Ethnic cleansing of Circassians
The ethnic cleansing of Circassians refers to the massive annihilation, displacement, destruction and expulsion of the majority of the indigenous Circassians from historical Circassia, which roughly encompassed the major part of the North Caucasus and the northeast shore of the Black Sea. This occurred in the aftermath of the Caucasian War in the last quarter of the 19th century. The people displaced moved primarily to the Ottoman Empire and to a lesser extent Qajar Persia.
Circassians, the indigenous peoples of this region were cleansed from their homeland at the end of the Russo-Circassian War by victorious Russia. The expulsion was launched before the end of the war in 1864 and it was mostly completed by 1867. The peoples involved were mainly the Circassians (or Adyghe), Ubykhs, Chechens, Abkhaz, and Abaza.
This expulsion involved an unknown number of people, perhaps numbering hundreds of thousands. In any case, the majority of the people affected were expelled. The Russian army rounded up people, driving them from their villages to ports on the Black Sea, where they awaited ships provided by the neighboring Ottoman Empire. The explicit Russian goal was to expel the groups in question from their lands. Only a small percentage (the numbers are unknown) accepted resettlement within the Russian Empire. Circassian populations were thus variously dispersed, resettled, or in some cases killed en masse. An unknown number of deportees perished during the process. Some died from epidemics among crowds of deportees both while awaiting departure and while languishing in their Ottoman Black Sea ports of arrival. Others perished when ships underway sank during storms. According to the Russian government's own figures at the time, about 90 percent of the affected peoples were deported.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, although already making attempts in the early 18th century (such as by the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723)), the Russian Empire began actively seeking to expand its territory to the South at the expense of the neighboring Ottoman and Qajar empires, and thus aimed to incorporate the Caucasus into its domain. Some areas proved easier to incorporate than others, largely depending on the nature of local political structures. Eastern Georgia for example, comprising the most powerful and dominant Georgian regions of Kartli and Kakheti had been under intermittent Iranian suzerainty since 1555, but had declared themselves independent upon Nader Shah's death in 1747, while the Georgian king of the territories and former Iranian wali ("viceroy") Erekle II had ratified an alliance with Russia in 1783 (Treaty of Georgievsk) in which he formally and nominally abjured dependence on Iran, and put almost all his kingdom's suzerainty in the Russian hands, in the wake of any affairs, and most importantly, ambitions of Iran to reconquer Georgia into its territories. By this, and the consequences of the invasion and re-subjugation of Georgia into Iran in 1795, Russia found itself eventually able, through a chain of events, to easily annex Georgia in the early 19th century. This would be eventually ratified with Qajar Iran by the Treaty of Gulistan of 1813. Some territories, such as modern-day Armenia and Caucasian Azerbaijan, and southern Dagestan had powerful standing nobility, usually directly affiliated to the shah, and were directly conquered in wars with Qajar Iran, namely by the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813) and the Russo-Persian War (1826-1828). Others, such as Lower Kabarda and areas of Dagestan, which also had powerful nobility but had remained largely independent of empires, were incorporated by co-opting the local elite and incorporating them into the Russian nobility. Both of these types of areas proved relatively easy to incorporate. In Kartli-Kakheti, as briefly described above, the Russian government used a request by the late king Giorgi XII Bagrationi for similar autonomous incorporation as a pretext for outright annexation and deposing the royal family. The ruler of Imereti militarily resisted Russia, while revolts often led by dynasty members broke out in Kartli-Kakheti, and the Georgian territories as a whole were restive for much of the 19th century. The remaining areas of the Caucasus, those that were never yet conquered by outside empires and where power was not heavily concentrated, proved the hardest for the Russians to incorporate. It was to this category that most of Circassia belonged.
