Ismail Bey Atazhukin (1750?-1811?)

Flavitsky K. D. "Farewell to Zara". Illustration for the poem Izmail Bey

Ismail Bey Atazhukin (Atazhuko? Hatokshoko) (1750?-1811?) was a leading Circassian (Adyghe) public figure and an opinion leader of the Circassian society of the 18th century. There are different dates suggested for his real birth and death dates. His father sent him to a Russian military school in St. Petersburg around 1750 when he was a teenager. Beginning from the 1780s, Atazhukin participated in the political life of the Tsarist Russia and Kabardia (Eastern region of Circassia). He fought in the Russian army against the Ottoman Army between 1788-1791. He entered the service of Prince G. A. Potemkin in 1788 and he took part in the Russian military campaign against the Ottoman castle Ochakov.[1]

Thanks to his success in the war field and Potemkin’s recommentation to Russian Tsarina Catherina II, he was granded a military medal. In 1790, his military skills and courage drew the attention of Alexander Suvorov. In 1791, he took part in the Russian delegation for the negotiations of the Treaty of Jessy between the Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire. The treaty confirmed the claims of the Russian Empire over Kabardia. Atazhukin was sent to Kabardia in 1794 as a special envoy to rule the Circassians there. Soon, however, he was sent to Ekaterinoslavl (modern Dnepropetrovsk) for his participation in an anti-Russian rebellion alongside his brother Adil Girey and Atazhuko Hamurzin. In 1801, after the death of Paul I, an amnesty was granted to the prisoners. Ismail Bey Atazhukin presented a request to Alexander II for mercy and to return to Kabardia. Alexander II forgave him but obliged him to spend two years in St. Petersburg first. Atazhukin was promoted to rank of colonel in St. Petersburg and was promised to be appointed as the commander of the newly emerging Kabardian Guard Squadron.[2]

During his stay in St. Petersburg, Atazhukin presented his “Notes” to the Tsarist Russian Ministry of Interior Affairs about the affairs of the Circassian Kabardian tribe. By 1804, plans for the establishment of the Kabardian Guard Squadron were cancelled and Atazhukin returned to the Caucasus. There, he was assigned to a duty in the Caucasian line (a chain of Russian fortresses along the Terek river between Mozdok and Azov) and settled in Georgievsk which was the then military and administrative center of the Russian-ruled parts of the North Caucasus. Atazhukin was again deeply involved with the political and social life of the Caucasus. His years in Georgievsk were very difficult and challenging. Brutal practices of the tsarist authorities against the Circassians such as the destruction of 200 Circassian villages in 1810 by the Russian forces made Atazhukin deeply feel the contradictions between his beliefs and the actions of his Russian superiors.[3]

After his participation in a petition to the tsar to complain about the actions of the local Russian authorities, he was jailed and lost his position and prestige in the Russian Army. He was seriously condemned by the Russian authorities. Atazhukin was killed in 1811 (1812?) under suspicious circumstances. Atazhukin was the historical prototype of Lermontov’s famous poem “Ismail Bey”. According to Lermontov’s poem, Atazhukin was allegedly killed by his cousin Roslanbek Misost(ov) Atazhukin who was also an officer in the Russian Army. Roslanbek had also served under Potemkin and he had joined the pro-independence Circassian forces after his return to the Caucasus. Roslanbek was alleged to kill Atazhukin because of Atazhukin’s popularity among the people. Nevertheless, exact details of Atazhukin’s death remained mysterious. Compatriots of Atazhukin emphasized his European style manners which accompanied his appreciation of the Circassian life style. Atazhukin kept his wife and 10-years old son in Kabardia away grom Georgievsk where he lived. He used to take off and hide his medals and military signs when he was travelling in Kabardia purportedly out of respect toward the local people. Atazhukin could speak Circassian, Russian and French. And had a salary of 300 Rubles. He was a tall, handsome, and educated man of his era.[4]

Atazhukin was a political supporter of Circassia’s unification with Russia not by violent military tactics but peaceful means. He believed in the moral and physical strength of Russia and warned the Caucasian peoples about the coming disastrous results of the Russo-Caucasian War. He had also relations with the Circassian feudals and he was advocating the humanization of the Circassian feudalism in favour of the ordinary people. In his “Notes” submitted to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, he claimed that the Russian Empire had to adopt peaceful means to win the hearts of the Circassians and make them a positive example to the other North Caucasian nations. Atazhukin openly criticized the “divide and conquer” tactic of the Russian Army practiced on the Circassians. This was causing further problems. He was also against the Caucasian line of Russian fortresses along the Caucasus as it detoriated the relations between the Circassians and the Cossacks.[5]

Atazhukin analyzed the social order of the Circassian Kabardian tribe as a feudal one that was ruled by a higher prince. A layer of nobility under the prince was composed of three sub-layers. Ordinary people were under the direct rule of the nobles. Atazhukin made a number of policy recommendations to the Russian administration regarding the management of Circassian affairs in his “Notes”. Some of his recommendations included: inclusion of the ancient traditions of the Caucasian peoples in the official legal system; granting of legal rights to all Caucasian individuals; allowing the Kabardian Circassians to return to their former agricultural and animal husbandry territorities and a proper re-arrangement of the Caucasus Line accordingly; allocation of new territories to the Kabardian Circassians if their return to their original lands was not possible; returning the relevant goods to the Kabardian Circassians’ chiefs as the original owners of these goods and no further seizure of them. Atazhukin’s recommendations, espeically those regarding the return to the former tribal territories, greatly infruated the tsarist administration.[6]

Atazhukin also made public speeches to the Circassians in Kuma (May 1805), Baksan and Chegem (June 1806). He clearly told his listeners that the Circassians had to be politically oriented towards Russia as that would be the only correct and realistic option. He said neither the Muslim Turkey which was in perfect weakness nor the disunited and war-torn Iran could protect the Circassians. On the other hand, Russia had perfected in wealth, strength, power and Russia was incredible. He added that Circassians had to focus their attention on Russia as a strong state to preserve their property peacefully. He also mentioned about his love for his country Circassia and expressed his desire to commit his all energy and knowledge to the Circassian nation. He also openly criticized all groups of the Circassian society, especially the upper classes, for the disunity and conflict among them. He blamed these problems for the socio-economic regression of Kabardia (Eastern Circassia). Atazhukin regarded national disunity as the major threat against the freedom of the Circassians. Atazhukin was emphasizing the role of public education in the transformation of the society and he was explaning Russia’s great international advance as a result of eductional development. Educational knowledge to be obtain from Russia could improve the life standards of the Circassians.[7]

However, Atazhukin’s passionate speeches could not achieve success. Russia threatened the Circassians with punitive military expeditions. He objected such plans in a petition letter he sent to the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs. He also warned the Russian administration that the segments of the Circassian society were being influenced by the anti-Russian attitudes of the religious clergy and the Ottoman Empire in his letter. The fundamental reason behind Atazhukin’s actions was a patriotic desire to save his nation as much as possible from the coming Russian colonization in the North Caucasus. However, the illusion of peaceful incorporation of the North Caucasus into the Russian Empire dramatically collided with the brutally oppressive policy of the tsarist administation in Circassia and the rest of the Caucasus. This hopeless situation was his personal tradegy and probably the reason of his mysterious death.[8]


[1] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[2] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[3] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[4] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[5] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[6] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[7] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,

[8] Измаил-Бей Атажукин (1750?-1811?), Культура КБР Website,