Why May 21 is a day of mourning for the Circassian people

Commemorative Meeting of Adyghe on the Black Sea Coast in the Tuapse District (Picture taken before 2017).  Image by Nartyjoko via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

In the Russian Federation republics of Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, and Karachay-Cherkessia, May 21 is officially recognized as the Day of Mourning for the Circassians — victims of genocide during the Caucasian War. Holod magazine explained how the Russian army destroyed Adyghe villages during that war and what happened to the yearly mourning processions in Kabardino-Balkaria.  Global Voices translated the article and edited it for clarity, publishing it with permission from Holod.

The Caucasian War, referred to by Circassians as the Russo–Caucasian War, ended on May 21, 1864. A solemn prayer service and a parade of Russian troops were held in the village of Qbaada (now the ski resort Krasnaya Polyana) to celebrate the victory over the mountain peoples.

On this day, the Russian Empire celebrated victory. For Circassians, it was a tragedy.

Painting by Franz Roubaud  Title: The end of Caucasian war.  Via Wikimedia CommonsPublic Domain, Reading the manifesto on the end of the Caucasian War by Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich (in the village of Qbaada, now Krasnaya Polyana).

Krasnaya Polyana now. Image by Sergei Kazantsev via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Russian school history textbooks date the start of the Caucasian War to 1817 when Russian troops began active operations against the Indigenous peoples. Authorities in Kabardino-Balkaria believe the war lasted 101 years — starting from 1763 when the Russian Empire built the fortress of Mozdok in the territory of Small Kabarda. Local prince Kurgoko Kanchokin, who converted to Christianity and received monetary benefits for it, ceded his land to Russia. This angered other Circassian rulers.

According to Sergey Arutyunov, Doctor of Historical Sciences, chief researcher at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences:

The Circassian serfs began to flee from the princes and nobles to the Mozdok fortress. People switched to Russian citizenship and converted to Christianity. The Russian Empire refused to hand them back, and Circassian landowners became hostile to the Russian population. A confrontation began: on one side were the Russians and those who joined them; on the other were the Circassians and their dependents, the Abazins and Karachays. It was mainly a war between Muslims and Christians.

Painting titled “Caucasian horseman warrior,” by Oskar Schmerling, 1893. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

During the war, especially in its final stage [1860–1864], Russian troops used a “scorched earth” tactic. They destroyed villages, burned crops, and drove away livestock to force the Circassians out of the mountains and onto the plains. Deprived of shelter and food, a large number of displaced people died from hunger and epidemics of typhus and smallpox.

In the early 1990s, the Supreme Council of the Kabardino-Balkarian SSR declared the mass extermination of the Adyghe (Circassians) and their deportation from their historical homeland during this war as genocide. “Most of the Adyghe ethnicity, including over 90 percent of the Kabardian population, was physically exterminated, and more than 500,000 Adyghes were forcibly expelled by the Tsarist autocracy to the Ottoman Empire,” the council's resolution states.

Painting titled “Caucasian tribesmen fight against the Cossacks” by Franz Roubaud, 1847. Via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Most Circassian peoples live outside Russia

Circassians is the Russian name for the Adyghe peoples. These include Kabardians, Adygheans, Circassians of Karachay-Cherkessia, and Shapsugs, who live in Krasnodar Krai. The Adyghe have two literary languages: Kabardian-Circassian and Adyghean. Before the Russo-Caucasian War, they lived in the lands of the northwest and central Caucasus, from the Taman Peninsula in the west to the Terek River in the east.

According to Arutyunov,

In the 19th century, there were more than one and a half dozen Adyghe tribes. About ten of them have survived to this day: tribal division is no longer very relevant, but people remember who their ancestors were.

Nowadays, Adyghes live in six regions of Russia, excluding Moscow, and mainly practice Islam. Kabardians make up about half of the population of Kabardino-Balkaria; in North Ossetia and Stavropol Krai, there is a group of Mozdok Kabardians, many of whom are Christians. A quarter of Adygea's population is Adyghean, and many Adygheans also live in Krasnodar Krai. There, in the Sochi and Tuapse regions, live the Shapsugs, who before the Russo-Caucasian War were one of the largest Adyghe tribes. Circassians make up a tenth of the population of Karachay-Cherkessia.

According to the research initiative Joshua Project, there are more than 2.6 million Adyghes worldwide. Expelled by the Russian Empire from their historical homeland, about 70 percent of them live abroad. The largest diaspora — over 1.5 million people — is in Turkey.

Many Circassians deportated to the Ottoman Empire died from hunger and disease

“By 1860, the Caucasian army of the Russian Empire had conquered Chechnya and Kabarda and decided to finally deal with the western Circassians.  Some people  were forced to relocate to the plains of the Kuban,” says Arutyunov. Those who refused were driven to the shores of the Black Sea and exiled to the Ottoman Empire.

In the last four years of the war, Russian troops destroyed at least 500 Circassian villages.

“We had the opportunity to see up close the striking poverty of this unfortunate people; every day we met new parties of them moving to lands not yet occupied by troops, and the recent rains and floods killed a large number of these settlers; we constantly encountered corpses on our way. The hunger was terrible, many unfortunates died from it,” recalled French military adviser Alexandre Fonville, who participated in the war on the side of the Circassians.

Thousands of people waited for months for ships to Turkey and died on the shores of the Black Sea.

“Late, inclement and cold weather, almost complete lack of means of subsistence, and raging epidemics of typhus and smallpox made their situation desperate,” wrote Caucasian scholar Adolph Berge.  Many of those who managed to wait for the departure died on the way. On boats designed for 50–60 people, 300–400 settlers crowded: people died in the crush, and the most overloaded boats sank.

Circassian Nuri, an officer in the Turkish army, recalled:

We were thrown, like dogs, into sailboats; suffocating, hungry, ragged, sick, we awaited death as the best fate, nothing was taken into account: neither deep old age, nor illness, nor pregnancy! All the money allocated by your [the Russian] government to support the settlers, all went somewhere, but where? We did not see them, we were treated like cattle, we were piled on common bunks in hundreds, not distinguishing between the healthy and the sick, and thrown on the nearest Turkish shore. Many of us died, the rest settled wherever they could.

A map of the expulsion of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire. The light green area denotes the final borders of Circassians, who had already been pushed southwards prior to their expulsion to the Ottoman Empire. In the late 18th century, Circassians lost their northern territories, which do not appear in green on this map. Image by Ercwlff, using paint.net, via Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

In the 1990s, May 21 was officially declared a day of mourning and a non-working day in Kabardino-Balkaria, Adygea, and Karachay-Cherkessia. Usually, in these republics, as well as in Turkey and other countries with large Circassian diasporas, mourning events are held. Circassians hold rallies and processions and lay flowers at monuments dedicated to the victims of the war.

Circassians commemorate the banishment of the Circassians from their homeland (today in Russian territory) in Taksim, İstanbul. Image by Soerfm via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 2022, this tradition was terminated in Russia: the authorities of Kabardino-Balkaria did not approve the mourning procession  According to activists, the head of the republic’s administration warned them at a meeting that the event would not be approved in any case. While the war in Ukraine is ongoing, Kabardino-Balkaria should “demonstrate complete solidarity and not remind Moscow of inconvenient pages of history,” activists quoted the official as saying.

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