaries. Around 1.5 million Circassians were forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire, which had governed the Caucasus for several thousand years.  

An estimated 400,000 Circassians died either from epidemics among the crowds of deportees or from accidents along their dangerous journey in the Black Sea. 


The expulsion involved also Ubykh, Ingush, Arshtins, Chechens, Abkhaz, and Abaza. (Courtesy of Ozgur Soncu)

3. Where are they now?

Circassians now live in almost 40 different countries including Turkey, Israel, Syria, Lebanon, the United States and several European countries.

Nearly six million live in Turkey, and this number accounts for almost 80 percent of the overall community.

Around 10 percent live in an area that was formerly known as Circassia. But this area is now divided into four administrative areas: The Republic of Adygea, The Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, The Republic of Karachay-Cherkessia and Krasnodar Krai.

4. Why is the area divided into four regions?

All four areas are predominantly Circassian. The Soviet administration might have had one political unit in which all Circassians reside, but it created four units instead, the secretary general of the Federation of Circassian Associations in Turkey, Yilmaz Donmez, told TRT World.

A “divide and rule” political strategy accounts for this, he said.


This French map shows what Europeans considered the boundaries of Circassian lands in the Caucasus in 1742. (Courtesy of: Circassian Benevolent Association)

5. What kind of challenges do Circassians face in Russia?

There are many difficulties, but the greatest is the barrier to their own language, said Donmez.

“For example, Circassian is not a mandatory class for the students anymore. Imagine that your mother tongue becomes an elective course in your homeland,” he said.

Russia’s constitution says everyone has the right to use their native language, to freely choose their language of communication, upbringing, education and creativity. But this is not the case in practice..

Last month Elvira Kulokova became embroiled in an altercation with a store in Maykop, the capital city of the Republic of Adygea in Russia after a supermarket employee refused to speak with her in Circassian.

The employee told Kulokova they have to speak in Russian because they are banned from using their mother tongue at work.

‘I want to hear Circassian; I want my children to hear it too, but there’s too little of it around. And when they forbid that small, native, heartwarming and lullaby sounding speech —  forbid where it should be heard — it makes me angry’, said Kulokova.


Sibay Andar is an ethnic Circassian refugee from Syria who went to Russia in 2012 with some 340 other Circassians. In this picture, he takes notes at a Russian class in Nalchik. (AP)

6. Who recognizes the event as a genocide?

Georgia is the only country to recognise the event as a genocide.  

“This is probably because Georgia is politically getting closer to the United States, moving away from Russia’s influence,” Donmez said.  

7. Why does the international community neglect it?

“We call all the countries around the world to recognise this event as a genocide,” said Donmez.

“But we have an imperial power in front of us: Russia.”

“The Circassian genocide doesn’t come onto international agenda because of the balance of power in world politics and state interests of the big powers,” he continued.

Author: Zeynep Sahin

Source: 
TRTWorld