Circassians Mark 250th Anniversary of Resistance to Russian Aggression

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 15

Much has been and will be said about the 150th anniversary of the Circassian “genocide” by Russian forces that will be marked in 2014 when the site of that mass murder is scheduled to be the venue of the Winter Olympics. But this week marks what is at least as significant, politically if not morally, for both Circassians and Russians—the 250th anniversary of the continuing resistance of the Circassian nation to Russian aggression in the North Caucasus.

On July 28, 1763, a Russian military unit crossed into the territory of the sovereign principality of Greater Kabarda, the largest state of the Circassian nation up to that time. Over the next 101 years, Circassians resisted the invasion of the much larger Russian military, earning the respect of Russian commanders as one of the most fearsome opponents any of them had ever faced. That 101-year-long fight, one far longer than the much better-known resistance of Imam Shamyl, however, ended only when tsarist officials destroyed Circassian statehood and killed or expelled most of the members of that nationality (

For more than a century, the Circassians engaged in active military resistance, the longest resistance of any people whom the Russian state ever faced in its efforts to expand the empire. To this day, Russian historians recognize that this resistance was far more difficult for Russian forces to overcome than any of the others, in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. But what is not always recognized either in Russia or among Circassians is that active resistance to Russian power continued well after 1864 both in the Russian Empire and its successor states as well as abroad.

When the Russian Empire began its final collapse, the Circassians were among those who maintained their organized capacity to resist both state arbitrariness and collapse. It was the Circassian Regiment of the Imperial Army’s Savage Division that would have been able to reverse the February 1917 revolution, had its members not been encouraged by Georgian Mensheviks to stop fighting Russian democracy on the Pulkovo heights outside Petrograd and return to the Caucasus to pursue the restoration of their own national statehood. And it was the Circassian units pursuing that goal who blocked the efforts of General Anton Denikin’s White Army to subordinate the Caucasus to a Russia, “one and indivisible.”

Throughout the Russian Civil War, the Circassians were the most reliable troops of the short-lived Republic of the Mountaineers (1917–1920), and even after that region was conquered by the Bolsheviks and the 11th Red Army, they continued to resist, forcing Moscow to make compromises, including the division of the Circassian nation into more different groups than was the case of any other ethnic community under Soviet rule. Their steadfast commitment to their own nation throughout the Soviet period was something that writers from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn onward recognized even when official Soviet documents did not.

Even more important for the present day and the future, the Circassians who were expelled from their homeland by the Russians after 101 years of resistance remained true to their military and security traditions and became senior officers in the Ottoman Empire and its successor states, including Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, among others. Their commitment to the virtues that allowed the Circassians to resist in the active phase from 1763 until 1864 and more intermittently in the years that followed meant that the Russian hopes of destroying the Circassians by the brutal expulsion of 1864 has never been realized.

That is the other, and much less noticed, part of this year’s anniversary. The Russian state and the Russian nation have never faced a more determined adversary than the Circassians. Other peoples, including the Balts, the Chechens and the Poles, in particular, are celebrated or castigated in Russia for their resistance. But the Circassian resistance was so strong and so long lasting that on this anniversary as on next year’s, Russians and the Russian state cannot acknowledge what the Circassians have done.

To do so would be to admit that the Russian imperial project is doomed—that there is at least one people, however much victimized by military aggression and genocidal expulsion, which has shown itself prepared to sacrifice itself in the name of freedom and national self-determination. That nation is the Circassians, a people many in the West know little or nothing about.

But between now and the scheduled opening of the Olympiad in Sochi, where so many of the ancestors of today’s nearly 6 million Circassians died, ever more people around the world are going to learn about that nation. The rulers in the Kremlin may think they only have to worry about dealing with the events of the first year, but in fact, they ultimately face a more serious threat from the second.