Of Christianity, Enlightenment, and Colonialism: Russia in the North Caucasus, 1550-1800, by Michael Khodarkovsky

Michael Khodarkovsky
Loyola University Chicago, Department of History

The Journal of Modern History 71, no. 2 (1999): 394-430.

Copyright University of Chicago, acting through its Press Jun 1999

Good old Russia! So it really does belong to Europe. And I'd always thought that was just a mistake of the geographers. (ALEXANDER PUSHKIN [quoted from Susan Layton, Russian Literature and Empire: Conquest of the Caucasus from Pushkin to Tolstoy [Cambridge, 1994], p. 86) 
The notion of the Russian colonial policies in the North Caucasus before the military conquest of the region in the 1820s may be greeted with reasonable skepticism. Indeed, Russia's imperial dimensions and its colonial experience have been slow to become the object of a focused and sustained reexamination and are yet to be integrated into the larger field of colonial studies. Issues concerning the early Russian empire traditionally have been subsumed in larger studies of Russian imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of the paucity of earlier sources and the not always warranted assumption that the later centuries have greater relevance to the contemporary situation.  
Russian expansion in the Caucasus and other southern and eastern regions is commonly believed to have proceeded before the nineteenth century in a haphazard, spontaneous, and uncontrolled fashion. I intend to demonstrate in this article that, while the motives and policies of colonization varied throughout this period, the Russian government's colonization of the region was both deliberate and consistent. There is also enough evidence to suggest that Russia's experience in the Caucasus was typical of its colonial enterprise in other regions along the southern and southeastern frontier, but further discussion of Russia's colonial model will have to await another occasion.

From the beginning, Moscow's goals in the North Caucasus were primarily geopolitical. Having conquered Kazan and Astrakhan, the Russian tsar assumed the mantle of the ruler of the former Golden Horde's territories, and numerous local inhabitants from Siberia to the North Caucasus sent their representatives to seek trade and military alliances with Moscow. One such embassy arrived in 1557 from the Kabardinian Prince Temriuk, whose daughter would soon become Ivan IV's second wife. In a pattern that would change little throughout the centuries of Russia's relations with the native inhabitants, Ivan placed at Temriuk's disposal a Russian officer and a detachment of five hundred musketeers. This Russian detachment was meant to help Temriuk subdue his rivals in Kabarda and to protect him from both the Crimean khan and the shamkhal of Daghestan (the chief ruler of the Kumyks). Within a few years, Temriuk found his reliance on the Russian military indispensable and requested that a fort be built on the Terek River for his protection. Shortly thereafter, troops armed with cannons and muskets were dispatched from Astrakhan to found Fort Terk (Terki, Tersk gorodok).
It was from this northeastern corner of the North Caucasus, which today comprises northern Daghestan, that Russia's incremental expansion into the area began in the 1560s. By 1800, much of the North Caucasus's plain was within Russian imperial borders, and a continuous chain of fortifications stretching from the Caspian to the Black Sea firmly separated the plains, overwhelmed by Russian settlers, from the foothills and mountains where the native inhabitants continued to reside. 
In this article I shall discuss some aspects of the process by which the North Caucasus, a remote frontier area in the sixteenth century, was turned into a Russian imperial borderland by the late eighteenth century. In contrast to North America, where the indigenous population was "quickly subjugated, relocated and decimated,"4 the annexation of the North Caucasus was a long and arduous process. The lack of resources in Moscow, the inhospitable terrain of the barren steppes and rugged mountains, and the resistance of the local population, inspired by Muslim clergy and aided by the neighboring Islamic states, all conspired against a quick and successful conquest.

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Michael Khodarkovsky

Russian History

Early Modern and Imperial Russian History


Where Two Worlds Met: The Russian State and the Kalmyk Nomads, 1600-1771 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992)

Of Religion and Empire: Missions, Conversion and Tolerance in Tsarist Russia, editor with Robert Geraci (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001).

Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 1500-1800 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2002).

Imperial Visions, Policies and Impacts: Russian and Ottoman Empires Compared, 1500-1800 (current project)

A History of the North Caucasus (current project)

Selected Articles:

"From Frontier to Empire: The Concept of the Frontier in Russia, 16-18th Centuries," in International Conference "The Role of the Frontier in Russian History, 8-18th Centuries," Chicago, May 29-31, 1992. Russian History 19 (1992): 115-128.

"The Stepan Razin Uprising: Was It a 'Peasant War'?" Jahrb?cher f?r Geschichte Osteuropas 42, no. 1 (1994): 1-19.

"La conqu?te de l'Est" in Autrement "Les Sib?riens" 78 (1994): 64-79

"Not by Word Alone: Missionary Policies and Religious Conversion in Early Modern Russia" Comparative Studies in Society and History 38, no. 2 (1996): 267-93.

"Ignoble Savages and Unfaithful Subjects: Constructing non-Christian Identities in Early Modern Russia," in The Russian Orient: Imperial Strategies and Oriental Encounters, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), pp. 8-32.

"V korolevstve krivykh zerkal: Osnovy rossiiskoi politiki na Severnom Kavkaze do zavoevatel'nykh voin 19 veka," in Chechnya i Rossia: Obshchestva i gosudarstva (Moscow, 1999), pp. 19-39.

"Of Christianity, Enlightenment and Colonialism: Russia in the North Caucasus, 1550-1800," The Journal of Modern History 71, no. 2 (1999): 394-430.

"Russia's Colonial Frontiers in the Eighteenth Century: From the North Caucasus to Central Asia" in Extending the Borders of Russian History, Festschrift for Alfred Rieber (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002).