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Russia: Imperial Anniversary Challenged In North Caucasus

  • Liz Fuller

September 27, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- As Russia celebrates the 450th anniversary of the "voluntary incorporation" of three of its present-day North Caucasus republics into the Russian Empire, historians are contesting the notion that a 1557 alliance between Muscovy and Karbarda constituted imperial accession.

The first stage of celebrations to mark the anniversary of the political pact took place in Nalchik, capital of the present-day Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), from September 7-9.

Similar celebrations were scheduled in Adygeya on September 24-27, in Karachayevo-Cherkessia on September 28-29, and in Moscow on October 5-7. Although the present Russian leadership's interpretation of the 1557 alliance as the voluntary submission by local princes to Russian hegemony has sparked some bitterness and criticism among Adygs, Cherkess, and Kabardians alike, the commemoration in Kabardino-Balkaria passed without major incident.

Friendship And Brotherhood?

Historically, the ethnonym Adyg referred both to the Adygs and to the related northwest Caucasian peoples. They subsequently split into the Kabardians in the east, and the Adygs and Cherkess (Circassians) in the west, a division that is reflected in the present-day official designation of their respective republics.

The size and distribution of the three related ethnic groups is, moreover, uneven. While the Kabardians account for more than 55 percent of their republic's 900,000 population, and the Adygs account for some 25 percent of the total 447,000 population of the Republic of Adygeya, the Cherkess in Karachayevo-Cherkessia constitute only a small minority (10-11 percent of a total population of some 429,000).

In September 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a series of presidential edicts "on marking the 450th anniversary of the voluntary incorporation" into the Russian Empire of the present-day Adygeya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. The formulation "voluntary incorporation" led some Adygs, Cherkess, and Kabardians to protest that it constituted a distortion of historical fact in the name of what many critics perceived as Great Russian chauvinism.

Such skewing of history to conform to and substantiate political dogma, specifically the myth of friendship and brotherhood among the various peoples of the USSR, was a prominent component of Soviet communist ideology. For example, the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Georgiyevsk, under which Erekle II, king of eastern Georgia, secured a pledge of Russian protection against Persia, was widely celebrated in 1983 as a progressive move that paved the path to eternal friendship between the Russian and Georgian peoples.

Local critics of Moscow's interpretation of the 1557 pact also noted that in 1864, Tsarist Russia launched a major war to subjugate the North Caucasus in which hundreds of thousands of Adygs, Cherkess, and Kabardians were either killed or driven into exile in Turkey and other Near Eastern countries, where they still have sizeable diasporas. The Adygeya chapter of the Cherkess Congress has appealed unsuccessfully, first to the Russian State Duma and then to President Putin, to designate those mass killings as genocide.

Historical Objections

In November 2006, the public organization Cherkess Congress of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic criticized the planned anniversary celebrations as an attempt to rewrite history and whitewash what the organization's members termed the genocide of the Cherkess people, AP reported on November 17. Meeting six months later, in May 2007, again in Nalchik, KBR Cherkess Congress members pledged to launch protests if the planned celebrations took place as planned in September, according to on May 22.

KBR Cherkess Congress leader Ruslan Keshayev explained the Cherkess' collective objections in an extensive interview with the website on May 24. Keshayev argued that the marriage of Tsar Ivan the Terrible to Guashana, the daughter of Kabardian Prince Temryuk Iradov, cemented a "military-political alliance" between two equal princedoms under which Muscovy undertook to protect Kabarda in the event of an attack either by the Ottoman Turks or the Khanate of Crimea, not the "incorporation" of Kabarda into the Russian Empire.

He drew the comparison between the alliance against Nazi Germany during World War II between the United States and the USSR, pointing out how risible it would be to construe that as the incorporation of the former into the latter state. Keshayev also pointed out that imperial Russian historians dated the incorporation of Kabarda into the Russian Empire to 1774 and that of western Cherkessia to 1829, and that the "myth" of the incorporation of Cherkessia into the Russian Empire in the mid-16th century was an invention of Soviet historiography.

Adyg intellectuals, meanwhile, appealed to the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Russian History to give an assessment of the nature of the 1557 pact. The institute duly issued such an assessment, from which quoted key extracts on September 2, but the evaluation has not been widely publicized, at least in Adygeya, the website reported on September 12.

