The Russian Empire and the Circassians, a group living in the northwest Caucasus Mountains, fought a century long war with each other, which would come to an end on May 21, 1864. This war was launched by the Russians in an attempt to expand their empire southward, closer to the home base of their rivals, the Ottomans. The broader Russo-Caucasian War resulted in mass casualties on the Russian side as well as a near complete annihilation of the Circassians, on the war’s western front. It resulted in a victory for the Russian Empire which pushed its southern border to the brink of the Ottoman Empire and gave the Russians domain over the northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea. For the Circassians, there were not only lives were lost, but a homeland as well. According to various sources, somewhere between 400,000 and 1,000,000 Circassians were deported from their land to various parts of the Ottoman Empire, including present day Turkey, Syria, and Jordan, after the end of the war. Through research of archival documents, books and academic journal articles, it will be shown that as a result of conflict with the Russian Empire, the Circassian nation neared complete destruction.
In a geographically and ethnically diverse region of the world, lie the Caucasus Mountains. This land, native to peoples known as Caucasians, falls between the Black Sea to the west and the Caspian Sea to the east. In the northwest portion of the Caucasus there is an area regarded as the homeland of a group of people known as the Circassians. This land is bordered by the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north, the republics of North Ossetia and Ingushetia to the east, and Abkhazia and Georgia to the south.
While Circassians are Eurasian, their physical features are much more in line with those of Europeans than Asians. Blue eyes and blonde hair are common among the group as are black hair and extremely light skin. Many Circassians, both men and women, are tall and thin and seem to possess excellent genetics as many have lived and continue to live into their nineties and some even reach one hundred years of age. Circassians are considered to be mountaineers as they thrive in the conditions. The Circassian nation is made up of 12 tribes of people. These are the: Abadzeh, Besleney, Bjedukh, Yegerukay, Zhaney, Kabarday, Memheg, Natuhay, Temirgoy, Ubykh, Shabsug, and Hatukay. The Abkhaz are considered to be cousins of the Circassians and reside south of Circassia in Abkhazia, which is now a disputed section of Georgia. While many of these tribes have been diminished over the years, especially during the Russo-Circassian War, the Kabarday, Temirgoy, Shabsug, and Bzhedugh have maintained somewhat large populations in the Caucasus. The warrior ethic has been a major part of Circassian culture throughout its existence. This is accentuated by the traditional dress worn by Circassian men. It consists of a long coat with pockets for cartridges across the front, high boots and a sheepskin hat. Early in their history, the Circassians were Christianized under Byzantine rule. However, after taking root in the northeast Caucasus, particularly Dagestan, in the 7th and 8th centuries, Islam slowly began to spread west over the ensuing 1000 years. Many Circassians practiced traditional beliefs into the 18th century when, in the eastern Caucasus, a fighter known as Sheikh Mansur united the resistance against Russia under Islam; something that attracted many Circassians to the religion.
Early Contact Between Russia and Circassia (985AD-1800)
The first account of fighting in the Caucasus Mountains between Russians and Circassians came from the year 985 on the Taman peninsula. The aggression was led by the Russian Prince Sviatoslav, who after capturing the area laid the groundwork for the Princedom of Tamatarka. He led many missions into Circassian lands in the 10th century, provoking battles that would result in the deaths of 55000 people. Following this, 37 years later in 1022 the ruling prince of Tamatarka, Mstislav squared off with the Circassian Prince Rededey as the Russians invaded Kasogia (the medieval Russian name for Circassia, with Kasog being the name for Circassian) and fought a battle that was recorded by Russian and Circassian folklorists alike. Even with these spontaneous battles that became more and more regular over time, it was not until the sixteenth century that Russian brutality began to take hold in Circassia. The first Russian Czar, Ivan the Terrible would earn his name by brutalizing all the people he touched, which by the late sixteenth century included the Circassians. His assistance was initially sought by Circassians in defending them from the Ottoman Empire to the south, which was looking to expand their empire. This led the Circassian Prince Edar Temruk to establish an agreement with Ivan, asking for help fighting the Ottomans while granting Russia help from the Circassians in fighting the Crimean Tatars. Ivan married Goshenai, the daughter of Prince Temryuk. Goshenai converted to Orthodox Christianity and took the name Maria after being baptized, an act that was seen as an attempt to show unity between Russia and Circassia, in order to discourage would be invaders. This step gave Russia a foothold in the region and assimilated some Kabarday aristocracy into the Russian ruling class. In 1567, the Russians built a fort on the banks of the Sunje River with the permission of the prince. Ivan’s son and successor, Czar Feodor Ivanovich furthered Russian aspirations for expansion by declaring himself the “ruler of the Iberian land, Georgian czars, Kabarda, Circassians, and mountaineer princes.”
