Circassian Repatriation: When Culture is Stronger than Politics 0


The World & I, November, 1991 issue. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Times Publishing Corporation. Pp. 656-669.

Circassian Repatriation: When Culture is Stronger than Politics

By John Colarusso

The Circassians may be returning home in the next few years. But before one can appreciate how remarkable this prospect is, one must be told who the Circassians are and how they came to their present plight far from their homeland.

Virtually every day the newspapers carry reports of one or another ethnic group seeking recognition, some degree of autonomy or outright independence from the Soviet Union. The centrifugal dynamics of disintegration seem to have gripped the giant nation in a manner that ironically reminds one of the communist dictum that history is an irresistible machine, in this case a machine working to break-up the last surviving great colonial empire. The forces of nationalism, which have dictated so much of the history and politics of this century seem finally to have penetrated the heretofore impermeable borders of the Soviet Union so that Mikhail Gorbachev, whatever his original visions and plans might have been, now finds himself facing the same problems and choices that earlier confronted the leaders of Britain and France, and earlier still those of Portugal, Holland, Germany and Spain. The dissensions within his empire resemble those between French and English-speaking Canada multiplied tenfold. In many intellectual circles, therefore, people expect this last great empire to fragment into a multitude of smaller states, from the Baltic down through the Ukraine into the Caucasus and thence across Asia. Were this to happen much of the politics of the 21st century would consist of efforts to sort out the resulting conflicts arising from this debris. More optimistic souls in these circles expect the the Soviet Union will become something like a Soviet Commonwealth, in which case the process of disintegration will be slowed to a gradual drift and the concomitant strife would be more muted. Perhaps these expectations would be tempered in their sense of inevitability if it were more widely known that there is in fact one large ethnic group which seeks to be repatriated to the Soviet Union rather than leave it. This group is the Circassians, who have characteristically avoided any publicity.

Background

The Circassians are a people who were indigenous to the Caucasus mountains, a mountain chain in the south of the Soviet Union, between the Black and Caspian Seas. The Caucasus technically fall within Europe and are the highest mountains in that continent. Despite their magnificence and their recent use by the Soviets as a resort area they have remained remote and relatively unknown. They were the home not only to peoples who sought refuge in them, such as various Turkic tribes and before them various Alanic and Sarmatian bands, but also to roughly forty indigenous peoples. Of these only the Georgians of the southern Caucasus have by now become familiar to the informed public. To the northwest of the Georgians live their rivals the Abkhazians, and continuing in this direction one comes upon the Abazas, close relatives of the Abkhaz, and then the Circassians (Kabardians and Adygheans) who, with the Abkhaz, Abaza and Ubykh, form a distinct language family, usually called the Northwest Caucasian family.

In fact the Caucasus harbors three distinct groups of languages, and despite historical contacts with numerous and varied outside peoples and languages the Caucasic peoples have retained both their cultural and linguistic integrity. The language families differ so radically from one another and from anything else in Eurasia linguists have concluded that despite historical contacts the Caucasic peoples have both a strong and exclusionary pattern of language and social life.

Thus, when the Russians began the conquest of the region at the beginning of the 19th century they encountered a highly heterogeneous and distinctive region defended by fierce warriors. The Georgians sided with the Russians and ostensibly offered an excuse for the invasion by seeking Moscow's protection from the Persians and Ottomans. The war for the Northeast Caucasus, also known as Daghestan, has been well documented. It lasted until 1859. That for the Northwest, which has yet to be documented, lasted another five years. After such a bitter and prolonged war most of the Circassians, Abkhazians and Abazas, all the Ubykhs and many of the Daghestanis chose to emigrate in 1864. They turned to the Ottoman Empire, the only power of the time who had offered them any real aid. Although the Daghestanis had been Muslim for centuries at that time, many of the Northwestern people had converted to Islam as a reaction against Christian Russia.

