Interview with Walter Richmond, June 2009

Dr. Walter Richmond, Assistant Professor at Occidental College, answers questions from "Circassian World." CW gratefully acknowledges the insights that Dr. Richmond has kindly shared with us.

The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Circassian World.  

Profile: Dr. Walter Richmond received his bachelor’s degree in Russian language at Arizona State University in 1987. He received his Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and literatures at the University of Southern California in 1994. Dr. Richmond spent most of 1995 in Moscow and has visited Russia eight times since then. He has taught at Occidental College since September 1995. His courses have covered such topics as Russian language, oil politics, the Islamic peoples of the former Soviet Union, as well as many on literature and art. His recent publications include:

2008: The Northwest Caucasus: Past Present, Future. Routledge Press.

2007: “Russian Policies Toward Islamic Extremism in the Northern Caucasus and Destabilization in Kabardino-Balkaria,” Moshe Gammer, ed. Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus, Oxford and New York: Routledge Press.

2004:  “Legal Pluralism in the Northwest Caucasus: The Role of Sharia Courts,” Religion, State, Society 1, 59-73.

2002:  (1) “The Deportation of the Karachays,” Journal of Genocide Research 4.3, 431-39.
              (2) “The Karachay Struggle After the Deportation,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 22.1, 63-79.
              (3) “The Karachay Struggle After the Deportation,” As Alan 1.6, 85-109.
              (4) “Sovyetlerin Türk Halklarını Sürgün Etmesi,” Türkler. Ankara: Yeni Türkiye, Volume 18, 872-79.


CIRCASSIAN WORLD: How did you arrive at where you currently are regarding the study of the Circassians as an academic topic (people who inspired you, books, events, how did you conceive your ideas)?

WALTER RICHMOND: I was originally drawn to the study of the Caucasus when I was doing primarily literary research. I examined Russian attitudes toward the Circassians through Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time in 1997. After changing the focus of my research to history, I was invited to write an article on the deportation of the Karachays for The Journal of Genocide Research. As it turned out, I compiled enough material for two articles. I decided to write a book-length study on the Northwest Caucasus, as there was very little material on the subject compared to the Northeast. As I went back in time, naturally the Circassians played a larger and larger role in the study.

My main inspiration in the study of the Circassians has been John Colarusso. His enthusiasm and determination to help the Circassians has been a great influence on my determination.

Although he has not written on the Circassians, J. Otto Pohl’s tireless and uncompromising defense of all repressed peoples has been a great inspiration to me as well.

I’ve read many good books on the Caucasus, but one that stands out is Yakov Gordin’s Kavkaz: Zemlia i Krov’. This work clearly outlines the complete lack of any coherent plan by the Russian government for how to deal with the Caucasus, and the complete disconnect between St. Petersburg and the Russian field commanders. Gordin also emphasizes the total ignorance of the Russians concerning Circassian customs, attitudes, and societal structures, and how this ignorance contributed to the escalation of a war that need not have been fought.

 How do you perceive the level of political and academic awareness in the US toward the Circassians?

RICHMOND: Virtually nonexistent. Whenever I give a talk on the Circassians I ask who has even heard of them, and usually only one hand in a hundred goes up. Those who do know about them often know only very minor details. In the political sphere, I think the Chechen situation has deflected all attention away from the peoples of the northwest Caucasus.

 What interests do the US and Europe have in Northwest Caucasus? Are they limited to strictly security issues?

RICHMOND: I can’t really speak about European interests, but US interests are limited to protecting the pipeline routes coming from Central Asia and Baku, and particularly with locking Russia out of the process as much as possible. The US also has a very short-sighted approach to security issues and only takes interest in a situation after it has already become critical. Unless security in the Northwest Caucasus becomes immediately relevant to petroleum transport the US won’t pay any attention to the issues there. 

CW: What would be the best American policy towards the Circassians and the relevant developments in the North Caucasus?

