The Circassian Genocide – I’m a Caucasian too!

I was out and about last Sunday, showing a couple of friends from New Zealand around various parts of the city, and my eye was drawn to posters on a subway wall in Karaköy. The text was in Turkish, of course, so it meant little to my visitors, but it was announcing a demonstration planned for 21 May to commemorate the 148th anniversary of the ‘Circassian Genocide’. Participants will apparently congregate in the big square of Taksim, whence they will march down Istiklal Avenue to the Russian Consulate. There, no doubt, they intend to request politely that Vladimir Putin and his government apologise, and perhaps make some restitution for the displacement, deaths and expropriations that took place in the years leading up to that date in 1864.

Circassian Genocide anniversary poster

I did mention this matter briefly in a previous post, but I have to confess, I wasn’t aware at that stage of the full ramifications. Well, I wouldn’t presume to claim even now that I’ve got everything worked out, but it’s an interesting business for sure, and its effects are still being felt in a part of the world most of us have heard of – though we might have trouble locating it on a map. Anyway, let’s plunge in and see where we end up.

First of all, I’m not much of an expert on Russian history, so I did what I usually do when I feel the need to improve an area of weakness – I ‘googled’ ‘Russian Empire’ and read a few of the suggested sources. Interestingly, none of them made any mention of invading or conquering the Caucasus or Crimean regions. The nearest they came was references to several wars with the Ottoman Empire as a result of which territory was gained and the Empire was expanded southwards.

Now, you can’t really blame the Russians for wanting to expand south and west. I’m sure Russia is a lovely country, but it’s not blessed with harbours and access to warm water seas. Accordingly, in the 18th century, Tsar Peter the Great succeeded in wresting access to the Baltic from Sweden and established his new capital, St Petersburg. Another Russian ‘Great’ by the name of Catherine continued the drive south towards the Black Sea, and here, it seems, lie the roots of our problem with the Circassians. Most of the Ottoman imperial expansion had been completed a hundred years earlier, and undoubtedly not all of the conquered peoples were totally happy with the new situation. Nevertheless, the Ottomans did allow certain freedoms to their subjects, among them, freedom of language and religion. The Russians, on the other hand, were, evidently, somewhat less accommodating. Lands in the path of their southward expansion were populated largely by Muslims with distinct languages and cultures, and clearly this was not in keeping with the grand plan of a Russian-speaking, Orthodox Christian empire.

I don’t want to get sidetracked from my main subject, but the first people to suffer from the Russians’ grand plan were the Crimean Tatars. Crimea had been part of the Ottoman dominions since the 15th century, and its inhabitants were mostly Turkic speaking Muslims. After the Russians’ military defeat of the Ottomans in the 1770s, they proceeded to annex Crimea and colonise it with Christian Slavs. It has been estimated that, over the next century, two-thirds of the Tatar population abandoned their homes and emigrated to various parts of the Ottoman Empire, many of them perishing on the way. 

We may imagine that word of this had reached the Tatars’ near neighbours in the Caucasus area, and when they saw signs that the Russians were aiming to move in their direction, they decided to resist. Some resistance they put up, in fact! The Caucasus War, also known as the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, lasted from 1817 until 1864 (the year referred to on those posters we mentioned above). The Circassians were the most organised, most determined and most militarily capable of the Caucasian peoples and their struggle bore the brunt of the Russian invasion. These people, who call themselves Adyghe, are considered to be the indigenous natives of the Caucasus region. In fact their resistance was such that the Russians were unable to subdue them by force of arms alone. The preferred method became a policy of clearance – burning of villages and killing or driving out the Muslim inhabitants. The author, Leo Tolstoy, served with the Russian army in the Caucasus, and the experience seems to have been the catalyst that turned him from a life of wealthy idleness to one of creativity, spirituality, pacifism and renunciation of privilege. One of his quoted observations:

“It had been the custom to rush the auls [mountain villages] by night, when, taken by surprise, the women and children had no time to escape, and the horrors that ensued under the cover of darkness when the Russian soldiers made their way by twos and threes into the houses were such as no official narrator dared describe.”

