baltvilks (baltvilks) wrote,

Fragmentation of Oppressed Nations as an Instrument of Keeping W. Caucasus under Russian Control

My presentation at the Circassian conference in Anaklia (21.05.2012)

Divide et impera... Vocally declared by the Romans more than 2000 years ago, that has been an important principle of dealing with the conquered peoples up until today. Basing on the millennial experience of numerous empires one would agree that if you keep a conquered or annexed country within a bigger empire without violation of its territorial integrity you may be able to run it quite successfully and keep it under control but only as long as the country is satisfied being part of the empire for a variety of reasons. If, however, the country does not want to remain dependent, then the process of secession could become quite easy and smooth. And some if not the majority of the empires, were not prepared to give their conquests that easily. In that case, fragmentation and reduction of naturally, historically and culturally formed territory of an annexed would definitely make its separation questionable although at the expense of good governance.

One of the empires that practiced the principle “Divide et impera” was, definitely, the Russian Empire and later – the USSR and Russian Federation (both claimed the legacy and succession of the fallen empire). As a result, during the last 238 years the above principle has been applied to the peoples of the Caucasus that found themselves in the sphere of Russian domination.

The beginning of Russian Expansion


The Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 signalled the beginning of Russian expansion in the Caucasus. The war ended with the defeat of the Khanate of Crimea, a once strong state under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire that since the middle of the 15th century formally included most of the North Caucasus. The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca (1774) gave Russia the Greater Kabardia and put the remaining territory of the Khanate of Crimea, including the Ciskuban steppes into the Russian sphere of influence.[1] The full annexation of what remained of the Khanate by Russia in 1783 resulted in the russification of the Ciskubania that was cleansed from its mixed Nogai Tatar and Circassian population and settled by the Zaporogian Cossacks deported from the Ukraine[2]. The new Russian Ciskubanian possessions were reorganized as “Black Sea Cossack territory” that became the first bastion of Russian colonization of Circassia (see Map A1).


From 1783 to 1821 river Kuban remained Russo-Turkish and, de-facto, Russo-Circassian frontier due to the fact that except the narrow strip of Black Sea coast from Gagra to Anapa, the Transkuban Circassia was only nominally dependent of Ottoman Turkey, and Circassian tribes and clans enjoyed significant autonomy[3].

The situation changed drastically after the Russo-Turkish war of 1828-29 when the Treaty of Adrianople (14.09.1929) not only confirmed Russian sovereignty over Georgian states but also gave her Eastern Black Sea coast from Poti to Taman. Ottoman Turkey also dropped all her claims to now landlocked Circassia (See Map A2). Soon after that, the government of the imperial Russia launched the program aimed not only at the full absorption of Circassian lands but at wiping out their inhabitants. Even before the Treaty of Adrianople the suppression of Kabardian resistance (1818-1825) was followed by the cleansing of Kabardians and Nogais from Pyatigoria (territory between rivers Kuma and Malka) and the right bank of Kuban[4]. In 1840-41 following an abortive Circassian attempt to re-conquer their Black Sea coast the unofficial Russo-Circassian frontier was forcibly moved from Kuban to the river Laba. That process was also accompanied by pressing the Circassians out of the secured strip of land. The final stage of the liquidation of Transkuban Circassia occurred in 1853-64 - when the Circassians after desperate attempts to find a compromise with the Czar joined the Jihad launched by Imam Shamil in North-Eastern Caucasus (see below)[5]. In 1861 Transkuban Circassians and Abaza attempted to create a united Circassian state and obtain foreign aid and recognition. However, that attempt failed and despite desperate resistance of the Circassians, the territory between Laba and Black sea was conquered by Russian imperial troops and Cossacks by the end of May, 1864.


The death of King Alexander I (1412-43) who was the last king of the integral Georgia marked the beginning of the crisis of Georgian statehood that lasted for 358 years. By the end of the 18th century once strong and relatively big Georgian state transformed into a patchwork of small kingdoms and principalities surrounded by aggressive enemies that kept taking over one province after another. Facing endless challenges King Erekle (Heraclius) II of the Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti signed the Treaty of Georgievsk (July 24, 1783) with Empress Catherine II of Russia putting his country under the protection of the Russian Empire.


