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Caucasus History

Caucasus Map - 1775The whole of the Caucasus formed part and parcel of the Russian Empire, and had done since 1864. By some strange contradiction, strength and weakness went hand in hand. The very height and ruggedness of the great ranges, the profound depth and steepness of the valleys, the vast spread of the primeval forest, made union impossible; and without unity the tribes in the long run were bound to fall before the might of Russia.

This western warfare never had anything like the importance for Russia that attached to the struggle in Daghestan and Chechnia; and when the Russian Government did concentrate its attention mainly in that direction, as in the 'thirties, the mistake cost dear. Moreover, there was never the cohesion between the western tribes attained under Shamil in the east, nor was there ever amongst them a really great leader. The fighting was of a desultory nature.

The triple division indicated by Nature corresponds, though roughly and for not very obvious reasons, to the three sections into which during the whole of the long struggle for supremacy the mountain country was divided. To the west, from the neighborhood of Elbrouz to the Black Sea coast, is a forest region wherein the main chain sinks gradually from a height of 10,000 feet to the sea-level; and here the local tribes, the Tcherkess and others, to whom in general the name Circassian is applied, kept up a fierce though desultory warfare against the northern invaders from the close of the eighteenth century down to 1864. To the east the Chechens in their hillside forests and the many tribes of Daghestan on their barren mountain plateaus maintained the struggle for independence nearly as long, with greater vigour and with a larger measure of success.

But in between, where the mountains are highest, where for 100 miles at a stretch there is no pass under 10,000 feet, and for 400 miles but few, the Russians met with little opposition. The Ossietines, Kabardans, and Tartar tribes to the west of the Georgian road, the Ingoushee, Galgais, Khevsours, and Pshavs to the east, robbed and raided as their nature was, and more than once rebelled; but on the whole they accepted Russian rule, or sovereignty, for the most part nominal, with much equanimity, and seldom gave any serious trouble.

There was thus a great gap between the two main theaters of the mountain war threaded by the one and only convenient line of communication from north to south, the Georgian road a gap that, in spite of Shamil's desperate effort in 1846, was never bridged over; and this in the history of the conquest is a fact of primary importance never to be forgotten. On the south side of the main chain dwelt the various divisions of Georgians, in whose defense the Russians first crossed the mountains, and who, with occasional aberrations, held loyally to the compact in virtue of which they became subjects of the Tsar. Farther south still lay, on the east, the Muhammadan khanates, vassal states of Persia; on the west, the semi-independent pashaliks of Turkey in Asia.

Russia's task was clear in the Caucasus proper to subdue, on the one hand, the western tribes, who looked for support to Turkey; on the other, the peoples of Daghestan and Chechnya; in Transcaucasia, to reunite the Georgians, defend them against Persian and Turk, and enlarge and make safe its boundaries at their expense. It must be remembered that the Russo-Turkish campaigns beyond the Caucasus served also a second purpose, and served it well to keep, namely, in war-time many thousands of Turkish troops employed in Asia Minor, and thus ease, for Russia, the strain in Europe.

The struggle for the possession of the Caucasus was carried on for a period, roughly speaking, of sixty years continuously against the mountaineers, and, in a succession of wars extending over a still longer period, against the Turks and the Persians. The three areas of conflict (counting Transcaucasia as one) were practically separate, though Persia was at times in contact with Daghestan, and Turkey with the country of the western tribes.

During the whole of the first half of the nineteenth century the Caucasians maintained their independence, in spite of a long series of determined efforts on the part of the Russian Government. The death of the Empress Catherine in 1796 put an end to initial campaigns, for Tsar Paul recalled all the troops from Transcaucasia. It was as a member of one of the many punitive e?peditions against Caucasian tribes that Tolstoy first went to the Caucasus in the early fifties. And it was not till the capture of Shamil in 1859 that the Caucasus really came directly under Imperial rule.

King Solomon died at Trebizond in 1815, and with him ended the troublous existence of Imereti as an independent kingdom. In about three and a half centuries thirty kings had sat on the Imeretian throne, twenty-two of them were dethroned (one of them, Bagrat the Blind, eight times), seven died a violent death, three were blinded.

Yermolov became governor-general in 1816, and soon afterwards the Chechens and Daghestanians began to give the Russians serious trouble. Then the clergy raised a national movement in Imereti, in which Guri and Apkhazi joined, and in Mingreli, hitherto faithful, the Dadian's brother revolted. All these efforts to shake off the Russian yoke were, of course, fruitless, and they ended in 1822 with the capture of Zakatali from the Lesghians. Then the Cherkesses (Circassians) broke into rebellion, and in 1826 Persia again declared war against Russia and marched 60,000 men into Georgia. Aided by the Lesghians and the Kakhetians, under Alexander, son of Irakli, they were at first successful, but the tide turned, and Erivan, Tavriz, and other places saw Russia victorious.

Paskevich succeeded Yermolov in 1827, and the peace of Turkmenchai having been concluded with Persia, war was declared against Turkey. The Russians took Kars, Poti, Akhalkalaki, Akhaltsikhe, Bayazid from the Turks, and in 1829 the belligerents signed the treaty of Adrianople.

In 1830 Kasi-mullah began his revolt, and brought about a general rising among the Mahometan peoples of the Caucasus. Baron Rosen, who took the command of the army in 1831, captured Gimri, and Kasi-mullah was killed. Golovin (1837), Neidhart (1842), and Prince Vorontsov (18441854) enjoyed comparative peace, and were able to turn their attention to the internal condition of the country. Prince Vorontsov especially deserves credit for his honest and painstaking efforts to ameliorate the economic situation of Georgia, and it flatters our national pride to remember that that statesman was English by birth and education, if not by blood.

The pacification of Daghestan did not, as was expected, follow the death of Kasi-mullah. A greater prophet and warrior arose to take the place of the vanquished hero of Gimri. Shamil, after carrying on a guerilla warfare for about ten years, raised the whole of the Eastern Caucasus in 1843, and continued to inflict a series of crushing defeats on the Russian generals who were sent to oppose him. Shamil, who proved himself a thorn in the side to Russia during the Crimean War, when he was stimulated in his efforts for independence by supplies of arms and money from the Allies, had defied Russian generalship during 20 years of the most romantic adventures and e?traordinary vicissitudes.

The declaration of war with Turkey in 1853 raised the hopes of the Lesghians, but the utter incapacity of the Turkish leaders in Armenia prevented the realization of those hopes. When captured by the Russians he was treated as an honorable adversary, was given a pension of 1,000 a year and a residence in a central town of Russia, where he ended his days. Too little attention has been devoted to the remarkable religious system which inspired the Murids to their marvellous deeds of valor. It is surely a noteworthy fact that the mysticism of the Sufis should have been found to be compatible with a purely militant faith like Islam.

Under the Imperial administrative system the Caucasus was divided into Ciscaucasia (north of the mountains) and Transcaucasia (south of the mountains). Their respective capitals, Vladikavkaz and Tiflis, were connected by railway and by the wonderful military road which the Russian army engineers took so many years to construct through the Dariel gorge.

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Page last modified: 19-07-2013 19:06:26 ZULU