The Circassians tribes of the North Caucasus were once a romantic subject for British and French writers. Alexandre Dumas and others were rapturous about Circassians’ tall sheepskin hats, their horsemanship and their code of honor; less so about the way Circassians sold their sons and daughters to Ottoman slave-traders. Still, the world had other things on its mind besides Circassians by 1864. That’s when the Russian Imperial Army made a final push to slaughter the war-like tribes of the Caucasus.
Some Circassians survived abroad, and May 21st is when their descendants commemorate what they say is a forgotten genocide. Their voices have gotten louder as Russia prepares to host the Winter Olympics in Sochi—a city on the Black Sea that Circassians such as Zack Barsik say should be long to them.
As far as he knows, Barsik is the first Circassian born in the US. He grew up in Passaic County, New Jersey, where Barsik’s father emigrated from Jordan in the 1950s. Barsik’s dad joined a few Circassians there who were refugees from the Soviet Union. Many more Circassians have arrived since then, mostly from the diaspora in the Middle East. Now Circassians in the US estimate their numbers at about 5,000.
Barsik spent his New Jersey childhood hearing about a place his family hasn’t lived for generations—the North Caucasus. He grew up speaking Adyghe, the Circassian language, and hearing stories, songs and poems from his grandparents as well as the Soviet refugees.
“Our history, a lot of it is based on oral history,” Barsik says. “And me constantly hearing these stories… we had a very rich exposure.”
Through those songs and stories, Barsik learned the importance of 1864 to Circassians. That’s when Tsarist forces killed thousands of Circassians in the mountains and forced others onto ships across the Black Sea. Historians say most of them died on the journey. Those who survived never saw their homeland again.
About five million Circassians now live around the world, but only 700,000 remain in the North Caucasus. Almost no Circassians live in Sochi, a city between the Caucasus and the Black Sea. That’s where Russia is spending billions of dollars to prepare for the Winter Olympics in 2014. Zack Barsik says when Russia won the Olympic bid, it galvanized the Circassian diaspora.
“Sochi was our capital, and we want to return,” he declares. “We want to have a country. Just like every other people on earth love to have a country, we want to have a country.”
Not surprisingly, Barsik and other Circassians haven’t made much progress persuading the Russian government to give up its prime, warm-coastal real estate. But the Circassian issue has become a surprising headache for Russians. Circassians are moderate Muslims—and they haven’t been a problem for the Russian state until recently, unlike other Muslim groups in the Caucasus such as Chechens. But now thousands of Circassians want to return from places like war-torn Syria. The Russian government isn’t sure how to respond, says Valery Dzutsyev, an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation.
“They see non-Russian immigration to the North Caucasus as a security threat,” he says. Dzutsyev added Circassians used to be isolated. But now with the Internet, they’re re-uniting.
“In the North Caucasus, the Circassian people became much more aware of their history in the past few years–and large part of this is attributed, I would say, to the influence of the diaspora,” Dzutsev says.
The diaspora in northern New Jersey remains active with cultural events and classes at places like Circassian Benevolent Association. One evening, Circassian youth there practiced a complicated wedding dance called the widj. The young men and women clasp arms in a tight line, then spin on a central axis.
Classes like this at the help transmit culture to a new generation. But even dedicated activists like Lisa Jarkasi say it’s not easy to keep the culture alive. The 29-year-old takes Circassian lessons via Skype from a tutor in Turkey. Adyghe is not related to any other language.
“It has 185 verb tenses,” Jarkasi says. “It is extremely complicated.”
Studying language helps her understand her identity, she says, but it only goes so far.
“For the longest time ever, I felt like I had something missing. And even til today, I still do. There’s a part of my heart that’s broken,” she says.
Jarkasi’s never been to the Caucasus. But she says her heart won’t be mended until Circassians have the right to live in the mountains of their ancestors. Short of that, Jarkassi will be among those unfurling the green Circassian flag at Russian embassies and consulates around the world on Monday. Zack Barsik admits that while he’s angry about Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Games are a rare chance to draw attention to his cause.
“We don’t want to be a footnote in history of a people that got completely decimated by the Russians and they got away with it,” he says. “And not only that, they went and celebrated the Sochi Olympics on their graves.”
Barsik is commemorating May 21st on the Black Sea, in Georgia—the only country in the world to recognize Russia’s treatment of Circassians as a genocide. Georgia has its own conflicts with Russia. Circassians say they don’t really care about the geopolitics. They’re just glad to have a friendly place to go in the Caucasus—even if it’s not home.