The Sultan at first settled them in the Balkans, but not after a desperate exodus in which many died through famine, drowning or disease. Later the vast majority of them were resettled further south, so that today the descendants of these peoples find themselves scattered in Turkey, Syria, and Jordan with a few in Israel and Iraq, and only one remaining village in southern Yugoslavia. They served as a military elite in the Ottoman realm, often as border guards. This martial tradition continued on after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. In some cases, such as that of Syria, the Circassian populations in particular followed their military heritage by serving the French, who governed there between the World Wars. Recent movements have brought sizable communities to Western Europe and the United States.

Present Predicament

Today the vast majority of Circassians live outside the Soviet Union in a variety of political and economic circumstances. Turkey has the largest population, with estimates ranging from 250,000 to one million. Jordan may have as many as 100,000. Syria has roughly 45,000. Israel has two villages, but population numbers are not available. The number in Iraq is altogether unknown, though surely small.

Israel treats its Circassians very well, permitting them to publish and broadcast in their language. These Circassians have also served Israel as an elite border guard. Nevertheless, this history did not deter the Israelis from seizing the Golan Heights from Syria in the '67 Arab-Israeli war, even though this area was almost exclusively Circassian. Perhaps the Israelis thought that the Circassians would willingly join Israel, but the fighting drove them out and into Damascus, where they still live in restricted neighbourhoods under poor conditions.

In Jordan the Circassians have enjoyed substantial prosperity and freedom. They are land-owners in and around the capital, Amman, and enjoy publishing and broadcasting in their languages (Kabardian and Adyghe). The electrical power utility has been entrusted to Circassians by King Hussein, apparently because of their reliability and imperviousness to bribery. This Circassian paradise, however, is threatened. When King Hussein drove the PLO out of Jordan in September of 1970 the army which did the driving was led by Circassian officers under a Circassian chief of staff. The Circassians now fear, with substantial justification, that should the politics of Jordan swing toward Palestinian hegemony their security and well-being would be in the utmost danger.

In Turkey the Circassians have been under decades of assimilatory pressure. Only within the last two years has any effort been made to record and document the languages of the Circassians and other resident Caucasians. This is being done by Professor Sumru Özsoy of Bogaziçi University, Istanbul, with government approval and funding. This has been a first step by the government toward recognising the ethnic heterogeneity of Turkey, a gesture which is by our standards a natural and long overdue one in the strong secular context that Turkey has promoted for its society.

Just the opposite trend is apparent in Syria, which, like Iraq, is governed by a Ba'athist regime. The Ba'athists, who came to power in Syria in 1963, legitimise their political and social institutions on the sole basis of whether or not they can claim an Arab ethnic pedigree. In fact the Ba'athists do not see Islam as a spiritual revelation for all mankind, but rather as an ethnic triumph of the Arabs. This nationalistic chauvinism, coupled with socialist trends, underlies the frequent characterisation of Ba'athists as secular, which is not entirely accurate. Given the Circassian history of having served first the Ottomans and then the French in what is now Syria, their position is extremely insecure since they are seen as non-Arabs whose tendencies are inimical to those of the Arabs. Other cultural traits set the Circassians not merely apart from their Arab neighbours, but set them at odds with them. For example, Circassians value restraint and highly codified conduct, particularly in speech. By contrast, as is true of many people around the Mediterranean, Arabs value effusive rhetoric and emotional display. Also, Circassians esteem their women and grant them full public freedom, while Arabs tend to restrict the public role of their women and to codify their domestic lives. Moreover, Circassians adhere to a warrior ethic which despises money and material possessions. In fact even now they tend to view their language as the major treasure of their heritage and skill in its use as one of the greatest marks of achievement. In contrast with this, Syria has a mercantile tradition that extends back thousands of years and accordingly places enormous importance upon money and trade. Finally, the Circassians still abide by the adat, the customary law of the Caucasus, whereas the Arabs adhere to shari'a, the law code of Islam. While it is true that the Circassians in Syria have access to careers at all levels of society, they have no security in these careers. They are subject to constant prejudice and scrutiny, and are liable to random dismissal without appeal or recourse. Circassian repatriation started with one such Circassian who had planned on having a military career, but was dismissed in 1959 for no apparent reason along with six or seven other young Circassian officers.

