North-Western Caucasus (Circassia)

The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 signaled the beginning of Russian expansion in the Caucasus. The war ended with the defeat of the Khanate of Crimea, a once strong state under the suzerainty of the Ot-toman Empire that, since the middle of the 15th century, formally included most of the North Caucasus. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) gave Russia the Greater Kabardia and put the remaining territory of the Khanate of Crimea, including the Cis-kuban steppes, into the Russian sphere of influence.

Map A1

The full annexation of what re-mained of the Khanate by Russia in 1783 resulted in the Russification of the Cis-kubania that was cleansed of its mixed Tatar-Nogai-Circassian population and settled by the Zaporogian Cossacks de-ported from the Ukraine. The new Russian Ciskubanian possessions was reorganized as Black Sea Cossack territory, which be-came the first bastion of Russian colonization of Circassia.

From 1783 to 1821, the river Kuban remained Russo-Turkish and, de-facto, the Russo-Circassian frontier due to the fact that except the narrow strip of Black Sea coast from Gagra to Anapa, the Transkuban Circassia was only nominally dependent on Ottoman Turkey, and Circassian tribes and clans enjoyed significant autonomy.

Map A2b

The situation changed drastically after the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-1829, when the Treaty of Adrianople not only confirmed Russian sovereignty over Georgian states, but also gave her the eastern Black Sea coast from Poti to Taman. Ottoman Turkey also dropped all claims to the now-landlocked Circassia. oon after that, the government of imperial Russia launched the program aimed not only at the full absorption of Circassian lands, but at wiping out their inhabitants. Even before the Treaty of Adrianople, the suppression of Kabardian resistance (1818ă1825) was followed by the cleansing of Kabardians and Nogais from Pyatigoria (the territory between rivers Kuma and Malka) and the right bank of Kuban. In 1840-1841, following an abortive Circassian attempt to reconquer their Black Sea coast, the unofficial Russo-Circassian frontier was forcibly moved from Kuban to the river Laba. That process was also accompanied by driving the Circassians out of the secured strip of land. The final stage of the liquidation of Transkuban Circassia occurred in 1853-1864, when the Circassians, after desperate attempts to find a compromise with the Czar, joined the jihad launched by Imam Shamil in northeastern Caucasus. In 1861, Transkuban Circassians and Abazghians attempted to create a united Circassian state and obtain foreign aid and recognition. However, that attempt failed and despite desperate resistance by the Circassians, the territory between the river Laba and the Black Sea was conquered by Russian imperial troops and Cossacks by the end of May 1864.

Map C1

During the conquest of Transkuban Circassia, the Russian army committed mass murders of the local inhabitants, including women and children, even in the areas where some of the tribes and clans did not resist the invasion. Most of the Circassian villages and farms were ruined, and the survivors were ordered either to settle far away from the mountains and the sea coast or to leave for Turkey. Within a few months after the Russian victory, between 400,000 and 1,500,000 Circassians, Abazghians, and other aboriginal residents of Transkubania were expelled. Reportedly, thousands of them perished during the exodus. Their territory was settled by the Black Sea Cossacks, Christian refugees from Turkey (predominantly Armenians and Greeks), and colonists from central Russia and Eastern Europe.

The Russian government also attempted to force Muslim Abkhazians out of the recently annexed Principality of Abkhazeti. That plan was only partially fulfilled due to the activity of Georgian Orthodox priests, who performed mass conversion of the Abkhazians, thus saving them from deportation.

Here, it may be important to mention that Russian invasion and methods of pacification caused irreversible changes in the Circassians’ culture. Before the beginning of Russian expansion, the majority of Circassians hesitated between Islam and Christianity. By the middle of the 19th century, they unequivocally turned to Islam, largely due to the fact that Ottoman Turkey was the only country that offered some support of their case.

Map C2

Table 1 below shows the distribution of ethnic Circassians in the world, as of the middle of 1980ies (approximately 120 years after the ethnic cleansing)

UntitledTable 1: Circassians in the USSR and diasporas, as of 1986.

The information regarding the diasporas is questionable because the Soviet researchers were forced to minimize the amount of “foreign Circassians” and also due to the fact that in Turkey and other countries many Circassians had a tendency to refrain from demonstrating their ethnic identity.

Table 2 based on a recent article from Wikipedia and supported by a number of references to the variety of sources provides drastically different picture that may be much closer to the reality:

Untitled 2

In any case, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the majority of Circassians were expelled from their lands and forced into life in diaspora. Maps B1 and B2 also demonstrate the results of the ethnic cleansings in North-Western Caucasus and the expulsion of Circassians and Abasghians.