In Circassia, the Russians faced disorganized but continuous resistance. While Russia believed it held authority over Circassia based on the Ottomans ceding it in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, the Circassians considered this invalid, arguing that because their territory had been independent of the Ottomans, leaving Istanbul no right to cede it. While earlier relations between the Circassians and the Cossacks had often been cordial with extensive trade, the Circassians and other Caucasian peoples began systematically raiding Russian encampments and then disappearing. At the same time, as more Russian troops came to be stationed in the region, their own perceived needs (due to the difficulty of shipping materials back from Russia proper) tempted them to in turn raid native villages, further enraging the natives and producing cycles of retaliation.
The Russian military tried to impose authority by building a series of forts, but these forts in turn became the new targets of raids and indeed a number of times the highlanders actually captured and held the forts. Under Ermolov, the Russian military began using a strategy of disproportionate retribution for raids. With the goal of imposing stability and authority over the whole Caucasus, Russian troops retaliated by destroying villages where resistance fighters were thought to hide, as well as employing assassinations, kidnappings and the execution of whole families. Because the resistance was relying on sympathetic villages for food, the Russian military also systematically destroyed crops and livestock.
These tactics further enraged natives and intensified resistance to Russian rule. The Russian army was thus frustrated by a combination of highly mobile (often mounted) raiders and evasive guerrillas with superior terrain knowledge. The Circassian resistance continued, with villages that had previously accepted Russian rule often found resisting again. Furthermore, the Circassian cause began to arouse sympathies in the West, especially Britain, which they assisted and in the Crimean War. Imam Shamil in the Northeast Caucasus, meanwhile, had tried to win over their support for his own struggle against Russia on numerous occasions, but the Circassians were largely cold toward his overtures. After he surrendered to Russia, their resistance continued unabated.
The Russians countered the heavy Circassian resistance by modifying the terrain. They laid down a network of roads and cleared the forests around these 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 of villages became a standard tactic.
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". 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).
For her own part, Russia was eager to get rid of "unquiet" peoples and settle the area with Cossacks and other Christians. General Nikolai Yevdokimov advocated expelling the natives of the Western Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire. He wrote that "resettlement of intractable mountaineers" to Turkey would be the easiest way to bring the prolonged Caucasian War to an end, while giving freedom to those who "prefer death to allegiance to the Russian government". On the other hand, the Tsarist command was very much aware of the possibility of the migrants being used by Turkey as a strike force against Christian populations during the impending Russo-Turkish War. The Circassian resettlement plan was eventually agreed upon at a meeting of the Russian Caucasus commanders in October 1860 in Vladikavkaz and officially approved on May 10, 1862 by Tsar Alexander II.
The Ottomans sent emissaries to encourage emigration. The Ottomans hoped to increase the proportion of Muslims in regions where there were large Christian populations. Mountaineers were invited to "go to Turkey, where the Ottoman government would accept them with open arms and where their life would be incomparably better".
Local mullahs and chiefs favored resettlement, because they felt oppressed by the Russian administration. They feared that in order to gain full Russian citizenship they would have to convert to Christianity. Additionally, local chieftains were keen to preserve their ancient privileges and feudal rights that had been abolished throughout the Russian Empire by the Emancipation Manifesto in 1861. The obligatory conscription was also among the factors that worried these populations, although in fact they would never have been made subject to military draft.
"In this year of 1864 a deed has been accomplished almost without precedent in history: not one of the mountaineer inhabitants remains on their former places of residence, and measures are being taken to cleanse the region in order to prepare it for the new Russian population." – Main Staff of the Caucasian Army
After the surrender of Imam Shamil (Chechnya and Dagestan) in 1859, Russia's war of conquest in the North Caucasus narrowed down to Circassia. Following the conquest of the North Caucasus by the Russian Empire, the Russian Empire implemented a policy of evicting the Circassians from their ancestral territories.
