On 21 May each year, Circassians around the world honor their ancestors who perished in the course of the Russian Empire's war of conquest against them.
The 101-year struggle culminated in the mass expulsion of Circassians to the Ottoman Empire and officially ended with the Russian proclamation of victory on May 21, 1864.
For Circassians this day has become a symbolic point of focus to represent all the suffering and losses their ancestors endured during the course of what they call the Circassian Genocide.
While even approximate numbers are difficult to establish, there is a general scholarly consensus that the vast majority of Circassians were either forcibly expelled or lost their lives in this immense tragedy. That is, untold hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million, out of an estimated pre-genocide population of 1.2-1.5 million.
"Circassians from all over the world observe this day as a day of remembrance and sorrow for the victims of the Russian-Circassian War, and there have traditionally been memorial events in all the countries where Circassians live," says Aydamir Kazanoko of Circassian Media
"It is important to mention here that the new generation of Circassians is forming an attitude towards this day as not only a day of remembrance and sorrow, but also as a day of hope for revival and for attaining the unity of the Circassian nation."
Larisa Tuptsokova from the Circassian Culture Center in Tbilisi and Circassian Media concurs. "This day is a day for Circassians to remember their nation, and for its renaissance. It is also a unifying factor for Circassians," she says.
Among the various events held around the world on May 21, 2023 was a solemn ceremony at the Monument to the Victims of the Circassian Genocide in Anaklia, Georgia.
Designed and created by the Kabardian sculptor Husen Kochesoko, the monument depicts a mother comforting her two children, and tragic scenes are carved into its white base.
It was commissioned and installed by the previous Georgian government in 2012 as part of a strategy to mend and strengthen relations with the peoples of the Russian North Caucasus.
(The broad state-level outreach effectively ended in late 2012 with the arrival of the Georgian Dream government, which is still in power now. Circassian activism and genocide awareness promotion continues in Georgia at the civil society level, however, and the Circassian Culture Center is still supported by the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia.)
This year, as in years past, the Anaklia memorial ceremony started with a small procession towards the monument, where a wreath and roses were laid. Participants gave short speeches in Circassian, Georgian, Mingrelian, Arabic and English, and a Georgian choir sang traditional songs. The ceremony concluded with a solemn walk to the shore, where participants cast red roses into the tumultuous Black Sea, which holds the bodies of so many Circassian souls lost to drowning or disease during their forced voyage to the Ottoman Empire.
Professor Merab Chukhua, the founding director of the Circassian Culture Center, says Russia's war against Ukraine has drawn attention to the topic of genocide as a whole, and this has underscored the relevance of the center's work.
The Circassian participants of the ceremony see the Georgian parliament's recognition of the Circassian Genocide in 2011 as aiding their efforts to promote awareness of this historic tragedy and evaluate Georgian-Circassian relations in a positive light.
Aslan Beshto, chairman of the Coordination Council of Adyghe Public Associations, came from Russia's Kabardino-Balkaria (one of three autonomous republics where Circassians - under the names Adyghe, Kabardin, and Cherkess - are a titular nationality) to participate in the memorial ceremony.
"We are demanding recognition of the genocide not against someone," he says. "We are for Circassians! We want to pull Circassia out of oblivion and the political oblivion that it has been in for the past 200 years. That is why we will work on the recognition of the genocide with other countries too. And we will always put forward as an example the example of when Georgia recognized the Circassian Genocide."
Dr. Orhan Bersiequ, a Circassian from Jordan who specializes in North Caucasian history, welcomes strong relations between Circassians and Georgians and among the peoples of the Caucasus generally. "Georgians did not forget their [historical] relations with us. That's why they were the first state [to] recognize our genocide."
Both Beshto and Bersiequ rejected the notion that the recognition of the genocide was a ploy by the former Georgian government aimed at stoking anti-Russian sentiment among Circassians.
Beslan Kmuzov, a Circassian journalist originally from Abkhazia and now working in Tbilisi, says awareness of the Circassian issue in Georgia is now meager but on the rise.
"Although the population [of Georgia] as a whole remains poorly informed about even their own history," Kmuzov thinks, "students and specialists have become very well informed. Plus, and for me, this is quite important, we have found areas in which Georgian and Circassian human rights defenders can collaborate," he said.
Sarah Slye has completed her PhD work in the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge. She is currently a senior lecturer in American Studies at Shota Rustaveli Batumi State University and an invited lecturer in the modern history of the North Caucasus at Ilia State University.