Bitter Choices

Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus

Michael Khodarkovsky
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 224
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    Bitter Choices
    Book Description:

    Russia's attempt to consolidate its authority in the North Caucasus has exerted a terrible price on both sides since the mid-nineteenth century. Michael Khodarkovsky's book tells the story of a single man with multiple allegiances and provides a concise and compelling history of the mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas. After forays beginning in the late 1500s, Russia tenuously conquered the peoples of the region in the 1850s; the campaign was defined by a cruelty on both sides that established a pattern repeated in our own time, particularly in Chechnya.

    At the center of Khodarkovsky's sweeping account is Semën Atarshchikov (1807-1845). His father was a Chechen translator in the Russian army, and Atarshchikov grew up with roots in both Russian and Chechen cultures. His facility with local languages earned him quick promotion in the Russian army. Atarshchikov enjoyed the confidence of his superiors, yet he saw the violence that the Russians inflicted on the native population and was torn between his duties as a Russian officer and his affinity with the highlanders. Twice he deserted the army to join the highlanders in raids against his former colleagues. In the end he was betrayed by a compatriot who sought to gain favor with the Russians by killing the infamous Atarshchikov.

    Khodarkovsky places Atarshchikov's life in a rich context: we learn a great deal about the region's geography, its peoples, their history, and their conflicts with both the Russians and one another. Khodarkovsky reveals disputes among the Russian commanders and the policies they advocated; some argued for humane approaches but always lost out to those who preferred more violent means. Like Hadji Murat-the hero of Tolstoy's last great work-Atarshchikov moved back and forth between Russian and local allegiances; his biography is the story of the North Caucasus, one as relevant today as in the nineteenth century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6289-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Maps
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    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, who, like him, were stationed 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...

  7. 1 The Frontiers of the North Caucasus
    (pp. 7-21)

    After days of traversing the seemingly endless expanse of Russia’s southern steppe, a traveler approaching the Terek River would finally take in the sight of the majestic mountaintops of the North Caucasus. Before crossing the river, an early-nineteenth-century traveler would have felt some trepidation: he was about to leave behind familiar European landscapes and enter the mysterious world of Asia. For contemporary Russians, the Terek formed a mental frontier that separated Europe from Asia, the known from the foreign, civilization from barbarism, rationality from exoticism, prosaic life from heroic deeds.

    Cascading down the northern slopes of the mountains and then...

  8. 2 Atarshchikov’s Childhood
    (pp. 22-45)

    Semën Semënovich Atarshchikov was born in 1807 in Naurskaia, one of the largest Cossack settlements on the Terek River. Semën was a typical product of the frontier—a first-generation Cossack whose parents had been brought to Russia as teenagers from their native societies. His father was a Chechen from a small hamlet across the Terek River, and his mother was a Nogay whose kinsmen roamed the steppe between the Terek and Kuma Rivers. Our story begins with Semën’s father and his odyssey from the family of a lesser chief to the Russian army, where he served as a translator.


  9. 3 Journey through the Northeast Caucasus
    (pp. 46-65)

    In 1822 Semën turned fifteen—the age of maturity for boys. Now he was entitled to wear a dagger, participate in men’s councils, and marry. After spending seven years in the family of his atalyk in the Kumyk village, Semën was ready to return to Naurskaia. But before that he wanted to travel in the region to observe its variegated human and geographical landscape. In the spring of 1822, Semën, accompanied by two uzdens, departed from Karabudakhkent on a journey through the Northeast Caucasus.

    His first destination was the magnificent city of Derbend—the oldest, largest, and most sophisticated city...

  10. 4 Inside Ermolov’s “Iron Fist”
    (pp. 66-81)

    In the wake of Russia’s military victory over Napoleon and the empire’s enhanced role in European politics, St. Petersburg decided that the time had come to pacify the North Caucasus. Several tactical and strategic reasons dominated the thinking of the Russian government: preventing brigandage along the frontier, seizing the lands that could be used for farming and commerce, bringing the natives into submission, and securing Russia’s expanding control of Transcaucasia: the Georgian, Armenian, and Azeri lands.

    The task of pacifying the North Caucasus fell to the commander of the Russian troops in the Caucasus, General A. P. Ermolov, whose long...