The Dream of Return

Fathi Radjab was born of Adyghe parents in Aleppo, Syria in 1932. As a surname he used his grandfather's Muslim name of Radjab. While his parents spoke the Abadzakh dialect of Adyghe he himself learned only Arabic and he embarked upon what seemed to be a sensible course of assimilation to the Arabic world in which he found himself. He entered the Syrian military in 1955 and trained as an officer. His career prospects seemed bright when in 1959 he, along with six or seven other Circassian officers, was summarily expelled from the Army, without appeal and without explanation. This was in pre-Ba'athist times, but nevertheless at a time of rising Arab nationalism when Syria was linked with Nasser's Egypt. Totally disillusioned he left Syria, eventually settling in Holland, marrying, siring children, and becoming a biologist. He is now retired and tends a small farm. While in Holland he became ever more interested in his Circassian heritage, even going so far as to achieve the remarkable feat of teaching himself this highly complex and subtle language.

In 1979 he took his Dutch wife on a vacation to the Caucasus. They travelled to Sochi and Krasnodar, and were much impressed by the mountains. While there the idea struck him that by going another one hundred kilometres he might visit the Adyghe city of Maikop in the Adyghe Autonomous Oblast, and there be closer to his ancestral seat. With luck he might even be able to visit Abadzakh territory in the wooded foothills of the Caucasus outside Maikop and thereby make contact with distant kinsmen. The Adyghe Autonomous Oblast ("Region") was administered from outside by bureaucrats in nearby Krasnodar, and he accordingly sought permission to go to Maikop from the Krasnodar authorities. While his request was viewed sympathetically by a fellow Circassian bureaucrat, it was ultimately rejected, once again without appeal and without explanation, by the Russian boss. At that point he resolved to achieve a Circassian society, one based again in the homeland of the Caucasus.

The First Two Congresses

Within ten years Mr. Radjab was able to make enough contacts with fellow Circassians that a congress was held in Ankara. At this meeting the delegates reached an agreement to seek repatriation in the Caucasus, as well as to co-ordinate efforts among the scattered Circassian communities, and to ensure the well-being and ongoing inter-communication of such groups. This first Congress served to articulate notions of shared desperation and the common dream of a return to the homeland. It served to place Circassians in touch with one another through a recognised forum for the first time in a 125 years.

A second congress was held in May 1990 in Holland. There were five groups of delegates, representing Circassians in the Kabardino-Balkar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic,(delegates from the Cherkess-Karachay ASSR, and the Adyghe AO were prevented from attending by visa difficulties), Turkey, Germany, Holland and the USA. No delegates from Israel, Syria, Jordan or Yugoslavia were able to attend.

This meeting was very productive and took the work of establishing Circassian identity at a supranational level much closer to a practical achievement. First the congress chose to identify itself as a permanent organisation, the Duneypso Adyghe Khasa or "Circassian International Council." The official language of the congress was decreed to be "Adyghe" without the matter of exact dialect specification being resolved. As a practical point English was admitted as a functional language since most of the delegates had been denied the opportunity to learn to read and write in Circassian. A target date of May 1991 was set for a third congress in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkar ASSR. Each country would try to coordinate the activities of its Circassians through a centralised structure, a federation of local Circassian organisations. By February of 1991 laws for the Council were to be drawn up, along with a programme for the Nalchik meeting. Rules for having one society represented by another were proposed, since it was expected that once again some groups might find their attendance hindered at the last minute by suspicious authorities. In fact, just this set of substitution rules had to be invoked for one group in 1991. The leaders of the Council were to be elected for four year terms, and the number of delegates for federations or unfederated societies was also set. Finally, the declaration of Ankara was also accepted as the central goal of the newly formed council. Further goals were laid out: first, to establish a lobby to acquaint the government's involved with the Circassians and their aspirations; second, to organise and monitor the finances of the Council; third, to hire professionals for both the lobbying and financial efforts, should this seem necessary; and fourth, to establish the headquarters of the Council in Holland.