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Peter the Great ruled as czar of the Russian Empire. During his reign he pursued Circassian lands as well. One of his governors, a man named Araskin who ruled over the territory of Astrakhan, which is in present day southern Russia, invaded Circassia in August of 1711, near the Kuban River, taking the aul of Kopyl, which is in present day Slavianski. After attacking various ports on the Kuban as he headed toward the Black Sea, he began a roughly 55 mile march down the banks of the river on which he attacked various Circassian auls he came across, laying destruction to the land and taking the lives of its citizens. In response to these attacks, the Circassians mobilized about seven thousand cavalrymen and began a counterattack against the Russian forces. The Russians, who possessed a strong artillery force, won the confrontation which occurred near the Chalou River. As a result of this entire campaign, 43,247 Circassian women and men were killed and 39,200 horses, 227,000 sheep, and 190,000 cattle were driven away from the land. When the Russo-Turkish War of 1735-1739 began, both sides sought to gain the Circassians as an ally. The Russian Empress, Anna Ivanovna asked the Kabardians to help her nation in its fight. They decided to help Russia on the basis that after the war, Ivanovna would recognize Kabardia as an independent state. After the war was ended in 1739 by the Treaty of Belgrade, both Russia and the Ottomans recognized the independence of Kabardia; something that Russia would quickly change their opinion on. Ivanovna quickly sent the Russian military back into Kabardian territory after a failed attempt at involving herself in the internal affairs of the people. This military intervention and occupation lasted for several decades. In 1763, then ruler of Russia, Catherine the Great, converted the Circassian town at Mazdok into a Russian fortress, enraging the Kabardians. After it was converted, a Russian envoy was sent to speak with the Circassians and convince them to pledge allegiance to the Russian crown. This offer was met with a resounding “No”, which infuriated the envoy and led directly to an ultimatum, delivered on August 21, 1765; accept Russian citizenship or be subjected to the military might of the Russian Empire. While there was an enormous amount of conflict between Circassians and Russians spanning an entire millennium, the aggression picked up considerably in the early 19th century.
The Height of Aggression (1800-1861)
The Cossack role in the Russo-Circassian War was first seen in February of 1645 when 2000 of their fighters joined a Russian unit and crossed the Belaya River (a tributary of the Kuban), attacking several Circassian auls. This raid was a major success for the Cossacks who not only killed and took prisoners, but also rounded up livestock, seized ammunition and guns and stole various goods. Over the next two centuries, the Circassians continued to fight Russian rule, inviting brutality. One example of this brutality came in 1790 as troops ran members of the Bzhedugh tribe out of their auls, which they then proceeded to burn down. In response to their refusal to submit to Russia, a Cossack commander by the name of Bursak was given permission by the Kremlin to launch various disciplinary campaigns against the Circassians. Several campaigns brought him and his men to various parts of Circassia, including the territories of the Shabsug, Abadzeh, Bzhedugh, and Natuhay. The commander and his fighters were infamous among the Circassians for burning their grain supplies to the ground and looting their livestock every time they won a battle, no matter how big or small. In fact, in 1807, Bursak was promoted to the rank of Major General as a result of his actions in Circassia. In the early 19th century, members of Bursak’s regiments led several missions against the Circassians. In 1802, he gathered a force of 336 Cossack officers, 2245 foot soldiers and 3858 cavalrymen and brought them over the Kuban River in preparation for a surprise attack on Circassian forces in the area. When the attack came, the Circassians were caught off-guard and began to retreat. This retreat was cut off by the Cossack forces that attacked and killed 200 people while wounding 300 others. After defeating them, the Cossacks entered four nearby Circassian auls (villages) and took 532 people prisoner, while also seizing 1158 cows and 1396 goats. After this great success, the Commander received a promotion to the rank of Colonel. One encounter between Bursak and the Circassians that was of particular brutality, occurred in late November to early December of 1804. The newly promoted Colonel led a large force, which included 6 artillery weapons as well as infantry and cavalry, across the Kuban River again into the mountain auls of the Shapsug. The Cossacks surrounded the auls and attacked, killing roughly 150 people. About 1000 Shapsug attempted to regroup and stage a counterattack against Bursak, but the artillery fire was too much for them to overcome. The Circassian tribe was eventually routed, forcing them deeper into the mountains, at which time Bursak’s men killed or captured the remaining inhabitants, burnt down the auls and stole about 1300 cows and 6000 sheep, before retreating and setting up camp for the night. The next day on December 5, the Cossack forces attempted to follow the Shapsug deep into the mountains but were prevented from doing so by flooding rivers. The year 1808 brought with it a commission from St. Petersburg that sought to end Circassian resistance against the Russian incursions onto their land. The commission laid out four decisions:
- To clear the Caucasus completely of weapons and continue military actions until the armed resistance ends.
- To make Circassians come down from the mountains and onto the lowlands because in the highlands they are very skillful in carrying out military action. Also, living on the lowlands they will lose their skills over time.
