The Circassian genocide, known as the Tsitsekun

The Circassian genocide, known as the Tsitsekun (‘The massacre’) by the Circassians, was the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of 80–97% of the Muslim Circassian population, around 800,000–1,500,000 people, from their homeland Circassia in the aftermath of the Russo-Circassian War (1763–1864). The majority of Circassians were killed or exiled, though a minority resettled in swamps; others who accepted Russification remained. It has been reported that during the events, the Russian-Cossack forces used various methods, such as tearing the bellies of pregnant women. Russian generals such as Grigory Zass described the Circassians as “subhuman filth”, and justified their killing and use in scientific experiments, also allowing their soldiers to rape women.

Only a small percentage who accepted conversion to Christianity, Russification and resettlement within the Russian Empire were completely spared. The remaining Circassian population who refused were thus variously dispersed or killed in mass. Sir Pelgrave, a British diplomat who witnessed the events, reports that “their only crime was not being Russian.” The peoples planned for removal were mainly the Circassians, but other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus were also affected.

A mass deportation was launched against the remaining population before the end of the war in 1864 and it was mostly completed by 1867. Some died from epidemics or starvation among crowds of deportees and were reportedly eaten by dogs after their death. Others died when ships underway sank during storms. Calculations including those taking into account the Russian government’s own archival figures have estimated a loss of 80–97% of the Circassian population in the process. The displaced people were settled primarily to the Ottoman Empire.

Sources state that as many as 1 to 1.5 million Circassians were forced to flee in total, but only a half could make it to land. Ottoman archives show nearly 1 million migrants entering their land from the Caucasus by 1879, with nearly half of them dying on the shores as a result of diseases. If Ottoman archives are correct, it would make it the biggest exile of the 19th century, and indeed, in support of the Ottoman archives, the Russian census of 1897 records only 150,000 Circassians, one tenth of the original number, still remaining in the now conquered region.

As of 2021, Georgia was the only country to recognize the Circassian genocide. Russia actively denies the Circassian genocide, and classifies the events as a migration. Russian nationalists in the Caucasus region continue to celebrate the day when the Circassian deportation was launched, 21 May, each year as a “holy conquest day”. Circassians commemorate 21 May every year as a day of mourning commemorating the Circassian genocide. On 21 May, Circassians all over the world protest the Russian government, especially in cities with large Circassian populations such as Kayseri and Amman, as well other big cities such as Istanbul.

Contents

Background

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, although it was already making attempts in the early 18th century, the Russian Empire began actively seeking to expand its territory to the South at the expense of the neighboring Ottoman Empire and Qajar Iran, and thus it aimed to incorporate the Caucasus into its domain. Some areas proved easier to incorporate than others, largely depending on the nature of local political structures. Eastern Georgia for example, comprising the most powerful and dominant Georgian regions of Kartli and Kakheti had been under intermittent Iranian suzerainty since 1555.

Russia eventually found itself able, through instability in the geopolitical situation of Georgia within Qajar Iran, to annex eastern Georgia in the early 19th century, ratified in the Treaty of Gulistan (1813). Russia endeavored to bring the entire Caucasus region under its control, conquering Armenia, Caucasian Azerbaijan, and southern Dagestan, while co-opting the nobility of other areas such as Lower Kabardia and parts of Dagestan. Although the Russians faced considerable resistance to incorporation in Dagestan and Georgia, as well as military resistance by the local government of Imereti, the regions they felt most difficult of all to incorporate were those that had not been conquered by foreign empires and did not have any local monopolies of power—which was the state of most Circassian territories, where resistance to absorption into the Russian Empire was most tenacious.

Conflict with Circassia

Circassians, Christianised through Byzantine influence between the 5th and 6th centuries, were generally in alliance with Georgians and both Georgians and Circassians wanted to keep good relations with the Russians. Although there had previously been a small Muslim presence in Circassia, significant conversions came after 1717, when Sultan Murad IV ordered the Crimeans to spread Islam among the Circassians, with the Ottomans and Crimeans seeing success in converting members of the aristocracy who would then ultimately spread the religion to their dependents; Islam gained much more ground later as conversion came to be used to cement defensive alliances to protect their independence against Russian expansion. Despite this, there were still Pagans and Christians among the Circassian people. The most Muslim region in Circassia was the Abdzakh district, which was ruled by Muhammad Amin and adopted sharia; religious differences became politicized and led to disunity among Circassians, with Amin using military force against the Natuhay and Shapsugs in 1840 because not all of them had accepted Islam.

In Circassia, the Russians faced disorganized but continuous resistance. While Russia believed it held authority over Circassia based on the Ottomans ceding it in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople, the Circassians considered this invalid, arguing that because their territory had been independent of the Ottomans, Istanbul had no right to cede it. Relations before the 19th century between the Circassians and the Cossacks had often been cordial with extensive trade, and mutual raids against the Turks and Crimeans. However, after a large influx of Cossack settlers and the construction of a long line of pickets in 1792 which cut the Circassians off from their traditional pastures around the Kuban river the Circassians and other Caucasian peoples began systematically raiding Russian encampments and then disappearing. At the same time, as more Russian troops came to be stationed in the region, their own perceived needs (owing to the difficulty of shipping materials back from Russia proper) tempted them in turn to raid native villages, further enraging the natives and producing cycles of retaliation. The Circassians fought the Russians longer than all the other peoples of the Caucasus from 1763–1864.

The Russian military tried to impose authority by building a series of forts, but these forts in turn became the new targets of raids and indeed sometimes the highlanders actually captured and held the forts. By 1816, Russian engagement with the Circassians made military commanders like General Aleksey Yermolov conclude that “terror” would be effective toward frontier protection instead of fortress construction as “moderation in the eyes of the Asiatics is a sign of weakness”. Under Yermolov, the Russian military began using a strategy of disproportionate retribution for raids. With the goal of imposing stability and authority over the whole Caucasus, Russian troops retaliated by destroying villages where resistance fighters were thought to hide, as well as employing assassinations, kidnappings and the execution of whole families. Because the resistance was relying on sympathetic villages for food, the Russian military also systematically destroyed crops and livestock and killed Circassian civilians. Circassians responded by creating a tribal federation encompassing all tribes of the area.