At this second congress the Soviet delegation showed a degree of cooperation that was to prove a harbinger of further favourable action. The delegates of the so-called "Rodina" society of Kabardia were very open about the status and role of their society in the Caucasus. They had the authority to go so far as to open up their archives to anyone interested in searching for material dealing with the history of the Circassians. This first step promises to lift the veil that has shrouded so much of the history of these peoples.

The second congress, therefore, set in place the political and social machinery to achieve the dream of repatriation. This was a remarkable achievement for a people who had been scattered, at that time, for 126 years, and who had not had any experience with the institutions of consensus and compromise. They were aided in their democratic habits by a sense of shared disaster. As they themselves said "we have to work in common, because our tragedy was also suffered in common."

The Third Congress and Repatriation

In June of 1990 Fathi Radjab attended a scholarly conference on the Caucasus at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. There he mingled with scholars from a wide range of countries, including the Soviet Union. At that time he saw his problem as one of convincing the Soviet authorities that the Circassians had a natural, internationally recognisable right to repatriation. After all, there were in the USSR three administrative units with Circassians in them, each with cultural organs supporting Circassian activity, with the Circassian affairs of the whole region in the hands of a cultural khasa or council. There seemed to be no natural reason why Circassians lost in what they had come to see as a hostile and alien world should not be free to return to such an area. He found, however, that the various organisations who concerned themselves with international law and the rights of minorities had never even heard of the Circassians. In effect he was facing the detrimental by-product of the Circassian tradition of civility and silence. Rather than becoming terrorists when confronted by dire straits and gross injustices, the Circassians and their kinsmen have characteristically remained silent and superficially accommodating to the societies in which they have found themselves.

Therefore in October,when he went to Nalchik to seek the acquiescence of the Soviets to the idea of repatriation and to seek permission to hold an Adyghe International Council meeting on home territory, he did not mention natural rights or international laws. He said simply, that with so many trying to leave the USSR here was one group who wanted to return. Could they not return? The Soviet reply was a swift and firm "yes." Not only did the Soviets agree to a repatriation process, but they welcomed the prospect of the 1991 Congress, offering to pay for all expenses once the delegates reached Soviet soil. They were faithful to their word.

We might be conditioned to look upon such generosity from the Soviets with suspicion. Surely they could have agreed to these Circassian aspirations merely for propagandistic reasons, but to date they have not exploited them to such ends. More likely the Soviets see in the Circassians a former worthy adversary who has proven itself industrious, reliable and loyal. A zone in the northern Caucasus stiffened by a loyal Circassian population might serve the overall interests of the Soviet Union well in the coming years should the restlessness of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan prove to be unstoppable or not worth stopping.

Prior to the Third Congress of the AdyghÈ World Council the two Circassian ASSRs were upgraded by Moscow to SSRs with special federated status with the Russian SFSR. The AdyghÈ AO became an ASSR with its administrative centre shifted to the Circassian city of Maikop from the Russian city of Krasnodar, which was actually outside the former Oblast. Two rayons or "counties" near Maikop with very large Circassian populations were united into one administrative unit. The Cultural Khasa had its jurisdiction extended over all Circassian cultural and artistic activity anywhere in the northwestern Caucasus, regardless of whether or not such activity fell within a political administrative unit. Further, it received a substantial infusion of cash, nearly five million rubles, to promote and enhance its cultural activities. Finally, in what may well be a supreme symbolic gesture, the Soviets have allowed the traditional Circassian flag to be flown in the regions, much as though it were a state or provincial flag. This flag, called the "Sangyak Sherif," has a rich green field with three crossed arrows in the lower centre and two arcs of stars above them, the upper one consisting of nine stars, the lower of three. The flag was designed in 1836 by a Circassian princess of high standing at the Ottoman court. The green symbolises the verdant landscape of Circassia, while the stars stand for the twelve tribes. The three arrows represent the traditional directions in which Circassians are supposed to have migrated from the Caucasus in ancient times, north, northeast (east) and northwest (west). Such symbolic vehicles will be vital for the restoration of a sense of nationhood.

