History has largely been kind to Alexander II, the Russian czar who freed the serfs in 1861, just two years before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 (the two world leaders even corresponded about their plans.)Modern historians refer to him as the “Czar-Liberator” and compare him to Mikhail Gorbachev for his willingness to engage with the West and reform Russia.
But on the occasion of the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in Sochi and the surrounding areas, it’s helpful to look back and remember that 600,000 locals died from starvation, exposure, drowning and massacres in a concerted campaign by the Russian Empire to expel the Circassian people, as they were called, from the region. The Circassians and the other inhabitants of the Caucasus region did not fit into the Czar’s reform program, because he viewed them as an inherent risk to the security of Russia’s southern frontier and the nation is still coming to terms with the consequences of the czar’s expulsion of the Circassian people today.
The future Czar Alexander II was born in Moscow’s Kremlin on April 17, 1818, during Easter Week, a good omen to the Russian Orthodox. At the time of Alexander’s birth, Russia was at a crossroads. The reigning Czar, Alexander I, uncle to the infant, had received an Enlightenment education from his grandmother, Catherine the Great. His officer class had been exposed to Western ideas, occupying Paris after the defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Paris in 1814. Among Russia’s elites, there were hopes that the victorious Czar would shepherd a transition from feudal autocracy to constitutional monarchy.
Priorities, however, began to change around the same time his nephew was born. Alarmed by news of revolutionary disorder in Naples and Piedmont, Alexander I declared, “Liberty should be confined within just limits. And the limits of liberty are the principles of order.” Reform would have to wait until a subsequent reign.
When Alexander I died suddenly in 1825, it was not immediately clear who would succeed to the throne. The late Czar did not have any surviving legitimate children. The eldest of his three younger brothers, Constantine, was married to a Polish commoner and secretly renounced the throne in favor of the next brother, and father to Alexander, Nicholas. The reform-minded officer class were displeased with this shift as Nicholas was known as a strict military disciplinarian.
On December 26, 1825, officers leading 3,000 men marched on St. Petersburg’s Senate Square, calling for “Constantine and Constitution.” They were met by Nicholas I’s loyal troops, who fired artillery, dispersing the crowd with heavy casualties. Five leaders of the Decembrist Revolt were hanged while others were sent into exile in Siberia.
Nicholas I governed his family as strictly as his empire and military regiments. His four sons and three daughters reported each morning to their “father-commander” to explain how they had spent the previous day and what progress they made in their lessons. When the young Alexander, influenced by the principles of Christian forgiveness espoused by his tutor, commented that he would have forgiven the Decembrists, his father shook his fist and declared, “Remember this: Die on the steps to throne, but do not give up power!”
Four years after the Decembrist revolt, Russia signed the Treaty of Adrianople with the Ottoman Empire, acquiring the northern Black Sea coast and including Sochi, which was then the capital of the autonomous region of Circassia.
The Circassians, who had converted to Islam as Ottoman subjects refused to accept the absolute authority of Nicholas I or convert to Russian Orthodox Christianity. The Muslim tribes of the Northern Caucasus united under the leadership of Shamil, the Imam of Chechnya and Dagestan. Decades of war ensued between the Russian Empire and the people of the Caucasus. During Alexander’s military service on the Chechen front, which started in 1850, the young heir led an advance near Fort Achkoi, engaging in hand to hand combat with members of a Chechen company. Nicholas I granted Alexander the Cross of St. George for Valour.
The novelist Leo Tolstoy served as an army cadet in Chechnya just a few years after Alexander and described the looting of Caucasian villages. Like many other 19th-century novelists, including Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermonotov, Tolstoy chronicled his experiences in the region. In his 1853 short story, “The Raid,” Tolstoy wrote:
A moment later, dragoons, Cossacks and infantry spread with evident delight through the crooked lanes and in an instant the empty village was animated again. Here is a Cossack dragging along a sack of flour and a carpet, there a soldier with a delighted look on his face, brings a tin basin and some rag out of a hut…
Similar scenes would unfold when the Circassians were expelled from the Russian Empire a decade later.
When Alexander II came to the throne in 1855, following Nicholas I’s sudden death from influenza, he inherited an Empire that was rapidly losing a war for control of the Black Sea. The Crimean War pitted the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire, Great Britain and France. Great Britain in particular was concerned about Russia’s expansion southward at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and considered Circassia a potential buffer state. The 1856 Peace of Paris, which ended the war, did not grant Circassia independence but it demilitarized the Black Sea, preventing Russia from maintaining a fleet there.