The Caucasian Diaspora - Abkhaz and Adighes: Episodes from the past
Gudisa Vardania, the State University of Abkhazia
The author takes a look into the past in order to shed light on some of the still painful issues relating to the emergence of the Abkhaz-Adighe element of the Caucasian diaspora, the ups and downs of the Caucasian War Russia waged in the Caucasus for many years, the deportation of huge numbers of local people, and their arduous integration into Ottoman Turkey.
The Caucasian diaspora dates back to a much earlier period than the mid-19th century, when the mountain dwellers were deported in huge numbers. According to Procopius of Caesarea (the 6th century), the Abkhazian rulers selected handsome young men from among their subjects to be sold into slavery to the Byzantine court. Their relatives were all exterminated just in case, to avoid a blood feud. This undermined the nation’s gene pool, while it also regulated the birthrate in the relatively small area between the Caucasus Mountainsand the Black Sea.
The steady inflow of slaves from the Caucasian Black Sea coast inevitably affected the social, political, and cultural climate of Byzantine, Egypt and, later, Turkey. Some of the Abkhaz climbed high up the state and military ladder in the Byzantine Empire. Emperor Justinian used Abkhazian archers as his private guards.
The diaspora also swelled with people driven away at different times by all sorts of foreign invaders. According to At-Tabari, for example, in the mid-6th century, Iranian ruler Hosrov drove Alans and Abkhaz to Southern Azerbaijan. …The Mongols moved about 100,000 Alans-Asi to China. The khans recruited one thousand Alan horsemen into their guards. According to Catholic missionaries, the Alans remained Christians until at least the 14th century and were able, if necessary, to mobilize up to 30,000 fighters. In the 13th century, tens of thousands of Alans-Asi reached Hungary. Their descendants, as many as 100,000, are still living in Jászság, alongside the Cumans (Kuns), descendants of the Polovtsians.
The fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the emergence of the Ottoman Empire opened a new stage in the Caucasian diaspora’s history, even though it swelled for basically the same reasons: forced deportations, slave trade, and emigration for personal reasons to Istanbul and other cities of Asia Minor and the Middle East.
The Ottoman Empire, which regarded itself as a natural heir to Byzantium, launched aggressive foreign policies. In the 16th-17th centuries, due to the extremely favorable foreign policy context and the young state’s inflated military-economic potential, it expanded far and wide, seeking complete control over the Black Sea. Could this be achieved? The Ottoman Turks learned from their own experience that it was easier to conquer the vast territory between Iran and Morocco than to subjugate the Caucasian highlanders.
It should be said that the empire had enough sober-minded politicians to avoid a war of attrition against the mountain peoples. They managed to turn the Black Sea into a “domestic lake” by strengthening the few fortresses scattered along the coast and penetrating the Caucasus with their ideas and commodities. From the very beginning, the relations between the empire and the local people were fairly stable; they developed into good-neighborly and mutually advantageous relations after Istanbul buried its military expansionist designs.
The compromise opened the doors to other countries and encouraged trade. Any attempts by the Ottoman Turks, however, to extend their sphere of influence in Abkhazia and elsewhere in the Western Caucasus were cut short by means of arms. Here is what Theophil Lapinski had to say: “There were Turkish garrisons in the fortresses built along the Black Sea coast—in Anapa, Sudzhuk, and Sukhum-Kale—but the soldiers were unable to stray for more than half an hour’s walk beyond them without being detained by the Abkhaz.”
Here is confirmation that the Caucasian mountain dwellers never recognized the power of the Ottoman Turks: talking to Russian General Raevskiy, a Shapsug (a member of one of the local ethnic groups) asked the Russian what he was doing in their land. When the general told him that Turkey had conceded the Caucasus to Russia under the Treaty of Adrianople, the Shapsug said: “Aha! Now I get it. Look at that bird there in the tree. It’s yours, catch it if you can.”
