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The Russian conquest of the North Caucasus was a struggle that raged for more than 80 years, from 1783 to 1864, even though the Empire’s borders were located far to the south of these territories, making it a de facto internal frontier and a constant thorn in St. Petersburg’s side. The two pivotal figures in the resistance were Mansur Ushurma and the famous Shamil, who led the pan-Caucasian struggle against the invader from 1783 to 1791 and from 1834 to 1859, respectively.
The real core of this resistance was concentrated mainly in the north-eastern part of the Caucasus, roughly in the territories today corresponding to Dagestan and Chechnya. Here a more egalitarian social situation and a greater rooting of Islam gave birth in the 19th century to Muridism (from the Arabic murid ‘disciple’), an anti-Russian religious and political movement of which Shamil was undoubtedly the main exponent. The situation in Circassia was slightly different, firstly because the presence of an aristocracy enabled the Russians to co-opt a part of the nobility already in the early years of the conflict. At the same time, the limited Islamisation made these ethnic groups much less inclined to the call of the holy war echoing from the east. The fact that the Ossetians, Orthodox Christians and historical allies of Russia, resided and still reside between Circassia and Chechnya, was not a secondary factor.
However, once Shamil was defeated in 1859, the armed struggle in Circassia did not end but rather intensified. In 1861 in Ekaterinodar, Tsar Alexander II imposed on a delegation of Circassian leaders, who had come to negotiate peace, not only complete submission but also the expropriation of their lands and their relocation to the North Caucasus. The refusal of the majority of the Circassian people to comply with these orders prolonged the war for another three years, during which the Russian army made scorched earth in the territory and expelled the inhabitants en masse. The options for the defeated were either to settle in the plains or to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire.
Many chose the second option and embarked on a long sea and land journey to the Sultan’s lands. The terrible travelling conditions of this forced exodus resulted in numerous losses, about which estimates still disagree, to this and other Caucasian peoples. Hundreds of thousands (perhaps more than a million) moved to Anatolia and the Middle East, where they are still an important ethnic and linguistic minority today.
At this point, one must ask oneself about these events and whether one can speak of genocide when considering everything we just examined. The yardsticks of judgement vary from those who consider the Holocaust a unicum to those who use the term ‘genocide’ in an all too banal way. For the Circassians, as for many other historical facts, it is essentially necessary to understand whether there is an ideological component behind these atrocities that likens them to 20th-century genocides. Instead, the sources agree on the pragmatic nature of the factors that led the Russians to act in such a way: they probably intended to dismantle a potential bridgehead for an invasion of Russian territory across the Black Sea or they wanted to take possession of the fertile lands where the Circassians lived and assign them to settlers of Slavic origin. It is, however, almost certain that the intention was not to eliminate the population and, although they undertook what can undoubtedly be considered a war of extermination, those who submitted to the Empire were spared and not killed simply because of their ethnicity.
For this reason, taking into account the tragic nature of the historical event and how close war of extermination is to genocide, it would be incorrect to use this latter definition to describe the massacre of the Circassians, not because these facts count for less than others, but because today more than ever it is necessary to have a clear, distinct and adequate knowledge of this subject to avoid using labels that are inaccurate and used for purely political purposes.
(Freely inspired by Ferrari, A., 2012. I circassi in Russia: un genocidio sconosciuto?. In: Il grande paese. Milan – Udine: Mimesis Edizioni, pp. 199-208.)