These gestures were most likely not simply groundwork to please Mr. Radjab, nor an effort to create a false impression of pro-Circassianism simply for the Third Congress. Rather, they are likely to be a reward for the restraint showed by the council in early 1989. At that time the Georgians tried to disenfranchise the Abkhazian minority of the Abkhazian ASSR, which is administered by the Georgian SSR. Serious fighting ensued and the Abkhazians appealed to their kinsmen, the Circassians, to come to their aid. Many young Circassian men wanted to do precisely this, but were dissuaded by the elders of the Adyghe Khasa. This proved to be a wise decision, for the fighting stopped after a few months, and an uneasy truce was set in place. Abkhazian institutions, such as the University and the Academy of Sciences, were completely severed from their Georgian counterparts. Circassian participation in this conflict would only have exacerbated matters and brought further Georgians, Swans, and others into the battle against the Abkhazians. The prudence of the AdyghÈ Council was not lost upon Moscow.

The Third Congress of the Adyghe International Council was held from the 18th to the 20th of May this year in Nalchik. Delegates from Turkey, Holland, Germany, three US Circassian societies, and the three Soviet regions attended. The Syrian delegation was denied exit visas at the last minute, but the Circassians of Syria were represented nonetheless, by people who happened to be outside of Syria at the time and who volunteered their services when they learned of the fate of their compatriots. By the substitution rules of the Second Congress, these people were recognised as a lawful delegation. Despite the small number of formal delegates attendance at the Congress was so large that it had to be held in the local stadium. Buses were used to transport the delegates and visitors from their accommodations to the stadium. The Voice of America broadcast the proceedings throughout the Caucasus, but despite some efforts by the BBC no Western media coverage was obtained. Still true to their tradition of reticence the Circassians had not yet exploited the modern media.

One of the first orders of business, and in some ways one of the most interesting, was a change of name for the Council. The Abkhazians had sent delegates to the Congress, seeking to have their plight under the Georgians recognised. As a gesture toward this end, the Circassians voted to change their name from The International Adyghe Council to The International Cherkess Council. All the Circassians, and the few remaining Ubykhs, call themselves 'Adyghe'. The Abazas and Abkhazians are 'Apswa'. 'Cherkess,' a name applied to the Circassians by others, has, however, become for the Circassians themselves a cover term that embraces not only them but all the displaced peoples of the Caucasus. In this simple change of name the Circassians elevated their society above its former basis of ethnic aspiration to include all Caucasic peoples who have suffered displacement, including their kinsmen the Abkhazians as well as Daghestanis. As one Circassian told me "We are all 'Cherkess;' we have all suffered the same."

In fact there is a shared assumption among the Circassians and Abkhazians, an assumption that is reinforced by promises made by the Soviet authorities, that the upgrading of the various Circassian administrative units is only a first step toward the eventual establishment of a North Caucasian SSR, a resurrection of an old republic that had a fleeting existence after the Russian Revolution. This prospective republic would enjoy a special federated status with the Russian one, but would otherwise have control of its affairs, leaving only defence, transportation and the post to the control of the Moscow federal centre. The dream of repatriation has now taken on the detailed prospect of building a new nation within the Soviet federation.

The Details of Repatriation

The Soviet authorities readily granted the International Cherkess Council the right to have its members repatriated to their homeland. Many areas in the northern Caucasus are underpopulated and under developed, particularly the region around Maikop. Both Soviets and Circassians envision the initial influx of Circassians and others as building new suburbs or farms in and around this city. A first influx of between ten and twenty families is sought as a trial immigration. These people would be able to bring in their wealth and to retain it. Further, should they wish to leave, they shall be free to do so and to take their wealth with them. It is hoped that these immigrants will come from all social strata and that they shall serve not only as new workers and farmers, but that they shall also bring with them expertise in trade, manufacture, science and agriculture.