- To dissolve the native population by relocating Russians and Kazaks on the Caucasus.
- To make Circassians leave their homeland for Turkey.
In February of 1810 Bursak’s forces continued doing their best to execute the decisions of the commission. They entered a Circassian aul near the Sop River and proceeded to burn in to the ground and kill most of its inhabitants, including men, women, and children. In this instance the Cossacks also looted the aul, taking roughly 100 horses, 300 cows, and 300 sheep. The only thing that prevented further destruction was the fact that the river began to overflow and disrupted the Cossack plans. In March of 1810, after falling ill, Bursak ordered that his men be split into two columns. These two groups would eventually converge on the morning of March 11 on auls near the Kuban River, attacking them for several hours and pummeling the inhabitants with artillery fire. According to Circassian statistics, about 500 Circassians were killed just by the artillery weapons, while 45 others were taken prisoner and 40 horses were stolen. Next on Bursak’s disciplinary list was the Abkhaz tribe. Leaving their encampments on the Black Sea coast on September 12, 1810, it took the Cossacks one night to march to the Abkhaz auls over the Kuban River. As a punishment for disloyalty to their own Prince Alkaas, who himself had loyalty to the Russian Empire, the Cossack troops destroyed the neighborhoods and burned all of their grain. As a result of this raid, the Abkhaz retreated into the mountains and forests, leaving the Cossacks to pillage for a month before returning to their encampments on October 20. In December of the same year, Bursak sent Lieutenant Colonel Yeremyev to attack the Shabsug tribe again. After defeating them in a battle that ended in massive casualties for the Shabsug, the combined Russian and Cossack force burned down local auls as the inhabitants fled for the forests. The attacking force pursued them and while doing so, burned down “not a few houses and properties.” On January 14, 1811, a Cossack and Russian brigade were brought together in order to move on Shabsug territory again. Only the Cossacks decided to attack at this time. They quickly defeated their opposition and burned several auls in the aftermath of the battles. It was after this encounter that the Shabsug decided to approach the Russians with a plea for peace. This was met by the Russians with a demand for the payment of a levy by the tribe as well as the return of all Russian prisoners and weapons seized from them. Part of the Shabsug agreed to this but another portion of the tribe did not. The uncompromising section of the tribe continued to attack Russian forces as they marched through the region, leading them to retaliate. During these retaliations, heavy losses were incurred by both sides and several Circassian auls were pillaged and burned.After ten years of near continuous fighting between the combined Russian-Cossack forces and Circassians, Russia’s patience continued to wane. In 1822, a disciplinary mission was sent by Russia into Circassia, yet again. This time, a force of approximately 1200 soldiers surrounded the Circassian aul of Dodaroukoh, burned it to the ground and captured 66 prisoners. The Circassians launched a counterattack as the Russian forces pulled back from the aul, but failed to free the prisoners. In November of the following year, the Russian General Vlassov brought a force of 2500 troops with him to several Abkhaz auls. He destroyed them, looting the livestock and even a piece of copper artillery. The following month, December of 1823, Vlassov raided a Shabsug aul that contained grain reserves for bread making. He destroyed the aul and burned the grain reserves down, inciting the inhabitants who attacked and wounded four Russian officers, two policemen, and 23 Cossacks. The general did not limit his destruction to just these auls. In February of 1824, he attacked the Circassian auls of Jambut, Aslan, Morza, and Tsab Dadhika, killing many of the inhabitants and destroying the physical structures. The Circassians did not resist in this instance but instead, only tried to flee. The invading Cossack force captured 143 people while stealing 700 cows, almost 100 horses, and about 1000 sheep. After this event, on the march back to their Black Sea encampments, the Cossacks stopped to destroy two more auls, on the orders of Vlassov. In June of 1824, the Russian General Emmanuel gave the order to prevent Circassians living in the area of Anapa on the Black Sea shore from reaping their grain harvest. Since simply preventing the reaping of such a large amount of grain seemed to be an impossible task, on June 21, Emmanuel approved the burning of grain in the region. This act was to be carried out as a punishment to those in the area who did not pay a levy to the czar and refused to swear the “oath of loyalty and obedience to Russia.” The Russian disciplinary task force moved into range of the Circassian auls Kletch and Dodaroukoh, located on the Zielenchuk River. After surrounding the auls on all sides in the early morning with their forces, they launched a surprise attack on the sleeping Circassians. They pushed into the aul, forcing the inhabitants out of their homes and into the surrounding areas. While a formal battle did not take place, several clashes popped up, resulting in deaths and injuries. About 200 corpses remained inside the aul once the dust settled but more drowned in the Zielenchuk as they attempted to cross it to escape the invading force. In particular, a number of children and young people lost their lives in the river. As many as 370 Circassians, both men and women, were taken prisoner as a result of the raids. The task force also stole 1200 cows, 7000 sheep, and 600 horses. In February of 1825, the disciplinary task force was reconvened and again moved on Circassian territory. On the morning of the 25th it launched a surprise attack on two Shabsug auls, freeing a Russian prisoner and capturing 35 Circassians. However, 27 of these prisoners were killed for resisting capture. The task force proceeded to burn all of the grain as well as homes in the auls. They also stole other property and seized weapons belonging to the inhabitants. After leaving the area, they quickly moved int