Intensifying resistance

These tactics further intensified resistance to Russian rule. The Russian army was thus frustrated by a combination of highly mobile (often mounted) raiders and evasive guerrillas with superior knowledge of the terrain. The Circassian resistance continued, with villages that had previously accepted Russian rule often found resisting again. Furthermore, the Circassian cause began to arouse sympathies in the West, especially Britain of whom assistance was sought that came in the form of intermediaries and spies from the 1830s and during the Crimean War. More substantive British assistance never arrived as support for the Circassian cause subsided after the Crimean War as the region was considered far away from British concerns. Imam Shamil in the Northeast Caucasus, meanwhile, had tried to win over their support for his own struggle against Russia on numerous occasions, but the Circassians were largely cold toward his overtures. After he surrendered to Russia, their resistance continued unabated.

The Russians countered the heavy Circassian resistance by modifying the terrain. They laid down a network of roads and cleared the forests around these roads, destroyed native villages, and often settled new farming communities of Russians or pro-Russian Caucasian peoples. In this increasingly bloody situation, the wholesale destruction of villages became a standard tactic.

In 1837, the leaders of the Natukhai, Abzakhs and Shapsugs offered submission and voluntary incorporation into the Russian Empire, if Russian and Cossack forces would be withdrawn to beyond the Kuban river; however, their offer was ignored, and the unilateral seizure of Circassian lands continued, with thirty-six new Cossack stanitsas established by 1840. General Yermolov remarked that “We need the Circassian lands, but we don’t have any need of the Circassians themselves”. Russian military commanders, such as Yermolov and Bulgakov, acting in their own interests to attain glory on the battlefield and riches through conquest, which would be much more difficult to attain on the Western front than in the Caucasus, often deceived the central administration and obscured the attempts of Circassian groups to establish peace with Russia.

In the negotiations to formulate the 1856 Treaty of Paris and end the Crimean War, the British representative, the Earl of Clarendon, insisted that the Kuban river should be the boundary between Russia and Turkey, which would place Circassia outside of Russian rule. However, he was undermined by the French and Turkish representatives who supported Russian ownership of Circassia. When Clarendon then tried to make the treaty state that Russia could not build forts in Circassia, he was again thwarted by the French representative. The final treaty also extended amnesty to nationals that had fought for enemy powers, but since Circassia had never previously been under Russian control, Circassians were exempt, and thus Circassians were now placed under de jure Russian sovereignty by the treaty, with Russia under no compulsion to grant Circassians the same rights as Russian citizens elsewhere.

Proposal

In 1857, Dmitry Milyutin first published the idea of mass expulsions of Circassian natives. Milyutin argued that the goal was not to simply move them so that their land could be settled by productive farmers, but rather that “eliminating the Circassians was to be an end in itself – to cleanse the land of hostile elements”. Tsar Alexander II endorsed the plans, and Milyutin later would become the minister of war in 1861, and from the early 1860s expulsions began occurring in the Caucasus (first in the Northeast and then in the Northwest). Others among the Russian military class such as Rostislav Fadeyev expressed views that the Circassians were unable to become Russian as a “re-education of a people is a centuries-long process” and that Russia was at a pivotal moment in its history toward pacifying the Caucasus. To achieve those ends Fadeyev stated that Russians intended to “exterminate half the Circassian people in order to compel the other half to lay down their arms”. Sentiments for expulsion existed among prominent Russian politicians such as Prince Kochubei. Kochubei said to Americans visiting the region that “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.”

However, even before Milyutin’s 1857 proposal, in 1856 Russian forces had already been evicting Crimean Tatars and Nogais, and this has been connected to the Circassian evictions by some authors such as Rosser-Owen. As Russian armies advanced in Circassia in the late 1850s and early 1860s, Circassians were evicted from their lands so they could be settled by loyal Cossacks as the Russian military elite developed a belief that Circassians would have to be entirely expelled from regions for the security of Russian rule.

For her own part, Russia was eager to get rid of “unquiet” peoples and settle the area with Cossacks and other Christians. General Nikolai Yevdokimov advocated expelling the natives of the Western Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire. He wrote that “resettlement of intractable mountaineers” to Turkey would be the easiest way to bring the prolonged Caucasian War to an end, while giving freedom to those who “prefer death to allegiance to the Russian government”. On the other hand, the Tsarist command was very much aware of the possibility of the migrants being used by Turkey as a strike force against Christian populations during the impending Russo-Turkish War. The Circassian resettlement plan was eventually agreed upon at a meeting of the Russian Caucasus commanders in October 1860 in Vladikavkaz and officially approved on 10 May 1862 by Tsar Alexander II. The Ottomans sent emissaries to encourage emigration. The Ottomans hoped to increase the proportion of Muslims in regions where there were large Christian populations. Mountaineers were invited to “go to Turkey, where the Ottoman government would accept them with open arms and where their life would be incomparably better”.

The obligatory conscription was also among the factors that worried these populations, although in fact they would never have been made subject to military draft. Mainly, those Circassian chiefs who favoured resettlement came from the Abzakh tribe who moved their people to new lands in the north from where they previously lived. It is from the Abzakh tribe that most of the remaining Circassians stem from and comprise the titular nation of the modern-day Adygei Republic in Russia. Other Circassian chiefs from different tribes who were also gathered at a meeting (1861) with Tsar Alexander II in the Russian town of Yekaterinodar, and promised to accept Russian rule if Cossacks and Russian soldiers were removed from Circassia, beyond the Kuban and Laba rivers. The Russians rejected the Circassian proposal. Those chiefs refused Russian proposals to move their people out of their ancestral lands.

