Defeat and Deportation

            Even before their final victory over the Circassians the Russian government had decided to deport the majority to the Ottoman Empire and settle their lands with Cossacks. In the fifth of his “Letters from the Caucasus” General Rostislav Fadeev claimed that “Field Commander Prince Bariatinksy, 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.”[1] Fadeev was apparently referring to a meeting of the Caucasus commanders in October 1860 in Vladikavkaz, the subject of which was the resolution of the western Circassian question. According to Dmitry Miliutin, only  Filipson argued for a humane approach to the Circassians:

In Filipson’s opinion, gentle measures should be taken with the help of Muhammad Amin to achieve the same level of submission throughout all the west Caucasus that was achieved in relation to the Abadzekhs and Natukhais, attempting to consolidate our power in the region with only a few fortified stations, the laying of roads, clearing of forests, and the establishment of an administrative system in accord with the way of life and mores of the indigenous tribes, in a humanistic spirit [ . . . ] .[2]

 

General Nikolai Yevdokimov forwarded the notion of removing the Circassians from their homeland completely:

In Yevdokimov’s opinion, our forces should first of all be directed against the Shapsugs, to clean (ochistit’) a wide swath along the foothills and then to become established along the ridge of the Black Mountains, beginning from the headwaters of the Laba and Belaya and then to the west; and in this manner, squeezing the mountain population, force them to accede to our demands [ . . . ] to compel them either to resettle in the open lowlands or leave for Turkey [ . . . ] .[3]

 

Bariatinksy and Miliutin agreed with Yevdokimov and the plan was adopted. On 10 May 1862 Alexander II officially approved of the plan. The “option” of resettling in the lowlands was never serious. The Russian High Command was aware that the Abadzekhs, Shapsugs and Ubykhs would never accept this proposal and would fight until completely defeated. Yevdokimov considered the few thousand Circassians who remained in the North Caucasus a nuisance and actively worked to reduce their numbers.[4] The notion of over one million of the most anti-Russian Circassians moving north of the Kuban River could not possibly have been proposed in earnest. Furthermore, the tribes who had already submitted to Russia were given no choice but simply driven to the coast and sent to Turkey.

            In 1861 a delegation from Istanbul including one British representative arrived in Circassia and promised the remaining combatants that if they would unite as a single entity to combat the Russians the British, French and Turks would recognize them as a sovereign nation. Although at this point there was little reason to believe any foreign power would come to their aid, by summer the Circassians had established a mejlis (parliament) in Sochi, divided their remaining lands into 13 administrative units and began work on a single legal code. In 1862 the Circassians sent a delegation to Istanbul to request support, and the Circassian Committee there forwarded their petition to Paris and London. The petition was published in the British press and a wave of anti-Russian articles soon appeared. A multinational force was sent to Circassia but proved ineffective, and diplomatic efforts on the part of the British and French which continued until 1864 ultimately failed as well.[5]

            By 1860 some Circassians, primarily wealthy pro-Ottoman aristocrats, had emigrated to Turkey in small numbers. The first large scale emigration was by the Nogais: in 1858-59 approximately 30,000 left the Northwest Caucasus for the Ottoman Empire.[6] In 1861 approximately 10,000 Kabardins voluntarily emigrated. At the same time the Russians were driving the Besleneis, Temirgois, Kabardins who had wished to remain, and a portion of the Abazins to the coast.[7] Some 200 Beslenei families were resettled along the left bank of the Kuban where they and a few other remnants of the feudal tribes formed the foundation of the modern Cherkess of Karachaevo-Cherkessia.[8] By the following summer 28 Cossack settlements had been established in place of the deported Circassians. In May 1862 the Natukhais who had submitted in January 1860 were ordered to resettle north of the Kuban. Cossack settlements began to appear on their land, and the following year they were driven to the coast for deportation. By the time of the deportation of the Natukhais 111 Cossack settlements had been established.[9]

            The Abadzekhs, Shapsugs and Ubykhs, still naively expecting international assistance, attempted to stall the Russians. In the summer of 1861 a delegation comprised of Abadzekh Hassan Bidgev, Shapsug Islam Tkhaushev and Ubykh Haji Kerenduk-Berzek approached General Nikolai Yevdokimov, commander of the Right Flank, with a proposal for complete submission if the Russians would allow them to remain in their homelands. Yevdokimov refused and demanded unconditional surrender, accusing the Abadzekhs of violating their previous treaty of submission. The delegation traveled to Tiflis to petition General Alexander Bariatinsky, who was absent. His deputy, Grigol Orbeliani, suggested the delegation petition Alexander himself, as the Emperor was planning a visit to the North Caucasus in September. On 16 September the delegation presented their petition to Alexander. Their terms differed little from previous offers: the tribes would accept Russian suzerainty on the condition that no more forts or roads were built on their territory. Alexander, obviously angered, replied that they had one month to decide whether to resettle north of the Kuban or emigrate to Turkey.[10]