o Natuhay auls, destroying them and pillaging the livestock. As a result of this raid, a handful of Circassians were killed and 44 were taken prisoner. General Emmanuel supervised the movement of a task force beyond the Kuban River in November and December of 1828. He divided the force into three columns with the intention of spreading it out to achieve its disciplinary goals in more auls. As the split force moved into different areas, they attacked and defeated many of the Circassian pockets of resistance. Most of those who were not killed were captured and their homes burned. One specific event within this campaign occurred over four days; the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th of December. The task force invaded and destroyed 25 neighborhoods near the Korgibs River, burning roughly 1348 homes. The task force continued its operations in July of 1829 when it came moved on the aul of Berko, where many Circassians were out plowing the fields and tending to the livestock in the morning. The Cossack-led force went looking for them in the fields leading to the Circassians being tipped off about the raid. The natives, numbering about 1000 fighters, attacked the task force which numbered in the several thousands, leading to a Russian victory. These Circassians who also practiced beekeeping, had their apiaries burned down while the task force seized roughly 2000 sheep. All in all, the Russian forces burned down seventeen homes, four apiaries, three-hundred grain stores, and five-hundred fodder stores. The invading forces were only able to capture three Circassians in this instance, which included a small boy who was with the livestock. The following September, members of the Abzakh and Shabsug tribes received advanced notice of a Russian incursion onto their land. In preparation, the men sent their wives, children, and elders into the mountains while they remained in the housing areas. The Russian force led by General Pescrovny soon realized that the Circassians were prepared for their assault and therefore decided just to burn two-hundred grain stores and three-hundred and fifty fodder stores before retreating back across the Kuban River.
In 1831, the Russian government considered the displacement of the Natuhay tribe in favor of populating their land on the northern coast of the Black Sea with Cossacks. The Russians knew that the Ottomans had their sights set on the land and felt that settling Cossacks in the area would discourage any Ottoman advances. This consideration would play a bigger role later in the 19th century, as the tide of the war began to turn in favor of the Russians. Late in 1831, in retaliation for Circassian attacks against Cossack camps, the Russian General Frolov and his task force raided several Circassian auls, including that of Kabarday Prince Haji Hamurzyn. The general, his men, and Cossack cavalrymen launched a campaign of terror in these auls beginning the night of November 20. They set up artillery weapons and surrounded the auls, attacking the people in their homes. Some Circassians hid in the local mosques and were killed when Russian troops opened fire on the houses of worship. The scene was described by an onlooker:
“…In this ruthless affair the Russians lost 10 soldiers and had one officer and 16 soldiers wounded. At the scene of the battle there were more than 150 bodies of Circassians killed by bayonets and up to 50 women and children killed from the action of the Russian artillery. “
In a letter from Baron Rosen to the Russian government, a picture was painted of one of the many raided neighborhoods. Rosen described how, in December of 1831, after hunting them through the corrals, 381 Circassians, 46 of which were armed, were captured by his forces. He boasts of the fact that aside from the regular citizens, family members of the Kabardian princes Kuchuk and Kich as well as the wife of Prince Jampolat Haj Hamurzyn and an important Sheikh named Mecker were also taken prisoner. In addition to the prisoners, Russian troops also fired upon large groups of auls, leaving 100 men and 50 women dead. On the march out with their Circassian prisoners, the Russians, under General Frolov and Lieutenant Colonel Lisanivich, set fire to homes and laid destruction to the neighborhoods. At this time, a Russian soldier named Midvideiv from the Navagainsk infantry regiment chased down and killed a Circassian who shot at him in an attempt to stop him from lighting a mosque on fire. Rosen mentions that this event came during the course of “the destruction of the Prince Mirzalo neighborhood by the Third Brigade holding Mesquite (rifles).”
Three years later, the Russian Colonel Zas sent a report to Rosen detailing his campaign into Circassia in February of 1834. In it, he openly describes the brutality he showed to the Circassians he came upon after crossing the Kuban River:
“…I captured three Kabardians from carriages that were on their way to fetch grass, other than the thirteen we already had, who did not wish to surrender voluntarily, so I ordered to kill them.”
