FIRE AND SWORD IN THE CAUCASUS
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OVER THE FROSTY CAUCASUS
WHEN I left Tiflis on my way back to Europe, after a prolonged stay in Caucasia, I had hardly seen the Caucasus itself at all. I had had a glimpse of great peaks from the deck of the steamer coming from Odessa; the beautiful Tetnould had appeared to me one day while I was at Kutais ; and once or twice I had visions of the Kazbek from Tiflis. But of the real Alpine scenery I had as yet seen hardly anything, for my interest lay all with the political problems among the people of the Transcaucasian plains and valleys. So I seized the opportunity to travel home by the famous Voyenno-Gruzinskaya Doroga (the Georgian military road) rather than by the more convenient railway route viâ Baladjary. Rumours of a railway strike in European Russia had already reached Tiflis, but I hoped to cross the mountains in time to catch the train to Rostoff-on-the-Don, where I had some friends, before the movement got so far south.
The Darial Pass, or Pass of the Cross, as the Russians call it, has had an eventful history and played an important part in Caucasian affairs from
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time immemorial. The great range which divides Europe from Asia appears to be an impassable barrier of ice and snow and rock, but in reality it has often been crossed by invading armies, while the warlike, savage peoples inhabiting the fastnesses of the mountains were always a terror to the peoples of the plains both north and south. Where the central passes proved too difficult of access, the invaders crossed by the lower hills to the east or crept round along the Caspian coast. Until the XVIII. century the invasions were mostly from south to north, but with the accession of Peter the Great to the Russian throne a contrary movement began, and Russia sent expedition after expedition to the promised land of Transcaucasia, now to attack an enemy, now to “protect” a friend, but always with the same ultimate result—that of extending and consolidating her domination. Many of these expeditions crossed by the Darial Pass, and more than once were large bodies of troops defeated and annihilated by the fierce mountaineers.
Merchants and travellers used this route too, but it was always a dangerous one. There were no roads, and the fierce torrents frequently inundated the narrow valleys and made them impassable; while avalanches and landslides swallowed up whole caravans of men and animals. At one point the merchandize had to be carried on men's backs for a considerable distance. The bands of brigands were even more dangerous, and no one ventured to undertake the journey without a strong armed escort. Then there were tolls to pay to the mountain chiefs,
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and the natives who helped travellers across the bridgeless Terek demanded extortionate prices. The track was strewn with skeletons of men and horses.
When Russia came to acquire first a protectorate, and later absolute dominion over Transcaucasia, one of her first objects was to ensure the security of this passage which was the best means of communication with her newly acquired territories. First two bridges were built; then blockhouses and Cossack posts were erected to protect travellers against mauraders ; finally the great road was commenced, and built under the rule of Prince Vorontzoff and Prince Baryatinsky. The difficulties were enormous, and taxed Russian engineering skill to the utmost ; it was not until 1861 that it was opened to the public, and is one of the most magnificent pieces of road-building in the world. Until a few years ago the Georgian road remained the chief connecting link between European Russia and Tiflis. There was a constant passage to and fro of soldiers, officials, caravans of merchants, travellers of all sorts. The Russian railway system ended at Vladikavkaz, the northern terminus of the road, and the Transcaucasian railway had no connection with it. There was talk of tunnelling through the central Caucasus so as to unite Tiflis with Vladikavkaz by rail, and also of a Black Sea coast-line from Novorossiisk to Poti; but both projects were dropped on account of the immense natural difficulties. Then the Batum-Tiflis line was prolonged to Baku for the convenience of the oil industry; in the ’nineties the Vladikavkaz
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railway was extended to Petrovsk, 353 versts from Baku, and finally, in the first years of the XX. century, Petrovsk was linked with Baku, thus completing the line from Moscow to Tiflis and Batum, viâ Rostoff and Baladjary. The opening of the railway connection has diminished the traffic along the Georgian road considerably; travellers in winter, and many even in summer, prefer the Baladjary route, which is more comfortable and does not necessitate change. But the scenery is far finer on the carriage road.
The administration of the Georgian road is very good ; it is, in fact, the best institution in the Caucasus. The whole route is divided into twelve sections, of about 16 versts each. There is a postal station at the end of every section, where horses are changed and food and lodging may be obtained at fixed rates. There are two mail-coach services every day in each direction (three in summer), or one may hire a separate postal carriage. Being alone at that time I travelled by the mail-coach, which I found quite comfortable ; it is a lumbering, old-fashioned vehicle with six places—two first-class inside, three seconds in the open coupé behind the driver, which are by far the best, and one third-class perch at the back. It is harnessed to two horses for the flat or downhill stretches, but two or three more are added, one of them ridden by a small boy as postilion, for the ascents. Besides the driver, there is the “ conductor," an imposing person in a brown tcherkesska and a variety of picturesque adornments, including the inevitable kinjal and revolver; he blows a trumpet
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as a warning to other vehicles to make room for His Majesty's mails, or on entering a village.
