The Circassian Genocide
For over 100 years Russia perpetrated a war against the Circassian people of the Northwest Caucasus in a bid to expand its empire and reach the Black Sea. The culmination of this war in 1864 would see 90% of the Circassian people dead or driven from their lands. On the 21st of May each year the Circassian (Adyghe) people commemorate this genocide.
The Circassian people have lived in the same area of the North Western Caucasus for around 4000 years. The region they live in sits on the north eastern shores of the Black Sea. Its strategic position meant that over the centuries it suffered many invaders, but although they had to adapt to these difficult circumstances their culture and people endured.
By the middle of the 18th century the Circassian population at its westerly most point reached to the Crimean Peninsula, at the Kerch Strait. At this time Circassia was split into two distinct regions, Western and Eastern. The eastern side consisted of Greater Kabardia and Kabardia Minor.
Accurate population numbers before the start of full conflict with Russia do not exist, but figures in the range of 1.5m to 2.5m seem a reasonable estimate between the higher and lower values historians give.
Common Customs, Shared Heritage
Some terms used in the document that may need clarification
The Circassian people are composed of twelve main sub-divisions and within those multiple tribes. Until near the end of the war they had never united into a single state entity, but shared a common heritage and tradition, and a common basis of language. Perhaps most vitally they shared an orally transmitted code of customs, laws, and in previous times religion. Called the Adige Khabze it has been handed down and refined throughout the centuries. The Khabze touches on all aspects of life, working both as a moral code and a legal framework. It should be stressed how important this code is, especially at this time. Circassians would come into conflict, even against impossible odds, rather than break it.
Within this commonality each tribe organized at a social level in its own way, mostly through a form of feudal system, although there were differing forms of structure. The Kabardians had a very rigid aristocratic class system that dated back hundreds of years. The Shapsug, who at one stage overthrew their aristocracy, had a more communal structure where elected elders from groups of villages would form a central governing council.
The Circassian aul
Partly due to suffering from regular raids by various enemies throughout their history Circassian society did not commonly organize around fortified cities. The preference was a more mobile village structure named the aul. An aul would often contain several extended families. The aul was based around wattle and daub housing that could quickly be assembled and therefore abandoned in times of threat. Auls were often surrounded by a wall such that there was only one entrance, making them easier to defend, even if not fully fortified.
In early history Circassians had their own pagan belief system, in the 6th century Christianity was spread to the region by the Byzantines and some Circassians converted. Later, with the predominance of the Ottomans and especially during the war against Russia, Islam became the foremost religion of the Circassian people. It remains so today, although in recent decades there has been a renewed interest in the old religion.
Eastern Circassia, Battle for Kabardia
“We need the Circassian lands, but we do not have any need of the Circassians themselves” — General Yermolov, commander of Kavkazski Corps
Russo-Turkish war, 1736–1739
This is of particular relevance in the history of the Circassian genocide due to the treaty which ended the conflict. Kabardia, which from the 16th century had enjoyed a nominal alliance with its Russian neighbors against the Crimean Khanate, had its territory named in the treaty as a neutral buffer state. The Kabardians, who had aided the Russians in the conflict, were not included in the negotiations, but the result was that they were effectively stripped of any meaningful regional voice. The treaty also stipulated that both the Turkish and Russian sides had the right to take Kabardian hostages and granted them the right to use force to punish the Kabardian people if they had any cause for complaint to do so.
“following the former custom, however, every time that the Empire of the Russias should take hostages from the two Karbardas for the sole purpose of maintaining tranquility, the Ottoman Porte will be free to do the same for the same end. If the peoples of the Kabardas give cause for complaint to either of the two Powers, each will be allowed to chastise and punish them” — Article 6, Treaty of Belgrade
In truth the alliance that Kabardia had with Russia had been shaky at best. In the 1720s the Crimean Khanate invaded and devastated Kabardia and the Russian side refused to send any aid or troops. Kabardian participation in aiding Russia during the 1736–1739 war had been on the understanding that they would be guaranteed recognition as a state. It was a special sort of duplicity that saw them at once recognized as a state and at the same time stripped by the treaty of any meaningful statehood. They were left effectively squeezed between Russia and the Ottomans.
