The Darkside of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, by Michael Mann

An Excertp from Michael Mann's “The Darkside of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing”. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Pp 98-100

More Recent Colonial Cleanings: The Caucasus and South West Africa

Colonial cleansing could not go on forever. By the 20th century native peoples in the worst-affected colonies were disappearing and the land was settled. The first new nations could forget their origins and delude themselves with their unique, pacific virtues. But late-comers like Russia, Germany and Italy committed their atrocities later. In Chapter 10 I discuss the last case, Italy in Ethiopia. Here I discuss Russia in the Caucasus and Germany in South West Africa (present-day Namibia).

As we move into the late 19th century we encounter colonial states with much more modern states and armies. Russian colonial expansion was also distinctively overland, as rule was extended across Asia. Russians moved in their millions to settle newly conquered areas, which brought another land-centred economic conflict between Russians and natives culminating in dispossession of the latter. Russians ideologically justified this in terms of the usual “civilized versus savage” dichotomy. Kazakhs and other nomads were “wasting” the lands and had to give way to superior Russian peasant agriculture. One Russian Viceroy in the Caucasus declared “gentleness, in the eyes of Asiatics, is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and thousands of Muslims from treason.”

Normal Russian policy amounted to exemplary repression: show ferocity against those who resist in order to persuade others to submit more peacefully. This was at its worst against the Chechens, doughty mountain fighters ultimately brought into (uneasy) Russian rule after savage wars in the late 1850s. But the Turkic peoples of the Western Caucasus, especially Circassians [The Circassians, who call themselves "Adyghe" and who are NOT a Turkic people (being related to the Ubykhs and Abkhazians), are indigenous to the Northwest Caucasus region. CircassianWorld], were perceived as being a greater problem since they were even less “civilized”, being splintered into tiny, fractious clans. There was much small-scale guerilla resistance, but no-one able to sign a peace treaty. They also inhabited a more strategic part of the Caucasus, next to the Ottoman Empire, they were Muslims, and the Ottomans were supporting them against Christian Russia.

The Russian military hit on the solution (described by Holmquist, 2003; Shenfield,1999; & Lieven,1998: 304-15). Desperately modernizing in order to keep pace with its European rivals, the Russian general staff was influenced by contemporary notions of “systematic”, “definitive” warfare waged against “whole peoples”. Collecting statistics on these peoples was a priority and staff officers began to suggest organized deportations based on supposedly careful calculations of numbers and logistics. When their leading light, Miliutin, became Minister of War in 1862, he promptly launched the policy. Over the next three years the army attacked and burned the principal Circassian villages, killed all those who resisted, and forced the population out. The policy was proclaimed as “depopulation, not extermination”. By 1865 only about 10% of the half million or so Circassians in the main areas of attack remained there. Overall perhaps 1.5 million Circassians were forced out and replaced with Russian settlers. Perhaps 150,000 Circassians were resettled across Russia, and 500,000 were pushed out, forcibly deported, across the border into the Ottoman Empire.

This leaves almost a million unaccounted for. Most of them probably died, perhaps amounting to  half the total Circassian population. Most deaths resulted from malnutrition and disease. Murderous cleansing was certainly intended, but not genocide. Russian troops burned villages and crops, turning out the population onto the roads knowing that many would die. Horrified Russians who protested were told it was too late. “Can anyone really turn back the calamity?” said Count Yevdokimov to one critic. The Russian authorities had committed callous warfare and exemplary repression against other troublesome and “primitive” peoples in Siberia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus. But this was worse. 

The case combined some of the worst features of  imperial exemplary repression, modern militarism, and early modern colonialism. However, it does not fit my first thesis. Though I have no real evidence on Russian settlers, the leading perpetrator seems to have been the Tsarist state, taking advice from the army high command – stably authoritarian institutions for many years. This seems a case where a distinctively modern, “rigorous” and “scientific” militarism added its own bite to murderous cleansing. We will shortly see another example of this. Yet it was a struggle over sovereignty, with an outside ally contributing to the intransigeance of the weaker side, so my theses 4 and 5 apply. I also note a consequence, which will prove influential in the next chapter. It left over half a million Circassians, Chechens and other Muslims as embittered refugees in the Ottoman Empire.”

Michael Mann (1942-) is a British-born professor of Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Visiting Research Professor at Queen's University Belfast. Mann holds dual British and U.S. citizenships. He received his B.A. in Modern History from the University of Oxford in 1963 and his D.Phil. in Sociology from the same institution in 1971.

Mann has been a professor of Sociology at UCLA since 1987; he was reader in Sociology at the London School of Economics and Political Science from 1977 to 1987. Mann was also a member of the Edvisory Editors Council of the Social Evolution & History Journal.

In 1984, Mann published "The Autonomous Power of the State: its Origins, Mechanisms, and Results," in the European Journal of Sociology. This work is the foundation for the study of the despotic and infrastructural power of the modern state. Read more...