The destruction of the Circassians – who call themselves “Adyghe” – and other indigenous groups of the Caucasus were part of Tsarist Russia’s conquest of the region during the middle-half of the nineteenth century. Ultimately, the Russians aimed to extend its imperial sovereignty and supplant the mostly tribal-based, Islamic-infused population with Slavic, Russophile settlers. A stringent indigenous resistance was brutally put down by the Russians, especially under Tsar Alexander II, who was Emperor of the Russian Empire from 1855 through the end of the Caucasian War in 1864. By the end, hundreds of thousands of Circassians and other indigenous peoples were forcibly relocated, mostly to the Ottoman Empire but also to the lowland regions of the Caucasus where the Russians would better control them. A significant portion of the Circassian population was killed, as the Russians waged a brutal scorched-earth campaign. Thus removed from their ancestral homeland, the Circassians have been uprooted and scattered ever since.
The Circassian people, self-identified as “Adyghe,” are indigenous to the North Caucasus Mountains near the Black Sea, on the present-day frontier region between Russia and Georgia. At a historic crossroads of the Eurasian landmass, the entire area has been home to many groups coming and going over the centuries, although the Circassians have some of the deepest roots. Sunni Islam was most common to these peoples, although Christian and pre-Christian practices and beliefs were maintained.
Mountaineers leave the Aul, by Pyotr Gruzinsky; courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons
By the mid-sixteenth century, Russia began expanding southwards towards the northern steppes of the Caucasus and the Black Sea. This began a long-term geopolitical contest between Russia and the Ottoman Empire that would last for centuries. A more concerted Russian expansionist effort came towards the end of the eighteenth century under the rule of Catherine the Great. She aimed to definitively capture the Caucasus through the forcible assimilation the tribal peoples of the Caucasus by relocating them from the mountains to more accessible valleys where they could be “civilized.”
During the Crimean War (1853-1856), when the Russian Empire faced the united front of the Ottoman, British, and French Empires, the Circassians had managed to achieve a certain celebrity status in the West. They hoped for foreign intervention to advance their cause, and indeed the Russians themselves anticipated British and French landings off the Black Sea, but they never came. Nonetheless, the war made apparent to the Russians the strategic vulnerability of the region and its indigenous inhabitants.
After the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II aimed to vanquish this threat. Forced assimilation was no longer the goal, but rather mass expulsion and extermination. Through a process of internal colonialism, the Circassians and other tribes were uprooted and forcibly migrated to the Ottoman Empire. They were more or less given an ultimatum to leave or be considered enemy combatants. By 1859, the Russians began a scorched-earth campaign, systematically razing and pillaging entire villages and massacring their inhabitants. Although it is difficult to empirically verify the number of lives taken, perhaps several hundred thousand Circassians were ultimately killed. In 1864, the Russians proclaimed an end to what became known as the Caucasian War.
A Scene from the Caucasian War, by Franz Roubaud; courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons
However, the upheavals did not end. Hundreds of thousands of Circassians and others either fled or were herded to the Black Sea coast where they were shipped to Turkish ports. From there, they were dispersed across the Turkish Empire, from Anatolia to the Middle East to the Balkans. This influx of immigrants would in fact exacerbate the inter-ethnic conflicts of the Ottoman Empire that would culminate in the genocide of Armenians in 1916. The Circassians who remained in the Caucasus were scattered across Russia, leaving their original homeland open to settlement by Russophile Slavs.
Exiles from the Caucasus, ca. 1866; courtesy of Circassian World
Today there are at least one million Circassians, many of whom either live in the Russian Federation or the Middle East and Turkey. A significant minority also lives in the United States and Europe. Across the diaspora, May 21 is honored as a “National Day of Mourning,” commemorating the memory of the genocide.