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

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 23

Another foreign visitor to Cherkessia, James Bell, who also left evidence of his stay in Cherkessia during the national liberation war, characterized the peculiarity of Cherkess statehood in the following manner: “Popular opinion and established customs—this is what, in my view, represents the supreme law of the land, and I can only be amazed by the order that flows from such state of affairs. Violent and cruel offenses and outright crimes occur, but most of these are the result of quarrels and their consequences and their occurrence is relatively rare. Only a few states with established laws and complex mechanisms of justice can boast such a level of morality, accord and good manners—all these things distinguish this people in their everyday interactions” [1].

Similar testimonies can be quoted at length. The statehood of Cherkessia functioned in a peculiar manner through verbal provisions of laws and separate written state documents as well as agreements regulating relations between the provinces and with neighboring countries. It is possible to draw a parallel with the contemporary constitution of Great Britain, which does not consist of one written document or the list of documents comprising it. The modern British or Anglo-Saxon system of law is characterized by the use of a legal precedent as the source of the law. In this regard it is very similar to the Cherkess law, as it existed before the occupation and loss of sovereignty.

Particularly noteworthy are Lapinski’s comments about the filial and social life of the Cherkess. The literature describing the Caucasus is often peppered with descriptions of highland women, who are portrayed as being utterly dependent on and in some cases even enslaved to their male companions. This may have been true of the eastern part of the Caucasus, but among the Cherkess the situation was drastically different. Addressing this subject, a prominent Cherkess writer and ethnographer wrote the following: “All those who make judgments about domestic life of the Cherkess by comparing it to the lifestyles of other Asiatic peoples who believe in the Mohammedan creed have an erroneous view about this subject. The chivalrous ambition introduced a lot of beautiful aspects into their customs. The great respect for women, which this wonderful but weak gender fully deserves, can be counted as one of those beautiful traits” [2].

Lapinski gave a very similar description in his book. “The mother,” he noted, “commands the same authority as the father and is revered devoutly by the entire family.” The high status of Cherkess woman in society, her broad rights, the exquisite forms and principles of her veneration, which were the most important elements of Adyg etiquette, were puzzling to the majority of travelers and explorers, who expected to see a reverse picture. “Unconstrained freedom of women and girls,” noted Lapinski, “could have seemingly led to the lax morals, but in spite of that, almost all the girls are chaste.”

With regard to the ethnic pedagogy of the Cherkess, Lapinski commented that “children are brought up in a sensible manner, and a child is never beaten or even reprimanded.” Nor did Lapinski leave unnoticed the social institutions of the Cherkess. Without delving into the details of Lapinski’s comments about them, it is worth quoting the following statement by him: “…neighbors live in such harmony with each other that it could be an example for emulation by the rural residents of Europe.”

In describing the religious views of the population of sovereign Cherkessia, Lapinski concluded that the traditions of statehood and the popular customs that were established over centuries played a more important role in everyday life. In practice a secular system existed and different religious views were often mutually respected and revered. As in the contemporary, de facto independent Abkhazia, the Orthodox religion in Cherkessia had an applied character. While Turkey was trying to influence the religious beliefs of the population, Cherkessia remained Christian, but as soon as Russia launched an aggressive proselytization campaign the Cherkess turned to Islam.

As any Pole, Lapinski was a devout Catholic and he persistently looked for traces of Christianity in Cherkessia. He thought that one way to save Cherkessia was to introduce the Christian religion of Western orientation instead of Islam. “What is the reason that this people of the same race as us and who did not renounce Christianity outright, who cannot be called ‘Barbarians’ because they are more civilized than peasants of many European countries, a people, who, one can say, live at the very gates of Europe and are estimated to be one million in population, what is the reason—I thought—that none of the many political and Protestant missions attempted to sow the seeds of the Gospel on this fertile ground…No one cares about the spiritual salvation of one the most beautiful by nature, most cultured people.”

Nonetheless, Lapinski did come across Christianity in Cherkessia, albeit in a modified form. “…On 22 July 1859 I entered the lands of a previously unknown to me small Christian people called the Svanets. In the course of the two days that I stayed there I did not have a chance to study the differences in morals and customs between the Adygs and the Svanets. Although a cursory examination of these differences revealed to me that they were insignificant. The houses, clothes and weapons were the same here as among the Adygs; the hospitality is the same; the dialect is similar to Ubykh, but many speak the Adyg language as well. Their religion consists of Christian rituals, but there are no clerics; many crosses can be seen along the roads and in houses and they are worn as amulets too” [3].

