Circassia: The Land . . . The People . . .

Circassia: The Land . . . The People . . .

by Hesham Sabry

Suddenly horsemen weilding swords came charging down the mountain side.  The Russian Tsarist soldiers dismounted, loaded their guns, took aim and fired. Down came the front line of Circassian horses and men, but the charge on the Russian invaders who had been trying to conquer them for the past fifty years did not stop. Once more though greatly outnumbered by the Russian army units, the Cherkess tribesmen, defending their homeland routed the enemy.

One more victory in their futile struggle to halt their giant northern neighbour from subjugating them, a giant who had already conquered every other land surrounding them, so that in the end, they alone remained an island within the great mass that is Russia, an island that was not going to be tolerated under any cicumstances.

Over the past fifty years, the rest of the Caucasus had either succumbed or surrendered to the Russians; the people of the region were tired of fighting a seemingly inexhaustible enemy that kept coming back with larger forces, always better and more heavily armed; and some southern Caucasus states invited the Russians to take them over in order to protect them from other invaders; but as yet the Russians had been unable to spread their rule over those fierce fighters to the north, the Circassians .. who had no cannons, and still fought mostly with daggers and swords! Only towards the end of the war were they using guns.

Since the late eighteenth century, the Russians began occupying the Cherkess northern range, who, unwilling to submit, were forced further and further into their mountainous southern range, where they teemed up with the other remaining tribes to continue their resistance.

By the early ninteenth century the Russians were so frustrated by their failures that they took to systematically wasting the land, burning villages and crops, driving herds and massacring any women and children who happened to be in the way; to the extent that even the Tsar sent his objection to his generals over such savagery.

Circassia, the land of the Cherkess, is an area that before its Russian annexation, just over a century ago, had extended from the Caucasus mountains, across the plains and over the Kuban river to the north, neighbouring the Crimean Tartars. To the west lay the Black Sea, to the east the Chechens, who also continued to resist the Russians.

By the late 1830’s the Russians scored several major victories on the Chechen and believed that that was the end of the resistance of all the mountain peoples. The Russian general, Velyaminov, sent assurances to the Tsar Nicholas I that all was under control and that the Caucasus was at last under Russian rule. Little did he know that it was to be another thirty years before his words could be truly accomplished.

The Chechens took up arms under a new leader, the Imam Shamyl, who was even more determined than his fallen predecessor to stop the Russians; and along with the Circassians, continued to defy and defeat the forces sent against them, and to suffer heavy losses that no small population could endure for very long; and yet the Chechen resistance under Shamyl lasted till 1859.

The Circassians, though having lost a valuable ally in the Chechens, continued to struggle on for five more years, till their final capitulation in 1864.

Many Chechen and Circassians preferred to die than to surrender, remaining in their blazing houses with their families to die; they died as they lived, refusing to submit to foreign dominion.

That same year 1864, saw a massive exodus of over half a million Circassians who refused to remain under Russian rule and left for Mediterranean countries and the Balkans.

The Russians were determined to wipe Circassia off the map. After half a century of enduring such losses, just to conquer those peoples, and a land that they had completely surrounded, now took it out on those who remained.  Many were relocated in areas within Russia – much as had been done to the Crimean Tatars because they too had put up a prolonged resistance – others were displaced by Russians from the north who took over their lands and fields.

Circassians are presently represented by three enclaves considered to be part of modern Russia, with no political power.

The Chechens, of such a small population and area, and who had so valiantly fought the Russians, are the first region within Russia proper to have declared their independence. They have after all retained their free spirit!

Lately the Tattars (Tartars) of Tattarestan became the second region within Russia proper to declare independence. I wonder, will the Cherkess, the last people to be conquered by Tsarist Russia, ever again be free?

To most, some obscure tiny land so far away, may mean nothing. But for one whose Circassian ancestors were decimated fighting the Russians for decades and whose remaining kin in 1864 emigrated to Egypt, this means a whole lot.