Among the main peoples that moved to Turkey were Adyghe, Ubykhs, Muslim Abkhazians (especially Sadz branch) - hence the reference in the name to the deportation being of Circassians. However, although Circassians were the main (and most notorious) victims, the expulsions also gravely affected other peoples in the region. It was estimated that 80% of the Ingush left Ingushetia for the Middle East in 1865. Lowland Chechens as well were evicted in large numbers, and while many came back, the former Chechen Lowlands lacked their historical Chechen populations for a long period until Chechens were settled in the region during their return from their 1944–1957 deportation to Siberia. The Arshtins, at that time a (debatably) separate people, were completely wiped out as a distinct group: according to official documents, 1366 Arshtin families disappeared (i.e. either fled or were killed) and only 75 families remained. Small numbers of Muslim Ossetians and Lezgins were also swept up in the expulsion to Turkey..
Other peoples went to Iran, primarily those who were from territories formerly under Iranian control, such as the Laks, Circassians (presumably only Kabardin, as they were the ones most associated with the Persian Safavid, Afsharid, and Qajar Empire), Shia Lezgins, and especially large amounts of Caucasian Tatars. After the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the Ottoman Empire ceded to Russia the largely Muslim Georgian provinces (Adjara, Lower Guria and Lazistan). Thereupon thousands of Muslim Georgians (Chveneburi) emigrated (the Georgians were predominantly Christian); the Muslim Laz people (ethnically and linguistically similar to the Georgians) also emigrated. Two other Muslim peoples in the northwest Caucasus, the Karachay and the Balkars, were not deported in large numbers after 1864. According to the Russian government's own figures at the time, about 90 percent of the affected peoples were deported.
An unknown number of deportees perished during the process. Some died from epidemics among crowds of deportees both while awaiting departure and while languishing in their Ottoman Black Sea ports of arrival. Others perished when ships underway sank during storms. In some cases as many as 1800 refugees were packed into one ship, which would also carry livestock and household possessions. When the ships did not sink, such crowded environments proved suitable for spread of diseases and dehydration, and when the ships arrived at their destinations, they only contained remnants of their original human cargo. As such, they were referred to by contemporary observers as "floating graveyards".
Abkhazia in particular lost 60% of its population by the end of the 19th century.
As early as 1857, Dmitry Milyutin remarked that "our obligations to the human kind require that we take anticipatory measures to provide for the existence of even those tribes that are hostile to us, having been ousted from their own lands on account of public necessity".
Special commissions were set up by the Russian imperial authorities to reduce mortality rates and "survey needs of the migrants", that is, to prevents ships from being overloaded, to profitably auction bulky movables, and to prepare clothes and victuals for the poorest families, which would be transported "without fee or charge of any kind". On the other hand, the Ottoman authorities failed to offer any support to the newly arrived. They were settled in the inhospitable mountainous regions of Inner Anatolia and were employed on menial and exhausting jobs.
Shamil's son Muhamed Shafi was appalled by the conditions the migrants had faced upon their arrival to Anatolia and went to investigate the situation: "I will write to Abdülmecid that he should stop fooling mountaineers... The government's cynicism could not be more pronounced. The Turks triggered the resettlement by their proclamations, probably hoping to use refugees for military ends... but after facing the avalanche of refugees, they turned turtle and shamefully condemned to slow death those people who were ready to die for Turkey's glory".
During the year of 1864 alone about 220,000 people disembarked in Anatolia or arrived in different numbers in Persia. Between March 6 and May 21, 1864, the entire Ubykh nation had departed the Caucasus for Turkey, where they linguistically vanished. By the end of the movement, more than 400,000 Circassians, as well as 200,000 Abkhazians and Ajars, fled to Turkey. The term Çerkes, "Circassians", became the blanket term for them in Turkey because the majority were Adyghe. Also in Persia the blanket term "Circassians" continued to be used, like it has been sometimes used to refer to any ethnic Caucasian from beyond Derbent, dating from the very early Safavid era.