The destruction of Kabardia
Already struggling from the period of wars, in the 1760s the Kabardians began to face a new problem from their former allies. Russia started to build a series of fortifications, in particular the Mozdok fortress in 1763 — which had previously been a Kabardian town. These fortifications cut across traditional trade and migration routes essential to the Kabardian peoples survival. They at first petitioned St. Petersburg against these actions, but when what was a tightening siege continued the Kabardians were forced to respond. The fighting that ensued would last decades and see the Kabardian population devastated.
Russia created lines of fortifications that tightened the noose around the state. In the late 1770s they began increasing punitive raids into Kabardia. In each push they destroyed auls and farms, seized livestock, and slaughtered any population they could find.
In 1804 a plague in the region hit the suffering Kabardian population badly. Tens of thousands died. The Russian response was to impose a quarantine line which all but destroyed the remaining cattle herd and trade routes. This left the Kabardian people behind the line subject to starvation in addition to the disease.
“Our people, naked and swollen from lack of salt, have fled to the forests like hungry wild beasts” — Part of an appeal written to the Russian Emperor by Kabardian pshis
By 1810 the Russian commander, General Bulgakov who had ordered the blockade, decided that the local population were sufficiently weakened that his forces could easily overcome them. He began a full scale raid on Kabardian territory. His pretense for doing so was that an uprising against the feudal system had begun in Kabardia, and that local peasants had requested the aid of Russia. While it was true that an uprising was fomenting there is no evidence of any request for aid, the only person who claimed this was in fact an aide of Bulgakov.
Bulgakov’s attack was nothing more than plunder. He raided not only Kabardia but pushed further into Western Circassia. The Kabardians later complained to St. Petersburg that during the raid he :
- Took livestock including 44,000 sheep and six thousand heads of cattle
- Stole farm produce, including over one hundred tons of honey
- Burned over ten thousand homes, more than 100 mosques, and 100 farmsteads
The starvation alone caused by this killed thousands beyond the thousands already killed during the raid. In the attack on Western Circassia he surrounded auls and blockaded them, until all the inhabitants were starved.
This theft on a grand scale was enough for St Petersburg. Bulgakov was relieved of command and placed on charges for embezzlement and bribery, among other things. He was the last Russian commander in the Circassian war to face any real punishment for his actions.
Yermolov, the father of genocide
“Yermoloff was wont to insist that the word of a Russian official should be sacred, so that the natives might be led to believe it more firmly than the Koran itself; and to the extent of his power he enforced good faith on either side” — Historian John Baddeley on General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov
“Condescension in the eyes of the Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction, and thousands of Mussulmans from treason” — General Yermolov
General Yermolov’s first actions in the Kabardian region set the tone for how he would continue. In 1818 a group of five Kabardians attacked Russian lines. They then fled and took refuge in a local aul. Yermolov responded by surrounding the village at night, forcing the inhabitants to flee without any of their possessions. The village was then set fire to and the livestock confiscated. Yermolov issued a statement warning that this time he had been lenient, in the future the village of any transgressor would be targeted, “their villages will be annihilated, their property taken, their wives and children slaughtered.” — He would in fact take such actions, and more.
In the 1820s, the Kabardian population having been ravaged by war and disease to the point where, as Yermolov put it, “they were not able to gather in large numbers as they had previously”, a new plan was put in place. Yermolov gave orders for a mobile force to raid Kabardia. Its directions were not to occupy any territory or involve itself in extended battles, but rather to burn auls, kill cattle, destroy food supplies, and steal horses. In other words, the aim was to destroy all shelter and bring famine to the remaining population.
Following this action, Yermolov took command himself of several divisions of heavy artillery and entered Kabardia. With little resistance left to meet him he proceeded to systematically destroy remaining auls and rustle what cattle was left.
