FIRE AND SWORD IN THE CAUCASUS
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EARLY in the afternoon we are in sight of Batum, which offers a most beautiful prospect. The magnificent bay is surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills clad with rich vegetation of the most exquisite velvety green. Northwards stretches the marshy plain of the Rion, beyond which we may catch a glimpse of the Caucasus ; to the south and east are the wild Adjar mountains, purple, blue, and pink, extending to the Turkish border and beyond, while the Anatolian mountains jut out into the sea in numerous rocky headlands, hazy and indistinct. Batum itself is on the flat and built round the harbour. Seen from the ship it is a cluster of white and brown houses alternated with masses of tropical plants. A few ships are in the port, very few, for the town has been in an almost continual state of unrest ever since March, and trade is almost dead. The bay is naturally the finest port on this coast, and the great works carried out by the Russians have made it a really fine harbour.
The territory of Batum, together with that of Kars, constitutes the last acquisitions made by Russia in the
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Caucasus, having been assigned to her at the Berlin Treaty of 1878 as some reward for her victorious, but otherwise sterile, campaign. The Russian attack on Batum during the war had failed, while the operations in European Turkey were successful; at Berlin what she had gained in the Balkans was taken from her and Batum given to her instead. But it was only handed over under certain restrictive conditions ; it was to remain a free port outside the Russian Customs barrier, and it was not to be fortified. The object of these limitations was to safeguard foreign commercial interests in the Black Sea, and to ward off the danger that Russia should make a formidable naval base on the very borders of Turkey. The importance of Batum for Russia lay in the fact that it was then the only good harbour in Transcaucasia.
The conditions imposed by the Powers were of an unnatural kind, and such as could not bear the strain of circumstances. It was unnatural that Russia should not want to fortify such an important frontier position as Batum, and it was not in the least likely that either Turkey or the other Powers would go to war with her for doing so. Consequently, in the early ’eighties Russia began to erect forts in the neighbourhood of the town, but outside the free port zone. Then other forts were built, but not armed, even within that zone. Finally, just as the Government had declared in 1870 that it no longer held itself bound by the provision of the Treaty of Paris forbidding it to have a war fleet in the Black Sea, so now it issued a note to the Powers in defiance of the Berlin Treaty, stating that Batum would be fortified,
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and that as a fortress it could not continue to be a free port. The inner forts were thereupon armed, and the town became a stronghold of the first rank, which would serve as a base of operations in case of war in the Black Sea.
My first impression on landing at Batum was that I was really in Turkey, not in Russia. There are Russian buildings no doubt, Russian inscriptions, Russian uniforms. There is the dirt and the untidiness and the unfinished appearance of things, which is a characteristic common both to Russia and Turkey. But there is something more than all this; the feeling in the air is Turkish, the strange collection of swarthy Oriental faces, the picturesque rags, and the scarlet fezzes recall the harbours of the Turkish Levant. Russian disorder consists in not finishing things, and in neglecting essentials while devoting attention to externals ; Turkish disorder does not even begin things, and neglects externals quite as much as essentials. The noise and confusion of the crowd of porters, all picturesque and all villainous-looking, are also thoroughly Turkish, for in Russia proper they manage these things better, and passengers are landed from trains or steamers more comfortably and with less fuss. The cab which conveys me to the hotel is Russian, for it is far less dilapidated than a Turkish vehicle would be, and it lias the supreme glory of rubber tires. The rubber tire is a form of civilization which has penetrated deep into the Caucasus. In the remotest towns of Transcaucasia, where clean hotels, insectless beds, decent food, schools, roads, security, and every
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other necessity or luxury of modern life are lacking, the rubber tire flourishes. My hotel plunges me again into Turkey. The French-speaking interpreter of doubtful antecedents, the gaily-coloured Oriental rugs, the bedsteads of painted iron, and the broken-down furniture might have belonged to a hostelry at Üsküb or Salonika.