In 1859, three years before the approval of the plan by the Russian government, Russian officials began talks with the Ottomans about the migration of a limited number of emigrants, and in 1860 the two sides negotiated a treaty for the migration of 40,000–50,000 Circassians, with the Ottoman side being eager for an increase in population. At this time, however, numerous Circassians around the Kuban and even Kalmyks had already been expelled to Ottoman lands as the Russians had swept them up in their systematic deportation of Nogais, with British newspapers reporting that Russian forces were forcing a choice of either the Ottoman Empire or Siberia on resident Nogai and Circassian populations, with 18,000-20,000 Circassians and Nogais ended up packed densely together outside the cities of Istanbul and Üsküdar.

With a gathering sense of emergency, on 25 June 1861, leaders of all the Circassian tribes and the Ubykhs gathered in a khase in Sochi to jointly petition the Western powers for help. Ottoman and British delegations both promised recognition of an independent Circassia, as well as recognition from Paris, if they unified into a coherent state, and in response the Circassian tribes formed a national parliament in Sochi, but Russian General Kolyobakin quickly overran Sochi and destroyed it, while there was no action to stop this by any major power’s government.

Expulsion

In 1862, the proposal to deport the Circassians was ratified by the Russian government, and a flood of refugee movements began as Russian troops advanced in their final campaign. General Yevdokimov was entrusted with enforcing the Russian policy of mass Circassian migration to other parts of the Russian Empire or the Ottoman Empire. Along with Cossack cavalry and mobile units of riflemen Yevdokimov penetrated unconquered northern areas of Circassia and Circassians there submitted without resistance. Four thousand families from those areas left their homeland around the Kuban river estuary and departed for the Ottoman Empire. In the south east Circassians prepared to resist and hold their last stand against Russian military advances and troops. With the refusal to surrender, Circassian tribes were targeted one by one by the Russian military with thousands massacred and whole villages razed to the ground.

In 1864 in the valley of Khodz, near Maikop the Ubykh population resisted Russian troops. During the battle the men were joined by the women, who disposed of their jewellery into the river and took up arms into a fight to the end and to have an honourable death. Russians troops with heavy artillery and other modern weaponry killed all the men, women and children, in a scene that a Circassian chronicler who had witnessed the events described as “a sea of blood”.

In a canyon near Sochi called Qbaada locally, the Circassian forces and some of their Abkhaz allies made their last stand against the Russian army in May 1864. The place was renamed Krasnaya Polyana, meaning “red meadow” in Russian for all the blood that had been spilt there, when it was later resettled by ethnic Russians in 1869. After the final battle in 1864, hordes of Circassians were driven to Sochi, where thousands of them died as they awaited deportation.

Although some Circassians went by land to the Ottoman Empire, the majority went by sea, and those tribes which had “chosen” deportation were marched to the ports along the Black Sea by Russian forces. Russian commanders and governors warned that if the order to leave was not carried out, more forces would be sent.

Demographic changes and groups affected

Effected tribesPopulation in Circassia before the genocidePopulation in Circassia after the genocide
Kabardians500,00034,730
Shapsug300,0001,983
Abzakh260,00014,660
Natukhaj240,000175
Hatuqway and Zhaney100,0000
Temirgoy80,0003,140
Ubykh74,0000
Bzhedugs60,00015,263
Khegayk20,0000
Hakuchey15,0000
Mamkhegh15,0001,204
Ademey5,0000
Chebsin4,0000
Chebsin, Guaye, Khatuq and Cherchenay3,0000
Total1,661,00071,155

Among the main peoples that moved to Turkey were Adyghe, Ubykhs, Muslim Abkhazians – hence the reference in the name to the deportation being of Circassians. The Shapsugh tribe, which had numbered some 300,000, was reduced to the 3,000 people who managed to flee into the forests and plains. The 140 Shapsugh that remained were sent to Siberia. Overall, calculations including those taking into account the Russian government’s own archival figures as well as Ottoman figures have estimated a loss of 90, 94% or 95–97% of the Circassian nation in the process.

The population of some (but not all) of the Ubykhs as well as the various major subdivisions of the Circassian (Adyghe) people, the main targets of the operation, before the war and five years after the operation have been calculated as follows:

However, although Circassians were the main (and most notorious) victims, the expulsions also gravely affected other peoples in the region. It was estimated that 80% of the Ingush left Ingushetia for the Middle East in 1865. Lowland Chechens as well were evicted in large numbers, and while many came back, the former Chechen lowlands lacked their historical Chechen populations for a long period until Chechens were settled in the region during the return from their 1944–1957 deportation to Siberia. The Arshtins, at that time a (debatably) separate people, were completely wiped out as a distinct group: according to official documents, 1,366 Arshtin families disappeared (i.e. either fled or were killed) and only 75 families remained. Additionally, in 1860–1861 the Russian army forced a series of evictions of lands in the Central Caucasus, forcing about 10,000 Kabardins, 22,000 Chechens and additionally a significant number of Muslim Ossetians out and to Turkey. Two other Muslim peoples in the northwest Caucasus, the Karachay and the Balkars, were not deported in large numbers during the process. Abkhazia, meanwhile, lost 60% of its population by the end of the 19th century.

Whether sources treat the evictions of these non-Circassian peoples as a part of the same process varies; most sources include the evictions and massacres of the Ubykh (considered by many to be part of the Circassian ethnos despite having a different language) and Abazin populations as part of the same operation against the neighboring ethnic Circassian populations, and some sources also include the Abkhaz in counts of the evicted while others group the expulsions of Chechens, Ingush, Arshtins and Ossetians with those of Kabardins, and also some include the earlier and less systematic expulsions of Nogai. The 1861 order by Yevdokimov the relocate populations of Circassians (including Ubykhs) to the swamps also included the Nogais and Abazas.

Shenfield has argued that those that died in the ensuing catastrophe were probably more than a million, likely approaching 1.5 million.

Conditions during the process

In this year of 1864 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

The situation of the Circassian and Abkhaz masses that had been driven into the coastal gorges prior to transport was dire. A Russian historian of the time, Adolph Petrovich Berzhe who witnessed the events regarding the departure of the Circassians described the following:

I shall never forget the overwhelming impression made on me by the mountaineers in Novorossiisk Bay, where about seventeen thousand of them were gathered on the shore. The late, inclement and cold time of the year, the almost complete absence of means of subsistence and the epidemic of typhus and small pox raging among them made their situation desperate. And indeed, whose heart would be touched on seeing, for example, the already stiff corpse of a young Circassian women 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.