Although they lived side by side, the Ottoman garrisons and mountain people frequently took to arms to settle a point. In the 18th century, Istanbul’s intention to strengthen its Caucasian foothold caused several large-scale armed clashes (in 1725, 1728, and 1771). According to G. Dzidzaria, each of the failed attempts to check the Turkish pressure caused another bout of deportation. There were two large deportation waves (in 1690 and 1760), reliable information about which can be found in so far inaccessible Turkish archives. Kniga puteshestvia (The Book of Travels) by Evliya Çelebi says that the Abkhaz congregated in great numbers in Tophane (a district of Istanbul): “The Abkhaz are sending their children … back to their homeland to be educatedin the local traditions.” The author failed to indicate, however, when and under what circumstances the Abkhazian colony appeared.
The following can be said about the Byzantine-Arabian and Turkish stages: the population outflow (either natural or forced) from the Caucasus, which lasted for a millennium and a half, never created a Caucasian diaspora. The Caucasian mountaineers made a huge contribution to the military, political, and cultural life of Byzantium, Egypt, and Turkey, which means that, each time, the newcomers blended with the linguistically and culturally alien milieu. A mass exodus was needed to establish a strong diaspora. This happened in the 19th century.
In the Shadow of the Caucasian War
The late 18th and 19th centuries turned out to be a “black page” in the history of the Northern Caucasus and its peoples. Many of its ancient ethnic groups were pushed to the brink of extinction. Russia, which unleashed the Caucasian War, forced huge masses of local people to leave for Turkey. This created a phenomenon known as “Muhajirism.” A. Genko, a prominent expert on the Caucasus, described how “Muhajirism” affected the present and future of the Adighes (Circassians, today called Cherkesses), Ubykhs, and Abkhaz, who “either disappeared from the Caucasus altogether as a result of eviction, or were preserved in small numbers as fragments of previously large and rich settlements. …As distinct from the rest of the Caucasus … the ethnic makeup of the Northwestern Caucasus changed beyond recognition as a result of several years of emigration and immigration of colonists.” Chechens, Daghestanis, Ossets, Nogais, and other Caucasian peoples were also involved in the process. F. Budishcheva has the following to say on the subject: “Caucasian migration had no analogies in the last 200 years of the history of mankind (it could only be likened to the Exodus of Biblical times). Indeed, the war drove nearly entire (90 percent) peoples (Adighes, today known as Cherkesses, Kabardins, and Adygeis) from their territories, while others lost some of their numerical strength for the same reason.”
Under the pressure of objective and especially subjective factors, Russia’s foreign policy in the Caucasus developed into an excessively aggressive one, bringing to mind the cruelties of the Oriental conquerors.
In the latter half of the 18th century, the Caucasus developed into an arena of stiff rivalry between Russia and the Ottoman Porte. T. Feofilaktova described the developments in the following terms: “Diplomatic conflicts, the hostilities of the four Russo-Turkish wars, and the peace agreements directly affected the fate of the Western Adighes.”This can be applied to the entire region: the wars affected the interests of practically all Caucasian peoples to different degrees. In the turmoil, the mountain dwellers had either to push for complete (de jure) independence or try to stick to de facto independence. This explains the maneuvering of the Circassian, Abkhaz, and other rulers between the Ottoman Empire and Russia. The ruling Prince of Abkhazia Keleshbey Chachba (Shervashidze) supplied the best example of foreign policy, meandering in an effort to defend, consistently and deliberately, the interests of his country amid the Russian-Turkish contradictions. This remained the only example of foreign policy achievements of the time.
The Caucasian War was ignited by the Treaty of Georgievsk of 1783 between Russia and the Kartli-Kakhetian Kingdom, which made the latter first a Russian vassal and later part of Russia under the manifesto of Alexander I of 11 September, 1801. Prominent Abkhazian historian G. Dzidzaria wrote that joining Eastern Georgia to Russia “predetermined the future not only of Georgia, but of the entire Transcaucasus; it was responsible for far-reaching repercussions affecting all Caucasian peoples. …From that time on, Russia in the Caucasus was fighting for access to the Black and Caspian seas. It was absolutely clear that without ports on the Transcaucasian coast, Russia would be unable to successfully develop its policy in the Middle East and preserve its control over Eastern Georgia, its recent acquisition.”