The great feature of Batum is the boulevard. Every Russian town of any size has some sort of public garden or park, called the boulevard, or the Alexandrovsky Sad (Alexander Garden), or the Gorodskoy Sad (Town Garden), where the band plays and people walk up and down. Most of these places of recreation in provincial cities are dreary, ill-kept, unattractive enclosures, with untidy flowerless beds and consumptive-looking trees. But at Batum the boulevard is a thing of beauty and wonderment. It is a broad avenue flanked by acacias, palms, cactus, bananas, and other tropical plants, as well as trees of the temperate zone, and one enjoys from it a fine view of the waters of the Euxine, deep-hued as indigo, cut by ranges of fairy headlands and promontories. The gorgeous colouring, rich green, deep blue, and glowing purple, the steamy, oppressive air compose a thoroughly Eastern atmosphere. Beyond the avenue the boulevard expands into a more elaborate garden, with rare trees, strange tropical flowers, and masses of heathery, waving grasses. At the end is a little lake cut off from the open sea by a narrow strip of land. At sunset its waters are of the most exquisite shimmering gold and rose red, over which thickly-leaved trees
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bend down, casting deep shadows on the metallic surface which they seem to kiss; reeds of every form and colour rise up to meet them; tall, slender palm-trees stand out black against the sky-line in the background, and along the dividing strip of sand figures of mounted Cossacks are seen riding in single file to water their horses. The whole spectacle recalls pictures of India or of Egypt, no less brilliant in hue, no less intense in atmosphere. The air is heavy and reeking with damp. Everything is wet and clammy to the touch; steamy vapours exude from plants and pools, and one feels weary, exhausted, and lacking in energy. There ride the Cossacks, symbols of Russian power, while its deadliest enemy in the Caucasus is buzzing over the water—the fever-breeding mosquito.
The Russian Government has done much to improve the climate of Batum, to drain the marshes, to make the town healthy. Health stations have been established at Zeliony Muis and other spots above the marsh zone, and quinine has been imported by the ton, but Batum is still feverish, and all the inhabitants are sooner or later affected by the poison. By the port one breathes in all the foul smells of the East, and open sewers pursue their slimy course from the houses to the sea.
Before the Russian occupation Batum was a wretched village, inhabited chiefly by Turks, with an admixture of Greeks and other Levantines. Now it is a town of 30,000 souls, still more mixed as to race and religion. Some 10,000 Turks have remained behind, the greater part of whom are subjects of the
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Sultan; there are some 10,000 Georgians—Gurians, Mingrelians, Imeretins, Mohammedan Adjars; 7,000 Russians (chiefly soldiers and officials), and 3,000 to 5,000 Persians, Greeks, Armenians, Tartars, &c. But a large part of the population is fluctuating. Gurian peasants come into town when there is a demand for labour and obtain employment in various industries, which they abandon and return to their fields in the harvest season, or when work is slack. Few towns present such a collection of different specimens of humanity, from the swarthy Persian to the blond Russian. In all seaports of the Levant the ruffianly element is conspicuous, but Batum almost takes the palm for rascality of all descriptions. Murders, robbery, incendiarism have always been common occurrences here ; the most extraordinary stories are told of crimes committed even by persons of the upper classes, and not a square mile of the country round is really free from brigandage. To maintain order among such people is no easy task, but Russia has certainly failed in it signally. In Turkish times the disorders were due to an insufficiency of troops and police, and the inefficiency of the administration; but now the number of troops is large, for Batum is a first-class fortress with batteries in the middle of the town, the police is numerous and well armed, the administration, if corrupt and incapable, is certainly an improvement on that of Turkey; yet public order has been going steadily from bad to worse, until the recent political disturbances reduced the town and district to a state of absolute chaos—an expression to which I shall have to resort frequently.
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The prosperity of Batum is based on its position as an emporium for the export trade from the Caucasus, and on its industries. The latter are an offshoot of the Baku oil trade, and consist in a number of large case oil works. The oil is transported from Baku by rail or by means of a pipe line; and at Batum it is either shipped on to tank steamers or put into cases for export. The manufacture of these cases is a very elaborate undertaking, and constitutes an important trade. The largest works are those of Messrs. Rothschild, who, as owners of large oil-fields at Baku, are of course greatly interested in the export business. Their factory, situated outside Batum, employed several thousand men.
The workmen, as I said before, were mostly Gurians, from the district of Ozurgety, and also other groups of Georgians. Of late years the Social Democratic party has been pursuing its propaganda most actively and made many converts among the Batum working classes. Since the general state of unrest in Russia spread to the Caucasus, Batum has been a perfect hotbed of revolt. Early in the spring of 1905 the workmen of the port and of the factories went out on strike, demanding higher wages and shorter hours. But as a matter of fact, the wages in the case oil works are exceptionally high, the men earning as much as from two to three roubles a day, which is higher than the salary of any other class of workmen in Russia. Messrs. Rothschild's manager said to me, in connection with this question: “ Le caractère de cette grêve c’est qu’elle n’en est pas une.”