— Adolph Petrovich Berzhe, Ahmed 2013, pp. 162–163.

Walter Richmond describes the situation of Circassian refugees as representing one of the first modern crises of a stateless people.

Ivan Drozdov, a Russian officer who witnessed the scene at Qbaada in May 1864 as the other Russians were celebrating their victory remarked:

On the road our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs while still alive. — Ivan Drozdov

An unknown number of deportees perished during the process. Some died from epidemics among crowds of deportees both while awaiting departure and while languishing in their Ottoman Black Sea ports of arrival. Others perished when ships underway sank during storms or due to cases where profit-minded transporters overloaded their ships to maximize monetary gain. In order to pay for the voyage, Circassians sometimes were forced to sell their cattle, their belongings, or themselves into slavery.

The operation was not done with any degree of efficiency by the Russians, forcing the Circassians typically to leave using unchartered vessels, thus opening themselves up to abuses by the captains of such vessels. In some cases as many as 1,800 refugees were packed into one ship, which would also carry livestock and household possessions. When the ships did not sink, such crowded environments proved suitable for the spread of diseases and dehydration, and when the ships arrived at their destinations, they contained only remnants of their original human cargo. For this reason, they were referred to by contemporary observers as “floating graveyards” with “decks swarming with the dead and dying”. Ivan Drozdov recalled that:

…the Turkish skippers… like cargo threw anyone who showed the slightest sign of illness overboard. The waves threw the corpses of these unfortunate souls onto the shores of Anatolia… Scarcely half of those who set out made it to their goal.

Abuses in the transport of refugees between Turkish cities were also noted, with one particular incident concerning a ship bound for Cyprus in which mutilated and decapitated bodies were found washed ashore, compounded by accounts of refugees being tied up and tossed overboard while still alive. On this particular Cyprus-bound ship, only one third of the refugees who had boarded survived. Another Russian observer, Olshevsky, also noted abuses by Turkish skippers, as well as bribes paid by Circassians to get onto departing ships, but he blamed most of all the Russian command under Yevdokimov for the situation:

Why did it happen that … the Abzakhs and Shapsugs, who were being driven from their homeland, suffered such horrific sufferings and deaths? It was exclusively because of the hurried and premature movement of our troops to the sea prior to the spring equinox. Had the Dakhovsky Detachment moved a month or two weeks later, this would not have happened.

Despite the conditions, Russian forces under Yevdokimov kept driving Circassians to the coast. In January he annihilated Ubykh villages, leaving the Ubykhs without shelter in the severe winter, and in March, the crowd of refugees at the Circassian port of Tuapse approached twenty thousand.

Of the portion that made it to Ottoman shores, many more would die there soon after while they were quarantined on either beach, the vessels that had carried them, or in lazarettos, and many more died in makeshift accommodations, and still more died in the process of being transported a second time to their final destinations. One British eyewitness recalled that:

Dense masses of ragged men, women, and children literally covered the seashore. All looked wan and hungry. Many were all but naked. Several lay dying.

In 1864, the Ottoman Porte repeatedly asked the Russian government to stop the deportations on humanitarian grounds, in light of the human disaster unfolding on their shores, but the Ottoman requests were repeatedly refused as Yevdokimov argued with urgency that the deportations should instead be accelerated. When October 1864 was chosen as a cutoff point for the departures, Yevdokimov successfully got it delayed two weeks, after which he ignored the deadline and deported without stop Circassians even as winter set in again. Later in 1867, Grand Prince Mikhail Nikolaevich stated that the cleansing had had to be accelerated “in light of a possible European coalition”.

Analysis of the role of other Great Powers

With regard to Ottoman policy overall, historian Walter Richmond accuses the Ottoman government of “playing a double game”, “gross irresponsibility” and being “either unconcerned with or oblivious to the consequences immigration would have for the refugees, by having at various points encouraged Circassian population movement”, in its previous statements, having earlier encouraged immigration, urging the Circassians to “stay and fight” in late 1863 and promising the arrival of an international coalition force, and then encouraging another wave of immigration as late as June 1864 when the human costs were beyond clear, while Shenfield also describes the Ottoman response to the crisis as “grossly inadequate” and Marc Pinson accuses the Ottoman government of not trying to formulate a coherent policy toward the refugees.[117] Richmond also argues that the British, despite serious discussion of the possibility of military intervention to alleviate the situation in Circassia, have ultimately been concerned only with their own geopolitical interests and “deserting” Circassia to its fate. Rosser-Owen, meanwhile, portrays both London and Istanbul as having been constrained by pragmatic concerns, at a loss for what to do about the flood of refugees, and notes the hardships suffered by British consular staff as they tried to help the Circassian refugees as well as the improvement of Ottoman policy toward accommodating the refugees over time so that by 1867 when the final Abkhaz refugees were transported, there were many fewer deaths in the process. Whereas Richmond argues that Western European indignation at the unfolding situation in Circassia arose only after Russia leveraged the Porte to gain special rights in the Dardanelles thus threatening their trade interests, Rosser-Owen emphasizes that the philanthropic efforts of British organizations and that the concern for the well-being of Circassians was most intense in Scotland where Circassian struggles were compared to past traumas in then-recent Scottish history.

Massacres by the Russian army

Although the order given by Tsar Alexander II was to deport the Circassians rather than to massacre them, the Russian commanders were open to the idea of massacring large portions of the Circassian population, and General Fadeyev wrote that the Russian command decided “to exterminate half the Circassian people to get the other half to lay down their arms.” Richmond has noted that “reports abound” of massacres in the final stages of the Caucasus campaign.

In April 1862, a group of Russian soldiers slaughtered hundreds of Circassians who had run out of ammunition, leaving “the mountain covered with corpses of bayoneted enemies”, as reported by Ivan Drozdov.

Often, the Russian military preferred to indiscriminately bombard areas where Circassians were residing. In June 1862, after the Circassian villages of a part of the Kuban region were burned down and the Circassians fled into the forest, General Tikhotsky’s men proceeded to bombard the forest.