Another contemporary observer, a British consul by the name of Dickson, also reported: “A Russian detachment captured the village of Toobah on the Soobashi river, inhabited by about a hundred Abadzekh [a tribe of Circassians], and after these had surrendered themselves prisoners, they were all massacred by the Russian Troops. Among the victims were two women in an advanced state of pregnancy and five children.

At such a distance of time it is not possible to arrive at an absolute figure for the death toll. Some Circassian historians claim a figure of four million; official Russian reports say perhaps 300,000. Less partisan sources suggest somewhere around a million and a half. Undoubtedly, apart from those killed during the war itself, huge numbers perished as a result of forced migration. Thousands died of hunger and disease after being driven from their villages; thousands more on the Black Sea beaches as they waited for Ottoman ships to ferry them away. More still were drowned when overcrowded vessels sank in passage, and more again after reaching the sanctuary of Ottoman territory in the insanitary conditions that prevailed there. The land, dwellings and possessions they left behind were taken over by Russians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Cossacks and Georgians, brought in to repopulate and ‘Christianise’ the area. Once again, we may imagine the feelings of anger and resentment these events stirred up, not only in the survivors and refugees themselves, but in the people of the Ottoman areas who listened to their tales of atrocities and suffering, and had to provide for them.

Who else knew what was going on in the Caucasus? Why do we know so little about it? These are pertinent questions. I came across an interesting source while researching this issue: an archive in the National Library of New Zealand, of a newspaper called The NZ Spectator and Cook’s Strait Guardian. In the edition of 17 August 1864, was an article reprinted from the London Times of May 9, based on a report dated 28 April, from Constantinople (Istanbul):

“Official information has been received here of the capitulation of Vardar, the last stronghold of the Circassians, and of the consequent submission of all the tribes. I had occasion in a previous letter to refer to the flood of immigration which was pouring into the Turkish dominions from the Caucasus, and to the defeats which had been experienced by these gallant mountaineers; and although there could be no doubt at that time that the cause of the Circassians was hopeless, there was not sufficient ground for anticipating the extraordinary movement which has since developed itself, and which threatens, unless immediate relief and succour be obtained, to degenerate, as regards these poor people, into an awful disaster. Whether this movement is to be attributed to a panic consequent on defeat, or to the hatred inspired by the Russians, it is rather difficult to determine; but there is no doubt that the three tribes known as the ‘Shabsoukhs’, Oboukhs’ and ‘Abazehs’ have determined to abandon their country to a man, and take refuge in Turkish territory. Already the outflowing tide of emigrants is so great as to place the Turkish Government in the greatest embarrassment. 27,000 of these unfortunate creatures, in the most utter destitution, have poured into Trebizond (Trabzon). The privations of the voyage in a most inclement season have produced disease of the very worst kind among them, which is not only committing fearful ravages in their own famished ranks, but it is extending to the local population. Typhus and smallpox are raging at Trebizonde, and the place is threatened with a famine. The Turkish government is willing and anxious to receive the fugitives, and incorporate them into its own population, but the movement has been so sudden and so extensive that it has been impossible to make provision for the hosts that are daily pouring in. It is calculated that no less than 300,000 will, in the next two to three months, seek shelter in this country . . .”

The British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Sir Henry Bulwer, presented reports to the Prime Minister of the day, Earl Russell. In one such report, dated April 12, 1864, he said:

“The continued advances of the Russians in Circassia, and the ill-treatment experienced by the natives from the Russian troops, have led to an almost complete emigration from the country: 25,000 have already reached Trebizond, and others are attempting to escape in small boats at every risk. The conglomeration of vast quantities of these people, who have no industrial habits, threatens the health and peace of any one locality, and the loss of life which is occasioned by their hazardous attempts to escape from their conquerors is shocking to humanity. The Turkish Government is therefore about sending vessels to Trebizond to remove the emigrants thence, and place them in different parts of the Empire; and it is also in negotiation with the Russian Chargé d’Affaires here, in order to be able to adopt some measures by which those unfortunate people who, after the most heroic attempts in defending the country where they were born, are at last obliged to abandon it, may be able to seek an asylum with safety in the Ottoman dominions.”

