“Circassia: A Small Nation Lost To The Great Game”

“Circassia: A Small Nation Lost to the Great Game”

Walter Richmond

Occidental College

In 1864 the Russian army, having finally defeated the Circassians after 75 years of gradually escalating warfare, drove the vast majority of the nation to the coast of the Black Sea, where they waited in the open air for as long as two years to be loaded onto ships and taken to the Ottoman Empire. Over half of these people either died en route or shortly after arriving in Turkey. 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. The deportations resulted in a 94 percent decrease in the population of the region, although the vacuum was quickly filled by Cossack and Russian settlements. This seems to have been the first modern act of “ethnic cleansing,” if not outright genocide, and as an anomalous act of extreme cruelty should have been met with some objections, although at the time very little attention was paid to the fate of the Circassians. Afterward, memory of the deportation was completely lost in the European consciousness. Indeed, while Circassia was well known throughout Europe in 1800, by the mid-20th Century the memory of the very nation itself was lost to all but a few specialists in the region and the descendants of the deportees themselves.

This “forgetting” of the Circassian Genocide was the result of a number of factors, beginning with the almost mythological way in which Circassia was portrayed in European literature and culture as a land of medieval warriors and sensual beauties.

This, coupled with the nature of the Great Game in the 19th Century, when the major powers didn’t really consider human rights or the right of national determination to be something accorded to the peoples who lived in the area over which they competed, led to the conditions that allowed the Russians to deport the Circassians from their homeland with minimal international objections. Having sacrificed Circassia to larger strategic goals, the European powers found it both easy and necessary to dismiss and “forget” the tragedy that struck this nation that occupied only a peripheral and romanticized place in the European consciousness as they began to position themselves for the coming First World War.

Before Circassia began to figure in European geopolitical calculations, the image of the Circassian people was classically Orientalist, and this ultimately hindered Europeans from viewing the catastrophe they faced in the 1860s as a real event. In British newspapers throughout the 1700s and early 1800s, one can find advertisement for products containing the same ingredients as those used by “the most beautiful Women in the World.” In fact, the myth of the beauty of Circassian women was so great that during his visit to Paris, the Persian ambassador to Britian found his hotel surrounded by thousands people “in the vain hope of a glimpse” of “the beautiful Circassian who accompanies him.” This Orientalist mytholigization of the Circassian woman, reducing her to a sex symbol or, in the case of the Persian ambassador, sex slave, dehumanized the Circassian in the eyes of Europeans, and contributed to their silence when the Circassian nation was destroyed. Likewise, the Circassian man was depicted as a semicivilized warrior, something to be admired but certainly not respected as an equal to European man. As Edmund Spencer described the Circassian in 1839: “in the first appearance of the Circassian, there is something extremely martial and commanding . . . No half-civilized people in the world display so pleasing an exterior.”

While this may have been true, Spencer’s objectification of the Circassians clearly placed them in the camp of “the other,” the inferior Asiatic who nevertheless possesses certain admirable, but always sensual, characteristics.

Thus, when the attention of Europe was turned to the North Caucasus, Europeans must have perceived the Circassians as “noble savages” defending their land from the Russians. The war itself escalated very slowly, and it seemed as though a modus vivendi between the parties might be reached as late as 1830. In addition to military actions, which did not seem to be aimed at conquest but rather control of the tribes close to the Kuban River, trading agreements were made and protocols established for economic interaction between the Circassians and Cossacks until the 1820s. During this period Europeans instead were concerned about Russia’s aggression in Poland.

Russia’s actions in Europe itself were considered far more significant to most European powers than what appeared to be a low level conflict in an obscure corner of their Empire.

As for the Russians themselves, they operated under the assumption that the

Circassians considered themselves subjects of the Ottoman Empire and that the Ottomans’ disposition of their fate would be met with at least some level of agreement.

In fact, the Ottomans only exerted influence over the westernmost Circassian lands, and even then the Circassians only dealt with the Ottomans in order to maintain some level of stability and never considered them their rulers. The tribes further east never came under significant Ottoman influence; their only experiences with the Ottomans were the annual raids into the lands that resulted in kidnappings, lootings, and wholesale death.

