TBILISI — To this day, many of the remaining Circassians in Russia’s North Caucasus region refuse to eat fish caught in the Black Sea. During the Russian Empire’s 19th-century genocide of their ancestors, they explain, imperial soldiers would dump bodies into the water.  

“Subhuman filth” is what historians claim Russian General Grigory Zass called the Circassians as he spearheaded the systematic expulsions of roughly 95 percent of the indigenous population into the lands of present-day Turkey and murder of an estimated 1.5 million people. Every year on May 21, Circassians gather for a Day of Mourning.  

Bulat Khalilov, a self-taught Circassian ethnomusicologist who grew up in Russia’s Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, shared some of those grim particulars in October while in exile on the south side of the mountains, in a Tbilisi apartment crammed with Russian emigres and British exchange students. With his small frame, modest clothing, scraggly beard and slight limp, the 36-year-old resembles something like a biblical figure. 

His ancestors were among the few Circassians who remained in the North Caucasus, forced to embrace tsarist colonial Russification policies and later abandon their Islamic faith under Soviet rule. Today, the north side of the mountains remains inside Russia, while the south consists of the independent former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.  

Now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted a broad discourse on Moscow’s imperialist tendencies, especially among the country’s non-Russian ethnic groups, equipping people like Bulat with new language to understand their positions as colonial subjects and reconnect with their traditional cultural identities. 

Another exile named Zuhra, who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, is an indigenous Karachay (another ethnic group from the North Caucasus) and friend of Bulat’s who hails from Russia’s Karachay-Cherkessia Republic. She told me at a cafe in Tbilisi that growing up, “I never felt part of Russia, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has hammered that home.” 

Such sentiments have energized numerous “decolonial” movements, primarily among indigenous exiles from Russia’s far east. For Bulat and Zuhra, however, who both hail from a region of Russia that has its own perilous history with colonialism and separatism, such conversations abroad pose great risks for those remaining back home, prompting them to take precautions.  

Financial limitations and family obligations make it especially challenging for them to relocate to safer Western European countries, especially compared to politically active Russians from more affluent Moscow and St. Petersburg. 

Speaking freely about the taboo 

In Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria in the North Caucasus, Russian security officers have made multiple visits to Bulat’s relatives, sending a clear message that he should reconsider any possible plans to return to Russia. Unlike Bulat, Zuhra is not a public personality and still occasionally travels to her hometown of Cherkessk to visit her ailing father. 

She carries with her a spare phone to hand Russian border officers at security checkpoints. If they were to examine her main phone, they would discover she works for an NGO led by a self-exiled defense lawyer facing criminal charges in Russia. With her dark eyes and curly black hair tied in a bun, she is often taken for a local.  

The British students at the lecture where Bulat spoke came to Georgia to study Russian, which is increasingly viewed by many across the Caucasus Mountains region as the language of the colonizer. They were participants in an exchange program called “We Must Believe in Spring,” initially based in Russia’s former imperial capital, St. Petersburg, but forced to relocate after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.  

Bulat Khaililov in a Tbilisi park

In addition to language, the students now learn about darker aspects of Russian history to which they would not have been exposed in St. Petersburg. 

The war in Ukraine also pushed Bulat and Timur—his co-founding partner of the ethnomusicological label Ored Recordings—out of their ancestral homeland. In Georgia, they now live among a small minority of North Caucasus emigres seeking refuge from authoritarian and militaristic policies back home.  

Like Bulat and Timur, Zuhra fled to the South Caucasus seeking a freer environment to continue her work for NGOs that focus on LBGTQ+ and women’s rights in Central Asia and the North Caucasus. But most of their compatriots from the region, they say, lack resources to take such a leap of faith.  

A few times a month, they attend a club for North Caucasus exiles boasting roughly 20 members. In Georgia, coincidentally the only country to officially recognize the Circassian genocide, they can now speak freely about much that has long been taboo in Russia.  

Islam in Karachay-Cherkessia 

Children of Karachays deported to Central Asia under ruthless Soviet population-transfer policies, Zuhra’s parents were born in Kyrgyzstan.  

During World War II, the Nazis occupied the region that constitutes the present-day republic of Karachay-Cherkessia. After the Allied victory over the Germans, Moscow, in an operation overseen by the notorious Georgian-born Soviet secret police head Lavrenty Beria, deported the entire Karachay ethnic group—which at the time numbered around 70,000—accusing them of having collaborated with the Nazis.  

