Beyond the Pale of Civilization: The Legacy of the Circassian Genocide

Beyond the Pale of Civilization: The Legacy of the

Circassian Genocide

Its horrors continue today, in Ukraine and beyond.


May 22, 2023

The head of the executed man thought, saw, suffered. And I saw what he saw, understood what he thought, and felt what he suffered. How long did it last? Three minutes, they told me. The executed man must have thought: three hundred years. What the man killed in this way suffers, no human language can express.

— Antoine Wiertz, Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head (1853)

The year is 1837, and Nikolai Ivanovich Lorer has just arrived at Prochnyi Okop, the lynchpin of the Kuban Fortification Line that marks the far, ragged, blood-stained edge of the Russian Empire. Battles between the invading czarist forces and the native Circassians have been raging here in the North Caucasus since 1763, but only in recent years have the Russians begun to make significant headway. The region of Kabardia, or Eastern Circassia, at long last fell under military rule in 1822, albeit at a cost of thousands of Cossack and Russian soldiers’ lives, but it was the Kabardian Circassians who suffered most. Gen. Ivan Delpotso had warned that the Russians would “have no mercy for the guilty brigands; their villages will be destroyed, properties taken, wives and children will be slaughtered,” while Gen. Alexei Yermolov was even more candid: “We need the Circassian lands, but we don’t have any need of the Circassians themselves.” These were no idle threats. Some 315,000 Kabardian men, women, and children, out of a pre-war population of 350,000, perished at the hands of the Russians, and the remaining survivors were forcibly resettled or obliged to flee into the nearby mountains or marshlands.

As the 48-year-old Lorer arrives in Circassia, having made his way down the Black Sea coast, across the depopulated plains, and up the slope toward the Russian fortress of Prochnyi Okop perched precariously on a hill overlooking the Urup River estuary, it is apparent that the fate of the still-contested region of Western Circassia will be no different. Everywhere there are signs of devastation: smoldering villages, farmland, and pastures, slaughtered herds of cattle, clearcut forests, the distant crackle of musket-fire. Nikolai Lorer, for his part, has no particular grievance with the indigenous peoples of the Caucasus. Unlike Delpotso and Yermolov, who are clearly in the grip of an imperial, even genocidal frenzy, Lorer’s participation in the Russo-Circassian War is purely pragmatic.

Decades before, in what must have seemed an entirely different life, Lorer had been a patriotic member of the gentry, serving heroically in the Lithuanian Life Guards during the Napoleonic Wars. Something of an idealist, he became an active member of the Southern Society of the Decembrists, and, after the abject failure of the Decembrists’ 1825 revolt against Czar Nicholas I, he managed to avoid the gallows, sentenced instead to eight years of hard penal labor in the Nerchinsk mines of Siberia, a punishment only marginally preferable to a swift death. He somehow survived his stint in the pits and was relocated to an exile settlement in Kurgan, where he figured he would languish for the rest of his days. When the Russian military campaign in the Caucasus turned into a grotesque misadventure, however, the Czar offered political prisoners like Lorer a chance to regain their freedom, on condition that they head to the Circassian front. Thus Lorer, once a staff captain and liberal revolutionary, then a penal laborer and exile, now finds himself again on the battlefield, and although he has been demoted to the rank of private, he is a man of considerable education and sophistication, and upon his arrival in Prochnyi Okop he is promptly invited to the home of the garrison commander, a general by the name of Grigory Khristoforovich von Zass. (RELATED: The Horrors of the Holodomor Must Not Be Forgotten)

Years later, writing in his memoirs, Lorer will describe his unforgettable visit to Zass’ quarters. The first thing one noticed upon entering under Zass’ roof was the pleasant trilling of the general’s beloved canaries, the silvery metallic tone of their elaborate songs resonating throughout the house. Lorer’s ears would have been charmed by those birds in full voice, but soon his sense of smell was under a sustained assault, as it became increasingly difficult to ignore the all-pervasive and unmistakable smell of putrescine and cadaverine in the air. Zass’ quarters, the former exile noted, smelled for all the world like rotting flesh:

I was struck by some sort of intolerably offensive smell, and Zass, laughing, ended our confusion by telling us that his people had no doubt placed under his bed a box with heads, and in fact he pulled out and showed us a huge chest with several heads that stared at us horribly with glassy eyes. “Why are they here?” I asked. “I’m boiling and cleaning them, and then sending them to various anatomical offices and my academic friends in Berlin [was the response].”

