Genocide and the Borderlands

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
It's been a busy week or so since getting back to Istanbul last Sunday. I'm heading off again for the United States on Thursday of next week, so basically I've been hitting the archives, seeing friends, and trying desperately to finish up some work that I'd really like to complete before leaving Turkey. I hope to spend most of this summer working on a manuscript for a book, so before getting back to Michigan I hope to be able to mail off an article that I've been kicking around for the last few months.

Something else I've been doing recently is catching up with my reading, particularly since my Columbia-sponsored JSTOR account flatlines on July 1. Mostly I'm just downloading and saving things that I think I might want to use this summer while writing, but there was one article--which I actually first read during my last week or so in Tbilisi--that I wanted to say a few words about. It was written by Dana Sherry, who is currently a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Stanford, and whom I got to know during the course of the Russia and Islam year at Columbia last year. 
Her article appeared in the Winter issue of  Kritika, and is entitled “Social Alchemy on the Black Sea Coast, 1860-65.” Among other things, this article takes on the question of how we should understand the departure of up to 500,000 mountaineers (Circassians, Chechens, and others) from the Russian Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire in 1860-65.
One reason why I found Sherry's article interesting was because I have spent the last few years working on issues relating to population movement, especially among Muslims, between the Russian and Ottoman empires, and during course of my research in Tbilisi I was looking closely at materials pertaining to the departure of the (Muslim) mountaineers in the 1860's. But also I found parts of what Sherry was writing to be speaking, however indirectly, to my experiences working on modern Turkey and debates over the Armenian genocide issue--which, as is always the case, were particularly heated in April of this year. Finally, as a scholar who works on both Russian and Ottoman history, I couldn't help but make comparisons between the different ways in which scholars working in these two fields relate (and are expected to relate) to these issues. 
Sherry—who is an historian of Russia—is particularly critical of the way in which this exodus has been treated by Ottoman historians like Justin McCarthy, who have traditionally described the departure of hundreds of thousands of Muslim mountaineers from Russia as a sort of “ethnic cleansing.” Sherry rejects the "ethnic cleansing" argument, and emphasizes that, rather than attempting to create an ethnically or religiously homogenous population, tsarist officials in the region pursued a project of “social alchemy,” which made room for a variety of different ethnic groups, including Muslim mountaineers.
“As practiced along the Black Sea coast,” writes Sherry, “this alchemy involved two key steps.”
First, officials aimed to refine the indigenous population, removing elements deemed fanatical, relocating those who could accept Russian rule to the more accessible lowlands along the Kuban River, and subjecting those who remained to close administration. Western Circassians, once brought under control, would help provide the manpower to develop the resources of the Kuban lowlands. Next, by repopulating the coastal highlands with the right combination of geographically appropriate peoples, the administration hoped to create a prosperous new society. Due to their historical connection with the geography of the Russian heartland, Russian nationals alone lacked the necessary skills to flourish in such an environment; and officials sought to attract colonists from a variety of geographical and ethnic backgrounds to populate the region and develop its resources.[8-9]

Recent Chechen exhibition in Tbilisi 
In general, I agree with Sherry’s argument that tsarist officials were not dedicated to removing all Muslims from the empire’s borders. Indeed, I published an article on this topic a couple of years ago in which I argue that, during peacetime, tsarist officials usually sought to prevent Muslims from leaving Russia. In many cases, moreover, officials in Russia also allowed Muslims who had previously left for the Ottoman Empire to return to their homelands in Russia.  
While I liked Sherry’s article, I couldn’t help noticing, yet again, the very different circumstances in which historians of Russia and the Ottoman Empire tend to find themselves with regard to questions pertaining to mass expulsions and murder in the late imperial era. As someone who works on both Ottoman and Russian history, this is a difference between the two fields that I’ve often found striking, but Sherry’s article seems a particularly noteworthy example of how the Ottoman and Russian legacies are perceived both popularly and by the scholars who work on them.

I hardly think I’m alone among scholars working on Ottoman history when I say that the Armenian genocide issue is one that I’m forced to confront on a frequent basis. Indeed, the genocide issue is usually one of the first things non-academics mention when I tell them that I work on Turkey.

What’s interesting is that, while genocide and Armenians are usually two of the first words people mention (along with ‘Kurds’) when they ask me about Ottoman and Turkish history, when I mention that I work on Russia nobody ever asks me about the Chechens, Circassians, Crimean Tatars, or other communities which suffered incredibly as a result of their experiences with the tsarist and Soviet states.

