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The “Anarchic” Caucasus and Elite Co-Optation or Some Things Never Change

Sarah Slye | Critique | August 29, 2022

There is a case to be made that the Caucasus has historically been anarchic in a sense similar to what is observed in today’s international system of states, where there is no overarching power structure. Of course, there were attempts by some political formations or groups to establish dominance over others and we do find internal social stratification, for instance in the cases of Circassia and Georgia; but at the same time The Georgian Chronicles and historical record show a marked tendency for the different political and social groups to seek a modus operandi based on comparatively egalitarian relations and to willfully resist any attempts at domination by their neighbors.[1] To wit, the origin myth recorded in the first book of The Georgian Chronicles attests to the anarchic, horizontal system at the foundation of Caucasian political relations when it describes the Caucasian nations as being the descendants of eight brothers.[2] As an example of this anarchic tendency in a particular society, al-Masudi (10th century) writes that the only reason the Circassians (Kashak) could not resist the Alans was because they would not concentrate power under one king.[3]

This tendency of the Caucasian nations to jealously guard their internal independence in combination with the region’s geographical and demographic diversity and the consequential historical lack of any overarching regional power that could have established a common political-administrative framework and imposed or cultivated a shared ideological community created a dynamic that rendered local powers and societies vulnerable to the predations and machinations of mightier surrounding powers. During the age of the imperial rivalries between Ottoman Turkey, Persia and Russia, we see two main patterns related to this dynamic, of which the second is considerably stronger: 1) Caucasians ineffectively attempting to unite against outside threats, and 2) Caucasian elites allying with different outside powers in pursuit of various goals, including obtaining advantages over their neighbors.

As one example of elites seeking external support against their neighbors, in 1586 the Kakhetian King Alexander II asked his co-religionist, the Muscovite tsar, to help him fight the Daghestani Muslim Shamkhal.[4] Such appeals were not always necessarily about religion, however, as an episode from the early 18th century indicates. Here the Kakhetian princes Konsṭanṭine and Teimuraz, backed by Persian forces and Lezghians, are fighting the Kartlian King Vaxṭang VI and Imeretian mercenaries for control of Tiflis.[5] Waiting in vain for backing promised by the Russians, the king loses the city. He then returns to it with Imeretian mercenaries and a Turkish army led by “Ishak Pasha,” himself an ethnic Georgian. The Turks now imprison Konsṭanṭine and install Vaxṭang VI’s half-Circassian son Baqari, but Baqari runs off to wage guerilla warfare with Teimuraz and Konsṭanṭine, whom he helped escape, against the Turks. Vaxṭang VI flees via Racha and Circassia to Russia and the Turks install his brother Iese as governor until he dies, at which point Ishak Pasha puts Zemo-Kartli under the charge of Givi Amilaxvari. But Givi abandons the Turks and receives governorship of Kartli as a reward from the Persians only to switch back to the Turkish side to fight Teimuraz, who uses Persian support to defeat him and drive the Lezghians (his former allies) back out of Kartli and Kakheti.[6]

Several insights can be drawn from the above examples. First, everyone used each other. Elites could use external support and forces to fight both an imperial force they opposed and other Caucasians, whatever their ethnicity or confession, while external imperialist forces could wield the Caucasians in their own grander power struggles against each other. Second, alliances could be mercurial and highly pragmatic. And third, the logic of imperial and feudal power struggles does not translate well to anachronistic appeals to “primordial” ethnic and religious feuds.

This is especially evident in the salience of a third common pattern. The elites of a given society were hardly restricted to aligning with outside powers in hopes of prevailing against their “other” neighbors. They would do so just as easily in pursuit of advantages at home. In accepting the suzerainty or protection of a foreign ruler, elite players could gain access to additional prestige or resources for use in parochial power struggles, the perpetuation of their local authority or basic crass gain.[7] We glimpse this principle in the case of Iese, who, among other things, did nothing to prevent the Turks from overtaxing the population but used his connection with them to grossly enrich himself.[8]

Imperial Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus provides especially vivid illustrations of elite co-optation and the attendant benefits both an expansionist empire and malleable elites could receive from cooperation. A classic piece on the theme of elite co-optation is Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay’s “Cooptation of the Elites of Kabarda and Daghestan in the 16th century.”[9] Although Lemercier-Quelquejay focuses mainly on the failure of Muscovy’s initial elite co-optation strategy, imperial rivalries and the Islamic factor, his work is relevant to the purposes of this essay for its depiction of the historically anarchic nature of North Caucasian social structures and mention of how Muscovy’s initial strategy set players against each other at both the regional (e.g., Christian Georgians against Muslim Daghestanis) and individual society levels (e.g., in the Adyghe context). Indeed, the emerging split during the 16th century into pro- and anti-Russian factions brought about by the Russians’ first aborted advance into the Caucasus, however ephemeral then, etched a new pattern into the social-political fabric of the region that has ever since found reverberation. Incidentally, this is the period when the founders of the Cherkasskie princely family joined their fates with Russia.[10]

Regarding social-political organization in the Caucasus, Lemercier-Quelquejay paints a picture of a truly anarchic environment, but not in the sense of confusion or disorder. On the contrary, the societies were quite organized.[11] It is just that authority was relatively diffused across the different types of societies and down through the social levels of even those that were elaborately feudal. In Kabarda, among the Eastern Adyghe (Circassians), the nominal head, “The Great Prince,” was really only primus inter pares and chosen in rotation by an assembly, so there was no permanent central authority or single princely family ever strong enough to consistently impose its will upon the others. Moreover, the largest social stratum, the tlofoqotle (“freemen”) were organized in associations called jemaat (“free societies”). The situation was similar among the Western Adyghe where the lowlanders had a feudal system like the one in Kabarda, albeit less rigid, and the highlanders organized themselves into the more egalitarian jemaat.[12] Certainly, Lemercier-Quelquejay’s depiction of the Circassians in the 16th century reminds one of al-Masudi’s 10th century observations. The Ossetians had a comparatively relaxed feudal structure with a stratum of free peasants, too.[13]