These events resulted in the depopulation of vast swaths of Western Caucasus, specifically the fertile Pontic littoral near Sochi. The Tsarist government was alarmed by the palpable decline in the regional economy. In 1867 the resettlement was officially forbidden, with the exception of "isolated exceptional cases". Nevertheless, a large number of households later managed to leave Russia when they went on the Hajj to Mecca and remained with their relatives in Turkey, as the Russian embassy in Constantinople would often report.
After a brief stint in Turkey, many Circassian households petitioned the Russian embassy in Constantinople for their resettlement back to the Caucasus. By the end of the century, the Russian consulates all over the Ottoman Empire were deluged with such petitions. According to one estimate, 70% of pre-1862 emigrants were allowed to return to their homeland in Western Caucasus.(?) Later, re-emigration was sanctioned only on a limited scale, as mostly large villages (up to 8500 inhabitants) applied for re-emigration and their relocation posed formidable difficulties to the imperial authorities. Perhaps more importantly, Alexander II suspected that Britain and Turkey had instructed Circassians to seek return with the purpose of sparking a new war against their Russian overlords. As a consequence, he was known to personally decline such petitions.
The overall resettlement was accompanied with hardships for common populace. A significant part died of starvation — many Turks of Adyghe descent still do not eat fish in our day, in memory of the tremendous numbers of their kinsfolk they lost during the passage of the Black Sea.
All nationals of Turkey are considered Turkish for official purposes. However, there are several hundreds of villages considered purely "Circassian", with population of "Circassians" estimated to 1,000,000, although there is no official data in this respect, and the estimates are based on informal surveys. The "Circassians" in question may not always speak the languages of their ancestors, and Turkey's center-right parties, often with varying tones of Turkish nationalism, generally do well in localities where they are known to constitute sizable parts of the population (such as in Akyazı).
In Middle Eastern countries, which were created from the dismembered Ottoman Empire (and were initially under British protectorate) the fate of the ethnos was better. The Al Jeish al Arabi (Arab Legion), created in Trans-Jordan under the influence of Lawrence, in significant part consisted of Chechens — arguably because the Bedouin were reluctant to serve under the centralized command. In addition, the modern city of Amman was born after Circassians settled there in 1887.
In Iran, like in Turkey, the government followed an assimilation policy, starting the gradual absorption of the Caucasian refugees into the population. Some of these deportees from after 1864 rose to various high ranks such as in the Persian Cossack Brigade, where every member of the army was either Circassian, or any other type of ethnos from the Caucasus.
Misha Glenny notes that the settlement of the Circassian deportees played a major role in destabilizing the Ottoman Balkans, especially Bulgaria. Their arrival helped spread starvation and epidemics (including smallpox) in the Balkan territories, and worse, the Porte ordered that Christians be evicted en masse from their homes in certain areas in order to accommodate the need to house the deportees. This, and the outbreak of armed conflict between the Circassians and the Christian and Muslim natives, accelerated the growth of nationalist sentiments in the Balkans.
In recent times, scholars and Circassian activists have proposed that the deportations could be considered a manifestation of the modern day concept of ethnic cleansing, though the term had not been in use in the 19th century, noting the systematic emptying of villages by Russian soldiers and was accompanied by the Russian colonization of these lands. They estimate that some 90 percent of Circassians (estimated at more than three million) had relocated from the territories occupied by Russia. During these events, and the preceding Caucasian War, at least hundreds of thousands of people were "killed or starved to death", but the exact numbers are still unknown.
Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin's May 1994 statement admitted that resistance to the tsarist forces was legitimate, but he did not recognize "the guilt of the tsarist government for the genocide." In 1997 and 1998, the leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria and of Adygea sent appeals to the Duma to reconsider the situation and to issue the needed apology; to date, there has been no response from Moscow. In October 2006, the Adygeyan public organizations of Russia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Syria, the United States, Belgium, Canada and Germany have sent the president of the European Parliament a letter with the request to recognize the genocide against Adygean (Circassian) people.