This repatriation process itself is guided by the central declaration of the Third Congress, which was brought forward and accepted at the very opening of the Congress, after the election of a Soviet Circassian, Yuri Kalmuk, the Prime Minister of the Kabardino-Balkar SSR, as leader of the Congress. The declaration, of course, affirmed the northwestern area of the Caucasus to be the Circassian homeland, to be a Circassian region, and to be a region to which all Circassians have the right to repatriation. Further, and most importantly, the declaration assures the legal, economic and cultural rights of those non-Circassians, mostly ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, who currently live in the region. In effect it assures a multi-ethnic region with the goal that all peoples, including repatriated Circassians, can "live with one another in peace and dignity." The Circassians feel that without a homeland they are doomed. With a homeland, however, even a multi-ethnic one, they can still achieve their dream of a Circassian society.

To coordinate efforts on Soviet territory the Congress elected two Soviet Circassians to its head, one Jarim Aslan to be President, and one Mohid Din, head of the Men's Council ("Tl'akhasa") of the Circassian region, to be Prime Minister, thus seemingly anticipating the parliamentary structure of the promised new state.

Fathi Radjab will himself continue the Council's efforts outside the USSR, having come back from this congress bearing a Circassian name bestowed upon him by his fellows, that of Hatkho Radjabquar. He discovered while there that his original surname had been Hatkho (which translates roughly as "Whitewolf") and his fellows then bestowed upon him, in the traditional order of surname - give name, a patronymic form of his grandfather's name, Radjabquar (which translates as "Son of Radjab"). He had achieved not only his dream of gaining the Russian acceptance of Circassian repatriation, but he had even gained the promise of a republic for his people. This is the central achievement not only of Mr. Radjab but of the Third Congress.

Prospects and Problems

The enormous successes of this congress brought with them enormous problems. First, the romantic longing which had impelled so many to seek repatriation and to attend the Congress ran up against the political and economic problems of the USSR. With characteristic clear-sightedness the Circassians have decided that for the next few years economic and cultural aid to the homeland will be their paramount concerns. Mr. Radjab has in fact arranged for Mr. Aslan and Mr. Din, the new President and Prime Minister of the Council, to visit Holland on a trade mission. The Circassian societies in America have begun campaigns to promote trade, educational, and economic assistance to the homeland. The relations between the Abkhazians and Georgians must be monitored and efforts made to insure the welfare of the Abkhazians. It is generally felt that substantial repatriation must await some resolution to or improvement in the internal problems of the Soviet Union and that this wait may last three to five years.

Six other major problems face the International Cherkess Council. One of the most difficult is that of communication. Circassians and other Caucasic peoples in the Middle East do not have access to modern media. How to spread the word to them of what has taken place is therefore a major problem. It is made even more difficult by the fact that the government of Syria, and perhaps that of Turkey as well, may have misgivings about these efforts. The Ba'athists of Syria may in fact see aspirations for Circassian repatriation and any moves aimed at achieving it as acts of outright treason. Certainly the departure of large numbers of Circassians from the Middle East will cause dislocations in the countries there. For the immediate present Circassians are relying on word of mouth. By resorting to the media and the auspices of third parties, such as America or a European power, the dissemination of these remarkable developments might be facilitated.

Second, the details of precisely who will qualify for repatriation have been left open. One of the thorniest issues here is that of religion. Circassians are predominantly Sunni Muslims, but some are more secular by inclination while others are fervent in their devotion. Since the declaration of the Third Congress assured that the Circassian homeland would continue on as a heterogeneous region regardless of the process of Circassian repatriation and the advent of a possible North Caucasian SSR the matter of maintaining this goal in the face of an influx of fervent Muslims becomes an important issue. Further, if Daghestan is to play a role in the formation of this prospective republic, the matter of religious tolerance becomes even more complex since Daghestanis have a long tradition of Islamic devotion with a fundamentalist tone. In a sense the Circassian problem is a small-scale example of the modern problem of ethnic identity in large heterogeneous societies. The Circassian will have to seek to maintain a "micro-ethnicity" around their domestic lives and the activities of their cultural council, while adopting a "macro-ethnicity" to live in the proposed republic with numerous non-Circassians. One can envision that repatriation may become a natural filtering process among Circassian with differing degrees of ethnic identity and religious adherence.

