The Russian-Circassian war was one of the longest and cruelest conflicts in world history. Between 1763-1822, most battles took place in the principality of Kabarda in Eastern Circassia until it became part of the Russian Empire. Those who did not accept Russian rule moved to Western Circassia and continued their fight alongside other Circassian principalities until 90 percent of Circassians were killed or deported to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. The life of Jembulat Bolotoko, Great Prince of the Temirgoi principality, was one of the episodes of the 101 year war.
This article is the first western attempt to research the life Jembulat Bolotoko. Along with the main goal of bringing the dispersed facts of his life into one comprehensive biography, the article answers three basic questions – what political platform helped prince Jembulat to become the military leader of the Circassian Resistance from 1823-1829; why and under what conditions he concluded the 1830 Temirgoi-Russian Treaty; and why he was assassinated in 1836?
Temirgoi Principality Between the Russian and Ottoman Empires
According to Circassian historian Shora Nogma, a contemporary of Jembulat, the princely Temirgoi family inherited its last name and the title of “Prince of Princes” from its legendary ancestor, Bolotoko, who was famous for his “wisdom and strictness” .
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the population of the Temirgoi principality was about 5,000 families  (or 30,000 people ). The eldest prince of the Bolotoko family inherited the title of the Great Prince. The principality had a traditional Circassian parliament called the Khasa. Temirgoi was a federative principality divided into the districts of Temirgoi, Adamei, Khatukai, Egarukai and Hajjret Kabardians. Two non-Circassian nations lived there as well – Nogai warriors and Armenian traders .
Since the birth of Jembulat, the political situation inside the Temirgoi principality was highly unstable because it was situated between the two greatest powers in the region – the Russian and Ottoman Empires. On the one hand, every Great Prince of Temirgoi had to make peace with Russia under a constant threat of Russian invasion. On the other hand, the peace undermined his legitimacy in the ongoing Circassian resistance movement. According to Khan-Girei, a 19th Century Circassian political analyst, part of the Temirgoi princes were pro-Russia oriented, while the rest sought support from the mighty neighboring principality of Abadzekh, the leader of the Circassian resistance. Among the last was the young prince Jembulat, who “had remarkable influence in the Abadzekh principality” .
In 1812, during the war with Napoleon, Russia had to withdraw most of its troops from Circassia and sign the Bucharest treaty with Turkey, relinquishing any kind of engagement in the Western Circassian principalities. But one of Russia’s generals foolishly crossed the Kuban River on March 1814 to show his support to Misost Bolotoko. Abadzekh leaders skillfully used the diplomatic opportunity to promote the young prince Jembulat Bolotoko and sent a delegation to Turkey, which complained against the Russian actions . Fearing renewed conflict with Turkey, Russia left Misost Bolotoko without support . The Temirgoi principality then became divided into two parts in March 1814, one ruled by prince Jembulat and the other by Great Prince Misost. However, both princes wisely avoided any personal confrontation and saved Temirgoi from a civil war.
To Rescue “the Circassians of Indigenous Palestine”
People who knew prince Jembulat personally described him as broad chested and not tall, with a head “shaved in the Circassian way with a bunch of hairs over one ear as a sign of nobility” . A Russian general wrote that Jembulat “became famous for his bravery, strong character and hard will” and was the “last representative of the generation of knights among the Circassian princes” .
In 1823, the Russian Tsarist forces started attacks on Circassian villages as a distraction while 25,000 families of new Russian colonists were being settled there. One of Jembulat’s first known battles was rather striking. In April 1823, 300 Circassian cavalry under the leadership of princes Bolotoko and Skhum attacked the Russian Military Line. The battle was so furious that prince Skhum was wounded four times “to his cheek by a spear, to his loin by a bullet, and two times to his side by spears.” The Russians fled and left 19 prisoners to the Circassians. In May 1823, the Circassian cavalry burned down a big Russian fortress at Kruglolesskoe and took 302 hostages .
On August 18, 1823, thirty princes held a meeting in Jembulat’s village on the Belaya River. They announced a new ideology of the Circassian Resistance: that the refugees who fled from Kabarda were “Circassians of indigenous Palestine”  – that is, of an occupied territory. They decided to invade the Russian territory and rescue the Kabardian people. A Russian folklore song of that time said –
“Beyond the Belaya River,
Princes gather up on a high hill,
Like eagles fly to each other.
They held a united council
And decide to give battle” .
Jembulat Bolotoko led an 800 strong cavalry force into Russian territory. Half of the detachment was of Hajjrets under the command of 18 year old Kabardian prince Ismail Kasei. The Hajjrets wore the best and most expensive armor. The American historian Michael Khodarkovsky calculated that a fine armor for a prince would cost up to 50 horses while an average one would cost about eight horses . Jembulat’s detachment was so strong and determined that experienced Russian regiments avoided it on its way. Later, the Russian command punished two colonels, Pobednov and Isaev, by lowering their ranks for avoiding giving battle to Jembulat Bolotoko. Only one Cossack regiment dared to fight the Circassians on October 23 at the village of Sabl on the Barsukly River. Jembulat surrounded the Cossacks and killed all of them in a saber attack .
In the summer of 1825, Russian forces carried out several military operations. On August 18, General Veliaminov burned the residency of Hajji Tlam, one of the leaders of the Circassian resistance in Abadzekh. But the Russians did not have time to retreat when they were attacked by the Circassian forces and then had to flee. According to a Russian report, it was “a very hot battle,” with the Abadzekh infantry fighting with daggers face to face against the Russians. On January 31, Jembulat burned down the fortress of Marevskoye .
