Throughout history, violence has been an indispensable part of the Russian state tradition. Not only non-Russian subjects but also ethnic Russians have experienced their share of this tradition. In many cases, this tradition has turned into genocidal practices against non-Russian subjects. Due to the current political bottlenecks of the international community, this article focuses on the difficulties experienced in the recognition of these crimes against humanity and examines the genocidal practices of the Russian state in the North Caucasus, especially the Circassian Genocide in the 19th century. For more than two centuries, Russian state politics has been trying to erase the term “the Caucasus” as a geographical term in international public opinion and to make this region part of Southern Russia by cleansing or assimilating the indigenous North Caucasian nations. While the article focuses on the ‘velikorus’ (Great Russian) practices in the Tsarist and Soviet periods, it draws attention to the fact that there have been similar examples in the first thirty years of the so-called Russian federal state.

Genocide is a phenomenon that scientists, lawyers, politicians, commentators, and activists use to refer to various socio-historical phenomena. The concept of genocide was part of human life centuries before Raphael Lemkin named it.[1] Neither Lemkin’s naming of this phenomenon in 1944, nor the year 1948, when the UN Genocide Convention entered into force, are decisive factors in the criminalization of various genocide practices in history. Moreover, the legal dimension of this convention is limited to the actions of individuals and does not cover cases in which genocide is practiced as state terror. Therefore, rather than a legal term, it is more of a descriptive term, which makes the conscientious aspect of this phenomenon even more important. Lemkin’s definition of genocide is briefly as follows;

A. Killing members of a group;

B. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group;

C. Deliberately creating living conditions that are predicted to lead to the physical destruction of a group in whole or in part;

D. Taking measures to prevent births within a group;

E. Forcibly transferring the children of one group to another.

If the definition of genocide means any acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group (as Lemkin defined it), this does not mean that such acts were natural norms before Lemkin coined this definition.

As a matter of fact, the event that motivated Lemkin to focus on this issue was related to war crimes alleged to have been committed a quarter of a century previously. Moreover, Lemkin’s definition of genocide has become insufficient in today’s norms. Apart from the physical acts described by Lemkin, today it is possible to destroy national, ethnic, racial, religious, and class groups with spiritual, cultural, and several other indirect methods.

Today, many states accept the UN Genocide Convention in order to avoid genocide they committed before 1948 being recognized as such. However, making United Nations’ approval a prerequisite for recognizing as genocide the forced and en masse expulsion of a nation from their native lands, ethnic cleansing, and war crimes committed during this exile, puts the issue in a stalemate from the very beginning.

Violence has always been one of the most important features and primary methods of the operations of the Russian state regarding non-Russian elements of the state. The rulers did not hesitate to commit ethnic and cultural genocide in the areas they conquered and governed during the reigns of The Tsardom of Russia (1547–1721), the Russian Empire (1721–1917), Soviet Russia (1917–1991), and the Russian Federation (1991–…..). It can be observed that Russian state terror has targeted certain religious or national groups, regardless of age and gender, in lands occupied by Russian armies. Tens or hundreds of thousands of people were murdered in these massacres, such as the Siege of Kazan (1552), the Novgorod Massacre (1570), the Massacres in Kazan (1571–72), the Razin Revolt (1670–71), the Bashkir rebellions (1705, 35,55), the Khiva Massacre (1881), the Polish Operation of NKVD (1937–38), and the Katyn Massacre (1940). Additionally, in events such as the World Wars, the Russian Civil War (1917–1920), and the Stalinist Purges, when the state terror also included Russian ethnicities, great massacres were carried out on some specific ethnic groups by taking advantage of the chaotic environment.[2]

During the last two centuries, the North Caucasus has also become one of the primary war arenas for Russia. While mentioning all striking examples of genocidal performances committed by Russia in the North Caucasus, the article will mainly focus on the Circassian[3] experience, as the national existence of the Circassians is currently under threat of extinction. Despite all the credible proof, the international community is hesitant to recognize the experiences of the Circassians as genocide due to its political and economic ties with the Russian Federation. If one agrees that the Circassians’ experiences conform to Lemkin’s definition of genocide, then the following facts should not be ignored. 

