The Circassians



Amjad Jaimoukha


Capsule Summary


Location: Northwest Caucasus, mainly in three constituent republics of the Russian Federation.

Self-designation: Adiga.

Sub-designations: Kabardians, Cherkess, Adigeans, Shapsugh, Kiakh (Ch'axe).

Total population: 2-6 millions (about 1 million in the Caucasus).

Religion: Native religion and beliefs (99%), Orthodox Christianity (1%).





The Circassians, together with the kindred Abkhaz-Abaza and the Ubykh, have formed the autochthonous population of the Northwest (NW) Caucasus for thousands of years. The number of Circassians in the Caucasus has gone over the 1 million mark. The majority live in the following republics of the Russian Federation, in each of which they have a different nominal designation: the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic (Kabardians, ~ 600,000, almost 60% of the population of the Republic), the Karachai-Cherkess Republic (Cherkess, ~ 100,000) and the Republic of Adigea (Adigeans, ~ 150,000). There are also Circassian communities that exist outside these republics, but inside Russia, including the Shapsugh community of almost 20,000 in the Tuapse and Lazareyvsky regions on the Black Sea coast, and the Christian Kabardian community in Mozdok, which numbers a few thousands. There are also significant Adigean and Kabardian communities in the Krasnodar and Stavropol Krais, respectively. In the Krasnodar Krai there are about 60,000 Adigeans not contained within the borders of Adigea. The Circassians constitute almost 0.8% of the population of the Russian Federation.

There are Circassian diaspora communities in
Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Germany, the USA, and the Netherlands, but their precise numbers are not known, with estimates ranging between 1 and 5 million people. It is generally accepted that the Circassian community in Turkey is the largest in the world, in some estimates reaching more than four million; however, it is scattered over the whole country, and many of its members have been assimilated.

Circassian is one of the three divisions of the NW group of Caucasian languages, which form a unique group distinct from the other major world language groups, the other two being Abkhaz-Abaza and the now extinct Ubykh. Though genetically related, the three languages are mutually unintelligible, the lexical differences between them being quite substantial. There are two official and literary languages of Circassian: Kabardian in the
Kabardino-Balkarian Republic and Karachai-Cherkess Republic and Adigean in the Adigey Republic (Adigea). The two languages, or more accurately dialects, are mutually intelligible and use Cyrillic orthography. It is thought that Northeast Caucasian, which is spoken by about 3.5 million people in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan, is genetically related to NW Caucasian. The third group in the Caucasian language family is South Caucasian or Kartvelian: Georgian, Mingrelian, Svan, Adjar, and Laz, all of which are spoken by about 4.5 million people in the Transcaucasus and Northeast Turkey. Some linguists dispute the existence of any genetic link between North and South Caucasian. During the Soviet period, Circassian was relegated to a secondary position as Russian was made the language of instruction at schools and universities. In consequence, Circassian had suffered tremendously by the end of Communist rule. The challenge now is to restore the native language to pre-eminence. There are TV and radio broadcasts in Circassian, which are also relayed to the diaspora in the Middle East.

The Nart epic and the oral tales of the bards had formed the bulk of Circassian literature until the early part of the 19th century. The 20th century witnessed a quantum leap in quantity and quality of literary output, despite being somewhat tainted by Communist ideology.



In the Bronze Age, the Maikop culture flourished in the valley of the Kuban (Psizch) in the NW Caucasus, from the Taman Peninsula to present-day Chechnya , almost five millennia ago. It was contiguous with the Kuro-Arax culture of the kindred Chechens and Daghestanis. There are extant monuments to the glory of this civilization, especially in Western Circassia . Some authorities believe that the people of the Maikop culture, together with a significant input from the Dolmen People, who inhabited the coastal and highland regions, engendered the forebears of the Adiga, or at least formed an important component of the proto-Circassians.

The Iron Age in the NW Caucasus began in the eighth century
BC. Pre- Kuban culture is attributed to the proto-Circassian Maeots who inhabited the NW Caucasus and the steppes north of the Black Sea. Their civilization lasted for some 1,200 years. The Maeot State was contemporaneous with the Greek colonies on the Eastern Black Sea coast, which were established in the seventh and sixth centuries BC and lasted for almost a millennium. The Greeks set up trade relations with the Maeots. By the fifth century BC, the Sinds, a people kindred to the Maeots, had set up the magnificent Sindika civilization, which spread over the lower reaches of the Kuban (Psizch), the Black Sea coastal strip between Anapa and Taman Peninsula. The Romans occupied the Eastern Coast of the Black Sea in 64 BC. It was Strabo in 26 AD who first mentioned the name Zyghoy for Circassians, which replaced the old appellation Kerket.

