Russian War Crimes (1837-1864)
In 1837, the former Decembrist revolutionary, Nikolai Lorer, was serving on the frontline in Russia’s war in the Caucasus. Demoted from major to private, he had been sent to Circassia, a small, independent country in the north, on the shore of the Black Sea. One day, Lorer was summoned to see the regional commander, General Grigory Zass.
“After entering the general’s office,” he recalled, “I was struck by some sort of intolerably offensive smell… Zass, laughing, ended our confusion by telling us that his people had no doubt placed under his bed a box with heads… he pulled out and showed us a huge chest with several heads that stared at us with horrible glassy eyes. ‘Why are they here?’ I asked. ‘I’m boiling and cleaning them and then sending them to various anatomical offices and my academic friends in Berlin.’”
Zass the Impaler
The heads had belonged to members of the native population, the so-called “mountaineers”. At the time they were engaged in a war of resistance against the Russian occupiers. For the Circassians, this was an existential struggle for survival; for the Russians, a land grab that turned into a grim, relentless battle to impose their expansionist ideology. It would eventually, inevitably, evolve into ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Commanders like Zass had come to regard their enemies as sub-human, which to them justified the brutal measures they took to suppress the resistance. As well as heads under the bed, Zass the Impaler stuck other heads on lances planted on top of a hill for all to see. “Their beards blew in the wind,” remembered Lorer.
But such barbarities were not just the aberrations of a psychopathic monster, they were part of an unofficial policy of terror, which also included the use of rape as a weapon of war.
And it continued for decades. “Only horror could have an effect on the hostile mountaineers,” one Russian commander wrote in the 1860s, showing that Zass’s approach was still the order of the day. Alexander Baryatinsky, the Russian viceroy of Caucusus from 1856 to 1862, went even further, stating: “We must assume that we will need to exterminate the mountaineers before they will agree to our demands.”
In his seminal book on the conflict, The Circassian Genocide, Walter Richmond describes the increasing frustration of the Russian commanders: “the army that had defeated Napoleon was held in check by “savages””, he writes. He goes on: “In their minds the Circassians were no longer future subjects; they were eternal enemies who had to be wiped out.”
The end of a nation
The Circassian forces made their valiant last stand against the Russian army at Qbaada in May 1864. After surrendering, they were driven to the Black Sea coastal city of Sochi, where, as Richmond writes: “they died by the thousands as they waited for ships to take them to the Ottoman Empire.” These days Sochi is remembered as the venue for the 2014 Winter Olympics, not as the place where a nation ceased to exist.
It was the climax of a prolonged campaign of deliberate, systematic ethnic cleansing. Whether the Circassians died by warfare, mass murder, disease or starvation didn’t much matter to the Russians. As one Russian historian put it: “The state needed the Circassians’ land, but had absolutely no need of them.”
Reckoning the dead
According to the Russian government’s own – probably conservative – figures, 400,000 Circassians were killed in the “operation” (https://borgenproject.org/10-facts-about-the-circassian-genocide/). Hundreds of thousands more were forcibly transported to Turkey, which had agreed to take in its fellow Muslims in return for compensation.
Before the genocide, the number of Circassians in Circassia was between one million and 1.7 million. According to estimates, 80 to 97% of that number were either killed or forced into exile. By 1900, most of Europe had forgotten that there ever was a country called Circassia.
In 2003, during Putin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation, a statue to General Grigory Zass was unveiled in the heart of the territory he had so brutally controlled. To know a man, look at those he honours.