Balo Bilatti and the Trials of Exile

At the start of May, a row erupted between the political classes of Armenia and Azerbaijan regarding each titular nation’s alleged collaboration with Nazi forces during the Second World War. The Great Patriotic War, as it is often known in the former Soviet states, is still a major event in many nations’ historical narratives. The sacrifices made and the lives lost are commemorated in many countries on May 9 with parades and memorial services. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and independence of its 15 non-Russian constituent republics, commemoration has also come with controversy. The rehabilitation of some individuals and movements deemed enemy combatants during the War, particularly those on the western fringes of the old USSR, has clouded and complicated historical memory. Accusations of collaboration are sometimes countered with those of oppression and obliteration, reminding us that Nazi and Soviet occupations resulted in different but commensurate sources of trauma for some communities. For Turkic and Muslim groups in the region, the deportation of the Crimean Tatars is the most obvious incidence of this. There are further examples, however, including the Karachays, the Chechens and Ingush, the Kurds, and the Balkars, among so many others.

A separate issue is the interaction between exile groups devoted to the liberation of the aforementioned collectivities and Nazi or other authorities over the 1930s and 40s. This is a far thornier one which has often plagued diasporic or exile communities as well as the governments that have hosted or supported them. In North America, questions have arisen about highly-politicized elements within the Ukrainian diaspora and their linkages to the historic and contemporary far-right (see, for example, this paper 2011 paper by Per Anders Rudling). In March of this year, I wrote about the periodical Yangi Yapon Mokhbire, a 1930s Tokyo-based publication from the exiled Turkic community that highlighted its connections to Japanese imperialist circles. And closer to home, the magazine Yash Turkestan, edited by Mustafa Shoqay, puts into relief connections between some exiled Turkestani political forces and the Nazi régime. But presence is not the same as participation, and residence in Germany or territory occupied by the Nazis was not a guarantee that an individual was working with the Third Reich. Ghayaz Ishaki, the exiled Tatar nationalist leader and editor of Yanga Milli Yul, saw his Berlin-based periodical closed down in 1939, prompting him to leave for Turkey. These are perhaps the best-known examples of those thrown asunder by the crashing waves of inter-war extremism and conflict, but they are far from the only ones. In this blog post, I will look at another case: the North Caucasian peoples and, specifically, Balo Bilatti. This humble engineer has thus-far escaped considerable attention outside of Caucasian circles, but his story might just help us to understand better the motivations, actions and emotions of those facing the prospects of collaboration and resistance.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to catalogue a number of periodicals from inter-War Poland. All three of them pertained to collectivities of North Caucasian exiles active in Paris and Warsaw as part of, or adjuncts to, the Prometheist movement. The earliest was Gortsy Kavkaza (Горцы Кавказа)/Kafkasya Dağlıları/Les Montagnards du Caucase/Moutaineers of the Caucasus, a Russian periodical with occasional Turkish pieces that was published first in Paris, then in Warsaw. Gortsy Kavkaza ran from 1928 until 1934 and was edited by Elmurza Bekovich Cherkasskii until its 27th issue, after which time Barasbi Baytugan took the helm. The two other magazines were part of a slew of related periodicals that were published by North Caucasian exiles in Warsaw. Nash Krai (Наш Край)/Ülkemiz (Our Country) appeared in 1937-38, while the monthly Prizyv (Призыв)/Çağırış (Call) came out in 1938. Both of these were edited by an enigmatic young man by the name of Balo Bilatti. Bilatti, an Ossetian who had been in exile for more than 15 years at this point, was a prolific publisher of bilingual material. In addition to these two periodicals, and his contributions to Gortsy Kavkaza, he was also responsible for Put’ Svoboda (Путь Свобода)/Hürriyet Yolu (The Path of Freedom), Bor’ba (Борьба))/Savaş (War), Nasha Tsel’ (Наша Цель)/Bizim Dilek (Our Aim), Budushchee (Будущее)/Gelecek (The Future), Vpered (Вперед)/İleri (Forward), and Natsional’naya Mysl’ (Национальная Мысль)/Milli Fikir (National Thought).  We also have three Turkish-language books attributed to Bilatti, Şimali Kafkasya ve 11 Mayıs 1918, Milli Hareketlerin İdeolojisi Esasları, and Kuzey Kafkasya üzerine düşünceler. Such productivity is impressive for anyone, but all the more so given the near disappearance of the one-time editor following the end of the Second World War. It all begs the question: who was Balo Bilatti, and how did he come to be a major force behind exile publishing for North Caucasian exiles in the 1930s?

