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.

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]

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."

Caucasus and Early Communist Period

After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, between 1918 and 1920,Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were independent nations. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, many of the northern Caucasus tribes united and formed the Mountain republic. The independence of these regions didn't last long.

Once the Communists were able to defeat the Whites in the Russian Civil War and take over most of the land controlled by the tsars, which included Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The regions were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1922 and their borders were drawn by Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Vladimir Lenin.

The Mountain Republic was absorbed into the Soviet Union and given the status of autonomous republic. Later autonomous regions of Adygey, Chechnya, Kabarda-Balkar and Karachay-Cherken and Dagestan (comprised a mix of ethnic groups) were created.

The ethnic homelands in the Caucasus were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow as they were in Central Asia. The borders in many cases were drawn up by Stalin. In some cases nationalities that traditionally distrusted each other were forced into the same region and ethnic groups were urged to adopt new customs, folk arts and written languages to keep them from uniting. An intense policy of Russification was implemented to keep the groups pacified.

Ethnic Regions and Divisions of Ethnic Groups in the Soviet Union

There are 21 semi-autonomous ethnic regions states within Russia. They were established to provide a semi-autonomous state (in name at least) for the ethnic groups they have been named after. In many cases the ethnic group the republic is named after is minority in their own state because many outsiders—particularly Russians—have moved in.

The ethnic mix and configuration of some the ethnic republics was odd and unnatural. The strange ethnic make up of some of the ethnic republics was primarily the work of Joseph Stalin, when he served as the People's Commissar of Nationalities under Lenin in the 1920s , to suit the needs of the state not the people. In some cases traditional rivals were placed together in the same state and major population centers for one group were divided into different states.

The borders of the ethnic homelands and republics were gerrymandered to suit the divide-and-rule policy of Moscow. Stalin’s idea was to group rival ethnic group into the same states rather than give them their own state so they would be too occupied bickering among themselves to unite against Moscow and threaten the Soviet state and in turn require a strong Soviet military presence to keep the peace. One Russian newspaper editor told National Geographic, “It wasn’t just divide and conquer. It was divide, conquer and tie up in trouble.”

As Lenin’s commissar in charge of national minorities, Stalin created “autonomous regions” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 1922, as part of the divide to conquer strategy he also employed in Central Asia, where he grouped Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in artificial enclaves. One objective was to create a situation in which if the Soviet republics were ever able to break the grip of Soviet rule they would experience a wave of ethnic violence. One Georgian historian called the autonomous regions “time bombs set to detonate if Georgia became independent.” Indeed that is what happened when Georgia became independent in 1991. It also happened the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Forced Exile of Caucasus People in World War II

Many Caucasus people—including four entire ethnic groups: the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars and Karachay—were sent to Central Asia in 1943-45 ostensibly for collaborating with the Germans in World War II. Some groups had collaborated with the Germans to varying degrees but so had Russians and members of other groups in the Soviet Union that were not exiled. Some of the Caucasus groups had never even come in contact with the Germans.

One Balkar told the Los Angeles Times, "The soldiers gave us a half-hour and told us to get in the trucks. They drove us to the trains station in Nlachik. Then we rode the train to Kazakhstan. We lived there for 14 years." Property that was left behind was taken over but other ethnic groups. This caused resentment between the groups that were exiled and those that remained behind. The whole affair increased hatred towards the Russians.

In 1957, under Khrushchev and after Stalin's death, many of the groups that had been exiled were allowed to return. There was little trouble in the region due to oppressive Soviet rule, but under the surface tension were brewing.

Mass Deportations of Chechens

In 1936 Stalin created the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1943, when Nazi forces reached the gates of the Chechen capital, Groznyy, Chechen separatists staged a rebellion against Russian rule. In response, the next year Stalin deported more than 1 million Chechens, Ingush, and other North Caucasian peoples to Siberia and Central Asia on the pretext that they had collaborated with the Nazis. The remaining Muslim people of the Chechnya region were resettled among neighboring Christian communities. Stalin's genocidal policy virtually erased Chechnya from the map,

Some Chechens and Ingush had collaborated with the Nazi who occupied the northern Caucasus briefly from later 1942 to early 1943 but less of them did than Ukrainians and Byelorussians were not similarly persecuted. No Chechens or Ingush were spared, even those who fought for the red Army on the German front. A third of the population of Chechnya is believed to have died from suffocation, hunger, disease and cold. It was clear the goal was to eliminate Chechnya and the Chechens. Chechnya was divided among its neighbors. Mapmakers and historians were instructed to remove all references to Chechnya and Chechens from maps, textbooks and reference books.

The carefully prepared operation began on February 22, 1944, towards the end of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of Chechens were packed into cattle cars in trains in the dead of winter and taken on a three week journey for "resettlement" in desolate steppes in Kazakhstan. Many Chechens regard the operation as an act of genocide.

The operation was organized by the Lavrenty Beria, the head of Stalin's secret police. In a memo he wrote: "The eviction of the Chechens and Ingush is proceeding normally: 342,647 people were loaded onto trains February 25 and by February 29] the number had risen to 478,479 of whom 91,250 were Ingush and 387,229 were Chechens...The operation proceeded in an organized fashion, with no serious instances or resistance, or other incidents. There were only isolated cases of attempted flights."

As many as a third of the Chechens died in transit. According to one memo only 12,000 railway carriages were used instead of the planned 15,000 because of "compressed cargo" and large numbers of children were shipped because they took up less space.

Caucasus After Break Up of the Soviet Union

After the break up of the Soviet Union, autonomous republic in the northern Caucasus were transformed into six federal republics: 1) Karachay-Cherkess, 2) Kabarda-Balkar, 3) North Ossetia, 4) Dagestan, 5) Adygeya and 6) Checheno-Ingushetia. Later Checheno-Ingushetia was divided into 6) Chechnya and 7) Ingushetia.