The Goths, who established a state north of the
Black Sea in the third century AD, invaded the NW Caucasus and engaged in fierce battles with the Circassians. The marauding Huns who had settled to the east undid the Eastern Gothic State in 370 AD and invaded the NW Caucasus in 374 AD. The Byzantine Empire secured a foothold in the Western Caucasus in the fourth century AD, erecting fortresses on the Black Sea coast and the Taman Peninsula. Thenceforward the Roman scribes referred to the Maeots as Zikhis. Christianity was introduced gradually among the upper classes of the Circassians, the masses clinging to their ancient beliefs. Byzantine presence lasted until they were replaced by the Venetians who were themselves displaced by the Genoese in the 13th century.

By the 10th century, the Circassians had emerged as a cohesive ethnic and linguistic entity. At the time,
Circassia stretched from the middle of the Caucasus to the Black Sea. In the hinterland lived the Circassian nations of the Papaghis and Kasakhs. To the east of the Kasakhs (Kassogs), modern-day Kabardians, lived the Alans, ancestors of the Ossetes. The Circassians had kept their independence until the 13th century, when part of their country and Abkhazia were subjected by the Georgians under Queen Tamara (1184-1213) and Christianized. Around 1424 AD, the Circassians threw off the Georgian yoke for good. Ghenghis Khan led his Mongol hordes across the Caucasus in the 13th century and laid waste to the North Caucasus. Batu, grandson of Ghenghis, established the Khanate of the Golden Horde in the North Caucasus in 1227. The Kipchak Khanate dominated the North Caucasus until the 15th century, when Tamerlane conquered the Caucasus and ended Mongol rule. In the 13th to 15th centuries, the Genoese constructed trading posts on the coastal regions of Circassia and Abkhazia. During their incessant wars with the Mongols and Tatars, the Circassians sought to forge closer relations with Russia , from whom they perceived no threat, being relatively distant and of the same faith. Circassian Mamluks furnished medieval Egypt with an important element of her elite warrior caste for about six centuries and its reigning Sultans for 135 years.

The Russian-Circassian War

After destroying the Empires of the Golden Horde at the end of the 16th century, Russia began to push south towards the northern steppes of the Caucasus in a process of gradual encroachments. Russia began to meddle in the affairs of Circassia in 1736. The construction of the Caucasian Military Line hastened the first open conflict between the Circassians and Russians in 1771. A protracted and devastating war extended for decades, and the Russian juggernaut had ground all resistance by 1864.

On 1 May 1864, later dubbed the Circassian Day of Mourning and celebrated by all Circassian communities, Russia proclaimed the end of the Caucasian War. Covertly, the Russians pursued a policy of organized and systematic terror and thousands of people were massacred in cold blood. Those horrific acts, together with the collusion of the Ottomans, resulted in a mass exodus. Only 10% of the Circassians, about 200,000, remained in their ancestral lands to face occupation and persecution first under the Tsars and later the Communists. This is the most horrific genocide in modern history up to World War I.

During the tsarist period,
Circassia remained desolate. There was an influx of Slav colonists, especially in the coastal regions. The Circassians joined the North Caucasian Mountain Republic in 1917. After victory of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, the Circassians were divided into four regions, which kept changing status and nominal designations until the early 1990s. The horrors of centralization, the purges and World War II gave way to a long period of quiet and stagnation until the years of Glasnost and Perestroika. The demographic situation changed dramatically in the NW Caucasus, such that nowadays the Slavs constitute the majority in the region. However, figures from the 2002 Russian population census show that the increase in Circassian population, especially in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic, since the preceding census in 1989 had been colossal by any standards. For example, the number of Kabardians in the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic rose from 364,494 in 1989 (48.2% of total population) to 498,702 in 2002 (55.3% of total population), an increase of 37%. In the same period, the Russian population in the Republic dropped almost 6%, from 240,750 (31.9% of total population) to 226,620 (25.1% of total population).


Current Political Situation

After the demise of the Soviet Union, Circassian nationalists became very active demanding more autonomy and even independence. The International Circassian Association was established in 1991 and it included organizations from the Caucasus and the diaspora. In 1993, it became a member of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), which was created in 1991 in The Hague to represent ethnic groups around the world that are barred from joining the United Nations for whatever reason.

The secessionist tendencies reached fever pitch during the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992-93. Victory gave the nationalists overwhelming popular support, but collusion of the local and central authorities, together with the onset of the Chechen war in 1994, overturned the tables. The nationalists have been on the defensive since the mid-1990s, being hounded by the local governments. People have been more concerned with their material well being, and nationalism has taken a secondary place in their reckoning.

The concept of a united
Circassia is however still strong in the hearts and minds of all Circassian peoples. Some regard the re-creation of historical Circassia as inevitable, since Russia ’s colonial stance will have to ease for it to join the world comity. Ethnic tension is evident in all three republics: the Kabardians vs. the Balkars, the Cherkess-Abaza vs. the Karachai, and the Adigeans vs. the militant Cossacks. Fortunately, no serious conflicts have erupted thus far.

The Circassian diaspora, which is increasingly becoming more politicized, could play a decisive role in the demographic and political situations in the NW Caucasus, if the right conditions obtain. The few hundred Kosovar Circassians, who found refuge in their ancestral lands in 1998, caused trepidation among the local Cossacks, who had been wary of Adigean domination.