The picture in Daghestan, where social-political structures were highly diversified among the country’s multivarious population, was not so different, at least superficially, from the one in Circassia. The Kumyks in the northern parts of the country had a feudal structure dominated by the Shamkhalat princedom (which was going through a decentralizing [“atomization”] process around this time), but the bulk of the population was actually organized in jamaat comprised of free peasants (mainly Kumyk but also of other ethnicities). Further south and into the high mountains, the Daghestani societies were organized into different small principalities and free societies led by respected figures (“elders”).[14] As for the Vainakh (Chechens and Ingush), in the 16th century they were in a state of socio-political transition about which right now I have little reliable information. According to the late Circassian historian Amjad Jaimoukha, the Vainakh were especially prosperous and advanced at this point and were going through a period of national consolidation which included a process of adopting more egalitarian social structures than before.[15]

Lemercier-Quelquejay’s main argument is that Muscovy had found great success in its strategy of co-opting the Mongol-Tatar nobility thanks to the “highly hierarchical and disciplined” nature of that culture but when its agents attempted to apply the same strategy in the North Caucasus they failed because of its “anarchic context.” In other words, whereas it was intuitive for the tsar’s agents to manage relations with the despotic head of a vertical power structure with submissive “subjects,” interacting effectively with the representatives of less centralized societies was a mystery to them. For one thing, there were so many different societies in the Caucasus with which to deal all at once—and they were full of people relatively accustomed to defending their individual and collective rights. And for another thing, whenever the tsar secured the perceived “submission” of certain “chiefs” (itself a problematic situation born of conflicting interpretations for the word), the latter often proved incapable of imposing their supposed authority over the rest of their supposed “subjects.”[16]

Thus, too weak and inexperienced at this juncture to substantially increase their presence in the Caucasus, the Russians were soon driven back by the various combined efforts of locals and representatives of rival imperial interests. But it would not be very long before the balance of power tipped and the Russians returned to wrest control over the Caucasus using a more flexible toolkit of tactics including revised elite co-optation techniques, conscienceless ecocide and staggeringly cruel military and deportation operations.[17] In my opinion, the Imperial Russians’ thorough frustration with the incomprehensible behavior of the “unsubmissive” Caucasians was a, if not the, key factor driving the particularly genocidal nature of their war against the North Caucasians.

In fact, we have evidence of such thinking in the words of the Russian general Count Dmitrij Alekseevich Miljutin, who in 1856 wrote,

“The conquest of the region takes place in accordance with one of two methods: 1) either through subjection of the local residents and (permission for) them to remain on the land they inhabit, or 2) by taking away the land from those who dwell there and replacing them with the victors. … Russia mainly applies the first method to those tribes or communities that are ruled by a hereditary state power or an aristocracy. The second (method) is used in the case of those democratic tribes that have neither a state nor a societal order, where it is impossible to come to an agreement with the entire population regarding submission.”[18]

Indeed, the Imperial Russian answer to democracy was genocide. Also contributing heavily to the choices made by Russia’s rulers and agents to resort to genocide and ecocide were: 1) their imperialist arrogance born of an inferiority complex towards Europe, 2) their “Orientalist” objectification of Caucasians married to a deficiency of attractive benefits to offer them and 3) a real weakness in terms of military capability—it took them over a hundred years to crush the organizationally more decentralized North Caucasians.

After Peter the Great’s retracted probe southward (early 1700s), it was Catherine the Great who set in motion Russia’s relentless imperial expansion into the Caucasus.[19] Catherine built up the Caucasian Line, and one of her first acts in this direction was to encourage a friendly Kabardian prince to build Mozdok and its fortress. Other Kabardian princes were appalled by this development and, failing to obtain justice through formal channels of protest, resorted to an armed struggle (1765-1779).[20] Resistance to the extension of the Line and growing Russian and Cossack encroachments onto their ancestral lands triggered attempts by North Caucasians to unite to drive the invaders out. In 1777 the Adyghe (Eastern and Western) joined forces with the Nogai and other nomads in an abortive attack against the Russians. Soon after that, the Western Adyghe helped the Nogai again in their last, desperate stand for national survival.[21] The Nogai were practically eliminated at this point, but another ephemeral anti-Russian alliance was soon formed with the appearance of Shaykh Mansur in 1785.[22]

Shaykh Mansur first led Chechens in the defeat of an expeditionary force (which included the Georgian Prince Pjotr Bagration) sent against the Chechen town of Aldi, and, after two failed attempts to take Kizljar (Daghestan), then commanded a coalition of Daghestanis, Chechens and Kabardians in a failed effort to defend themselves against an attacking Russian force. Next heading to the Black Sea coast, he rallied the Western Adyghe in a new fight against the Russians, but, failing here too, he went to the Turkish fort of Anapa, where he was ultimately captured when it fell to the Russians in 1791.[23]

The North Caucasians’ irregular forces, voluntarily assembled and losing cohesion after defeats, were no match for Russia’s permanent army and greater resources.[24] Nevertheless, Russia could not dream of crushing the highlanders until it gained control of Georgia. And it seems evident that they could never have gotten a foothold in the country, at least not in the role of imperial conquerors, if they had not succeeded in obtaining the cooperation of the Georgian elites. As Miljutin himself says, the first method of conquest involved forcing the local residents into subjection but allowing them to remain on their land in places where there was a heredity state power or aristocracy, and he goes on to list these places as, many Daghestani principalities, Kabarda, Ossetia and in the South Caucasus.[25]

