by Stephen D. SHENFIELD

Stephen D. Shenfield is an independent researcher and translator living in the USA.

He specializes in Russian and post-Soviet affairs.

Who are (or were) the Circassians?

This is the question I am usually asked if I ever mention my interest in the Circassians. Except for specialists in the Caucasus, there are few people in the Western world (although more people in the Middle East) who remember who the Circassians were, where they came from or what happened to them. They are an almost forgotten people. You will find no place called ‘Circassia’ on any contemporary map. The nearest you will get to it, and then only should you happen to know what the Russian word for ‘Circassian’ (borrowed from the Turkish) is cherkess, will be the Karachai-Cherkess Autonomous Province in southern Russia. This area in fact lies somewhat to the north of the historical Circassia: it is where some of the Circassians were resettled following the tsarist conquest of their homeland. Moreover, the name of the territory is now somewhat misleading, inasmuch as the Circassians, who theoretically share it with the Turkic Karachai people, actually account for a mere 10 percent of its roughly half-million population.[1]

Perharps, however, you like poring over old maps, as i do. If so, take a look at a map of Russia dating from the early-nineteenth century, and you will find Circassia clearly marked –

a country in the north-western Caucasus and along the north-eastern shore of the Black Sea, stretching southwards from the banks of the River Kuban, which at that time marked the

southern boundary of the Russian empire. And you can read about Circassia in the old books of nineteenth-century western travellers such as the French consul Gamba (1826), the English adventurer James Bell (1841), the French couple de Hell (1847), the American George Leighton Ditson (1850), and the Dutch consul de Marigny (1887). And if you go back in time a few more decades and inspect a map drawn in the middle of the eighteenth century, then you will see the name ‘Circassia’ boldly straddling both bank of the River Kuban, from the lowlands east of the Sea of Azov, between the Kuban, and the Don, all the way to the borders of Ossetia and Chechnya up in the main Caucasus mountain range and along the Black Sea coast from the isthmus of the Sea of Azov to Abkhazia.[2]

Circassia at that time, prior to tsarist imperal conquest, occupied an area of 55,663 square kilometres – rather greater than the area of Denmark – and possessed an indigenous population in excess of two million.[3]

The origins of the Circassians can be traced back as far as the Bosphoran Kingdom of the eighth century BC, and possibly to the Cimmerian Empire that existed along the shores of the

Azov Sea before 1500 BC. They enjoyed close cultural and trading ties with the ancient Greeks, especially with the Athenians, and even participated in the Olympic Games. Their gods also closely corresponded to the Greek gods: Shi-bla, God of Thunder, was their Zeus, Tlepsh, God of Iron and Fire, their Hephaestos.[4]

For most of their history they were an agricultural people. They had a feudal and patriarchal social structure consisting of princes, nobles, freemen, and serfs. Most accounts describe them as having consisted of ‘tribes’, the exact number and designation of which seem to have varied over time. These tribes were too closely related to be considered separate ethnic or even sub-ethnic groups. Circassians’ identity was defined by a series of overlapping kinship groups, stretching outwards from the individual’s closest kin to the Circassian nation (or proto-nation if one prefers) as a whole.[5]

Circassia was Christianized under Byzantine influence in the fifth and sixth centuries. While Daghestan in the north-eastern Caucasus was Islamized as early as the eighth h century, Circassia long stayed outside the sphere of Arab and Muslim influence.[6]

From the sixteenth century it entered into alliance with Georgia: Georgians and Circassians regarded themselves as constituting a single Christian island in the Muslim sea and jointly appealed to Russia for protection. Tsar Ivan the Terrible had a Circassian wife. Muslim influence among the Circassians dates no earlier than the seventeenth century, and only in the eighteenth century, under the threat of impending Russian invasion, did they accept Islam, with a view to facilitating a defensive alliance with Otoman Turkey and the Crimean Tatar Khanate.

The Circassians fought against Russian conquest for over a century, from 1763 to 1864 – longer than any other people of the Caucasus, even the Chechens. Their final defeat in the 1860s led to massacre and forced deportation, mainly across the Black Sea to Turkey, in the course of which a large proportion of them perished. Many Circassians were also utilized by the Ottomans in the Balkans to suppress the rebellious Serbs, but almost all of these were later relocated to the interior of Anatolia. Since that time, the great majority – about 90 percent – of people of Circassian descent have lived in exile, mostly in Turkey, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East. Only isolated remnants, currently about three to four hundred thousand people altogether, remain in Russia and other parts of the post-Soviet region. During the last decades of the tsarist regime, the emptied and devastated Circassian lands were resettled by Russian, Ukrainian, Armenian and other colonists. Later many Georgians also settled in Abkhazia, feeding resentments that culminated in the recent Abkhaz-Georgian war – a conflict which can only be understood against the background of the Circassian trauma of the last century.

Massacre and Deportation

In 1860, having failed to subdue the Circassians in ninety-seven years of warfare, the Russian government decided to enforce their mass migration to other regions of the empire or to Turkey. General Yevdokimov was entrusted with the execution of this policy, and advanced into the stil unconquered parts of Circassia with newly formed mobile columns of riflemen and Cossack cavalry. In the northern areas that he first penetrated, the Circassians submitted to his will: that same year, four thousand families set sail for Turkey from the estuary of the Kuban without offering any resistance.[7]

However, the tribes living further to the south-east did prepare to resist. At the place where now stands the popular Black Sea resort of Sochi, the Abadzekhs, Shapseghs and Ubykhs formed an assembly and appealed – in vain – to the Ottomans and Britain for help. In September 1861, the Emperor himself, Tsar Alexander II, visited Yekaterinodar, the Russian town closest to the scene of the action, and there received a delegation of Circassian chiefs. The chiefs expressed readiness to recognize Russian suzerainty provided that Russian troops and Cossacks were removed from Circassian lands beyond the Rivers Kuban and Laba. Their proposal was rejected.