Great Prince of Temirgoi and Leader of the Circassian Resistance
In 1827, Misost Bolotoko, the Great Prince of Temirgoi, died and Jembulat Bolotoko inherited the title. Combining his military leadership with the title of Great Prince of the strongest principality, Jembulat became the unquestioned leader in Circassia.
Right after the end of its war with Iran, Russia launched a new war against Turkey on April 26, 1828. Circassian princes gathered on the Urup River under the leadership of prince Jembulat. They decided to move their settlements into the mountain areas. The Circassian side of the Kuban River became ominously empty. General Emmanuel, the commander of the Kuban Military Line, led Russian troops deep into Circassian territory and attacked a village of Jembulat’s cousin, Heaolei Bolotoko, but had to retreat under the danger of being surrounded at night.
On June 4, 1828, Jembulat Bolotoko started his campaign into Russian lands with 2,000 cavalry under five flags of different Circassian principalities, as well as a Turkish flag. Local Russian forces lost sight of the Circassians when Jembulat suddenly changed direction, a maneuver he successfully used many times during the campaign. On June 6, at the fortress Batalpashinsk, Jembulat attacked the Khopyor Cossack regiment, one of the biggest on the Kuban Military Line. The Russians panicked and fled to the fortress.
Jembulat left the local Russian forces behind him and moved forward. The Russians wrongly concluded that he intended to go to Kabarda in the middle of the Russian-Turkish war, and open a second front on the Terek and Sunja Rivers. It seemed that Magomed-Aga, a high ranking Turkish authority, was present in the Circassian army.
Earl Paskevich, the Russian commander-in-chief in the Caucasus, ordered the 2nd Ulan division, returning from the Russia-Iran war, to move along the Georgian Military Road to cut off the route of the Circassians toward Kabarda. The 40th Eger battalion marched from Kabarda toward Jembulat. Yet, Jembulat suddenly changed his direction and headed toward the town of Georgievsk, the Russian administrative center in the Caucasus.
On June 8, Jembulat crossed the Podkumok River in front of the Khopyor regiment, which did not dare to engage him, retreated and lost sight of him. Jembulat used the Russians’ mistake and changed his direction again. Now he started moving on an unprotected road toward the Russian villages in the Volga region. In the morning, Jembulat attacked and burned the Nezlobnaya fortress, the headquarters of the 2nd Ulan division and the Belgorodsky regiment.
The Circassian army stopped on a high hill at a distance from the Marinskaya fortress. The Russian army began to re-group into two lines and became too dispersed. Jembulat detected the Russians’ insecure position and menaced the Volzhskiy regiment’s left flank with all his forces. The Donskoy regiment hurried there but it was too late and the left flank fled. The Circassians turned toward the approaching new Russian forces and met the fighting at full speed with sabers and spears. Later, many old men from the Russian settlements would tell Russian historians how the Cossacks’ spears would break while hitting the Circassians’ chain mail. Several officers and the commander of the regiment were slaughtered, which caused panic among the Cossacks and they fled .
The Circassians had their losses as well. Three princes were killed – Sultan Aslan-Girei, Aslan Roslanbek and Jengot Asha – and prince Hajji Murzabek Khamurzin was heavily wounded. The Circassian army left the battlefield. In the Russian army, only the Khopyor regiment remained orderly, but it did not dare to approach the Circassians. Jembulat moved toward the Baksan valley. On June 10 in the morning, the Khopyor regiment arrived at the entrance of the valley but did not dare to enter it after Jembulat. The only Russian accomplishment that general Emanuel boasted of in his report to Tsar Nikolai I was that “though the Circassians have a custom of collecting the bodies of their killed and wounded comrades, we possessed many of their dead bodies in this war” .
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2. Bronevskiy, S.M. Noveishie Geograficheskie i Istoricheskie Izvestiya o Kavkaze (Moscow, 1823), part 2, p. 67.
3. Akty Kavkazskoi Archeograficheskoi Komissii (AKAK). Ed. A. Berge (Tiflis, 1873), v 5, p. 857.
4. AKAK (Tiflis, 1875), v. 6, part 2, p. 451.
5. Khan-Girey, S. Cherkesskie Predaniya. Ed. R. Khashkhojeva (Nalchik: Elbrus, 1989), p. 245.
6. AKAK, v. 5, p. 872.
7. Ibid., p. 873.
8. Novitskii G.V. Vospominaniya Vospitannika Pervogo Vypuska Iz Artilleriiskogo Uchilisha. Voennyi Sbornik. No 2, 1871, p. 305 <https://www.vostlit.info/Texts/Dokumenty/Kavkaz/XIX/1820-1840/Novickij/vosp.htm>.
9. Stal’ K.F. Etnograficheskii Ocherk Cherkesskogo Naroda. Kavkazskii Sbornik (Tiflis, 1900), v. 21, p. 84.
10. AKAK (Tiflis, 1878), v. 7, p. 873.
11. The exact expression in the document is “cherkesy korennoi Palistiny”.
12. Potto V. Kavkazskaya Voina. (Moscow, 2007), v.5, p. 157 <https://lib.rus.ec/b/166911/read>.
13. Khodarkovsky, M. Where two World met. The Russian state and the Kalmyk Nomads, 1600-1771 (Cornell University Press, 1992), p.50.
14. Potto V. Kavkazskaya Voina, v.2, p. 45 <https://lib.rus.ec/b/166908/read>.
15. Ibid., p. 59.
16. Golitsyn N. B. Zhizneopisanie Generala Ot Kavalerii Emmanuelya (Moscow: «Sobranie», 2004), p. 240 <https://www.vostlit.info/Texts/Dokumenty/Kavkaz/XIX/1820-1840/Emmanuel/frametext2>.htm.
17. AKAK, v. 7, p. 879.