The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey – Remembering another genocide

You may or may not be aware of the fact, but this Thursday, 21 May, will be commemorated by the global Circassian community as the anniversary of the day in 1864 when their ancestors were finally extirpated from the homeland by the forces of Czarist Russia. An interesting and timely review appeared in the English language daily Hürriyet today. The book itself looks a little expensive but you can get the general gist here:

‘The Circassian Diaspora in Turkey: A Political History’ by Zeynel Abidin Besleney (Routledge, 224 pages, £84)

Activists seeking recognition of the Circassian genocide

Activists seeking recognition of the Circassian genocide

“In the list of ethnicities he likes to recite in speeches praising Turkey’s multicultural richness, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan always gives a shout out to Circassians. Unlike the Christian minorities that are routinely ignored in Erdoğan’s public rallies, referring to Circassians carries no political cost. Circassian identity has a fairly low profile in Turkey and Circassian-origin Turks tend to have a fairly limited “national consciousness.”

“The Circassians first came to Anatolia in significant numbers during the 19th century, when up to a million were forced out of their homeland in the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire. Never having the strength to bring together the ethnicities of the largely Sunni Muslim North Caucasus as a united state, Circassia as a country ceased to exist. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians were killed or died, and their land – emptied of its native inhabitants – was offered to ethnic Russians and Cossack settlers. Some people today refer to the events of 1859-64 as the first modern genocide.

“The vast majority of survivors found refuge across the Black Sea in the lands of the Ottoman Empire. The many tribal and ethnic groups arriving from the North Caucasus fitted into the multinational Ottoman patchwork, which accommodated Circassianness without imposing an obligation to assimilate. Estimates vary, but today there are thought to be around 2-3 million citizens of Circassian origin in Turkey, and many from the community have risen to the highest stations in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Many Circassians played a key role on the ground in the massacres of Ottoman Christians in 1915.

“This book by scholar Zeynel Abidil Besleney is the most detailed study available of the political development of the Circassian community in Turkey over the past few decades.

Read more

I was also interested to discover that there is another university in the United States that has a Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Newark College of Arts and Sciences University College has a page worth visiting if you are genuinely interested in the subject of genocide. Here’s a brief extract:

Map showing destinations of Circassians expelled from their homeland up to 1864

Map showing destinations of Circassians expelled from their homeland up to 1864

The destruction of the Circassians – who call themselves “Adyghe” – and other indigenous groups of the Caucasus were part of Tsarist Russia’s conquest of the region during the middle-half of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, the Russians aimed to extend its imperial sovereignty and supplant the mostly tribal-based, Islamic-infused population with Slavic, Russophile settlers. A stringent indigenous resistance was brutally put down by the Russians, especially under Tsar Alexander II, who was Emperor of the Russian Empire from 1855 through the end of the Caucasian War in 1864. By the end, hundreds of thousands of Circassians and other indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated, mostly to the Ottoman Empire but also to the lowland regions of the Caucasus where the Russians would better control them. A significant portion of the Circassian population was killed, as the Russians waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign. Thus removed from their ancestral homeland, the Circassians have been uprooted and scattered ever since.” Read more


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