The indigenous elites and the construction of ethnic identities in the North Caucasus, by Michael Khodarkovsky

Research and Identity: Non-Russian Peoples in the Russian Empire, 1800-1855
Kymenlaakso Summer University, 14-17 June 2006

Michael Khodarkovsky
Loyola University, Chicago

The indigenous elites and the construction of ethnic identities in the North Caucasus

Practically every word in the title of this essay could be a subject of arguments, discussions, and qualifications. What is the indigenous? How indigenous, for instance, were those members of a local society who had been brought to Russia at an early age, educated in Russian schools, and then returned to the native regions to serve in some official capacity? And who are the elites? Are we to include only the local landed aristocracy, i.e. the nobles, or the elected notables as well? What about those societies like the Chechens, who did not have the traditional elites? And of course, terms like ‘ethnicity’, ‘identity’ and their construction are heavily burdened with semantic and ideological presumptions. I do not use the term ‘construction’ in order to take sides in the hollow debate about how primordial verses were constructed. Instead, I am using it merely to indicate the process and the extent to which the existing identities were both preserved and transformed.

Perhaps we can reasonably agree on the geographic boundaries of the North Caucasus as the lands north of the main Caucasus range which also include the Nogay steppe in the west and the Kalmyk steppe in the east roughly bounded by the Kuban and Kuma rivers. Politically, it is important to note, these lands never produced a modern nation-state like the those south of the Caucasus range: Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan.

As numerous and diverse as the peoples of the North Caucasus were, they had one thing in common – they were Muslim. Their adherence to Islam varied significantly – from the north-east Caucasus where Islam was deeply entrenched among the peoples of northern Daghestan and Chechens to the Central-North Caucasus where Islam held a far more tenuous hold over the Kabardins and Ossetins, and to the north-west Caucasus where Islam was often nominally accepted by the various Adyg peoples, more popularly known as the Circassians.

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