Events of hundreds of years ago become a live political issue as Moscow-sponsored festivities are dismissed as an attempt to rewite history.
By Marina Marshenkulova in Nalchik and Azamat Bram in Maikop
A 16th century treaty said to mark the moment the Circassian people came under Russian rule has been marked with lavish official celebrations in the North Caucasus, but it has angered many Circassians, who say the festivities are a travesty of history.
In September, the three autonomous republics that have Circassian populations – Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachai-Cherkessia and Adygeia – staged public events to celebrate the "450th anniversary of the Circassian nation’s voluntary accession to Russia".
The event being marked took place in 1557, when an alliance was concluded between Kabardin prince Temruk Idarov and Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The deal was sealed when the tsar married the prince’s daughter Goshevnai.
Moscow has allocated large sums for the festivities – Kabardino-Balkaria got 600 million roubles (about 24 million US dollars) for events, new buildings and roads repairs, while Adygeia received 200 million roubles.
Over three days of celebrations, Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital Nalchik staged concerts and exhibitions, a new theatre was opened, and the president and his team met the people.
In Adygeia and Karachai-Cherkessia, the festivities were more modest. Adygeia’s president Aslan Tkahkushinov conceded that the date was somewhat controversial, but described the dispute as "insignificant".
"The winners write history, and we shouldn’t keep looking back as we move forward," he said. "There is a need for historical truth, but we should be making new history. This will be a wonderful holiday embodying the friendship between the Adygs [Circassians] and the Russians. We will reaffirm that we are with Russia forever."
Circassian historians and activists say that singling out this one moment in history ignores much more important intervening events – specifically, imperial Russia’s colonial wars against the Circassians. They argue that what is being portrayed as an act of union was in fact a one-off pact between two individual leaders, within a broader history of hostility between their two nations, culminating in the Caucasian wars of the 19th century.
"Lies can hardly be a firm basis for friendship," said Alia Tliapa, head of the nationalist Adyge Khase movement in the town of Adygeisk.
"If the events of 450 years ago are regarded as voluntary accession, this means that the Russian-Caucasian war was not a war of liberation, but a rebellion against the tsar; and that the Russian troops’ actions in the Caucasus were a kind of anti-terrorist operation to suppress a rebellion on their own territory," said Tliapa.
The idea of celebrating "voluntary accession" to Russia harks back to the Soviet era. In 1957 the "400th anniversary" was celebrated in style in Adygeia and a monument called "Forever with Russia" was erected on the main square of the local capital Maikop.
In the Yeltsin era following the end of the Soviet Union, this kind of historical interpretation – that non-Russian groups happily joined the empire, rather than being conquered – went out of fashion.
In 1996, academics from Adygeia and Moscow held a meeting at which they concluded that the 1557 treaty was nothing but a temporary union between two equal parties.
The decision to celebrate the anniversary – and by implication go back to the older view of history – was taken last year, and sanctioned by Russian president Vladimir Putin. It coincided with a campaign by Circassian organisations for the killings and deportations that marked the end of the 19th century war to be recognised as "genocide".
Circassian groups are also angry that the way the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are being advertised has written them out of history as the area’s original inhabitants.
"The celebration of the ‘voluntary accession of Circassia to Russia’ is supposed to erase the truth about the genocide of an indigenous people in the Caucasus – the Circassians – by the Russian state," said Murat Berzegov, the leader of Adygeia’s Circassian Congress. "The fact that the authorities have reverted to the myths of Soviet times indicates that they have lost their way and are not prepared to address the issues we have."
He concluded, "The best foundation for strengthening friendship between nations would be recognition of the Circassian genocide as a historical truth, and rehabilitation for a nation that has suffered so much on its own lands."
In May, the Circassian Congress held a rally in Adygeia to mark the day that Circassians commemorate those who died in the Caucasian war, and called for the "accession" celebrations to refer instead to a "military and political union" between Russia and the Circassian people. By way of compromise, the local authorities offered to use the word "union" more frequently than "voluntary accession".
In Kabardino-Balkaria, things were further complicated by a boycott by the Balkar people, who give the republic the other half of its double-barrelled name. Balkar representatives argued that they joined Russia 180 years ago, and proceeded to hold their own celebrations in May this year.
Local politicians have sought to play down the controversy. "It doesn’t matter who joined Russia or when," said Fuad Yefendiev, a member of parliament in Kabardino-Balkaria. "We’re all citizens of the same country, and only when we climb out of our national costume will there be peace and harmony."
Marina Marshenkulova is a correspondent for Sovetskaya Molodezh newspaper in Kabardino-Balkaria. Azamat Bram is the pseudonym of a freelance journalist.
Source: IWPR- CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 413, October 5, 2007