            The delegation left without responding to Alexander’s ultimatum. Hemmed in from all sides, the unbowed Circassians, Ubykhs and Abazins retreated to the headwaters of the Psekups, Pshish and Psekha Rivers. On 10 May 1862 a special commission was created to work out the details of the deportation; it was decided that each deported family should be given 10 rubles compensation.[11] Poor families unable to offer resistance were rounded up and forced to march to the coast, and the resistance was slowly driven deep into the mountains by a vastly superior Russian force. Nevertheless, the mountaineers put up a fierce resistance and the Russians struggled to move forward at every step.[12] The Circassians suffered heavy losses; Russian officer I. Drozdov described the campaign of summer 1862 and the desperation of the Circassians:

The mountain was covered with the corpses of the hemmed in enemy . . . Unable to withstand this brilliant and unusual attack the mountaineers turned around and broke into total flight, abandoning their weapons, horses, and wounded on the road [ . . . ] .[13]

 

The entire day went badly for our enemies: they suffered heavy losses everywhere. Losses in our detachment did not exceed 30; among the mountaineers there were as many as 300 killed and wounded. The bodies of the dead and wounded mountaineers were scattered near our detachment’s position, and the mountaineers would have had to gather them under the guns of our line. Therefore the mountaineers sent a deputation the next morning with a request to gather their comrades’ bodies. This went on for days on end; the corpses, lying under the Caucasus sun for two days were already decomposing and emitted such a stench around the camp that it was impossible to breath [ . . . ] .[14]

 

 As the army moved forward, Cossack settlements were quickly built behind them. Special regiments were assigned to watch for any Circassians who might try to return to their homeland unnoticed. The winter of 1863-64 was particularly harsh; one can only speculate how many Circassians, either living in makeshift huts or in the open, perished as a result. On 21 May Yevdokimov considered the action completed, although his troops were still pursuing at least one family that had escaped capture.[15]

            The actual deportation was conducted with no concern for the welfare of the deportees. Starvation and disease raged among those waiting for transport. As Drozdov wrote:

On the road our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs while still alive [ . . . ] Those alive and healthy had no time to concern themselves with the dying; the Turkish skippers, out of greed, overloaded their boats with Circassians they received payment for like cargo to the shores of Asia Minor, and like cargo threw anyone who showed the slightest sign of illness overboard. The waves threw the corpses of these unfortunate souls onto the shores of Anatolia . . . Scarcely half of those who set out made it to their goal.[16]

 

Even after witnessing this horrific scene Drozdov managed to justify it:

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 [ . . . ] .[17]

 

Because the Russians were paying the Turkish captains for each Circassian they took, the boats were drastically overloaded; boats designed to carry 50 were loaded with as many as 200. Once out to sea many ships sank. Ultimately half of the Circassians who were forced to emigrate either died en route or shortly after arriving in Turkey; according to Ottoman reports as many as 180,000 more died shortly after their arrival.[18] The actual number of Circassians who were displaced is still a matter of speculation, although the commonly accepted figure is in excess of one million and perhaps significantly more. As for those remaining, the 1882 estimates of Circassian population in the Kuban Oblast’ are:[19]

Bzhedug

16,800

Beslenei

6,600

Egerukai

2,300

Khatukai

3,400

Makhosh

1,300

Natukhai

400

Shapsug

5,200

Total

36,000

 

            The entire Ubykh nation with the exception of a few who were moved to Kostroma province was expelled.[20] The vast majority of the Abazins, perhaps in excess of 50,000, were deported as well. The 1883 estimates of Abazin population in Kuban Oblast’  are:

Dudaruko

1334

Loov

963

Klych

121

Kyach

61

Biberdo

58

Jantamir

47

Other Tapanta

3869

Mdavei

876

Chegrei

828

Kizilbek

729

Tam

472

Mysylbai

481

Barakai

460

Bag

27

Total

10,326

 

The deportation resulted in a 94 percent reduction in the population of the region that would become Kuban Oblast’.[21]

