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Luigi Villari

FIRE AND SWORD IN THE CAUCASUS


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CHAPTER II

EASTWARD HO !

I HAD left Russia in November, 1904; I recrossed the frontier at Alexandrovo in August, 1905. When I quitted the country nine months previously the war in the Far East was at its height, the Russian Government, although shaken and weakened in its prestige, still controlled the situation, and despotism held almost undisputed sway. But Von Plehve was no longer Minister of the Interior, and his successor, Prince Svyatopolk-Mirsky took the first tentative steps on the path of reform. Yet no one suspected that revolution was so near, and that Russia was soon to be a prey to anarchy. The next few months witnessed many startling changes. In the Far East things went from bad to worse; defeat followed defeat, the Baltic fleet had ceased to exist, and the Manchurian army was weakened by disease and demoralized by failure. At home, the various progressive groups, from the mildest constitutionalists to the reddest revolutionists were growing daily bolder and more exacting in their demands; many concessions had been extorted from an unwilling autocracy, the press enjoyed a certain measure of

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freedom, riots and strikes were becoming more and more frequent, and from one end of the Empire to the other the cry for liberty was increasing in volume and insistence.

One of the most startling aspects of the Russian situation at that time was the uprising of the subject peoples, and the revival of nationalism in Poland, in Finland, in the Caucasus. The policy of the Russifying steam-roller had failed, and the oppressed nations who had been ordered by ukaz to become Russians, whose Churches had been persecuted, whose languages had been proscribed, were now taking advantage of the weakness of the Government to claim their rights. Otherwise the conditions were somewhat quieter, and tens of thousands of Russians who had fled the country in a panic were now beginning to return. The Friedrichstrasse Station at Berlin was crowded with Russians, and on the Warsaw train one heard nearly as much Russian spoken as German. On reaching the frontier the Customs examination was of the most cursory nature; the vast piles of luggage were looked at by the douaniers as though it were no concern of theirs, and we were hurried back to our cars. In the restaurant I noticed a typical sign of the times, viz., that the attendants professed to understand no Russian, and only replied when addressed either in Polish, French, or German. A language strike on the Warsaw-Vienna railway was then in progress to protest against the old ordinance making Russian, compulsory for all State officials.

At Warsaw, the first sight to greet my eyes was a police cart bearing the body of a murdered

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gendarme. The assassinations of policemen were then matters of daily occurrence to which no one paid much attention. The streets were patrolled ceaselessly, day and night, and the famous, or infamous, Don Cossacks were most conspicuous. Otherwise Warsaw had little that was of interest to offer, so after a few days' stay I continued my eastward journey.

From Warsaw to Odessa is a 26 hours’ run by the excellent trains of the South-Western Railway. One of my travelling companions is a young landed proprietor from the government of Kherson; we have hardly exchanged half a dozen words before he plunges into politics—a thing which would certainly not have occurred at this time last year. He is an enthusiastic Liberal, and the new Constitution just promulgated by the Tzar he regards as a mere farce. “ We want something much wider than that, much more democratic. We want no ‘German’ Constitution which will leave all real power in the hands of the Tzar.” But he is also an ardent chauvinist, and although he disapproves of the war in the Far East, he is convinced that fifty years of liberalism will make Russia the first nation in the world. “ We must have an exit from the Black Sea; we shall annex Constantinople and all the Balkan States, and perhaps India. If Germany opposes us we shall destroy her.” As we travel southwards the heat increases, and the single small window admits very little air. At Odessa all is quiet, and there are hardly any visible traces of the June riots, for all the damage has been quickly repaired. Although further disturbances were not

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generally expected, a foreign resident told me that he regarded an outburst of anti-Semitism as inevitable at no distant date. The air was full of peace and rumours of peace, and the conclusion of the war was momentarily awaited.

