Caucasian War of 1817–64

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Caucasian War of 1817–64


the military actions involved in tsarist Russia’s annexation of Chechnia, Gornyi Dagestan, and the northwestern Caucasus. After the annexation of Georgia (1801–10) and Azerbaijan (1803–13), these two areas were cut off from Russia by the lands of Chechnia, Gornyi Dagestan, and the northwestern Caucasus (although juridically Dagestan had been annexed in 1813). These lands were inhabited by martial mountain nationalities who raided the Caucasian fortified line and interfered with relations with Transcaucasia.

After the end of the war with Napoleonic France, tsarism was able to increase its actions in this region. General A. P. Ermolov, who was appointed commander in chief in the Caucasus in 1816, moved from isolated punitive expeditions to a regular advance into the heart of Chechnia and Gornyi Dagestan by surrounding the mountain regions with a solid ring of fortifications; he cut trails through dense forests, built roads, and razed “unruly” auls (villages). These actions forced the population either to settle in the plains and thus live under the surveillance of the Russian garrisons or to retreat deep into the mountains. In 1817–18 the left flank of the Caucasian line was transferred from the Terek to the Sunzha River; the Pregradnyi Stan fortification was established on the middle course of the Sunzha in October, 1817. This was the first step in the regular advance deep into the territory of the mountain peoples and in effect marked the beginning of the Caucasian War.

The fortress of Groznaia was founded in 1818 on the lower course of the Sunzha, and the Sunzha line was extended by the fortresses of Vnezapnaia (1819) and Burnaia (1821). In 1819 the Separate Georgian Corps was renamed the Separate Caucasian Corps and was brought up to 50, 000 men; Ermolov was also placed in command of the Black Sea Cossack Host (up to 40, 000 men) in the northwestern Caucasus. In 1818 several Dagestani feudal chiefs and tribes formed an alliance and in 1819 opened a campaign on the Sunzha line, but they suffered a series of defeats between 1819 and 1821. The domains of some of these feudal chiefs were given to vassals of Russia, who were placed under the authority of a Russian commandant; for instance the lands of the Kazikumukh khan went to the Kiurin khan and the lands of the Avar khan to the Tarki shamkhal (title of local feudal ruler). Other domains became dependent on Russia, as with the lands of the Karakaitag utsmii (local title), or were abolished and placed under Russian administration, as was done with the Mekhtulla khanate and with the Azerbaijani khanates of Shekino, Shirvan, and Karabakh. Between 1822 and 1826 several punitive expeditions were launched against the Circassians (Cherkess) in the region beyond the Kuban’.

Persia and Turkey tried to take advantage of the anticolonial-ist movement in the Caucasus for their own ends, but after the Russo-Persian War of 1826–28, Russia annexed the Erivan and Nakhichevan khanates, and after the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–29, the entire Black Sea coast from the mouth of the Kuban’ to the northern border of Adzharia (St. Nikolas Fortress), as well as the Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki fortresses. Ermolov’s actions led to the subjugation of almost all of Dagestan, Chechnia, and the region beyond the Kuban’. General I. F. Paskevich, who replaced Ermolov in March 1827, gave up the regular advance and the consolidation of occupied territories and essentially returned to the tactics of individual punitive expeditions, although the Lezghin line was built under his command in 1830. The construction of the Sukhumi Military Road led to the annexation of the Karachai region in 1828.

The increasing scale of colonization in the Northern Caucasus and the cruelty of the policy of conquest pursued by Russian tsarism caused large-scale spontaneous uprisings of the mountaineers. The first of them took place in Chechnia in July 1825: mountaineers headed by Bey-Bulat captured the Amiradzhiiurt post, but their attempts to take GerzeP and Groznaia failed, and the uprising was suppressed in 1826.

In the late 1820’s a movement of mountaineers arose in Chechnia and Dagestan under the religious banner of Muridism, which included among its dogmas the ghazava, or holy war against the infidels, that is, the Russians. In this movement the liberation struggle against tsarism’s colonial expansion was combined with the fight against oppression by local feudal chiefs. This movement had its reactionary aspect, namely the struggle of the leading Muslim clergy to create an imamate, or feudal theocratic state. This isolated the Murids from the other peoples, fanned fanatical hatred against the non-Muslims, and, most important, preserved the backward feudal social structure.

The movement of the mountaineers under the banner of Muridism widened the scale of the Caucasian War, although several peoples of the Northern Caucasus and Dagestan, such as the Kumyks, Ossetians, Ingush, and Kabardins, remained aloof from this movement. There were several reasons for this. First, Muridism did not appeal to some of these peoples, either because they had been Christianized, like some of the Ossetians, or because Islam had no deep roots among them, for instance, the Kabardins. Second, tsarism succeeded in winning over to its side some feudal chiefs and their subjects with carrot-and-stick policies. Although these peoples did not openly oppose Russian rule, their situation was very difficult: they lived under a double yoke, the yoke of tsarism and of the local feudal chiefs.

