Genocide, and the Procession of History

There was an interesting exhibition in Istanbul recently – a collection of paintings by an artist called Faruk Kutlu. Not that the works themselves are likely to turn the art world on its head, but the title caught my eye: ‘Kafkasya’dan Sürgün’ – in English, ‘Deportation (or Exile) from the Caucasus’. It interested me because I’d recently visited Sakarya, a small city not far from Istanbul, and people there told me that their ancestors had come from the Caucasus region. I’m irresistibly fascinated by these little historical mysteries, so I had to check it out.

It turns out that representatives of the Adygeyans (which is apparently what the Circassian people of the Caucasus call themselves in their own language) have, for some time, been lobbying the Russian Government seeking an apology for an alleged genocide that took place in the 1860s. ‘Dammit,’ I hear you say. ‘This word genocide is going to lose its meaning if it gets bandied around so frequently and lightly’ – but I have to say’ this one is definitely worth a look.


The Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, was heir to the domain of the Russian Empire, officially dated from 1721. By the second half of the 19th century, under Tsar Alexander II, Russia had built the third largest empire in the history of the world, and as we all know, its religion was Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Well, like most generalisations, that’s only part of the truth. In fact the expansion of the Russian border to the south was largely at the expense of central Asian and Caucasian states, which, at the time, were overwhelmingly Muslim.


The policy of successive Russian monarchs had been to ‘discourage’ the Muslim religion in the interests of civilisation, Christianisation and Russification. Perversely, the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus chose to reject the invitation to become part of this Orthodox Russian civilisation, and their resistance lasted from 1817 to 1864. The intervening struggle is variously known as the Caucasian War, the Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, and, apparently, the local Muslim population even had the temerity to call it the Holy War! But in the end, the result was pretty much as you would expect: the big guys beat the little guys, and the price exacted from the little guys was in proportion to the time and inconvenience they had put the big guys to.
What actually happened at this point is, of course, not easy to ascertain. Circassian sources claim that 400,000 of their people were killed and around 500,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek resettlement in the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, many of these refugees dying on the journey, or later in the crowded, insanitary conditions in which they were obliged to live on arrival. Russian sources are understandably less specific on details, but the matter of mass deportation is beyond dispute, as is the fact that Muslim populations within the expanded Russian Empire became minorities in areas where they had previously been the majority.
At this point, I want to turn my attention from the micro- to the macro-, and to introduce a political concept known as ‘The Great Game’. You are probably aware that the 19th century saw the beginning of a period in history often referred to as the Age of Imperialism. The major European nations (including Russia) were engaged in the process of empire-building, just as some formerly powerful empires were in the process of disintegration. Key aspects of the imperialism business were: maintaining the balance of power while seeking to grab as much territory as possible for your own empire, and at the same time, limiting the growth of the others.
No doubt you are also aware that India was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empress, Victoria; and of course, Vicki and her ministers were not amused to see that jewel threatened by the southward expansion of the Russians. ‘The Great Game’ is the name given to the conflict and rivalry between the British and Russian Empires for control in Central Asia. The ‘game’ became increasingly serious from the 1850s, when oil began to assume major importance as an economic resource. Political ‘game’ it may have been considered by some, but in reality, it was played at great expense in money and human life. Take as example the three Anglo-Afghan wars fought between 1839 and 1919. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Afghans. But that’s another story.
Running parallel to, and occasionally overlapping this ‘game’ were the power plays related to ‘The Eastern Question’. This was another driving force in the policies of the European Great Powers during the 19th century and up to the end of the First World War. Essentially, the question can be put thus: When will the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrate, and who will get all the good bits when it does? As noted above, all the European empire-builders were keen to benefit from the Ottoman collapse; but at the same time they were equally keen that their rivals should not.
Once you grasp these relatively simple principles, a lot of the otherwise confusing activities of the European empire states, not to mention events unfolding in apparently distant unrelated places, become more intelligible.
Take, for example, the Crimean War. The Charge of the Light Brigade was no doubt a marvellous example of the incomparable bravery and discipline of the British fighting man. But what on earth were they doing over there fighting a war on Russia’s back doorstep for nearly three years? Well, in fact, they were part of a British strategy to keep Russia iced up in its frozen wastes and prevent it from gaining access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. In the 1850s, this strategy required bolstering up the Ottomans and helping them defend their realm.
Go back, however, a mere 26 years to 1827, and you would find the warships of Britain, France and Russia fighting together to destroy the Ottoman navy off the coast of southern Greece. At that time, it suited the European powers to encourage and then support Orthodox Christians to unite in a nationalist struggle and declare the independence of the Greek peninsula. We can guess that the British were keen to have a compliant puppet state in the eastern Mediterranean, but what was in it for the Russians? Most likely there was some deal going on – you help us out here and we’ll try to work something out for you over there. Turn a blind eye to what you’re doing to the Muslims in central Asia, for example? Incidentally, you might want to ask how those Russians got their ships into the Mediterranean to participate in the battle. That’s the trouble with history – you answer one puzzling question and it raises several equally troubling new ones.
But I refuse to be sidetracked. Our subject is genocide, and its euphemistic little sibling, ethnic cleansing. The Greek peninsula had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and its population had large Muslim and Jewish elements. In fact, at this point, it will be worth our while to take a look at the composition of the Empire. The Ottomans were a ruling elite, for sure with their origins in the Turkish migrations from central Asia, but, by reason of conquest, long residence and inter-marriage, considering themselves cosmopolitan, and even (dare I say it?) European. They regarded themselves, with some justification, as the legitimate heirs of the Byzantine Roman Empire; the Sultan’s mother would almost certainly have been a Byzantine princess, or Bulgarian, or Russian, but assuredly not Turkish. Their language, although based on Turkish, had a large admixture of Persian and Arabic. Their empire included a wide range of ethnic groupings, religions and languages, and interestingly, they didn’t really try to impose uniformity.
The Ottomans recognised four millets (nations) within their boundaries, based primarily on religion. Muslim was the state religion, but this group included Arabs and others, as well as Turks. Christians and Jews were ‘people of the book’, so they were permitted to retain their religious practices and languages, especially the local varieties of Christianity, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. They, with the Jews and the Muslims, made up the four milletsof the empire.
What happened at the time of the Greek ‘War of Independence’ was a forerunner of what was to follow as the Ottoman Empire fell apart. We could say that the repercussions have continued to be felt into our own times. For their own ends, the European powers encouraged nationalist sentiments among the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. They then presented themselves as protectors of the Christian minorities when Ottoman authorities, not unreasonably, came down hard on separatist movements within their borders. One side effect of the Greek War of Independence was the killing of rather a lot of Muslim civilians, whose families had been living on the Greek peninsula for centuries.
Similar scenarios were played out in Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans in the later years of the 19th century, as Russia and the geriatric Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire encouraged, also for their own purposes, (Christian) nationalist movements to rise up and throw off the chains of Ottoman hegemony. In fact, Muslims were still being slaughtered in the Balkans, and refugees streaming from Bulgaria into Turkey long after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, right up to the 1980s.
The fledgling state of Greece also took the opportunity to expand its territory at the expense of the beleaguered Ottomans. The important trading city of Selanik, birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and reputedly home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, was taken by the Greeks in 1912. Not long after, a catastrophic fire wiped out most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town, and you will look hard to find a mosque or a synagogue in the modern Greek city of Thessaloniki.
When the First World War ended, the victorious vultures descended in force on the body of the dying Ottomans. It has been argued that the punitive damages imposed on Germany at that time contributed to the rise of Hitler and thence to the Second World War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, the Ottoman Empire was not merely to be punished; it was to be dismantled and the pieces given into the hands of outsiders. For the purposes of this article, the most significant event was the landing of a Greek army on the Aegean coast of Anatolia backed by the guns of warships from the European victors of the ‘Great War’.
What ensued was a three-year war, during which Christian inhabitants of the region at first welcomed their ‘liberators’ and many Muslims were killed, followed by a successful counter-attack by the newly formed Turkish nationalist forces. Needless to say, some revenge was undoubtedly exacted by the now victorious Muslims. The end result was a forced population exchange in which Muslims and Christians, who had existed side by side in relative harmony for centuries, were forcibly relocated: the Christians of Anatolia being sent to mainland Greece to be replaced by Muslims going the other way.