Other ethnic groups from the North Caucasus and nearby areas—including Crimean Tatars, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Meskhetian Turks—were also deported from their native regions, suffering great loss of life. 

While 20,000 Karachay soldiers fought in the Red Army—a fact the Soviet authorities chose not to publicize—only an estimated 3,000 Karachays actually collaborated with the Germans, the historian Walter Commins-Richmond writes.  

A memorial to deported Karachays in Karachay-Cherkessia

As part of the de-Stalinization process in the late 1950s, ethnic Karachays were granted permission to return to their their ancestral lands, where Zuhra’s father worked on a kolkhoz, or collective farm, until the end of communism in 1991. The North and South Caucasus were among the regions hit hardest by Russia’s embrace of capitalism, with poverty, underdevelopment and interethnic conflicts continuing to the present day. 

“My father lost his job overnight,” Zuhra told me at a cafe in central Tbilisi where American Christmas carols were blaring from the speakers.  

To this day, Zuhra’s father keeps his Communist Party card on his nightstand and votes for the Communists in every election. Zuhra’s late mother, a teacher and painter with different political convictions, teased her husband about being stuck in the past. 

In 1992, on the day of the Russian Federation’s first-ever presidential election, Zuhra recalled how her mother stepped into the family’s garden in formal dress. Asked why, she responded: “I am heading to the polls!”  

Until her death in a car accident when Zuhra was 20, she would vote for the liberal Yabloko party. In addition to her progressive politics, she was the first in the family to embrace Islam after the Soviet collapse.Like many across the former Soviet Union, she had turned to religion in backlash against the old Soviet restrictions.  

“In Karachay-Cherkessia, Islam has always been practiced in a form that was acceptable to the Russian state—through a cultural mix of residual elements of early paganism, Christianity and other traditions native to the region,” Zuhra told me. 

But under the new President Vladimir Putin in the 2000s, following wars in the Caucasus republics Chechnya and Dagestan in which Islamist separatists fought to liberate the regions from Moscow, and a spate of terrorist attacks across the country blamed on Chechens, the North Caucasus region was taken under the strict administration of Russia’s federal security services.  

Moscow established the Center for Combating Extremism, or Center E, in 2008 ostensibly to combat jihadism, Zuhra told me about the notorious Interior Ministry section now used to target anyone who displeases Putin’s authoritarian government, including LGBTQ+ activists.  

“It was a very scary period for us,” she said. “Practicing Muslims would be detained in packs, and Center E was perceived as a sort of concentration camp in our region.” 

The human rights organization Memorial reported in 2010 that over the previous decade, there had been at least 3,000 unsolved disappearances just in the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. The organization blamed Russian and local pro-Kremlin security services for crimes including kidnapping, extra-judicial executions, operating secret prisons and more. 

Still, since she first opened the Quran at the age of eight, Zuhra has been practicing a “liberal form” of Islam. “I was a kid who would listen to the Backstreet Boys and then go to the mosque for prayers,” she said. 

She takes issue with what she perceives to be the current global trajectory of the religion, saying it is heading toward “so-called fundamentalism.” Unlike her more conservative sister in Russia, Zuhra abstains from wearing the hijab. 

As a child, she disliked speaking Karachay-Balkar—a Turkic language native to her republic that was taught in her school. But over the years, she embraced it along with her cultural heritage. 

The Caucuses mountains in Karachay-Cherkessia that span the entire region (WikiCommons)

In 2019, she visited the neighboring republic of Dagestan. “My relatives and friends were in shock, as they still held dated stereotypes that the republic was filled with militants,” she told me. She realized she was in the strong grip of pervasive narratives about the region. “We are all the North Caucasus, united culturally and administratively, yet all of this news we were fed about terrorists and radicals in Dagestan and Chechnya warped our perceptions,” she said.  

Inspired by her mother’s firm position that Putin, “who is a former KGB agent, is not fit to remain president,” Zuhra said, she would regularly vote for opposition liberal candidates and would compel her father to the polls as well. Like all Russian citizens, residents of the North Caucasus were deprived of their right to vote for their governors in 2004. Following the Beslan school siege—in which Russian security forces stormed a school where Chechen militants were holding hostages, leading to the deaths of at least 333 civilians—Putin initiated legislation abolishing direct elections for the heads of regions, arguing they cause instability.  

