Thursday, April 08, 2010

Russia / Circassian Genocide

The Caucasus: Haunting History
The Economist, March 31, 2010 (book review of Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus)
"Western colonialists have often behaved abominably but they usually repent of it later. Move east, though, and the picture becomes cloudier. Few now remember what happened to Circassia. As the Ottoman empire crumbled in the mid-19th century, Russia conquered the loosely held Turkish domains on the north-east coast of the Black Sea -- and huge numbers of the anarchic, steely Circassian tribespeople died in what would today be termed a genocidal colonial war. Many more fled the killing grounds, crossing the Black Sea in leaky and overcrowded ships, many of them to die miserably in now-forgotten refugee camps on the Turkish coast. Around half the Circassian population of 2m perished. Oliver Bullough's first book marks him out as a distinguished researcher, observer and narrator. The opening chapters deal with a part of history wholly neglected in Russia. It is as if Americans had never heard of the Sioux, and Wounded Knee had become a tourist resort where the events of 1890 had faded from memory. That is pretty much how surviving Circassians now see the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which 150 years ago was the site of their final and greatest defeat and massacre.
Mr Bullough tracks down their remnants, determined and despairing by turns, in Russia and in exile. His quest takes him from dirt-poor villages in Kosovo to influential bits of Jordanian officialdom. He paints a haunting portrait of a people blown to the winds by a forgotten storm. ... If the tsarist conquest of the northern Caucasus was savage, what followed under communism was worse, including the Stalin-era deportations of whole nations to the steppes of Central Asia. A particularly harrowing account is of a wartime massacre in the Cherek valley in Balkaria (a Turkic-speaking district next door to the former Circassia). Like the murder of Polish officers at Katyn, this was carried out by Stalin's secret police, the NKVD -- but then cynically blamed on the Germans. But whereas Poles have doggedly defended their history against falsifiers, the Circassians have been all but voiceless. One of Mr. Bullough's most powerful points is how little about the Circassians can be found even in works by specialist historians of the region. [...]"

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