The North Caucasus During the Russian Conquest


Pyotr Zakharov-Chechenets, Portrait of Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov (Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov), c.1843

by Michael Khodarkovsky

In the early 1820s the Russian troops under General Aleksei Petrovich Ermolov marched through Chechnya leaving behind a wide swath of destruction: Villages razed to the ground, crops burned, captives and cattle seized, forests cut down, and land taken away for forts and settlements. In Ermolov’s words, ”destruction was necessary as an example of punishment of the proud people… who can be tamed only through the lessons of terror.”

By the mid 1820s it seemed that Ermolov’s policies of terror had achieved the desired effect and the region appeared pacified. The Russian authorities were slow to realize that the indiscriminate punishment and destruction were only feeding the cause of militant Islam and turning peaceful villagers into jihadists. Indeed, a few years later the entire region of the North Caucasus was engulfed in the Holy War against Russia, the so-called ‘Caucasus War’, which lasted for some thirty years.

This war, followed by Russia’s further colonization of the region, has often been presented in stark black and white terms. From the point of view of the native peoples, theirs was a struggle against the brutal invaders. On the other hand, St. Petersburg saw the struggle for the North Caucasus as Russia’s “white man’s burden” in civilizing the savages.

Yet, as in any imperial conquest, there was a small group of individuals who belonged to both, the worlds of the colonizer and the colonized. Born in the Caucasus and taken to Russia at an early age to be educated and brought up there, they formed a new colonial elite indispensable to Russia’s efforts in the Caucasus. They served as valuable intermediaries helping the Russian authorities to govern the multitudes of peoples, tongues, and religions. In many respects they appeared to be perfectly Russian and yet, they continued to harbor deep longing and affection for their old kin and culture. One such individual was Semën Atarshchikov, the protagonist of my recent book Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus

A decorated Cossack officer with his sword

Semën Semënovich Atarshchikov was a Russian Cossack officer.  A dashing Cossack uniform, a bushy mustache, a tall hat of black wool, a fine saber and dagger — nothing in his appearance distinguished him from his fellow officers, stationed like him in the frontier regiments of the North Caucasus. Yet his command of four languages; Russian, as well as Arabic and two regional tongues, Chechen and Kumyk, clearly set Semën apart from his compatriots. His intimate knowledge of local languages and cultures made him an indispensable translator and expert on the highlanders of the North Caucasus.

Atarshchikov’s professional star rose steadily if not spectacularly. In 1830 his service as a translator was needed in St. Petersburg, where he joined the Caucasus Mountain half squadron, better known as the Circassian Guard. Two years later, as a leading expert on the Chechens, now promoted and decorated, he was dispatched back to the Caucasus, where the third imam named Shamil was about to unite the native peoples in what would become a long and bloody Holy War against the Russians. Later, in 1836, Atarshchikov was transferred to the northwest Caucasus and appointed a superintendent of the Karachay people.

During all these years, he earned the respect and trust of one of the top Russian military commanders in the Caucasus, the notorious Baron Grigorii Khristoforovich von Zass. An eccentric general known equally for his courage and his cruelty, Zass regularly dispatched Atarshchikov on sensitive missions deep into the mountains, and Atarshchikov always performed admirably. But in 1841, at the age of thirty-four, suddenly and without any apparent reason, Atarshchikov fled to seek refuge among the Adyge highlanders.

Such desertions were far more frequent than Russian officials were willing to admit. Typically, the deserters were rank-and-file soldiers and Cossacks who fled to escape justice or abuse by their officers. Some simply preferred a few years of freedom to twenty-five years of grueling military service, but a deserting officer, whose previous years of service were an example of diligence and dedication, was not something that Russian officials could easily dismiss or deny.

Atarshchikov’s story grew even more intriguing when, four months after his escape, he chose to return to Russia and ask for pardon. When his petition reached the imperial desk in St. Petersburg, the Russian emperor, Nicholas I, convinced by General Zass’s assurances, agreed to sign a pardon. But the imperial pardon from the charge of treason did not necessarily imply the imperial trust. Nicholas I, who came to power in the tumultuous atmosphere of the December 1825 uprising, saw sedition and treachery everywhere.  The imperial decree ordered Atarshchikov to be transferred to a Cossack regiment… in Finland.