In September 1862, after attacking a Circassian village and seeing some of its inhabitants flee into the forest, General Yevdokimov bombarded that forest for six hours straight and ordered his men to kill every living thing, he then set the forest on fire to make sure everyone was killed.

Ivan Drozdov reported to have overheard Circassian men were taking vows to sacrifice themselves to the cannons to allow their family and rest of their villages to escape, and later more reports of groups of Circassians doing so were received.

By the fall of 1863, Russian operations had become methodical, following a formula by which, after the Circassians fled into the woods, their village and any food that could be found would be burned, then after a week or two they would search for and destroy any huts the Circassians might have made for shelter, burn the forest, and then this process would be repeated until General Yevdokimov was satisfied that all the natives in the area had died either by being shot by Russians, of starvation, or being burnt. Cossacks raped Circassian women.

In May 1864, the last Circassian resistance along with the coastal tribes of Pskhu, Akhtsipsou, Aibgo and Jigit were defeated in the Battle of Qbaada and then killed en masse to the last man, woman and child, after which, on 21 May, Prince Mikhail Nikolayevich gathered the troops in a clearing in the area for a thanksgiving service.

Russian general Grigory Zass of sent severed Circassian heads to his fellow Germans in Berlin who were professors and used them to study anatomy. The Decembrist Nikolai Ivanovich Lorer (Лорер, Николай Иванович) said that Zass cleaned and boiled the flesh off the heads after storing them under his bed in his tent. He also had Circassian heads outside of his tent impaled on lances on a hill. Circassian men’s corpses were decapitated by Russian-Cossack women on the battlefield after the battles were over for the heads to be sent to Zass for collection. Zass erected Circassian heads on poles outside of his tent and witnesses saw the wind blowing the beards of the heads. Russian soldiers and Cossacks were paid for sending Circassian heads to General Zass. Besides cutting Circassian heads off and collecting them, Zass employed a deliberate strategy of annihilating Circassian en masse, burning entire Circassian villages with the people in them and encouraging violation of Circassian women and children. Zass’ forces referred to all Circassian elderly, children women and men as “Bandits, “plunderers” or “thieves” and the Russian empire’s forces were commanded by officers who commanded political dissidents and criminals.

Zass worked with another German officer in the Russian army named Georg Andreas von Rosen during the genocide against the Circassians. Zass wrote letters to Rosen proudly admitting he ordered Cossacks to slaughter Circassian civilians. Russia was ruled by Tsars from the German House of Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov and military officer ranks were filled with Germans from the Baltic German nobility.

Transport vessels

As the deportations increased, there were not enough Ottoman and Russian vessels to carry all the deportees, even when Ottoman and Russian warships were recruited for the job, and the situation began taking a heavy toll on the Ottoman treasury, as they bore the brunt of the task.

Initially, on 17 May 1863, Tsar Alexander II ruled that “those who chose to emigrate” should pay their own way. Later, the Russians offered financial incentives for vessels to take the Circassians to Ottoman ports, but forced the Circassians themselves to pay part. In some cases, Circassians were forced to sell their cattle or their belongings to pay, in others, one of every thirty Circassians was sold into slavery to pay. These funds ultimately ended up in the hands of the transporters, including Russian military officers. Many vessels refused to carry Circassians because of the disease that was present among them as many of the ships that had been carrying Circassians had had their crews fall ill, while others that did agree tried to make as much profit out of it as possible by overloading their vessels with refugees, ultimately causing many transport boats to sink, killing their human cargo. In April 1864, after one Russian crew was entirely wiped out by disease, Russian vessels stopped offering themselves for transport, dumping the entire process onto the burden of the Ottomans; although Yevdokimov investigated the possibility of hiring more ships, he made no effort to make provisions for food, water or medical help.

At least one Russian source from 1908 said that special commissions were set up by the Russian imperial authorities to reduce mortality rates and “survey needs of the migrants”, that is, to prevents ships from being overloaded, to profitably auction bulky movables, and to prepare clothes and victuals for the poorest families, which would be transported “without fee or charge of any kind”. The Russian consul based in the Ottoman Black Sea port of Trabzon reported the arrival of 240,000 Circassians with 19,000 dying shortly thereafter with the death rate being around 200 people per day.

On 25 May 1864, Henry Bulwer, the British ambassador in Istanbul, argued that the British government charter some of its own vessels for the purpose because the Ottomans simply did not have enough on their own; the vessels were not forthcoming but British government ships provided assistance at various points and British steamships also helped. On 29 May, eight Greek vessels were reported to be helping with the transportation of Circassians, as were one Moldavian, one German, and one British vessel.

Lobbying and relief efforts

In 1862, the Circassians sent a delegation of leaders to major cities in Britain, which had been covertly helping the Circassians with tactics and with organizing their resistance, visiting major English and Scottish cities including London, Manchester, Edinburgh and Dundee to advocate for their cause. The visits caused a swelling of public support for the Circassians and outrage directed at Russia, with sympathies particularly intense in Scotland perhaps owing to the recent Highland Clearances, and sparked lobbying for intervention by the Dundee Foreign Affairs Committee, calls to arms for the defense of Circassia, the founding of the Circassian Aid Committee in London, and constant reporting on the issue by various newspapers such as The Scotsman. Politicians and newspapers began taking up the “Circassian cause”, and calling for intervention to save Circassia from decimation, and at one point Parliament came close to going to war with Russia and attempting to establish a protectorate over struggling Circassia. Although such initiatives failed to change British government policy, the Circassian Aid Committee, organized by many individuals who were angry at inaction by London, managed to gather £2,067 for the provision of mattresses, blankets, pillows, woolens and clothings especially for Circassian orphans in Istanbul, while Russophobic commentary by some of its members has been attributed for its closing in March 1865. British consuls became involved with relief patterns and the organization of resettlement for Circassians, with various British consuls and consular staff catching illnesses from plague-ridden Circassian refugees, and a few died from such illnesses.