As far as the crimes that were committed against these various groups in the two empires, there are certainly differences with respect to numbers dead. At the very least, hundreds of thousands of Armenians died and were killed in the Ottoman Empire in 1915. In the case of Muslim populations of the Russian Empire, on the other hand, historical inquiry focuses more upon whether or not these populations were expelled. True, tens—perhaps hundreds—of thousands of Muslims died of starvation, disease, exposure, and physical violence as they left Russia in successive waves of emigration from the late eighteenth century until the early twentieth century. Nevertheless, the numbers of dead are smaller than those relating to the Ottoman Armenians, and mainstream historians tend not to argue that the goal of the Russian state was to physically destroy these Muslim populations.

All the same, conditions for Muslim mountaineers like the Circassians and Chechens were spectacularly bad. This was particularly the case in the 1850s and 1860s, the era about which Sherry writes. Forced by the tsarist army to leave their homes in the highlands, Circassians, Chechens, and other mountaineer populations were supposed to re-settle in the lowlands in the Kuban district. Rather than re-settle in these lands, however, hundreds of thousands of mountaineers opted to leave for the Ottoman Empire, sparking off a humanitarian disaster in which, at the very least, tens of thousands died.

According to Sherry—who is often critical of the actions taken by tsarist officials—the exodus of Muslim mountaineers from Russia constituted “an unintended, if unsurprising, consequence of draconian Russian military practices in the region.” [16]. And indeed, at face value, the documentary evidence left behind by tsarist officials does seem to support this conclusion. Nowhere, for example, does the paperwork produced by tsarist bureaucrats indicate that removing all Muslims from the region constituted a specific goal of the state.

At the same time, however, it is difficult to imagine that a series of events which Sherry considers “unsurprising” could really have been so unexpected to officials who had, in many cases, worked in the region for years. After all, it's not as if there had been no recent examples of enormous numbers of Muslims suddenly leaving the empire in precisely the same ways the mountaineers would leave in 1860-65. Just a few years earlier, at the end of the Crimean War, at least 300,000 Muslim Tatars had left the Crimea en masse—an event which was a major issue at the time in both the Crimea and St. Petersburg. Closer to home, moreover, entire populations of mountaineer tribes consisting of tens of thousands of individuals had left the Caucasus in similar waves of emigration in the late 1850s, events which were analyzed at length by regional officials.

Indeed, the exodus itself over the years 1860-65 was hardly even--a fact that is obfuscated somewhat by Sherry's periodization. According to tsarist estimates that I consulted in Georgia, approximately 90,000 mountaineers were thought to have left for the Ottoman Empire between 1858 and 1863, with this number suddenly jumping to over 300,000 in 1864 alone. Muslim emigration from the Crimea, meanwhile, had begun in the late 1850s and peaked in 1860. By 1864, then, the peak year for Muslim emigration from the Caucasus, four years had already passed since the high-water point of the Muslim exodus from the Crimea.

If the departure of hundreds of thousands of mountaineers from the Caucasus was indeed “unintended,” then tsarist officials charged with pacifying the region must have been astonishingly incompetent. They must have been ignorant of major historical events that had taken place just a few years earlier and unable to understand that there was a great likelihood that their "draconian military practices" [to use Sherry's words] could easily set off another wave of mass emigration. Really, how on earth could they have not have believed that, at the very least, there was a good possibility this would happen? 

My sense is that tsarist officials were not really so incompetent, and that they knew exactly what they were doing.

There is, of course, no “smoking gun” to be found in the tsarist archives pointing to a master plan to remove the mountaineers from this territory. Instead, there is simply a steady focus upon carrying out a set of steps which made life in Russia untenable for hundreds of thousands of people, mountaineers who responded in exactly the same way that hundreds of thousands of others (many of whom were from this very region) had responded previously in the decade.

So does this amount to ‘expulsion’ from Russia? That's a question that requires more space than I've got here, and a more considered answer than I'm willing to write at the moment. But I certainly would not say that the results were unintended, or at least entirely so. And as far as the thousands who died are concerned, I think it's important to remember that they died because the Russian government made no attempt, at least at first, to provide any safe or orderly means of transportation from Russia to the Ottoman Empire.

The mountaineers who starved and froze to death on their way to the Ottoman Empire did not die because of a dedicated Russian plan to destroy them, but rather because of an almost complete indifference on the part of tsarist authorities with regard to the mountaineers' fate. Sure, Russian officials eventually worked with Ottoman authorities to facilitate the departure of the mountaineers in a more orderly fashion, but this was only after the exodus had been transformed into a humanitarian disaster which threatened relations with the Ottoman government.

