In August 2008, I remember watching on the news the story of how the Russian Federation launched a massive invasion of the bordering nation of Georgia, in order to aid separatists in the then-Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.The war was short, only five days, but ended decisively in Russia’s favor. This war was part of a larger, ongoing conflict in the Caucasus, one that has been going on for over 200 years. Today is the final article in my series on Russian colonialism. It will examine Russian colonization of the Caucasus, the underlying cause of the centuries-old conflict.

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Russian artillery shelling Chechen positions near the village of Duba-Yurt during the Second Chechen War, January 2000. Source: Photographer.ru, uploaded to the English Wikipedia by User:PeterPredator. This is a copyrighted image used under US fair usage guidelines.

Russia first began expanding into the Caucasus as early as the 1500s under Ivan the Terrible. The fall of Astrakhan and Kazan gave Russia bases along the Caspian from which colonial efforts could be launched. Over the next several centuries, the basic pattern was this: Russia would establish military and economic alliances with a political power in the Caucasus. Russia would consider these Caucasian people subjects, whereas the Caucasians viewed themselves as equals or friends with Russia. And then Russia would slowly squeeze, exerting influence until that power could no longer be self-sufficient. And, just as in Siberia, Alaska, Ukraine, pretty much anywhere, Cossacks would settle in a region, wreak havoc and destabilize that region, and Russia would then come in and clean up the mess.

Under Peter the Great, Russia attempted to militarily conquer much of the North Caucasus from Persia, but made little long-term gains. Catherine the Great’s wars against Turkey and Persia were more successful. In 1774, Russia gained Ossetia from the Ottomans. In 1783, the Kingdom of Georgia came under Russia’s “protection.” At about the same time, a Chechen resistance movement began under Sheikh Mansur, who attempted to unite the North Caucasus under the banner of a more “pure” Islam. This resistance has, on-and-off, continued until the present day. In the 1790s, Russia launched a war against Persia after that empire invaded Georgia. Though Persia was defeated, it was not conquered, and it continued to prove a threat to Russian control of the region. In response to continued pressure from Persia, Russia annexed Georgia in 1801. For the next two decades, Russia battled with the Persians, and increased their hold over the Caucasus region.

Apart from Georgia, the Caucasus was a Muslim majority region, and for centuries Russia tried to convert this population to Orthodoxy. However, this was greatly resisted, and it would have been less expensive and more practical to have followed a policy of toleration toleration would have made more sense. Catherine the Great seems to have understood this, as she was more tolerant of Islam. In general, though, since Orthodoxy was deeply associated with Russian cultural identity and with the power of the state, resisting Orthodoxy was considered equivalent to resisting the Russian state.

By the early 1820s, Russia decided on a more direct militaristic approach toward the Caucasus, and began conquests of the parts of the Caucasus that had not been successfully subdued. Another major resistance movement in the North Caucasus emerged, this one led by Imam Shamil. During the Crimean War, which was fought by Russia against the Ottomans and an alliance of other European powers from 1853-1856, the North Caucasus resistance sided with the Ottomans, who emerged the victors. This period of the North Caucasus conflict effectively ended in 1864, when Imam Shamil was defeated, the North Caucasus annexed, and thousands of Circassians deported to the Ottoman Empire.

However, sporadic resistance continued, and Russia would fight another war with the Ottomans over the Balkans, Crimea, and the Caucasus in 1877-1878, this time with the war favoring Russia. By the time of the Russian Revolution, the Caucasus was under Russian control. The revolution allowed the North Caucasus to break away from the Empire, but under the Soviet regime the area was re-conquered. In the 1940s, Stalin, who was originally from Georgia, expelled all Chechens to Siberia and Central Asia. After 1957, with the gradual liberalization of the Soviet Union, the Chechens, along with Ingushetians, were allowed to return. However, their homeland had been re-settlement by other people and ethnic group, which led to unrest and ethnic clashes.

Since early 1990s, there has been continuing unrest and wars for Chechen independence. Radical Islamists fight guerilla wars and launch terror attacks in their war for liberation. In addition to exerting outright military power, Russia continues to work to Russify the region, and reclaim territories from now once again independent nations such as Georgia. Instead of relying on Cossacks, though, Russia now prefers capitalism. For instance, the break-away state of Abkhazia, which seceded from Georgia, emerged after Russian investors who belong to the Federal Security Service bought up properties in that region of Georgia. After the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, Russification of those provinces has accelerated. The resistance in North Caucasus continues. Currently, the Islamist resistance has joined the Islamic State in the Levant (ISIL).

References

Thanks again to Karl Mick for this series idea.

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