|Part of the Caucasian War|
Caucasian Imamate (Western)
|Commanders and leaders|
Tsar Nicholas I,
Tsar Alexander I,
Tsar Alexander II,
Sefer Bey Zanuko
The Naibs who ruled over Shamil's west
|Casualties and losses|
|About 500,000 indigenous highland Caucasians were expelled mainly to the Ottoman Empire, and a much smaller number to Persia. An unknown number of those expelled died during deportation.|
The Russo-Circassian War (1763-1864) involved a series of battles and wars in Circassia, the northwestern part of the Caucasus, during the course of the Russian Empire's conquest of the Caucasus. Those who use the term Russian-Circassian War take its starting date as 1763, when the Russians began establishing forts, including at Mozdok, to be used as springboards for conquest;  and only ending approximately 101 years later, with the signing of loyalty oaths by Circassian leaders on 2 June [O.S. 21 May] 1864. The alternative term used, the Caucasian War, commonly refers only to the period 1817-1864.
The Russo-Circassian War was the western phase of the Caucasus War of 1817-1864, during which Russia gained control of the free mountaineers of the Caucasus mountains. The eastern phase was the Murid War of 1829-1859. For background see Russian conquest of the Caucasus. There does not appear to be a proper history of this war in any language. The best accounts in English are by Richmond and Henze (see references).
After the end of the War the Ottoman Empire offered to harbour the Circassians who did not wish to accept the rule of a Christian monarch, and many emigrated to Anatolia, the heart of the Ottoman territory and ended up in modern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Iraq and Kosovo. Different smaller numbers ended up in neighbouring Persia. Various Russian, Caucasus, and Western historians agree on the figure of ca. 500,000 inhabitants of the highland Caucasus being deported by Russia in the 1860s. A large fraction of them died in transit from disease. Some of those that remained loyal to Russia were settled into the lowlands, the left-bank of the Kuban River.
Circassia (Cherkessia in Russian) refers to a region the majority of whose inhabitants before the 1860s were the Adygey (Adyghey, Adyghe) ethnic group, known to the West as Circassians. This region consisted for the most part of the region between the westward flowing Kuban River to the north and the Caucasus mountain range to the south, although the Kuban River constituted only part of the northern boundary. The Circassians were never politically united for a long period. The western bulk of Circassia, they belonged to any of about ten tribes, living in communities headed by chieftains. In the east of Circassia were two feudal polities, Greater Kabardá and Lesser Kabardá.
In the late 1550s, the ruler of one of the Kabardás, Temryuk (or Temriuk), struck a politico-military alliance with Tsar Ivan IV of Russia ("Ivan the Terrible"), for mutual assistance against expansionist attacks by the Persian and Ottoman Empires. In this period of history, the Circassians were Christians; Islam did not begin to penetrate Circassia until the following century. In the 1560s Ivan and Temryuk directed forts to be constructed, including Tumnev at the western end of Circassian lands and at Sunzha Ostrog at the mouth of the Sunzha river, at the eastern end of Circassian lands in Kabardia. Russia thereafter left the region alone except for the Caspian coast.
The Russo-Circassian war did not have a clear beginning. There were no great battles or campaigns. Instead fighting slowly increased as more and more Russians moved south. The war consisted of hundreds of small raids and counter-raids. Both sides would drive away livestock and steal what they could. The Russians specialized in burning villages. In many cases a tribe or faction would make a nominal submission and then return to fighting when they chose. Groups of Circassians would fight each other, individuals would desert to the other side and there was much trading with the enemy.
From about 1777 the Russians built a line of forts from Mozdok northwest to Azov. Before 1800 the main Russian pressure was on the Kabardians near the southeast end of this line. The first forts appeared along the western Kuban in 1778. The presence of Cossacks in former grazing lands slowly converted traditional raiding from a kind of ritualized sport into a serious military struggle. In 1785 Sheikh Mansur gained a position of power in Chechnya, preaching holy war against the invaders. He moved west to Circassia, where the Russians captured him when Anapa fell in 1791. During the Russo-Turkish War (1787-1792) the Russians made three attempts to take Anapa by crossing Circassian territory. The second attempt proved a disaster when the Circassians harassed the Russians going and coming. The Kuban Line took its basic form in 1792/93. Black Sea Cossacks (former Zaporozhians) were settled north of the lower Kuban in 1792/93 and Don Cossacks on the Kuban bend in 1794.
In 1800, as part of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, Russia annexed eastern Georgia and by 1806 held Transcaucasia from the Black Sea to the Caspian. Since Russia also claimed the steppes north of the mountains its claims were divided by the free mountaineers of the Caucasus. Russia had to hold the Georgian Military Highway in the center so the war against the mountaineers was divided into eastern and western parts.