For some hours the road follows the Batum railway as far as Mtzkhet. This unpronounceable place, now a village, was formerly the capital of Georgia, and still contains several churches and monasteries and walls of great antiquity; it is situated on a grassy ridge overlooking the Kura. I was unable to see anything of it, for the road does not pass through it. Hour after hour we toiled slowly up gentle slopes amidst cornfields, meadows, and woods, with mountains on all sides, neither very high nor very imposing. In fact, during the whole of the first day the scenery, though pleasant and bright, is somewhat tame. At Dushet, half an hour's rest for lunch; it is a pretty little town, well situated in the Aragva valley. A large detachment of troops is stationed here now, for it is the centre of the communistic agitation, and the peasants have been seizing the lands of the State and of the nobles. Again we toil up hill and down dale, through a narrow gorge, and out into a broad space beyond where two valleys meet; there on a rocky eminence commanding the passage rises the picturesque stronghold of Annanur, “ le seul sourire du Caucase” as a French writer called it. It was an important point of vantage in the Middle Ages, and was fortified by the Georgian kings. Many times it was attacked and sometimes taken; it saw the Arab invaders and witnessed the passage of Timur the Tartar. The modern village is very small, and I saw very few inhabitants save a couple of Georgian peasants on horseback and some wandering Ossets.
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Beyond Annanur the valley becomes rapidly narrower ; the daylight is going, and by the time we reach Passanaur it is quite dark. We are now 3,400 feet above the sea, and it is getting cold. Of the scenery we see nothing save the forms of steep mountains looming above us and the foaming Aragva below. Another stretch of dark road, the great mountains seeming to hold us ever more firmly within their iron grip. Then Mlety (5,000 feet), supper, and bed. This station is the largest on the whole route, and boasts of a gaudy and not overclean dining-room adorned with ugly brass candlesticks and vases full of paper flowers.
The next morning we rise before dawn and are off by six. Now begins the steepest ascent of all; we are climbing up an almost perpendicular mountainside by a wonderful zigzag road. Here and there a Georgian or Osset village clings desperately to the cliff; these hamlets look like something between beehives and heaps of stones. A few prehistoric carts and half a dozen peasants in sheepskins and rags are the only people we meet. But even the Caucasus is not free from the name-scribbling wretch, and the rocks are scrawled all over with patronymics and dates. The mountains are becoming ever grander, the vegetation more sparse, and the snow-peaks at last begin to appear. The first we sight is the Seven Brothers. At Gudaur, the highest station of all (7,200 feet), there is an observatory. Another hour of steep uplands and bare plateaux, and we are at the famous pass of the Krestovaya Gora (Mount of the Cross, 8,720 feet high). We are now on the
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threshold of Europe and Asia. An immense yawning chasm opens out before us, and great white peaks rise up on every side. We begin to descend down appalling zigzags, sometimes through tunnels built to protect the road against avalanches, but in spite of these precautions the passage is still dangerous in springtime. The landscape is one of almost terrible wildness and desolation. On the south side the approach to the Caucasus is gentle and verdant, but on the north it is forbidding and hostile.
The first station on the descent is Kobi, in an open space where four glacier-fed torrents meet and form the Terek. A wretched village, a few poor fields of corn, some tiny trees—that is all. Now Kazbek appears in all its grandeur, a splendid giant of dazzling whiteness, 16,500 feet high. Like Ararat, it is a mountain of legends, and is venerated by the natives more than any other peak in the Caucasus. Vast glaciers creep far down into the valleys, and Kazbek itself rises up from a chaos of rocks. The village at its feet is also called Kazbek, and so are half the inhabitants. One of them, Alexander Kazbek, was a distinguished man in his way, and his memory is still remembered and loved by the mountaineers. He was devoted to the Osset people who dwell in this district, and being a rich man, he gave all his life and his income to ameliorate their wretched conditions, ever pleading their cause to the Russian Government. He led the simple life of a shepherd on the mountains. He loved his Kazbek as though it were a human being, and he wrote many poems about it which are greatly appreciated wherever the Georgian
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tongue is spoken. A few years ago he died at Tiflis at the age of sixty, and his last wish was to be buried in the village churchyard facing his adored mountain.
After Kazbek the road enters the Darial gorge, the Portæ Caspiæ of the ancients. This is the gloomiest and most savage part of the whole route; immense walls of iron-grey naked rock rise up on either side of the roaring Terek, nearly 6,000 feet high. The passage is so narrow that there is only room for the river; the road had to be cut out of the rock. Solitude adds to the terror of the scene, and one encounters hardly a living being. For eight miles we are en • gulfed in this dark sepulchre. On emerging from the narrowest part we pass the ruins of a castle attributed like so many others to Queen Thamara, and a Cossack blockhouse. Balta is the last station, after quitting which we shake ourselves free of the mountains and cross a stretch of level country. About sunset we reach Vladikavkaz.