From a Kabardian population in the late 1700s estimated at 350,000, by the late 1820s there were around 30,000 left. Kabardia Minor was completely depopulated. Many of the population that was allowed to remain in Greater Kabardia had either been conscripted into the Russian military or given as slaves to Cossacks.
Yermolov’s Kabardian legacy
Despite what may seem like a military success the manner in which Yermolov conducted himself in Kabardia set a level of distrust with the population of Western Circassia. Any future hopes of peaceful settlements would be colored by what happened in Kabardia. By 1830 the Shapsug people of Western Circassia had declared war with Russia, in part encouraged by the actions of Yermolov. In the North Eastern Caucasus the news of Russian slaughter of large numbers of civilians helped inspire the militarization of the Naqshbandi order. This would eventually transpire as the religious leadership of Imam Shamil, who would continue to resist Russia in that region for nearly 30 years. The name of Shamil still echoes down to North Caucasus resistance movements of the modern age. In many ways what Yermolov started still shapes Russian influence in the region to this day.
“Mankind has rarely experienced such disasters and to such extremes, but only horror could have an effect on the hostile mountaineers and drive them from the impenetrable mountain thickets.” — Russian officer Ivan Drozdo
Of strategic importance
While landlocked Kabardia was of little interest to outside powers Western Circassia with its Black Sea coastline was strategic. Russia, with an eye on pushing south to the Ottoman empire and beyond to Persia, saw access to this coast as essential in its planning. The Turkish side saw Russian dominance of the coast as a direct threat to its interests. Further afield the British were worried about the expansion of Russia and saw a need to inhibit this where they could. More pertinently to British interests, Russian dominance of the Black Sea could put at risk trade routes to India.
When Russian General Malinovski met with a delegation of Circassians he reminded them that under treaty with Turkey all of their lands belonged to Russia. One of the Circassians answered: “You are surely a good General!”, and he pointed at a bird sitting in a nearby tree and said, “For your kind words, I give you this bird for all eternity. Take it!” — Unknown origin
The various Russo-Turkish wars that spanned through the 18th and 19th centuries saw an increasing Russian dominance in the Caucasus region. The Treaty of Adrianople, which ended the 1828–1829 war proved significant in the fate of the Circassians.
The Treaty of Adrianople in regards to Circassia was a remarkable work of imperial fiction. The only mention of Circassia within the treaty is the description of Emperor Nicholas I as, “possessor of the Circassian and mountain princes” — implying he had some sort of rule over them, which was never the case. The treaty handed over the coast line of Circassia from Ottoman possession to Russia. Lands that the Ottomans held no possession of. It was true that Ottoman ports operated along the coast, but they operated only because the Circassians tolerated them and allowed them to do so for trade.
The treaty therefore had two key impacts. The first was that the Ottomans gave up any right to defend their interests along the Circassian coast, opening the area to Russian ships without interference. The second was that by previous treaties (Kaynarca 1174, Jassy 1792) the land south of the Kuban river belonged to the Ottomans. Russia saw this new treaty as granting it those lands also. This is despite the fact that the Ottomans had never come close to any sort of control of these lands.
The result of these wars and treaties can be seen from the map above. Where once surrounded by the Nogai people of the Crimean Khanate to the north, and Kabardia to the east, western Circassia was now practically encircled by the Russian empire. On its southern most boundary lay Abkhazia, which had also been handed to Russia. Again here the reality was that Abkhazia was under its own control, and had never been completely dominated by either Russia or the Ottoman Porte.
In the North Eastern Caucasus the Chechens and tribes from Dagestan also held out against Russian dominance.
