Have Caucasians Ever Been White? Russian Colonialism and the Machinery of Racialization



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Circassian activists commemorate and demand the recognition of the Genocide and Exile of 1864 on May 20, 2012 in Istanbul. / Photo by Fulya Atalay.

In an issue dedicated to decentering the U.S. epistemology of whiteness, a contribution delineating the rather surprising conflation of the terms “white” and “Caucasian” felt necessary. Keto Gorgadze describes how such a conflation came to be, as well as the processes of racialization actual Caucasians have been subjected to and continue to be subjected to by Russian imperialism.

In 1879, a soldier participating to the Russian conquest of the North Caucasus portrayed Caucasians as such: “A mountaineer (gorets), a slave to tradition, is prideful, insidious, cunning, and systematically ignoble; he is not devoid of natural mental abilities, but these abilities have been given a false direction in the environment in which they developed.” Coopted and decontextualized in the U.S. racial paradigm, the word “Caucasian” has been designating an identity of white settlers. This tradition is rooted in Johann Friedrich Blumenbach’s racial theory, which is based on skull measurements and classification. The skull of a Georgian girl, gifted to Blumenbach by Russian physician Georg Thomas Asch, became a model for whiteness in this epistemology.

While Russia started its colonial expansion in the North and South Caucasus, enabled by the racialization of the indigenous communities, Blumenbach placed Caucasian “beauty and bodily symmetry” at the apex of the racial hierarchy in his racist theory.

This would not have happened without Russia’s access to the territory and the collaboration between Europeans and Russians in their scientific and medical colonial endeavors. How has racialization of Caucasians facilitated the conquest in the 18th–19th centuries and ensured control over territories? The term “Caucasian,” having been referred to simultaneously white and non-white people in two colonial contexts, reveals a complexity of race-making strategies and allows for a decentering of the U.S. epidermal paradigm of race.

In 2022, a podcast called “No to Racism!” was released in Russian. In it, anti-racist activists and people who had experienced racialized violence shared their perspectives and strategies for resisting racism in Russia. This led to a heated debate among the activist community about which groups can be identified as racialized and non-white. One of the arguments put forward was that Caucasians cannot be considered a racialized group because the term “Caucasian” in the U.S. means “white.” Even in Russia, where people are aware of the racist killings of Caucasians, their criminalization, difficulties in renting apartments, and finding jobs because of their origins, names, and appearance, U.S. epistemology has a significant influence on the conceptualization of race.

Predominantly the light skin of Caucasians hinders shaping their experience as racialized, even though in Russia they are often called “Cherniy,” which translates to “black” and is the same word used to designate Afrodescendant people. 

On the other hand, the proliferation of literature on racism and translocal anti-racist movements has led to widespread acceptance and consolidation of the idea of race as a social construct. This was a significant shift that helped to dismantle the notion of race as a biological category that naturalizes the hierarchy between people based on physical features. However, the discourse of the social construction of race, by portraying it as something that does not exist in reality, reduces it to a set of stereotypes, representations, and prejudices. Understood as such, race functions as an epistemic concept that influences the lived experiences of racialized communities. Therefore, eliminating the construct should lead to the disappearance of injustice. Various colonial situations produce different social constructs, as illustrated by the ambivalent use of the term “Caucasian” in U.S. and Russian contexts. This ambiguity and the obvious artificiality should lead to the eradication of racial violence against actual Caucasians. Yet, it is not happening neither in Russia, nor in Western countries. 

This highlights the necessity of employing an alternative conceptualization of race that emphasizes its materiality and exposes the mechanisms of production of racialized subjects, which enables colonial control. Daniel Nemser, a researcher of colonial infrastructures in Latin America, suggested that “race itself may operate as a sort of infrastructure, a sociotechnical relation that enables the ongoing functioning of specific machineries of extraction and accumulation.” (Infrastructure of Race, 2017). In this regard, the transfer of a Georgian woman’s skull from St. Petersburg to Göttingen reveals the nature of the race-making process through the machinery of death management. 

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Data “Papa” Vanishvili woke up one day to find himself behind the barbed wire installed by Russian troops through his yard at the South Ossetia-Georgia ABL. Data Vanishvili died on March 19, 2021 at the age of 90. / Photo by Jelger Groeneveld (May 2016).

The Caucasus territory is divided into two parts—North and South Caucasus—by the mountain range. The North Caucasus is included within Russian borders, comprising federal subjects that are referred to as “republics,” a term rooted in the Soviet history of positioning the parts of former USSR as seemingly autonomous. In reality, Russia is highly centralized and these so-called federal subjects do not possess any actual autonomy. The South Caucasus is formed by Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, which became independent states after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Despite being independent, Georgia faces Russian colonial occupation of 20% of its territory (Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Armenia grapples with both the violence of Azerbaijan and Turkey’s collaboration and Russia’s political manipulations regarding military aid. The borders between these different territories in the North and South Caucasus are traceable. However, various communities reside not only within the borders of their regions, but across the entire Caucasus.