The first to call for a ghazava was Gazi Muhammad (Kazi Mullah), who proclaimed himself imam in December 1828 and proposed the unification of the peoples of Chechnia and Dagestan. However, several feudal chiefs, among them the Avar khan and the Tarki shamkhal, were pro-Russian and refused to recognize the imam’s authority. Gazi Muhammad’s attempt in February 1830 to take Khunzakh, the capital of Avaria, failed, although the expedition of the tsarist troops of the same year in Gimry also failed and merely strengthened the imam’s influence. In 1831 the Murids took Tarki and Kizliar and besieged Burnaia and Vnezapnaia; their detachments also operated in Chechnia, near Vladikavkaz and Groznaia, and, supported by rebellious Tabasarans, besieged Derbent. The imam’s power extended over a large area—Chechnia and much of Dagestan.

After late 1831 the uprising began to ebb because the Murids were losing the support of the peasants, who were dissatisfied with the imam’s failure to fulfill his promise to do away with the inequality between the estates. After General G. V. Rozen was appointed commander in chief in the Caucasus in September 1831, the Russian troops launched several large expeditions in Chechnia and pushed Gazi Muhammad’s detachments into Gornyi Dagestan. The imam took refuge in Gimry with a handful of Murids; he died there on Oct. 17, 1832, when the Russian troops took the aul Gamzat Bek was proclaimed second imam; his military successes won over almost all the peoples of Gornyi Dagestan, including some of the Avars, but the ruler of Avaria, Khansha (female khan) Pakhu-Bike, refused to come out against Russia. In August 1834, Gamzat Bek captured Khunzakh and exterminated the family of the Avar khans, but he was killed on Sept. 19, 1834 in a plot by the khans’ supporters. To cut off the relations of the Circassians with Turkey the Russian troops launched an expedition into the region beyond the Kuban’ in 1834 and established the fortifications of Abinskoe and Nikolaevskoe.

Shamil was proclaimed the third imam in 1834. A large detachment sent against him by the Russian command destroyed the aul of Gotsatl, the chief residence of the Murids, and forced Shamil’s troops to abandon Avaria. Assuming that the uprising had been essentially suppressed, Rozen did not conduct any combat actions for two years. During this time Shamil, selecting the aul of Akhul’go as his base, brought many of the elders and feudal chiefs of Chechnia and Dagestan under his control, conducted violent reprisals against feudal chiefs who did not submit to him, and won wide support among the masses. In 1837, General K. K. Fezi’s detachment captured Khunzakh, Un-tsukul’, and part of the aul of Tilitl’, where Shamil’s detachments had retreated; but great losses and a shortage of food placed the tsarist troops in a precarious situation, and on July 3, 1837, Fezi concluded a truce with Shamil. This truce and the withdrawal of the tsarist troops were in effect Russian defeats and heightened Shamil’s authority. In the same year Russian troops established the fortifications of St. Dukha, Novotroitskoe, and Mikhailovskoe in the northwestern Caucasus. General E. A. Golovin replaced Rozen in March 1838 and in the same year founded the fortifications of Navaginskoe, Vel’iaminovskoe, Tenginskoe, and Novorossiskoe in the northwestern Caucasus. The truce with Shamil proved temporary and military actions were resumed in 1839. On August 22, 1839, General P. Kh. Grabbe’s detachment captured Akhul’go, Shamil’s residence, after an 80-day siege. Shamil was wounded but with the Murids broke through into Chechnia.

On the Black Sea coast the fortifications of Golovinskoe and Lazarevskoe were established in 1839, and the Black Sea shore line, running from the mouth of the Kuban’ River to the borders of Megrelia, was created in the same year. The next year the Laba line was created, but the tsarist troops soon suffered several defeats between February and April 1840 when rebellious Circassians captured the fortifications of the Black Sea shore line— Lazarevskoe, Vel’iaminovskoe, Mikhailovskoe, and Nikolaevskoe.

In the eastern Caucasus the Russian administration’s attempt to disarm the Chechens caused an uprising that enveloped all of Chechnia and then spread to Gornyi Dagestan. After fierce battles in the region of Gekhinskii forest and on the Valerik River (July 11, 1840) the Russian troops occupied Chechnia. The Chechens joined Shamil’s troops, which were operating in northwestern Dagestan. From 1840 to 1843, although the Caucasian Corps was reinforced by an infantry division, Shamil won several major victories, occupied Avaria, and established his rule over much of Dagestan, thereby more than doubling the territory of the imamate and increasing his troops to 20, 000 men. In October 1842, General A. I. Neigardt replaced Golovin, and two more infantry divisions were transferred to the Caucasus, which made it possible to press back Shamil’s troops to some extent. However, Shamil regained the initiative, captured Gergebil’ on Nov. 8, 1843, and drove the Russian troops out of Avaria. In December 1844, Neigardt was replaced by General M. S. Vorontsov. The following year he captured and destroyed Shamil’s residence, the aul of Dargo, but the mountaineers surrounded Vo-rontsov’s detachment, which escaped with great difficulties, losing a third of its personnel and all the guns and supply trains.

