From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 118-120:
Paintings of the Caucasus by the Russian Romantics feature a recurring figure on horseback: a warrior in a black felt coat, with cartridge belts crossed over his chest, a rifle slung at an angle across his back, a dagger and sabre in his belt, his mouth a cruel slit, and his eyes under a felt hat proud, hard, glowing like coals.
Of the many mountain tribes against which tsarist Russia waged its bloody nineteenth-century war of conquest, it was the Circassians who epitomised the Caucasus in the Russian imagination. Over half a million of them lived in the mountain villages to the north and west of the mountain range’s spine at the time, making them the most populous group in the regional ethnic mosaic. When Russia, still drunk on victory from Catherine the Great’s conquest of the Black Sea coast, pressed southwards into the Caucasus from the late eighteenth century onwards, the Circassians put up the most stubborn resistance to its advance. In alliance with the other mountain peoples – including their close relatives, the Abkhazians – they ensnared the tsar’s troops in a gruelling guerrilla war that went on for several generations.
Nowadays, there are three autonomous republics in the Caucasus named after the Circassians and their ethnic subgroups: Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Adygea. In the most recent censuses, around 700,000 people there described themselves as Circassians. There are, however, a far higher number of Circassians who no longer live in the Caucasus.
When Russia temporarily broke the mountain peoples’ stubborn defiance in the mid-nineteenth century, it was clear to the army high command that war could flare up again at a moment’s notice as long as the Circassians were able to entrench themselves in their inaccessible mountain villages. A plan took shape, bluntly referred to by officers as ochishchenie (‘cleansing’).
The Circassians were given an ultimatum: they could either be resettled in the more easily controlled foothills on the northern flanks of the Caucasus or leave the Russian Empire, which now extended beyond the mountain range. Emissaries of the tsar travelled to Istanbul and put the Ottomans, who had recently been defeated in yet another Russo–Turkish war, under pressure to open their empire to Circassian ‘emigrants’.
There is debate about how many people were forced to leave the Caucasus around the fateful year of 1864. The Russian high command talked about a good 400,000; some people say it was two or three times that number. There is also debate about how many people did not survive the deportation. At least 50,000 people, or maybe even more than twice as many, perished as the Circassian villages emptied and the homes of displaced families were razed. Some died of hunger; others didn’t survive the forced marches into the Ottoman Empire; others again were driven onto overloaded refugee ships, some of which never reached the Turkish coast. Virtually no other people has drowned in the Black Sea in such large numbers as the Circassians. There are individuals living along the coast who will not touch seafood to this day on principle; they refuse to eat fish whose ancestors have gnawed at the bones of their own forefathers.
The Circassians who did make it to the Ottoman Empire were mainly resettled within the borders of modern Turkey, and various sources have estimated that between 1.5 and 2.5 million of their descendants currently live in the country. Others moved farther afield. There are about 100,000 Circassians in Syria and approximately half that number in Jordan, where they still form the king’s bodyguard in their traditional battle garb. A few thousand live in Israel, Europe, and the United States, and a few hundred in Egypt.
‘My grandfather still spoke Circassian to me,’ Bassel said, changing up a gear as he drove me southwards out of Sukhum, ‘back home in Damascus.’