RICHMOND: The best policy would be to build strong economic links with the Russian Federation and stop all NATO expansion. Whether they’re right or not, the Russian government feels threatened by US efforts to circumvent their territory to export oil and particularly by NATO expansion. Therefore, a hard line approach toward the US is becoming more and more a reality in Russian politics. This virtually eliminates all chance for the US to influence Russian policies, including those concerning democratization and ethnic minorities. A gradual move toward economic cooperation and interdependence would create a situation where it would be in the best interests of all parties in Russia to become more democratic and more concerned with the rights of ethnic minorities. 

CW: Though neither the Circassians nor the Abkhazians are widely known amongst the general Western public, it is not uncommon for commentators to demonstrate sympathy with the Circassian cause but antipathy towards the Abkhazian cause. What would you say about this?

RICHMOND: First, many commentators in the US are simply supporting the US position toward the Saakashvili regime in Georgia, and so they portray the Abkhazians in a negative light.

Beyond that, I think there are three issues. First, the Russians are generally viewed as an agressor state, much larger than Circassia, and that engenders sympathy for the Circassians. On the other hand, the Georgian people are relatively small in number and have experienced tremendous hardships in the form of invasions by their larger neighbors, and so it’s more difficult to see them as an aggressor state. Second, many people simply look at recent history and see that the Abkhazians are a minority in the region and don’t understand why they should be granted autonomy. They fail to examine the historical reasons why the Abkhazians are a minority in their own land, or they simply think that the historical reasons are irrelevant. Third, the Georgians have been fairly successful in portraying Abkhazia’s military victories as “ethnic cleansing.”

CW: What opportunities should Circassians seize to improve and defend their ethno-federal position within the Russian Federation?
RICHMOND: Ultimately there needs to be a unified Circassia, but it’s going to be a long struggle. The entire political structure of the Russian Federation needs dramatic reform, and only then can the Circassians hope to achieve this goal. I’m afraid that under current circumstances the Circassians need to adopt a defensive position, as they have in Adygeia, and hold fast to what they have now, while working with other ethnic minorities to reform the entire federal system. At the same time, I think that groups like Adyge Khase need to keep plans for a united Circassia ready, and promote them whenever they can, as they did this past December. Sometimes change comes unexepctedly, and having a workable plan of action ready is a very good idea. 

CW: Is the Circassian language likely to survive? What would be the best way to ensure its survival?

RICHMOND: I think the Circassians have the same determination and resilience as the Jewish people have demonstrated in their efforts to preserve their language and culture at any cost. I do believe their language will survive. The best way to ensure it would, of course, be the creation of a unified Circassia. But as I mentioned above, there’s no quick and easy path to this goal. 

CW: Do you think that Circassians, especially diaspora Circassians, have some mistaken and/or sentimental thoughts towards the Russians and that such perceptions might be a source of problems in their own right?

RICHMOND: I don’t know enough about the attitudes of diaspora Circassians to comment. I do know about other Soviet emigre communities, and I can say that I have seen unrealistic attitudes that haven’t been particularly helpful to the solution of political issues, despite the sincere and good intentions of the emigres. I think it’s natural to have romantic ideas about one’s homeland, particularly if one has been separated from it for a long time. 

CW: Do you see any positive elements in Russian policies towards the Circassians?

RICHMOND: The Republic of Adygeia still exists, which is something I did not expect back when I was writing the final chapter of my book in 2006. 

CW: What difference (if any) in Russian-Circassian relations is likely to be made in the short or medium or long term by Russia's recognition of Abkhazia?

RICHMOND: Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia was part of a geopolitical game with the United States, and so from the Russian Federal perspective the Circassians are inconsequential to the move. Many Circassians have been given hope that the move bodes well for Circassian efforts at broader autonomy and even independence, but I’m afraid they are going to be disappointed. 

CW: Concerning the position of the Circassians, what do you think about the “intra-North Caucasus” ethnic relations? E.g. Circassian-Ossetian relations or Circassian-Chechen relations.