It’s a sorry tale, isn’t it! But history is history, and you can’t turn back its relentless tide, however much you may wish to. Before we finish, however, let’s return to the other theatre of conflict we were discussing earlier – the expanding southern borders of Russia. Of course, as the British well knew, the Great Bear would not be content with merely adding a few central Asian state-lets to its empire. A major goal was always access to the Mediterranean. Clearly the Bosporus Straits would be ever problematic, so another option was to drive a channel though eastern Anatolia, again, at the expense of the moribund Ottomans. Fortunately a pretext was available in the form of the Christian Armenians, who could be incited to rebellion, then offered ‘protection’ in the form of a Russian invasion to help them set up a nationalist state from which any inconvenient Muslims could be ethnically cleansed (though the term was not invented till later, of course). Again, we may suspect that Armenian independence would have been short-lived, or nominal.
However it was, Armenian nationalists in eastern Anatolia were enthusiastic about Russian support, and ready to create ‘incidents’ which would encourage Russian intervention on their behalf. The Ottoman government, for their part, had a clear example, in the Caucasus, of what was likely to happen in the event of the Russians gaining control. Whatever happened to the Armenian milletin 1915, and undoubtedly it was a tragic event, it needs to be remembered that, as always, there are at least two sides to the story. The Ottoman Empire was fighting for its life in a major war on at least three fronts. And, in an analogous situation, as the present-day Russian government has pointed out with respect to the Caucasus deaths, the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire was a different entity.
There is a short story, ‘The Whale’, penned by the New Zealand author, Witi Ihimaera, which ends with an elderly Maori leader weeping over the bodies of a pod of beached whales. The whales can be seen as symbolising the old culture and traditions of his people, the indigenous race of New Zealand, whose way of life has been irretrievably lost. ‘No wai te he?’ the old man cries. ‘Who is to blame?’

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2 thoughts on “Genocide, and the Procession of History

  1. So interesting… One does wonder about the word “genocide” though. Whether we should really reserve it for those rare instances where there is a clear intent of elimination of a people or accept the potential genocidal tendencies of all people at all times…

  2. You're right, Perin. For sure, 'genocide' seems to have become one of those highly charged but slightly nebulous words that can be slung around at will to put an end to an argument. Well, no one wants to be seen as a supporter of genocide, huh!

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