In the initial stages of the process, relief efforts were also made by the Ottoman population, both by Muslims and Christians. In Vidin, in Bulgaria, the Muslim and Christian inhabitants volunteered to increase their grain production and send it to the local Circassian refugees, while in Cyprus, the Muslim population sheltered Circassian orphans. The Ottoman government built mosques for them and provided them with hocas, while the Sultan donated £50,000 from his Privy Purse, although there were some reports in the British press that most of this money did not actually end up helping Circassian refugees, having been embezzled by Ottoman officials at various steps along the way. As the burden of the refugees increased however, sentiments against the refugees, particularly among the Bulgarian and Turkish populations, grew and tensions began to develop between the Bulgarian and Turkish natives and the Circassian refugees.

Repopulation of affected lands

On 25 June 1861, Tsar Alexander II signed an imperial rescript titled “Settlement of the North Caucasus”, reading as follows :

Now with God’s help, the matter of complete conquest of the Caucasus is near to conclusion. A few years of persistent efforts are remaining to utterly force out the hostile mountaineers from the fertile countries they occupy and settle on the latter a Russian Christian population forever. The honor of accomplishing this deed belongs mainly to the Cossacks of the Kubanski armed forces.

To speed up the process, Alexander offered monetary compensation and various privileges. From the spring of 1861 to 1862, 35 Cossack stanitsas were established, with 5,480 families newly settling the land.

In 1864, seventeen new Cossack stanitsas were established in the Transkuban region.

Resettlement

The Ottoman authorities often failed to offer any support to the newly arrived. They were settled in the inhospitable mountainous regions of Inner Anatolia and were employed on menial and exhausting jobs.

Shamil’s son Muhamed Shafi was appalled by the conditions the migrants had faced upon their arrival to Anatolia and went to investigate the situation: “I will write to (Turkish sultan) Abdülmecid that he should stop fooling mountaineers… The government’s cynicism could not be more pronounced. The Turks triggered the resettlement by their proclamations, probably hoping to use refugees for military ends… but after facing the avalanche of refugees, they turned turtle and shamefully condemned to slow death those people who were ready to die for Turkey’s glory”.

In 1864 alone about 220,000 people disembarked in Anatolia. Between 6 March and 21 May 1864, the entire Ubykh nation had departed the Caucasus for Turkey, leading to the extinction of the Ubykh language in 1992. By the end of the movement, more than 400,000 Circassians, as well as 200,000 Abkhazians and Ajars, fled to Turkey. The term Çerkes, “Circassians”, became the blanket term for them in Turkey because the majority were Adyghe. Some other Circassian refugees fled to the border areas of the Danube Vilayet where Ottomans had expanded their military forces to defend the new province and some Circassians enrolled in military service while others settled in the region.

The Ottoman authorities often opted to settle Circassians in Christian-majority regions that were beginning to clamor for independence, as a loyal counterweight population to the rebellious natives. These places had just recently taken on large numbers of around a hundred thousand Crimean Tatar refugees, in a previous resettlement operation that had also seen widespread complications and problems. In Varna, it was reported that the situation was particularly bad, with 80,000 Circassians settled on the outskirts of the city in “camps of death” where they were unprotected from weather or disease and left without food. When Circassians tried to beg for bread, Turkish soldiers chased them out for fear of the diseases they carried. It was reported that the Turks were unable to keep up with burying Circassian corpses, and recruited convicts to do the work as well; one Circassian wrote to the Governor-General “We rather go to Siberia than live in this Siberia … one can die, not live, on the indicated place”.

Areas settled by Circassians

Balkans

In 1861–1862 alone, in the Danube Vilayet, there were 41,000 Circassian refugee families. By the end of the process, there were around 250,000 Circassians in the Balkans, accounting for 5 to 7 percent of the total Balkan population, on top of the earlier arrival of 100,000 Crimean Tatars that Balkan populations had just recently had to absorb.

Kadir Natho notes that “a net of Circassian settlements enveloped practically all the European part of the Ottoman Empire”. Very large numbers of Circassians were settled in Bulgaria. Istoria Bulgarii reports that “about 6,000 families were transferred through Burgas and settled in Thrace; 13,000 families– through Varna and Shumen — to Silistra and Vidin; 12,000 families to Sofia and Nish. The remainder 10,000 families were distributed in Svishtovsk, Nikipolsk, Oriskhovsk, and other outskirts.” There was a chain of Circassian settlements stretching from Dobruja to the Serbian border, with an additional cluster of 23 settlements in the Kosovo field. Circassians also settled in a few mostly Greek areas, particularly in the southern part of Epirus, Cyprus and one colony at Panderma in the Sea of Marmara.

Russians raped Circassian girls during the 1877 Russo-Turkish war from the Circassian refugees who were settled in the Ottoman Balkans. Circassian girls were sold into Turkish harems by their relatives. Circassians in the Ottoman army also raped and murdered Bulgarians during the 1877 Russo-Turkish war.

Anatolia and Iraq

Kadir Natho lists the following areas as having notable concentrations of Circassian refugee settlements: “in spacious Anatolia… near Amasya, Samsun, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, on the Charshamba peninsula, along the Aegean Sea, in Turkish Armenia, Adapazar, Duzge, Eskisehir, and Balikesir. From Trebizond the mountaineers were directly sent to Kars and Erzincan… many exiles were distributed in… the vilayet of Sivas, on the extensive desert between Tokat and Sivas”.

Levant

Proposed return

Many Circassian households petitioned the Russian embassy in Constantinople for their resettlement back in the Caucasus. By the end of the century, the Russian consulates all over the Ottoman Empire were deluged with such petitions. Later, re-emigration was sanctioned only on a limited scale, as mostly large villages (up to 8,500 inhabitants) applied for re-emigration and their relocation posed formidable difficulties to the imperial authorities. Perhaps more importantly, Alexander II suspected that the British and Ottoman governments had instructed Circassians to seek return with the purpose of sparking a new war against their Russian overlords. As a consequence, he was known to personally decline such petitions.