Indigenous communities of North and South Caucasus are ethnically diverse. Among them are Abkhazian, Adyghe, Armenian, Azeri, Balkar, Chechen, Circassian, Dagestani, Ingush, Kabardian, Karachay, Kartvelian, Ossetian, Talysh peoples. Some of them form their own ethnic families like Armenians, Vainakhs or Kartvelians, while others belong to broader Turkic and Persian groups. The question of ethnicity may be perplexing as it is commonly acknowledged as a cultural concept rather than a racial one. In the U.S. context, ethnicity discourse sprung from the liberal reflections on European immigration and the status of these not white enough, but still white people, and then absorbed the racial discourse for some time by equating white migrant experiences to racialized ones, which actually constituted disregard of white supremacy as a racial domination. Subsequently, the ethnic paradigm of race was rightfully criticized and the concept of ethnicity was clearly distinguished from the one of race.

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“Manner in which the Tchernomorski guard and sentinels are stationed along the banks of the river to reconnaitre the movements of Circassians, their huts being filled with smoke, in the greatest heat of summer to keep out the mosquitoes.” / Edward Daniel Clarke, Travels in various countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa (London, 1813).

Ethnicity has a different nature in the context of various projects of Russian colonialism: it is intended not to distinguish “shades of whiteness,” but to create non-whiteness. People with proximity to whiteness do not have ethnicity in the eyes of Russians, or more precisely, it is not so important. The main thing is that they are “close” to Russians (white people), which is why they have been trying to assimilate other Slavic groups into a broad Russian identity. Emphasizing ethnicity is of key importance when it is necessary to produce a racialized subject, and this is the Caucasian case. Consolidation of a racialized body requires an initial perception of it as different and backward—darker—by the colonizer, which unfolds at the moment of invasion. Russians never considered Caucasian people to be white, regardless of ethnicity, religion, appearance, or status within the colonial system. Dmitriy Romanovskiy, a general of the Russian army and essayist, classified Caucasian ethnicities and called them “races”—Indo-European, Turkic, and Ural-Altai—while highlighting that Russians do not belong to any of them. Over time, the difference gradually turned into a solid hierarchy achieved by the objectification and controlled mobility of bodies.

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A photograph was captured at the camp of Russian troops in Kbaade (now Krasnaya Polyana) on May 21, 1864. A parade of Russian troops took place here, symbolizing the end of the Caucasian War./ Unknown photographer.

Active conquest of Caucasus by Russians started from the 1760s onwards by annexation of territories and establishing colonial administrations through fortification, imposing an imperial legal system, building schools, and forced christianization.

Medicine played a crucial role in this process by securing the presence of the Russian army and settlers on the territory, while transforming its spatiality. Georg Thomas Asch served as a physician in the General Staff of the army that invaded the Caucasus, and was therefore part of the colonial system. The skull he transmitted to Blumenbach belonged to a young Georgian woman who had been taken captive by Russian troops and subsequently died in Moscow, most likely due to a venereal disease. Nell Irvin Painter contends that “the woman whose skull gave white people a name had been a sex slave.” (The History of White People, 2010). The fact that this girl was in a vulnerable position, with the risk of becoming a sex slave, enabled the invaders to use her skull as an object of circulation, and thus of an anthropological collection in Göttingen. Focusing on this aspect instead of the orientalist and mythologized notion of “Caucasian female beauty” that oversimplifies the cultural and physical differences among indigenous communities, provides a better understanding of their racialization. Race, functioning as infrastructure itself, made it possible for this body to be replaced and trafficked.

As military actions during the conquest dragged on, infections, mass diseases, and epidemics spread more widely. The Russian administration became concerned when the diseases affected the army on a large scale, resulting in a significant reduction in its numbers and failures in military operations. This further strengthened the already rigid difference between Russians and Caucasians. Although the same diseases and epidemics could occur in both central Russia and Europe, in this situation, Caucasians were blamed for infecting Russian invaders. The supposed low level of hygiene culture among indigenous peoples, clayey soils, and hot humid climate were mentioned as the primary reasons for epidemics.

Consequently, the inherent inclination towards epidemics became associated with a specific geographical area, naturalizing the perception of the “filthy” Caucasian, who was ordered to be isolated and examined before any contact could be made. 

To “combat” epidemics, an intensified control over the indigenous population was introduced: the borderline, also known as the “quarantine guard,” was aimed at protecting Russia from “Caucasian” diseases, while facilitating the conquest. It marked a new level of death management, as it turned into an economic blockade caused by limitations on the mobility of indigenous peoples and further starvation. Hence, as a boundary for Caucasians, it rendered boundlessness for Russians. The line consisted of seventy-nine buildings for officials, guards, medical workers, and a marketer where people arriving on the territory were quarantined. This area was surrounded by a quadrangular rampart with cannons, which were “always ready to send death into the crowds of audacious mountaineers if they decided to attack,” as stated by one of the Russian officials. Travelers were then accompanied by Cossacks (units of the Russian army that usually patrolled border areas and then became settlers on Circassian land) “for protection against predators.” By “predators,” he referred to Caucasians. 

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“USSR. Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia. Main projects of the eighth and ninth five-year plans, 1972” / Source: Pan Caucasus (Twitter).