As General Grigorii Filipson wrote in his memoirs on the Caucasus Wars:

In Petersburg they did not even suspect that we were dealing with a one and a half million valiant, militaristic mountain dwellers who had never recognized any authority over them, and who possessed powerful natural fortresses at every step in their forest covered mountain thickets. Back there [Petersburg] they even thought that the Circassian were nothing more than rebellious Russian subjects, ceded to Russia by their legal sovereign the Sultan in the Treaty of Adrianopol!

The Russians’ belief that the Circassians had already been subjugated by the Ottomans led them to see Circassian resistance as rebellion against a recognized, albeit undesired, sovereign, when in fact that Circassians considered themselves an independent entity and their conflict with Russia a war of national survival. Furthermore, the Circassians had on numerous occasions in the past fought and won such wars and were prepared to fight to the last extremity to keep from falling under Russian suzerainty. Nevertheless, this myth of Russian sovereignty over Circassia has been perpetuated and revived in a new form with the Russian government’s celebration of the 450th anniversary of “the Circassian Nation’s Voluntary Accession to Russia” in 2007.

Initial Russian incursions into Circassia were in fact not directed at conquest but rather at efforts to drive the Ottomans from the eastern shores of the Black Sea. As part of an overall strategy to control the region, Cossack settlements were established north of the Kuban River, and a fortress was constructed at Mozdok in 1763. This is the event that the Circassians consider the beginning of the War, but only in hindsight could this be seen as the event that engendered hostilities. In fact, in 1777 the Kabardian aristocracy accepted Russian sovereignty. There were few conventional battles: in April 1779 a Russian contingent fought a major battle on the Malka River in laten September, and in November a Russian army of approximately 3000 defeated a slightly larger Kabardian force at their enclave in Baksan, but all other hostilities were minor skirmishes.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars Russia’s increasingly influential role in Europe and its military strength became worrisome to some segments of European society, and it was only in this broader context that the fate of the Circassians entered into the consciousness of European politicians. Particularly in England, a russophobic movement concerned primarily with Russia’s actions in Poland was able to influence British foreign policy for a time, particularly after the Russo-Turkish alliance at Unkiar Skelesi in 1833. While the British press frequently warned of the danger of “the claws of the Russian bear,” Circassia did not enter the debate until a young diplomat named David Urquhart began to have some influence on policy. While the attention of most russophobes in Britain was now directed at Russia’s potential expansion in southeastern Europe, Urquhart, a sincere admirer of Islamic culture, turned his attention to Russia’s efforts to drive the Ottomans from the north coast of the Black Sea. He postulated that once the Russians controlled the Caucasus they would be able to launch campaigns into Iran, Central Asia, and India. This potential movement created the possibility of Russia’s usurpation of British economic interests in South Asia. While Urquhart appeared to be emerge as a champion of the Circassian people, his own perception of them was undoubtedly an amalgam of the “mythological” Circassian warrior and his own romantic conception of the Muslim world. Indeed, Urquhart only visited Circassia once, where he could not have possibly gained an accurate picture of the people as they really lived. In 1834 the British Secret Service sent him to the Northwest Caucasus and he quickly took upon himself the task of inciting the Circassians to rebellion. At the fortress at Anapa he met 15 Circassian chieftains and a large group of elders who were already outraged at Russia’s behavior. Urquhart pursued his mission vigorously, publishing justifications for British interference at home and agitating the Circassians in Circassia. After his return to Constantinople Urquhart took increasingly aggressive steps against Russia’s actions in Circassia, culminating in an apparent attempt to incite war between Britian and Russia by violating the Russian blockade of the Black Sea coast in 1836. This final step cost Urquhart his political career, and the shrill nature of the russophobes’ arguments in general led to their loss of influence by 1840. England and Russia enjoyed a brief period of cordial relations, and the Circassians were forgotten.