Third, setting aside religious identity the matter of Circassian identity itself has become a problem if it is to play a role in this heterogeneous prospective republic. The Council itself is now heterogeneous in that it has admitted the Abkhazians into its ranks and has acknowledged the possibility of admitting all other Caucasic peoples who have suffered displacement. Yet the republic will have fulfilled its purpose only in a legal sense if it does not also serve as a nurturing ground for Circassian culture. After 127 years of Russian, Turkish or Arabic influence the Circassians have undergone diverging cultural evolutions. Those in the Middle East will have to turn to those in the Caucasus for guidance in matters of literacy and publishing. Efforts will have to be made to integrate and reconcile the oral culture of the Middle Eastern Circassians with the written culture of the Soviet Circassians. Further, merely disseminating and promoting cultural institutions among many who have only the vaguest inkling of what their heritage once offered will in itself be a major task.

Fourth, should repatriation become successful, there will surely be major political problems to overcome in the homeland of the prospective republic. The population of the region will shift in its demographic ratios and this may cause resentments and open hostilities. Economic dislocations may result if immigration is allowed to proceed too quickly or in an unstructured manner. More particularly matters of social structure will have to be sorted out among the Circassians themselves. Traditionally theirs was a highly stratified society, with princely, noble, freeman and slave groups, each of which had internal hierarchies. With the diaspora and the advent of communism this structure has been reduced to one of family traditions, but it has not been replaced with any other social pattern. Thus, the very character of Circassian society itself will have to be re-invented.

Fifth, the matter of language will have to be addressed. The Circassian language comes in two very different forms, an Eastern (Kabardian) language, and a set of dialects, the Western (Adyghean), which are diverse in their own right. Ubykh, a distinct language, is now spoken by only two people, all other Ubykh having been assimilated to Turkish or Circassian. If their prospective state is to include Abkhazians, Abazas and Daghestanis, which alone speak nearly thirty distinct languages, along with Russians and Ukrainians, the matter of an official language or languages will become something that will have to be addressed. Circassians, however, are used to linguistic diversity, so that several official languages for the republic should not pose a serious problem. More pressing will be the matter of inculcating literacy in whatever language or dialect seems appropriate to the people involved.

Sixth, the political role of this state, both with regard to the Russian SSR and its Caucasian neighbours, will have to be charted. It is conceivable that Moscow may, as Gorbachev has already threatened, take Abkhazia or some portion thereof and South Ossetia away from Georgian jurisdiction should the Georgian state persist in its narrow nationalistic vision. The actual borders of such a North Caucasian Republic will, therefore, be set by developments in the Caucasus as a whole. Such developments seem intrinsically to be beyond the control of the Circassians, and they can only hope for the best.

The Circassians know what defeat means. They also show a growing awareness that unless something is done to preserve their identity they are doomed as a people and that that doom is not far off. I do not wish to belittle the problems which these people will face in the coming years. Nevertheless, the future promises to be both a demanding and exciting time for them. Given the idealism and social skill which they have exhibited so far one can be forgiven for being optimistic about their future.


John Colarusso is a professor in the departments of Anthropology and Modern Languages and Linguistics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Trained as a linguist at Harvard he has studied the Circassians, and other Caucasic peoples for the past twenty years. He has published articles and books on linguistics, Caucasic languages, and comparative mythology. Most recently he has advised various Circassians regarding their aspirations to maintain their identity and to return to their homeland. This year he was made an honorary member of the Holland Cherkess Cultural Society.

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