A Brief History of Russian Efforts at Assimilating the Caucasus, Part One

The peoples of the North Caucasus have proven to be the most resistant not only to assimilation, but even to full integration into Russian economic and cultural life of all the non-Russian peoples living within the current borders of Russia. Looking over the historical record, one can see that the Russian government in its various manifestations (Imperial, Soviet, Federal) has persistently attempted to assimilate the peoples of the Caucasus, and that despite 300 years of effort the results could be described as meager at best. Still, Moscow is currently adopting a series of strategies that can only be interpreted as another attempt to efface the identities of the Caucasus peoples and assimilate them into the Russian ethnos.

The earliest assimilation efforts occurred during the reign of Ivan the Terrible in the 1500s. Ivan was eager to add Siberia to his kingdom, but there were sparse populations of indigenous peoples living throughout the region. The strategy Ivan used would be become common in the future: small populations were broken up and deported to different regions. There, turned into a small minority in regions far from their home, these people were gradually assimilated into other ethnic populations, clearing the way for Russian colonization of their homeland.

One method the Russian Empire used for assimilation was the military. In his discussion of the Caucasus, Teofil Lapinsky notes that a significant portion of the Russian army in the Caucasus were non-Russians, but that “this mix of Poles, Russians, Tatars, Georgians, Chechens, Avars, Lezgins, Jews etc. now possess a single religion and a single language—Russian—and each newcomer is russified in short order.” [i]

Of course, this strategy could only have limited results, but I found it interesting that assimilation was taking place on both sides of the Caucasus Military Line.

Georgia was the first nation to deal with the assimilation efforts of St. Petersburg. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774 Irakli II, the King of Kartli and Kakheti asked for assistance from Russia to defend against the Ottomans. 4000 Russian troops entered Georgia to aid Irakli’s forces against the Turks.[ii] Establishing a foothold in Georgia fit well into the Russian goal of driving the Turks from the eastern Black Sea. In addition, the Russians aimed to incorporate Georgia into the Empire. The Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92 concluded with a series of alliances, often contradictory, between Iran, Russia, Iraklii II, the other Georgian monarchs, and the Porte.[iii] After the death of Irakli II, the Georgian states fell into chaos and were seriously threatened by Iran but Russian Emperor Pavel was preoccupied with European politics and seemed to abandon Georgia to its fate. Irakli’s son, Georgi XII, saw no solution except to request a complete union with the Russia in 1799. Pavel acquiesced, and in 1801 the kingdom of Kartlo-Kakheti became part of the Russian Empire. Members of the Georgian royal family were deported to Petersburg, instruction in the Russian language and Russian Orthodoxy began, and the effort to russify the entire Georgian nation was underway.

The approach in the North Caucasus had to be different, however, since the peoples there were far less unified than the Georgian tribes. Russia came in contact with these peoples while they were still in a stage of tribal feudalism, when the loyalties of most were first and foremost with their tribe rather than the entire nation. Even those nations with strong aristocratic structures, such as Abkhazia and Kabardia, were plagued with internecine dynastic struggles. In Kabardia, the Kashkatau and Baksan factions fought for dominance for most of the 18th Century.[iv] St. Petersburg struck at the weakest link in Kabardian society, its indentured population. Offering freedom to anyone who converted to Orthodoxy and came to live on the Russian side, the Russians were both disrupting a major part of the Kabardian economy and beginning the process of russification. The establishment of Mozdok in 1763, generally considered the official beginning of the Russo-Circassian War, created a center in which Caucasus peoples could be quickly integrated into Russian life and ultimately assimilated.

As the war escalated, the Russian Army divided the front line into the Right and Left Flanks, with Kabardia and Balkaria included in the left (east flank) with the Ossetians, Ingush, Chechens and Dagestani peoples. Thus, when the war concluded, the Kabardians and Balkars were administratively separated from their compatriots, the few Circassians that remained and the Karachays, respectively.

The establishment of Russian authority in the region was had significant ramifications for the subsequent relationship between the indigenous peoples and the Russian government, be it Imperial, Soviet, or Federal. Traditional legal structures were demoted to secondary methods to address minor, internal crimes, while Imperial courts took precedence for all significant matters.