The Russian-Georgian relationship started off well enough. The king of Kartli-Kakheti, Erekle II, initially asked Catherine the Great for help defending his country against the Persians, and she agreed to place the country under a protectorate (Treaty of Giorgievsk, 1783).[26] However, the Russian promise of protection proved worse than useless since Russian forces soon abandoned the country and the Persian shah “punished” Erekle II and his people with the dreadful sack of Tiflis in 1795. Catherine then hastened to declare war against Persia but suddenly died. Her heir Paul then tried to get out of the obligation to Kartli-Kakheti, but when the Persian shah made further demands against the Georgians, he had to oblige them. Erekle II’s successor, Giorgi XII, next begged Paul to take over direct control of Kartli-Kakheti in what looks like a bald attempt to secure the throne for himself and his son against his brothers, whom his father had preferred as potential rulers. Paul agreed to this (Manifesto of 30 December 1800) and also promptly died. As Erekle II’s descendents fought over the throne, Paul’s heir Alexander I simply annexed Kartli-Kakheti outright (September 1801).[27]

On the eve of Kartli-Kakheti’s annexation, Georgia’s social-political landscape harkened back to the words of the Georgian chronicler who wrote,

“…enmity sprang up among some of Kartli’s sons … the feuds went on without end. When any two of the kinsmen rose against the third, the others came to their aid: some helped this one and the others that one; when they fought each other, the others joined in. Sometimes they were at peace, but discords and feuds soon started again.”

When in 1801 Kartli-Kakheti was absorbed into Russia, not only was the royal family quarrelling, but the internally hierarchical feudal kingdom itself had only the trappings of centralized governance and was being ruled by a small group of oligarchs in a system where nobles lorded over private, largely autonomous fiefdoms.[28] Meanwhile, Mingrelia, Imereti, Guria and Abkhazia were standing alone or locked in conflict. Undoubtedly, this chaotic state of affairs made it easy for Russia to incorporate them one by one within the decade.[29]

To be sure, Imperial Russia’s co-optation of the Georgian elites was not effected immediately. The deceitful method Alexander I used in seizing control of Kartli-Kakheti and the oppressive and insulting nature of his administrators and their forces quickly alienated broad swaths of the population.[30] In an attempt to remedy the situation, in 1802 the tsar appointed a Russified Georgian, Prince Pavel Tsitsianov (the descendent of nobles who had gone to Russia with Vaxṭang VI [mentioned above] after he lost Kartli) as viceregent over “Georgia” and the “neighbouring principalities” as well as commander-in-chief of the Caucasian Line.[31]

Though Tsitsianov was an ethnic Georgian, no one should imagine this agent of empire was acting in the interests of his ancestral motherland or ethnic kin (though he probably told himself that).[32] The first thing Tsitsianov did was deport his own relative, Giorgi XII’s disconsolate widow, and other members of the royal family, to Russia.[33] He then poured his energy into acquiring control over the principalities of Western Georgia and khanates of the southeastern Caucasus for his master the tsar until he was murdered at the hands of the Khan of Baku in 1806.[34] In Western Georgia, the principalities were given protectorate status before eventually being annexed. Abkhazia was the last principality to be annexed.

The subsequent Russian chiefs of the Caucasus so aggravated Georgians of various social backgrounds that in the first decades of Russian rule there erupted a several rebellions, including popular uprisings across Georgia, the Imeretian king’s rebellion and Aleqsandre Baṭonishvili’s tireless plotting to recover his father’s kingdom and drive the Russians out of the Caucasus entirely. The Ossetians also rebelled repeatedly.[35]

As for the nobles, their interests were divided. Whereas the upper nobility was deprived of many of its traditional rights and advantages, the middle and lower nobles found opportunity in service to the tsarist bureaucracy. Generally speaking, the elites adjusted to the change in circumstances, but a significant group rejected it, and the Russian co-optation of the Georgian elites could only be fully completed after the tsar wisely “forgave” the noble conspirators of 1832 for attempting the murder-at-a-feast of all the Russian officers stationed there. It should be noted that the conspirators were not just planning a Georgian rebellion but were expecting their success to trigger the rise of a regional rebellion across the entire Caucasus (however naïvely considering their lack of organization).[36]

Notwithstanding the above-mentioned writhings of the royals, nobles and unhappy peasantry against the Russian strictures through 1832, the Georgian elites were still comparatively quickly transformed into loyal tools of empire, various individuals directly assisting in the imperial subjugation of the North Caucasians.[37] In comparison, Imperial Russian agents met with less success in co-opting elites among the North Caucasians during the first decades of the 19th century because local leaders who chose to cooperate with Russia would lose respect in their communities.[38]

As shown above, the Russians’ difficulties in co-opting elites directly contributed to their genocidal policy of “taking away the land from those who dwell there and replacing them with the victors.” This general problem combined with his own serious character defects may thus explain General Ermolov’s uniquely horrific campaigns against the North Caucasians, most famously against the Chechens. Jeronim Perovic, however, ascribes this Russian ogre’s motives to an appalling cruelty born of logistical incapacity. He writes, “Because Ermolov, like other Russian generals before him, had comparatively few regular troops at his disposal in the North Caucasus, large-scale campaigns and permanent postings of major units was not feasible. Therefore, he chose an especially ruthless tactic, burning down entire villages, destroying harvests and driving away cattle.”[39]

