After the Crimean (a.k.a. Eastern) war of 1853–1856 and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1856 ending that war, the Russian Empire began to turn toward the final conquest of the Caucasian mountaineers. Russia was finally able to turn an army of 200,000 men with over 200 cannon against the rebellious peoples of the North Caucasus. This episode began when the new viceroy of the Caucasus, General Aleksandr Baryatinsky, managed to destroy and capture the noted resistance leader Imam Shamil in the village of Gunib in mountainous Dagestan in three years, thereby establishing full control over Chechnya and Dagestan giving Russia control of the Eastern Caucasus. With Shamil’s capture, Russia could revert back to the conquest of the Western Caucasus and its indigenous inhabitants, the Circassian and the Abkhaz tribes who resided in the littoral areas of the Black Sea—the same area where the 2014 Sochi Olympics will be held next February, and the location of the battlefield of Krasnaya Polyana, the final battle of Circassian resistance against Tsarist Russia’s imperial advance southward.
After the defeat and capture of Shamil in 1859, the Cherkess and the Ubykhs sensed that Russia would renews its efforts to subjugate the Circassians and began to prepare feverishly for the new offensive by the Tsarist army. Turkish small sailing vessels frequented the harbors of the eastern shores on Black Sea, bringing gunpowder and other ammunition to Circassian units for the coming Russian offensive.
Simultaneous with these efforts, the valiant leaders of the “mountaineers” in the Western Caucasus continued to make desperate diplomatic efforts to receive protection from the European powers, particularly, England and France, which had participated in the Crimean War against Russia. Focusing on the British consulate, which was established in the city of Sukhum (prior to that the consulate was situated in the capital of the Caucasus vice regency in Tbilisi), the mountaineers maintained contacts as the English representatives appeared to favor the mountaineers’ aspirations. The noted Abkhaz historian of Soviet times, Professor Georgy Dzidzaria wrote in his seminal research, “Muhajirs and the Problems of Abkhaz History of the 19th Century”: “In August 1861, the Ubykh elders Izmail Barakai-ipa Dziash and Haji Kerentukh-Berzek addressed the British Consul Dixon in Sukhumi with a letter through the Sadzian noble Abich Samekh. The elders asked the Consul to bring to the attention of the British government that Russian armies were encroaching upon their independence and that the Russian General Yevdokimov was besieging their homeland. After a short while, the participants of the meeting of Mejlis (a.k.a. The Great Free Assembly) decreed to dispatch a special mission to Constantinople, Paris and London to ask for protection. To cover the expenses incurred by the mission, all households living between Tuapse to Adler were required to contribute funds to finance the trip to Europe. The same Izmail Dziash headed the mission…”
The so-called Circassian Committee was then set up in England at the time. Politicians and other leaders became members of the Committee, but the British government was forced to remain neutral as it did not want an open a military conflict with Russia. As a result of this position, members of the Circassian mission that relied on Great Britain’s generosity were bitterly disappointed. The mission reportedly received only modest contributions to cover the expenses of their travel. The failure of the diplomatic mission of the Circassians in London was followed by similar failures in Paris and Constantinople. Nevertheless, the British and, especially, the Turkish emissaries in Western Circassia tried to keep the Circassians’ hopes high. Their message was that the European powers would become involved after the tsarist armies intrude then-still-independent Circassia and would provide support not only with ammunition, but also with manpower. As the subsequent developments indicated, these were just empty promises. The Russian government realized this even earlier, so it set out to implement the plan of attack proposed by General Nikolai Yevdokimov.
Yevdokimov’s Plan and the Resumption of War Against Circassians
Since Russia could not have military bases on the Black Sea due to the conditions of the 1856 Treaty of Paris, Russian commanders altered their military strategy to emphasize retaking the Circassians through ground operations in the Western Caucasus rather than attacking the strongholds of the resistance on the Black Sea coasts and highlands adjacent to these areas. Instead, Yevdokimov developed another option. The essence of his plan was to blockade the unconquered Circassian and Western Abkhaz regions. Kuban Cossack and regular Russian army units advanced on the Circassians and quickly constructed new fortified lines, gradually squeezing the Circassian-populated areas, forcing them to retreat back toward the Black Sea coast. According to this strategy the mountaineers would become deprived of both manpower and food supplies to prevent them from effectively resisting the onslaught of Russian forces. To implement this plan, the Russian armies captured Sukhum and Gagry on the southeastern shore of the Black Sea. On the northeastern shore of the Black Sea, they captured Anapa and Tsemess harbor (now known as Novorossiysk). The garrisons stationed in these strongholds played the role of the anvil, while the Russian armies that advanced from the northern slopes of the Main Caucasus Range were to play the role of the hammer. The advancing Russian forces were supported in these operations by the fortified lines known as the Belorechenskaya (named after the river Belaya) and Adagumskaya (named after river Adagum).