North and South of the Kuban river
“With the appearance of Russians all along the banks of the Kuban, a wall of Cossack settlements rose before the Circassians” — Historian Vasily Potto
For centuries the border along the northern part of Circassia was marked by the Kuban river. For a long time the region north of the Kuban was dominated by the Turkic Nogai people. As the 18th century progressed they were replaced by Russian Cossacks. In the 1790s the number of Cossack settlements dramatically increased and the Circassians of that region found themselves cut off from traditional grazing lands. Despite this and several incursions into Circassian land there was still some accord between the two sides. By the start of the 1820s there was active trading between the Russians and certain tribes of Circassians, although other tribes were hostile.
In 1822 General Yermolov, who was displeased with the idea of appeasement with the Circassians, wrote to Foreign Minister Karl Nesselrode. He said that it was commendable of the government to seek normal relations with the Circassians and bring them “enlightenment”, but calling them “half-savage” he noted “This project cannot be established among a people hostile to enlightenment, under the power of a foreign government, under an ignorant Muslim government”
Finding no political route to stopping the trade Yermolov sent Major General Mikhail Vlasov to the area. He began a series of raids and “punishments”, taking no heed of whether his targets bore Russia any animosity or not. His adventures in burning auls and rustling cattle eventually came to an end when a complaint backed by local Russian civilian administration saw him reprimanded. The actions almost did irreparable harm to relations between Russia and the Circassians of that region, which was obviously Yermolov’s plan. Although Yermolov was never directly connected with this, he was in 1827 also removed from his command by the Emperor. He would later be reinstated as a general, but never again saw active service.
I think this is a particularly telling episode. It shows how the Russian military in the Caucasus could act with its own will to the detriment of both the civilian administration and the will of St Petersburg. It also shows the disdain the military often had for any notion of appeasement, seeing the inhabitants of the Caucasus as savages, there only to be cleared out of the way in any manner convenient.
After the Treaty of Adrianople
“by themselves, gentle measures that have not been preceded and supported by the force of arms are insufficient when dealing with half-wild peoples” — General Bekovich-Cherkassy in a report to Ivan Paskevich
Whatever remaining possibility there was for living together was to quickly disappear after the Treaty of Adrianople. Emperor Nicholas gave orders that the “mountaineers”, as Circassians were constantly referred to, were to either be made to swear over their loyalty and rights to Russia or to be put to the sword. General Grigory Filipson noted that the Emperor appeared to have little idea of who he was dealing with. The Emperor and his advisers “thought that the Circassians were nothing more than rebellious Russian subjects” and did not realize that they were dealing with “one and a half million valiant, militaristic mountain dwellers”
“His Majesty has affirmed the conditions to be demanded of the mountaineers for their submission” Ministry of War instructions, 1836.
In 1836 the Russian Ministry of War handed down a list of demands to which the Circassians were to submit. These included a cessation of all hostilities, the sending of hostages, to turn over all Russian deserters and wanted persons living among Circassians, and to refuse to give hospitality to fugitives from Russian authority. If the first two points were bad enough the second two were impossible for Circassians to comply with. One of the most stringent aspects of the Adige Khabze (Circassian code of conduct) is the treatment of guests. It stipulates that a Circassian must lay down his life for a guest. Refusing a guest, even if a known fugitive, would be a sin that a person could not live down. Contravening this age-old code would expose any aul doing so to attacks from anti-Russian neighbors.
Such demands from the distant Russian officialdom show either ignorance of Circassian customs or a will to ignore them. Circassians had defended their valued independence for thousands of years, Russia was one more invader among many who had tried and failed to subdue them, and they would be fought the same way as the others. What had happened in Kabardia made them even more resolute. Russian murder of so many innocents and of fighters who had offered surrender gave proof that there was no option but to fight.
