Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Knitting the Circassian Nation Back Together Again

Paul Goble

Baku, March 11 – No ethnic community was more cynically and brutally subdivided by Stalin than the Circassians, who were split into a series of Soviet “narodnosti.” But these groups never forgot their common identity, and they are now employing a variety of ways to knit the Circassian nation back together again.
Most of these, typical of all divided communities, have already attracted attention. Thus, the Circassians currently living inside the Russian Federation have reached out to the far larger – more than five million-strong co-ethnic community of the Middle East and North America – to form international Circassian organizations.
They have organized a variety of websites of their own – among the most active of these are www.adigam.com, www.natpress.net/, www.newcircassia.com/, adygaabaza.ru/, adygi.ru/, heku.ru/, and adg.radioadiga.com/ -- as well as actively cooperating in Circassian sites abroad to reach out across the Soviet-imposed divisions.
Moreover, the media, both print and electronic and both government-controlled and independent, in all the places in the North Caucasus where the Circassians live now routinely report on developments in this community as a whole, something the Soviet system generally succeeded in preventing.
And they have organized to resist Moscow’s plans to hold the Olympic Games in Sochi, both because that is the town through which so many Circassians passed when they were expelled from Imperial Russia in the 1860s and because international attention to the games gives them an opportunity to call attention to their plight.
But the past week brought reports of five initiatives that simultaneously highlight the increasing interaction of these subgroups of the Circassian nation and show the extraordinary creativity of a people who were the victims of both tsarist and Soviet policies.
The first of these initiatives is the one with the potential to attract the most attention of all. David Gechba, an Abkhaz who was a master of sports of the USSR, has announced plans by the World Adygei Brotherhood for a group of Circassians to sail around the world (http://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/newstext/news/id/1209021.html).
The effort, which is still in the fundraising stage, has attracted some initial support from the International Circassian Association, the International Adygei Academy of Sciences and the governments of Adygei, Abkhazia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia.
As odd as this may strike some, Gechba stressed that the Circassians have a long and glorious seafaring tradition. “In the 1990s,” he pointed out, “sportsmen from Abkhazia participated in the international regatta held on the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America.” And in one part of the competition, they finished first.
But this involvement with the sea is no new thing, he continued. Circassian activities on the oceans of the world were reported by the ancient Greeks and Romans, the Genoese, the Ottomans, and the Russians, until St. Petersburg ordered the destruction of the Circassian fleet at the time of the Russian invasion of the Caucasus.
Gechba’s plans call for the crew of the yacht to include people drawn from various professions who will be able to talk to those they meet in the ports of the world about the Circasssians, their past sufferings and their hopes to resume a proud place among other peoples.
Second, the Circassian Congress of Kabardino-Balkaria has called on that republic’s president, Arsen Kanokov, to make the day of the Circassian New Year March 22 a public holiday and to provide official support for various public celebrations of that event (http://www.adigam.com/ru/news/0306032008.html).
Third, the residents of Cherkessk are organizing as they have done in recent years a joint celebration of the Adygei (self-designator of the Circassians) New Year that will feature artists from Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachay-Cherkessia, and Adygeia (www.elot.ru/main/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=533&Itemid=1).
Fourth, archeologists from Kabardino-Balkaria and Abkhazia have announced plans for a dig this summer in the village of Pskhu, associated with Inal, the legendary prince of the Circassian tribes, and to locate Circassian burial mounds from the Bronze Age to the medieval period (http://www.adigam.com/ru/news/0109032008.html).
But perhaps the most creative of all was the fifth, the announcement of an effort in Karachay-Cherkessia that could in the most immediate way bring the Circassians together: People there have organized a knitting competition in the hopes of getting into the Guinness Book of World Records (http://www.islamnews.ru/news-10224.html).
Whether the winner, librarian Lidiya Kyzylaliyeva, will succeed in breaking the record next year remains to be seen. But such a competition, like the other measures mentioned above, is already “knitting” the Circassians together in ways that will change the fabric of ethnic life in the North Caucasus and beyond.

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