The law was changed in 2013 to allow each federation subject to decide whether to reinstate direct elections, but all the North Caucasus republics except Chechnya opted to have regional legislatures pick the executive-branch head. In Chechnya, the Kremlin-backed strongman Ramzan Kadyrov has been allowed to stage-manage elections that regularly give him over 95 percent of the vote. 

The analyst Liz Fuller, writing for RFE/RL in 2017, described unsuccessful popular efforts in the other North Caucasus republics to restore direct elections, noting that critics accused the Kremlin of viewing people from the region as “second-class citizens.” 

Zuhra says she is only now beginning to realize that was one of the many facets of Moscow’s colonial policies spurred by its fear of secessionist movements. Unlike in many Western countries where ethnic minorities have been given the institutional space and tools to amplify their voices, engaging in post-colonial discourse in Russia can be punishable by prison under draconian laws against extremism or advocating separatism. 

Although Zuhra now must grapple with travel restrictions and other problems Russian passport-holders face abroad, she has never felt she was a “Russian person.”  

The duality of the Circassian experience  

One of the many strategies the Kremlin has employed to suppress separatist sentiments in recent decades is the “estradification” of indigenous culture, Bulat said. Known for its glitz and low-brow characteristics, estrada is a Russian genre of mass-produced pop music showcased on state television and radio. 

Bastardized versions of traditional music are typically performed by musicians in colorful native garb often accompanied by joyous dancing. Such simplified, non-threatening representations of ethnic minorities on the national scene are intended to foster a sense of unity and harmony across the country. One North Caucasian estrada ensemble, Kabardinko, rallied in the shape of the pro-war letter “Z” in a performance shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Since its inception in 2011, Bulat and Timur’s ethnographic label Ored Recordings has sought to counter this distorted interpretation of their peoples’ rich musical traditions by unearthing, archiving and recording authentic songs produced by indigenous artists. 

As one of the relatively few atheists in the North Caucasus, Bulat nevertheless feels close to his Circassian heritage. He spoke Circassian at home despite “Soviet-era stereotypes that anything indigenous was backward and that Russian was the language of progress.”  

Although Circassian language and culture were taught in local schools twice a week, Bulat says, the lessons lacked enthusiasm, with his teacher declaring “there’s no use for this language.” 

In recent years, however, learning Circassian has become more popular among younger people, Bulat said. “Just this year, a group of high schoolers translated the Japanese film Spirited Away into Circassian,” he told me with a smile as we sat on a park bench in Tbilisi. 

In our conversation, he expressed resentment toward Moscow’s top-down and often racist view of his republic. He pointed to comments by Artemy Lebedev, a controversial member of Moscow’s cultural elite and a descendant of Tolstoy. In 2020, in the Krasnodar region, much of which is historically Circassian land, a monument was erected to Russian imperial soldiers who “freed the land” in the 19th-century Caucasian War. 

Local Circassian activists fought to have the monument removed, arguing that it had not been approved by local residents. When the regional authorities eventually agreed to remove the monument, likely fearing further instability, Lebedev publicly disparaged the move in a video full of slurs, calling it “a shameful disaster and capitulation.”  

“We can’t celebrate the victories of our ancestors because we have to listen to some 1 percent of ethnic minorities who are telling us how to live,” he said with a scowl in a 2020 video on his YouTube channel. “They were inspired after they saw on TV how in the US a group is fu*king the establishment and all the basics of life,” he added, referring to American activists calling for the removal of statues of Confederate generals during Black Lives Matter protests. 

Bulat said there remain two narratives about the experience of Circassians and other North Caucasus peoples. 

“In one narrative, we joined the Russian Empire willingly,” he explained. “In the other, Russians were depicted as violent colonizers who decapitated our children.” 

In the center of Nalchik, a monument in the form of a rose-colored arch that looks like it belongs in a miniature-golf course commemorates an “eternity with Russia.” A stone’s throw away, another memorial somberly reminds residents and visitors of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers.  

“It was always very dissonant growing up in this climate,” Bulat said. “My mind would feel like it was going to explode. Our municipal commemorations of the genocide would present the atrocities as a great calamity without attributing agency to the perpetrators.” 

Screenshot of Artemy Lebedev criticizing Circassian activists on his YouTube channel

‘Burning with passion’ 

Growing up in the North Caucasus far from the prosperity and cultural riches of Moscow and St. Petersburg, there were few opportunities for advancement, Bulat noted. “The only social lift in our republic was to join the police,” he said. Widespread bribery typically makes the profession lucrative. “Or the military.” 