Also during this period, in 1833, Russia and the Ottomans signed the Treaty of Unkiar Skelessi (Hünkâr İskelesi). As Britain interpreted it, this treaty heavily favored Russia access to Ottoman waters over the rights of Britain and France. If the Treaty of Adrianople was enough to raise concerns in Britain, this new treaty caused considerable alarm. There was much speculation in the British press and establishment about the need for intervention against Russia. This had an impact in two important ways. First it encouraged St Petersburg to the idea that Britain was likely to take direct military action in the region. This made the Russian authorities anxious to settle the region as quickly as possible to ensure British intervention would not succeed. Second, Britain became involved through agents in encouraging Circassians to fight against Russia. At various points these agents would give Circassian tribes the idea that help was on its way. In the end Britain would not intervene either on a full military scale nor with aid of real substance to Circassian fighters. Given this the end result of British involvement, such as it was, was to encourage Russia to use any means necessary to hastily finish the conflict, and cause Circassians to take military risks on the basis of aid that would never arrive.
A unified Circassian response
From the point of the Treaty of Adrianople the war would last another 35 years before Russia declared her victory. During that time the Circassian response to the aggression was not a unified one. The Adige Khabze did serve as a form of law, but there was no unified legal system which bound tribes together. In addition there was no single military command, it was again split along tribal lines. The Khabze allowed for the forming of a council (Khase) between tribes that could make unified decisions possible. Unfortunately there was no mechanism to enforce such decisions. So although an agreement might be reached at a meeting it sometimes did not hold for long, if at all.
Several attempts over the period were made to create a more unified front, starting from even before the Adrianople treaty. In the years previous to the treaty the Ottoman Porte sent delegations to attempt the further spread of Islam within Circassian tribes. The goal of this was to both to unite the Circassians under Islamic law and to bring them closer to the Ottoman influence. This met with quite some success on the religious front, although there were still some pockets of resistance to Islam. But it failed to bring the Circassians under the wing of the Ottoman empire, “we wish to be Muslims but of our own free will”, as one Shapsug delegation put it.
In the 1830s a British group active in Circassia attempted to create a unified front against Russia. The extent to which they were responsible for any real unification is debatable. What can be said is that in 1936 several tribes, including the influential Shapsugs and Ubykhs, declared an independent Circassian nation to fight against Russia. This was among the first known appearances of the format of the modern Circassian flag. One Britain, Urquhart, is cited with the design of this flag. Other versions of the story say that the spread of Islam had more to do with the 1836 unification. In the end, although the 1836 declaration did create a more unified front it did not create a single coherent force.
“The smallest step was taken with great difficulty. From behind each boulder and from behind each tree jumped the enemy. The Russians were falling where they stood. They could not return the fire of their adversaries, who appeared like lightning and instantly disappeared.”, Lesley Blanch
Despite the failure to create a unified military structure Circassian resistance continued against overwhelming odds. Russian progress was slow and cost many lives. Forts that they built were captured, each aul that they attempted to defeat held out as long as it could.
The Crimean War, Muhammad Amin and Sefer-Bey Zanoko
From 1834 to 1859 Imam Shamil led the cause of the Caucasus Imamate. This was an attempt to unite the entire Caucasus region under a single Islamic rule. Shamil made several attempts to work with the Circassians, over time he sent three Naib (representatives) to Circassia. The most successful of these was Muhammad Amin, who was in Circassia from 1848 to 1859, arriving first among the Abdzakh tribe.
From his arrival Amin set about establishing a single military command under his leadership. He did so by force of will and, when necessary, with force of arms. Already having gained much initial support as the Naib of Imam Shamil, he then compelled both the more peaceful tribes and coastal pagan tribes to join him. Although he suffered some setbacks in 1851, by the start of the Crimean war he had a large support among the Circassian tribes and had enjoyed some military successes against Russian forces.
At the beginning of the Crimean war Amin had hopes of direct Ottoman intervention in the Caucasus. The British did want to play a part in the Caucasus, but the French dissuaded them arguing that the fight lay elsewhere. However the Ottomans, now released by the conflict from previous treaties, did decide to play a part in the region. Indeed the Porte sent word to Shamil that a Jihad was to be called. To prepare for intervention the Ottomans recruited several key Circassian figures into the higher ranks of their army. One of these was Sefer-Bey Zanoko. He was a respected Circassian chieftain who had been in Istanbul for some time. He gained the trust of the Ottomans and was returned to Circassia as their official representative and with the title of Pasha, a rank usually given to governors.