The Caucasian War began in 1783 with extermination of the Nogais (who served as a natural buffer between Russia and the Caucasian mountain dwellers) carried out under the command of Alexander Suvorov and their deportation in large numbers to open the “road for the czarist troops to the North Caucasian mountains and to subjugation of the local people.”
After entering the Adrianople Peace Treaty of 1829, the czarist government sat down to devise a comprehensive plan of several military expeditions designed to bring the local people to submission. Under the treaty, Turkey did not transfer power over the Western Adighes (which Turkey never had) to Russia, but the right to conquer them. The Caucasian War began in earnest.
The efforts of those historians are useless who try to explain Russia’s policies and its undeclared war on the Caucasian mountain dwellers, which had been going on since the latter half of the 18th century, by the fact that “prior to the Adrianople Peace Treaty of 1829, the Adighes were regarded in international legal practice as de jure subjects of the Ottoman Empire, even though they refused to accept this.” The above suggests the following: if the Caucasus was part of Turkey, Russia should have fought Turkey. Meanwhile, we all know that there was no such war in 1817-1827, which means that the Caucasian mountain dwellers were free both de jure and de facto.
The Caucasian War did not, and could not, end with a parade of Russian troops in 1864—it continued unfolding as individual uprisings in 1864, 1865, 1866, 1875, 1877, 1878, etc. The autochthonous population was evicted from its historical homeland to other places, the Ottoman Empire in particular.
Why were the local people defeated? What were the war’s final results? The defeat was predetermined by the vast difference between Russia’s huge military and economic potential, its predominant technical might and numerical strength, and the mountain peoples’ individual heroism. We cannot but marvel at the Caucasian peoples’ determination and the fact that they withstood the blows for a long time and even snatched the initiative from the enemy to deliver crippling blows to the Russians.
The disunited local people could not win. No matter how hard he tried, Shamil failed to unite all the people in order to rebuff the aggressor. Even during the cruelest fighting against the Russians, the local tribes managed to wage internecine wars among themselves. The Caucasus never became a united fighting force; individual tribes, or even auls, put up resistance when the danger became imminent. Some of the mountain dwellers fought together with the Russian army. At the same time, Russian soldiers and Cossacks sometimes transferred to the side of the locals: a certain Atarshchikov, a sotnik (commander) of a Cossack unit, defected to the Abadzekhs, called on privates and officers of the czarist army to follow his example, and promised “freedom beyond the Laba.” Defection did not develop into a massive movement partly because the mountain peoples themselves succumbed to the temptation to sell the defectors back to the Russians (the “slave-trader” mentality obviously predominated). The Russian commanders stemmed the defection with harsh measures and even executions and not without the help of the local people.
In fact, the Russian soldiers, the Cossacks, and those against whom they fought were all “in the same boat.” Indeed, was a Russian soldier a conqueror? What did he gain from “subjugation” of the Caucasus? The hatred, however, was too intense: the mountain dwellers and Russia had been living in the shadow of war for far too long.
Russia’s Unrealizable Conditions and the Idea of “Rational” Use of the Muhajirs in Turkey
As the war moved toward its end, the future rulers started pondering over the fate of the still rebellious people. It was decided to deport them and put Cossacks and Russian settlers in their lands in the Northern Caucasus. This idea belonged to Chief of Staff of the Russian Army in the Caucasus and future reformer Dmitry Miliutin, who in 1857 wrote: “The subjugated mountain dwellers should be sent where we want them to go. They should be resettled onthe Don. We should keep our plans secret until the time comes to carry them out.” Commander-in Chief of the Caucasian Army Prince Alexander Bariatinskiy fully agreed with Miliutin: “It is recognized that the only means of strengthening our position beyond the Kuban River is to settle Cossacks along the front line in order to gradually push the mountain people back and deprive them of their means of subsistence. There is no reason to spare the still hostile tribes, it is in the interests of the state to take their lands away from them.”
