Following the Crimean War, the Russians revived their expansionist policies. Russian troops first moved to gain control of the Caucasus region, where the revolts of Muslim tribesmen — Chechens, Cherkess, and Dagestanis — had continued despite numerous Russian campaigns in the nineteenth century.[Source: Library of Congress]

The Caucasus has traditionally been a place where invaders sought refuge, where traders sought access to ports, and oilmen looked for oil. In the foothills of the northern Caucasus, Adygey and Abaza people began moving in as the Mongols moved out. They were joined by runaway Russian serfs and adventurers. Russian traders and soldiers began arriving in the region greater numbers in the late 1550s after Ivan the Terrible married the daughter of a Karbada prince. The forces of Ivan the Terrible met fierce resistance in the Northern Caucasus and retreated.

It took the Russians over 100 years to subdue the Caucasus. Numerous wars were fought with Persia and the Ottoman Empire for control of the Caucasus region as well with resistance movements of indigenous Caucasus ethnic groups.

In the late 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled the land south of the Caucasus mountains, including present-day Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Tsarist Russia controlled the land north of the Caucasus mountains. After a 10-year war in the early 19th century, Persia lost Baku, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan and other territories to Russia, which managed to hold on to them and make them part of the Soviet Union. The Georgian kingdoms were acquired by Russia in 1804. Persia ceded northern Azerbaijan and Yeravan (part of Armenia) to Russia in 1813 as part of the Treaty of Gulistan and an agreement made after a war from 1826 to 1828. The Treaty of Gulistan between Iran and Russia drove Iran out of the Caucasus and brought the entire region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea under the Russian sphere.

Resistance to the Russians by Caucasus People

The resistance against the Russian in the Caucasus was particular strong in the 19th century from mountain people such as the Chechens, Circassians, Avars and others. Many of these groups were Muslims on non-Orthodox Christians and they resented being ruled by the Orthodox Russians. The cruelty and bravery of the mountain clans there were romanticized by 19th century Russian writers.

Groups that normally fought among themselves united against the Russians and used guerrilla style tactics in the mountains to inflict great damage on the Russian army and prolong the conflict for decades.

In their book “Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus”, Carlotta Gail and Thomas da Waal wrote: “In fighting the Caucasian wars, the Russians committed many of the mistakes which have characterized them in the region before and since...Above all there was a constant underestimation of the people they were fighting against. The policy chosen was consistently one of total attack, leaving the natives no options but to resist as desperately as they could.”


In the mid 1800s, Muslim forces lead by a Chechen imam named Shamil fought a holy war against the Russian "infidels" in Chechnya and Dagestan. Spurred on by a desire for freedom and a belief they were protected by God, they battled against incredible odds and killed thousands of tsarist troops. Even after Shamil surrendered in 1859, the Chechens often rebelled. They have traditionally been the Caucasus's most stubborn and militaristic separatists.

Shamil and his followers fought the Russians for 30 years. The posed a threat to both the tsarist government and feudal lords that ruled much of the Caucasus at that time. Many lords and aristocrats fled but the Russian troops of Nicholas I kept coming at them.

Shamil employed a tactic in which warriors would emerge suddenly from the Caucasus Mountains and stage a lighting quick raid on a Russian outpost, taking hostages and causing widespread death and destruction, and then melt back into the mountains. In their war in the mid-1990s, the Chechens successfully employed similar tactics against the Russian army.

Shamil led a band of Muslim fundamentalists called the Murids. He wanted to establish an Islamic state based on Sharia law. During the last 25 years of his struggle in the Caucasus such a state was created in the territory of Avaria and Chechnya.

In 1859, the forces of Aleksandr Baryatinskiy finally captured Shamil. He and band of Murids were finally surrounded at Gunib in Dagestan and captured after a 15-day siege. After Shamil surrendered, many formally independent enclaves became part of the Russian Empire. Some areas came under Russian control. Others came under Ottoman control. Some of the territory abandoned by Muslim groups was claimed by the Christian Ossetians. Avaria was annexed by the Russian Empire but was able to maintain a high degree of autonomy.

Another uprising against Russia in 1877 was crushed.

Russian Brutality in the Caucasus

In the 19th century, Russia invested a great deal of time and energy in conquering the Caucasus. Over a period of decades Russian armies employed divide and conquer strategies, looted and pillaged hundreds of villages and massacred thousands of people and brought most of the area under a a degree of control.

The Russian strategy in the Caucasus under the ruthless general Alexi Yermolov was to raze villages, chop down forests to flush out the rebels, and slaughter civilians, sometimes killing hundred of families at a time.

In the 19th century, the Caucasus was known as "the graveyard of the Russian Army." Yermolov said, "There is no people under the sun more vile and deceitful." For every Russian soldier killed, two villages were ordered destroyed. In 1816 he said, “I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses...Modernization in the eyes of the Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe.”

Rather than crushing the enemy, Yermolov’s strategy united the mountain people to fight a Muslim holy war that lasted for 40 years. In that time the roads in the Caucasus were not safe for Russians day or night. They lived in forts and moved in slow military convoys.

Fighting in the Caucasus

Describing a single combat incident in the Caucasus in 1858, Alexander Dumas wrote, "I saw a puff of smoke and at the same moment heard a bullet whistle through the upper branches of the bushes...We ran back, and saw that the bullet had hit one of the horses, breaking its foreleg...What surprised me, from what I had heard of the habits of Chechen bandits, was their delay in attacking us. Usually they charge down on the enemy as soon as their first shot is fired."

"At this moment we saw seven or eight men filing up form the bank of the terke. Our Cossacks gave a cheer and raced off towards them, but then another man emerged from the thicket where he had shot at us. He made no attempt to escape, but stood his ground, brandishing the gun above his head and shouting, '”Abrek”!'...'”Abrek”! our Cossack shouted in reply, and reigned in their horses to a standstill...What does that mean? I asked Kalino...'It means that he is sworn to seek out danger and never to turn his back on the enemy. He is challenging one of our Cossacks to single combat.'"

"The Cossack whose horse had been shot tried to get the animal on its feet again, but with no success...Meanwhile, the mountain tribes had been riding around us in ever-narrowing circles and were now quite close. They eyes of our Cossack flashed, but not one of them dishonored the code that forbade him to shoot, once the challenge had been accepted.

Dumas wrote: "The Cossack returned to his place and began checking his weapons as if he expected his turn to arrive at any moment. By this time the first man was already close enough to fire, but his opponent made his horse rear so that the bullet struck it in the shoulder. His return shot carried away the Cossack's fur hat. Now they both slung their guns over their shoulders and seized their swords.

“The mountaineer managed his wounded horse so cleverly that, through blood streamed down its chest, it showed no sign of weakness, and responded instantly to the bridle, the pressure of its master's knees and the sound of his voice. Now the men were fighting hand to hand, and for a moment I though our Cossack had run his enemy through, for I saw the point of the blade shone behind his back. But he had only thrust it through his jerkin."

"In the next few minutes it was impossible to see what happened, but then came a pause, and slowly our Cossacks slipped from the saddle. That is, his body slipped to the ground. His head, dripping with blood, was waved at us with a fierce cry of triumph, then tied to the saddle-bow of his conqueror."

"I turned to the Cossack who had asked to be next...Then we saw the Cossack fire...and by the sudden jerk of the mountaineer's body we knew he had been hit...The mountain champion was dead indeed. The Cossack dismounted, drew his sword, bent over the body and moment later stood waving the severed head, while the other Cossacks cheered wildly."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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