But indie and avant-garde music accessible through the internet became Bulat’s salvation. He met Timur when both were teenagers at small concerts in Nalchik, where Timur would play Deep Purple songs in a cover band. With an impressive collection of experimental music downloaded through LimeWire, Bulat introduced his future creative partner to a world of genres “much more interesting than the sh*t he covered.” 

Eventually, through musical contacts he developed online, Bulat discovered a folk ensemble called Zhyu from a Circassian community in the neighboring Republic of Adygea. Bulat had not been aware that traditional Circassian music still existed in such an organic form, with wood blocks, lutes, accordions, flutes and a rich storytelling tradition.  

“We lost our minds over how incredible it sounded,” he said.  

At the time, he was working as a music journalist for what he described as a “local knock-off Esquire magazine.” He immediately traveled to interview the ensemble’s director, an elderly celebrity in Adygea who gave the impression that “he was tired, and no one cared for his work,” he said. “Timur and I, on the other hand, were burning with passion from this discovery.” 

One of Bulat’s creative role models was the French independent filmmaker Vincent Moon, who rose to prominence documenting folk music around the world. In a serendipitous and life-altering moment, Bulat learned that Moon would be visiting Russia for a performance in 2011, just around the time he himself had begun taking a serious interest in local indigenous music. 

Moon, who in Bulat’s description, had his own “European, exotic dreams of traversing and documenting the North Caucasus,” agreed to collaborate with Bulat and Timur. Later that year, they embarked on a two-month expedition across Chechnya, Kalmykia and Dagestan, among other republics in southern Russia, to shoot 30 short documentary films.  

Bulat and Timur showcased Moon’s films at a festival they organized in Nalchik, where over 400 attendees experienced an event unlike any they’d seen before. “For many young people in our hometown, it was pleasant to discover that a filmmaker from Europe would take interest in our culture, and it compelled many to go on and learn the Circassian language,” Bulat said.  

The event’s success inspired Bulat and Timur to transform their passion for recording and archiving local traditional music into a lifelong profession. They created Ored Recordings, their “DIY, ethnomusicological label,” in Bulat’s words, which collected and recreated the music of their region with a purist approach. Without the cheap electronic accompaniments often found in estrada, the music they continue to archive evokes bygone eras. 

Vincent Moon (center) in Russia with Bulat (left)

In the following years, they put on countless performances in some of Moscow’s cutting-edge experimental venues, as well as at avant-garde music festivals in Europe. “Before Ored, North Caucasus music was only for niche academic specialists,” Bulat said. “We made it accessible to many.”  

Despite the publicity Ored was garnering in Moscow, many Russian music journalists mischaracterized the group as “the most interesting contemporary Russian musical phenomenon,” which bothered Bulat. 

“There wasn’t anything Russian about the music we were collecting,” he said. “It wasn’t even sung in the Russian language!” Still, facing a lack of resources at home, the label took all the help it could get from Moscow promoters and media.  

“There was really no other way but to work with Moscow,” he said. “Our musicians did not even grasp the idea they could earn money through their work.” 

“As a child, I thought something was wrong with our people,” he added. “But now I understand that there are many Circassians who are talented and ambitious, but that corruption and colonialism mean that if you want to build a career, you have to move to Moscow.” 

New perspective abroad 

For Zuhra, however, moving to the capital from her republic of Karachay-Cherkessia was never a goal. Unlike many young people now, for whom economic improvements over the last decade have made Moscow and St. Petersburg attractive options for study and work, she said she had always dreamed of living abroad because she had grown up in a generation that experienced the “chaos” of the 1990s. 

She initially wanted to study international relations, but patriarchal norms in the region barred her from doing so. Two years after receiving a bachelor’s degree in English-language pedagogy, she moved out of the country for the first time to work as an au pair for a German family in Hanover. “It was a bad experience,” she said. “I realized then that I shouldn’t go abroad just for the sake of it—that I should have a concrete plan.”  

She soon returned to teach English at a public school in her republic, where there was “horrible bureaucracy,” low pay and parents offering bribes in exchange for good grades. The conditions prompted her to join a private language center, where she continued to teach for several years until her next experience abroad. 