It is of common knowledge that the provisions of the Treaty of Georgievsk were not depriving Georgia of her sovereignty, while its additional articles “provided among other things... the eventual recovery by force of arms of Georgia's ancient territories now in the hands of the Ottoman Turks”[6]. Needless to say that Russia never fulfilled her obligations as per the Treaty of Georgievsk. The abandonment of Erekle during the Persian invasion of 1795 that literally destroyed his kingdom is only one of the few examples of Russia’s policy towards Georgia but its analysis is beyond the framework of this paper. Instead, the kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti was annexed by Russia in 1801 to become a province (guberniya) of the Empire. By the way, modern Russian propaganda claims that the annexation occurred “following the pleas” of George XII, the last King of Kartli-Kakheti. But that is not true. As can be seen from his letter to his envoys in St. Petersburg, King George requested not complete incorporation of his country into the Russian Empire but a conditional one, so that Georgia would remain an intehgral kingdom under Russian “umbrella” with its own King ruling the country as a vassal of the Emperor[7].

Within the next 63 years upon the annexation of Kartli-Kakheti the Russian Empire using various degrees of military force annexed the remaining Georgian states, namely the Kingdom if Imereti and the principalities of Guria, Megrelia, Suanetia and Abkhazia (See Map A2) as well as suppressed the pro-independence uprising of 1812-13 under Prince Alexander Bagrationi. As a result of Russo-Turkish wars of 1828-29 and 1877-78 Russia also gained (See Maps A2 and A3) most of the Pashalik of Akhaltsikh that consisted of historical Georgian provinces of Meskheti, Javakheti and Tao.

Ethnic cleansing in Transkubania and fragmentation of Circassia and Georgia in the late 19th century.

Ethnic cleansing in Transkuban Circassia

During the conquest of Transkuban Circassia, Russian army committed mass murders of the local inhabitants including women and children even in the areas where some of the tribes and clans did not resist the invasion[8]. Most of the Circassian villages and farms were ruined, and the survivors were ordered either to settle far away from the mountains and the sea coast or to leave for Turkey. Within a few months after Russian victory between 400 000 and 1 500 000 Circassians, Abaza and other aboriginal residents of Transkubania were expelled[9]. Reportedly, hundreds of thousands of them perished during the exodus[10]. Their territory was settled by the Black Sea Cossacks, Christian refugees from Turkey (predominantly Armenians and Greeks) and colonists from Central Russia and Eastern Europe[11].


The Russian government also attempted to force Muslim Abkhazians out of the recently annexed Principality of Abkhazeti. That plan was only partially fulfilled due to the activity of Georgian Orthodox priests who performed mass conversion of Abkhazians thus saving them from deportation.


Here it may be important to mention that Russian invasion and methods of “pacification” caused irreversible changes in Circassians’ culture. Before the beginning of Russian expansion the majority of Circassians hesitated between Islam and Christianity. However, by the middle of the 19th century, they unequivocally turned to Islam, largely due to the fact that Ottoman Turkey was the only country that offered some support of their case.

In any case, it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the majority of Circassians were expelled from their lands and forced into life in diaspora. Maps C1 and C2 also demonstrate the results of the ethnic cleansings in North-Western Caucasus and the expulsion of Circassians and Abaza.

Fragmentation of historical Circassia

After the conquest of Transkuban Circassia and official end of the Caucasus wars the Circassian lands found themselves split between three administrative units of the Russian Caucasus: Kuban territory, Terek territory and Black Sea province[12]. The remaining Kuban Circassians were concentrated predominantly in the four districts of Kuban territory, namely, Psekup, Laba, Urup and Zelenchuk (abolished in 1870). In Terek territory the remaining Circassians inhabited the district of Kabardia (several times renamed into Georgievsk and Nalchik) and in the sector if Zunja (Little Kabardia). The Black Sea province had practically no Circassian population with the exception of a few Shapsug enclaves. (See Map A3). That fragmentation led to the future separation of integral Circassian identity into Adygh, Kabardian and Circassian. Additionally, a considerable number of those Circassians who still remained Christians (predominantly those of Little Kabardia) took a tendency of registration as Cossacks. Usually, the second or third generations of those former mountaineers who joined that privileged ethno-social group of Russians were giving up t heir identity and becoming fully assimilated[13].

At the same time, the remnants of various Transkuban Circassian tribes, in turn, were merging into one ethnos and losing their tribal identity[14]. The Turco-Bassianic peoples were also split between Kuban and Terek territories.


Fragmentation of historical Georgia

During the period of Russian Expansion in Georgia the country ceased being an integral administrative unit but, instead, was re-organized into two provinces: Tiflis (Tbilisi) and Kutais (Kutaisi) After the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 Russia annexed historical Georgian provinces of Achara, Meskheti, Javakheti and Tao. However, those provinces were merged with the Armenian lands also conquered from Turkey during the same war thus forming a mixed administrative unit called Kars territory. Only Achara was incorporated into the province of Kutais as the district of Batum (see Map A3).