Obviously, the choice that was made by Ermolov, his subordinates and successors to use genocidal tactics resulted in a useless waste of Russian resources as it only triggered decades of defensive struggles encapsulated in the Murid War and Circassian resistance.[40] Respecting the North Caucasians’ right to live in their own lands according to their own ways, shoring up the defensive capacity of the settlers’ line as need be, offering attractive benefits (e.g., trade, education and protection) to the locals and accepting their native opponents’ proposals for negotiation would have secured the Russians sufficient advantages in the region. But the logic of Imperial Russia demanded ownership and unquestioning submission; and its agents, the tsar and his willing servants, cared not whether their lust for glory and domination left a deathly wake.[41] Alexander I’s reported distress at his underlings’ cruelty means nothing when he did not stop the war.[42]

As Ermolov and his aides terrorized the northeast Caucasus, they were also harassing the Adyghe, especially the Kabardians.[43] But the Russians did not attempt a major offensive in the northwest until after the Ottomans lost their effective suzerainty over Circassia with the Treaty of Adrianople (1829).[44] Despite sending 12,000 men against the Abkhaz and Circassians in 1835 and 2,600 men (2,000 of them Georgian) against the Circassian Ubykhs in 1841, as well as other expeditions meanwhile, the Russians found little success. So, they switched to their usual tactic of co-opting some elites. But the potential success of this policy was offset by the fact they could not get much out of even the cooperative elites thanks to the rather tenuous strengthening of a proto-national consciousness underway at that time.[45]

In the view of O. A. Butova, the process of the Circassians’ proto-national consolidation was partly facilitated by the efforts Imam Shamil made in the early 1840s to unite his forces with those of the Adyghe into a coordinated anti-colonial defense force. While this seems plausible, the main reason was probably a cognizance of the need to deal with Russia’s aggressive imperialism encouraged by the enthusiasm of a few foreign guests.[46] At any rate, Shamil first sent his deputy (naib) Xadzhi Muxammed in 1843 to promote the ideas of replacing customary law with the sharia, social equality, emancipation, centralized power and a regular army. Then, in 1845, he sent a different deputy, Sulejman Efendi, with the same goal of convincing the Adyghe to join the forces of the imamate in driving the Russians out of the Caucasus. Although there were a few joint operations, Imam Shamil’s deputies failed to unite the wills and forces of the northeast and northwest.[47] This is commonly ascribed to the Circassians’ rejection of the imamate’s strict religious nature, but the situation was more complicated than that.[48]

Although it must have been impossible under the circumstances of the age and in light of various internal contradictions in Adyghe society, the failure of the North Caucasians to consolidate against the Russian invasion resulted in devastating losses for them. Perhaps they believed they could withstand the Russians indefinitely, but part of the reason North Caucasians were able to keep up their resistance to the Russians through the first half of the 19th century had to do with the “inefficient” deployment of manpower.[49] Count (later Prince) Michael Vorontsov, Tsar Nicholas I’s appointee as Viceroy of the Caucasus from 1844 to 1854, understood this well. After a doomed offensive against Imam Shamil in 1845, he applied a multi-level divide and rule strategy to the North Caucasus with great success.[50] First, he turned his attention to the systematic strangulation of the northeast while giving the northwest a breather.[51]

Meanwhile, Vorontsov employed the strategy of elite co-optation throughout the North Caucasus. As part of his systematic campaign against the northeastern resistance, which included an aggressive tree-felling policy, Vorontsov targeted the nobility and religious leaders by rewarding collaborators generously, building personal relationships with them and restoring their privileges.[52]

One notable prize on the religious front was Sulejman Efendi, recruited upon his return from among the Adyghe. Shamil’s former deputy obliged his new masters by accusing the imam himself of failure to conform to the Sharia. In a nice little bit of psychological warfare illustrating how effective they could be at weaponizing religious sentiments, the Russians then circulated the deputy’s accusations among the local Muslim population, and similar accusations were repeated by a different pro-Russian leader soon thereafter.[53] Perhaps the most famous defector of Vorontsov’s time was the Avar leader memorialized in Leo Tolstoy’s book Xadzhi-Murat.[54]

At the same time, in the northwest, Vorontsov worked on splitting the nobility from the commoners. According to Liubov Kurtynova-D'Herlugnan, the viceroy supported

“… the Circassian nobility in the conflict with their own commoners. As a result of a long struggle for power and privileges which started in the 1830s, some of the Circassian tribes had ousted their Princes and nobility and confiscated their property. The potentates appealed to the Russian Viceroy in December of 1846 and offered their loyal service to the Tsar if the Russians would restore their traditional privileges.”[55]

Once Prince Alexander Barjatinskij, viceroy from 1856 to 1862, capitalized upon Vorontsov’s success by achieving the surrender of Shamil in 1859, the Russians were then able to concentrate the whole weight of their military machine on the subjugation of the Adyghe, a genocidal process which culminated in the forced expulsion of the vast majority of the Circassians in 1864. (The Circassian Genocide was rightly and unanimously recognized by the Parliament of Georgia on 20 May 2011.)[56]

As Imperial Russian rule was gradually established over the whole of the Caucasus, those elites who cooperated in or acquiesced to the conquest and their descendents received access to special privileges such as land ownership, upward mobilization and educational and business opportunities (e.g., owning land with oil in it). Members of the region’s military elite were also used to manipulate populations and suppress disturbances in various parts of the Caucasus. For example, in 1865 the Muslim Ossetian General Musa Kunduxov organized the exodus of over 23,000 Chechens, Karabulaks and Muslim Ossetians from their ancestral homeland to the Ottoman Empire—all in the service of the tsar.[57] As another example, the Daghestani Avar Major General Alixanov-Avarskij was sent to stamp out interethnic feuds in the Erevan gubernija in 1905 and crush the Georgian peasant revolt in Guria in 1905-1907.[58]

