Regions such Dagestan, Chechnya and the Caucasus tend to make us think of territories that are firmly under Moscow’s control as part of the Russian Federation. However, Russian control only stretches back a few hundred years. Large parts of the region came under the Ottoman Empire and in the 16th century, the Muscovy Duchy (later known as Russia) and the Ottomans began competing with each other in the North Caucasus. This often forgotten history is the subject of Murat Yasar’s new book The North Caucasus Borderland: Between Muscovy and the Ottoman Empire, 1555-1605.
The Caucasus is a large region and in the 16th century it had a number of different rulers and administrations. This made the Caucasus attractive to different empires but, as Yasar observes, “The imperial rivalry over the North Caucasus allowed its people and politics to have broad autonomy, which, for some rulers, reached a level of independence.” In other words, the story of imperial rivalry is not one of loss of local agency; on the contrary, having two warring empires on the doorstep may have enhanced it.
It is valuable to read a book like The North Caucasus Borderland… in part due to the fact that the Caucasus remains a sensitive area for the Russian Federation. In the 1990s and early part of this century, two wars were fought between Russia and Chechen separatists. Much more recently, the Muslim-majority areas of the Caucasus have seen large scale anti-mobilisation demonstrations following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call up of young men to fight in Ukraine. There is a sense that Russia’s war in Ukraine is an imperial conflict; Putin has referred to his country as a “civilisational” rather than a “nation” state. While the latter is defined by its borders, the former transcends them. Yasar’s book offers us a snapshot of what an expanding Russian empire meant in the 16th century Caucasus.
Before Muscovy got involved in Caucasus politics, the main imperial rivalry was between the Ottomans, who claimed the western part of the area, and the Persian Safavids, who claimed the east. Full control of the region was difficult due to its varied and mountainous terrain. In the mountainous regions in the north, governance was fragmented and involved smaller tribal communities. The southern areas, which included Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, were more firmly either Ottoman or Safavid.
In the North Caucasus, the local geography produced a diverse population with fifteen spoken languages with no cognate connection to any major linguistic family. The people were from different ethnic groups, including Nogays, Kalmyks, Slavs and Circassians. The Ottoman North Caucasus was administered by an ally of the Sublime Porte in what was then Constantinople (now Istanbul), the Crimean Khanate. This was an independent state in today’s southern Ukraine that came under Ottoman protection. As Yasar argues, controlling the North Caucasus was part of the Ottoman strategy to secure the Black Sea, a vital waterway for the empire’s economic and political security.
Yasar characterises the Ottoman presence thus: “While establishing order and creating loyal vassals or administrative districts along the Black Sea shore, the Ottomans trusted the Crimean khans to handle the affairs of the broader North Caucasus and the steppes to the north.” However, in 1556, Muscovy entered the North Caucasus and this changed the dynamics of Ottoman strategy.
Ivan the Terrible, Tsar of Muscovy, sacked the Khanate of Astrakhan, whose people were subjects of the Crimean Khanate and thus the Ottomans too. The local reaction was mixed: some viewed Muscovy as a potential ally that could help in local disputes, while others just saw a threat. The new imperial power offered the people of the North Caucasus more opportunities, as they could play powers off against each other to secure more autonomy. Muscovy’s initial strategy was to co-opt local elites under its control into the imperial Russian order, giving them titles and economic opportunities. In some cases, co-opting required conversion to Orthodox Christianity to cement their allegiance to Muscovy. For the Ottomans, trying to counter Muscovy’s move was tricky, as they were constrained by their policy of allowing the Crimean Khanate free reign over its territories.
The Ottoman Empire was forced into more and more military interventions in the North Caucasus, and despite initial losses it eventually gained the upper hand. “The Ottomans managed to extend their power and influence to the whole North Caucasus borderland after repulsing two Muscovite offensives aimed at controlling Dagestan… The Muscovite attempt to break Ottoman power in the North Caucasus borderland by establishing their suzerainty over Dagestan failed and resulted in their complete retreat.”
This book is a rather niche academic work, so some degree of familiarity with the region and its history would help the reader to grasp some of its finer points. It would have been useful, I think, to extend its scope to include the 19th century, during which full Russian colonisation took place and the Ottomans retreated. That would go a long way towards providing some context to the current political situation in the region. That point notwithstanding, it is refreshing to see Non-western Empires presented in this way.