In the evening I boarded the steamer Tsesarevich Georgii of the Russian Company, and at 7 p.m. we set sail for Batum. The journey is one of the most beautiful coasting trips in the world. The steamer is a large, comfortable, well-appointed boat with spacious cabins, a wide promenade deck, and a first-rate cuisine. We are fairly crowded as far as Yalta, for it is the height of the season in that smart watering-place. At ten the next morning after a smooth crossing we reach Sevastopol, where the famous Black Sea fleet rides at anchor. The Knyaz Potemkin is in the inner harbour, almost dismantled. No one then imagined that a second and more serious mutiny would break out so soon, which was to reduce the whole fleet to a state of impotence. Many more passengers come on board, all of them bound for Yalta, and for the next few hours the ship is quite a “congested district.” The lovely coast-line is looking its very best in the perfect summer weather, and Yalta is brilliant. The quays and public gardens are thronged with gay crowds of fashionably dressed people, the hotels and restaurants are full, smart equipages are dashing up and down, and brass bands are playing, for all the world as though wars and revolutions were forgotten. The charming villas are all occupied, and as night falls the whole scene is lit up by the blaze of myriads of electric lights, like a city of fairy-

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land. Yet even Yalta has had its bunt* not so very long ago, when houses and shops were pillaged and burnt and several people killed or wounded. But all that is long past, and for a few weeks the country was enjoying the sense of relief and the hope of better times.

At nine we steam out of the harbour, almost all the passengers having landed. We follow the Crimean coast through the night, and the next morning spend a few hours at Feodosia ; then across the bay to Novorossiisk, which we reach late at night. The weather continues perfect; the sea is as calm as a lake, and although the sun is hot, soft breezes waft across the deck and keep us cool even in the middle of the day. At night we are lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the water against the vessel’s side. The few passengers are fairly representative of Caucasian travel. There is a Russian lady of German extraction, who speaks several languages excellently, has considerable culture and a most agreeable conversation, and although she has only been out of Russia once in her life, she is in touch with the intellectual movements of Western Europe ; she proves to be the headmistress of a girl's high school at Tiflis, and is altogether a type of the best class of Russian intellectual. Then there is an Armenian lady, also from Tiflis; she, too, is a very good linguist, and has been educated in Germany. She is returning home after a short summer outing, but hopes to leave for Europe soon, for the terrible times which the Armenians of the Caucasus are passing through make her wish to

* Revolutionary outbreak.

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get away from the scenes of horror. Her cousin, a little boy of twelve, is a characteristic Armenian type, and his white sailor suit brings out the darkness of his complexion. There is a young Russian officer just returned from Manchuria, a tall, sad-faced man, bearing traces of sickness ; he is now on his way to Abbas Tuman, where he hopes that the high air and the waters will restore his shattered health. Some other officers on board (who have not been to Manchuria) object to the peace negotiations and are all for continuing the war, confident in the inevitable triumph of Russian arms. A Danish man of business, a Jewish commercial traveller on his way from Odessa to Baku, a couple of Orthodox priests, and two or three other people make up the list of cabin passengers.

In the third class there is a still more varied miscellany of types and costumes : Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Georgians, Russians, Jews, and almost every other race of the Near and Middle East are represented. The sailors, too, are of many nationalities, but the language of the ship is Russian; curiously enough one can detect in the maritime jargon a number of Italian nautical expressions, such as vira, maina, issa, bandiera, &c. ; they are survivals of the days when the sea-borne trade of the Euxine was wholly in the hands of the Genoese and Venetians, when the proud triremes of the Italian sea republics made annual voyages to Kaffa (Feodosia) and Tana (Azoff), and flourishing Italian settlements arose in all the most favoured spots of the coast.