I suppose the “silver lining” in all this, something too often said without the requisite sense of irony, is that notwithstanding the controversial origins and actions of the tsarist-era elites in the Caucasus, it was largely this stratum from which the national intelligentsias emerged—for obvious reasons. The problem with this notion is that we do not know what trajectory of “development” there might have been without Russian “help.” As one Scotsman put it in 1838, “In the train of Russian conquest there follows no civilisation, no wise and good laws, no enlightened institutions, no improvements in art or science. Barbarous military rule is the gift which she confers on her tributary states.”[59]

Another outcome of Imperial Russian rule in the Caucasus was that the isthmus’s ancient anarchic system was to a degree tempered. The whole region came under a common administrative system, generally referred to as the Caucasian Viceroyalty, with the nuance that the North Caucasus was organized and treated differently from Transcaucasia.[60] This circumstance facilitated the rise of a modern form of regional consciousness visibly reflected in the establishment of the Social Democratic Caucasian Union in 1903 and the calls of local Constitutional Democrats for regional autonomy during the Russian Revolution of 1905-1907. Georgian Socialist Federalists and proto-National Democrats were also interested in a regional solution to Russia’s domination and exploitation, repeatedly proposing various federal projects for the reorganization of Caucasia, whether within a reformed Russia or as an independent country.[61] However, the region’s structurally anarchic underpinnings could not be erased.

Upon the Russian Empire’s evaporation, two opposing tendencies emerged in the Caucasus. The first and by far strongest was the emergence of a chaotic competition where each ethno-national group strove to ensure its rights and claims were defended vis-a-vis its neighbors—in certain cases so eagerly as to shoot their own feet. The second was the impulse to bind together for the common good in various political, organizational and defense structures. We see an example of the emerging tension between these tendencies clearly in the political debates and developments of 1917 about whether the Caucasians should have a regional autonomy or separate national-territorial autonomies within the anticipated new all-Russian republic, as well as in the disagreements over boundary lines for zemstva (units for self-administration).[62]

After the Bolsheviks’ forced dispersal of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March and Transcaucasia’s quixotic war against the Ottomans in April, when it finally dawned upon the Transcaucasian Seim’s leadership that a legitimate central government would not soon be restored to revolutionary Russia and the Caucasians had to set up their own states to survive the international environment, the ancient tendency to band together (described in The Georgian Chronicles and observed in various historical episodes) was suddenly manifested in the very modern formation of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic (TDFR) and the earnest efforts made by the North Caucasians (Union of Allied Mountaineers, Mountain Republic) to join it in a confederal relationship. However, the opposite tendency manifested almost simultaneously when about a month later the Georgians, Armenians and Azerbaijanis effectively declared independence from each other and founded national republics, abandoning the North Caucasians to the Red power gaining strength there. [63]

By early 1919 the Whites were replacing the Reds in the North Caucasus, and throughout the civil war which gripped the former empire, the Reds and Whites vied for control of the Caucasus, intending to restore it to Russia, which both of them wanted to rebuild as a vast, centralist state recovering most, if not all, of the tsar’s former lands. Denikin’s Volunteer Army Command pursued this policy with all the frankness and arrogant ruthlessness of its imperial predecessors—making its motto “Russia One and Indivisible.” The Bolsheviks simply covered their aims up in forked-tongued promises to respect national self-determination and the veil of a formally federal union.

Failing to obtain the submission of the North Caucasians by just ordering them to submit and then mercilessly slaughtering men, women and children when they did not, the Whites resorted to the tactic of installing cooperative elites, drawn from the tsarist officer class, over each separate national group to maintain their control while constantly burdening the population with harsh levies, requisitions and fines. With all this focus on subjecting the North Caucasians, who had actually intended to cooperate with the Volunteers against the Soviets before they were ruthlessly and pointlessly attacked for no other purpose than forcing their submission in a stubborn refusal to treat them as equal negotiating partners, the Whites wasted significant manpower and resources that should have been directed against the Red Army in the north and by early 1920 they were found fleeing the latter in a panic.

At this point the Bolsheviks had few “elites” besides a sparse network of collaborators to rely on. So, they set up small, unrepresentative revolutionary committees (revcoms) in major population centers to proclaim Soviet power and then wait for the Red Army units to move in with military backing. Having taken over the cities and towns of the North Caucasus in this manner, but before subduing the countryside, the Red Army then moved into Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Unlike the Caucasian nations, who failed to elaborate a coherent and functional regional defense strategy between 1918-1921, the Reds took a clear regional approach to capturing the Caucasus. After executing their strategy for capturing the whole region, they then set up a formally federalized state for Transcaucasia, later breaking it up into national units with internal autonomous republics and districts. The entire Soviet system, which was functionally unitary and controlled by a repressive vertical power structure, lasted through 1991. The elites of this iteration of the Russian Empire (as “historian” Putin understands it at least) were born of this system and consisted of people fully vested in and submitted to it.[64]

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Caucasus split up once again: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are now independent nation states while the North Caucasus remains within Russia. The post-Soviet period has seen terrible, protracted conflicts, and the region looks anarchic in a negative sense—to many outside observers its players must seem chaotic, tossed about by emotion, self-interested and short-sighted. But what place is not like that in the world? The Caucasus has everything it needs to move out of its tragic past and “complicated” present into a peaceful and prosperous future.

The positive aspects of its fundamentally anarchic nature simply should be examined. The key is right on the first pages of The Georgian Chronicles. Like the system symbolized by Targamos and his eight sons, the Caucasian nations must be united under a single moral authority (e.g., common principles, values or fundamental interests) and each different nation must be respected by all the others as an equal within a horizontal system of power relations that accommodates real power differentials fairly and has a functional intra-Caucasian dispute resolution mechanism.