  11. 5 St. Petersburg and Poland
    (pp. 82-91)

    In May 1830, Semën Atarshchikov arrived in St. Petersburg. The journey was long and arduous. Russian roads were notoriously bad, particularly during the spring rains. It took Semën about two weeks in the postal service carriages to reach the imperial capital.¹ It was his first trip outside the North Caucasus, and demanding and tiring as it might have been, it also held the promise of new and exciting experiences along the route that traversed much of European Russia.

    Semën’s journey began in Kizliar, where the road bent northeast along the Caspian lowland before reaching Astrakhan, Russia’s major port on the...

  12. 6 Return to the North Caucasus
    (pp. 92-104)

    By the late 1820s the northeast Caucasus had been pacified. Or at least it appeared so to a Russian government convinced that Ermolov’s brutal campaigns, excessive as they might have been, had had the desired effect. Not until 1831 did it become abundantly clear that in fact Ermolov’s policies had produced the opposite effect—driving the antagonized and embittered local population toward further resistance. Moreover, the previously disparate uprisings and revolts against Russian rule were now coordinated into a larger religious war, the ghazawat, while the teachings of the Sufi order of the Naqshbandi’ya had spread through the auls of...

  13. 7 Interpreter and Administrator
    (pp. 105-117)

    In May 1836 Atarshchikov was ordered to Tiflis to be interviewed for a position as superintendent of the Karachay people. In 1836 Tiflis (in Georgian, Tbilisi, meaning “warm” in reference to its famous warm mineral springs) was still a typical Asiatic city built on the banks of the Kura River. On the right bank of the river, below the ruins of the fourth-century citadel, was the Old City, a maze of narrow winding streets of two-storied wooden houses with flat roofs, numerous windows, and wide balconies. The haphazardly built and scattered houses gave an impression of chaos, but dozens of...

  14. 8 Russian Policies and Alternatives
    (pp. 118-132)

    Semën Atarshchikov’s duties as superintendent of the Karachays did not preclude him from accompanying General Zass in his punitive raids across the frontier. During 1837–38, Atarshchikov took part in a different kind of mission—the effort to find and free from captivity the Russian military spy Baron Fedor Tornau, whom he had gotten to know in Tiflis. The emperor himself took a keen interest in Tornau’s fate and instructed the Russian authorities throughout the region to work toward his release. General Zass personally led the selected commando units across the Kuban, hoping to secure Tornau’s release, but each time...

  15. 9 The First Desertion
    (pp. 133-146)

    Fort Prochnyi Okop was founded in 1784, but by the 1830s it had long lost its military significance. Yet because of its central location the fort became the headquarters of the commander of the Kuban Fortification Line and a gathering point for Russian expeditionary forces. The fort, built at the highest point on the Kuban’s right bank and across the estuary of the Urup River, offered a great view of the plains. The six-foot-high pentagonal wall fenced in the fort’s unattractive and dilapidated structures—the barracks and depots for munitions and provisions. One exception to the fort’s crowded and unpleasing...

  16. 10 From Semën Atarshchikov to Hajret Muhammed
    (pp. 147-163)

    In November 1842 Semën Atarshchikov received his final orders to depart for Finland. He collected his travel money—a large sum needed for the long journey—and then, to everyone’s great surprise, deserted once again. He must have fully realized the consequences of his decision: there would be no second pardon from St. Petersburg and no return this time. The die was cast. Semën Atarshchikov had resolved to end his life as a military officer and Christian subject of the Russian emperor and create a new life for himself among the highlanders.

    Atarshchikov’s decision to desert took place in the...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 164-172)

    Two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the North Caucasus remains a violent and volatile region and poses the most serious threat to the political stability of the Russian Federation. The pro-Russian ruling elites of the region’s autonomous republics can no longer hold power on their own, while clan and ethnic rivalries, now fused with extreme Islamic ideology and common criminality, have coalesced to form a potent anti-Russian insurgency. Day after day, news dispatches from the North Caucasus tell of ongoing violence.

    Moscow’s continuing failure to honestly address the history and legacy of conquest only exacerbates anti-Russian sentiment...

  18. Notes
    (pp. 173-186)
  19. Glossary
    (pp. 187-188)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 189-196)
  21. Index
    (pp. 197-200)