Book Review: The Circassian Genocide by Walter Richmond, 2013

The Circassian Genocide by Walter RichmondReviewed by Sufian Zhemukhov | The George Washington University

The Circassian Genocide
By Walter Richmond. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2013. 218 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Maps.

How should tragedies of the past that still echo in our time be (re)evaluated? In his outstanding contribution to the Caucasus studies, Walter Richmond argues that we can more clearly see such an enduring history through the prism of modern moral and legal standards. Richmond implements this approach from the beginning, by quoting a resolution passed by the Parliament of Georgia in 2011 that defined the “preplanned” mass killing of Circassians by the Russian Imperial Army in the 1860s as genocide. Using newest materials from the archive in Tbilisi, combined with well-known sources and extensive literature in several languages, Richmond provides a superb study of a subject significantly under-researched in the English-language literature and mostly ideologically inflected in the Soviet and post Soviet historiography.

Those who write on the history of Russian conquest of the Caucasus usually focus on relatively small episode of Dagestan resistance in 1818-1859 concluding the end of the war in Circassia through 1864 by vaguely describing it as a voluntary immigration of the entire Black Sea coastal population to the Muslim friendly Ottoman Empire. Such a narrow and sketchy chronology leaves the reader still wondering about the reasons of the Russian-Caucasus war and its consequences that distinctly have lasted through our time. The usage of sources mostly limited to selectively published Russian archival materials is another common disadvantage in the literature that leaves the impression of a history seen only from the side of the conqueror. This makes Richmond’s book all the more important and timely as he connects past and present in one of the best revisionist research about historical drama that “might have been forgotten entirely if the International Olympic Committee had not awarded the 2014 Winter Games to Sochi, to be held on the 150th anniversary of Circassians’ defeat on that very Red Meadow where the Russians celebrated and handed out medals while the Circassians died on the coast.” (p.2)

Page by page, the author methodically provides a compelling narrative around the autocracies performed by Tsarist Russia’s representatives in the Caucasus, including the infamous brutality of general Alexei Ermolov, “grandfather of the Genocide,” (p. 18) and the “harvesting” of Circassian heads by general Grigori Zass that “foreshadowed the infinitely more horrible practice of the Nazi medical experiments.” (p.55) Richmond labels Admiral Serebryakov “the first modern military commander to formally propose genocide” for his “strategy of forced starvation as a method of mass extermination;” he also seconds Russian historian, Yakov Gordin, on his observation that those methods were used later by Stalin “to starve to death the Ukrainian opponents of collectivization in the Holodomor (“death by hunger”)”. (p. 57)

However, regardless of undeniable mass killings, the question remains – can the author be sure that those cruelties were not isolated unintentional results of the war conducted with generally good intentions – that is, as Russian officials affirmatively claim to these days, even going so far as to create, in 2009, “Presidential Commission of the Russian Federation to Counter Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests”? (p. 169) Richmond challenges such a position in a very innovative and revealing way. Building upon recent studies, including, A Colonial Experiment in Ethnic Cleansing: The Russian Conquest of the Western Caucasus by Irma Kreiten, Richmond reveals a document in which War Minister Dmitry Milyutin, in 1863, openly stated that “if it is not possible to civilize the mountaineers, then they have to be exterminated.” Richmond quotes other similar documents showing that high rank Russian decision makers “were prepared to commit mass murder if necessary.” Alexander Baryatinsky, at the time a member of State Council and in the past the capturer of Imam Shamil, did not leave the Circassians even an option of surrender, arguing “we must assume that we will need to exterminate the mountaineers before they agree to our demands.” (p. 71) After the author provides ample evidence of the ethnic cleansing and deportation operation of the Circassians and examines them “in light of the UN Convention, it becomes clear that Russian actions constituted genocide.” (p. 92)

In the second part of the book, Richmond challenges the last argument of his opponents – should the modern legal and moral categories be applied to the time before they were adopted? His position is that the tragedy for the Circassian people did not end in 1864. Most survivors had to leave their homeland and become “a homeless nation” (p. 98) scattered around the world, including in Syria, “the Siberia of Turkey,” (p. 114) and in Turkey under the regime with the ideology, “Speaking Circassian is Forbidden” (p. 126). Those who stayed behind were doomed to “slow death under the Soviets.” (p. 141) In the last chapter, the author analyses very recent projects by Moscow to conceal the Circassian tragic history leading up to the 2014 Winter Olympics and states, “Today, the battle over Sochi continues.” (p. 169)

Richmond, who previously published another book in the field, makes an important contribution to the understanding of the contemporary problems in the Caucasus, one that suggests the deep rooted wounds of the past do not cure themselves and do not simply go away with time, but still wait to be resolved even after a century and a half. All students and scholars, as well as policy makers, interested in the history and contemporary politics of the Caucasus region will benefit from reading this excellent study.

Sufian Zhemukhov,
The George Washington University