It seems reasonably clear, then, that the British Government of the day, and the literate public of remote New Zealand were aware of the events unfolding in the Caucasus region. Perhaps we can excuse their lack of action to alleviate the suffering of the Circassians, or to exert diplomatic pressure on the Russians. White settlers in New Zealand in those years were also engaged in forcefully driving the indigenous Maori people from their land, and suppressing their attempts to defend their way of life. The United States government was doing the same to its Native Americans, and the Redcoats of the British Empire were here, there and everywhere demonstrating to local peoples that resistance to the civilising benefits of empire was useless. It was a scant six years since the Brits had brutally put down what they liked to refer to as ‘The Indian Mutiny’. In the circumstances, it would have been difficult to act self-righteously.

Detailed map of the Caucasus region
Why we have ‘forgotten’ the Russians’ treatment of the Circassians is less easy to explain, when we seem well able to ‘remember’ the Greeks and the Armenians. Could it be that we find it easier to attribute brutality to Muslims than to Christians? Or perhaps Armenians were better able to draw attention to their cause by the use of terror tactics. Who knows? Whatever the case, Russian ethnic cleansing of its Muslim subjects did not end in 1864. In 1943 and 1944, Josef Stalin forcefully ‘relocated’ hundreds of thousands from the Caucasus and Crimea to remote and desolate parts of the Soviet Union, Siberia, Kazakhstan and elsewhere in Central Asia, resulting in untold deaths. 

Those Circassian demonstrators in Taksim on 21 May will be commemorating the 148th anniversary of their final defeat by the Russians – but the legacy of those days continues well into the 21st century. The population of modern Chechnya is 94 percent Sunni Muslim, and their struggle for independence continues. In neighbouring Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia, the situation is similar. It is unlikely, however, that Mother Russia will let her Caucasian children go, taking their wealth of oil, natural gas and other minerals with them. It is equally unlikely that President Putin will apologise to the Circassians and offer restitution for their past sufferings. After all, it was pre-Revolutionary Tsarist Russia that did the deed.

3 thoughts on “The Circassian Genocide – I’m a Caucasian too!

  1. Thank you, Alan. Excellent point about which events are remembered and which ones are forgotten and in what contexts… Perin

  2. This is interesting. In Turkey, it seems the ideology accepted by the mainstream (including the author of this blog) is that everything except the genocide of Christians happened.

    The same thing you write about in your post happened to Armenians in what is now eastern Turkey. And just like Armenians and other Christians were used to populate former Circassian lands, Circassians and other Caucasian Muslims were used by the Ottoman and Turkish governments to populate former Armenian lands.

    Ethnic cleansing and occupation is ethnic cleansing and occupation — anytime, anywhere. Let the Russians pull out of the Caucasus and allow the Adyghe, Abkhaz, Ossetian, Karachay, Chechens, etc. to return, let the Armenian forces pull out of Karabagh and allow the Azerbaijani refugees to return, let the Israelis pull out of Palestine and allow the refugees to return, and yes, let Turkey pull out of Western Armenia and allow its natives — who live alongside Circassians in various Middle Eastern countries — to return. If you are advocating anything else, you are surely engaging in hypocrisy.

  3. Thanks for the comment. You're right, of course. Everyone has been doing it to everyone else since time immemorial. One of the problems I am trying to confront in this blog is the reverse of what you say in your first paragraph – the mainstream position in the West seems to be that nothing happened except the genocide of Christians.

    It would be wonderful if we could all go back to square one before we started invading other people's territory – but it's not easy to establish a date for that. I guess my Caucasian fellow citizens in New Zealand would be among the first to be sent back where they came from – but I'm not sure that would solve the world's problems either.

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