Searching for the Circassians, by Oliver Bullough | 2008

Winston Churchil Memorial Trust Fellowship, 2008 |


In 1864, the Circassian nation, which had been resisting the Russian conquest of its homeland for 80 years, collapsed. In just months, the Circassians went from being a proud, warlike nationto a defeated, diseased rabble.

Destroyed physically, morally and politically, the Circassians fled their home on the north‐eastern shore of the Black Sea. In their hundreds of thousands they poured into the Ottoman Empire, where they overwhelmed the local doctors and food supplies. With typhus, cholera and
dysentery rife in their refugee camps, they died in their thousands.

By the end of the year, perhaps as many as half a million of them were dead. Their bodies were buried in makeshift cemeteries by the sea ports which had received them, and the survivors were moved on to marginal land which they would farm quietly and unspectacularly.  

For most of the 19th century, the Circassians had been praised by western Europeans as brave defenders of their liberty against Russian tyranny. After 1864, they vanished from sight.

Occasionally, a sign would emerge that the nation still existed, although scattered and weakened. A Circassian called Ethem fought alongside and then against Ataturk in the creation of modern Turkey. Circassians form the bodyguard for the king of Jordan, and are the only
Muslims conscripted into the Israeli army. I wanted to find out more than these scattered mentions.

Had their language survived? Did they still dance to the haunting music of their homeland? Did their peculiar code of honour and blood feud still survive in the barren plateaus of Turkey, the olive groves of Israel, the dusty streets of Jordan and the chaotic back‐alleys of Kosovo?

When the Circassians surrendered to the Russians, they were an illiterate nation. They did not leave memoirs or letters describing the horror of the last months of their existence as a coherent unit. I hoped that I could find Circassians who still possessed stories passed down from their grandparents describing the conditions they had to live through just to survive.

I already had a contract for a book about the peoples of the Caucasus, and the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust provided the money for me to really take the time to get to know this little‐understood nation. I would skirt through all the countries that bordered the old Russian Empire, looking for the self‐absorbed communities that the Circassians had become.

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Oliver Bullough is the author of two non-fiction books about Russian history and politics: The Last Man in Russia, and Let Our Fame Be Great