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Appendix The Circassians
(also includes an account of the Kabardians)
Capsule Summary Location: Northwest Caucasus, mainly in three constituent republics of the Russian Federation.
Total population: 2-6 millions (about 1 million in the Caucasus).
Religion: Native religion and beliefs (99%), Orthodox Christianity (1%). Pagan/polytheistic beliefs still prevalent.
Essay: 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, about 600,000, almost 60% of the population of the Republic), the Karachai-Cherkess Republic (Cherkess, about 100,000) and the Republic of Adigea (Adigeans, about 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.