In order to disrupt the sea lines of communication between the Circassian resistance forces and the civilian populations of Circassians situated along the Black Sea, which included the western Abkhaz tribes of the Sadz and Jigets as well as supporters in Turkish Anatolia, the Russian fleet constantly cruised along the eastern coast of the Black Sea seeking to interdict their lines of communication and supply routes. The Russian fleet’s cruising and patrols in these areas were in breach of the Treaty of Paris. Britain and France’s failure to enforce this aspect of the treaty greatly assisted Russia in its strategy of conquest. Tsarist naval forces constantly intercepted supplies that flowed in from the Turkish coast to the Circassians, and Russian commanders repeatedly landed troops in suitable bays and estuaries in order to deprive Circassian forces of much-needed supplies. Heading these naval operations was the well-known Russian researcher of the Antarctic, Admiral Mikhail Lazarev, who was placed in charge of the Black Sea fleet. Later, one of the four districts of Sochi was named after him, Lazarevsky; the other three are Tsentralny, Khostinsky and Adlresky, altogether occupying 150 kilometers along the coast.
An important element in Russian strategy was the role of pro-Russian Abkhaz Duke Mikhail Shervashidze (Chachba), who advised the Russian high command and who recommended that the key to destroying Circassian resistance was the capture of two other important points in the lands of the Ubykh and Shapsugs and then offer to have negotiations with these important tribes of the Circassians in order to undermine the cohesion of the resistance. Sharing a nationality with these peoples, Shervashidze expected that if the mountaineers professed loyalty to Russia, the latter would not exterminate and deport them from their homeland. The duke, however, did not grasp the fact that the Western Circassians had antagonized the intruders so much, not because those branches of the Circassians were particularly implacable, but because they occupied lands that were particularly fertile and extremely beneficial to Moscow from a geopolitical point of view. The tsar needed these lands but did not want its freedom-loving population. The Abkhaz Dukedom itself was also abolished immediately after the war ended in 1865. It must be noted that the mountaineers were caught off guard by these developments. Many of the tribes did not believe that Russia would be able to restore its military might so quickly following the Crimean War.
Within the period of 1860–1863, the Circassian tribes of Bzhedugs and Natukhais were partially exterminated and partially deported to the Ottoman Empire. The Natukhais were disheartened after two hungry winters that were accompanied by epidemics and the death of their old leader Seferbey Zan. By August 1862, General Grigory Orbeliani observed that the Cossacks had captured most lands of the Natukhais and that the highlanders “were so constrained that it is actually hard to find sustenance for them in the remaining land” (The Acts of the Caucasus Archeogeographic Commission. Volume: XII, part II, p. 844).
Meanwhile, the Shapsugs, the Ubykhs, the Sadz and the Jigets were still putting up a desperate resistance against the Russian ground offensive. The Shapsugs engaged in a defiant fight after General Babich entered their lands. The Tsarist Russia historian Semyon Esadze in his book, The Conquest of the Western Caucasus and the Ending of the Caucasus War (Moscow, 2004), noted that these tribes were well prepared for the guerrilla war fighting in the forested mountains and “could courageously and steadfastly defend themselves in their land.” The Ubykh and the Sadz stepped up attacks on the coastal Russian garrisons in response to these attacks. The General-Governor of Kutaisi, Georgy Eristov (a.k.a. Eristavi) wrote in a report for General Baryatinsky: “These mountaineers constantly emerge on the highlands that are adjacent to the Gagry fortress and seem to be watching what is going on inside the garrison, with the purpose of making use of any mishap on our side…” Moreover, the coastal Cherkess and Ubykh tribes used small rowing-sailing vessels in their operations. The head of Gagry’s garrison wrote in one of his reports: “In Sochi, the mountaineers are equipping with up to 25 galleys or sailing boats with the intention of landing troops between Gagry and Cape Pitsunda…” The garrison’s head asked for reinforcement of these points.
Despite these efforts, the situation of the Cherkess, their ethnic kin—the Ubykh—and the western Abkhaz tribes was becoming progressively more hopeless by the day. Hunger, epidemics and Russian canister shots reaped rich harvest in these lands. Yet, the Ottoman Empire’s agents and European adventurers who pretended to be England’s representatives, continued to convince the mountaineers of the imminent arrival of help from the West. Their efforts had substantial success even among the mountaineers that were completely surrounded from all sides. Sometimes the promises of these people actually materialized. Georgy Dzidzaria notes one case, for example, where he describes one of these instances in his research: “…in August 1863, the commander of the Kuban region was informed by telegraph that a boat with a barge loaded with ammunition and agents, bound for the Caucasian coast, had departed from Constantinople. These vessels indeed landed on the shore of the Ubykh [tribe’s territory] and carried with them five rifled cannons, boxes with arms, gunpowder and artillery shells, and also there were eight adventurers onboard. The latter told the Ubykh that a large force was coming to their rescue and that they would receive back all their lands, while Russia would not cope as it would face fighting all powers” (Dzidzaria, “Muhajirs and the Problems of Abkhaz History of the 19th Century”).