Being anxious to get to Rostoff as soon as possible, I drove to the station and interviewed the station-master on the subject of strikes ; he assured me that the line was still open and that tickets were being issued as far as Rostoff. While waiting for my train I perused the local paper—no Petersburg or Moscow sheets had arrived for days. I then read how that extraordinary strike was spreading with lightning rapidity from one end of the vast Empire to the other. One came on such items as these: “St. Petersburg. The trains on the Baltic railway have ceased running.—Tashkent. All movement on the Central Asiatic line has stopped.—Kiev. The South-Western
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railway employees have struck and the train service has ceased.—Irkutsk. The last train on the Siberian railway left yesterday, and the town is now isolated.” It showed a most wonderful unanimity and a power of organization among the revolutionists, which no one had suspected, to combine in this monster protest against the continuance of autocracy.
At 9 p.m. we start, and I am soon asleep, fondly imagining that the following day would see me on the banks of the Don. The next morning at eleven we reach Kavkazkaya, a gorgeous station, where lines branch off to Novorossiisk and Stavropol. A porter comes in and calmly informs me that I can go no further ; the delegates from Rostoff have arrived that morning and given orders that all trains north of Kavkazkaya should stop. The only course for me to follow is to retrace my steps, for this splendid station has no town or village behind it; it is a station et præterea nihil. So back I go towards Vladikavkaz in the pleasing uncertainty as to whether I may not be stranded on the wayside. A Jew from Baku comes into my compartment and informs me that if he is stranded he will go to the district authorities and insist on being given a special train or a carriage and horses, for it was his duty and his right to move on. “Why ?” I asked. “ Because I am a Jew, and as such the law forbids me to stop in the Terek province ; I am a loyal subject of the Tzar and mean to obey his laws.” However, there was no need for him to invoke his rights, for we were safely conveyed past Minerallniya Vody to Vladikavkaz, which we reached at 1 a.m.
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There I was stuck for an indefinite time with nothing to do. The wonderful view of the Caucasus rising up out of the plain, like a great wall of ice and snow, was not enough to occupy me all day, and Vladikavkaz has no other resources. Like many other Russian towns it is built on rectangular lines, the streets are broad but dirty and ill-kept; the houses are fairly well built but uninteresting ; there are a few decent hotels, and a population of some 45,000—a very mixed and very shady lot, picturesque and villainous. I have rarely seen a place more full of ruffians than the bazar, and murders and robbery were everyday occurrences. Only two days ago a band of Ingushes had come into the town, murdered several people, plundered a couple of houses, and ridden off undisturbed. The night before I arrived a band of seventy Chechens had held up a train near Grozny, murdered fifteen passengers and two guards, and made off with a large amount of booty.
Every day I went to the station to find out when communications were likely to be restored, and always received the same answer: “ No news.” Each morning a train left Vladikavkaz trying to get through, and every evening it returned, like the doves sent out of the Ark. Never did I realize my ignorance of Russian (bad) language as in those days, for I longed to swear at everything and everybody in Russia, and be understanded of the people.
But I was destined to witness more serious excitement than that caused by strikes and murders. On Tuesday, October 31st, the newsboys came out cry-
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ing “Vuisochaishy Manifest!” (Imperial Manifesto), and
on a small slip of paper I read the Magna Charta of Russian freedom. By strikes
and uprisings the workmen and intellectuals had wrested political rights from
an unwilling autocracy. Within a couple of hours a demonstration is organized.
The extremists soon get the proceedings into their own hands, and patriotic
enthusiasm is converted into a Social Democratic demonstration. The schoolboys,
who always take the lead on such occasions, are very conspicuous in the procession
parading the Alexandrovsky Prospekt. Gradually a large crowd gathers, and
the whole population turns out into the streets to discuss the great news,
and congratulate each other on being free. Red flags with the word Svoboda
(freedom) painted on them are waved, and the bands begin to play. The first
in the field is the military band, which attempts the Imperial hymn. But the
school band follows suit with the Marseillaise. A musical duel is engaged
between the two airs, recalling a similar episode in Tchaikovsky's “
1812 ” overture, where the Russian anthem eventually drowns the French
march, to symbolize Napoleon's defeat before Moscow. But at Vladikavkaz it
turns out differently. The anthem is greeted with hoots and hisses, and is
finally howled down, whereas the Marseillaise is cheered enthusiastically.
Other “subversive ” airs are sung, including that most mournful
of revolutionary songs—Rabochy Narod.
