Chengyi Situ: The Circassian Genocide
On May 21st, 1864, the Russian Empire began six years of systemic massacre and forced deportations in Circassia. By 1870, over 800,000 Circassians were killed, with a further 700,000 displaced to either Persia or the Ottoman Empire; these 1.5 million casualties represented a staggering 90% of the entire Circassian population at the time of the massacre. This tragedy was the culminating event in the century-long Circassian struggle for political, territorial and religious autonomy from Tsarist Russia’s expansionist and Russification policies in the Caucasus. Territorial dispute existed between the Circassians and the Russian Empire since Peter the Great’s Caucasus campaign in 1714, but full-scale conflict erupted in 1763, when the newly crowned Tsarista Catherine II instructed the establishment of Russian forts on the Kuban river. Over the next century, intensified Russian expansion in the Caucasus and the Balkans led to two Russo-Turkish Wars, which further exacerbated the standing conflict between Russians and Circassians by raising geo-political instabilities in the Caucasus region. In the aftermath of the second Russo-Turkis War in 1829, the Ottoman Empire ceded all of her Caucasian territories to the Russian Empire through the Treaty of Edirne. It appears that the Circassian genocide is fueled by the long term cultural resistance of Muslim Circassians to the assimilation policies of the Russian Empire. However, an often overlooked aspect is the Treaty of Edirne. Since the Ottomans “transferred” de jure sovereignty of Circassia—a region that the Ottomans didn’t possess either— to the Russians, this paper argues that the Treaty of Edirne was a more immediate cause of the Circassian Genocide. The treaty caused a situation in which Russians claimed sovereignty over Circassia while Circassians denied the legitimacy of that claim, spilling confusion to the intensifying disagreements between the two conflicting forces.
Historic Context: The Circassians
The Circassians have dwelled in the Northern Caucasus coast of the Black Sea for over a millenia before they were rendered as diasporas in the genocide perpetuated by the Russian Empire. The Circassians were initially nomadic tribes, but were converted to Orthdox Chrisitanity by the Byzantine Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries. During the Byzantine era, Circassians often aligned with the Georgians just south of their region, who along with Armenians remained Christian during the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th century. As the Ottoman Empire replaced the Byzantines in the 15th century, Circassia succumbed to the status of a tribute state to the Ottoman Empire. Despite their partial military dependence on the Ottoman Empire, Circassians were never vassalized and therefore retained full autonomy from the Ottomans. Their independence from the Turks was exemplified by their promise to “never again pay tributes” after the Ottoman Turks failed to uphold their promise to protect the Circassians from Tartar raids. Their seemingly brandish claim was followed by an astonishing victory at the Battle of Knazahl against the Ottomans and the Crimean Khanate in 1708. Unfortunately, shortly after their victory against the Ottomans, Tsar Peter the I of Russia launched an invasion on Circassia in 1714, in hopes of capturing the Black Sea coast. Despite his failure, Peter I’s attempt marked the beginning of Russian attempts to capture Circassia, a mission that was continued by Catherine II in 1763 and finally fulfilled by Alexander II in 1864.
Refusal to Assimilate
Once Peter the Great began Russia’s westernization and modernization processes, the Russian Empire adopted vigorous reformist and expansionist policies beginning in the 18th century. The Russians, distanced from the Atlantic, aimed to acquire their own territoires through expanding south towards the Caucasus and eastwards for Siberia and the Far East. Therefore, Circassia became an obstacle in the Russian’s goal of conquering the Caucasus and expanding Russian sphere of influence into the Black Sea. Evidently, acquiring additional territories also came at the cost of having to govern over large groups of ethnic minorities in a vast empire. Therefore, as the minority population grew, Tsarist Russia adopted a system of “Russification” with the goal of preventing rebellions. The Circassians were a much more stubborn ethnicity faced by the Russian Empire compared to their Siberian counterparts. It is important to recognize that many of Russia’s neighbors in the Siberian plains still retained a nomadic life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their isolation from the centers of political and cultural exchange meant that they were not influenced by the world’s major religious ideologies. The Circassians however, although Orthodox Christians initially, actively sought conversion to Islam beginning in the 18th century. Most importantly, it has been stated that the Circassians sought conversion to Islam in the early 18th century with the primary goal being to resist Russian encroachment, both territorial and cultural. Through a century of conversion, by the time the Circassian resistance was defeated on the battlegrounds in 1864, over 75% of the Circassian population had converted to Islam. To examine the situtation of Islam in the Russian Empire, most Muslims in the Caucasus, including Azerbaijanis and Kurds, fled from annexed territories to the Ottoman Empire, fearing prersecution from the Tsarist government for refusal to assimilate. Their refusal to accept Russian culture and Russian Orthodoxy made Alexander III’s doctrine of Russification almost impossible to implement in Circassia. As a result, Circassian resistance to Russification has been viewed as one of the reasons behind the atrocities the Russian Empire committed after its occupation of the region in 1864.