The Caucasian Committee also discussed the problem of colonization of the lands beyond the Kuban and resettlement of the mountain dwellers in the Don steppe. Gradually it dawned on the Russians that the local people were prepared to stand firm in the face of armed force and never intended moving to any kind of reservation, which brought the administration to the idea of deporting them to Turkey. This initiative belonged to Prince Bariatinskiy, who early in 1860 outlined it to Alexander II.
In 1858, the Russian and Turkish governments began discussing the issue of migration of the West Caucasian mountain people. Late in December 1863, A. Moshnin, Russian consul in Trabzon, informed his superiors: “The Porte welcomes the idea and is taking measures to make migration easier.” However, the rules of colonization of the Caucasian mountain people made public in 1859 suggested that the Turkish government was prepared to receive “small parties” and was not prepared to deal with mass migration.
The Ottoman rulers planned to settle the Muhajirs in strategically important areas in order to use them as a military force in the event of a war with Russia. TheOdesskiy vestniknewspaper commented: “The Porte expected to use Circassians to cement the crumbling empire.” This could be done because the Caucasian migrants increased the share of the empire’s Muslim population, which balanced out the Christian minorities’ separatist sentiments. Sultan Dovlet Girey wrote in this connection: “The Turkish government welcomed the migrants; they were needed to settle the vast unpopulated areas in the empire’s European and Asian gubernias. The two centuries of struggle against the Balkan people and in Arabia undermined the numerical strength of Turkey’s population.
“While Turkey was busy formulating the idea of ‘rational’ use of the Muhajirs, the Russian government forced the mountain people to move away under unacceptable conditions. A delegation from the Abadzekhs approached Emperor Alexander II during his stay in the Northern Caucasus with a request to let them remain in their homes. The answer was categorical: ‘I will give you a month to change your mind. After that time, you should tell Count Vorontsov whether you wish to go to the places you have been allotted along the Kuban. Otherwise you should migrate to Turkey.’
In 1862, as soon as the Caucasian Committee adopted and the czar approved a corresponding decision, official deportation began. In fact, unofficial migration had already been going on for some time, long before the Caucasian War reached its final stage. The forced deportation of the Abkhaz proceeded in several waves. The first wave took place in the early 19th century during an acute crisis caused by the so-called voluntary joining of Abkhazia to Russia in 1810. Late in the 18th and early in the 19th centuries, Abkhazia pursued an independent policy thanks to the powerful personality of its ruler, Prince Keleshbey Chachba, who wanted complete freedom and independence for his country. To achieve this, he meandered between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, accepted reasonable compromises, and, while treading with caution, resorted to resolute foreign policy steps if they promised results. He tried to establish relations with France and even corresponded with its foreign minister, Talleyrand-Périgord. He counted on Russia to get rid of the Ottoman protectorate.
This ill-suited St. Petersburg, from where Abkhazia looked like a foothold for continued expansion in the Western Caucasus. Keleshbey’s fate was sealed: he was to be replaced with a more pliable and not quite legitimate ruler who would sit on Russian bayonets. Keleshbey’s elder son, Aslanbey, was rejected as Russia’s inveterate foe. However, the second son, Safarbey, who could not claim the throne because of his lowborn mother, was the perfect candidate. Together with the Russian military administration represented by General Rykhoff, he plotted against his father. On 2 May, 1808, Keleshbey died in a coup in the Sukhumi Fortress.
This political crisis proved to be the first in the long chain of military-political coups in the Caucasus carried out by Russia’s military leaders. Later General Ermolov applied the Abkhazian experience when fighting the Daghestanian khans. In his case, however, the results were hardly welcome: imams, a much mightier force, came to the scene to replace the khans, the natural allies of Russia’s monarchy.