Sefer-Bey Zanoko was presented by the Ottomans to the allied forces of the Crimean war as the legitimate leader of Circassia. When Amin went in 1854 to Istanbul, Sefer-Bey took the opportunity to begin to undermine him among the tribes. Amin returned from Istanbul with no promise of support and having been granted only a token supply of arms. With the tribes now splitting between the two leaders conflict was bound to arise.
The Treaty of Paris that ended the Crimean War in 1856 was a disaster for the Circassians. It granted Russia rights over the Caucasus with no stipulations. The Ottomans moved quickly to disown the two Circassian leaders. Following a battle between the two, Amin traveled to Istanbul to seek clarification on which of them was to receive Ottoman backing. Sefer-Bey remained in Circassia but sent petitions to the Porte for protection. The Ottomans responded to Sefer-Bey that only if Circassia fully submitted to its rule would they offer support. When Amin left Istanbul having been offered similar unacceptable terms the Porte washed its hands of both of them.
In 1857 Russia reorganized its forces in the region, bolstered now by troops that had previously been allocated to the war in Crimea. Existing troops were reallocated to form Left and Right wings on the eastern and western side of the remaining Circassian territory. The additional numbers and new formation proved highly effective. Sefer-Bey attempted to gain a settlement from the Russians but they would accept nothing but complete surrender. In 1859, with the fall of Shamil in the North East Caucasus, Amin surrendered on behalf of the Abadzekh tribe. Some other Circassian forces also surrendered around this period, and by 1860 the majority of the resistance had taken to more mountainous regions to make a last stand.
In 1861 the Circassians were promised by an Ottoman delegation that if they united under a single banner they would be recognized by the British, French and Ottomans as a sovereign nation and offered aid. In response a khase was held and a Mejlis (parliament) building was constructed in Sochi. The Mejlis was named “The Great Free Assembly” and it divided the Circassian lands into twelve districts, each with its own religious, civil and military leaders. The assembly sent a delegation to Istanbul, London and Paris to petition for the promised support. None was forthcoming. In particular, in London, both the Queen and the Parliament snubbed a formal meeting with the delegation. Russian forces raided the Sochi area and destroyed the Mejlis building soon after it was built. The Mejlis had managed to finally form a more united front, but it was a case of too little, too late.
Deportation or starvation
“On March 21, 1841, I informed your excellency that conditions had never been more favorable for driving the Natuhays (a Circassian tribe) to the most extreme of conditions; that after the failure of the harvest of 1839 there was a general lack of food in the mountains; and that if forces attacked in the summer and destroyed all their harvest, by the following winter they would all be victims of starvation” — Admiral Lazar Serebyrakov
Genocide through starvation
During the period of the late 1830s with the Circassian people hemmed in from all sides, the Russians attempted to move inland from their Black Sea line. They met with numerous defeats and soon gave up, losing what forts they had built. Even the forts on the coast itself were not secure and some fell into Circassian hands. At sea, however, the Russian blockade prevented this becoming a supply line. This and a disastrous harvest in 1839 prompted the idea of starvation as a means of removing the Circassian opposition. While this idea had been used in warfare previously for individual fortresses or cities, here the plan was to use it against an entire population. This was not a military plan of attack, this was a plan to eliminate an entire people through starvation. This was planned genocide.
There followed a campaign not to capture territory, but as with Yermolov in Kabardia, to eliminate the population through hunger by destroying food and shelter with incursion raids. There is little if any documentation of the period from the Circassian side, but what exists from the Russian side is telling. It is around this time that the use of the word “cleansing” starts to appear in field reports. The field notes rarely mention people, instead they talk of livestock taken or habitations burned. In October of 1836 alone forty-four auls are mentioned as being burned, potentially thousands of people, none of whom are mentioned. The implication is that of having no concern or thought for people, just the continued destruction of property.