Zas follows this with a description of how, on his orders, the troops surrounded a neighborhood. He details how the surrounded Circassians abandoned their weapons and attempted to flee, in vain:
“The savage group meanwhile panicked and started fleeing from their homes, leaving their weapons behind attempting to escape to the forest but most of them were killed by the Cossacks…with the soldiers lined up ready to fight, the cleansing continued with artillery shells, and I sent there two infantry brigades, but they could only capture 11 more people, and since the fire was in flames in many places, the rest were either killed or burned after attempting to escape by hiding on the roofs of their homes or by the manure. So like this, we destroyed and destructed the neighborhood.”
This would not be the end of Zas’ campaigns in Circassia. In an 1834 letter to Baron Rosen, Lieutenant General Villiaminov said that Zas had informed him that he had overtaken 28 neighborhoods which, on his command, all the inhabitants were “forced to swear the oath of loyalty and obedience.”
In February of 1835, Zas reported to Lieutenant General Villiaminov that his spies among the Circassians, the Ubykh specifically, informed him that their livestock herders were taking their animals up to the Chadago River to graze, stating that the shape of the area was defensive. Zas decided to “ransack these herds and punish this inimical nation.”
In a letter from Rosen to his superiors in 1835, he describes the way that Lieutenant General Malenovsky crossed the Eil River and moved on neighborhoods near the Azipso River. While most of the residents were able to flee into the forests, the Russian soldiers burned their homes as well as storage units containing grain. In a minor clash with Circassians who could not flee quickly enough, the Russian side endured two deaths while the Circassians suffered at least twenty killed. On the way back to base, Malenovsky decided to “cross the river and destroy the close neighborhoods then head back to the Kuban.”
A famine struck Circassia during the autumn and winter of 1839 and 1840, creating a desire to die in battle rather than accept a death from starvation. This desperation led multiple Circassian tribes, led by the Ubykh, Hajji Berzek to raid poorly defended Russian forts and take ammunition and food. Over the course of the following decade, Circassian groups enjoyed various victories against the Russians while also continuing to suffer large defeats. These defeats, which drove much of the indigenous population into the mountains, allowed Russians to settle in the fertile valleys which had previously served as granaries for the Circassians. Adjutant General Evdokimov was made commander of the Russian armed forced in the Kuban region of the Northwest Caucasus in 1860 and quickly drew up a plan for Russia’s final victory over the Circassians. The main part of the plan was an extension of the 1831 plan to repopulate portions of the region with Cossacks. Evdokimov proposed that Circassians be given the choice to either move further inland or immigrate to the Ottoman Empire. The Besleney tribe put up significant resistance to this plan, refusing to leave their land. Their resistance proved to end up in what may have been the first instance of forcible deportation from the Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire. After surrounding the Besleney auls, Russian troops rounded the people up and moved them down to the Urup River, and with the permission of the Ottomans, were sent to Turkey. This deportation consisted of roughly four thousand families. After these events, the Circassian tribes met in Sochi, the capital of Circassia, for the “Great Free Conference” and decided to “institute extraordinary union and to preserve internal order in the country.” The tribes even decided to seek outside help in their fight against Russia. Their attempts were brought up by a man named Stewart E. Rolland at a public meeting in England in 1862 at which he presented the Circassians and their plea to his country. In the plea, the Circassians attempted to show the Queen that theirs was a civil society that existed in lawfulness until the Russians attempted to destroy everything that they had built. It is made clear that surrender and emigration to the Ottoman Empire are not options for the Circassians; only victory against Russia, with the help of England, is. After ultimately being rejected by the English in their plea for help, the Circassians were dealt another huge blow to their morale. Russian ships landed at Sochi from the Black Sea and burned down the buildings in which the “Great Free Conference” had been held.
In autumn of 1861, the Russian Emperor Alexander II decided to visit the Kuban region of the Northwest Caucasus in order to survey the successes of his army. He met with Circassian elders, including Hajji Berzek who, along with the other defeated elders asked Alexander to receive the Circassians as his subjects. The emperor agreed, as long as Circassians put an end to the violence, return all Russian prisoners and submit to him. The Circassians requested that they also keep their land and not relocate further inland and that the Russians stop building on their territory. In response to their demands, Alexander gave them one month to decide whether they would prefer to move inland or to Turkey.  Several groups of Circassians decided to oppose this ultimatum and instead continued an armed resistance to the Russians. Overwhelming force from the Russians, who were now also joined by
Circassians who had pledged loyalty to the empire, led to more and more Circassians being pushed out of their homes, which were destroyed and replaced with Russian settlements.
Total War and Defeat (1862-1864)
In 1862, Evdokimov spoke of his intentions in Circassia to M. I. Veniukov, which the latter described in his memoirs:
I can’t help but remember a conversation with Count Evdokimov . . . he took me to task for indicating the Bjedukhs on an ethnographical map of the Kuban region in 1862.
“When do you plan to publish this map?” He asked me.
“I don’t know; that will depend on the Geographical Society; most likely at the end of next year (1863).”