One should add to the above that the districts of Batum and Sukhum (Abkhazia) were several times separated from the province of Kutais for the purpose of their russification and, eventually, returned under the jurisdiction of that province. Similarily, the district of Zakatala (formerly part of Kakheti taken over by the Lesghis of Daghestan conquered by Russia in 1830) Was incorporated into the province of Tiflis and then seceded from it.

During the whole period of Russian imperial rule in the Caucasus the borders of provinces and districts were multiple times “adjusted” and “re-adjusted” causing administrative instability.

The Empire collapses (1917-1918).

The fall of the Russian Empire and “re-formatting” of the world after World War I gave a chance to the peoples of the Caucasus to restore their statehood. That chance was used by various peoples with the varying degree of success.

Historical Circassia

In November 1917, the representatives of the mountaineer peoples of the North Caucasia including the Circassians proclaimed an independent Mountaineer Republic (Gorskaya Respublika). Since May 1918, the new state enjoyed recognition on behalf of Ottoman Turkey, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Bulgaria. The government of Mountaineer Republic claimed the whole of Terek Territory and Daghestan, as well as Batalpasha district of Kuban territory[15]. Nevertheless, it failed to establish any stable control anywhere with the exception of parts of Chechenia and Daghestan and, in fact, ceased to exist by the spring of 1919. The attempts of the envoys of the Mountaineer Republic to gain diplomatic recognition on behalf of the Entente powers at the Paris Peace Conference were unsuccessful[16]. Since that moment the whole North Caucasia slid into the chaos of Russian Civil War until the proclamation of Mountain Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in November 1920.

Meanwhile, the Kuban Circassians did not participate in the “Mountaineer Republic project” due to the fact that Kuban territory was dominated by the Cossacks who were not prepared to join any mountaineer state formations.


In 1918-21 Georgia was more successful in terms of building independent statehood. Proclaimed on May 26, 1918, the Democratic Republic of Georgia was almost immediately recognized de-facto by Germany and Turkey and at the beginning of 1920 – by the Entente powers. Finally, on January 27, 1921, Georgia was awarded de-jure recognition on behalf of at the Paris Peace Conference. By that time, the restored nation could boast relatively stable borders (see Map A4) established as a result of the series of military and diplomatic conflicts with her neighbors (Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and both Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik Russians)[17] and confirmed by several agreements including The Soviet-Georgian Treaty of Moscow (May 7, 1920).[18]

The Soviet invasion and the Soviet – Georgian War of Feb.-March, 1921 resulted in the fall of the First Republic and interruption of independent Georgian statehood for seventy years.


Ethnic cleansing and fragmentation of the Western Caucasus under the Soviet rule (1919-91).

The Sovietization of the Caucasus was, in fact, nothing but re-incorporation of the region into a new Russian Empire re-created under new name (the USSR) and on a new ideological basis (communism). One of the few things that did not change was the principle Divide et impera.

Historical Circassia

As soon as the Soviets finished the re-conquest of the Caucasus (i.e., upon the defeat of Georgia in March, 1921), the Kremlin started the process of liquidation of Mountain Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Within the next four years (с 1922 по 1926 год) the republic ceased to exist her territory being re-organized intop several ethnic autonomies (See Map A4). The legal status of those autonomies was changed a few times, and their administrative borders were constantly re-drawn up until the year 1957 года, after which thry remained unchanged until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Avtorkhanov (and it is hard to disagree with him), all the above manipulations were performed first and foremost in order to overcome the so-called “mountaineer identity” that was dominant in North Caucasia until the middle of the last century. That identity was far above linguistic and tribal differences and could thus help to organize local peoples for anticommunist and anti-imperialist struggle. I should say that this was one of those projects of the Kremlin that happened to be as successful as destructive. The goal of the masters of the Caucasus was reached.

I left the deportation of several peoples of the Caucasus during World War II outside the framework of this paper because our time today is limited, but it, definitely added to the instability in the region.

Finally, the remainder of the peoples of historical Circassia (both Adyghe-Circassians, Abaza and Turco-Bassians) found themselves torn between three autonomous units of Russian Federation: Republic of Adygea, Karachay-Circassian and Kabardino-Balkar Republics (See Map A4), and this still seems to be a problematic situation.