“Moving away from Ekaterinodar the countryside became more lifeless and yellowed. After passing Elizavetinskaya Stanitsa there were swamps and sandy fields filled with silt. Just after the Kopylskaya postal station was a kingdom of mosquitoes” — Colonel Milenty Olshevsky describing the lands the Tsar offered the Circassians
It is good here to discuss the myth that the Circassian population was given an option to relocate. It has been argued that the Russians offered the population fertile farmlands to move to, but that they refused. Firstly, the land that was being offered was inhospitable swamp. Secondly, the Russians had so far failed to keep any promises or treaties with groups who had surrendered. Even if Circassians settled on that land there was no guarantee that they would not either be killed or moved to Siberia (many were). It is also doubtful that many were offered any choice at all. The Russian military commanders were unlikely to want to create a concentrated group of hostile indigenous people on their doorstep. Even if the lands were available it was not an option, they “were sent to Turkey by the force of our arms”, as Colonel Olshevsky points out about one group of four thousand Circassian families in 1861. The plain reality is there was no “option” given. It was either move to the coast to be put on boats or die, either fighting or of hunger and disease.
The deportations to Turkey, the starvation tactics, the mass slaughter, had all been taking shape for some time before the arrival of General Nokolai Evdokimov in 1860. When he took charge of military operations in that year he set about to ethnically cleanse the remaining population as quickly as possible. Geographer Mikhail Venyukov recalls, in 1861, presenting an ethnographic map to Evdokimov and being advised to “rub out” the Bjedukh tribe from it, with Evdokimov saying “So what are the Bjedukhs to us? I will expel them, like all the remaining mountaineers, to Turkey”
In the lead up to this time several groups of Circassians had surrendered arms and been allowed under terms to settle in given areas of land. Evdokimov would not allow them to remain but could not take open military action against them given they had been granted sanction by St Petersburg. He therefore pursued a policy of forcing them to continuously resettle within the same area. He would move a settlement and give the homes there to Cossacks. When the Circassians built new homes nearby he would move them again and settle more Cossacks. He repeated this until, as was the case with 40,000 of the Natuhay tribe near the Black Sea, they eventually “volunteered” to immigrate to Turkey.
Evdokimov changed the military strategy again. By 1860 the Russians had an overwhelming force against a diminished Circassian population, which was hungry and deprived of supplies of arms. Evdokimov switched from small raids and returned to full scale military maneuvers designed to capture what territory the Circassians had left, driving out by force all the inhabitants to the coast and then to Turkey.
In 1861 Emperor Alexander set a one month deadline to either accept resettlement (which as we already discussed, was not a real option) or to immigrate to Turkey. Before the deadline passed many did leave for the coast to board the boats, but a large number remained with the cry, “We’ll fight and die to the last man, but we won’t leave our forests and mountains” — When the deadline passed there were an estimated 200,000 Circassians still remaining in the mountains, including women and children. The Russians assembled a force of around 500,000 including heavy cannons and prepared for what would be the final assault.
What proceeded was little more than slaughter. Heavily outnumbered and outgunned, with little ammunition and dwindling food supplies the stories of massacres are numerous. Auls would be bombarded with cannon from afar. When the residents fled to the forests, the forests would be bombarded. If after a couple of weeks any remaining population built makeshift accommodation elsewhere, they would be flushed from it and it too burned. On their way the Russians ensured that no scrap of food was left, trampling and burning crops, killing livestock. Even so the Circassians fought on. In one instance a Russian officer noted that unarmed Circassians charged, “literally throwing themselves on our bayonets” — The charge was not without some reason, they were charging so that others behind them might have time to flee.
Those who fled fared poorly. In the midst of winter with temperatures well below zero many succumbed to cold, hunger and disease on the route to the coast. French agent A. Fonville noted “Such starvation raged that the unfortunate inhabitants, driven to extremes, ate tree leaves. This abject poverty gave rise to typhus, which resulted in a horrific number of deaths” — Indeed, other accounts talk of groups of bodies huddled together, men, women and children, lining the roadsides.
