Teofil Lapinski: Hero and Leader of the Circassian War for Independence (Part One)

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 22

*Note to Readers: In response to readers’ requests, Chechnya Weekly will occasionally feature articles related to the history of the North Caucasus.

Russian expansion on the territory of the Caucasus region, which resulted in a full-scale Russian-Chechen war, continued for more than a century (1763-1864). The first territorial unit to fall under the relentless assault of the Russian imperial machine was the Cherkess town of Mozdok in 1763. This was followed by the annexation of the territories of Eastern Cherkessia–Kabarda, which were populated by highlanders since antiquity.

By the 1830s Russia began to annex the territories of Western Cherkessia by crisscrossing them with various cordon sanitaire lines that it forcibly populated with a militarized semi-Slavic but also exclusively Orthodox Christian population—the Cossacks. This is how the so-called Kuban Line was created. The Kuban Line was intended to cut off communication between Eastern and Western Cherkess. It also represented the rear base for the further relocation of the line into the heartland of the independent Cherkessia.

A new spiral in military hostilities between Cherkessia and aggressor Russian Empire happened at the beginning of 1840. After repeated and persistent demands by the leadership of the irregular Cherkess detachments to leave the territory of sovereign Cherkessia, which was illegally occupied by Russian troops, last-resort decisive measures were undertaken. A mass counteroffensive on enemy positions led to the fall of several forts of the illegal Black Sea Cordon Line. The garrisons were either completely eliminated or taken captive, and the fortifications were damaged or left in ruins. This last circumstance was actually a tactical mistake by the Cherkess leadership because it was necessary to leave a limited contingent of troops to control these strategic positions since the rest of the coastline was unsuited for establishing bases for further incursions and interventions. These mistakes were exploited by the Russians, who several years later reoccupied these strategically important bays and rebuilt their forts.

The Crimean War of 1853-1856, which followed the aforementioned events, served as another pretext for cleansing Cherkessia of occupiers. At the time Russia was no longer able to hold back the permanent Cherkess siege of its fortifications and decided to reallocate all resources to the Crimean War against the allied troops. It should be noted here that for a number of reasons the Cherkess army did not take part in the Crimean War.

Parallel to the developments in the south, the Russian Empire simultaneously wanted to strengthen its positions in the west. This was particularly true of Poland and Finland. Thus, November 1830 marked the famous Polish uprising against the colonial yoke of Tsarist Russian imperialism. After brutally suppressing the uprising, the Russian Tsar revoked the Constitution that had been given to the Polish Kingdom in 1815. This was followed by the uprisings of 1846 and 1848, which were also suppressed and their participants either killed or sent to Siberia for penal servitude. Some were forced to emigrate to the West and from there they continued the struggle for the independence of their occupied Motherland. The constant toughening of the colonial regime invariably resulted in the exponential rise of the Polish independence movement. One of the brightest representatives of this movement was Teofil Lapinski, who also participated in the independence war of the Cherkess state.

Teofil Lapinski was born in 1826 in Galicia, one of the historical regions of Poland. His childhood and adolescence were spent in the midst of active political events: the rise of the Polish national liberation movement. This had a formative impact on his character and political beliefs. Starting in his youth he actively participated in the struggle for Poland’s independence. The suppression of the uprisings of 1846 and 1848 forced him to emigrate. Similar to many other members of the Polish emigration, he took part in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849. During the Crimean War he participated in combat as an artillery colonel on the side of the European powers in the contingent of the Polish Division of General Zamoiski.

It was then that representatives of the Polish national liberation movement began to pay increasing attention to the Caucasus, where for almost a century highlanders provided a clear example of resistance to Russian military might. Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians and other peoples, who experienced the colonial yoke from major powers, were—in the words of Lapinski—were powerfully impressed at the romantic descriptions of heroic deeds by the courageous Cherkess that were frequently printed in the European press at the time. At the same time they saw that Europe verbally supported the righteous struggle of the Cherkess state for its sovereignty, but in practice undertook no serious efforts to offer real assistance.