Although there is no legal continuity between the Russian Empire and the modern Russian Federation and the concept of genocide has been adopted in international law only in the 20th century (ex post facto law), on July 5, 2005 the Circassian Congress, an organization that unites representatives of the various Circassian peoples in the Russian Federation, has called on Moscow first to acknowledge and then to apologize for tsarist policies that Circassians say constituted a genocide. Their appeal pointed out that "according to the official tsarist documents more than 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 were forced to flee abroad to Turkey, and only 80,000 were left alive in their native area."
On May 21, 2011, the Parliament of Georgia passed a resolution, stating that "pre-planned" mass killings of Circassians by Imperial Russia, accompanied by "deliberate famine and epidemics", should be recognized as "genocide" and those deported during those events from their homeland, should be recognized as "refugees". Georgia, which has poor relations with Russia, has made outreach efforts to North Caucasian ethnic groups since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Following a consultation with academics, human rights activists and Circassian diaspora groups and parliamentary discussions in Tbilisi in 2010 and 2011, Georgia became the first country to use the word "genocide" to refer to the events. On 20 May, 2011 the parliament of the Republic of Georgia declared in its resolution that the mass annihilation of the Cherkess (Adyghe) people during the Russian-Caucasian war and thereafter constituted genocide as defined in the Hague Convention of 1907 and the UN Convention of 1948.
President of the Federal National Cultural Autonomy of Russian Circassians, Alexander Ohtov, says the term genocide is justified in his Kommersant interview:
- "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?"
Author Arno Tanner, meanwhile argues that, by its manner of suppression of the Caucasus directed at the Crimean Tatars and Circassians, the expulsions can be credited with "inventing the strategy of modern ethnic cleansing and genocide".
Numbers of refugees
- 1828–1829: 10,000 Abkhaz left the North Caucasus
- 1852–1858: Abkhaz population declined from 98,000 to 89,866
- 1858–1860: Over 30,000 Nogais left
- 1860–1861: 10,000 Kabardians left
- 1861–1863: 4,300 Abaza, 4,000 Natukhais, 2,000 Temirgoi, 600 Beslenei, and 300 Bzhedugs families were exiled
- 1865: 5,000 Chechen families were sent to Turkey
- 1863–1864: 470,703 people left the West Caucasus (according to G.A. Dzidzariia)
- 1863–1864: 312,000 people left the West Caucasus (according to N.G. Volkova)
- 1858–1864: 398,000 people left the Kuban oblast (according to N.G Volkova)
- 1858–1864: 493,194 people left (according to Adol'f Berzhe)
- 1863–1864: 400,000 people left (according to N.I Voronov)
- 1861–1864: 418,000 people left (according to the Main Staff of the Caucasus Army)
- Coverage of The tragedy public Thought (later half of the 19th century), Niko Javakhishvili, Tbilisi State University, 20 December 2012, retrieved 1 June 2015
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- Memoirs of Miliutin, "the plan of action decided upon for 1860 was to cleanse [ochistit'] the mountain zone of its indigenous population", per Richmond, W. The Northwest Caucasus: Past, Present, and Future. Routledge. 2008.
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- King, Ghost of Freedom, p47-49. Quote on p48:This, in turn, demanded...above all the stomach to carry the war to the highlanders themselves, including putting aside any scruples about destroying, forests, and any other place where raiding parties might seek refuge... Targeted assassinations, kidnappings, the killing of entire families and the disproportionate use of force became central to Russian operations...
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- King, Charles. The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus. Page 94. In a policy memorandum in of 1857, Dmitri Miliutin, chief-of-staff to Bariatinskii, summarized the new thinking on dealing with the northwestern highlanders. The idea, Miliutin argued, was not to clear the highlands and coastal areas of Circassians so that these regions could be settled by productive farmers...[but] Rather, eliminating the Circassians was to be an end in itself - to cleanse the land of hostile elements. Tsar Alexander II formally approved the resettlement plan...Milyutin, who would eventually become minister of war, was to see his plans realized in the early 1860s.
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