It is this indifference to death and suffering--as opposed to making such destruction a priority--that, I suppose, differentiates the brutal crimes committed against the mountaineer populations of Russia from the genocide of Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and others committed by the Germans. There are, after all, plenty of ‘smoking guns’ in the Nazi archives, because the Germans were very clear about what they were trying to do. Tsarist officials, on the other hand, simply didn't care if the mountaineers lived or died.

So what has this got to do with differences between Russian and Ottoman history? Mainly, I've got in mind the fact that, while genocide has become a huge part of how people conceive Ottoman history, in the case of crimes committed by European Christians against Muslims, Africans, Native Americans, Asians, Australian Aboriginals and others, the word 'genocide' tends to fall by the wayside. 

In popular conceptions of Russian history, ‘genocide’ isn’t even an issue. Aside from a small group of individuals actively involved in Circassian, Crimean Tatar, Chechen, or other Russian Muslim communities (who have petitioned the European parliament for recognition of these events as a 'genocide'), barely anybody even knows that these things even happened. Hardly anyone knows that, in 1944, another 200,000 Crimean Tatars and almost 500,000 Chechens and Ingush were forcibly deported to Siberia and Central Asia, where up to one-third died within a year. These events took place just two years before the United Nations made its declaration recognizing genocide as a crime. This declaration went into force in 1951, but--perhaps because just about all of its sponsors had blood on their hands--the declaration was provided with no retroactive enforcement powers.

The last thing I want to do by writing all of this is provoke a grotesque contest about who has suffered most—Muslims from Russia (and the Balkans) or Ottoman Armenians. The issues are too complicated to cover with any justice here, but I think everyone can agree that all of these groups suffered terrifically and completely unjustifiably, even if at times according to different scales.

But one thing I would like to say is that, at the very least, I think that what happened to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in many ways bears a strong resemblance—at least in form, if not always in scale—to what happened to some Muslim populations in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. In both cases, the state was not necessarily preoccupied with killing every last person of a particular group in the way that the German government was devoted to killing every last Jew, Gypsy, Homosexual, etc. And in both cases, the state attempted to uproot and transport large numbers of individuals and didn’t give a damn what happened to them. Yes, there were also differences between what the Russians and Ottomans did, but there were also similarities between the two cases which distinguish them, at least in some ways, from what the Germans did.

So I do find it odd that ‘genocide’ would be one of the only things many people seem to know about Turkish and Ottoman history, while nobody knows, or cares, about what happened to Muslims in Russia and the Soviet Union (or the Balkans, for that matter). I’m not writing this as part of an effort to accuse or absolve anyone of anything, but I do think there is a double-standard. As far as I know, European parliaments and American state legislatures have not passed any resolutions (as they have with respect to Ottoman Armenians) recognizing the forced deportations of Crimean Tatars in 1944 (to pick one example) as genocide, and genocide is a term that I hardly ever hear in connection with the Russian Empire or USSR (with the one exception of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, which does often get labeled popularly as a 'genocide'). Again, I'm not arguing that this term necessarily should be used in the Russian/Soviet cases (or not used in the Ottoman case), but I do find the differences in popular understanding between the two examples thought provoking, to say the least.

And this is also the case with respect to scholarly treatment of the two empires. In Sherry’s article the word ‘genocide’ is not even mentioned. Instead, Sherry takes tsarist officials at their word in arguing that they didn’t know what they were doing, that events which are 'unsurprising' to a historian in the twenty-first century would be unexpected by tsarist officials working on the ground in the Caucasus. In Russian historiography such a position is not very controversial, even though it should be. In the case of Ottoman history, however, it would be very difficult to imagine a scholar as talented and serious as Sherry adopting a similarly uncritical stance vis-a-vis state archival sources on an issue like this. 
Sherry doesn’t talk about genocide here because genocide isn’t even in the conversation. Nor is it in the conversation very often with respect to the history of the United States, Australia, or Europe (with the lone exception of Germany, of course). Indeed, despite all of the bloodshed and conquest that is associated with European history, genocide—as it seems to be understood by the public, parliamentarians, journalists, popular literature and, in some cases, scholarly literature—is something that only Muslims, Africans, and Asians do, even when their actions bear a very strong resemblance to those which have been undertaken by Europeans, Americans, and other Christian westerners.

Without minimizing for one instant the suffering associated with all of the crimes which are discussed in this context, is it not possible that the term ‘genocide’ is being used, at least in some instances, as a club to beat over the heads of non-western civilizations?
More photos, analysis, and links can be found, comme toujours, at the Borderlands Lounge

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