The following is the conclusion to the two-part historical series in EDM by Ibragim Gukemukh of the end of the road to Krasnaya Polyana and the last stand of Circassian resistance against Tsarist Russia’s conquest of the Northeast Caucasus. To read Part One, see EDM, May 31.
In the beginning of 1863, the new Russian commander-in-chief and the governor to the region, the Grand Duke Mikhail Nikolaevich, arrived in the Caucasus. The Russian Minister of Finance and Minister for Foreign Affairs Sergei Witte described him in his memoirs in explicitly scathing overtones: “This man was a fairly narrow-minded person, narrow-minded statesman, unbooked [not learned] statesman…” Mikhail Nikolaevich doubled the efforts of his predecessor Duke Aleksandr Baryatinsky to remove the last of the Circassian resistance from the area.
By the end of 1863, General Nikolai Yevdokimov wrote in his report for the new governor: “…on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Ridge, there is no armed enemy left.” Another “military leader,” General Alexander Kartsov also boastfully wrote to the governor’s headquarters: “Thus, no single mountaineer is left on the northern slopes of the western part of the Caucasus mountains; the southern slopes, including the sea shores, starting from Novorossiysk (Tsemess) Bay to Tuapse has been cleaned out of any population.” It was here, in the valleys of the rivers Sochi, Vardana and Mzymta where the last acts of the tragedy of the dying people unfolded. A. Fonville in his memoirs, The Last Year of Circassia’s War for Independence, described these heartbreaking scenes: “…We had the opportunity to observe the amazing impoverishment of this wretched nation from a close distance; on a daily basis we encountered new groups of mountaineers that were on the move to the areas that were not overtaken by the army, yet…the latest rains and floods killed many of those settlers and we constantly saw corpses on our way. The famine was terrible; many unfortunate people died of it…sometimes people came out to meet us in the villages, but we run away from them, because we were afraid of getting infected with the diseases that were killing off whole villages…”
According to General Yevdokimov’s plan, at the beginning of 1864, the Russian military moved to the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Ridge. The military campaign resumed in the early spring with a single practical purpose that was described in detail in the book, The Last Years of Russians’ Fighting with Mountaineers in the Western Caucasus, by one of the champions of Tsarist Russia’s imperial policy, A. Lilov. According to Lilov, the offensive did not start at the beginning of the year during the winter by chance. The colonizers expected to maximize their success. Since the “destruction of food supplies and settlements has a devastating effect, the mountaineers remain entirely homeless, with fewer means to protect themselves and extremely low on food.”
The so-called Dakhov unit under the command of General Vasily Geiman should have played a pivotal role in the final military actions against the Cherkess and the Ubykhs. The Dakhov unit received its name after the strategic Dakhov Pass, which connects the northern and the southern slopes of the mountains in this part of the Western Caucasus. Several days after the start of the spring campaign, the commander of the Caucasus, Grand Duke Nikolaevich, wrote in his report to the Tsar that Geiman’s unit “having cleaned out…the area between the rivers Tuapse and Psezuape and having exterminated all villages that lay along these rivers, captured Fort Lazarev (now known as Lazarevsky settlement) on March 16; on March 19, the former fortress Golovinskoe was captured (now known as Golovinka settlement).”
The Russian military approached the border of the Ubykh lands, the river of Shakha. Here, General Geiman met the deputies of the Ubykh chiefs that came to his camp for the last time. In response to the proposal for a truce he ironically noted: “Where are your troops in European uniforms that you cried so much about? Where are your rifled cannons and ammunition? Where are your allies?” The mountaineers responded: “We have seen that all our hopes for the help from outside are a dream… But we still remain the Ubykhs, we are still a people and we can enter negotiations for our benefit and state our demands.” The general arrogantly responded to this: “There are no concessions for you and will not be!” After these words the Ubykhs realized that their lot had been decided irreversibly. Semyon Esadze wrote in the book, The Conquest of the Western Caucasus: “In their posture and in their look each Ubykh showed complete self-dignity; not a trace of humiliation or fear. However, it was clear that they were hurt in their weakest spot, their pride…”
The Ubykh deputies decided to fight to the last man. The Akhchipsou, the Aibga and the Pskhu, who belonged to small tribes that received their names according to the mountain gorges where they resided, also stood by the Ubykhs in their fight. However, no resistance could have stopped the advancing Russian armies that covered the strip of land between the sea and the mountains as if they were a flood. Having crossed the river Shakhe, the Russian troops advanced further and soon “all numerous villages of Vardane society were burned down” (see Semyon Esadze, op. cit.)