Zuhra arrived in the lush, rainy city of Portland, Oregon, in 2018 as a Russian-language assistant teacher for the Fulbright Program at Lewis & Clark College (my alma mater). It was at once comforting and strange for me to share memories about running across a wooden bridge over a ravine to make it on time to an early class, about the incessant rain and about the rare, clear views of Mt. Hood’s snowy peak with a new acquaintance halfway around the world. 

Although I had no reason to doubt its hospitable environment must have welcomed her with open arms, I asked how she, hailing from a conservative part of the world, fared in the very progressive, even hippie, culture of the liberal arts college.  

“The college, and Portland as a whole, were entirely free of bias, and people were willing to explain who they were and where they came from,” she said. The only strange thing, she continued, was that “all of a sudden I was categorized as a white person, whereas in Russia I’m considered a person of color.” 

She spoke fondly of one class that offered her a new perspective on her relationship with the Islamic faith. On the first day of “Religion and Violence,” the professor quipped to the students that they likely arrived because they wanted to learn why Islam was so violent.  

“First,” Zuhra recalled the professor saying, “let’s take a closer look at every other religion,” to demonstrate violence is not unique to Islam.   

A postcard of Mt. Hood towering over Portland, Oregon (Wikimedia Commons)

Two years later, inspired to continue an academic track, she enrolled in a master’s program in human rights and democratization in the Caucasus at Armenia’s Campus of Human Rights, an EU-funded program hosted in Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine. The project aims to cultivate a new generation of experts in human rights and good governance from the former Soviet Union, a part of the world still clambering from the shadows of an authoritarian past.  

In the fall of 2021, she received her diploma in Tbilisi, having spent her second semester in the city, which left such a positive impression that she decided to return. But she went back to Karachay-Cherkessia, unaware that she would be forced to return to Tbilisi much sooner than she anticipated—and under much more difficult circumstances. 

Just weeks before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Zuhra received an offer to work for an organization in Brussels, which was swiftly retracted. “Beyond the shock and dismay, I understood that when Russia launched its war in Ukraine, it was neither feasible nor safe to seek employment with human rights organizations,” she said.  

After arduous explanations to her father about why she must leave the country, she packed her bags and traveled roughly 500 kilometers south to Tbilisi. She initially struggled to find housing because Georgian landlords were hesitant to rent to Russians. A month later, she managed to convince her now-landlady that, like her, she was indigenous to the Caucasus and “different from the Russians” the Georgian woman refused to house. 

‘I could finally breathe’ 

A year after Russia’s 2014 occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region, Bulat attended a cultural forum in Russia where Ukrainians were also present. In conversations, they expressed shock over the extremely negative way they were being portrayed by Russian propaganda networks. “Welcome to our world,” Bulat told them. 

Until 2014, North Caucasus indigenous peoples were demonized as “the faces of terrorism,” he told me. “But the rhetoric suddenly changed. Ukrainians became Nazis, while we became kind mountain folk who grew tomatoes.” 

The escalating militarism in Russia that followed the annexation was an alarming signal, however. “In the North Caucasus, we understand deeply, from lived experience, that if militarism is on the rise in Russia, something horrible is brewing,” he said. 

Just one day after Russia invaded Ukraine, Ored Recordings had been scheduled to finalize an agreement with sponsors to finance a proper recording studio in Nalchik and establish salaries for their musicians. A tour of European festivals was also in the works.  

But the invasion put an end to the plans.  

Graffiti in Tbilisi’s city center

Bulat and Timur began looking for somewhere to relocate with their wives and children. Their lack of finances kept them in Russia, however.  

“We decided that if we were going to stay, we would have to somehow speak out [against the war] through our music,” Bulat said. They signed a petition by Russian cultural figures against the war in Ukraine and hosted several concerts featuring songs about the Caucasian War in an attempt to draw parallels with the present-day conflict.  

Half a year later, Putin’s September 2022 mobilization drive finally forced Bulat and Timur out of the country. They joined masses of Russian men fleeing across the southern border into Georgia.  

A typical drive from Nalchik to Tbilisi takes roughly seven hours. This time, with thousands of Russian mobilization deserters clogging the mountain pass, their journey lasted seven days: a five-day drive and 40-hour walk with little sleep or food. 

“There was such a contrast between our experience [as men from the Caucasus] and that of the Muscovites, who paid bribes to jump to the front of the line,” Bulat said. At the border, Georgian guards would allow men with Slavic features to pass quickly. Those with “Caucasian features,” however, were held in detention cells for days and in many cases, turned back.  