“Well, you should know, most respected sir (this was the Count’s usual epithet for a subordinate), that if you wish to make your map of current interest, then rub out the Bjedukhs. There, in Petersburg, they talk about humaneness, interpreting it falsely. I consider humaneness to be love for one’s country, for Russia, her deliverance from enemies. So what are the Bjedukhs to us? I will expel them, like all the remaining mountaineers, to Turkey.
Beginning in late 1862 and early 1863, Russian military units continued to face less and less resistance from the Circassians. These small pockets of resistance could only really manage to capture a horse or wound a Russian soldier or two in their attacks. By the summer of 1863, the Russians were searching for Circassians who they thought might be hiding from them. On June 23, Russian soldiers viewed several auls from nearby hilltops and prepared a map which they would use in a later attack. During the week of August 24 and 29, Russian troops of the Dakhovsky Detachment burned auls that were situated along the Shekots River, which had been inhabited by Abadzeh villagers. Evdokimov did not give a detailed account of casualties or prisoners taken in this instance. Early the next month, in September 1863, the Dakhovsky Detachment moved into a populated area of the Khadisha Canyon and chased the local Circassians south, across the Caucasus ridge. At this point, these residents expressed a want to move to Turkey. During that same month, Russian forces moved toward the Fene River, took two prisoners and burned two auls. After meeting the Dakhovsky Detachment that same month, Evdokimov gave orders to clear out all of the Circassians that lived between the Belaya and Pshekh Rivers. The unit could not carry out the task quickly enough so he recruited the Kurjipsky Cordon to drive out the locals right away.By September 9, Natuhays living between the Psebs and Zeimes Rivers were forced out of their homes and to new locations. After these deportations, the Russian forces moved on auls on the Abin River. They destroyed them, removing 289 families that had fled into the forest on September 19. Of the 289 families, 170 decided to move to Turkey and 119 were relocated to the Kuban River. Over the following seven days, Russian forces searched for and found 47 people hiding in the area. Meanwhile, in a self-declared merciful act, on September 12, Evdokimov gave Abadzeh villagers five days to move their auls to a new location “because the Abadzehs had never exhibited any military opposition and had always fulfilled our demands.” Russian forces continued to operate in September of 1863, forcing Circassians living between the Shebsh and Bezenga Rivers to surrender or flee. Those who surrendered agreed to be moved to any location that Russia deemed fit. In addition to being removed from their homes, these villagers were also forced to accept responsibility for “all the disasters they suffered as a result of the war.” The Russians formed cordon lines in the region using cannons and large groups of soldiers. In the Urup Valley, the Russians set up an occupation. They chased Circassians off of their land near the Belaya River and trapped them between the Pshish and Shebj Rivers. After being captured, some decided to move to Turkey and some switched sides and joined the Russian forces. Some of those who were trapped managed to escape to caves located in the mountains. On September 14, the Dakhovsky Detachment continued its operations along the Tkhukh River. They destroyed auls, stole about 5000 sheep and chased out 300 families. The Circassians did not resist during this operation. On the 15th of September, the detachment moved along the Khokadz River and destroyed all of the auls that they came across. The following day, the unit moved onto the Medmago River, destroying all of the auls as well as their food reserves. The campaign continued as two Russian battalions came together at the Zelyuko River, destroying all of the auls they encountered. Twenty more auls were destroyed along the Fabio River by the Russian forces on September 20, along with “various supplies”. Evdokimov claimed to have “cleansed” the entire mountain area of Circassians on September 21. This claim was made after he and his men worked to “expel the natives from the strongest points in all the mountain land between the Kurjips and Pshekha Rivers.” Russian forces stated that after burning various auls to the ground in late September, the Abadzeh residents gave up their resistance and fled from their homes into the forest. Later in the fall of 1863, the Dakhovsky Detachment was joined by the Pshekh Detachment. Under the command of Evdokimov, the newly formed unit passed into the Goitkh Gorge, from which they began to build roads and supply lines that would give them the ability to push further south into the region. As they continued their push south, the Russians began to burn every aul that they came across. This included auls in the Shebsh canyon as well as those remaining along the Tkhukh River. After some delay, Evdokimov returned to the Abadzeh villagers he had previously told to leave their villages and discovered that Shabsug villagers had visited them and claimed that help was on its way from Turkey. This created a conflict within the Abadzeh as to what path they should take. In response, Evdokimov set up a cordon line with the intent of ending communication between the two tribes. On October 9, the Russian forces discovered various Circassian outposts at the source of the Adygako River. The inhabitants were caught off-guard, allowing the Russians to capture four of them and forcing the abandonment of four horses. A nearby aul was also destroyed. Later, on October 14, the Russians surrounded a gorge near the convergence of the