Of course, it is not that simple. History has repeatedly shown the anarchic system to be a double-edged sword. While it does appear that this was the one thing the Imperialist Russians just could not handle, driving them to a genocidal mania in their lust for “glory” and domination, it has also served as a constant source of weakness for the Caucasians, who, despite the many things uniting them, have been so easy to divide and manipulate over religion, ethnicity, class, diverging interests, etc. The fact is, however, that Imperial Russia’s success in co-opting elites willing to use outside support against their neighbors or suppress their own populations (and, to be fair, its success in securing the varied acquiescences of broader swaths of society, too) played the key role in making a Russian victory possible. Indeed, the incredible duration of the genocidal war against the North Caucasians strongly suggests that if Caucasian elites (and other interested elements) had not cooperated with the invader, making it easier for each individual society to reach an internal consensus, and if the different societies had worked out an effective mechanism for preserving their unique freedoms vis-à-vis each other while coordinating a shared psychological and physical defense strategy, Russia could never have conquered the region.


[1] W. E. D. Allen, A History of the Georgian People from the Beginning down to the Russian Conquest in the Nineteenth Century, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1932, 1971), 71-73, 107, 148; Georges Charachidzé , Introduction à l'étude de la féodalité géorgienne (Le Code de Georges le Brillant)( Paris, 1971); Kevin Tuite, “Real and Imagined Feudalism in Highland Georgia,”, last accessed 9 August 2022; “Who are the Circassians?” Circassian World,, last accessed 9 August 2022. See also Georgi Derluguian, A World History of Noxchi (work in progress),, last accessed 9 August 2022. [2] See Manana Sanadze, “The Issue of Genealogy of Armenians, Georgians and Other Caucasian Nations in the Historiography of the Middle Ages,” Journal of Literature and Art Studies 7, no. 2 (February 2017): 207-225. As Sanadze explains, “the brotherhood here does not include the ethno-genetic factor: by that time, it was impossible to identify it on the linguistic, even more so on the genetic level. In this regard, the fairly detailed outline of the area helps the researchers, which was allegedly inherited by each brother from their father ... the basis of the brotherhood is the equal political status of Kartli, as a political entity, with respect to its neighbouring units, which means that these political units are not the vassals of Kartli (in this case they would be sons). Just as none is the suzerain of Kartli, in this case they would be fathers.” [3] El-Mas’údı́’s Historical Encyclopaedia entitled “Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems”, trans. Aloys Sprenger, vol. 1 (London: Harrison and Co. Printers, 1841), 437-438. [4] Moshe Gammer, Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan (ProQuest Ebook Central: Taylor & Francis Group, 2003), 1-2. [5] I use my own system of transliteration. For both Georgian and Russian, I transliterate with the corresponding Latin (English) letters or digraphs wherever possible (e.g., n for ნ or н, sh for შ and ш). For Russian, I use diacritics for the hard and soft signs as in the following examples: l̨ for -ль, ob̩ for объ. I use j for й, whether standing alone or as part of a vowel (e.g., ja = я and aj = ай). Finally, I use e̛ for э, y for ы, x for х and sh̨ for щ. For Georgian, I use ts for წ, c for ც, f for ფ, q for ქ, q̛ for ყ, ch̨ for ჭ, zh for ჟ, j for ჯ, t for თ, and ṭ for ტ. Although a source of distress for certain linguists, this system is designed for people accustomed to reading in English and ensures each letter or intuitively recognizable digraph represents one sound while minimizing diacritics to ease typing. For some examples: день = den̨ and ტყე = ṭq̛e but თქეში = tqeshi. Some diacritics only work in Microsoft Word’s Times New Roman font and have to be adjusted for different fonts. In this piece, I sometimes leave the conventional English versions for very famous names, e.g., Peter the Great. [6] Allen, 174-195; “Ali-q̛uli-xani, musṭafa,” NPLG, [7] Jeronim Perovic, From Conquest to Deportation: The North Caucasus Under Russian Rule (London: Hurst & Company, 2018), 26. [8] Allen, 187; David Marshall Lang, The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy 1658-1832 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1957), 114-115; D. M. Lang “Georgia and the Fall of the Safavi Dynasty,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 14, no. 3 (1952): 523-539; Ronald Grigor Suny, The Making of the Georgian Nation, 2nd ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988, 1994), 54. Iese = Jesse. Iese’s story is considerably more complicated. Before turning Sunni to please the Turks, he had also worked for the Persians. It appears he was happy to use both the Persians and Turks against his brother, and a passage in Brosset indicates he even joined the Turks in hunting Vaxtang down. [9] Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, “Cooptation of the Elites of Kabarda and Daghestan in the sixteenth century” in The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World, ed. Marie Bennigsen Broxup (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 18-44. [10] See also Abdurahman Avtorkhanov, “The Chechens and the Ingush during the Soviet Period and its Antecedents,” in The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World, ed. Marie Bennigsen Broxup (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 146-194, p. 149; Paul Bushkovitch, “Princes Cherkasskii or Circassian Murzas: The Kabardians in the Russian boyar elite 1560-1700,” Cahiers du Mond Russe 45, no. 1-2 (2004): 9-30,; Paul B. Henze, “Circassian Resistance to Russia” in The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World, ed. Marie Bennigsen Broxup (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 62-111, p. 73. [11] See also Perovic, 33. He writes, “the Chechen, Ingush and Daghestani mountain communities are generally labelled ‘stateless’ societies as they lacked an overarching political authority.” [12] See also Henze, 70. [13] Lemercier-Quelquejay. See also Edouard Taitbout de Marigny, Three Voyages in the Black Sea to the Coast of Circassia: Including Descriptions of the Ports, and the Importance of Their Trade; With Sketches of the Manners, Customs, Religion, &c, &c, of the Circassians (London: J. Murray, 1837), 47-49. This is not to imply these were idyllic free societies. Based on the information at hand, they simply appear to have contained somewhat more space for jockeying for position and lobbying for rights (whether between different proto-national groups, internal elite groups or social levels, likely down to units of familial relations) than the more strictly stratified societies surrounding them. That is to say, taken as a whole, Caucasian society was comparatively decentralized, as were the many different individual societies comprising the fabric of the regional society. And in a sense, it was—and is—this very shared nature of “anarchic” individuality that actually united—and unites—the Caucasians nations on this specific dimension of a shared cultural plane. [14] Lemercier-Quelquejay. [15] Amjad Jaimoukha, The Chechens: A handbook (London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005), 35-36. [16] de Marigny, 49-53; Lemercier-Quelquejay; Perovic, 28. [17] Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 1-2; Henze, 40; Lemercier-Quelquejay, 37-41, [18] Quote from Perovic, 56. [19] Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 2. [20] John F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1908), 32-33; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 2; Perovic, 27. [21] Baddeley, 42-45; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 3. [22] Baddeley, 47-56; Henze, 75. [23] Baddeley, 47-55; Henze, 75-76. [24] Henze, 70-71, 86-87. [25] Perovic, 55-56. [26] Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 3; Henze, 73. [27] Allen, 215; Nodar Asatiani and Otar Janelidze, History of Georgia (Tbilisi, 2009), 180-181; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 4-5; Henze, 74; Jones, “Russian Imperial Administration and the Georgian Nobility: The Georgian Conspiracy of 1832,” The Slavonic and East European Review 65, no. 1 (January 1987): 52-76, p. 55. [28] Stephen F. Jones, “Russian Imperial Administration,” 56. [29] Baddeley, 72; Jones, “Russian Imperial Administration,” 55. Asatiani and Janelidze (p. 186-187) describe the situation in Western Georgia as follows: “The country had not been a complete political unit for a long time. Adjoining the Imereti Kingdom there were the Samegrelo, Guria, Abkhazia and Svaneti Principalities. Solomon II, the king of Imereti, was nominally considered the owner of these principalities, but the recalcitrant princes did not recognize his sovereignty. The opposition between the king and the princes and the continuous rivalry between them did great harm to the country’s unity. It was clear to Solomon II that Imereti, alone with its own forces, would not be able to resist a Russian attack. That is why the king proposed putting Western Georgia under the protection of Russia to Alexander I. However, in Petersburg they had a different view. That is why the emperor did not take into consideration King Solomon’s request and ordered Tsitsianov to occupy Imereti by military force.” [30] Lang, The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 246-255. [31] Baddeley, 63; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 4-5; Lang, The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 255. [32] Baddeley, 65. [33] Asatiani and Janelidze, 188; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 5. [34] Asatiani and Janelidze, 186-187; Baddeley, 66, 69-70; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 6. There is a nice passage about this in Ali and Nino: “That was many years ago, when our country Azerbeidshan still belonged to Persia, and Hassan Kuli Khan ruled over Baku, its capital. Prince Zizianashvili, a Georgian, and a General in the Czar’s army, besieged our town. Hassan Kuli Khan declared he would surrender to the Great White Czar, opened the gate, and let Prince Zizianashvili enter. The Prince rode into the town, accompanied by only a few officers. A banquet was held on the square behind the gate. Pyres were burning, whole oxen roasted. Prince Zizianashvili had had too much to drink, he leaned his tired head on Hassan Kuli Khan’s breast. Then my forefather, Ibrahim Khan Shirvanshir, drew a big crooked dagger and gave it to Lord Hassan Kuli Khan. Hassan Kuli Khan took the dagger and slowly cut Prince Zizianashvili’s throat. Blood spurted on his robe, but he went on cutting, till the Prince’s head was in his hand. The head was put into a sack full of salt, and my forefather took it to Teheran to the King of Kings.” [35] Allen, 218; Asatiani and Janelidze, 192-196; Baddeley, 75-76, 84-85, 88; Lang, The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 258, 267-268; David Marshall Lang, A Modern History of Soviet Georgia (New York: Grove Press, 1962), 48-56; Lieut.-General W. Monteith, Kars and Erzeroum: with the Campaigns of Prince Paskiewitch In 1828 and 1829; and an account of the Conquests of Russia beyond the Caucasus, from the Time of Peter the Great to the Treaty of Turcoman Chie and Adrianople (London, 1856), 52, 72-78; Arsène Saparov, From Conflict to Autonomy in the Caucasus: The Soviet Union and the making of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno Karabagh (New York: Routledge, 2015), 29; Valery Silogava and Kakha Shengelia, History of Georgia: From the Ancient Times Through the “Rose Revolution” (Tbilisi: Caucasus University Publishing House, 2007), 173; Suny, 84-85. Baddeley (75): “The new commander-in-chief’s [Count Ivan Gudovich] failings soon made themselves felt. … A very sea of troubles beset him. On the northern line and in Ossetia the plague was raging, and there was not enough troops to stamp it out. The Ossietines rebelled.” Saparov (29): “The arrival of the Russians in the early nineteenth century changed this situation. When some members of the Georgian royal family rebelled against Russian rule and took refuge among the Ossetian highlanders – cutting vital communication lines with the North Caucasus – the dispossessed Eristavi lords sided with the Russian authorities. The Russians saw them as useful allies, and after the Eristavi made an appeal to the tsar their rights over the Ossetian peasantry were restored in 1806 (Vaneev 1956: 79). For decades after the establishment of Russian rule the Ossetian populated areas remained troublesome and rebellious districts. The entire first half of the nineteenth century was characterized by intense struggle between the Ossetian peasants and their Georgian lords. The Ossetian peasants living in remote inaccessible mountainous areas frequently refused to pay taxes and fulfil duties to their