Part of The Forgotten Crimes Series
The resort town of Sochi in Russia may look serene but here lies buried the scene of one of the most criminal military undertakings. In what is today the Russian Caucasus once existed an ancient group of people renowned for the beauty; fiercely independent mountaineers professing to Islam, Christianity and Paganism all living in relatively peaceful co-existence. However, little of these original natives still remain in the region today. Systematically murdered, starved and driven out en masse by the Russian authorities, their demise constituted the largest and most horrific genocide of the 19th century, a crime carried out of greed and hatred rather than any necessity. In just a span of four years, ¾ of the entire Circassian population was decimated and of the survivors, most had become stateless refugees.
The Russian Empire had long sought to incorporate the Caucasus into its domain, fighting wars in the process with the neighboring powers of the Ottomans and Persians as a means to expand its influence in the region. After Circassia lost its independence, resistance for freedom still persisted. Annexation proved troublesome as Russian rule was continuously challenged by fierce opposition from the tribes and use of unwarranted terror by the Russian army only heightened their resolve. Military commanders often in their own pursuit of glory and riches would obstruct attempts by tribes to make peace with the Russian authorities. Hostilities only worsened as the years progressed.
By the 1850s, in an attempt to subdue the region to make way for Russian settlement, the Tsarist regime began devising a plan to ethnically cleanse the region of the Circassian tribes. In the words of a Russian General overseeing the plan himself:
eliminating the Circassians [is] to be an end in itself – to cleanse the land of hostile elements
On another occasion, to a group of visiting Americans, a Russian Prince coldly remarked:
… these Circassians are just like your American Indians – as untamable and uncivilized… and, owning to their natural energy of character, extermination only would keep them quiet.
Attempts by the British to address the safety of the Circassians during negotiations at the end of the Crimean war was undermined by their ally, the French. Perhaps this was borne out of concern that such gestures would undermine their own colonial designs in Algeria but the proper reason is unknown. With Circassia firmly in their grasp and facing no opposition, the Russian authorities began their campaign of expulsion and mass murder. Entire villages were razed and their inhabitants, men, women and children, massacred in cold blood if they resisted the onslaught. As the Russian troops advanced, refugees flooded the ports of the black sea, desperate to reach the relative safety of the Ottoman Empire.
…. 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.” – Main Staff of the Caucasian Army
Starvation and diseases became rife among these refugees and as winter set, thousands died in their droves. Those who were lucky enough to board boats destined for Turkey did not see an end to the danger. Cramped conditions proved susceptible to the spread of disease and many vessels would arrive at the shore of Anatolia with the majority of its occupant dead. These boats became referred to as ‘floating graveyards’. Many Circassian refugees also perished at sea as the overloaded vessels carrying them capsized midway through the journey. The Russian military has been so thorough in their campaign of destruction of the Circassian people that by 1867, an estimated 97% of the original inhabitants had either fled their homeland or died in the process. Some tribes such as the Janes, Arshtins and the Hatukays were completely wiped out.
For no reason other than ethnic hatred, over the course of hundreds of raids, the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland and deported them to the Ottoman Empire. At least 600,000 people lost their lives to massacre, starvation, and the elements while hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homeland. By 1864, three-fourths of the population was annihilated, and the Circassians had become one of the first stateless peoples in modern history – Walter Richmond, American historian
It should be noted that it wasn’t just the Circassians that suffered brutality at the hands of the Tsar. Other ethnicities living in the region such as the Chechens, Ossetians and Abkhanzians were also targeted and suffered greatly. The total death toll borne out of Russian atrocities, as a result, comes close to 1.5 million.
The tragedy of the Circassian genocide today remains ignored in most history textbooks. However, the event bears great significance in modern history. According to historian Paul Henze, the lack of an international response to what was then an unprecedented act of cruelty inspired similar events elsewhere in Europe and the Near East. Most significant of such would be the Armenian genocide carried out by the Ottoman Empire five decades later. The fact that past European empires could get away with the systematic murder of an entire people may have entered in the rationale of the Nazi administration in devising their own ‘Final Solution’.