In this context Lapinski planned to render practical military assistance to the poorly equipped Cherkess army. He considered everyone who resisted the Russian Empire to be natural allies of Poland. According to Lapinski’s plan, a Polish expeditionary corps numbering between six and fifteen thousand officers and soldiers and augmented by powerful artillery was to be formed in Turkey. Lapinski, who operated in Turkey under his nom de guerre Teffik Bey, knew that the Cherkess army was in need of artillery reinforcement. The Russian government, however, found out about these preparations and immediately sent a protest to the Sublime Port. The Ottoman government did not want to complicate further the already strained relations with Russia and was forced to disband the Polish corps. Yet this misfortune did not compel Lapinski to abandon his plans. After overcoming many difficulties and obstacles, in November 1857 the Polish detachment led by colonel Lapinski disembarked on the shores of Cherkessia. The Polish volunteers made a significant contribution to the history of resistance in Cherkessia. They demonstrated genuine courage and self-sacrifice in the struggle for freedom and ideals of justice, which are held so dearly by all free peoples.

For three long years (1857-1859), Lapinski and his soldiers fought shoulder to shoulder with highlanders as part of Cherkess detachments. The Cherkess forces were primarily comprised of two centers, which were in constant interaction with each other—the Northern center under the leadership of Muhammad-Amin and Southern center led by the respected representatives of Ubykh clans (Berzeg, Dechen, Aulbaa, Zeishu and others). Thus, Muhammad-Amin was responsible for recruiting conscripts from the northern slopes of the mountains of Cherkessia, while the southern Cherkess, who were initially led by Haji Degumko Berzeg, and later by Geranduk Berzeg, united under the green Cherkess banner conscripts from Anapa to the Bzyp River, and further along the mountains to Tsebelda, which is in present-day Abkhazia.

The main specialization of Lapinski was artillery support of blitzkrieg attacks by highland cavalry units. He also took part in the formation and training of new Slavic detachments that were formed from soldiers of Polish, Ukrainian and sometimes Russian descent, who had deserted the Russian troops. The leadership of the Cherkess resistance agreed not to exchange the defecting soldiers or return them for payment. Several centers for production of military equipment necessary for mountain warfare were set up high in the mountains. These centers employed qualified specialists who were former Russian artillery experts. One of the settlements was comprised of several hundred soldiers, who were almost exclusively Slavs (mainly Poles).

During his stay in Cherkessia, Teofil Lapinski, as any multidimensional and naturally inquisitive personality, kept a diary in which he noted the most meticulous details of events surrounding him. His keen mind kept notice of anything that was even of slight importance. For he was not only a witness but also a participant in the events he described. Indeed, he was one of the main characters of the drama that unfolded in 1857-1859 in the four western historical provinces of Cherkessia: Natukhay, Shapsugiy, Abadzekhia and Ubykhia. Subsequently his field notes were systematized and published in German in Hamburg in 1863. The value of his work for our time is difficult to overestimate! The Russian translation and publication of this document under the title “Highlanders of the Caucasus and their independence struggle against Russians” occurred only 132 years later—in 1995—at the publishing house “El-Fa” in the city of Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria.

Comprehensive examination of contemporary developments, which Lapinski often carried out with more pedantry than was required, gives us a lot of interesting information. For instance, his quantitative assessment of the population of Cherkessia, in our opinion, is understated. First of all, it is necessary to take into account the fact that there was a full-scale war to repel the attacks of the aggressor’s troops. Secondly, under such dire circumstances it was impossible to carry out a proper census. According to Lapinski, the Cherkess population was estimated at 1.5 million, although he did concede that there were very likely mistakes in this estimate.

Here it should also be noted that the process of the genocide of Cherkess people—the systematic extermination of people locale by locale, their relocation from ancestral lands—was carried out with varying intensity long before Lapinski prepared his approximate demographic estimates based on military calculations. This is corroborated by Turkish sources, who claim that the number of Cherkess who fled the Caucasus was estimated at more than two million people. That is, Lapinski’s estimate includes the part of the population that could have been used in military operations or able-bodied males subject to draft.