Another pronouncement made by Lapinski speaks clearly and unequivocally of his deep affection toward the Cherkess nation. “The Abaz (that is, Cherkess) by his nature is courageous, decisive, but does not like to spill blood mercilessly and is not cruel. He likes to travel, but does not like to stay away from his Motherland for too long. Most of all he likes his forests and mountains. His personal freedom he views as the supreme blessing, he allows himself to be ruled with gentleness and conviction, as a child, and he can even withstand strictness, but he rebels against any injustice. He jealously guards his military fame, but sincerely admires the courage of others, even enemy…He rides horses and sings all day, and he is almost indifferent when his house and property burn or when his body is cut and shot at, but he feels deep love to his family. His obedience to parents, his harmony in marriage can serve as examples for any civilized people.”

After Shamil’s surrender in the eastern Caucasus and the increase in the concentration of armed forces in western Caucasus, the defensive system built by the efforts of the Dagestan-native Muhammad-Amin collapsed. Muhammad-Amin surrendered following the surrender of his patron Shamil. The leadership of the resistance was transferred to the Ubykh clans. On the regional level, at a meeting of the national representatives of the Cherkess province of Ubykhia in consultation with the military leadership of the irregular forces, the decision was made to form a detachment of six thousand Ubykh volunteers to support the combat spirit of the Cherkess forces located on the northern slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. Thus, Cherkessia’s struggle for independence continued from 1859 until 1864, when the capital of independent Cherkessia, where a complex of parliament buildings was built in 1861 to the north of Sochi, was occupied. This is precisely the same place, where the present Russian regime decided to host the blasphemous Winter Olympics on the bones of victims of the Cherkess genocide of the 18th-20th centuries.

While in Europe, Lapinski did not abandon attempts to organize a new expedition to Cherkessia. In particular, during his stay in London in the early 1860s, he offered the English government a new plan to organize an intervention in the Caucasus, which was rejected. Everyone understood by then that the fate of Cherkessia was sealed. Upon returning to Europe in 1859, Lapinski again actively engaged in the work of the Polish émigré community. In 1860s and 1870s his name became popular in Europe. Lapinski established connections with the most prominent activists of the European revolutionary movement. In 1863 in London he met Karl Marx, under whose influence he was animated by the ideas of socialism for some time [4].

During the Polish rebellion of 1863, Lapinski undertook desperate measures to render assistance to the rebels. In March of that year the leaders of the Polish émigré community decided to organize a naval expedition to the shores of Lithuania in order to support the rebels in Poland and Lithuania. The man in charge of that expedition was Teofil Lapinski. A.I. Herzen, who also participated in the expedition, wrote: “After a long quest Domontovich and his Parisian friends decided to select Colonel Lapinski as the most capable military leader of the expedition. He was in the Caucasus for a long time on the side of Cherkess and he knew mountain warfare so well that travel by sea was but a mere trifle. One would not call this choice erroneous” [5].

Lapinski’s expedition to the shores of Lithuania on board the steamboat Ward Jackson was unsuccessful because the volunteers could not disembark on land close to Klaipeda. In early May 1863 Lapinski undertook another attempt at a naval expedition, for which the Danish schooner “Emilia,” with the detachment of volunteers on board, was prepared to set sail toward the Lithuanian shores. Some of the volunteers, however, perished in a storm during a landing near Palanga. The schooner was forced to retreat to the Swedish island of Gotland. After several failed expeditions Lapinski lived for some time in England, France, Italy and other European countries. In the early 1870s he received an amnesty from the Austrian government and relocated to his ancestral land in Galicia. Teofil Lapinski died in 1886 in Lviv, on the territory of the present-day sovereign Ukraine. Almost all countries—Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus—for whose independence Teofil Lapinski, the hero of Cherkessia, fought so valiantly, became independent at the end of the 20th century.


1. Journal of Residence in Circassia during the Years 1837, 1838 and 1839: Volumes 1-2.

2. Khan-Girey, “Zapiski o Cherkessii” (Notes on Cherkessia), Nalchik, 1978, p.292.

3. Teofil Lapinski, op. cit., p.409.

4. Wielka Encyklopedia powszechna. Warczawa, Volume 6, p.688.

5. A. I. Herzen, “Byloe i dumy” (Past and thoughts), Moscow, 1973, Volume 3, p.346.