However, while Urquhart’s faction held power the British actively infiltrated the North Caucasus with other agents whose goal was to encourage the Circassians in their war against the Russians, promising them material support in this effort. While there was no official British policy, there can be little doubt that these agents operated with the knowledge and approval of their government or, as Paul B. Henze notes, “they would not have persisted so long;” thus, Henze rightly argues, their efforts consisted of what are now known as “covert action operations.” However, the actual level of material assistance given to the Circassians was far less than what would be required for success against the Russian army. The British were promising the Circassians a level of military support they were in no position to provide. At the same time, the British russophobes were encouraging the Circassians to escalate hostilities against the Russians at a critical point in Russo-Circassian relations. Most significant in this regard is James Bell, who lived in Circassia for extended periods between 1837 and 1839. Bell, who first became interested in stopping Russia’s expansion as a result of that country’s interference with his commerce enterprises along the Danube River, attempted to create a unified leadership from the Circassian aristocracy and encouraged the Circassians to reject offers from the Russians. He also thwarted the attempts of some Circassian leaders to encourage compromise with the Russians. As he was doing this, he was well aware that British resolve for sustained support of the Circassians was faltering. While there is little doubt that the Russo-Circasian War would have escalated in any event, Bell’s activities in Circassia were part of a geopolitical gamble in which the Circassians were taking the full burden of the risks of failure.

In the 1840s, Polish émigrés who wished to return Poland to its 1772 borders were the most visible pro-Circassian activists, although they were aided by the most russophobic British politicians. Émigrés such as Adam Czartoryski sought to create a broad anti-Russian alliance and had worked actively with the British in the 1830s. While some British figures may have planned on an independent Circassian state under their protection, the Poles were interested only in increasing difficulties for the Russian military in order to more effectively enact their plans for a resurrected Polish state. In 1841 Polish émigrés in Istanbul began to take an active role in inciting the Circassians, as well as the Cossacks, against the Russians and continued their efforts throughout the 1840s with the goal of engaging Russia in a massive war. As the director of Polish covert activities in Istanbul in the 1840s, Mihail Czaikowski, wrote in 1841:

Having established contact with the Slavs, I have decided to place them in contact with the Circassian and Chechens as well, in order to give Prince Adam Czartoryski greater leverage with England, who are more interested in the Asiatic people than in the Slavs [ . . . ] the Circassian and the Asiatic peoples living between the Black and Caspian Seas are a tool in their hands through which they distress and frighten the Russians [ . . . ].

While Polish efforts were devoid of results, the entire affair illustrates both that Circassia was considered strategic for a variety of reasons and drew the attention of powers far removed from the region, and that Circassian interests in and of themselves were of no concern to at least some of those parties who saw the strategic significance of the North Caucasus. While it appears that British proponents of covert operations such as Urquhart and James Bell genuinely felt sympathy for the Circassians and sincerely believed they would be better off under British protection, Czartoryski and his Ottoman allies were only interested in the Circassians as a tool to break Russian power in the Black Sea and cripple their ability to affect events in Europe.

The little British support that continued during the 1840s would be even more severely curtailed by debates among the European powers over the focus of the Crimean War.

The last chance for the survival of the Circassian nation was lost due to a strategic decision by France and England, and the deportation was ensured during the negotiations at the end of the war.

Initially, the outbreak of war gave the russophobes in England a new impetus for arguing for an independent Circassia. Edmund Spencer visited the Black Sea in 1851 and published a memoir in 1854 of the journey in which his enthusiasm was unrestrained. In support of the notion of an alliance with the Circassians he wrote, “as to the Circassians, the mere presence of an English man-of-war would be sufficient to arouse every man capable of bearing arms, from the Black Sea to the Caspian,” apparently unaware that every man capable of bearing arms had already been engaged in a struggle with the Russian Empire for at least 20 years. In this work Spencer predicted the Circassian genocide, arguing that the Russians would exterminate the Circassians if they ever gained a complete victory. However, while he certainly had humanitarian concerns his central argument in favor of supporting the Circassians was that if the Russians gained control of the North Caucasus they would soon conquer Iran and Turkey, and ultimately invade India.

The situation looked promising from the Circassians’ perspective. The Ottomans not only increased their material assistance but also sent Sefer-Bey Zanoko, a virulently anti-Russian Circassian nobleman who had been living in Istanbul, to incite the Circassians against the Russians. When he met with English, French and Turkish officers in Sukhum, Abkhazia, they treated him as the legitimate leader of Circassia.