Treaty of Edirne
Despite the cultural steadfastness of Muslim Circassians being a strong long term causal factor for the genocide, the Treaty of Edirne’s terms provide a much more immediate explanation ot the massacre. The Treaty of Edirne was signed in 1829, in the aftermath of the second Russo-Turkish war and over a century after Circassians began converting to Islam. Once again, the Russian Empire decimated the dilapidated ‘sick man of Europe’ and reaped its rewards in the Caucasus and Balkans. The Circassians were set up to be destroyed and eliminated by the irresponsible actions of the Ottoman Empire. Britannica described the terms of the treaty as based on Russia’s desire for “a weakened Ottoman Empire to one that was dismembered by other powers. The treaty allowed Russia to annex the islands controlling the mouth of the Danube River and the Caucasus coastal strip of the Black Sea, including the fortresses of Anapa and Poti.” Critically, the Ottoman Empire ceded its claim to the Circassian region in the Northern Caucasian coast to the Russian Empire. This specific term in the treaty caused confusion and bred the seeds for intensified conflict between the Circassians and the Russians. It led to a situation in which the Circassians, independent from both the Ottomans and the Russians, were suddenly placed under de jure control of the Russian Empire.
This term in the treaty of Edirne was heavily criticized by British politicians at the time. John Arthur Roebuck, a member of the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, said the following after the Russian confiscation of the British schooner Vixen in 1836.
"The defense of Russia is that, by the treaty of Adrianople (Edirne), Circassia was ceded to Russia by Turkey; and, consequently, that Russia had a right to establish a blockade of the coast of Circassia, and to establish whatever custom-house regulations she might think proper in relation to her ports. Now, in the first place, I deny that the territory of Circassia is in the possession of Russia; secondly, I assert that, not being in the possession of Russia, Russia has no right, according to the law of nations, to make any custom-house regulations in relation to the ports of Circassia; and, thirdly, I maintain that Russia has no right to blockade the coast of the territory of a free people against the entrance into its ports of an English vessel with English goods."
Indeed, while Roebuck is focused on the situation of the English vessel “Vixen,” he nevertheless makes clear by international legality that Russia had no right to claim Circassia. To justify his position, Roebuck added that “It is contended that Circassia was ceded to Russia by the treaty of Adrianople. But the Circassians are in possession of their own country. I deny that Turkey had any right to cede Circassia to Russia.” Roebuck’s position on Turkey’s right to cede Circassia to the Russian Empire was supported by many fellow members of the House of Commons, including Lord Dudley Stuart. Internationally, German political scientist Karl Marx also fiercely criticized the Ottomans’ irresponsible decision. Unfortunately, the British Empire had no interest or responsibility to intervene on behalf of Circassia since their main goal was to ensure the release of the Vixen. Evidently, Circassians did not recognize the treaty and in response, they sent ambassadors to England, France and Ottoman Turkey, the mission being to expose Russian savagery and destruction. Meanwhile, after receiving de jure jurisdiction and sovereignty over Circassia through the treaty, Nicholas I was issuing orders for the complete elimination of the Circassians.
For the next 34 years, the Russo-Circassian conflict escalated to a much higher scale than those that preceded the Treaty of Edirne. In 1861, the Circassians established an assembly called the Independence Majlis of Circassia in a last ditch effort to resist Russian occupation, but their efforts were in vain as the last of the Circassian army was decimated in the battle of Qbadda in 1864.
The legacy of the Circassian Genocide will forever be remembered in history as a bloody chapter of imperial expansionism. The conflict between the two forces began with the Russian Empire’s Caucasus campaign; intensified through Circassian cultural and territorial resistance to Russification, and was finally brought to a point of no return after the Treaty of Edirne gave Russia the legal sovereignty over Circassia on paper.
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