From Novorossiisk to Batum we are almost always

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in sight of land, a voyage of some thirty-eight hours, broken by many stoppages. It is a marvellous coast, grander and more beautiful than that of the Crimea, and far wilder. Range upon range of mountains rise up from the water's edge, clothed with rich tropical vegetation and magnificent forests. Here and there, on clear days, some snowy peak of the western spurs of the Caucasus appears among the masses of cloud. This coast-land, fenced off from Europe by the giant barrier of the Caucasus, is one of the most beautiful and fertile regions of the earth's surface. But for the past forty years it has been almost deserted. A territory of some 7,350 square kilometres contains barely 65,000 inhabitants, of whom 25,000 are in the town of Novorossiisk and 8,000 in Sukhum. Before 1864 the country was populated by several hundred thousand Circassians, formerly an independent community under a vague Turkish protectorate. They were the last people to hold out against the Russians, and were famed as a most warlike, vigorous, chivalrous, and handsome race. Mohammedans by religion, although preserving many pagan practices, they fought with desperate valour against the invaders. When at last the Russian troops had occupied the whole country, the Circassians could not reconcile themselves to the new conditions, and emigrated into Turkish territory. The story of that emigration is a terrible one, for nearly half of the 400,000 Circassians died of privation; those who finally reached Turkey became one of the most turbulent elements of the population. The efforts of the Russian Government to resettle the country have proved almost fruitless,

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and malaria devastates the whole coast, which is one of the unhealthiest regions in the world. Russia conquered the country after a series of desperate struggles and sacrifices, “ but Nature,” in the words of a French traveller, “has got the upper hand over the Russians.” Some 30,000 Circassians remained behind ; a few thousand Russian peasants and officials have been planted in isolated settlements along the coast—miserable villages in the midst of nature's wealth and beauty—to die of fever. Only a small part of the territory is cultivated; a couple of Grand Dukes and some wealthy nobles have undertaken agricultural experiments with moderate success, the great monastic establishment of Novy Afon (New Athos) has cultivated a large estate, and at Gagry the Prince of Oldenburg has founded a new seaside resort, with hotels and gardens. From the steamer this place looks very beautiful and attractive, nestling amidst splendid forests coming down to the water's edge, while a deep, mysterious valley penetrates far inland ; but hitherto the venture has not been successful, for malaria and bad communications keep away intending travellers. The great coast road from Novorossiisk to Sukhum, which has been built at vast expense through virgin forests and across a thousand torrents, is always in need of repair. The absence , of bridges makes it impassable for a great part of the year, and engineers and workmen die by hundred of fever. The exiled Circassians have indeed been revenged by the fever, which keeps watch and ward over their ancient homes and deals death to the foreign intruder,

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The Mouth of the Rion

[caption] “The Land of the Golden Fleece.” The Mouth of the Rion.

 

Mingrelian Carts at Poti

[caption] Mingrelian Carts at Poti.

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On the morning of the fourth day we are off the coast of the land of Colchis, and the mountains now recede some distance from the sea. We soon reach Poti, at the mouth of the Rion (the Phasis of the ancients), which here forms a marshy estuary. Poti was fairly important before the Russian occupation of Batum, and the Transcaucasian railway had its terminus there. But the harbour was a bad one, and the large steamers only touched at Batum, so that passengers from the interior had to travel by a small steamer from the railway terminus to the Turkish port. Since 1878 trade has gradually shifted to Batum, which is now in railway connection with Tiflis, and Poti, on account of its great unhealthiness, was almost abandoned. But within the last few years the town has been reviving; it is still a God-forsaken, poisonous place, surrounded by mosquito-ridden swamps and stinking pools, but owing to the energy of the mayor, M. Nikoladze, great harbour works have been undertaken, and the marshes are being slowly drained. In a few years' time it will rival Batum, and already the improvements have been so successful that a great deal of the traffic which left Batum on account of the strikes and disorders has been transferred to Poti once more.


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

 

Acknowledgements:

Source: 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
Provided by: Aram Arkun, Krikor and Clara Zohrab Information Center
Scanned by: Karen Vrtanesyan
OCR: Karen Vrtanesyan

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The Flame of Old Fires by Pavel Shekhtman (in Russian)
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