According to Kafkasevi, a North Caucasian research centre in Turkey, Bilatti was born in Ossetia on 25 April 1901. He completed his education there and only left the region in the early 1920s, when Soviet authority was firmly established. Kafkasevi claims that he and his family fled to Warsaw, where he completed studies on “machine engineering” (“makina mühendisliği”). Biographical information from the archive of Aleksandr Yakovlev, however, claims that he left for Turkey, not Poland, after the end of the Russian Civil War. This story is confirmed by a 2018 monograph by Marzoev, Kazakov and Kazakov published by V. I. Abaev North Ossetian Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, which places his arrival in Warsaw in the 1930s. It is unclear, therefore, whether Bilatti studied engineering in Russia, Turkey, or Poland. What we do know from online listings of combatants during the Russian Civil War, as well as the aforementioned monograph, is that Bilatti was an active member of the Kuban Cossacks (also here), a fact that likely necessitated his departure from the Soviet Union.  

Kafkasevi claims that Bilatti – who might have gone by the alias Bulat as well as Balo, according to Marzoev, Kazakov and Kazakov – worked in Poland, France and the Middle East during the 1920s and 30s. It is hard to determine with absolute accuracy when he might have been in each of these places and what he might have been doing. All the more so given that the Marzoev, Kazakov and Kazakov piece seems to contradict at least some of this timeline. What is clear and irrefutable, however, is that by 1934 he was firmly established in Warsaw, writing and editing publications for Caucasian exile groups allied to the Prometheist movement. It appears that, during his time in Warsaw, Bilatti was in contact with some of the biggest names in the Caucasian anti-Soviet exile resistance, including former leader of the Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan, Mǝmmǝd Əmin Rǝsulzadǝ.

The Prometheists had initially received considerable assistance from the Polish state in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Following the signing of the Soviet-Polish Non-Aggression Pact, however, official Polish support dwindled. The post-Pact period forced many exile groups to reconsider their attachments to Prometheism and to look for other means and sponsors to attain their aims. The Japanese government sought to take advantage of this vacuum, as explained in this paper by Kuromiya and Mamoulia, but it doesn’t appear that they targeted Ossetians or the North Caucasians particularly aggressively. Although a German-Japanese anti-Soviet pact stipulated that both powers would seek to mobilize pro-Axis sentiments and planning among Caucasian exiles, the focus of such activities migrated away from Poland to Turkey as the start of the Second World War drew near.

It was in this period that Bilatti was most active as an author, editor, and publisher, a fact that could not have failed to influence his own attachment to particular goals and methods. We do not have precise indications about his movements during the latter years of the 1930s, but the sheer volume of publishing attached to Bilatti’s name indicates that Warsaw was his base, if not exclusive area of operations, for much of the period following 1934. This would imply that he was closer to the Prometheist-associated groups of North Caucasian exiles rather than the “nationalist” groupings identified by Kuromiya and Mamoulia. These, orbiting around the German and/or Japanese agent Haydar Bammat (author of Le Problème du Caucase; a decent biography can be found in this paper by Gasimov and Wiebke), were based in Paris or in Turkey, where the Ossetian Alihan Kantemir was active. The groups were collectively known as the “Caucasus Group”; an affiliation that has been explored at length by Mamoulia.

Bilatti appears to have eschewed both the Caucasus Group’s more chauvinist strands of nationalist thought and its ease in dealing with the Nazi regime. Indeed, his own relatively moderate leanings can be glanced from the content of some of his publications. A Turkish-language piece from the first issue of Cağırış, for example, explores at length the decisions of the “Promethean Union (Promete cemiyeti)”. It explains how the founding members espoused nationalism in the face of internationalism, but not as part of some sort of overarching ideological battle. Rather, Bilatti presses on, internationalism as pushed by Moscow is nothing more than a ruse for intensive Russification of national minorities inside the borders of the Soviet Union. Far from the doctrinaire objections of Nazi or other fascist ideologues, Bilatti and his Prometheist colleagues clearly saw this as a political battle, one fought for the cultural rights of oppressed nations. It is a position of flexibility and accommodation, rather than the totalitarian views promoted by both Hitler and Stalin during the closing years of the 1930s.  