Zass was not the only Russian officer engaged in such grisly pursuits; Alexander Velyaminov was also busy collecting decapitated Circassian heads, before sending them to the St. Petersburg Academy of Science’s anthropology department for “research purposes.” Yet Zass’ obsession with disembodied Circassian heads was not purely scientific. Lorer noted that “in support of the notion of terror that Zass preached, the heads of Circassians were constantly stuck on lances on a specially made hill at Prochny Okop, and their beards blew in the wind.” Lorer later recounted:

I told him I did not like his system of war, and he replied like this: “Russia wants to conquer the Caucasus at whatever cost. How would we take these peoples, our enemies, except with fear and terror? They are not fit for philanthropy, and Yermolov only managed to achieve more than us by hanging people without mercy, by plundering and burning villages.”

The ruthless campaign waged by Zass and his fellow Russian chauvinists in Western Circassia would last for almost three more decades, culminating in the Circassian genocide, which the victims themselves called the Tsitsekun — “a massacre so evil that only Satan could think of it.” By 1864, up to 97 percent of the Circassian population, some 1.5 million souls, had either been killed or expelled from their ancestral homeland. Count Dmitry Alekseyevich Milyutin had declared that “eliminating the Circassians was to be an end in itself — to cleanse the land of hostile elements,” and that is precisely what came to pass. The Circassian mountaineers fought against impossible odds, while their leaders sent desperate missives to foreign governments requesting military or humanitarian aid. One such letter, the heart-rending April 1864 “Petition from Circassian Leaders to Her Majesty Queen Victoria,” told of how the:

Russian Government is unlawfully striving to subdue and annex to its dominions Circassia, which since the creation of the world has been our home and our country. It slaughters like sheep the children, helpless women, and old men that fall into its hands. It rolls about their heads with the bayonet like melons, and there is no act of oppression or cruelty which is beyond the pale of civilisation and humanity, and which defies description, that it has not committed.

It had been less than a decade since the Crimean War ended, and the British government, while sympathetic to the plight of the beleaguered Circassians, was not about to renew the struggle against the Russian Empire on purely humanitarian grounds. The remaining pockets of Circassian resistance were gradually ground down, and the coastal tribes of the Pskhu, Akhtsipsou, Aibgo, and Jigit were liquidated down to the last man, woman, and child. After a conclusive Russian victory at the Battle of Qbaada, where 20,000 Circassians were attacked from four directions by an army of 100,000 Russians and Cossacks, a military-religious parade was held on the fateful day of May 21, 1864, an event culminating in the gruesome spectacle of 100 Circassian warriors being publicly mutilated and executed amid great pomp and circumstance. The Russian army proudly announced to an appreciative public back home that “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.” The modern age of genocide had begun.

Today, in Armavir, a city on the left bank of the Kuban built atop the bones of the Circassian victims of the Tsitsekun, there is a statue of the war criminal and psychopath Zass, known by the Circassian diaspora as “Shaytan” and “the collector of Circassian skulls.” And today, in Mineralnye Vody, in Pyatigorsk, in Orel, and in Moscow, there can be found statues of Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov, a figure of equivalent infamy. Aslan Beshto, a Circassian activist from Kabardino-Balkaria, has complained that “the most severe and bloodthirsty individuals, who were most actively involved in cleansing the Western Caucasus of indigenous people, are being glorified.” Indeed, “the more indignation this or that pacifier causes us, the more he, in the opinion of the authorities, is worthy of perpetuation.” Such is the very essence of the Russian World.

During the Circassian genocide, the Russians exhibited a genuinely pathological interest in decapitated Circassian heads. One cannot help but think of Vlad the Impaler, or of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, or of the Nazi anatomist August Hirt, who ordered Jewish concentration camp prisoners to be “killed and beheaded with scientific rigor.” From where in the collective Russian consciousness did this morbid obsession hail? The psychoanalyst will tell you that decapitation imagery is related to castration anxiety, while the anthropologist of genocide will tell you that atrocities are often committed as a way of “binding in blood” through the collective crossing of a moral Rubicon. Whatever the cause, the Russian orgy of beheading would not be limited to the Circassian front.

It has long been a source of resentment in Kazakhstan that the skull of the last Kazakh Khan, Kenesary Khan, is still held in the collections of the Ethnography Museum in Moscow. The skull of the North Caucasian Avar leader Hadji Murad remains in the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera, despite those in Dagestan who have been demanding, not unreasonably, that his cranium be reunited with the rest of his remains that are interred in the Qakh District of Azerbaijan. The reader should not be left with the impression that these macabre artifacts are vestiges of former, more barbaric times. During Russia’s Second Chechen War (1999–2009), the journalist Anna Politkovskaya interviewed two members of the Russian OMON (riot police), a lieutenant by the name of Yura and a corporal by the name of Volodya:

We met them at their post near the Chechen village of Assinovskaya. Both were proudly showing off their new sleeve badges: the OMON are no longer snow leopards or lions, they’re TEAM SPECIAL (the words are written in English). Our specialist, Lieutenant Yura, could not stop talking about the blood and dismembered flesh of “persons of Caucasian nationality” and several times repeated his fantasies of how “yesterday they slashed a dukh [“spirit,” Soviet slang for Afghans] to pieces in the drainage channel, just over there.”

