The Caucasus has stood at the crossroads of Asian and European cultures since the Bronze Age. The result is an extraordinary mix of races with three main linguistic groups: Caucasian, Indo-European and Turkic. The region has suffered many invasions and occupations, having been squeezed between rival Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arab, Ottoman and Russian empires.
Life Before the Russians
The earliest human traces in the Russian Caucasus date from Neolithic times, when farming was replacing hunting and gathering. The first communities evolved in Dagestan’s valleys around the same time as agriculture developed in West Asia and China, establishing this region as an early cradle of civilisation.
The first dominant state was created by the Alans, ancestors of modern Ossetians. It blossomed during the 10th century AD and, at its peak, ruled most of the northern Caucasus. The Alans were Christians, probably having been introduced to the religion by the Georgians. The Alan state was conquered by the Mongol Tatar invasions of the early 13th century with nearly all remnants destroyed by the army of Timur (Tamerlane) in 1395.
The Russians Arrive
Russian adventurers and serfs escaping their masters had already settled in the lower Terek River region when Russian military power arrived here in the late 1500s. In 1696 Peter the Great captured the Turkish stronghold of Azov and expanded imperial influence southward.
Later, Catherine the Great began the subjugation of the Caucasus in earnest, assisted by the area’s Cossacks. The campaign picked up steam in the early 1800s as the Caucasus became a strategically important region in the so-called 'Great Game' being played out between Russia and England.
In 1816 General Yermelov, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, began a ruthless campaign to pacify the mountain peoples. The predominantly Muslim populace resented this intrusion by European and Christian Russians, and bitter guerrilla-type warfare ensued, led by the Cherkess (Circassians) in the north and the legendary Dagestani leader Imam Shamil further south. Shamil united Dagestani and Chechen tribes for a 30-year fight against the Russians that ended with Shamil’s surrender in 1859.
The Circassian Massacre
One of the great tragedies of the 19th century – the complete ethnic cleansing of all Muslim peoples from the Black Sea coast and surrounding areas – is all but forgotten today and remains unacknowledged by the Russian government.
Following their surrender to the Russians in 1864, the Circassians were given a choice: leave the mountains and move to the far-off plains, or leave the country. According to 19th-century Russian historian Adolf Berzhe, some 400,000 Circassians were killed, nearly 500,000 forced to flee to Turkey, and only 80,000 permitted to settle elsewhere in Russia. Along with those who fled earlier, however, the total estimated number of expelled or slaughtered is believed to be far higher.
Today, descendants of the Circassians can be found in Turkey, Kosovo, Syria, Jordan and Israel – though you will find no trace of them in the resort towns along the Black Sea, their former ancestral homeland. Oliver Bullough's excellent book, Let Our Fame Be Great, explores the history of the region.
The Soviet Era
During the October Revolution, many tribes united to form the Mountain Republic. Independence lasted until 1921, when Soviet forces overran the Caucasus. Soviet policy was to divide and rule by creating small autonomous regions, often combining two totally different nationalities. The Muslim-dominated portion of the Caucasus was split into five autonomous regions: Dagestan, Adygeya, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia.
In 1944 Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Balkar, Chechen, Ingush and Karachay peoples to Central Asia and Siberia, on the pretext of potential collaboration with German forces. Khrushchev allowed the exiled groups to return in 1957 but without compensation or repossession of their property. The Soviet regime smothered any potential conflict caused by this injustice, but the situation changed quickly after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The sudden split of the Soviet Union triggered a spark in ethnic hostilities, as long-suppressed grudges and rivalries bubbled to the surface of the newly independent Russia. Chechnya witnessed two devastating wars (1994-96 and 1999-2000), as federal troops battled a mixture of secular separatists and Islamist fighters, with multiple atrocities committed by both sides. The violence frequently spilled over into other North Caucasus republics, including the tragic Beslan school siege in North Ossetia in 2004, Russia's worst-ever terrorist atrocity. In 2005 separatist Chechen guerrillas, led by the late warlord Shamil Basayev, launched multiple attacks on police and military posts in Kabardino-Balkaria’s capital, Nalchik.
The violence in the North Caucasus was becoming increasingly jihadist in nature. In October 2007 veteran Chechen militant Doku Umarov was named emir of the 'Caucasus Emirate', a purported Islamic state that would span much of the region. Using the North Caucasus as their base, Umarov's followers launched a series of bloody attacks on Moscow and other cities in the Russian heartland. In 2011, three tourists from Moscow were killed en route from Mineralnye Vody airport to a ski resort in the Mt Elbrus area.
Today, although the northern Caucasus remains a volatile, occasionally violent region, there are indications that the security situation is improving. Terrorist attacks are on the decline, and Umarov is widely believed to have been killed during a clash with Russian security forces in late 2013 or early 2014, although details remain hazy. One obvious indication of growing stability in the region was Russia's ability to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just a few hours from Chechnya. Despite fears the Games would be targeted by militant fighters, the Olympics passed peacefully.