            Was the deportation an act of genocide? Point (c) of the United Nations Convention on Genocide defines one form as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.”[22] Despite the reports of eyewitnesses such as Drozdov, the Russian command took no steps to alleviate the deaths resulting from their deportation efforts. The problem in the United Nations definition is the question of “calculation” of destruction. In the case of the Circassians, Abazins and Ubykhs there is no evidence that the intention of the Russian Empire was to destroy them as ethnic groups but rather simply to rid the Empire of their presence, or at least transfer them to less valuable lands for the benefit of ethnic Russians. General Rostislav Fadeev presents a long argument attempting to justify the deportation of the Circassians based upon the strategic value of the land they occupied and the danger their presence posed to the Russian Empire.[23] Willis Brooks has forwarded the argument that this perceived danger was the motivation behind the deportation, and this seems to be the actual case.[24] The Russians viewed the Circassians as even more irreconcilable to Russian authority than the Chechens because of their proximity to the Ottoman Empire, which would continue to incite them to rebellion. As Fadeev writes:

A fundamental difference exists between the eastern and western Caucasus in that the Circassians, owing to their position along the coast, could never be firmly consolidated into Russia as long as they remained in their homeland [ . . . ] The reeducation of a people is a centuries-long process, but in the pacification of the Caucasus the time had come for us, perhaps for the last time, perhaps only for a brief time, to complete one of the most vital tasks in Russian history [ . . . ].[25]

 

According to Fadeev, the needs of the Russian State superseded any humanitarian concerns and necessitated the elimination of the Circassians.

            Nevertheless, the deportations could still be viewed as “a case of ethnic cleansing carried out with brutal disregard for human suffering,” as Stephen D. Shenfield suggests in his analysis of this question.[26] Examining Russian stereotypes and drawing upon Norman Cohn’s “warrant for genocide” Shenfield concludes the Russian conception of the Circassians as a barbaric people constituted such a warrant and proposed that the deportations were in fact genocidal in nature.[27] Veliaminov certainly treated the mountaineers as little more than animals; at one point he offered a reward to his soldiers for the heads of mountaineers, which he sent to the Department of Anthropology of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg for study.[28] Caucasus historian Yakov Gordin explains this behavior:

For [Veliaminov], a student of the Encyclopedists and to some degree Montesquieu, the mountaineers’ way of life and their very worldview were in essence illegal and irrational. It was necessary either to exterminate them or force them to live correctly.[29]

 

As Fadeev noted, reeducating the Circassians so that they might “live correctly” was too slow a process, and so the Russians chose to eliminate them. Evidence exists of the premeditated nature of the deportation. In his memoirs Miliutin, who proposed deporting the Circassians from the mountains as early as 1857,[30] recalls: “The plan of action decided upon for 1860 was to cleanse [ochistit’] the mountain zone of its indigenous population [ . . . ]”[31]

            However, the Russians had the opportunity to kill all the Circassians outright, yet they chose to deport them. Additionally, several thousand Circassians were allowed to remain in Russia. While the case of the Abazins is essentially the same as that of the Circassians, the deportation of the Ubykhs did in fact result in their complete destruction as a nation. Although the Ubykh language is not extinct, there are no more native speakers. There is no trace of their culture in the Northwest Caucasus, and their descendants live scattered throughout the Middle East. Thus, the case of the Ubykhs presents the strongest evidence for a charge of genocide against the Russian administration. However, if one applies the UN definition it could still be argued that since the Russians did not intend to destroy the Ubykhs but simply deport them this action was not “genocidal” either. St. Petersburg was uninterested in the fate of the deported peoples but certainly did not wish to annihilate them. Judging from documents of the period, the Russians would have been content if every deported person made it successfully to Anatolia and proceeded to create a new homeland for themselves. It is unclear whether the St. Petersburg government understood that this was impossible, although it is clear that commanders such as Yevdokimov were aware of the huge number of deaths but continued the deportation process anyway. At the same time it is clear that if every single Circassian, Abazin and Ubykh had been deported and all died en route to Turkey the Russians would have been equally satisfied with the results. The bottom line is that they simply did not care what happened to these people as long as they were removed from Circassia. On the other hand, there is a conspicuous absence of details of the horrific conditions faced by the deportees in the reports of 1864 written by the local officials in charge of the deportation which could theoretically have caused the administration to take steps to minimize the catastrophe.[32] At the very least Yevdokimov and the military personnel involved in the deportation could be considered guilty of genocide as defined under Point (c) of the United Nations Convention.