Dekos and Vulan Rivers, forcing Circassian villagers living in it to flee and leading to the destruction of several auls within it. The operation resulted in the capture of twelve Circassians and the theft of various livestock. Near the end of the same month, a group of about 1,000 Ubykhs came together to launch an attack on local Russian forces from the forest. Of these, about 600 found and attacked a Russian unit and fled back into the woods. After searching for some time, the Russians found them and called for reinforcement and four cannons. Seven battalions and three dragoon units attacked, resulting in a battle that killed 76 Ubykhs. After retreating, an additional 24 Ubykhs were killed during a Russian pursuit. On October 21, the Russian discovered another Circassian outpost and destroyed it. On October 31, Russian began searching for “temporary dwellings” that may have been built by Circassians who had their respective auls destroyed during operations on the north-side of the mountains. They discovered homes between the sources of the Shebsh and Adips Rivers over the course of four days. They also took various livestock from the area. In early November of 1863, the Russians continued to seek out permanent and temporary Circassian housing. They also searched areas that had already been cleared for villagers who may have returned. On November 6, five Russian companies began operations intended to drive out all Circassians living west of the Pshad River. They destroyed every aul that they came across, driving inhabitants out and capturing 30 female and male prisoners. On November 10, three companies split off and began a search of the Adips River valley for any Circassians who may have been hiding. Circassians who were hiding resisted and engaged the Russian forces. As a result, five Circassians were killed and eight people of both genders were captured. The Russians continued to push forward into the valley, in which they discovered and burned various auls on the 16th. Ten Circassians were also taken prisoner during the operation. After resting for two days, Evdokimov sent five companies to the source of the Tkhoba River. They marched from the river to the Black Sea coast, destroying every aul and temporary settlement they came across. They continued to destroy temporary dwellings near the Shebsh River on November 18, while taking over 600 cattle and 1500 sheep and goats. On November 11, the Russian units continued their expedition near the Tkhad and Pshad Rivers where they captured 176 Circassians of both genders. During this operation, the Russians met fierce opposition, even coming across one Turkish built cannon. On November 17, the Russians cleared out several auls located near the Pshish River. The Dakhovsky Detachment destroyed each of the auls that had been cleared and marched to the headwaters of the Sochi and Kushi Rivers, destroying all of the housing they came across. Throughout the month of November, Russian forces continued to clear out Circassian auls and destroy temporary dwellings. On the 26th of the month, Russians brought their search for Circassians in hiding to the Malaya Laba River. They came across several abandoned dwellings, which they destroyed. It was at this time that several Abzakh elders asked the Russians for conditions of surrender. On November 28, Russian forced led by Colonel Grabbe moved into the region between the Sochi and Pshish Rivers, burning down all of the recently abandoned auls that they came across. They seized one aul that was still occupied after a brief battle, driving its residents out and capturing 20 of them. They continued up into the Sochi gorge, destroying several small auls and then moved down the Sochi River, along which they destroyed every dwelling they encountered. On the 29th, Russian forces made their way to the headwaters of the Pshish River and destroyed all of the auls in the area. A Russian witness stated, “The troops left them in a completely desperate state.” On November 30, Russian troops made their way into the Sochi Meadow, capturing and killing several Circassians. At this point in time, many of the Circassian families began to
surrender. During the first three days of December, most dwellings located near the Nechejuko River were destroyed. Roughly 1,000 Circassians surrendered at this point while many others attempted to flee. While in pursuit of them, the Russian troops destroyed several auls that they came across while capturing 83 Circassians of both genders. The Russians also discovered a large amount of stored ammunition at this time. As the Russians crossed the Pshekh River on December 4, they destroyed five auls and took five families captive. On December 5, 83 Circassian men and women were taken prisoner, while on the 6th, the Russians captured 189 more. While operations continued through the rest of 1863, it was not until the late spring of 1864 that the Russo-Caucasian War would come to an end.
The British Consul in Odessa, Grenville Murray wrote to Earl Russell and the House of Commons on April 29, 1864, explaining the situation in Circassia:
I have the honour to report that information has reached me that Vardan and Sochi have recently been occupied by the troops under the command of Major-General Heyman, who encountered no resistance. The mountaineers are in most distressing condition, and are emigrating to Turkey as fast as boats can be found to take them away.
Grants of land in the conquered districts will now be offered to such of the (Azoff) Cossacks as desire to settle in the South of the Caucasus, and every encouragement will be given them to do so.
On May 21, 1864, Russia proclaimed the end of the war. They celebrated this victory in Sochi, at what is now known as красная Поляна (Krasnaya Poliana), or “Red Meadow”, in English.