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Like the first St. Petersburg strikes it was purely a manifestation of the general state of unrest of the country, and the demands of the strikers had political aspirations in the background. But unlike the strikers in St. Petersburg, those of Batum at once proceeded to violent measures, and from that day to this the town has not had a moment's real quiet. When I arrived things were peaceable enough in appearance ; although the state of siege was in force there were no patrols, and hardly any policemen. Yet not a day passed without murders being committed in the streets, and no murderer was ever arrested. A terrorist committee existed, not ascribed to any definite party, but more or less connected both with the Socialists and the Social Revolutionists, recruited from the dregs of the people, which enforced its rule by means of assassination. In one of the suburbs of Batum, where a number of the most disorderly elements live, there was a man described as the real Governor of Batum, as distinguished from the official Russian Governor : his authority seemed to be considerable, and his word was obeyed as law. The methods by which the terrorists act are extremely simple. Orders will suddenly be issued that the workmen of such and such a factory must strike ; the men obey without a murmur, and any manager or employee who attempts to stop the movement is assassinated. In some cases ruffians went on board steamers in the port and ordered the dock labourers to cease work at 3 p.m., and although the ruffians in question were absolutely unauthorized no one dared disobey them. In the town itself the terror
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was so great that the least sound or appearance of disturbance caused an immediate panic.
One afternoon I was taken to see the Rothschild case oil works outside Batum. We went by petroleum launch across the bay, that way being safer than the carriage road. The works had been lying idle for months, and there was no prospect of their being started again in the near future. All the latest machinery and the most perfect plant had been set up, but was silent and useless. A guard of Cossacks was encamped in the enclosure, but even this was not considered sufficient protection, and a private guard had been organized and armed by the firm— with the full permission of the Russian Government. This concession, the manager informed me, was in itself a proof of the utter impotence of the bureaucracy, for unless they had felt their authority to have completely gone they would never have granted what even the French Government refused when, at the time of the Anarchist outrages in Paris, Baron Rothschild's life had been threatened, and he wished to form a private bodyguard for his own protection. Tall natives, mostly Adjar Mohammedans, armed with revolvers and kinjals (Caucasian knives) were standing about at all the entrances, and a group of Cossacks in very untidy déshabille were squatting on the ground playing cards outside the stable where their horses were quartered. Here and there a few workmen were seen looking after the machinery and the stores. But in spite of all these precautions no less than eighteen employees of the firm had been assassinated during the last few months, and the lives of all the
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others had been threatened and often attempted. The ex-workmen either did not wish to return to work or did not dare, for the terrorist committee would not have hesitated to burn or blow up the establishment with dynamite.
It is not easy to understand what the object of the revolutionary parties is, unless it be that of making the government of the country impossible until reforms are granted. But while the leaders, especially in the great towns of Russia proper, may have more or less precise ideas on the subject, the masses understand nothing save the fear of the terrorists, and the possibility of plunder. All discipline has become relaxed, all authority is flouted. The Government did absolutely nothing save occasionally exasperate the people by some act of monstrous stupidity or bad faith. It seemed incredible that in a town fortified like Batum, surrounded by batteries bristling with guns, and garrisoned by large bodies of troops, murder and outrage should be so easy. No attempt was made to arrest the guilty, and in fact the word seemed to have been passed that the revolutionists should be left alone.
A curious instance of the Government's attitude is afforded by the story of the vicissitudes of the local paper (the Tchernomorsky Viestnik). This organ, under the editorship of a certain M. Palm, had been thoroughly reactionary; but when the troubles broke out the revolutionists got control of it, obliged the editor to fly for his life, and supplied a staff of their own. Since then it has advocated ultra-Radical, not to say terrorist, views.
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Last year a largely attended Socialist Congress was held in the town, with the express permission of General Orbeliani, the military Governor-General, who assured the chairman that he would not be held responsible for any but his own actions and utterances. But as speeches against the Government were delivered—it was hardly to be expected that such a meeting should have been summoned for the purpose of blessing the autocracy and the bureaucracy —the said chairman was promptly arrested and kept in prison for several months. On being set at liberty he was appointed veterinary surgeon to the Tiflis municipal slaughter-house. In the meanwhile the really dangerous anarchists were undisturbed.
But behind all this movement of anarchy and terrorism there were the Georgian Nationalists of various shades, largely backed up by the aristocracy. The treatment of this class at the hands of the Russian Government has not strengthened their loyalty, and they have seized the opportunity of the general unrest to press forward their claims in favour of Georgian nationalism. They make use of the terrorists, secretly support them, and even supply funds for the work of agitation and strikes. These nobles are often outwardly on good terms with the Russian officials, and meet them as comrades and friends. The Vice-Governor said to one of the foreign consuls, while discussing some recent outrages : “If we could only arrest the few really important leaders, all the trouble would be at an end; but we have no notion where to find them.” “You must seek them,” the consul replied, “ in the club,
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among your companions at cards, or among your guests at your own dinner-table.” The only show of activity on the part of the authorities was made on the day before the Peace of Portsmouth was officially proclaimed, when its conclusion was already a certainty; the local military commandant gave orders that the forts should be put in a state of defence with a view to the possibility of a Japanese naval attack!