The book includes Lapinski’s original vision of the territorial differences of the Cherkess nation—which, similar to the population estimate discussed above, can be understood as a point of view. He refers to the western Cherkess as Abaz, thereby uniting them with the Abaz and Abaz-speaking population. At the same time, he separates them from the population of the eastern territories of Cherkessia—Kabarda, whom he calls the Cherkess. In some passages he even claims that the eastern Cherkess have origins different from those of the western Cherkess, or Abaz. Lapinski was probably affected by the fact that by the time he arrived to render assistance to Cherkessia, the eastern provinces had been occupied by the enemy for more than thirty years and the active part of the population capable of resistance had moved to the west en masse because it was still independent.

The second reason for Lapinski’s original division of Cherkess is his adherence to the “new theory of Slavic ethnography” of F. Dukhinski, a Pole who emigrated to the West after the Russians’ suppression of the Polish rebellion of 1831. In Paris Dukhinski became a professor at a Polish school, where he developed a classification of Slavic peoples. Dukhinski did not classify Russians as having Slavic ancestry. Instead he categorized them as descendants of the “Turan-Mongol nomad tribes,” who were predisposed toward authoritarian rule, “communism,” rejection of private property, nomadic lifestyle, weak development of urban civilization and other characteristics. Another tenet of this theory claims that the very self-identification “Russian” can only be applied to Ukrainians and Belorussians, whose cultures and ancestry are closer to Poles and other Western Slavs.

Lapinski was trying to implement something similar to this theory with regard to the Cherkess. In his book he claims that the eastern Adygs, who populate Kabarda, belong to the Cherkess while western Adygs, including those residing in Abkhazia, are Abaz. At the same time, Lapinski repeatedly classified Georgians together with Armenians by emphasizing their cultural and mental commonalities and calling them one people—Georgian-Armenians. Scientific progress and the historical development of mankind, however, demonstrated that such differentiations are very superficial and should not be considered seriously.

The citizens of Cherkessia in the 19th century included the entire population of western Cherkessia, its eastern part—Kabarda, and Abkhazia. As a matter of fact, the people’s representatives from Abkhazia participated in all proceedings of the national parliament during the existence of Cherkessia. A significant portion of Lapinski’s book is devoted to a description of the peaceful productive activities of the broad peasant stratum of the country’s population. Lapinski notes many similarities between the Cherkess horticultural traditions and agricultural activities of the residents of rural areas in Europe, including comparisons with populations in Silesia, Hungary and Poland. Lapinski’s witness account is particularly valuable considering that the Cherkess people went through the hellfire of genocide and were deprived of everything, starting with basic national statehood and ending with the most banal right to exist, to live on the ancient land of their ancestors. Those who miraculously survived were divided and artificially separated into several adjacent administrative districts. The Ossetian researcher V.K. Gardanov wrote that the representatives of Russian historiography, who served the interests of Russian Empire, aimed to portray Cherkess as “wild,” “poor,” “lazy,” and “underdeveloped.” In that narrative, the Cherkess were presented as having nothing—no crafts and no cattle-breeding. All their thoughts were about pillage and profit. Needless to say, there is no mention of the statehood of Cherkessia, while the Cherkess independence war against Russia is portrayed as the war between Russia and Turkey for the trivial possession of territory.

T. Lapinski was simply amazed by the fact that after such a long resistance against the numerically superior enemy forces, the social-political order of Adygs was functioning well. He cannot hide his surprise and admiration with the strong and strict social organization of society that he encountered in Cherkessia. “When you step on the land of free Cherkessia,” wrote T. Lapinski, “initially it is difficult to understand how it is that the people, almost every child of whose bears arms, and who do not have written laws or executive power, can not only exist but also stand against such a colossus as Russia for many years and preserve their independence. The main reason—the strong social organization of this people, that relies on national traditions and customs and that not only preserves the individuality and property of each member, but also makes all physical and moral attempts at conquering the country difficult and almost impossible.”

From this excerpt it is clear that at the time, the written and legislatively adopted tenets of Cherkessian statehood were followed by each conscientious Cherkess citizen with exceptional zeal. The explanation for what Lapinski describes as the absence of written laws can once again be found in the fact, by the time of his arrival in Cherkessia, the long and exhausting war of attrition had practically eliminated any opportunity for conducting active civil record-keeping. Nevertheless, civic institutions did not suffer as a result of this, nor was the functioning of enacted law infringed upon.