Bilatti was an editor in addition to an author, so the selection of articles is also an important indication of his views. Similar to Gortsy Kavkaza, the periodicals he edited in the late 1930s carried pieces by a large number of contributors, likely all members of Warsaw’s North Caucasian communities. The December 1937 issue of Ülkemiz, for example, featured an article by Doguj regarding the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet for Dagestan’s various languages. The author uses this opportunity to take aim at the Soviet Union’s nationalities policy, and its general abandonment of the principle of self-determination. In particular, Doguj picks apart the Soviet authorities’ use of specific terms to refer to Turcophones to uncover the dissonance between local appellations (often relying on the word “Türk”) and official ones that categorized peoples according to the collectivities sanctioned by Moscow (Azerbaijani, Karachay, Nogay, etc.). That this is about individual choice and self-expression, rather than a parochial nationalist ideology, is clear from the first article in the next issue of the same periodical. Entitled “Daha fazla sükûnet gösterelim” (“We should show some more tranquility”), it attacks a Pan-Turkist approach to anti-Soviet resistance. Of great importance, it appears, is the maintenance of pan-Caucasian (both North and South) unity in the face of Russian and Soviet imperialism. The avoidance of sectarianism (and a recognition of how the Ottoman invasion at the end of the First World War exacerbated this) is stressed, while racialist thinking is out-right rejected (particularly when lauding the collaboration between Azeri and Georgian politicians in exile).

Noticeably absent from pieces in both Çağırış and Ülkemiz are the hyperbole and flowery language that is so often associated with nationalist pieces and ideologically motivated propaganda. Whether a response to the memoirs and claims of the former dictator of Southern Russia during the Civil War, General Anton Denikin, or brief commentary on news from the Caucasus under Soviet control, the tone is measured and factual, reliant more on dates and figures than national spirit or essentialist characteristics. These pieces are not the work of Bilatti, but they are his choosing, and they give us a good indication of his position, as well as that of the movement he represents, among actors with ever-increasing penchants for extremist views.  

Indeed, during this period it would not have been unthinkable, or even difficult, for Bilatti to espouse more stridently nationalist and racialist views, if he were to believe them appropriate. Certainly, other exiled activists chose to do so and to align themselves more closely with the patrons of such ideas. He chose not to, at least not in his public actions during the period prior to the eruption of hostilities. It is possible that this changed as the War began and dragged on. Marzoev, Kazakov and Kazakov indicate that Bilatti was a member of the “National Committee of the North.” This might be a reference to the North Caucasian national committee set up by the Nazi régime, which became the Caucasian National Council in October 1944 (see Kroener, Müller and Umbrelt for more details). Avtorkhanov implies that the Committee, although linked to the Nazi state, would not have accepted its sovereignty over the North Caucasus. It is unclear whether this might have also meant a rejection of the Reich’s position on race and extermination, or even how much weight such a statement would have carried with Nazi leaders. It’s a step further into conjecture to read this as any sort of denunciation or repudiation on the part of Balo Bilatti.

From the 1940s onwards, Bilatti gradually faded into the background. If he was part of an organization that worked with the Nazi regime in order to push the Soviets out of the Caucasus, he couldn’t have been all that important. After all, he was able to remain in Germany following Berlin’s capitulation and worked with Caucasian exile groups in Munich. It was here that he married a fellow Ossetian exile in 1949. He and his wife Chabakhan Khadji-Murzaevna Tuganovna emigrated to the United States in 1950. In California, Bilatti participated in exile politics once more, working on the publication Kafkasya/Kavkaz (headquartered in Munich), which later became Ob”edinennyi Kavkaz (Объединенный Кавказ)/Birleşik Kafkasya (at least according to Kafkasevi). He presumably continued with this work until his death in 1970 in Orange County, California. With him died the most complete knowledge of Bilatti’s involvement in the fight for North Caucasus self-determination and the extent of his collaboration with totalitarian regimes.

This is, sadly, the truth about many narratives of resistance and collaboration. The documentation on hand can only tell us so much about the actions, intentions and beliefs of the individuals accused. Even if all the archives were opened, their contents often portray only one side of the story. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get the full details of any given actor’s personal history and justification. Such information need not change our opinion of the individual or the ultimate verdict in those cases in which collaboration was prosecuted. But it does help to re-centre the narrative of collaboration away from the exigencies of the present towards the contingencies of the past. In doing so, we understand better how we got where we are today, and how we might get where we wish to be tomorrow.

%d bloggers like this: