Russia And The Caucasus, by Paul B. Henze

The Historical Background 

It took the Russian Tsars more than two hundred years to conquer the Caucasus.  They began the effort at the end of the 16th century.  They did not complete it until the 1860s.  Russia's expansion into the Caucasus was classic imperialism, like the British conquest of India and the French expansion into North and Sub-Saharan Africa.  During the Soviet period ideologues developed an elaborate mythology maintaining that Russian conquest and rule of the Caucasus was somehow an entirely "anti-imperialist", "progressive" process.  "Anti-imperialist" because Russia took control of the Caucasus from the Ottoman and Persian empires.  "Progressive" because Russian conquest allegedly opened the way for the peoples of the region to develop their cultures and expand their economies according to their own desires and needs.  The culmination of this process was claimed to be the Soviet system itself, which was said to have brought brotherhood, peace, and prosperity to the region.  Today, four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it would be hard to find Caucasians who would not findthis mythology ludicrous.  Scholars in Russia have begun reevaluating it.
Of course, Russian conquest of the Caucasus did have a positive side, as colonialism did in most parts of the world.  It brought more peaceful conditions and more orderly administration.  It led to the development of infrastructure--roads, railroads, ports, and the expansion of cities.  During the last decades of the Tsarist Empire, there was considerable industrial development mostly with private capital.  The needs and desires of the people who lived in the region were always a lower priority, however, than the requirements of the distant central government.
Many Tsarist Russian officials originally hoped to Russianize all subject peoples and some would like to have converted them all to Orthodox Christianity.  But the Tsarist Government was both inefficient and susceptible to pressures from its own society.  At the very time it completed conquest of the Caucasus with the surrender of Imam Shamil in 1859 and thesubjugation of the Circassians in 1864, it had begun to launch a program of reform.  During the final decades of its existence, the Tsarist Government moderated autocracy and began to create a more open political and economic system.  Political and religious groups were able to organize and, though never complete, considerable freedom of expression was permitted.  The Caucasus benefitted from the economic upsurge that came toward the end of the 19th century when oil began to be exploited in Azerbaijan and Chechnya and Georgian ports on the Black Sea were opened to international trade.  The Revolution of 1905 brought groups seeking autonomy and even independence into the mainstream of politics in Azerbaijan and Georgia.  Revolutionary organizations were active among Armenians.  By 1914 there was reason to hope that the Russian Empire might evolve, like most other European states, into a liberal constitutional monarchy with an open society and effective parliamentary government.  
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