However Muhammed Amin, the representative of Daghestani rebel leader Shamil had already established his authority over much of Circassia, and open conflict between the two would-be leaders of Circassia ensued. The two leaders began fighting one another instead of coordinating their efforts and this helped the Russians push the Turks back in the Caucasus. When allied forces recaptured the port city of Anapa, which had fallen first into Russian and then into Circassian hands, they demanded Sefer-Bei turn over the fortress. Sefer-Bei replied that Anapa was sovereign Circassian territory. Thus, although both he and Amin were now dealing blows to the Russians, Sefer-Bei deprived them of the last chance for international support. The decision was made to land the invasion force at Sevastopol, and the war never entered Circassia. The Circassians’ fate was sealed in the Treaty of Paris in 1856. Much to the dismay of many in the British government, the Treaty gave Russia a free hand in the Caucasus. As Vladimir Degoev writes: “The final suppression of the North Caucasus mountaineers’ resistance, abandoned by the West to the mercy of fate, without any international legal guarantees, was a question of time.” In 1861 one last delegation, including both Ottoman and British representatives, promised the Circassians international recognition by Britain, France and Istanbul if they would unite against the Russians. The following year the Circassians’ petition requesting military support was published in the British press and a wave of anti-Russian articles soon appeared. A poorly organized multinational force was proved ineffective, and although the British and French continued to exert diplomatic pressure on the Russians until 1864, the Circassians were driven from the homeland.

The brutality of the deportation process and the massive loss of life was concealed by the Russian military, even from their own leadership in St. Petersburg: in the reports of 1864 written by the local officials in charge of the deportation there is a conspicuous absence of details of the horrific conditions faced by the deportees. No real description of the horrors of the deportation were described until Ivan Drozdov published his meticulous account of the final days of the War in Kavkazskii Sbornik in 1877.

Unfortunately, Drozdov’s diary was not translated, and the majority of the world remained in the dark as to the scale of the Circassians’ suffering.

After the Crimean War, Russo-British competition soon shifted east: Britain was moving north through Afghanistan as Russia was beginning its conquest of Central Asia. The disintigration of the Ottoman Empire turned Europe’s attention to the fate of the Balkans, and the Circassians were lost to history. Russia ultimately achieved what it wanted: hegemony over the North Caucasus. Effectively converted into an internal Russian affair, the fate of not only the Circassians but all the peoples of the region was left to the vagaries of Russian domestic policy.

Thus, a variety of factors desensitized European observers to what happened to the Circassians. The longstanding mythology of the man as the noble savage and the woman as the exotic beauty cast the Circassians as the Oriental “other,” admirable in some respects but not equal to the civilized European. The slow escalation of the Russo-Circassian War, as well as Russia’s maneuverings in parts of Europe much closer to the major powers, kept the conflict from the forefront of European attention until the 1830s, and even then it was only one of many issues dealt with in the press, and not always consistently. The defeat of the Circassians came at a time when empire building and severe repression of conquered peoples, including their resettlement, was neither unknown nor universally frowned upon. The defeat of the Circassians must have seemed to contemporary observers in Europe to be a relatively commonplace incident, while the seizure of Circassian land for Russian expansion was quite similar to the expansion of the United States at the expense of the Native American and was likely perceived as worthy of condemnation but little else. The deportation of the Circassians to another state altogether was the only truly unprecedented action, and the Russian government’s portrayal of the deportation as “voluntary” served to minimize objections about the action as a whole, while the Russian military command diligently concealed the brutality of the process and the high mortality rate among the Circassians from even St. Petersburg.

Additionally, nothing quite like the Circassian genocide had happened in recent history before. As Paul Henze notes:

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.

In hindsight, the Circassian genocide appears to hold particular significance for future ethnic cleansings. However, at the time, it must have appeared to be an isolated, if regrettable, event.


The above mentioned speech was addressed in the Ninth Biennial International conference of the Association of Genocide Scholars held between July 19th-22nd, 2011, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by Mr. Walter Richmond in the title of: “Circassia: A Small Nation Lost To The Great Game”

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