The demonstrators are for the most part extremely youthful, many of the schoolboys not being more than ten or twelve. There are also some genuine working
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men, among whom I notice a type of revolutionary artisan such as is common throughout Europe— short, thin, wiry, nervous, pale-faced, keen-eyed, half-educated, full of ill-digested political ideas. Caucasians in native dress are there too, and a sprinkling of military and tchinovnik uniforms. Windows and balconies are crowded with spectators, some of whom wave red handkerchiefs and are cheered in return. From one balcony a solitary figure in a blue uniform is gazing sadly at the proceedings ; he is the local commandant of gendarmes, and he is doubtless reflecting that now “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” Speeches of a revolutionary character are delivered here and there, advocating not a monarchical constitution, but a democratic republic. A halt is made before a girls' school, and the virgines doctæ, on being invited to join the procession, explain that they cannot do so, as they have been locked in.
But the mild comedy was destined to have a tragic end. The first sign of trouble came the same evening, when a Jewish doctor was set upon by roughs posing as loyalists, who accused him of having insulted the Tzar. The next morning I was walking along the Alexandrovsky Prospekt, when I was startled by the sound of firing, and saw a crowd of people rushing madly down the street. In an instant the iron shutters of the shops came down with a bang and every street door was closed. The red-flag process.ion had been repeated, but had met a counter-demonstration of “ patriots” of the lowest classes, who had not read the manifesto and thought that the intellectuals were engaged in
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a conspiracy to insult the Tzar. No doubt there were people who had taken the trouble to tell them this. This procession, which carried Russian flags and portraits of the Tzar, included a number of huligani, who were only too ready to seize the chance of plundering and maltreating well-dressed persons. A collision between the two groups of demonstrators occurred, and some of the schoolboys, frightened at the menacing attitude of their opponents, fired off their revolvers. The troops on guard at the Generalny Shtab then intervened, shooting became general, and several people were killed and wounded.
Then the roughs, seeing themselves protected by the troops, fell on the schoolboys with sticks, fists, and knives, and two of them were literally torn to pieces. A student who had made an anti-monarchical speech, or was said to have done so, was dragged from his cab by some fifty hooligans and beaten to death before my eyes. As he lay dying on the pavement streaming with blood the savage brutes around him yelled out “Yeshtcho!” (“Give him some more!”) until they had finished him. For a short space things were quieter, the iron shutters went up again, and knots of people gathered together once more. Then more shots were fired in the bazar; this time it was an encounter between the troops and some Socialist Workmen ; the grey and black uniforms of the schoolboys had all disappeared. It was said that a bomb had been thrown at the troops from a certain Armenian house, where by a curious coincidence the police-master resided, and although it proved to be
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unfounded, the soldiers and Cossacks riddled it with bullets, broke in, and,
accompanied by the mob, sacked it from roof to cellar, smashing everything
they could not carry off. The Cossacks then proceeded to loot a number of
neighbouring shops and houses in their accustomed way.
Gradually order was restored, and in the evening a thanksgiving service for the Rescript was held in the open air. Thus was freedom celebrated at the foot of the Caucasus.
A few days later the train service was started once more, and I was able to leave for Rostoff. The whole way I heard nothing but tales of riots, massacre, and fighting in other towns, compared with which what I had witnessed at Vladikavkaz was but child's play. At Rostoff itself I saw the effects of the abominable anti-Semitic outrages, and whole streets laid in ruins. From Rostoff onwards it was everywhere the same thing. The train was crowded with Jewish refugees, from Kiev and Odessa chiefly, and ghastly indeed were the tales they told of what Christians had done. One realized the state of mind which made the Sainte Barthélemy possible. How many prayers of thankfulness must have been breathed that day as our train at last steamed into the station of Podwoloczyska, and the black and yellow posts which mark the Austrian boundary appeared!
Table of contents
Cover and pp. 1-4 | Prefatory note | Table of contents (as in the book) | List of illustrations
“Chronological table of recent events in the Caucasus”
1. The Caucasus, its peoples, and its history | 2. Eastward ho! | 3. Batum
4. Kutais and the Georgian movement | 5. The Gurian “republic” | 6. Tiflis
7. Persons and politics in the Caucasian capital
8. Armenians, Tartars, and the Russian government
9. Baku and the Armeno-Tartar feud | 10. Bloodshed and fire in the oil city
11. The land of Ararat | 12. The heart of Armenia | 13. Russia's new route to Persia
14. Nakhitchevan and the May massacres | 15. Alexandropol and Ani
16. Over the frosty Caucasus | 17. Recent events in the Caucasus | Index
Villari, Luigi. Fire and Sword in the Caucasus by Luigi Villari author
of “Russia under the Great Shadow”, “Giovanni Segantini,”
etc. London, T. F. Unwin, 1906
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