The events that turned Abkhazia into an outpost of Russia in the Caucasus affected the future of all the people who lived in the Western Caucasus. Keleshbey, who was known among the Adighes and Abkhaz and very much respected, could have played a key role in gathering the forces of all the local people.
On 10 July, 1810, after shelling the Sukhumi Fortress from the sea and land, the Russians captured it and put their protégé Safarbey on the Abkhazian throne. The legal ruler, Aslanbey, who had been in power for two years and who enjoyed the support of all the social groups, and his closest relatives had to flee the country together with over 5,000 Abkhaz who emigrated to Turkey. This was the first wave of Muhajirs in the 19th century.
The 19th century saw several waves of deportation from Abkhazia to Turkey: 1821, 1824, 1829, 1830, 1837, 1840-1841, 1853-1856, 1864, 1867, and 1877 can be called the “Muhajir” years. It is impossible to guess how many people were involved. It is equally impossible to estimate the population losses Abkhazia sustained in the 19th century due to slave trade, famine, epidemics, and the military operations of Russian troops during the Caucasian War. In the 1860s-1870s alone, about 80,000 people left Abkhazia. K. Kudriavtsev wrote about the “Muhajirism” of 1877: “People who had direct knowledge of what was going on believe that in 1877-1878 Abkhazia lost up to 60 percent of its population.”There were 135,000 Muhajirs of Abkhazian-Abazin ethnic affiliation; together with the Ubykhs, there were 180,000 of them.According to information Sultan Dovlet Girey acquired in Constantinople, between 1816 and 1910, 339,345 Abkhaz and Abazins migrated to Turkey; together with the Ubykhs, there were 384,284.
The Number of People Deported from the Caucasus and Their Settlement Pattern in Turkey
A total of between 500,000 and 1,750,000 Adighes were evicted from their homeland.According to different sources, between 1,800,000 and 3,097,949 Caucasian highlanders (Adighes, Abkhaz, Abazins, Ubykhs, Chechens, Ingushes, Nogays, Karachais, Balkars, Avars, Lezghians, etc.) left the region. According to Sultan Dovlet Girey, by 1910, there were over 2,750,000 Circassians alone living on Turkish territory.
General A.L. Zisserman had the following to say about what went on: the dwellers of the Caucasian mountains were “gradually driven from the plains to the piedmont, from the piedmont to the mountains, from the mountains to the sea coast. The entire population of the mountains, half a million strong, lived through the horrors of a war of attrition, privations, famine, and epidemics. When they found themselves on the sea coast, they had to seek refuge in Turkey.” There, Prince Bariatinskiy said, they were abandoned “to the mercy of fate.” This was the sad finale of the Caucasian War, which created a saying on the eastern Black Sea coast: “Nowadays even a woman can safely walk from Sukhum-Kale to Anapa without meeting a single man.”
According to Jean Jacques Élisée Reclus, “there were no more than 15,000 people living in a vast depopulated expanse of 10,000 sq km. Four-fifths of them are Abkhaz, there are 600 Circassians, while the other migrants belong to different ethnic groups.”
Smaller Abkhazia lost its entire population; the mountainous and coastal Abkhazian communities, Tuakhy, the land of the Ubykhs, and the mountainous Abaza communities all disappeared. The Abkhazian ethnographic group of Sadzes all perished, according to eyewitnesses, in bitter fighting with czarist troops. They preferred death to imprisonment and committed suicide in great numbers. Not a single Abkhazian village could be found between the rivers Psyrtskha and Kudry; nearly all the Bzyb and Abzhu villages lost all of their inhabitants.
The suffering of the deported mountain dwellers defies description.A. Berge wrote: “I shall never forget the depressing impression produced by the highlanders in Novorossiisk Bay, where there were about 17,000 of them. The damp and cold weather, no means of subsistence, and epidemics of typhoid fever and smallpox made their situation desperate. Indeed, few could remain indifferent to the sight of a young Circassian woman in rags lying on the damp earth under the open sky with two small children, one of whom, in the throes of death, was fighting for its life, and the other seeking food from the breast of its long-dead mother.”
