- Social Alchemy on the Black Sea Coast, 1860–65
The Russians had forcibly removed Muslim peoples in order to replace them with Christians.—Justin McCarthy1
To drive the mountain tribes from their thickets and to settle the western Caucasus with Russians—such was the military plan for the last four years.—Rostislav Fadeev2
Massive demographic changes took place on the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus in the early 1860s.3 From 1860 to 1865, at least 370,000 people indigenous to the region departed for the Ottoman empire,4 another 74,000 to 100,000 were resettled in the lowlands among Cossack stanitsy,5 and over 100,000 Russians [End Page 7] arrived to fill the emptied space.6 The epigraphs cited above strongly articulate what has become the conventional wisdom about these shifts: the Russian state drove out Muslims, while bringing in Russian settlers. The relatively few scholars who have studied these events have tended to view them as an illustration of a general principle of governance in imperial Russia: namely, that Muslims made undesirable subjects and ideally should be replaced by Russians or other Christian groups. According to this vision, the state aimed to create an ethnically, or at least religiously, homogenous population.
I argue that, on the contrary, the Caucasus administration pursued a civilizing mission that aimed at transforming the peoples under its rule.7 Social engineering remained beyond its reach, and with its limited ability to mold the local population in new directions, Tiflis relied on theoretical calculations that I term "social alchemy." These formulas reflected current ideas of social science, drawing on knowledge of ethnicity in the abstract and given ethnic groups in particular, and it promised to deliver marvelous results in transforming imperfect social elements into an ideal society. As practiced along the Black Sea coast, this alchemy involved two key steps. First, officials aimed to refine the indigenous population, removing elements deemed fanatical, relocating those who could accept Russian rule to the more accessible lowlands along the Kuban River, and subjecting those who remained to close administration. Western Circassians, once brought under control, would help provide the manpower to develop the resources of the Kuban lowlands.8 Next, by repopulating the coastal [End Page 8] highlands with the right combination of geographically appropriate peoples, the administration hoped to create a prosperous new society. Due to their historical connection with the geography of the Russian heartland, Russian nationals alone lacked the necessary skills to flourish in such an environment; and officials sought to attract colonists from a variety of geographical and ethnic backgrounds to populate the region and develop its resources.
Officials thought in terms of the transformation and utilization of the human elements at their disposal, and they aspired to integrate all but the most noncompliant individuals into the imperial order. Usable human capital was in short supply, so making use of the population at hand made pragmatic sense. Moreover, they claimed that controlled diversity would generate modernity and drive the region's development. In this view, all ethnic groups could participate productively in empire, and unity would come through devotion to the tsar (or at least submission to Russian rule and participation in the local economy). This liberal project was profoundly hierarchical, and the place allocated to highland communities was unenviable. Nevertheless, to say that officials intended to expel hundreds of thousands of potential subjects greatly misrepresents how Caucasus officials approached empire-building.
In the event, however, both stages of the experiment failed. Officials managed to force highland communities along the Black Sea coast to leave their homes, expecting that they would submit, relocate to the lowlands, and contribute to the emerging agricultural economy. In the event, the highlanders could not remain in place, but they could and did choose to reject Russian rule and depart for the Ottoman empire. Geographically suitable colonists proved impossible to find in the 1860s.9 Perforce the administration relied primarily on the Cossacks who had helped conquer the region for settlers. As predicted, these colonists proved unable to adapt to the new environment and, alarmingly, began to adopt some of the least desirable habits of the region's previous residents...