Upon incorporation into the Soviet empire, Georgia was treated as a defeated country and was deprived of considerable chunks of territory (See Map A4).        According to the Treaty of Moscow signed on March 16, 1921 by the representatives of Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey Georgia had to cede to Turkey most of the territories occupied by the Turks during the Soviet-Georgian war of Feb.-March 1921, except the northern half of Achara [19]. Georgia lost Southern Achara and part of Meskheti with the towns of Artvin, Ardahan, Oqam, Olor, Olty, Poskhov. Almost seven months later, on October 13, 1921, the new treaty basically confirming the provisions as the Treaty of Moscow was signed in Kars.

On November 6, 1921, the puppet communist government of Georgia was forced to cede southern part of Borchalo county (Lori sector) to the Soviet Armenia and on March 12, 1922, disputed Zakatala district was transferred from Georgia to the Soviet Azerbaijan with some other smaller increments of territory.

Additionally, the central Soviet government ordered the creation of three autonomies within the remaining Georgian territory. Those were Abkhazia, Achara[20] and “South Ossetia” carved out of Gori, Dusheti and Racha counties. The above territorial formations served as potential pockets of instability that could counterweight possible national liberation movements in Georgia. And, as we all know, they successfully served that purpose of the Kremlin in the 90-ies and keep serving it even today. During the Soviet period there were also some plans to create “autonomies” in Megrelia and some other parts of Georgia but, luckily, those plans never came true.

Current Situation in the Western Caucasus; Conclusions.

As of today, the situation in the Caucasus, in general, is very complicated if not to say explosive. Unresolved conflicts around Abkhazia, the so-called “South Ossetia” as well as around Chechenia and Karabakh, are still in deadlock. And new conflicts may still arise both to the north and to the south of the Caucasus range (hopefully, they will not, of course). And I would take a liberty to state that the application of the principle divide et impera by those who have been dominating the Caucasus for the past two centuries was one of the major causes of modern troubles.

Saying that I do not offer a attempt to change the past. That is impossible. But understanding the background of conflicts  may help us resolve them.

[1] Uyar, Mesut; Erickson, Edward J.  A military history of the Ottomans: from Osman to Atatürk (Santa 

  Barbara, Denver, Oxford, 2009) p. 118

  Richmond, Walter. The Northwest Caucasus: Past, present, future (New York and London, 2008) p.52

  Darby, H.C. and Fullard, Harold (Eds.) The New Cambridge Modern History Atlas (London,1970) p. 186

[2] Tsutsiev, Artur. Atlas Etnopoliticheskoj istorii Kavkaza (Moscow, 2006), pp. 16  and 21.

[3] Herberstein, Sigismund. Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii (Antwerpen, 1557), pp. 159-160

[4] Hewsen, Richard. Armenia: A Historical Atlas (Chicago and London, 2001), pp. 175-176

  Tsutsiev, p.21

[5] Uyar and Erickson, p.175

[6] Lang, David Marshall. A Modern History of Georgia (New York, 1962), p.37

[7] Lang, David Marshall. The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 1658-1832 (New York, 1957), p.232

[8] Shenfield, Stephen. “The Circassians: a forgotten genocide?” in Levene, Mark and Roberts, Penny (Eds.), The Massacre in History (Oxford and New York, 1999), pp.149–62.

[9] Neumann, Karl Friedrich. Russland Und Die Tscherkessen (Stuttgart und Tuebingen, 1840).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tsutsiev, pp.35-39.

[12] Tsutsiev, pp.24-25

[13] Nogmov, Shora. Istoriya adygeiskogo naroda, sostavlennaya po predaniyam kabardintsev (Nalchik, 1959), pp. 142-146

[14] Ibid., p.40

[15] Tsutsiev, p.53

[16] Avalov, Zurab. Independence of Georgia in International Politics 1918-1921 (London, 1940), p.175

[17] Most of those conflicts were also caused by the imperial fragmentation of Georgian, Armenian and other lands.

[18] Okkupacija i fakticheskaja anneksija Gruzii. О politicheskoj i pravovoj ocenke narushenija dogovora mezhdu Gruziej i Sovetskoj Rossiej ot 7 maya 1920 goda. Dokumenty i materialy (Tbilisi, 1990), pp. 82-83

[19] Hovannisian, Richard. The Republic of Armenia, Vol. IV: Between Crescent and Sickle: Partition and Sovietization,  (Berkeley, 1996),  p. 391.

[20] Achara was created partially to satisfy some Turkish claims during the talks in Moscow in... 19

Tags: circassians, georgia

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