The sea crossing to Turkey claimed even more lives; not infrequently, Turks deliberately sank ships carrying migrants. The ailing and the sick were thrown overboard. N. Ladaria, one of the eyewitnesses, left this description: “The steamer was packed with people suffering from starvation and, even more, from lack of water. The adults drank salty seawater… All suffered from stomach pains, the children suffered more than the rest: they cried and pleaded for water… There was water around them, the children saw it and cried even more in anguish. Illnesses became deadly; babies died faster than the rest… Their bodies were thrown overboard despite the frantic resistance of their mothers. …I recall a mother who did not want her dead baby thrown overboard. She concealed his death for a long time. The Abkhaz knew this and never betrayed her. She held the dead body to her bosom and spoke to it as if it were alive when a Turk passed her. This went on for a fairly long time, until the smell of decomposition spread. A search produced the dead body. It was thrown overboard; the mother tried to follow it and was restrained by force.”
The migrants mainly headed for Trabzon, Constantinople, Samsun, Varna, and other Turkish ports; their distribution was not organized, the process was a random one. Deprived of any information, immigrants camped in the places where they landed. Soon the camps became death camps: this happened in Achka-Kala, Sinop, Samsun, Varna, and elsewhere. Nineteen thousand out of the initial number of 247,000 died in Trabzon; 180-250 people died every day on average; in Samsun, where up to 110,000 Muhajirs were camping, over 200 died every day. According to Felix Kanitz, early in September 1864, there were 50,000 dead bodies and 60,000 still living migrants in Samsun.
The Ottoman authorities deemed it wise to scatter the arriving Muhajirs; at the early stages, they were settled in European Turkey, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Albania under the supervision of General Nusret Pasha, himself a Circassian. They were squeezed between Slavic and Greek settlements, along main roads and mountain passes in long chains in order to effectively quench any possible unrest. The larger part of the newcomers, however, was distributed across the country’s Asian provinces.
Under the project of Governor-General of the Danube Villayet Ahmed Midhat Pasha, “the Circassians were settled in the area between the Danube mouth and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where military colonies akin to Cossack villages were set up. The inhabitants served in the ‘Circassian militia’ that defended the state borders.”
The Turkish Abkhaz were mainly placed on the Black Sea coast between Istanbul and Bolu; the largest compact settlements found in the Sakarya (in its center, the city of Adabazar) and Diuzdje villayets. The rest were scattered across the Bursa, Eskishehir, Samsun, and Bilecik villayets. According to Abkhazian enlightener Omar Beygua, there were about 200 Abkhazian villages in Turkey in the 1970s-1980s; the Abkhazian population of this country was over 100,000 strong. According to official statistics, however, there are no more than 10,000 Abkhaz living in the country. In 1926, K. Kudriavtsev quoted the figure supplied by the Cherkess parliament: there are about 300,000 Abkhaz living in Turkey.
In the Middle East, the newly arrived groups of Muhajirs were settled with the intention of protecting the cities against the nomads, a force to be reckoned with at the time. Amman, for example, was encircled by Cherkess settlements; the same can be said about Syria. The Cherkesses formed a mounted unit that protected the Amman-Medina railway in Arabia. Military clashes between them and nomads were common; sometimes they developed into wars (the Balqa war of 1910 against the al-Balqawiyya tribe).
Information about the settlement patterns of various ethnic Adighe groups who arrived after the main migration wave had subsided is fairly limited. In Turkey, the Abadzekhs settled in Samsun, Tokat, Sinop, and Balikesir; the Shapsugs, in Samsun, Balikesir, Bolu, Aydin, and Sakarya; Bzhedugs found themselves in Çanakkale and Biga; Khatukais in Kayseri; Makhoshis in Samsun; Kabardins in Kayseri, Tokat, and Sivas; and Besleneyevs in Kerum and Amasia. Members of all the ethnic groups could be found in Istanbul.
