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The Ethnic Cleansing of the Circassians

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, we'll be looking at the nation of Circassia. Where's Circassia? It doesn't exist anymore, due to a policy of ethnic cleansing that violently erased it from the map. We'll explore this history and see what happened to the Circassian people.

The Circassians

In 2014, the Russian city of Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics. This was a very controversial thing for Sochi to do, and protests broke out across the region. Why? Because exactly 150 years earlier, the area that became Sochi wasn't inhabited by Russians. It was inhabited by an ethnic group called the Circassians and was the small but independent nation of Circassia. However, 1864 would change all of that as Russia launched a program of ethnic cleansing, the complete annihilation of a culture, to make room for the new Russian settlements. In 2014, Russia still denied that this genocidal event ever happened, and the Circassian people, then mostly settled in Turkey, were furious. So, let's take a look back to 1864 and see what really happened.

Circassians in the 19th century
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Circassia in the Nineteenth Century

In the 19th century, Circassia was home to, well, the Circassians. They spoke the Circassian language, one of the Caucasian languages found in Eastern Europe, roughly between the Black and Caspian Seas. They were predominantly Islamic, a result of mighty Islamic empires that entered through Turkey in the late 15th century. For the most part, the Circassian people lived in tribes spread out over the mountains and valleys of the region and had strict systems of social hierarchy. Customs, rituals, and social organization were very important to the Circassians, and hospitality was a predominantly stressed virtue.

While the Circassian people had been used to interacting with the Ottoman Empire for a while, the 19th century saw the introduction of a new threat. The Russian Empire was actively expanding west, trying to establish control over a warm-water port so they could engage in international trade markets. The best location was the Black Sea, through which they could access the Mediterranean. So, Russia began an imperial conquest of the Caucasus, bringing them into conflict with people like the Circassians. The Ottoman Empire formally gave Russia control of Circassia in 1829, but the Circassians claimed that the treaty was invalid since the Ottomans didn't actually control them. So, they resisted Russian occupation. The Circassian tribes were disorganized, but very effective against Russian settlements, raiding them in an instant and disappearing back into the mountains.

A Circassian raiding party
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The Ethnic Cleansing of Circassia

By the 1850s, Russia was growing tired of the Circassian raids on their settlements. So, Russian military commander Dmitry Milyutin proposed a radical solution. Instead of trying to work with the Circassians, why not simply eliminate them altogether? Tsar Alexander II liked the idea. It's important to remember that in the 19th century, people were very much into ideas like ethnic superiority and master races. The eliminating of an ethnic rival was often justified because they were seen as evolutionarily inferior.

19th century painting of the relocation of the Circassians
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