Attempts by the administration of the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin to repeal the autonomy of the Adigey Republic and subsume it under the administration of the Krasnodar Krai, which started fervently in 2005, were narrowly defeated towards the end of 2006 by the unitary opposition of Adigea’s President Hazret Sovmen and the Circassian nationalists in the Caucasus and diaspora. The mobilization of the nationalist forces and their solidary stance against this issue has brought to the fore the latent demands of the nationalists and brought back from the cold their erstwhile leaders, principally Yura Schenibe (Shanibov). [1] Sovmen was replaced in January 2007 by Aslancheriy Tkhakushinov, as he was denied a second term for his heroic stand against the Kremlin’s attempt to deal a crippling blow to the Circassian Issue. Notwithstanding the tenuous victory of the nationalists, this episode underlines the precarious status of the Circassian political entities in the
Caucasus and their vulnerability vis-à-vis arbitrary diktats issuing from Moscow.

The issue of the status of
Circassia and the establishment of Greater Circassia is slowly but surely coming to the fore in current international politics, due mainly to the game of tug-of-war between Russia and the West regarding the formal independence of Kosovo on one hand and the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the other. [2]


Circassian Society

The Eastern Circassians, those living on the right-bank of the upper reaches of the Kuban River (Psizch), are composed of the Kabardians and Beslanay. The Western Circassians are composed of many tribes: Abzakh, Shapsugh, Temirgoi, Bzhedugh, etc. Some tribes and clans have disappeared from the Caucasus as a result of the Russian-Circassian war. The social structure of Circassian society was extremely complex and was generally based on hierarchical feudalism. The main castes were the princes, nobles, freemen, serfs, and slaves. A few egalitarian tribes existed in the mountainous regions of Western Circassia. The feudal system came to a tragic end in 1864 when Russia conquered Circassia.

Traditional Circassian society was martial in nature and the offspring of the upper-classes were required to go through a very harsh training regime. Frugality and abstinence were cherished attributes. The code of chivalry had respect for women and elders, hospitality and blood-revenge as its trinity. Avoidance customs, as when man and wife and siblings are proscribed from associating in public, were manifestations of the severity of social relations. Women, especially of the upper class, enjoyed a relatively high social status. The position of Circassian women is significantly better in many respects than the Russian average.

Traditional economy was agrarian and pastoral in nature. During Soviet times, centralization and industrialization transformed and modernized the economy. However, individualism and initiative were frowned upon, and after collapse of the
Soviet Union, the economic situation in the Circassian republics took a nosedive. The two Chechen wars and political uncertainty and tensions have aggravated the situation.

The Circassians are nominally Sunni Muslims. There is a small Christian community in Mozdok in
North Ossetia. The two most powerful formers of Circassian system of beliefs are the ancient animistic-pagan religion and the code of conduct, Adige Xabze, which also has regulated the mundane life. Religious persecution during the Soviet period and great attachment to traditions, a characteristic of the Circassians, have resulted in a superficial knowledge and practice of religion. There is no tradition of religious fanaticism.



Further Reading


Bell , James Stanislaus, Journal of Residence in Circassia during the Years 1837, 1838 and 1839 , London: Edward Moxon, 1840 (2 vols).

Jaimoukha, Amjad, The Circassians: A Handbook, London and New York: Routledge; New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Khan-Girey, Sultan, Zapiski o Cherkesii [Studies on the Circassians], St Petersburg, 1836; reprinted: Nalchik: Elbrus Book Press, 1978.

Longworth, John Augustus, A Year among the Circassians, London: Henry Colburn, 1840 (2 vols).

Nogmov, Sh. B., Istoriya adikheiskogo [adigeiskogo] naroda [History of the Circassian Nation], Tiflis (Tbilisi): Kavkazki kalendar [Caucasian Calendar], 1861; republished: Nalchik, 1947; Nalchik: Kabardino-Balkarian Book Press, 1958 (in Circassian and Russian); Nalchik: Elbrus Book Press, 1982, 1994. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 15 February 2008); Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 23 March 2008 ). [Compiled in accordance with the legends and oral traditions of the Kabardians]

Traho, Ramazan, ‘Literature on Circassia and the Circassians’, in Caucasian Review, Munich, no. 1, 1955, pp 145-62.

Varoqua, K., A Study of the Circassian Culture as reflected in Literature and Oral History, Dissertation (Doctorate of Education), Graduate School of Education of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, New Jersey, February 1981.



 Related article:   The Kabardians


[1] A fascinating biography of Shanibov can be found in Georgi M. Derluguian’s Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

[2] For more on ‘Greater Circassia’ in contemporary politics, refer to P. Goble, ‘A Greater Circassia “More Probable than Nuclear War,” Moscow Analyst Says’, in Window on Eurasia, 11 December 2007. Online. Available HTTP: <> (accessed 26 September 2008).