After the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, the remaining Circassians were given some territorial autonomy. However, their remaining ethnic territory was purposefully split into three different autonomous formations: Adyghea, Kabardia-Balkaria, and Circassia (since 1957, Karachay-Circassia). The years of 1937-1944 were marked by the deportation of unreliable ethnic groups from northwestern Caucasus to the labor camps of Siberia and Central Asia. The deported peoples included Germans, Greeks, and Turkic-speaking Bassian people (Karachays, Balkars, Besenghins, Khulams, Cheghems, and Urusbiys) who were aboriginals of the mountainous area of historical Circassia between upper Kuban and Kabardia. Despite their amnesty and permission to return to their tribal lands in 1955-1956, the deportations severely damaged their economic and cultural life and caused considerable loss of human lives.

Map A4

North-Eastern Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan)

From 1556 and until 1785 the river Terek served as a stable frontier between Russia and the tribes, clans and early princely states of Daghestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia. The Expansion of Russian Empire into North-Eastern Caucasus started after the Russo=Persian War of 1722-23, incorporation of Eastern Georgia into Russian Empire in 1785-1801 (see below) and the Russo-Chechen-Daghestani war of 1785-91 (also known as the uprising under Sheikh  Mansur). The Russian annexation of western Caspian Sea coast (1723-1813), Eastern Georgia (1801) and Northern Azerbaijan (1804-1806) made Chechnya and mountainous Daghestan not only landlocked but completely isolated (see Maps A1 and A2).

In 1818 Russian governor of the Caucasus Alexey Ermolov declared Chechnya and Daghestan parts of the empire and moved the “military border” from Terek to river Sunja. That signalled the expulsion of Chechen and Ingush people from the area between Sunja and Terek and the establishment of Cossack settlements in the cleansed area. That launched the war between the mountaineers of North-Eastern Caucasus and Russian Empire that lasted from 1818 to 1825 and from 1833 to 1964 (in fact, the hostilities were ceased in 1859 after the capture of imam Shamil). The war resulted in the establishment of Imamate in Chechnya and mountainous Daghestan that, in turn, finalized the conversion of the peoples of N-W Caucasus from Christianity to radical Islam.


General Alexey Ermolov

Although the “pacification” of North-Western Caucasus in the middle of the 19th century was accompanied by mass murder of the Chechens on the basis of “collective responsibility” it did not result in mass ethnic cleansing of the area. One of the reasons for that could be the fact that the direction of Russian expansion to south-east of the main Caucasus range was rather secondary one, in contrast to the expansion to the south-west in the direction of Constantinople and the straits.

After the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917 and in the course of the Russian Civil War, it was the North-Eastern Caucasus where an attempt was made to establish a state of the Caucasus Mountaneers (the Mountaneer Republic that in various forms existed from 1918 to 1920). The re-establishment of imperial Russia reborn in the form of the Soviet Union in the area resulted in giving the peoples of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Daghestan limited territorial autonomy that did not satisfy the majority of mountaineers. Some forms of guerilla warfare against Ruissian authorities continued until the outbreak of World War II and the Chechen uprising of 1940-43 resulted in mass deportation of Chechen and Ingush people to Siiberia and Central Asia in 1944. The return of the deported people to their native lands in 1955-56 marked the period of relative stability that lasted until “the Chechen Revolution of 1991” and the outbreak of the First Chechen war in 1994. Both events were characterised by numerous war crimes and heavy human losses the analysis of which goes beyond the frameworks of this essay.

Author: Andrew Andersen

First time published in the book Atrocities, Massacres, and War Crimes: An Encyclopedia

Further reading:

Avtorkhanov, Abdurakhman. Narodoubiystvo w SSSR: Ubijstvo chechenskogo  naroda (Munich, 1952).

Brook, Solomon. Naselenie Mira: Etnodemographicheskij Spravochnik (Moscow, 1986)

Darby, H.C. and Fullard, Harold (Eds.) The New Cambridge Modern History Atlas (London,1970).

Fadeev, Rostislav. Shestdesiat let Kavkazskoj vojny (St. Petersburg, 2012).

Herberstein, Sigismund. Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Antwerpen, 1557).

Hewsen, Richard. Armenia: A Historical Atlas (Chicago and London, 2001).

Neumann, Karl Friedrich. Russland Und Die Tscherkessen (Stuttgart und Tuebingen, 1840).

Richmond, Walter. The Northwest Caucasus: Past, present, future (New York and London, 2008).

Shenfield, Stephen. “The Circassians: a forgotten genocide?” in Levene, Mark and Roberts, Penny (Eds.), The Massacre in History (Oxford and New York, 1999).

Tsutsiev, Artur. Atlas of the Ethno-Political History of the Caucasus (Yale, 2014).

Uyar, Mesut; Erickson, Edward J.  A military history of the Ottomans: from Osman to Atatürk (Santa Barbara, Denver, Oxford, 2009).