Consequences

The overall resettlement was accompanied by hardships for the common people. A significant number died of starvation — many Turks of Adyghe descent still do not eat fish today, in memory of the tremendous number of their kinfolk that they lost during the passage across the Black Sea.

Some of the deportees and their descendants did well and they would eventually earn high positions within the Ottoman Empire. A significant number of Young Turks had Caucasian origins.

All nationals of Turkey are considered Turkish for official purposes. However, there are several hundred villages which are considered purely “Circassian”, whose total “Circassian” population is estimated to be 1,000,000, although there is no official data in this respect, and the estimates are based on informal surveys. The “Circassians” in question may not always speak the languages of their ancestors, and Turkey’s center-right parties, often with varying tones of Turkish nationalism, generally do well in localities where they are known to constitute sizable parts of the population (such as in Akyazı).

Along with Turkey’s aspirations to join the European Union population groups with specificities started receiving more attention on the basis of their ethnicity or culture.

In Middle Eastern countries, which were created from the dismembered Ottoman Empire (and were initially under an Allied protectorate) the fate of the ethnos was better. The Al Jeish al Arabi (Arab Legion), created in Trans-Jordan under the influence of Lawrence, in significant part consisted of Chechens — arguably because the Bedouin were reluctant to serve under the centralized command. In addition, the modern city of Amman was born after Circassians settled there in 1887.

Apart from substantial numbers of Kabardian Circassians consisting of qalang tribes, small communities of mountainous Circassians (nang tribes) remained in their original homeland under Russian rule that were separated from among one another within an area heavily resettled by Russian Cossacks, Slavs and other settlers. For example, the capital of the Shapsugh tribe was renamed after the Russian general that committed atrocities in the region along with the erection of a victory statue to him. In the Caucusus, some 217,000 Circassians remained in 1897.

Ethnic tensions in the Ottoman Empire

Misha Glenny notes that the settlement of the Circassian deportees played a major role in destabilizing the Ottoman Balkans, especially Bulgaria. Their arrival helped spread starvation and epidemics (including smallpox) in the Balkan territories, and worse, the Porte ordered that Christians be evicted en masse from their homes in certain areas in order to accommodate the need to house the deportees. This, and the outbreak of armed conflict between the Circassians and the Christian and Muslim natives, accelerated the growth of nationalist sentiments in the Balkans. Kadir Natho argues that the Ottomans coopted the Circassians into a “police force” in the Balkans as well as for settling them to increase the local Muslim population, with Circassians being made to take arms against rebellions, even those Circassians that had not settled in affected regions. The local Balkan peoples, having just taken on large numbers of Crimean Tatar refugees, an operation which had caused the deaths of thousands of refugees and natives alike due to disease and starvation, loathed to take in more Muslim refugees expelled by the Russians, and some Bulgarians, in particular, were convinced that Circassians had been placed into scattered Bulgarian villages “in order to paralyze any kind of liberation and independence Slavic movement”. While in many areas, Bulgarian Christians had initially been very hospitable to the Circassian refugees, including by producing extra resources to support them, the collapsing humanitarian situation combined with the political instability caused relations between the two groups to spiral downward.

In many cases, lands were assigned to North Caucasian refugees by the Ottoman government, but the locals refused to give up their homes, causing outbreaks of fighting between Circassians and Chechens on one side, and the Bulgarian, Serbian, Arab, Bedouin, Druze, Armenian, Turkish and Kurdish natives on the other, leading to armed conflict. In Uzun Aile, between Kayseri and Sivas, Circassians ultimately pushed the local Kurdish population out, and to this day the Kurds with roots in that region recall in a folk song how a “cruel fair-haired and blue-eyed people with sheep-skin hats” drove them from their homes.

Traumatized, desperate, and having lived for many decades previously in a situation where Circassians and Russians would regularly raid each other, Circassians sometimes resorted to raiding the native populations, ultimately causing a reputation for the Circassians as being particularly barbaric to spread throughout the Empire.

Eventually, fear of the Circassians, due to the diseases they spread and the stereotype of them as either beggars or bandits, became so great that Christian and Muslim communities alike would protest upon hearing that Circassians were to be settled near them.

Later, in the 1870s, war again struck in the Balkans where most Circassians had made their homes, and they were deported by Russian and Russian-allied forces a second time.

Numbers of refugees

Alan Fisher notes that accurate counts of the refugees were difficult to impossible to obtain because “Most of those leaving the Caucasus did it in a hurry, in a disorganised fashion, without passing any official border point where they might have been counted or officially noted”, however estimates have been made primarily based on the available documents including Russian archival documents as well as Ottoman documents.

  • 1852–1858: Abkhaz population declined from 98,000 to 89,866
  • 1858–1860: Over 30,000 Nogais left
  • 1860–1861: 10,000 Kabardians left
  • 1861–1863: 4,300 Abaza, 4,000 Natukhais, 2,000 Temirgoi, 600 Beslenei, and 300 Bzhedugs families were exiled
  • by 1864: 600,000 Circassians have left for the Ottoman Empire, with more leaving afterwards
  • 1865: 5,000 Chechen families were sent to Turkey
  • 1863–1864: 470,703 people left the West Caucasus (according to G.A. Dzidzariia)
  • 1863–1864: 312,000 people left the West Caucasus (according to N.G. Volkova)
  • Between November 1863 and August 1864: over 300,000 Circassians seek refuge in the Ottoman Empire; over two-thirds die.
  • 1858–1864: 398,000 people left the Kuban oblast (according to N.G Volkova)
  • 1858–1864: 493,194 people left (according to Adol’f Berzhe)
  • 1863–1864: 400,000 people left (according to N.I Voronov)
  • 1861–1864: 418,000 people left (according to the Main Staff of the Caucasus Army)

Genocide classification

In recent times, scholars and Circassian activists have proposed that the deportations and mass killings can certainly be considered as a manifestation of the modern-day concept of genocide, though the term had not been in use in the 19th century. Noting the systematic massacre of villages by Russian soldiers that was accompanied by the Russian colonization of these lands, Circassian activists claim, it is “certainly and undeniably”, a genocide. Scholars estimate that some 90 percent of Circassians (estimated at more than one million) had vanished from the territories occupied by Russia. During these events, and the preceding Russo-Circassian War, at least hundreds of thousands of people were “killed or starved to death”.