The Chechens were settled along the borders of Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, as well as in the mountains of the Sivas pashalyk. Some of the Chechens, Ossets, and Lezghians found homes in the Khniscaia River valley and the Varto area.
The Ubykhs first found themselves on the Sea of Marmara, where their leader Hajji Kerantuh-Berzek and 350 families that belonged to him settled. The larger part of the ethnic group was moved close to Samsun; to the Diuzdje and Adabazar areas, in the localities where Abkhaz and Cherkesses had already settled, and between Lake Sapanca, Izmit, and Bandirma, as well as at Marash.
Arduous Integration into the Ottoman Turkish Society
Driven to despair by poverty in their new homeland, the migrants from the Caucasian mountains sold young girls to the harems of nobles and the sultan. “Amid the mass of human sorrows and suffering,” wrote Felix Kanitz, “the magic and radiant beauty of the Circassian women shone even brighter, thrown into bolder relief by the men’s proud carriage and appearance and their dignity.”The wives from the Caucasus soon achieved dominance in the sultan’s harem, which brought people of Caucasian origin to his court in great numbers/
On the other hand, in their desperation, the Muhajirs clashed with the locals over theirmeans of subsistence. These clashes were caused, among other things, by the vague laws and lack of order in the empire, which placed the newcomers before a dilemma: either slipping to the very bottom of the social ladder, or protecting their dignity with daggers. Archimandrite Garegin Srvandztiants had the following to say: “The Abazin and Circassian migrants are a heavy burden for the common people: there is no longer safety on the roads. Not only that: in the city itself, robbery, burglary, and murders became a common feature. Circassian villages are everywhere around the city. The caravans fear to cross them.”
By way of a remedy, the government conscripted Caucasian youths into the army; there was a cavalry corps of Caucasian mountain dwellers. “Circassian regiments were on the firing line everywhere. They fought with courage and paid dearly for the victory,” wrote J. Dumesille.
V. Aboltin, who worked in Turkey in the 1920s, supplied interesting details about the everyday life of the Caucasian highlanders: “Being very enterprising in general, the mountain dwellers never abandoned their old habits: they continue stealing cattle and horses, and resort to robbery at every opportune moment. Very brave, they even put fear into the daring Kurds.”
Despite the more or less commonly accepted opinion of the mountain dwellers as people inclined toward robbery and plunder rather than toward work, there were people who positively assessed their social role. British Consul William Palgrave was one of them. He wrote: “The consistently spread rumors about the bad behavior, troublesome idleness, and highway robber habits of the Circassian and Abkhazian migrants are mainly false or are, at least, overstatements. These people can be described as the most diligent and decent part of the entire population. The country profited from their arrival: farming has spread and even improved in those places where the routine of the locals changed.” Colonel Charles Wilson, another British consul, described the Caucasian mountain dwellers as a handsome tribe; according to him, they were stronger, braver, and smarter than the local peasants and more inclined to learn. The Circassians introduced better carts; they built more comfortable houses and were better farmers; they could have done a lot for the area had the Turkish government looked after them better. K. Smirnov, the Russian consul, was of the same favorable opinion. He wrote in 1904: “Our Caucasian migrants, known here under the common name of Circassians, are the most cultured element. …The Turks, aware of the Circassians’ superiority in many things, hate but respect them and go out of their way to win their regard.”
These bits and pieces can be assembled into a mosaic portrait of a Cherkess in his new homeland. On the one hand, he was freedom-loving, energetic to a fault, and of an untamed nature, which repelled any sort of coercion from the state or society; prepared to go to extremes rejected by society as breaches of law. On the other, he was a highlander educated in the traditions of knighthood, who served his new homeland selflessly and with dedication; he was prepared to sacrifice everything to defend it and confirmed his readiness in the years when Greek intervention pushed the Turkish state to the brink of destruction.