The appearance of Cossack and Russian settlements was in part due to the Imperial strategy of colonizing the Black Sea coast, but two other factors were at play. One was the practice of rewarding participants in the war with tracts of the most valuable land. In addition to awarding lands formerly occupied by the deported Circassians, in many cases fertile land belonging to the indigenous peoples was confiscated in exchange for less desirable land or, in many cases, land belonging to yet other indigenous groups. This led to increased land disputes between indigenous groups. 264,000 acres in Lesser Kabarda left after the death of Kabardian Prince Bekovich-Cherkassky, who was awarded the land for his service in 1825,[v] was a source of particularly bitter dispute between Kabardians and Ossetians.[vi] By restricting the land on which the Kabardians could live, St. Petersburg put a brake on population growth.

By 1856 the Cossack population north of the Kuban was over 400,000.[vii] In addition to losses incurred from military conflict the settlers suffered from cholera, malaria, frequent famines and raids from across the Kuban.[viii] St. Petersburg did little to alleviate their situation: in 1822 the Russian Interior Ministry flatly refused General Velyaminov’s requests for doctors, and General Ermolov was likewise left to his own devices to feed the enormous influx of  “extremely poor” migrants.[ix] Thus, when the Circassian lands were opened for colonization, settlers on the already overpopulated right bank of the Kuban enthusiastically migrated south, hoping to find prosperity in these fertile and now empty lands.

In June 1861 Alexander II had already defined the purpose of the colonization as the complete Russification of the region:

The Cossack community is destined to serve the government by defending the Empire’s borders adjacent to hostile and poorly organized tribes and to occupy the land from which they have been taken. [ . . . ] Only a few years of persistent pressure remain in order to completely drive the hostile mountaineers from the fertile lands they occupy and forever establish in their place a Russian Christian population.[x]

In the early 1860s Cossack colonies appeared in rapid succession in newly conquered Circassian land. Still, the region was left more or less on its own until November 1882, when Emperor Alexander III issued an order that the North Caucasus should be fully integrated into the Imperial system immediately.

It was at about this same time that the Russian press began producing xenophobic propaganda concerning the Caucasus peoples. On a nearly daily basis right wing publications printed articles about the North Caucasus peoples with titles such as “In the Land of Bandits and Thieves,” The Modern Brigands,” and “Among the Wild Mountaineers.”[xi] Such publications fanned the flames of contempt and fear of the Caucasus peoples, which was already rampant in Russian society. This attitude persists today and is one of the main impediments to reaching a permanent solution vis-a-vis Russia and the Caucasus.


[i] http://web.archive.org/web/20131102223835/http://a-u-l.narod.ru/Teofil_Lapinskiy_Gorcy_Kavkaza_tom-1.html#rem22

[ii] Vladimir Degoev. Bol’shaia Igra na Kavkaze: Istoriia i Sovremennost’. Moscow: Russkaia Panorama, 2001, pp. 28-32.

[iii] Vladimir Degoev. Bol’shaia Igra na Kavkaze: Istoriia i Sovremennost’. Moscow: Russkaia Panorama, 2001: p. 40.

[iv] Boris Kasbulatovich Mal’bakhov. Kabarda v Period ot Petra I do Ermolova. Nal’chik: Kniga, 1998, pp. 12-13.

[v] Valerii Dzidzoev. Natsional’nye Otnosheniia na Kavkaze. Vladikavkaz: SOGU, 1998, p. 94.

[vi] V. D. Dzizoev, M. P. Mokhnacheva, eds. Narody Tsentral’nogo Kavkaza v 40-x—nachale 60-x Godov XIX Veka: Sbornik Dokumental’nykh Materialov v Dvukh Tomakh. Tom 1. Moscow: Pomatur, 2005, pp. 9, 151-55.

[vii] Galina Malakhova. Stanovlenie i Razvitie Rossiiskogo Gosudarstvennogo Upravleniia na Severnom Kavkaze, v Kontse XVIII-XIX vv. Rostov na Donu, 2001, p. 87.

[viii] Galina Malakhova. Stanovlenie i Razvitie Rossiiskogo Gosudarstvennogo Upravleniia na Severnom Kavkaze, v Kontse XVIII-XIX vv. Rostov na Donu, 2001, pp. 81-84.

[ix] Galina Malakhova. Stanovlenie i Razvitie Rossiiskogo Gosudarstvennogo Upravleniia na Severnom Kavkaze, v Kontse XVIII-XIX vv. Rostov na Donu, 2001, pp. 82-84.

[x] T. Kh. Kumykov, ed. Arkhivnye Materialy O Kavkazskoi Voine i Vyselenii Cherkesov (Adygov) v Turtsiiu (1848-1874). Chast’ II. Nalchik: El’-Fa, 2003, p. 80.

[xi] Valerii Dzidzoev. Natsional’nye Otnosheniia na Kavkaze. Vladikavkaz: SOGU, 1998, p. 104.

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