On March 25, Russian armies captured Sochi—the heart of the Ubykhs’ land. That was the end of the proud and warlike people. On April 8, 1864, the Russian Tsar Alexander II, called the Tsar Liberator by the people of Russia, sent a telegram to the governor of the Caucasus that said: “I sincerely rejoice in the happy turn of events with the Ubykhs. It remains to thank God for the attained result” (Central State Archive of the October Revolution USSR, fund 728, 1862–1881, case #2732, sheet 69). On March 26, after the Ubykhs’ loss, representatives of the Sadz (Jigets)—one of the western Abkhaz tribes—came to Geiman’s camp. They also tried to secure a truce. Their duke, Rashid Gechba, stated: “We are Jigets. We are a free people; we have never been subject to anyone. Now we see that everyone around us is bowing to the Russians and we already consider our land to be the property of the Russian Emperor.” They were “graciously” allowed to leave for Turkey along with the Ubykhs and the Shapsugs, having given them a month to prepare with all their families to come to the shores and embark on the Ottoman ships. The governor who came to Geiman’s camp told them that “if anybody did not comply with this demand, they would be treated as prisoners of war and more troops would arrive to deal with them” (Semyon Esadze, the Conquest of the Western Caucasus and the Ending of the Caucasus War, pp. 166–167). By April 19, the military did not meet any Ubykhs or Jigets in the mountains; they all had gone to Turkey.
The Caucasus War could have been considered over by then. Only a few, numerically small western Abkhaz tribes, such as the Aibga, the Pskhu, the Akhchipsou and the remnants of the Shapsugs who refused to surrender, still resisted, relying on their natural fortresses in the mountains to deter the Russian invaders. The Shapsugs resided on the high plateau in the upper reaches of the rivers Mzymta, Psou and Bzyb. In order to destroy the last stronghold of the mountaineers, the Russian commanders decided to use four lines of offense, in order to “make the disobedient comply immediately with all the requirements and clear the country in the earliest possible time,” in the words of the Russian governor and commander-in-chief, Nikolaevich (Journal Kavkaz, # 44, June 11, 1864).
The first line of offense under the command of General Pavel Shatilov moved from Gagry fortress up the Aibga River, located in the Bzyb Gorge. Having captured it, the unit should have advanced on Akhchipsou from the south. The second line of offense, under the command of General Pyotr Svyatopolk-Mirskoi, landed in the upper reaches of the Mzymta River (where currently the city of Adler is situated) and advanced through the lowlands. The third line of offense under the command of General Geiman advanced from the so-called Kuban outpost that was situated in the upper reaches of the Sochi River. The third military unit should have also reached Akhchipsou at the end. The fourth line of offense was led by General Pavel Grabbe. It advanced from the northern slopes of the Main Caucasus Ridge, the upper reaches of the Laba River. Grabbe’s unit was to join the unit under the command of Svyatopolk-Mirskoi in the Mzymta River valley. Thus, the advancing Russian armies divided the lands of still unconquered peoples into several more parts.
The Russians encountered the fiercest resistance in the gorge of the Psou River, in the lands of the Aibga people. The Psou River currently is an official border between Abkhazia and Russia. The tribe residing there had great hopes for the inaccessibility of its territory, most of which was covered with steep cliffs. Also the Aibga relied on the assistance of neighboring tribes who, according to the Caucasus’ governor, “gathered from the entire Eastern shore…gearing up to fight for the last time.” The Aibga decided to defend their lands to the last man. They fortified the only path to their land that passed along the Psou River with the debris of boulders and felled trees. Firing their flintlock rifles and throwing boulders and logs at the Russian army, the Aibga managed to hold their ground against the unit of General Shatilov for four days. As Grand Duke Nikolaevich admitted, Shatilov’s unit suffered heavy casualties. Women defended their homeland along with the men. One of the eyewitnesses to these clashes, Ivan Averkiev wrote: “When taking over Aibga, two girls came out with rifles on their shoulders that were determined to defend their homes’ ashes” (Journal Kavkaz, # 74, 1866).