Specifically, the Institute of Russian History noted that in the mid-16th century Tsar Ivan IV "established friendly relations with several Adyg rulers" who subsequently sent envoys to Moscow requesting assistance against the khans of Crimea in return for acknowledging Russian overlordship [poddanstvo]. The institute ruled that it would be premature to designate that pact as the "annexation" by Muscovy of the North Caucasus, given that the borders of Muscovy at that time were so far to the north. Institute staff further said they are "inclined to link the final incorporation of the Northeast Caucasus into the Russian Empire with the end of the Caucasian War of the first half of the 19th century."

They concluded that "strictly speaking, no annexation or 'voluntary incorporation' of the Adygs into the Russian Empire took place in the mid-16th century. In our view, the formulation 'military-political alliance' that began appearing in regional studies of the Caucasus in recent years reflects far more accurately the character of Adyg-Russian relations up until the end of the 18th century, although that formulation is conditional [uslovna] and requires clarification.... Thus we believe that what happened 450 years ago was not the annexation of Adygeya by Russia but the establishment of allied relations between them."

Grounds For Parade

Undeterred by the reservations publicly expressed by some of their citizens, the leaders of the three republics set about organizing the appropriate combination of cultural and public-political events. Kabardino-Balkaria President Arsen Kanokov reportedly opted for a youth parade, concerts of classical and pop music, displays of fireworks, and a major exhibition intended to attract investment from other regions of Russia. There were also horse races, in which a colt named Djasil belonging to pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov won the 450th Anniversary Cup, according to on September 9. Also featured was the formal unveiling of a monument to Kanokov's predecessor Valery Kokov, who died of cancer in the fall of 2005 weeks after leaving office, and who left behind a legacy of corruption and religious repression.

The entire three days of celebration proceeded under the rubric "With Russia forever." In his formal anniversary address, however, Kanokov implicitly acknowledged the divergence of views over the anniversary, affirming that however one chose to construe the 1557 pact, "it was the correct move," and one thanks to which "the peoples of Kabardino-Balkaria managed to preserve their identity and culture," the daily "Kommersant" reported.

The KBR Cherkess Congress issued a statement on September 7 in which it again challenged the Kremlin's interpretation of the 1557 alliance and reaffirmed that the pact was a "military-political alliance" between "two equal subjects of international law," reported. At the same time, the congress stated that in light of efforts in recent years by "destructive forces" to foment "destabilization" in the KBR, it would abstain from the protests it had originally planned to coincide with the official celebration.

Meanwhile, the republic's Balkar minority too expressed diverging views of the anniversary celebration. Retired General Supyan Beppayev, who heads the pro-Kremlin organization Alan, told journalists in Nalchik on August 29 that the Balkars "should and will" participate in the anniversary celebrations, reported on August 30. But Oyus Gurtuyev of the Council of Elders of the Balkar People, a political organization that has strained relations with the republic's authorities, made the point that it was the Kabardians who "voluntarily became part of the Russian Empire" in 1557, while the Balkars did so only 180 years ago, reported on September 7.

By contrast, Adygeya has opted for restraint rather than pomp and circumstance. Speaking on September 17 at a meeting of the committee tasked with organizing the anniversary celebrations, President Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov said that while Kanokov invited many federal politicians and the heads of numerous federation subjects, Adygeya has invited only representatives from Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, Kuban, and Abkhazia. The highlights were apparently to be a formal parade and one big concert on September 26; also scheduled were various exhibits and a firework display.

In Karachayevo-Cherkessia too, the celebrations will be on a more modest scale than in Kabardino-Balkaria, and much of the population is reportedly uncertain exactly what is to be celebrated, reported on August 24. The website quoted a villager from Uchkeken in the extreme east of the republic as saying "to be I honest, I don't know what's being celebrated or who's organizing it, but we'll definitely go to the concert." But a Cherkessk resident argued forcefully that "Adygeya and Kabardino-Balkaria can celebrate if they want, after all, the Kabardians married off their prince's daughter to Ivan the Terrible, but what does that have to do with Karachayevo-Cherkessia?"

While many members of all three ethnic groups may simply greet the anniversary celebrations as a welcome departure from the daily grind, and as the catalyst for an injection of much-needed funding from Moscow to improve infrastructure, a minority clearly resents what Adyg activist Arambii Khapai on August 14 termed the "cynicism" with which Moscow's interpretation of their history is being rammed down their throats. And that resentment is likely to fuel that minority's alienation from Moscow, and its mistrust of republican leaders seen as Moscow's compliant instruments.

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