And on April 11, 2023, images and videos depicting a Ukrainian prisoner of war being beheaded with a knife began to spread over pro-Kremlin Telegram channels, while pictures of a Ukrainian man’s head impaled on a spike in Bakhmut, possibly the same individual, possibly another, were also eagerly shared in pro-Russian social media circles. Meanwhile, Russian politicians like Sergei Mironov proudly pose for pictures while holding commemorative sledgehammers decorated with piles of skulls, gifts of the Wagner Group, which notoriously uses such tools to crush the heads of defectors and prisoners.

Regimes may come and go, but the violent, barbarous nature of Russian imperialist aggression remains the same. The Circassians were the canaries in the coal mine; their fate would later be shared by other peoples in the Caucasus, in Central Asia, in the Baltic region, in Central and Eastern Europe, in Karelia, in Yakutia, in Khanty, in the Tungus Republic, and many more places besides. Physical genocide and cultural annihilation invariably accompanied the arrival of the Russian World, as it still does in temporarily occupied parts of Ukraine. The Crimean Tatars, who in the 20th century suffered a fate hauntingly similar to that of the Circassians — their intellectuals persecuted and murdered, their populace forcibly expelled from their homeland during the 1944 deportations — remain under assault, as Tatar institutions are shut down, and activists are extrajudicially executed or jailed on spurious charges.

It began with murder of Reşat Medatoğlu Ametov, a Crimean activist who protested the illegal Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, and whose mutilated body was later found in a forest outside the village of Zemlianychne. In recent months, we have sadly come to learn that Konstantin Şıring and Cemil Gafarov both have died in Russian custody under suspicious circumstances, while Oleksandr Sizikov has just been sentenced to a 17-year jail sentence for absurdly Orwellian thought crimes, namely the possession of “prohibited books,” this despite the fact that Sizikov is completely blind and can only read in braille, and obviously not the texts planted in in his home by masked FSB agents. Even Crimean Tatars who went into exile in other parts of Ukraine have remained targets due to the Russian invasion. Activists have been arrested in the Kherson region, home to the Tatar Kherson Regional Mejlis (parliament), and even as far afield as the Kharkiv region, where the brothers Edem and Refat Karamazov and others have disappeared without a trace, as the horrors of the past are repeated in our own time.

Every year, on May 21 — a date chosen in memory of the 100 Circassian victims executed during the infamous May 21, 1864, parade held after the decisive Battle of Qbaada — Circassians gather in diaspora communities in Turkey, Jordan, Germany, the United States, and elsewhere to observe the Day of Mourning for the Victims of the Circassian Genocide. Those Circassians that remain in the Russian republics of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia likewise observe the solemn occasion, though Russian media will only reluctantly refer to it as the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of the Caucasus War, and historically illiterate, genocide-denying Russian politicians prefer to characterize the liquidation of the Circassian people as a “voluntary departure.” Last year, in the early days of the war in Ukraine, such observances were banned by the authorities in Maikop and Krasnodar Krai, but several dozen Circassian activists bravely held a march in Nalchik, gathering at the Pse Zhyg (Tree of Life) monument and lighting 101 candles. This year, the organizers have been informed that any “uncoordinated actions” will result in prosecution.

One hundred and fifty-nine years have passed since the Circassians were systematically slaughtered and expelled from their ancestral home in the North Caucasus. The English Arabist and diplomat William Gifford Palgrave, a witness to the catastrophe, observed at the time that “their only crime was not being Russian.” Palgrave, while serving as consul in Sukhum-Kale, saw the Abkhazians subjected to the same treatment two years later and found himself musing on how, there on the Black Sea littoral, “nothing remains but the fast crumbling memorials of a sad history,” as various struggles for national existence were “rewarded by oppression, oppression by violence, violence by desolation,” the consequence of “a freedom which Russia often claims without her own limits, [and] always denies within them.”

At this very moment, Russia views the elimination of Tatars and Ukrainians as an “end in itself.” The State Duma member Alexei Zhuravlyov, in a May 2022 appearance on Russian state television, estimated that “simply put, two million” Ukrainians should “either have left Ukraine” or be “destroyed.” A year later, the Russian propagandist Akim Apachev was still insisting that “We have to destroy, to kill all bearers of the Ukrainian national idea,” even though that number represents “a majority in Ukraine right now.”

During the Tsitsekun, moral monsters like Alexei Yermolov, Grigory Zass, and Alexander Velyaminov could wade through pools of Circassian blood, collecting heads and burning down entire villages, maintaining all the while, without a semblance of humanity, that Russians “need the Circassian lands, but we don’t have any need of the Circassians themselves.” How little has changed from their dark days to our own.

Beyond the Pale of Civilization: The Legacy of the Circassian Genocide

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