Perhaps the emperor’s suspicions were not entirely unfounded, for shortly before his transfer Atarshchikov again fled to the mountains. This time he converted to Islam, married a local noble’s daughter, and participated actively in raids across the Russian frontier. In 1845, during one such raid, his companion, the fugitive Cossack Fedor Fenev, shot Atarshchikov while he slept. Fenev had decided to surrender to the Russian authorities, and betraying Atarshchikov, who had become of the most notorious and dangerous raiders, offered Fenev the best hope for a pardon. Shortly after a party of Cossacks arrived to seize him, Semën Atarshchikov died from his wounds.

Semën Atarshchikov’s dramatic life and its tragic end were inseparable from the sense of romance and mystery that early nineteenth-century Russian romantics associated with the Caucasus, which had become at once Russia’s “Parnassian sanctuary and a bloody battlefield.” An entire generation of Russia’s writers and poets was inducted into the military and banished to the “southern Siberia” for their outspoken opposition to monarchy. For many, life ended early and abruptly, as government authorities had intended.

Thus, Aleksander Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Russia’s best-selling author of stories set in the Caucasus, fell in June 1837, during the disastrous Russian landing expedition at Adler on the Black Sea coast.  Alexander Odoevsky died from typhus while stationed on the same coast, and Alexander Griboedov was murdered by an angry mob in Teheran. Four years later, in July 1841, Mikhail Lermontov died in his infamous duel with N. S. Martynov at the North Caucasus town of Piatigorsk. Both duelists were enamored of the local culture: Lermontov romanticized the Caucasus in verse and prose, while Martynov emulated the region’s martial traditions preferring a distinctive mountaineer’s tunic, a woolen hat, and a large dagger to a Russian officer’s uniform. In fact, Lermontov’s mocking of Martynov, whom he called “le chevalier des monts sauvages,” and his sartorial trappings eventually provoked the fatal duel. In the Caucasus imagination and reality often blended into a typical frontier exoticism.

While many Russian officers transformed their exile into an adventure by romanticizing the region and its inhabitants, the highlanders’ experience with the Russians was far from romantic. Concerned with the preservation of their social position, property, and power, the local elite were forced to choose between collaboration and resistance. As was the case with Haji-Murat, immortalized by Leo Tolstoy in the story of the same name, such choices were not always lasting. Haji-Murat was an influential Avar noble who served Russian interests until local political intrigues and the highhandedness of the Russian administration forced him to join Shamil in 1841. A few years later, disappointed by his new ally, Haji-Murat fled back to the Russians only to be hunted down and killed a few months later as he attempted to return to Shamil. Haji-Murat’s story was representative of the experience of many local nobles who searched for political security in the ever-shifting space between the Russian authorities and their own people. Whatever the nature of their relations with Russia, they preserved their indigenous identity and remained strangers to Russian ways.

At the same time, Russia’s continuous presence in the region resulted in the growing influence of another sort of the local elite, one educated in Russia and later returned to serve Russian interests among their own people. Theirs was the third way between collaboration and resistance.  Seemingly comfortable in both Russian and their own culture, these men were privileged outsiders in both worlds. Their loyalties remained in doubt; for they often anguished over their complex identity.  Even decades of successful service in the Russian military did not preclude their return to their native roots.

One striking example was Musa Kundukh (Kundukhov).  Born to a family of Ossetin nobles, he joined the Russian army as an officer and rose through the ranks to become a highly decorated major general.  After Shamil had been defeated, however, Kundukh’s disgust with Russia’s policies toward the local population led him to organize a massive immigration to the Ottoman Empire. In 1865, his ship with hundreds of fellow highlanders docked at an Ottoman port on the Black Sea. Later, Musa Kundukh was given the Ottoman title of pasha—general, and served with distinction in the Ottoman wars against the Russians.

Russian General and Ottoman Pasha, Mussa Kundukh the Ottoman uniform and with the Ottoman and Russian decorations

The little known story of Lieutenant  Semën Atarshchikov offers valuable insights into the life of individuals indispensable to Russia during its conquest and rule of the indigenous population. For in the end, this model Russian officer turned out to be a native son of the Caucasus.  Indeed, his is the story of the Caucasus itself: a region of seductive landscapes, exotic languages, diverse peoples, ancient customs, tangled identities, and divided loyalties.  It is a story of the indigenous peoples subjected to Russia’s conquest, and the empire’s struggle to turn the highlanders into loyal subjects. Semën Atarshchikov’s life is an illustration of an encounter between the worlds of the colonizers and the colonized, and of those, who like Atarshchikov, were caught in between.

Second and third images courtesy of the Author

About the Author:

Michael Khodarkovsky is Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago. He is the author of Where Two Worlds Met: The Russian State and the Kalmyk Nomads, 1600–1771 and Russia’s Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500–1800.