Kabardia: The Russian conquest of Kabardia was almost a separate conflict from the conquest of Circassia proper. It both began and ended before the main conflict along the Kuban. Kabardia extended across the central third of the north Caucasus piedmont from east of Circassia proper to the Chechen country. Mozdok on the western Terek was founded in Kabardian territory and a line of forts was run down the Terek to Kizlyar. In 1771 the Russians defeated the Kabardians on the Malka River and subjugated some of Lesser Kabardia. In 1777/78 the line was extended from Mozdok northwest to Azov. In 1779 the Kabardians were defeated, losing 50 princes and 350 nobles and a frontier was established along the Malka and Terek. The establishment of the Georgian Military Road (Mozdok-Vladikavkaz-Tiflis) effectively cut off Lesser Kabardia. About 1805 a major plague struck the north Caucasus and carried away a large part of the Kabardian population. (One source says the Kabardians were reduced from 350,000 "before the war" to 50,000 in 1818. Another gives populations of 200,000 in 1790 and 30,000 in 1830.) In 1805 General Grigoriy Glazenap burned eighty villages. In 1810 about 200 villages were burned. In 1817 the frontier was pushed to the Sunzha River and in 1822 a line of forts was built from Vladikavkaz northwest through Nalchik to the Pyatigorsk area. After 1825 fighting subsided.
Freedom and the state: It might seem that the Circassians should have formed an organized state to resist the Russians, but the fact remains that the disorganized Circassians held out longer than the organized Murids. The Turks had a Wali at Anapa or Sujuk-Kale who tried to unite some of the tribes under Ottoman control. Sheik Mansur tried something similar at about the same time. Richmond says that in 1791 the Natukhai commoners peacefully took power from the aristocrats. A similar attempt among the Shapsugs led to a civil war which the commons won in 1803. Jaimoukha says that in 1770-1790 there was a class war among the Abadzeks that resulted in the extermination of the princes and the banishment of most of the nobility. Henceforth the three west-central "democratic" tribes, Natukhai, Shapsugs and Abedzeks, who probably formed the majority of the Circassians, managed their affairs through assemblies with only informal powers. This made things difficult for the Russians since there were no chiefs who might lead their followers into submission. Sefer-Bei, the three Naibs and the British adventurers (see below) all tried to organize the Circassians - with limited success. About 1860 the Ubyks, Shapsugs and Abadzeks briefly formed a national assembly at Sochi.
Black Sea Coast: Velyaminov described the Caucasus War as a great siege. The Russians had a line of forts along the Kuban River to the north and east, but the Black Sea coast was open. After they lost Crimea the Turks held fortified ports along the coast: Anapa, Sujuk-Kale (Novorossisk) Gelendzhik, Pitsunda, Sukhum-Kale and possibly others. Anapa was the most important since the others were backed by mountains. Russia captured Anapa in 1790 and 1807 but returned it for diplomatic reasons. In the Russo-Turkish War (1828-1829) it was taken and kept. The fate of the other ports is not clear. Turkey now had no bases on the northeast Black Sea and renounced its claim to the Circassian coast, but the diplomatic status of inland Circassia remained unclear. About this time Russia began a rather ineffectual blockade of the coast, but some 120-150 boats regularly traded between Turkey and the Circassian coast. In 1836 the Russians captured a British gun-runner, the Vixen, and for the next few years several British adventurers operated in Circassia. Their exact relation to the British government is uncertain. The Russians strengthened the blockade by building forts along the coast which evolved into the Black Sea Defensive Line. These included Gelendzhik (1831), Adler (1837), Novorossisk, Tuapse and Aleksandriya (present-day Sochi) - all constructed in 1838 - and others. Soldiers stationed in them did not dare to venture far beyond the walls. In 1840 and 1841 several were captured by the mountaineers. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856 they were all abandoned and later re-established.
Sefer-Bei and the three Naibs: In November 1830 the Natukhais and Shapsugs sent a delegation to Turkey under Sefer-Bei Zanoko. The delegation returned with a few weapons and Sefer-Bei remained in Istanbul.