A further element of uncertainty is provided by the Turks and Mohammedan Adjars. The latter are of Georgian race, but like the Pomaks and other converts to Islam, they are particularly fanatical, and hate the Christian Georgians very bitterly. They took no part in the strikes, for, like the Tartars, they were anxious to be on good terms with the powers that be, but awaited the opportunity of pouring into Batum, and, with the help of the local Mohammedans, of indulging in a general massacre of Christians. The Adjars are fairly well armed, for many of them have been formed into a sort of irregular local militia or frontier police. It is said that the Government has been trying to egg them on against the Gurians and other Christians, just as it encouraged the Tartars against the Armenians in the eastern provinces, but hitherto no general Christian-Mohammedan outbreak has occurred. The Adjars offered to undertake all the work of the case oil industries and of the docks, but the authorities hesitated before assenting to a measure which would certainly have converted Batum into a shambles. There are many foreign interests in
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the town, and the Government was anxious to avoid the international complications which would certainly ensue.
At Batum I had my first interview with a Caucasian revolutionist in his own land. This was a certain Dr. V., who, although not a Georgian by birth, was thoroughly identified with the Georgian Nationalist movement; he was opposed to the Social Democrats, who disregarded the national aspirations of the Georgians. Besides being a doctor he was a prominent member of the town council, and the right-hand man of Prince Andronikoff, the mayor. Being anxious to have a talk with him, I obtained an introduction through a friend. Not that an introduction was necessary, for every one in the Caucasus is only too ready to welcome a foreigner, especially if he is a journalist or writer, for each person wishes to make his own views known to the European public ; but I was new to the country at the time, and thought that without introductions I should be regarded with suspicion. Dr. V. is a short, keen-eyed, middle-aged man, very nervous, but intelligent and enthusiastic. As he spoke no German or French, and as my Russian was very rusty, he produced an interpreter, a dark-skinned, dark-eyed Italian-Greek-Levantine-Turk, a ship-chandler by trade. He is (or was at that time) a Turkish subject, but called himself an Italian, and spoke the very oddest Italian I have ever heard. He was dressed with a sort of Levantine sham smartness, had well-oiled black hair and moustache, a flaming tie, and a diminutive silver-tipped walking-stick. Dr. V. and the inter-
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preter called on me at the hotel, and on my asking a few questions as to the revolutionary movement and aspirations, the doctor burst forth into a torrent of eloquence in which he set forth the history of Georgia from the earliest times, with a wealth of ethnological, geographical, and philosophical digressions. It was a considerable time before he reached even the Russian conquest, and doubtless if he could have stayed all night he might have come down to the present situation. But he had barely time to sketch it out in a few words without going into details, for he had another engagement. It was my first experience of that love of abstractions and theories which is so common in the Caucasus, and that habit of always going back to the dim origins of things before coming to the point. I cannot pretend that I was much illumined by my interview, for Dr. V. talked so fast and for so long without stopping that by the time he paused the poor interpreter could not remember a quarter of the discourse, and what he did remember his Italian was too uncertain to enable him to translate. In fact I understood or guessed more from Dr. V.’s Russian and from his gestures than from the worthy ship-chandler's Italian. However, it gave me an insight into the Georgian mind, and the scraps of information I gathered helped to supplement others I was to get in the course of my travels.
I spent my days at Batum pleasantly enough visiting the town and its beautiful surroundings, not omitting the Imperial estate of Chakva, where there is a large tea plantation under the management of a
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Chinaman. Every morning I had a delicious bath in the warm sea, from a very primitive bathing establishment. In the evening the military band played on the boulevard, and in spite of murders and the general feeling of unrest, and the uneasy suspicion that a bomb might burst at any moment, the people walked up and down listening to the strains of “ Carmen ” and “ II Trovatore.” They were a motley crowd of Georgians in the long tcherkesska* (a sort of frock-coat, tight at the waist, adorned with cartridge pockets) and bashlyk (a hood-turban), dark Persians in tall, black fezzes, blue-coated gendarmes, wild-looking Cossacks, handsome Adjars in tight-fitting costumes of an indigo hue, with a sprinkling of men and women in European attire, Russians or foreigners. All these divers elements were outwardly on friendly terms with each other, and quite ready to chat peaceably to-day—and to cut each other's throats to-morrow.
* The word is a Russian one, and means Circassian; although the costume was originally that of the real Circassians, it is now commonly adopted by many other Caucasian peoples.
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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