“The war was conducted with implacable, merciless severity. We went forward step by step, irrevocably cleansing the mountaineers to the last man from any land the soldiers set foot on.” — Mikhail Venyukov
The ports and the boats to Turkey
“Field Commander Prince Bariatinsky, satisfied with the submission of the Lezgins and Chechens, set as the goal of the war in the west Caucasus the unconditional expulsion of the Circassians from their mountain refuges. Such was the plan of the war in its last four years” — General Rostislav Fadeev
The situation at the ports along the Black Sea where the Circassians were being herded was one of extreme deprivation. They were joined by their Abkhaz allies, who having been also driven from their homeland were to be subject to the same fate. Large numbers started to arrive during a harsh winter at the end of 1863. Adolph Berzhe estimated around half a million refugees were sent to the ports, but he himself said that this number could be far higher. At first the Russian Emperor would give no aid to the people there, but he eventually granted an amount of 100,000 rubles. The journey across the waters would cost each person a reported five rubles. Even if the aid money was delivered it would not have been enough, in fact most of the money lined the pockets of corrupt Russian officers.
The Otttoman Porte had expected refugees, but were unprepared for the sheer number. Boats were sent, but too small and in insufficient quantity for the purpose of transporting so many people. Untold numbers died of malnutrition and diseasee waiting on the shores. One eye witness, I. Abromov reported “The entire north-eastern coast of the Black Sea was strewn with corpses and the dying, among which lay the remaining mass of the living”. Another report, by A. Berge said that at Novorossiysk port, of some 25,000 who arrived in November of 1864 only 15,000 left for Turkey. 10,000 dead, merely waiting for transport.
The boats themselves were overloaded. Boats suitable for carrying at most fifty people would be loaded with three or four hundred. Often they would sink, and even the boats that managed the journey would arrive with half or more of their human cargo dead or dying. Some reports suggest that unscrupulous skippers would sail out to sea, rob the passengers and throw them overboard, then return to pick up yet more. What is for certain is that many thousands were washed up on shore by the tides.
Arrival in Turkey
“Since the beginning of the eviction, up to 247,000 of them have arrived in Trebizond and its environs. Now remain 63,290 persons. The average death rate is from 180 to 250 persons per day” — Genearl Moshnin, Russian Consul
What awaited those fleeing on arrival in Turkey was not the place of refuge they had expected, but yet more horror. The Porte had no plans in place for such large numbers and suffering from internal problems itself had little wish to spend large amounts of money in aid.
The places the refugees were placed could hardly even be called camps, providing little or no shelter. Disease, which had already been a major problem from the shores of the Black Sea, quickly spread in the unsanitary conditions. One French doctor, Sulpice Fauvel, estimated that as many as two thirds of the refugees died from disease in 1864.
The Numbers Game
“Yes, I believe that the concept of genocide against the Circassians was justified. To understand why we are talking about the genocide, you have to look at history. During the Russian-Caucasian war, Russian generals not only expelled the Circassians, but also destroyed them physically. Not only killed them in combat but burned hundreds of villages with civilians. Spared neither children nor women nor the elderly. The entire fields of ripe crops were burned, the orchards cut down, so that the Circassians could not return to their habitations. A destruction of civilian population on a massive scale is it not a genocide?” — Alexander Ohtov, President of the Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Russian Circassians
In his book, The Circassian Genocide, Walter Richmond states that as of 1860 a population estimate of Circassians in the North West Caucasus of between 1.25M and 1.5M is not unreasonable. Of those some 600,000 potentially died during the last four years of military operations, with perhaps 600 to 700 thousand who made it to a ship on the Black Sea. As we have seen, many more would die beyond that point.
The population of Circassians remaining in their Motherland after the genocide was 100,000.
References and Links
The Circassian Genocide, Walter Richmond.
The Northwest Caucasus. Past, present, and future. Walter Richmond
Circassian History, Kadir I. Natho
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