It seems obvious that the Circassians and Chechen-Dagestanis should have united or at least cooperated against the Russians, but this did not happen. Shamyl sent three naibs (deputies) to work with the Circassians, but his authoritarian Islam did not fit well with Circassian freedom and his rather egalitarian theocracy did not suit the Circassian nobility. The first Naib was Haji-Mohammad (1842-1844) who reached Circassia in May 1842. His plan was to build an Islamic state and not to attack the Russians prematurely. By October he was accepted as leader by the Shapsugs and some of the Natukhais. Next February he moved south to Ubyk country but failed because he took sides in a civil conflict. By late 1843 he had the allegiance of the Natukhais, Shapsugs and the Beslanys and sent raiding parties as far as Stavropol. In the spring of 1844 he was defeated by the Russians, withdrew into the mountains and died there in May. The second naib was Suleiman Efendi (1845) who arrived among the Abadzeks in February 1845. His main goal was to rise a Circassian force and to lead it back to Chechnya, but the Circassians did not want to lose their best fighters. After twice failing to lead his recruits through the Russian lines he returned to Shamyl in August and ultimately joined the Russians. In the spring of 1846 Shamyl invaded Kabardia. The Kabardians failed to rise and he withdrew. The third naib, Muhammad Amin (1849-1859), arrived in spring of 1849 and had much greater success. He established a standing army, started the manufacture of gunpowder and built the first jails. By mid-1851 he was greatly weakened but by the spring of 1853 he had regained control. The Crimean War began in October 1853 and in the following spring Sefer-Bei (1854-1859) returned from Istanbul to Sukhum-Kale. Meeting no success he moved to Anapa where the Natukhais accepted him as leader. Amin went to Istanbul to sort things out. Receiving no support he returned to Circassia and the two would-be leaders began to fight, the Natukhais supporting Sefer-Bei and the Abadzeks and Bzhedugs supporting Amin. When the allies asked Sefer-Bei to turn over Anapa he replied that it was sovereign Circassian territory, thereby breaking with his protectors. When the Crimean War ended in 1856 Russia had a free hand in Circassia and the two leaders continued to fight both the Russians and each other. They agreed that the Porte should appoint a single leader; Amin went to Istanbul, but Sefer-Bei stayed and worked against him. Amin returned, went again to Istanbul, was arrested at the request of the Russian ambassador, was sent to Syria, escaped and returned to Circassia by the end of 1857. On 20 November 1859, following the defeat of Shamyl, Amin submitted. He stayed in Shapsug country for a while, then emigrated to Istanbul. Sefir-Bei died in December of that year. His son Karabatyr took over but our sources do not say what happened to him.
Kuban River: Before 1830 Russia basically maintained a siege line along the Kuban River. There was constant raiding by both sides but no change in borders. In the late 1830s Russia gained increasing control of the coast. After 1845 Vorontsov may have eased the pressure on Circassia to concentrate on Shamyl. The Crimean War drew away resources but its end in 1856 and the defeat of Shamyl in 1859 allowed the shift of Russian troops to the Circassian front. By 1860 the Russians had seventy thousand soldiers in the northwest Caucasus, but we do not seem to have figures for the earlier period. Cossack stanitsas appeared around Anapa from 1836. About 1838 an unsuccessful attempt was made to run a line from the Kuban to Gelendzhik. From 1841 Cossack settlements were pushed west to the Laba River and by 1860 its valley was full of Cossack stanitsas. Maikop was founded in 1857. By 1859 the Russians had pushed about a third of the way south from the Kuban.
Intensifying conflict: In response to persistent Circassian (and other Caucasian) resistance and the failure of their previous policy of building forts, the Russian military began using (first in the East, then later in the West) a strategy of disproportionate retribution for raids. With the goal of imposing stability and authority beyond their current line of control and over the whole Caucasus, Russian troops retaliated by destroying villages or any place that resistance fighters were thought to hide, as well as employing assassinations and executions of whole families. Understanding that the resistance was reliant on being fed by sympathetic villages, the Russian military also systematically destroyed crops and livestock. These tactics further enraged natives and intensify resistance to Russian rule. The Russians began to counter this by modifying the terrain, in both the environment and the demographics. They cleared forests by roads, destroyed native villages, and often settled new farming communities of Russians or pro-Russian Caucasian peoples. In this increasingly bloody situation, the wholesale destruction became a standard action by the Russian army and Cossack units, and was adopted by Circassians and other highland groups against Russian or pro-Russian villages. In 1840, Karl Friedrich Neumann estimated the Circassian casualties to be around one and a half million.
Nevertheless, the Circassian resistance continued. Villages that had previously accepted Russian rule were found resisting again, much to the ire of Russian commanders. Furthermore, the Circassian cause began to arouse sympathies in the West, especially Britain, Russia's imperial rival, and in the Crimean War they cooperated with Britain.
In 1857, Dmitry Milyutin first published the idea of mass expulsions of Circassian natives. Miliutin argued that the goal was not to simply move them so that their land could be settled by productive farmers, but rather that "eliminating the Circassians was to be an end in itself--to cleanse the land of hostile elements". The decision was made at a meeting in Vladikazkaz in October 1860. The motion was proposed by General Yevdokimov and supported by Baryatinsky and Miliutin, only Filipson objecting. Tsar Alexander II endorsed the plans, and Milyutin later would become the minister of war in 1861, and from the early 1860s expulsions began occurring in the Caucasus (first in the Northeast and then in the Northwest). The tribes were to be given the choice of emigrating to the Ottoman Empire or of settling north in the Kuban. In practice most were simply driven to the coast.
