What is an Autonomous Oblast? Case Study: Adyghe

On 27 July 1922 the Adyghe Autonomous Oblast was established under Russian rule (the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, USSR, would come into being on 28 December 1922).

The flag of the Republic of Adyghe

Firstly, what is an Oblast and secondly why should we care?

An Oblast is a Russian (or Soviet Union as it was back then) administrative region, in some cases these may be “republics”.


The Adyghe Oblast would become the Adyghe Republic when the Soviet Union collapsed. Just because it is a republic does not mean it is an independent country though.


How does that work?

Did you know that there are 21 republics within Russia? (Russia claims there are 22, however the 22nd is Crimea which is disputed by Ukraine). These were established in the early twentieth century in regions that were not specifically “Russian”. In most cases the Republics were formed where there were historic ethnic enclaves however due to migration over the years in most places the ethnic group were no longer the majority with Russians comprising large portions of the population. As such, these Republics were in theory able to govern themselves under the rights of self-determination.


The rights of these republics were significantly restricted and, in some cases, almost removed in the last few years by Vladimir Putin. For the most part the fact that these republics have a larger number of Russians living in them than the ethnic groups they were set up to incorporate is used as a basis for the removal of almost a century of “independence”.

This map shows the 22 Republics within Russia. In addition to these there are 4 Okrugs (similar style of governance) and 1 autonomous Oblast. (see below for map link).

What is the Adyghe Oblast? (Today known as the Adyghe Republic)

The Adyghe Republic was established around the ethnic Circassians, well the few that remain (I'll explain this point further below).


The Circassian people are native to the region of Circassia in the Northern Caucasus and since around 400AD they have faced all kinds of invaders and been incorporated into all kinds of states. According to "Circassian World" (see reference link below) the Circassians are the oldest indigenous people of the Northern Caucasus.


Women in traditional Circassian Dress (Source: Pintrest)

Around the 12th and 13th centuries Georgian Princes claimed some of the territory but it was during the invasion of the Golden Horde in 1234 that saw most Circassians lose their lands.


The Circassians found themselves spread across the region in smaller groups as a result of the many invasions and changes in rulers over the centuries, so it wasn’t until the fifteenth century that nobles began to consider uniting the people.


At this time a union didn't come to pass by leaders coming together, rather one tribal leader rose up and though he united the people he also conquered them and extended his rule into Abkhazia where the people had ethnic ties to the Circassians. [Remember these people, the Abkhazians? My most recent blog featured them! If you missed it click here to catch up: "Is Abkhazia a independent country?"]


The man who rose supreme and united the Circassians under his rule was Inal (also known as Inal the Great). He ruled from 1427 to 1453 and upon his death the various tribal principalities were established. Thus, though they were of one ethnic origin today all Circassian’s trace their lineage to a specific tribe. Life wasn’t easy for the Circassian’s though and it would just get harder.


During the reign of the Ottoman Empire in the region the tribes paid tribute to the Sultan to stop an invasion which worked in part but just years later the Circassians would be decimated by Catherine the Great and her land expansion (click here for more on Catherine the Great).


A Circassian Noblewoman, likely the third or fourth wife of Sultan Abdulmejid II of the Ottoman Empire (c. early 20th century), [Photo Source: Library of Congress however information speculated by me].

The people initially tried to resist her armies advances however after years of warfare, the war finally ended on 21 May 1864 and the Circassian losses were astronomical with mass raids and massacres on many villages. This was a bad situation for the native people however what happened next was worse (who would have thought it could get worse)?


The Circassians were expelled from their land and forcibly sent to places far from their homes. Under an agreement with the Ottoman Empire, Russia sent the Circassia’s to such places as Transjordan and Anatolia, with many settling in port towns of the Ottoman Empire. The Circassians founded the capital city of modern-day Jordan, Amman and settled in places as far away as Egypt and Libya. As a people they would hold leadership and elite positions in many of these nations even today.


Circassian Diaspora: Case Study

Whilst I was putting this blog together I came across the above photograph and as I tried to find out more about the woman pictured I came across an interesting example of the Circassian diaspora. I was able to ascertain where the photo was taken, which was the Ottoman Empire and I was able to identify who was Sultan at the time - Abdulmejid II.


Princess Durrushehvar with her Father Abdulmejd II and her Mother (Unknown Source)

He was Sultan for a VERY short time and interestingly, two of his four wives were of Circassian ethnicity. His third wife, Hayrunissa Hanim was noted as being Circassian while his fourth wife, Mehisti Hanim was Circassian-Abkhazian, a noted member of the Abkhazian noble family.


In 1922 the reigning Sultan, his cousin, was deposed but he was elected Caliph by the Turkish Government, thus making him the head of the Ottoman dynasty. This was very short lived though as just six months later the Ottoman dynasty was completely deposed and the family was expelled from Turkey.


Princess Durrusehvar, 1923 (Source: Library of Congress)

Not much is known about his third wife who remained childless while his fourth wife Mehisti, who had lived in imperial harem since the age of 5, travelled with the family into exile, first in Switzerland and then Paris. Mehisti had one daughter, born in the palace in 1914 - Durrusehvar, the only daughter of Abdulmejd.


Durrusehvar was married to the last Nizam (royal ruler) of Hyderabad (at the time an Indian Princely State), thus becoming a Indian Princess. She became an advocate for women's and girls rights in India and was well-known for being well-educated herself. Much like her Father was replaced by elected officials so was her husband as Hyderabad was forcibly annexed by the new independent India in 1948.


This just one example of the Circassian line continuing outside of Adygea.


The Twentieth Century

The treatment of the Circassians has since been defined as genocide and the mass deportation means that today there are more Circassians outside Russia (specifically Adygea) than within. Of twelve tribes (represented on the Circassian flag by the 12 stars), four are no longer found in the Caucasus and one is no longer found at all, in effect being extinct.


Thus, when Russia was moulding what would become the USSR, the Adyghe Autonomous Oblast was established in 1922 and after the fall of the USSR it became the Republic of Adygea within the Russian Federation on 3 July 1991.

Circassian Ethnic Advisory Council of Amman Jordan, 1958 (Source: Archives of Jordan)

The ethnic based Republic of Adygea is today home to approximately 440,000 people, of which just 25% are Circassians (across Russia they number around 700,000). The largest population of Circassians can be found in Turkey where there are between 2-3 million. Across the world, there are just 5.3 million Circassians.


Russians make up the other 75% of the Republic and, unlike the ethnic tensions faced in some other places, it is reported that relations between the Russian majority and Circassian minority are currently good.


The region is home to a strong agricultural industry which includes the production of corn, wheat, potatoes and the region is known for its flowers such as sunflowers and lavender.


Circassian’s have their own language however there are some differences based on regions and the tribe of the individual. Though the Circassians were at one stage Christian they are mainly Muslim today after Islam spread into the region under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. They have a unique cuisine and undertake traditional crafts, such as carpet making which they are famous for.

The Republic of Adygea is the red dot to the left of this Russian map

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Further Reading

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