lords. The Russian authorities tried to suppress them through numerous punitive expeditions, but recurrence of the rebellions testifies to the inconclusive results of such attempts. The sheer number of Ossetian rebellions – in 1802, 1804, 1807, 1809–10, 1812–13, 1817–24, 1830, 1839–42 and 1848–50 – demonstrates the magnitude of the problem and the restive nature of the Ossetian population. The situation was aggravated by misrule by the Russian authorities. Several rebellions were caused by attempts to force Ossetians to maintain and repair the strategic road connecting Tiflis with Vladikavkaz. The maintenance allowance was, however, often appropriated by corrupt Russian officials and the Ossetian peasants were therefore forced to repair the road unpaid. Another aspect of the problem was that Russian rule strengthened the rights of the Machabeli and Eristavi lords over the Ossetian peasants by providing a legal framework backed by the might of imperial authority.” [36] Asatiani and Janelidze, 196-198; Jones, “Russian Imperial Administration.” [37] Henze, 65-66. Although the extant literature in English generally seems to imply this, I doubt the Georgian elites were ever universally reconciled to Russian rule. Otherwise, the subsequent generations of noblemen would not have been so interested in the federalization of Russia and other regional liberation projects that emerged later in the same century. [38] Henze, 66, 76. [39] Perovic, 41. [40] John B. Dunlop, Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 17-27; Gammer, “Russian Strategies in the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan, 1825-1859” in The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World, ed. Marie Bennigsen Broxup (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 45-61, pp. 47-51. [41] Read Lermontov’s “Demon.” [42] Baddeley, 98-99. [43] Amjad Jaimoukha, The Circassians: A Handbook (Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001), 63. [44] Henze, 77; Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 63. Ermolov was no longer in charge at this time. [45] O. A. Butova, “Adyghes of the Northwest Caucasus at the final stage of the Caucasian War: attempts of political consolidation,” Vestnik AGU 1 (194), 2017: 17-25. (; Henze, 79, 81-86; Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 64-65. [46] Compare with Adel Bashqawi, The Circassian Miracle: The Nation Neither Tsars, Nor Commissars, Nor Russia Could Stop (Xlibris, 2019), 109, 120-121; de Marigny, 33, 44-46; Henze, 77-87; Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 64. [47] O. A. Butova, “Role of the first naibs of Shamil Khadzhi Mohammed and Suleyman Efendi in political consolidation of the Western Circassia (1842-1846), (; Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 65-66. [48] Compare with Henze, 79-87; Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 66. [49] Jaimoukha makes a similar remark in The Circassians (67). He states, “One is tempted to say that the Circassians, despite their legendary heroism and persistence, and to their mortal detriment, had never really grasped the full extent of the might and ruthlessness of the Russian war machine.” [50] Rhinelander, 12. [51] Henze, 80. [52] Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 177, 210. [53] Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 177. [54] Liubov Kurtynova-D'Herlugnan, The Tsar’s Abolitionists: The Slave Trade in the Caucasus and Its Suppression (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2010), 148-149; Gammer, Muslim Resistance, 217. [55] Kurtynova-D'Herlugnan, 149. [56] Jaimoukha, The Circassians, 66; “Georgia Recognizes 'Circassian Genocide,'”, The vote was unanimous 90-0, with abstentions. I do not agree with the use of single quotation marks in the title of this article. [57] See Perovic, chapter three, “Musa Kundukhov and the Tragedy of Mass Emigration.” [58] F. P. Dzhabbarov, “Maloizvestnye stranitsy biografii generala Maksuda Alixanova” (Lesser-known pages of General Maksud Alixanov’s biography), National Museum of History of Azerbaijan NANA,; Stephen F. Jones, Socialism in Georgian Colors: The European Road to Social Democracy 1883-1917 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 152-156; Mikael Varandian, Le Conflit arméno-géorgien et la guerre du Caucase (Paris: M. Flinikowski, 1919), 129, [59] Speeches Delivered at A Dinner Given by the Commercial Community of Glasgow to David Urquhart, Esq., On the 23d of May 1838 (London, 1838), 29. I presume Walter Buchanan of Glasgow was a Scotsman. [60] See Timothy K. Blauvelt, “Military-Civil Administration and Islam in the North Caucasus, 1858–83,” Kritika 11, no. 2 (Spring 2020): 221-255. [61] I cover this in detail in my doctoral thesis. On the Caucasian Union, see Jones, Socialism in Georgian Colors, 106-109 and S. F. Jones, “Marxism and the Peasant Revolt in the Russian Empire: The Case of the Gurian Republic, The Slavonic and East European Review 67, no. 3 (July 1989): 403-434, pp. 418-419. On the Kadets’ calls for regional autonomy, see V.-G. Dzhabagiev, V.-G. “Chto nuzhno Kavkazu?” (What does the Caucasus need?). Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti (1 October 1905) and V.-G. Dzhabagiev, V.-G., “Kavkaz, Avtonomija i natsionalnyj vopros” (The Caucasus, autonomy and the national question). Sankt-Peterburgskie vedomosti (2 June 1906). [62] I cover this in detail in my doctoral thesis. [63] I cover this in detail in my doctoral thesis. [64]“Address by the President of the Russian Federation, 21 February 2022,”, In his speech of 21 February 2022, Putin seems to consider the USSR an iteration of the Russian Empire. He says, “Going back to history, I would like to repeat that the Soviet Union was established in the place of the former Russian Empire in 1922. But practice showed immediately that it was impossible to preserve or govern such a vast and complex territory on the amorphous principles that amounted to confederation. They were far removed from reality and the historical tradition. It is logical that the Red Terror and a rapid slide into Stalin’s dictatorship, the domination of the communist ideology and the Communist Party’s monopoly on power, nationalisation and the planned economy – all this transformed the formally declared but ineffective principles of government into a mere declaration. In reality, the union republics did not have any sovereign rights, none at all. The practical result was the creation of a tightly centralised and absolutely unitary state.”

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