Political positions

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s May 1994 statement admitted that resistance to the tsarist forces was legitimate, but he did not recognize “the guilt of the tsarist government for the genocide.” In 1997 and 1998, the leaders of Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea sent appeals to the Duma to reconsider the situation and to issue an apology; to date, there has been no response from Moscow. In October 2006, the Adygeyan public organizations of Russia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Syria, the United States, Belgium, Canada, and Germany have sent the president of the European Parliament a letter with the request to recognize the genocide against Adygean (Circassian) people.

On 5 July 2005, the Circassian Congress, an organization that unites representatives of the various Circassian peoples in the Russian Federation, has called on Moscow first to acknowledge and then to apologize for tsarist policies that Circassians say constituted a genocide. Their appeal pointed out that “according to the official tsarist documents more than 400,000 Circassians were killed, 497,000 were forced to flee abroad to Turkey, and only 80,000 were left alive in their native area.” The Russian parliament (Duma) rejected the petition in 2006 in a statement that acknowledged past actions of the Soviet and previous regimes while referring to in overcoming multiple contemporary problems and issues in the Caucasus through cooperation. There is concern by the Russian government that acknowledging the events as genocide would entail possible claims of financial compensation in addition to efforts toward repatriating diaspora Circassians back to Circassia.

On 21 May 2011, the Parliament of Georgia passed a resolution, stating that pre-planned mass killings of Circassians by Imperial Russia, accompanied by “deliberate famine and epidemics”, should be recognized as “genocide” and those deported during those events from their homeland, should be recognized as “refugees”. Georgia has made outreach efforts to North Caucasian ethnic groups since the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. Following a consultation with academics, human rights activists and Circassian diaspora groups and parliamentary discussions in Tbilisi in 2010 and 2011, Georgia became the first country to use the word “genocide” to refer to the events. On 20 May 2011 the parliament of the Republic of Georgia declared in its resolution that the mass annihilation of the Cherkess (Adyghe) people during the Russian-Caucasian war and thereafter constituted genocide as defined in the Hague Convention of 1907 and the UN Convention of 1948. The next year, on the same day of 21 May, a monument was erected in Anaklia, Georgia, to commemorate the suffering of the Circassians.

In Russia, a presidential commission has been set up to try and deny the Circassian genocide, with respect to the events of the 1860s.

On 1 December 2015, in the Great Union Day (the national day of Romania), a large number of Circassian representatives sent a request to the Romanian Government asking it to recognize the Circassian genocide. The letter was specifically sent to the President (Klaus Iohannis), the Prime Minister (Dacian Cioloș), the President of the Senate (Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu) and the President of the Chamber of Deputies (Valeriu Zgonea). The document included 239 signatures and was written in Arabic, English, Romanian and Turkish. Similar requests had already been sent earlier by Circassian representatives to Estonia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland and Ukraine. In the case of Moldova, the request was sent on 27 August of the same year (2015), on the Moldovan Independence Day, to the President (Nicolae Timofti), the Prime Minister (Valeriu Streleț) and the President of the Parliament (Andrian Candu). The request was also redacted in Arabic, English, Romanian and Turkish languages and included 192 signatures.

Scholarly viewpoints

Most scholars today agree that the term “genocide” is justified to define the events, except some Russian scholars in the minority. Some scholars who support the term “genocide” are listed below:

  • Alexander Ohtov says the term genocide is justified in his Kommersant interview: “Yes, I believe that the word “genocide” is justified. To understand why we are talking about the genocide, you have to look at history. During the Russian-Caucasian war, Russian generals not only expelled the Circassians, but also destroyed them physically. Not only killed them in combat but burned hundreds of villages with civilians. Spared neither children nor women nor the elderly. They killed and tortured them with no separation. The entire fields of ripe crops were burned, the orchards cut down, people burnt alive, so that the Circassians could not return to their habitations. A destruction of civilian population on a massive scale… is it not a genocide?”
  • Scholar Anssi Kullberg states that the “Russian suppression of the Caucasus” directed at the Crimean Tatars and Circassians, resulted in the Russian state “inventing the strategy of modern ethnic cleansing and genocide”.
  • Paul Henze, credits the events of the 1860s in Circassia with inspiring the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, to whose lands the Circassians had been deported.
  • Walter Richmond also argues the term “genocide” is appropriate, considering the events of 1864 to have been “one of the first examples of modern social engineering”. Citing international law which holds that “genocidal intent applies to acts of destruction that are not the specific goal but are predictable outcomes or by-products of a policy, which could have been avoided by a change in that policy”, he considers the events to have been genocide on the grounds that the ensuing demographic transformation of Circassia to a predominantly ethnically Russian region was viewed as desirable by the Russian authorities, and that the Russian commanders were fully aware of the huge number of deaths by starvation that their methods in the war and the expulsion would bring, as they viewed them as necessary for their supreme goal that Circassia be firmly and permanently Russian territory, all the while viewing Circassia’s native inhabitants as “little more than a pestilence to be removed”.
  • Michael Ellman, meanwhile, in a book review of Richmond’s Circassian Genocide, agrees that the term’s use is justified under the UN definition as referring to actions intending to destroy “in whole or in part an ethnic group”, with the part referring to those Circassians whom St. Petersberg thought could not accept its rule.
  • According to the Italian historian Fabio Grassi, the word “exile” would unquestionably underestimate the scale of the events, and the word “grand massacre” can be used to describe it.
  • French historian Robert Mantran used the term “Circassian Exile and Genocide” to describe the events in volume 3 of his book “Ottoman History”.
  • Turkish historian Server Tanilli used the term “Great Circassian Exile, Genocide, and Massacre” for the events in his work “The Reality and Heritage of Centuries”.
  • The events were described as “an exile to certain death” by the Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı. In May 2021, Ortaylı attended a KAFFED conference dedicated to the Circassian genocide, where he advised the Circassians to “keep their heads up and make their voice heard”.

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