Yevdokimov was tasked with enforcing the policy, using mobile columns of Russian riflemen and Cossack cavalry. "In a series of sweeping military campaigns lasting from 1860 to 1864 ... the northwest Caucasus and the Black Sea coast were virtually emptied of Muslim villagers. Columns of the displaced were marched either to the Kuban [River] plains or toward the coast for transport to the Ottoman Empire. ... One after another, entire Circassian tribal groups were dispersed, resettled, or killed en masse" Such tactics had been in use for a number of years. Count Leo Tolstoy, the future author of War and Peace, saw action in the war in 1850-51. He described how "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" Similar atrocities committed in the final campaign of 1859-1864 were recorded by contemporary Russian observers and British consuls. A consul Dickson recounted in an 1864 dispatch: "A Russian detachment having 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. The detachment in question belongs to Count Evdokimoff's Army, and is said to have advanced from the Pshish valley. As the Russian troops gain ground on the [Black Sea] Coast, the natives are not allowed to remain there on any terms, but are compelled either to transfer themselves to the plains of the Kouban or emigrate to Turkey".
The drives seem to have started in 1861-62. Some wealthy Circassians had already left in 1860 and 10,000 Kabardians in 1861. In April 1862 15,000 Temirgoys were driven to the coast and in May the pacified Natukhajs. In May 1862 a commission was formed to organize the deportation. Each deported family was to be given 10 rubles. The number of people expelled was several hundred thousand, with a large percent dying on the march, waiting on the beach, on overloaded boats or of plague after arrival on the Turkish shore. The future Kuban Oblast lost 94 percent of its population. Richmond estimates population changes in the northwest Caucasus as follows: (1835 and 1882, in thousands) Circassians: at least 571 to 36 and Kabardians: 15 to 15;; non Circassian Abazas : 70 to 10; and Karachays: 24 to 17. Russians and Ukrainians however increased: 110 to 926. The surviving Circassians were south of Krasnodar, inside the Laba River bend and on the west side of the upper Kuban and some Shapsugs around on the Black Sea coast.
The last battle of the war occurred at Qbaada Meadow near Sochi on 27 May 1864 when the Russians defeated a group of Ubyks. On 2 June Evdokimov declared the war over and held a victory parade. In 1869 the place was settled by Russians and named Krasnaya Polyana.
This expulsion, along with the actions of the Russian military in acquiring Circassian land, has given rise to a movement among descendants of the expelled ethnicities for international recognition that genocide was perpetrated. Some sources state that hundreds of thousands of others died during the exodus. Several historians use the term 'Circassian massacres' for the consequences of Russian actions in the region.
Circassian historians cite casualty figures that lie near the four million mark, while official Russian figures are near 300,000. The Russian census of 1897 records only 150,000 Circassians, one tenth of the original number, still remaining in the now conquered region. In reference to the actions of the Russian army during the conflict, Russian President Boris Yeltsin stated in May 1994 that resistance to the tsarist forces was legitimate; however, he did not recognize "the guilt of the tsarist government for the genocide."
Circassians have attempted to attract global media attention to the Circassian Genocide and its relation to the city of Sochi (where the Olympics were held in 2014, on the official anniversary of the genocide) by holding mass protests in Vancouver, Istanbul and New York during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.
On October 2006, the Adyghe (Circassian) organizations of many countries in North America, Europe and the Middle East sent the president of the European Parliament a letter requesting recognition of the genocide.
Some sources state that three million Circassians were evicted from Circassia in a period lasting until 1911. Other sources cite upwards of two million Circassian refugees fleeing Circassia by 1914 and entering nations and regions such as the Balkans, Turkey, what was the Ottoman Empire in what was known as the Muhajir, Iran, the Qajar dynasty also as Muhajir, Syria, Lebanon, what is now Jordan, Kosovo, Egypt (Circassians had been part of the Mamluk armies since the Middle Ages), Israel (in the villages of Kfar Kama and Rikhaniya, since 1880) and as far afield as upstate New York and New Jersey.
Some 90 percent of people with Circassian descent now live in other countries, primarily in Turkey, Jordan and other countries of the Middle East, with only 500,000-700,000 remaining in what is now Russia. The depopulated Circassian lands were resettled by numerous ethnic groups, including Russians, Ukrainians and Georgians. Friction developed between the latter group and the remaining indigenous people in Abkhazia, a factor later contributing to friction between the two ethnic groups and the resulting War in Abkhazia.