RICHMOND: All  of the ethnic groups in the North Caucasus are justly proud of their histories and cultures, but I’m afraid that sometimes this gets in the way of broader cooperation. Something along the lines of a “North Caucasus economic zone” should have been established some time ago, but everyone was so excited to be able to explore their cultures and, particularly, uncover the injustices done to them in the past, that they forgot the shared aspects of their history. Economic ties from Dagestan to Circassia date back centuries, and these are precisely the ties that would greatly help the economies of all the peoples there.

CW: Why have Islamist influences been relatively weaker in the Northwest Caucasus than in the Northeast Caucasus, if that is the case?

RICHMOND: There are many reasons, but first of all Johar Dudaev rebranded his war of national liberation a “jihad” in order to obtain international support, and with that support came radical military leaders from the Gulf Monarchies. Dagestan, of course, has a very long Islamic tradition, and so that plays a role as well. 

CW: What are the prospects for closer relations between the Circassians in the Caucasus and those in the diaspora?

RICHMOND: I think that the internet is proving to be invaluable. I would almost argue that a “Virtual Circassia” exists that will serve as a stepping stone to the recreation of a unified Circassian state.

CW: What further research are you doing or plan to do concerning the Circassians and the Northwest Caucasus?

RICHMOND: I’m currently putting together an article that outlines the locations, societal structures, and economies of the various Circassian tribes in the early 19th Century. Beyond that, I’m hoping to find enough material to write an article on the Cherkesohai, ethnic Armenians who spoke a Circassian dialect until they accepted Russian suzerainty and moved north of the Kuban. I’m also beginning to formulate a paper that looks objectively at Russian motivations in Abkhazia and their relation to Circassian efforts at national reunification. 

CW: What lessons might the international academic and political communities learn from studies on the Circassians?

RICHMOND: I’m extremely skeptical of the various political communities’ ability, or even desire, to learn anything. My study of the history of the Northwest Caucasus has demonstrated to me that governments have  always behaved  according to a narrow set of short-term national interests, and have disregarded the rights, or even humanity, of anyone who doesn’t belong to their nation. The Circassians were treated as expendable pawns by the Russians, Ottomans, and British, and the result was the near-total destruction of their civilization. As ethnic cleansing has become so commonplace today that it hardly makes the headlines anymore, I don’t think there’s any reason to believe the governments of powerful states will change their ways in the near future.

The responsibility of the academic community is to create as complete a record as possible of events, so that our posterity can fully examine the actions of the governments of the world and pass judgement on their behavior. As I believe that the Circassian deportation was the first modern genocide and ethnic cleansing, I think the the main lesson academics should learn is that no society, however small, should be overlooked in the process of constructing the record of human history. 

-Thank you
Metin Sönmez, CW


Dr. Walter Richmond and Professor Larry Caldwell at a seminar on Russia held at Occidental College

The Northwest Caucasus - Past, present, future
By Walter Richmond

This is the first book to present a comprehensive history of the Northwest Caucasus. Based on extensive research, it describes the peoples of the Northwest Caucasus, which have a significantly different ethnic makeup and history than the Northeast (Chechnya and Daghestan). The book examines their struggles for survival against repeated invasions and their ultimate defeat at the hands of the Russians. It explores interethnic relations and demographic changes that have occurred in the region over time with a particular focus on the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, incorporating recently published archival materials concerning the deportation of the Abazas, Circassians and Ubykhs to the Ottoman Empire by the Russians, which is treated as the first act of ethnic cleansing in modern history. The book also closely examines the struggles the Northwest Caucasus peoples continue to undergo in the post-Soviet era, facing pressures from organized crime, religious extremism, and a federal government that is unresponsive to their needs. It emphasizes the strategic importance of the region, lying on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea directly on the border between the "Christian" and "Muslim" worlds. Overall, it will be of interest to scholars of Russian history and politics, Caucasus and Central Asian Studies, genocide studies, international relations and conflict studies. Read more...