But all this resistance was in vain, as another strong unit was moving around Aibga. After a fierce fight, this Russian army emerged on the mountainous plateau where the defenseless villages of the mountaineers were located and destroyed these settlements on May 12. On May 18, Shatilov’s unit joined with the unit that destroyed the villages in Aibga Gorge and passed on to Akhchipsou. The remaining Aibga started their final descent to the shores of the Black Sea where they would embark upon Turkish ships and boats. The defeat of the Aibga disheartened their neighbors. As Abkhaz historian Georgy Dzidzaria wrote: “This military campaign decided the fate of all other mountainous Abkhaz tribes, too. All the Akhchipsu with their families and belongings left their homes and started to move to the shores of the sea, following the Aibga” (Dzidzaria, “Muhajirs and the Problems of Abkhaz History of the 19th Century,” 1975).
By May 20, all four Russian military units joined in the center of the “cleansed” land of the Akhchipsu, called Gubaadvy, currently known as Krasnaya Polyana and sometimes referred to incorrectly as Kbaada or Kbaade. Gubaadvy consists of two plateaus that are connected with each other by a small pass. The plateau is situated at 1,730 meters above sea level and is surrounded by high mountains from all sides. This remote place lost among the high mountains was destined to become the place of the final celebration of the end of Caucasus War. A Russian military parade took place there on May 21, 1864, in the presence of the Caucasus’ governor, Grand Duke Nikolaevich.
Yet, the mountaineer tribes did not stop their resistance even after this. Russian forces invaded the lands of the upper Abkhaz (a.k.a. Abazin) tribes of Pskhu and Kudzh. These small tribes could not hold out against a regular army and an Abkhaz militia under the command of Duke Mikhail Shervashidze, fought alongside the Russians, and advanced from the south. The Pskhu were driven into the Khabyu and Gunurkhva valleys, where some 800 people from the Aibga and Akhchipsu tribes tried to hide. Mostly these were old people, women and children. After they refused to go to Turkey, “their homes, stocks of corn and corn flour were destroyed; for resisting the deportation, their cattle, 220 units, were appropriated by the army” (From the report by the commander of the military in Abkhazia to Kutaisi general-governor, August 20, 1864, Central State Archive of Georgia, case 63, sheets 256–258).
The introduction to A. Fonville’s work, “The Last Year of Circassia’s War for Independence,” notes, “They [the Russian military] had to exterminate half of the Circassians in order to force the other half to put down their arms. But those who fell from deprivation and harsh winters that were spent under the snowstorms in the woods and on the bare rocks hardly comprised a tenth of all who died.” The colonial Russian forces hunted after those Circassians and Abkhaz who refused to relocate to the Ottoman Empire and hid in remote areas. According to a decree issued by Grand Duke Nikolaevich, a special unit was established to clean out remote plateaus between the Tuapse River and the Gagry Ridge of Circassians. The unit consisted of 12 companies and one hundred soldiers. In order to prevent the Circassians from running over to the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains, in the upper reaches of the Pshish and Pshekha rivers, two other such units were stationed (Report of the commander of the Russian army in the Caucasus, June 14, 1865, Central State Military History archive, fund 38, inventory 30/286, case 21, sheets 1–2).
“Even if several dozen families or homeless predators (abreks) are able to hide away from our military, we will not need another military expedition for their extermination,” a reporter for the magazine Kavkaz cheerfully wrote in the summer of 1864.
Unable to avoid these final sweeping actions by the Russian forces, the Circassians’ valiant military resistance finally came to a close. Caught between a hammer and an anvil, deprived of long-awaited military support from Europe, and unable to halt Tsarist Russia’s determination to drive the Circassians into the Black Sea, the final chapter of Circassian resistance came to a close. Ironically, Russia’s earlier defeat in the Crimean war had actually created the reverse effect in the Caucasus and fueled Moscow’s taste for expansion—the Treaty of Paris of 1856 thus became a death warrant for the peoples of the Caucasus as the Western powers were unable to check Russia’s advance in this region. For the Circassians, that chapter in their 150-year struggle ended with their defeat on the fields of Krasnaya Polyana, the same site where the Sochi Winter Olympic Games will take place in February 2014.