“After moving to another state the Circassians became much closer; nearly all linguistic, ethnic, and national distinctions disappeared. A Circassian started using the Kabardin, Shapsug, and even Abazin and other languages and dialects,” wrote Shavhat Al-Mufti Habajoka. It was a defensive response: to survive and withstand aggressive Turkish assimilation, the newcomers had to keep together. They suffered not only under Abdul Hamid II, who condemned the members of the Cherkess mejlis to hanging, but also under the Young Turks who came after him. The latter formulated a great-power ideology of “Osmanism,” under which Turkey’s entire population, irrespective of nationality and faith, was a “united Osmanic nation” due to alleged equality.
Despite the social and economic hardships and the migrants’ political and legal inequality in the Ottoman Empire, many of them made significant contributions to its history and the history of some of the Middle Eastern countries. Many of the Abkhaz and Adighes filled top state and military posts; many of the former mountain dwellers joined the Young Turks; there were many of them among the Young Turks military commanders. According to Sultan Dovlet Girey, in 1910, Cherkesses comprised 30 percent of the Turkish officer corps. In the same year, Mohammed Echeruh wrote: “Everyone knows that the best and most gifted military commanders are found only among the Circassians.”
The former Caucasian highlanders were actively involved in the national-liberation movement. Soviet diplomat G. Astakhov, who served in Turkey in the 1920s, wrote: “The first patriotic units (chets) that started fighting against the Greeks consisted of Cherkesses. It was Cherkess beys who commanded the units.” He failed to understand why the Cherkesses fought for their new motherland and explained this by their “love of fighting.” Abkhaz Rauf Orbay Ashharua was one of the closest comrades-in-arms of Kemal Atatürk. Between July 1922 and August 1923, he filled the post of premier and foreign minister. This did not help the Caucasians: their units were disbanded, since the government continued to treat them with great suspicion. Nearly all of those who started the movement had to leave the political scene.
Not all the Muhajirs hailed the Kemalist revolution. The Caucasian aristocrats remained loyal to the monarchy, which allowed the Entente and the Greeks to exploit them in their own interests. In the spring of 1920, a large-scale mutiny enveloped most of the country. When it was suppressed, some of the Abkhaz and Cherkesses had to move to Greece. The Turkish government persecuted the Caucasians, many were executed or arrested; and their native tongues were banned in cities. It was planned to scatter the Cherkesses, two or three families in one place, across rural Eastern Anatolia. Only Rauf Orbay, Hunj Ali Sait Pasha, and Fetkeri Ashvanba, all of them prominent statesmen, saved the Caucasians. The government, however, began a more active policy of assimilation of the national minorities.
Today, the Caucasian mountain people scattered across the world are subjected to swift assimilation. The diaspora’s larger part is found in Turkey, which offers no conditions for the preservation and development of national self-awareness, culture, and language. “In Turkey, there are no non-Turks, but there are people who were taught to think of themselves as Kurds, Cherkesses, Lazes, etc.” This was what Recep Peker, a prominent supporter of pan-Turkism and former secretary-general of the Republican People’s Party of Turkey, thought about the issue. The Turkish government has been and is still devoted to the policy of assimilation. Art 88 of the 1924 Constitution said: “In Turkey, from the point of view of citizenship, everyone is a Turk, irrespective of race or religion.” The current Constitution of 1982 has gone as far as saying in Art 42 “Right and Duty of Training and Education”: “No language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training and education.” Another article entitled “Freedom of Expression and Dissemination of Thought” says in part: “No language prohibited by law shall be used in the expression and dissemination of thought” (Art 26). Today, the Turkish authorities cut short any attempts to write ABC books, set up national schools, and start newspapers and journals or open theaters in other than the Turkish language.
The problem of repatriation is the most acute and painful one for all the Caucasian peoples. This process should start with a U.N. resolution on the repatriates, which is expected to determine the repatriate status.
Until this problem is resolved and the divided peoples are reunited, neither the Abkhazian diaspora, which is being assimilated at a fast pace, nor the Abkhaz at home, who are facing basically the same problems, will have any prospects.