The massacre and forced deportation of Circassians in the 19th century is some of the most barbaric violence that humanity has ever witnessed. Looking at the crimes against humanity that were committed in the same period by other colonial powers in different parts of the world, especially in Africa, the Far East, and America, and claiming that Russia’s crimes against the Circassians in the 19th century could be considered within the norms of the period is simply an effort to cover up this crime. It must be noted that even Lemkin himself was inspired by events from the past when he coined the term “genocide”.

This is an undisputable genocide, as proven by legitimate documents and proof. The length of this study does not permit us to examine all scientific publications on this genocide in detail; however, to make the reality more visible, some documents and publications prepared by official Russian institutions and personalities will be shared with the reader as legitimate pieces of evidence. Tbilisi has hosted some these documents for the last two centuries as it used to be the administrative centre of the Caucasus Military District of the Tsar’s government. Duplicates of these documents also exist in Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, the Russian state does not allow researchers to access these documents. After the Russian–Georgian War in 2008, the Georgian president of the time made these documents accessible to researchers. The documents, which consist of thousands of pages preserved in funds number 2 and 416 in the Georgian State Archives, are irrefutable evidence of the crimes of the Tsarist era of Russian statehood. As a matter of fact, long before this archival discovery, there was also very striking proof of genocide in the very well-known twelve-volume documents extracted from the archive of the Main Directorate of the Viceroy of the Caucasus, compiled by The Caucasian Archaeographic Commission in the years 1866–1904.[4]

During the transition from tsardom to the empire, the existence of Russian army generals was purely dependent on these endless wars, and they expended great efforts to keep Russia in such a constant state of war. Extensive Russian invasions began with Peter I and continued during the whole Romanov dynasty. The wars in the Caucasus, which had ordinary, religious, national, or feudal motives, underwent a serious change in 1816 with the appointment of General Alexey Yermolov to the command post, and a period of great terror began. In a message to Tsar Alexander I, Yermolov said, ‘I desire that the terror of my name shall guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses’.[5] Yermolov adopted terrorizing names for the fortresses that he built in the Caucasus, such as ‘Groznaya’ (terrible) and ‘Vnezapnaya’ (surprise).[6] With the terror that he spread among the Mountaineers[7], he forced innocent civilians to move from the plains to the mountains in search of shelter. He aimed to drive them from the arable lands in order to starve them to death. Yermolov’s order to his officers was as follows: ‘Let the standing corn be destroyed each autumn as it ripens, and in five years they will be starved into submission.’[8] After the construction of the second Caucasian fortification line was completed, the punitive attacks of Yermolov – aiming to destroy all the Mountaineers, without distinction of men, women, and children – became an ordinary act.[9]

Contrary to what many monographic cliches claim, the Caucasian Highlanders were not an obstacle to Russia’s imperial strategic plans to move to the warm seas and seize control of the Indian trade route. So, the war that they conducted in the North Caucasus was not in the vital interests of Russia. As early as 1561, kinship had already been established between the Circassian aristocracy and the Russian Tsardom with the marriage of Ivan the Terrible to Goshenay, the daughter of Kabardian Prince Temruk.[10] Muslim Goshenay was baptized, converted to Christianity, and named Maria Temryukovna. This marriage paved the way for many Kabardian Circassians to enter the court of the Romanov dynasty, and this was projected by the Russian Imperial Court as the voluntary annexation of Kabardia to the Russian Empire.[11] Russia completed the construction of the Georgian Military Road in 1769 and conquered Georgia in 1801.[12] The boundaries of imperial Russia were extended to the Transcaucasus by going beyond the Daryal Pass and dividing the Caucasus down the middle with a demarcation line. So, the Caucasus was no longer an obstacle to Russia’s absolute goal of new invasions in the south. Likewise, Shamkhalate of Tarki, Kazikumukh lands, and the lands on the Caspian Sea’s coastline fall completely under Russian control in 1793 to 1823.[13] The following map of the Caucasus, printed by Archibald Fullarton in England in 1872, based on the travel notes of the German ethnographer Karl Koch between 1836 and 1838, reveals this situation strikingly.[14] The white zones marked with pink boundaries show the lands that were under the control of the free Mountaineers in the late 1830s; the territories marked with yellow boundaries define the Russian suzerainty. So, it is evident that Caucasian Mountaineers did not represent a threat against Russian imperial interests.