Although deportations of Circassians began in the late-18th century when Kabardians were “resettled” in the Ottoman Empire after a small rebellion was crushed, they did not begin en masse until 1858. It was at this time that members of the Abadzeh tribe left for the Ottoman Empire. They were soon joined by Kabardians as well as some of the Circassians eastern neighbors; the Chechens. In 1859, roughly 3,000 members of the Hatukay tribe left for the Ottoman Empire. In response to a Russian military presence in their villages, about 30,000 Abadzehs left for the Ottoman Empire beginning in July of 1861. Also in that year, 940 Kabardian families, which constituted about 10,343 people, were sent from their homes into the Ottoman Empire. On May 21, 1864, 16,500 Natuhay were deported to the Ottoman Empire through the harbor at Anapa, near the northern coast of the Black Sea. On May 27, 5,848 Shabsugs were deported, leaving only 99 families in their homeland. These 99 families remained after “expressing consent to remain Russian citizens.” The deportations were unorganized because the Ottoman Empire had not been at all prepared to take on the Circassians. This led directly to a large amount of Circassians dying, after leaving their homes by ship. In order to please European public opinion, Russia simply stated that Circassians chose to leave their homes in the Caucasus, in favor of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans, who wished to settle the Circassians in the Balkans, went along with the Russian version. An eyewitness account from Novorossiisk clearly answers the question as to whether or not the Circassians were deported or left willingly:
“I will never forget the gloomy impression, which I got from seeing the highlanders in the Novorosiisk Harbor, where close to 17,000 people were crowding the coast. The bad weather and cold season of the year coupled with the near absence of means of existence and the raging epidemics of typhoid and smallpox made their situation all the more desperate. Indeed whose heart would withstand to see a young Circassian girl in tattered clothes lying dead on the cold soil? Under the open skies with two little children in her arms, one of whom was still struggling to survive, whereas the other was trying in vain to drink milk from mother’s already frozen breasts.”
According to existing data, thousands of Circassians sailed from various ports on the Black Sea into the Ottoman Empire. Ports and number of persons are as follows:
- Anapa: 6,452
- Adler and Khos: 20,731
- Novorossiisk: 61,995
- Taman: 27,337
- Tuapase: 63,449
- Sochi: 46,754
It was reported that by 1865, some 520,000 Circassians had arrived in the Ottoman Empire.
An excerpt extracted from a report sent to the Russian government from the Russian Consul, A.N. Moshnin stated:
“Since the beginning of the expulsion to Trebizond (the southeastern coast of the Black Sea) and its surrounding areas, close to 270,000 people were brought here. Of them close to 19,000 died. At present about 63,290 people are still here. Average death rate is estimated at 180-250 people a day. In Kerasond there are about 1,500 people. In Samsun and its surrounding areas there are more than 110,000 people. There the death rate averages 200 people a day. The typhoid epidemic is spreading quickly. In Sinop and Inebolu there are about 10,000 people. In November and December of 1863 close to 100 families were brought to Trebizond. Of them 4,650 people were sent to Constantinople and Varna. The average death rate was estimated at 40-60 people a day. There are still about 2,050 people in Trebizond.”
Furthermore, a British diplomatic dispatch gave an idea as to what was transpiring on the Black Sea:
According to the report of the Ottoman Governmental Commission, the number of Circassian emigrants which sailed from Samsoon in one particular group was 2,718. Died between Samsoon and Constantinople: 202. Transshipped at Constantinople: 528. Died between Constantinople and Cyprus: 637. Landed at Cyprus: 1,351. The suffering and mortality of the Circassian emigrants continue unabated. A report received by the Board of Health from the quarantine physicians of the Dardanelles… announces the arrival of the tug Maria Despina in tow of two other vessels laden with 1,130 Circassians from Samsoon. The original number shipped was 1,800 and during the voyage, which lasted 35 days, 670 dies from disease, exhaustion, hunger and, above all, from horrible crowding.
According to Henze, the most reliable number pertaining to how many Circassians ultimately left the Caucasus after their defeat stands at 1.2 million. Of these, roughly 800,000 moved into the Ottoman Empire. The most drastic of population changes came in the Circassian capital city of Sochi, which according to Russian sources had a population of just 98 in 1887.
An event that began as a war between an empire seeking to expand its territory, and a people attempting to defend their homeland ended in enormous losses. The destruction of homes, killings of civilians, and the pillaging of food sources worked to accomplish the Russian Empire’s ultimate goal; beat an entire group of people into submission and force them to leave their land, cooperate with colonial authorities, or die. While genocide may generally thought of as a swift act of violence that takes the lives of an enormous amount of people, such as the Holocaust or the Serbian massacre of Bosniaks at Srebrenica, it can also take the form of a long term action that is meant to remove people from their land as much as it is meant to eliminate them from existence. Those working on the issue in academia are actively searching for proof of intent from the Russian leadership that genocide was to be committed against the Circassian people. Currently, Dr. Walter Richmond and Irma Kreiten are investigating Russian command in the Caucasus and St. Petersburg, respectively, during this time period.
Michael Capobianco 10-13-12
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