The Caucasus was the sight of several regional conflicts after the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, including the Chechen war in the 1990s, fighting in the Nagorno-Karabakh Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan, clashes between Georgians and Ossetians and the Abkhaz in Georgia. The Chechen war began at the end of 1994, when Russia sent the military to subdue the regional secessionist government. About 50,000 people died.

Russia, Turkey and Iran all vie for influence in the Caucasus regions. Russia has pursued political concessions from its former states in return for military assistance. Turkey and Iran claim linguistic, cultural and religious ties with the ethnic groups in the region.

Oil and gas deposits in the Caspian basin, said to be as large as those in Kuwait, began flowing on a Russian pipeline through Chechnya in 1997. Other pipelines from those fields— one across Georgia and another south through Turkey—have opened.

For a while it was thought a a Bosnia-like conflict could break out in the Caucasus. The Russian government crackdown in Chechnya threatened to turn from a nationalist conflict into a religious war and draw in other Muslim groups in the Caucasus region. If Muslims come to the support of Chechnya then Christian groups could side with Russia and a major conflict between religious groups could break out.

Russia and the Caucasus

Russia wants desperately to retain the Caucasus region in its sphere of influence in part because so many lives were lost gaining control in the region and there is rich history and literary tradition associated with the struggle. At the same time, many people in the Caucasus region have a deep hatred for Moscow. They sometimes refer to themselves as a "punished people" because of everything they had to endure in the Soviet era.

Moscow was intent on putting down the uprising in Chechnya and didn’t shy away from using brutal tactics in part because it wanted to set an example for other rebellious states in Russia and the former Soviet Union, particularly in the Caucasus.

Georgia has been described a "Russian protectorate." It is dependent on Russia for energy and is often treated like a former colony that has gone astray. In February 1994, Georgia and Russia signed an economic and military cooperation agreement allowing Russia to maintain three military bases in Georgia. Azerbaijan is the only former Soviet Republic in the Caucasus region with no Russian military bases.

Russia has traditionally looked Georgia and other places in the Caucasus as wild places that have difficulty governing themselves. For Russians, Georgia occupies a strategic location on its southern flank and serves as a buffer between Russia and Turkey and Iran and is a conduits for arms and supplies to Chechens and other Islamist groups.

Georgia is angry at Russia for supporting separatists movements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia and accused it purposely destabilizing Georgia to keep a toehold and influence in the region. Russia has gone so far as to offer citizenship to residents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia has expressed objections to the presence of the U.S. military in Georgia, particularly in the Pankis Gorge, which borders Russia and Chechnya and could conceivably be used to snoop on Russian activities in Chechnya. The entire northen Caucasus region—which also includes Armenia and Azerbaijan— has become a place where Russian and American interests often clash.

Racism Against People from the Caucasus

Prejudice towards dark-skinned from the Caucasus and southern Russia is common. Regarded as criminals and often referred to as "blacks" or “chernozhopy” (“black asses”), they include people from Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and other regions in the Caucasus Mountains. Both Muslims and Christians are discriminated against although Muslims get the worst of it in part because there are more of them.

Hundreds of thousands of "dark skinned" people from the Caucasus live in Moscow, many without permits. They are objects of discrimination and abuse and are often the targets of round-ups of "illegal" residents without residence permits. In one two week campaign in the early 2000s, 9,000 people, most from the Caucasus, were forcibly deported and another 10,000 left of their own. One migrant from the south told Newsweek, "When the police see our dark skin, they stop us and fine us for not having a residence permit."

People from the Caucasus are shunned by landlords and milked for extra high bribes by authorities and officials. They are blamed by nationalist groups for taking jobs away from ethnic Russians, dominating markets, harassing women and not paying taxes. A leader of a nationalist group told the Washington Post, “They don’t wash themselves, they don’t clean up, they sleep 10 to 15 in a small room. They bring their dirty culture here.”

Police routinely stop people suspected as being from the Caucasus on the streets and extract a bride even when all their papers are in order. Dark-skinned men with beards are particularly suspected. They are shouted down in the streets with the call, “Eh, Shamil!,” a reference to the 19th century Chechen leader Shamil Basayev.

Chechens are arguably the most hated people in Russia. Animosity towards them has been extrapolated to other peoples of the Caucasus, even Christians, who are also reviled. Harassment and attacks of people from the Caucasus increased after terrorist attacks involving Chechens.

Attacks on People from the Caucasus

After the bombings in Moscow in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens, dark-skinned people Caucasus were afraid to leave their homes in Moscow except for brief dashes to buy food. Numerous callers to radio talk shows said all people from the Caucasus should be deported from Moscow. Graffiti in Moscow reads "Kill the blacks."

Chechen and Azerbaijani street traders have had their goods and money seized and their kiosks bulldozed by Russian authorities. A Chechen refugee went to Red Square to meet his girlfriend and was slapped and stabbed through the heart by a Russian nationalist.

On Hitler's birthday (April 21), 2001, 300 young hoodlums ransacked stalls at a Moscow market, belonging mostly to people from Caucasus region and Central Asia, killing three people—a Tajik, Azerbaijani and an Indian. On the same day an 18-year-old Chechen was stabbed to death by skinheads outside the Kremlin.

One skinhead who claimed his girlfriend was killed in the bombing of the Moscow apartments in 1999, which were blamed on Chechens, told the Washington Post, “The Dark ones, I hate them. I don’t consider them human. It doesn’t just burn me up, it drives me crazy. I look around and if I don’t see any obstacles, I’ll go beat up this guy and maybe even kill him and I’ll have as much joy as if I bought a car.”

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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