Eventually, Georgian activists and journalists drew public attention to the racial profiling just as Bulat and Timur were lucky enough to be passing through the border. “It was the worst panic of my life,” he said. “When we got to Tbilisi, I could finally breathe.” 

Finding a political language in Georgia 

While Georgia’s border authorities may have greeted them with suspicion, Tbilisi’s creative community—which can at times be hostile and dismissive toward Russian nationals—has welcomed Timur and Bulat.  

Since their arrival in the autumn of 2022, Ored Recordings has hosted numerous concerts and lectures. “We try to collaborate with Georgians as much as possible,” Bulat said. “It’s much more pleasant for us to work with them than with Russian emigres.” 

They have found tough going forging relations with ethnic Russian refugees. Bulat recalled one unsavory interaction at an emigre venue when a Russian woman criticized the label’s lack of a clear “opposition message.” He replied that her vision of opposition was too binary.  

“We don’t see the problem in just Putin, but in Russian colonialism as a whole,” he said. “And we have no faith that the so-called Russian liberal opposition is any less colonial than the current regime.” 

Bulat accused many Russian liberals of trafficking in harmful stereotypes when speaking about his native region. “Whenever conversations about separatism are brought up [with Russian liberals], we are always told they will lead to war,” he said. “But who will start that war? It won’t be us. It will be Moscow. We are happy to gain our freedom and rights through peaceful means.” 

In addition to the difficulty of finding common ground with ethnic Russian emigres, Zuhra and Bulat both said they feel estranged from decolonial movements that have been formed by indigenous exiles from Russia’s far east republics.  

Zuhra described the cautious relationship many people from the North Caucasus have with separatism. Wars and years of heightened security have left deep-rooted fears of even discussing such ideas.  

“Our entire experience of being part of the Russian Empire is linked to violence,” she said. “The North Caucasus is Russia’s tender spot. We have always had our separatist movements, and the Chechen and Dagestan wars in the 1990s demonstrate that Moscow is right to be concerned.”  

Russian mobilization deserters crossing into Georgia September 2022 (Upper Lars Telegram channel)

Regional security officers recently paid visits to Bulat’s relatives in Nalchik, bolstering this impression. 

While none of Ored’s public statements violate the Kremlin’s new censorship laws, ruminations the label has made on its social media channels about reevaluating the project as a vehicle for resisting colonialism were enough to draw the attention of the authorities.  

The visits from the security officers served as a legal basis for Bulat and Timur to obtain humanitarian visas to Germany—further helped by letters of recommendation from the Goethe Institute. They relocated with their families in March.  

Until their departure, Bulat, Timur and Zuhra continued attending the North Caucasus club in Tbilisi, where they learned about their cultures’ efforts to overcome centuries of interethnic animosity, much of which was fueled by Soviet policies relocating indigenous groups onto the lands of others. 

“We live side-by-side, yet know nothing of one another, and that helps us find a common language,” Zuhra said.  

“The Soviet government went to great lengths to convince us that we are all separate peoples, yet there are many [linguistic and cultural] similarities,” she added. “But supposedly, we ‘hate each other,’ which is also why it’s difficult for us to unite under one decolonial banner.” 

Beyond his dissatisfaction with the Russian liberal vanguard, Bulat takes issue with Western post-colonial discourse, which he describes as myopic for its ignorance of Russia’s longstanding colonial policies toward non-Russian indigenous peoples.  

“It’s another expression of the colonial complex that we have to fight to have our voices heard in Western institutions,” he said. “But in cases like Israel and Palestine or Russia in Ukraine, if you don’t speak out quickly enough, then [the colonial powers] will start to kill you. For our people, it’s a matter of survival.” 

Still, asked how he would envision independence in the North Caucasus, Bulat responded: “We have no fundamental desire to not be a part of Russia.”  

“If the reality was as it is described in the constitution—in which regional governments represented the interests of local people [rather than Moscow’s],” he said, “then why not?” 

The Russian Federation seems far from any such enlightened approach. In January 2023, the regional governments of several North Caucasus republics, including Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia, endorsed a call for a pop song called “I am Russian!”—which celebrates Russian ethnic nationalism and has become synonymous with the pro-war movement—to be played daily in schools. 

Top photo: A still from a short film chronicling how Bulat (right) and Timur collect and record music from their region