The Great Free Assembly
Emboldened by these deceitful promises (not for the first time) and contemplating no other ways for their survival, the mountaineers of the Western Caucasus firmly decided to protect their independence by establishing a parliamentary assembly. Back in 1861 the Ubykhs, the Shapsugs and the Abadzekhs established a semblance of a parliamentary body that was designed to coordinate all their activities against the invaders. This body received the title majlis (from Arabic: a place of sitting, as in council) or the Great Free Assembly as it is known in Circassian historical literature. The Ubykh chiefs led the effort of molding a united force out of the Circassian and Western Abkhaz tribes and those leaders exercised quite a high level of authority.
Circassians widely remembered the famous elder and leader, Haji Berzek who was the uncle of the above named Haji Kerentukh Berzek. Haji Berzek swore that he would dress in female’s pants if a single gavur (infidel) were to enter the Ubykhs’ land in his lifetime. The elder indeed was able to keep his promise, as the Russian invasion of Ubykh territory occurred only after his death. The Ubykhs and their allies had also other outstanding military leaders, but not all of them were as firm in the decision to fight to the end. Semyon Esadze wrote that, for instance, part of the Sadz tribe that was under the influence of its Duke Rashid Gechba remained unresponsive to the majlis’ calls for a long time (Esadze, The Conquest of the Western Caucasus and the Ending of the Caucasus War, Moscow, 2004).
Assessing the actions of the mejlis, Georgy Dzidzaria noted in the previously mentioned monograph that: “it must be pointed out that the Ubykh ‘Constitution’ that was created at the time of grave danger appeared to be a “sample” of democratic governance only at first sight. First of all, the constitution was a project of social reforms. Even though it represented the highest level of the mountaineers’ political thought, it was illusory at the same time. The majlis was unable to overcome the Circassians’ tribal differences and their fragmented resistance. While invoking the slogan of Gazavat (holy war) was ineffective… The attempt to reconcile internal social contradictions was even more futile.”
The building of the mejlis, a large log house, was constructed in the valley of the river Psakhe, in the vicinity of the river Sochi, not far from where the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games will be held next February. Apart from the Ubykhs, the Akhchipsou, the Sadz and the Jigets took part in the construction work. The assembly consisted of 15 members, the ulemas and the respected chiefs. According to the majlis’ decree, the whole area was divided into 12 districts and each of them had two “legislators,” a mufti and a qadi, who were obliged to communicate the decisions of the Great Assembly to the people and local leaders. Military conscription was imposed, with a decree calling for five armed horsemen from every 100 households, and a tax system primarily to be used for defense purposes.
The Great and Free Assembly also adopted an official symbol, a Circassian flag—three crossed arrows embroidered with gold thread in the center of a green space, and 12 stars that were also embroidered with gold thread were positioned above the arrows. The green color of the flag symbolized the Circassians’ adherence to Islam. The crossed arrows showed the unity of the unconquered tribes. The twelve stars stood for the twelve districts that the majlis established in the area. Currently, the Republic of Adygea has this flag as its official symbol. The majlis also maintained contacts with the Circassian Committee in Constantinople, which was set up by the Circassian muhajirs (refugees) in Turkey after the Circassian committee in London. But no efforts of the mountaineers could change the Tsarist plan of systematic conquest of the Caucasus. According to the Tsarist historian Rostislav Fadeev, the war in the last four years was “about expelling the mountaineers from their slums and settling Russians in the Western Caucasus.” The war continued with unrelenting ferocity. Circassian villages were burned down by the hundreds; fields and food stores were destroyed. Those who expressed their loyalty to the Russian Empire were resettled in the areas that were uninhabitable and were subject to be governed by Russian officers. Those who did not surrender were either exterminated or sent to the rocky shores of the Black Sea coast for the subsequent deportation to the Ottoman Empire. Another author, Alexander Geins, who was an eyewitness to the terrible events of the time recalled: “In bright days the sun was often covered by the [smog coming from] countless fires…”
A major turning point in the war occurred in 1863. On June 19, 1863, the general-governor of Kutaisi, Nikolai Kolyubakin landed his troops at the mouth of the river Sochi and inflicted damage of mostly moral character by burning down the majlis building. Kolyubakin’s incursion also had a specific military and tactical purpose, namely to draw away the Ubykh and the Cherkess forces from the Kuban region. History has retained the names of the Circassian traitors of their own people who participated in the war against their own brethren. These were the Abkhaz Duke Mikhail Shervashidze and the Jiget Duke Tsanba.