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South Ossetia - Russian Conquest

The name Caucasus has been used from the days of Eschylus and Herodotus, at least, to denote the chain of lofty mountains stretching across the isthmus between the Caspian and Black Seas from west-north-west to east-south-east, together with a varying extent of the regions on either side. It is applied at the present day to the whole of the territories south of the government of Astrakhan and the province of the Don up to the Persian and Turkish frontiers.

The Caucasus is essentially a mountain country ; its inhabitants, with the exception of the Christian population occupying the river valleys of the Rion and Koura, essentially mountaineers; for, just as, thanks to its mass and elevation, the great central range has largely influenced all other physical features, so together with them has it been the determining factor in the matter of population. The peoples of the Caucasus owe to it not only their salient characteristics, but their very existence. It may be said without exaggeration that the mountains made the men ; and the men in return fought with passionate courage and energy in defence of their beloved mountains, in whose fastnesses, indeed, they were well-nigh unconquerable.

Yet, by one of those strange contradictions that meet us on all sides, 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.

To the west, from the neighbourhood of El-bruz 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 Cherkess 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 vigor 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, Kabarddns, 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.

In 1783 Catherine's favorite, the celebrated prince Potemkin engaged in consolidating his Turkish conquests, had already in view the establishment of Russian influence, if not authority, in Transcaucasia. Acting under his instructions, his first cousin Lieut.-General Count Paul Potemkin hastened to embrace the favourable opportunity now offered. There was no road over the central chain, nothing more than a bridle-path of the roughest kind, and the passage through the Dariel defile and on over the pass above Kazbek and Kobi was fraught with every danger. Rock and ice falls were of frequent occurrence below, avalanches above.

The northern half of the route was in the hands of the Ossietines, who levied toll on all passers-by, and were so powerful and truculent in these, their native, fastnesses, that in 1772 a force of 600 men with two guns was barely sufficient to relieve the Academician Guldenstedt, who with his party had been cut off by them at the village of Stepan Tsminda (St. Stephan, now Kazbek) on his return journey from Tiflis. Potiomkin's first care was to build a fort, Vladikavkaz, where the Terek issues from the mountains, and connect it by fortified posts with Mozdok. His next was to convert the bridle-path into something in the nature of a road ; and such was his energy and that of the 800 Russian soldiers employed on the work, that in October 1783 he was able to drive to Tiflis in a carriage drawn by eight horses.

In 1806 the veteran Count Goudovitch was appointed commander-in-chief in the Caucasus. Goudovitch, with old age, had become capricious, tyrannical, and vain to a degree, while losing to a great extent those military qualities which had formerly won him renown. The new commander-in-chief's failings soon made themselves felt. The state of affairs was such as to demand that whoever held the reins of government should, above all things, be prompt to decide, energetic in action ; yet promptitude and energy Goudovitch no longer possessed. A very sea of troubles beset him. On the northern Line and in Ossetia the plague was raging, and there were not enough troops to stamp it out. The Ossietines rebelled. The Kabardans and the tribes beyond the Kouban took the opportunity to raid the Russian settlements, the latter penetrating even as far north as Stavropol.

In contemplating the history of 1812, one hardly knows which to wonder at most - the heroic tenacity of the Moscovite troops, under such leaders as Kotliarevsky, Portniaghin, and others, or the hopeless incompetency of the various Mussulman Powers, great and small, who, with everything in their favour, not only failed to throw back the northern invaders to the line of the Te"rek and Kouban, but, beaten time after time by vastly inferior forces, lost ground in every direction.

Popular discontent, due to the high-handed exactions of the Russians, grew to a head in Georgia itself, and open rebellion broke out on 31 January 1812 at the village of Akhmet, and on the following day at Tioneti, where a Russian officer, accused of outraging a Georgian woman, was cut to pieces with all his men. Northward the rebellion spread over the whole district of Ananour, and extended even into Ossetia. Lieutenant-Colonel Oushakaff with a battalion of the Georgian regiment marched rapidly on Doushet, took that important center by storm on the 12th February and captured Ananour, whereupon in this part of the country things quieted down. That army was able to cope, though barely, with its remaining foes. The Ossietines who, coming south, threatened Tiflis itself, were beaten and dispersed by Colonel Petche"rsky, who succeeded in clearing the road all the way to Vladikavkaz.

On 08 October 1831 Lieutenant-General Baron Rosen took over the succession to Paskievitch as commander-in-chief of the Georgian army corps, and knowing nothing of the country, found himself plunged almost immediately into a very sea of difficulties. Paskievitch had formed comprehensive plans for the subjugation of the tribes, but, occupied with the Persian and Turkish campaigns, and with the subsequent readjustment of affairs in Transcaucasia, absent during part of 1830 in St. Petersburg, and called upon early in 1831 to assume the command in Poland, he had found time only for the occupation of the Abkhasian coast as far as Bombor, the pacification of the Djaro-bielokani districts, and the firm establishment of Russian authority in Ossetia both north and south of the central chain. The latter was of course of extreme importance, as it cut off the eastern from the western Caucasus.

The struggle for maintaining sovereignty reached its peak when the 'Murid Movement' under the leadership of Imam Shamil, a man of extraordinary charisma and master of guerrilla tactics, began resisting the Russian expansion into Chechen and Daghestan borders. In 1844, a Russian force organized and led by Prince Vorontsove with 10,000 men was dispatched - but it also proved disasterous. From 1846 to 1849 they prepared a new campaign. When the Crimean war (1853-1856) started ,Russia firmly controlled the Caucasus between Black and Caspian seas. In the North Caucasus, peoples on the both sides of the Military Georgian Road were practically independent: on the East Shamil with his Myurids; on the West Abkhazians and Cherkesses, who, formally recognising Russian authority, freely contacted with Turkey. Shamil surrendered unconditionally to the Russians in 1859. The Ossietines remained loyal to Russia throughout this campaign, a fact of no slight importance in view of their geographical position and numbers.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:43 ZULU