In 1846, Vorontsov returned to Ermolov’s tactics for subjugating the Caucasus. Shamil’s attempts to thwart the enemy’s offensive failed (the failure of the breakthrough into Kabarda in 1846, the fall of Gergebil’ in 1848, and the failure of the storm of Temir-Khan-Shura and of the breakthrough into Kakheti in 1849). Shamil succeeded in occupying Kazikumukh from 1849 to 1852, but by the spring of 1853 his detachments had been definitively pushed from Chechnia into Gornyi Dagestan, where the situation of the mountaineers had also become precarious. In the northwestern Caucasus the Urup line was created in 1850 and the following year an uprising of Circassian tribes headed by Shamil’s vicegerent Muhammad Emin was suppressed.

On the eve of the Crimean War, Shamil, counting on aid from Great Britain and Turkey, stepped up his actions; in August 1853 he made an unsuccessful attempt to break through the Lezghin line at Zakataly. In November 1853 the Turkish troops were defeated at Bashkadyklar and the attempts of the Circassians to seize the Black Sea and Laba lines were repulsed. In the summer of 1854 the Turkish troops passed to the offensive, with Tiflis as their objective; at the same time Shamil’s detachments, breaking through the Lezghin line, entered Kakheti and captured Tsinandali, but were stopped by the Georgian militia and then routed by the Russian troops.

The defeat of the Turkish army in 1854–55 definitively dashed Shamil’s hope for outside help. By that time the internal crisis of the imamate, which had begun back in the late 1840’s, had become more serious. Shamil’s vicegerents, the naibs, had become in effect greedy feudal lords whose cruel practices aroused the indignation of the mountaineers and intensified social contradictions, and the peasants gradually abandoned Shamil’s movement. In 1858 an uprising even broke out against Shamil’s rule in Chechnia, in the region of Vedeno. The imamate was also weakened by the ravages of war and by great human losses in a long and unequal struggle where ammunition and food supplies were in short supply. After the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris in 1856, tsarism was able to concentrate large forces against Shamil: the Caucasian Corps was transformed into an army and brought to a strength of 200, 000 men. The new commanders in chief, General N. N. Murav’ev (1854–56) and General A. I. Bariatinskii (1856–60), continued to close the blockade ring around the imamate and firmly consolidated the occupied territories. After his residence, the aul of Vedeno, fell in April 1859, Shamil fled to the aul of Gunib with 400 Murids. Executing converging movements, three detachments of Russian troops encircled Gunib and took it by storm on Aug. 25, 1859; almost all the Murids died in combat, and Shamil was forced to surrender.

The actions of the tsarist command in the northwestern Caucasus were facilitated by the disunity of the Circassian and Abkhazian tribes. The tsarist command took fertile lands from the mountaineers and gave them to cossacks and Russian colonists and carried out a mass expulsion of the mountain peoples. In November 1859 the main forces of the Circassians (up to 2, 000 men) led by Muhammad Emin capitulated and the land of the Circassians was cut by the Belaia River line with the fortress of Maikop. Between 1859 and 1861 trails were made in the forests, roads were built, and the lands seized from the mountaineers were colonized. The resistance to the colonialists intensified in mid-1862.

To capture the remaining territories held by the mountaineers, with a population of about 200, 000, up to 60, 000 soldiers were deployed in 1862 under the command of General N. I. Ev-dokimov. The tsarist troops began an advance along the coast and into the heart of the mountains and captured the territory between the Belaia and Pshish rivers in 1863; by mid-April 1864 they had captured the entire coast as far as Navaginskoe and the inland area up to the Laba River (along the northern slopes of the Caucasus range). Only the mountaineers of the Akhchipsu society and the small Khakucha tribe in the Mzymta River valley were not subdued. The Circassians and Abkhazians, forced to the sea or driven into the mountains, were compelled either to resettle in the plain or, under the influence of the Muslim clergy, to emigrate to Turkey. The unpreparedness of the Turkish government to receive, house, and feed masses of people (up to 500, 000 persons), the arbitrary behavior and violence of local Turkish authorities, and difficult living conditions caused a high mortality among the émigrés, and a few returned to the Caucasus. In 1864, Russian administration was established in Abkhazia, and on May 21, 1864, tsarist troops captured the last center of resistance of the Circassian tribe of the Ubykhs, the point of Kbaadu (now Krasnaia Poliana). This day is considered the end of the Caucasian War, although in fact military actions continued until the end of 1864 and anticolonial uprisings took place in Chechnia and Dagestan in the 1860’s and 1870’s.

The Caucasian War brought Chechnia, Gornyi Dagestan, and the northwestern Caucasus definitively under Russian rule. The annexation was conducted with the violent military feudal methods typical of the colonial policy of tsarism. At the same time the incorporation of these peoples into Russia, which had started on the path of capitalism, was objectively progressive, since ultimately it promoted their economic, political, and cultural development. The Russian people and their vanguard, the revolutionary Russian proletariat, became these peoples’ protector and leader in the struggle for social and national liberation.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.