The Abadzekhs, however, agreed to move to new lands offered them further north (many of the titular people of the Adygei Autonomous Province are their descendants) while the chiefs of the other tribes refused to uproot their people. Subsequent military operations against them began in the spring of 1862.[8]

The Russian soldiers systematically burned the Circassian villages – all the villages of the Shapsegh without exception were burned down – while the crops growing in the fields were trampled under the hooves of the Cossacks’ horses.[9]

Those inhabitants who then declared their submission to the Tsar were marched off, under the control of Russian superintendants, for resettlement on the plain to the north while those who refused to submit were sent down to the seashore to await deportation to Turkey. Many others – men, women and children – fled from their burning villages only to perish of hunger and exposure in the forest and mountains. Having conquered the Shapsegh and Abadzekh, recounts the Circassian historian Shauket, the column of General Babich followed the seashore southwards, destroying villages as it went: They were on the border of the land of the Ubykh. From the side of the Goitkh pass another column came to meet them. Little Ubykhia became the last citadel of Circassian freedom. The Ubykh made a last attempt to prolong the agony, but the Russians compressed the ring ever tighter. From the south, troops were landed in the very heart of the Ubykh land, while from the north three columns advanced through the mountains and along the seashore. The l ast resistance was broken.[10]

Trakho, another Circassian historian, continues the story:

There remained only the small coastal tribes: the Pskhu, the Akhtsipsou, the Aibgo and the Jigit. In the course of May 1864 these tribes were annihilated almost to the last man, woman and child. Seeing this, Circassians gathered from all corners of the country in a frenzy of despair threw themselves into the valley of the Aibgo. For four days (7-11 May) the Russians were repulsed with great losses. Heavy artillery was then brought up and began to belch fire and smoke into the little valley. Not one of the defenders survived. The capture of this little valley, lost in the mountains, was the last act in the long tragedy of the Circassian people. On 21 May the Great Prince Mikhail Nikolaevich gathered his troops in a clearing for a thanksgiving service. [11]

Of this same final battle-pogrom Shauket writes:

The last battle took place in the area of the Black Sea near Maikop, in the Khodz valley [i.e., the valley of the Aibgo] near the town of Akhchip. That rough mountainous area was the last stronghold at which women and children assembled for protection from the Russian advance. The women threw their jewellery into the river, took up arms and joined the men in order to fight the battle of death for the sake of their homeland and honoour, lest they should fall captives in Russian hands. The two parties met in a horrible battle which turned out to be a massacre unprecedented in history. The objective of that battle [for the Circassians] was not to achieve success or victory, but to die honorably and to leave a life which had no honourable hope left. In that battle men and women were slaughtered mercilessly and blood flowed in rivers, so that it was said that ‘‘the bodies of the dead swam in a sea of blood’’. Nevertheless, the Russians were not content with what they had done, but sought to satisfy their instincts by making the surviving children targets for their cannon shells.[12]

The subsequent deportations to Turkey began on 28 May. They took place under horrendous conditions. The Russian historian Berzhe bore witness to the state of the Circassians even as they awaited deportation on the Black Sea shore:

I shall never forget the overwhelming impression made on me by the mountaineers in Novorossiisk [NewRussian] Bay, where about seventeen thousand of them were gathered on the shore. The late, inclement and cold time of year, the almost complete absence of means of subsistence and the epidemic of typhus and smallpox raging among them made their situation desperate. And indeed, whose heart would not be touched on seeing, for example, the already stiff corpse of a young Circassian woman lying in rags on the damp ground under the open sky with two infants, one struggling in his death-throes while the other sought to assuage his hunger at his dead mother’s breast? And I saw not a few such scenes. [13]

Those who had survived this ordeal thus far were now herded by the Russian soldiers en masse on to barges and small Turkish and Greek ships, loaded with several times as many passengers as they could carry. Many of these sank and their passengers drowned in the open sea. For those who survived the voyage, conditions on arrival in Turkey were no less horrific. Arrangements that had been made by the Turkish government for receiving and resettling the migrants were grossly inadequate. Moshnin, the Russian consul in Trabzon on the Turkish coast, reported as follows: About six thousand Circassians were landed in Batum, [and] up to four thousand were sent to Çürüksu on the border [with Turkey]. They came with their emaciated and dying livestock. Average mortality seven people per day. About 240,000 deportees have arrived in Trabzon and its environs, of which 19,000 have died… Average mortality two hundred people per day. Most of them are sent to Samsun; 63,290 remain. In Giresun there are about fifteen thousand people. In Samsun and its environs over 110,000 people. Mortality about two hundred people per day. Typhus is raging.[14]

How many Circassians, then, perished from death in battle, by massacre, drowning, hunger, exposure and disease? Prior to the Russian conquest, the Circassians (including the Abkhaz) numbered about two million. By 1864, the north-western Caucasus had been emptied of its indigenous population almost in entirety. About 120-150,000 Circassians were resettled in places elsewhere in the Empire set aside by the Russian government. (By the time of the 1897 census, there were 217,000 Circassians in Russia). According to Brooks, about 500,000 were deported to Turkey;[15] in addition, thirty thousand families – perhaps 200,000 people – had emigrated voluntarily in 1858, prior to the deportations. That still leaves well over one-half of the original population unaccounted for, to which must be added those who-died at sea or on arrival. The number who died in the Circassian catastrophe of the 1860s could hardly, therefore, have been fewer than one million, and may well have been closer to one-and-a-half million.

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