            Paul B. Henze has raised perhaps the most significant aspect of the deportation of the Circassians, Abazins and Ubykhs:

The great exodus was the first of the violent mass transfers of population which this part of the world has suffered in modern times. Two generations later, tragedy began to overwhelm the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia. Millions of Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Kurds, and Nestorians were uprooted and hundreds of thousands died, at least during the commotion of the First World War and its aftermath. None of these ethnic disasters is entirely unrelated to the others.[33]

 

If one considers, as Henze proposes, that Russian actions in the 1860s set the precedent for future ethnic cleansings, then in terms of its ultimate consequences the deportation of the Circassians, Abazins and Ubykhs, officially sanctioned by Alexander II, was a unique crime against humanity, regardless of what term one wishes to attach to it.


 

[1] Fadeev, Kavkazskaia Voina, pp. 152-53.

[2] Quoted in Chirg, Razvitie Obshchestvenno-Politicheskogo Stroia Adygov, pp. 165-66.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 166.

[4] Ibid., p. 171.

[5] Kasumov, Genotsid Adygov, pp. 140-45.

[6] Ibid., p. 151.

[7] Tugan Khabasovich Kumikov. Vyselenie Adygov v Turtsiiu—Posledstvie Kavkazskoi Voiny. Nalchik: T. Kh. Kumikov, 1994, pp. 10-11.

[8] Kasumov, Genotsid Adygov, p. 150.

[9] Polovinkina, Cherkesiia—Bol’ Moia, pp. 157-58.

[10] Esadze, Pokorenie Zapadnogo Kavkaza i Okonchanie Kavkazskoi Voiny, pp. 354-57.

[11] Kumikov, Vyselenie Adygov v Turtsiiu, p. 12.

[12] For a detailed eyewitness description of this final phase of the war, see I. Drozdov, “Posledniaia Bor’ba s Gortsami na Zapadnom Kavkaze,” Kavkazskii Sbornik 2 (1877), pp. 387-457.

[13] Drozdov, “Posledniaia Bor’ba s Gortsami na Zapadnom Kavkaze,” p. 433.

[14] Ibid., p. 439.

[15] Yevdokimov’s reports are reproduced in Kumikov, Vyselenie Adygov v Turtsiiu, pp. 47-76.

[16] Drozdov. “Posledniaia Bor’ba s Gortsami na Zapodnom Kavkaze,” pp. 456-57.

[17] Ibid., p. 457.

[18] Polovinkina. Cherkesiia—Bol’ Moia. Istoricheskii Ocherk (drevneishee vremia—nachalo XX v.). Maikop: RIPO “Adygeia,” 1999: p. 169.

[19] Kabuzan, Neselenie Severnogo Kavkaza v XIX-XX Vekakh, p. 202.

[20] T. Tatlok. “The Ubykhs,” Sefer E. Berzeg, ed. Çerkes-Vubıhlar. Ankara: Kavkasya, 1998, p. 23.

[21] A. L. Narochnitskii, ed., Istoriia Narodov Severnogo Kavkaza (Konets XVIII v.-1917 g.). Moscow: Nauka, 1988, p. 280.

[22] Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Resolution 260 (III)A, United Nations General Assembly 9 December 1948, Article 2.

[23] Fadeev, Kavkazskaia Voina, pp. 149-55.

[24] Willis Brooks, “Russia’s Conquest and Pacification of the Caucasus: Relocation Becomes a Pogrom on the Post-Crimean Period,” Nationalities Papers 23.4 (1995), pp. 675-686.

[25] Fadeev, Kavkazskaia Voina, p. 152.

[26] Stephen D. Shenfield, “The Circassians: A Forgotten Genocide?” Mark Levene and Penny Roberts, eds. The Massacre in History. New York: Berghan Books, 1999, p. 154.

[27] Ibid., p. 156.

[28] Gordin, Kavkaz: Zemlia i Krov’, p. 166.

[29] Ibid., p. 197.

[30] Kasumov, Genotsid Adygov, p. 147. At one point Miliutin apparently proposed deporting the mountaineers to the Don River basin. See Valerii Dzidzoev, Natsional’nye Otnosheniia na Kavkaze. Vladikavkaz: SOGU, 1998, p. 93.

[31] Quoted in Chirg, Razvitie Obshchestvenno-Politicheskogo Stroia Adygov, p. 166.

[32] See, for example, Kumykov, Arkhivnye Materialy O Kavkazskoi Voine, pp. 149-281.

[33] Henze, “Circassian Resistance to Russia,” p. 111.

 

Copyright 2006, Walter Richmond. Not to be reproduced without written permission of author.