Racialization was a tool of distinguishing whose life was valuable and needed protection at all costs, and whose life was deemed redundant. Ethnic Russians were seen as a guarantee of the empire’s existence, so the preservation of it was intertwined with the protection of the special status of Russians and their lives, even in the reality of oppressions, serfdom, and exile of political outcasts. The conquest of the Caucasus was a pivotal moment in solidifying the Russian empire and maintaining its integrity. The indigenous peoples’ fierce resistance during the 18th–19th centuries fueled Russian frustration. Although they did not consider the Caucasians as their equals, the empire still saw them as a significant threat to its own integrity. General of the Russian army Alexei Ermolov, whose name still strikes fear in the memory of the Caucasian people, said: “Condescension in the eyes of Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction, and thousands of Muslims from treason.” (Walter Richmond, The Circassian Genocide, 2013). Extremely cruel murders, beheadings, rape, starvation, deportations, and burning entire villages. These strategies were presented as attempts to “cleanse” the Caucasians of their perceived savagery, and to instill the idea of Russian superiority as a steadfast axiom. 

As is the case with many other colonial contexts, the seizure of territories and the extermination of indigenous peoples were envisioned as a civilizing mission carried out for the benefit of humanity. This is a key concept for understanding strategies of racialization in Russian colonialism. The preservation of differences was always accompanied by a compulsion to russify, as this guaranteed Russian domination. Caucasians were expected to despise their appearance, culture, language, customs, and religion, and continually strive to become more like Russians, including changing their names and surnames. The genocide of the Circassians has never been recognized by Russia, and any mention of it causes a storm of indignation. This is because recognition of these crimes undermines the construction of modern Russia as an empire, where white Russians bring peace and enlightenment to all. This would compromise the idea of the empire, which further leads to questioning the integrity of Russia itself.

From the conquest in the 18th–19th centuries, throughout the Bolsheviks’ restoration of empire at the beginning of the 20th century to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the consequential attempts to rebuild it, the racialization of Caucasians occurs through the naturalization of aggression and, consequently, danger.

The entire space of the Caucasus has been described as a zone of calamity and lawlessness.

Ascribing these features to the territory legitimizes the employment of the most aggressive methods of control. This has been facilitated by the trope of the white captive, which is integral to the entire history of cultural reflection on the colonization of the Caucasus: from the works of Pushkin and Tolstoy to the famous film War by the praised Russian director Alexei Balabanov, which was released internationally in 2001, at the peak of the Second War in Chechnya. Despite the differences, in all three cases, the Russian invader appears to be a victim of vicious Caucasians, marking the potential future of Russia, unless applying the most brutal tactics in the conquest. Again, the issue of control over the circulation of bodies turns out to be essential: Russian culture demonstrated to the audience that the one who manages the value of the body, its movement, and position in space wins.

The film War begins with footage of Chechens capturing British actors and Russian men who call themselves “slaves,” which serves as an obvious hint that the Russian authorities and the international community are not tough enough on the Chechen rebels. The narrator is a young Russian soldier freed from captivity. Throughout the film, in their conversations, Chechens constantly express their desire to move to Moscow, that they are eager to send their children to study there, that some of them have a restaurant business there—all this was meant to sow panic among Russian society. If we are not cruel to the “Cherniye”—that is how the Chechens are called in the film—they will flood regions of Russia. Drawing on this, it is not the Russians and the British who should be in captivity, in prison or solitary confinement, but the Chechens. When a Russian soldier and British actor return to Chechnya to redeem the latter’s fiancé for several million pounds, they defiantly shoot the Chechen woman and throw her down a mountain into the river. As a child, I saw this film many times. It was regularly shown on TV to affirm the public perception of the war: Russia was bringing order to the ever-raging Caucasus and fighting terrorism for the placid existence and prosperity of white people. The peace-making narrative has been used as a tool of colonial subjugation. 

Two ways of exercising colonial control are implemented precisely out of the described racialization of Caucasians—policies of incarceration and migration, which are linked to each other.

People living in the republics of the North Caucasus are most often prosecuted under the harshest criminal charges—the so-called “terrorist articles,” which allow the police and other secret services to commit particularly brutal violence against people. Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria are regions where people are regularly accused of terrorism, with up to 700 criminal cases every six months in each republic. Torture is the backbone in the fabrication of these cases. They are used even in the preliminary investigation stage to force confessions out of people. Caucasians regularly die in prisons from beatings and other forms of torture, to which they are subjected more often than other prisoners. In 2017, after the death of a Chechen prisoner, his former inmate said, “Since 2003, Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingushs, and other Caucasians were taken from our camp and other prisons to colony number 16. It is a tuberculosis zone. […] They have been infected, of course, and are leaving this world.” Incarceration for Caucasians is, to put in words of José Rubio, a Chicano inmate from Brownsville cited by Alan Eladio Gómez, “death on the installment plan.” (“Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972,” 2006). 

Thus, entire indigenous communities of the Caucasus are criminalized on some of the most serious criminal charges, making it completely impossible for them to organize politically and resist colonial violence. Do we hear as much about their detention conditions as we do about what Russian white oppositionist Alexei Navalny faces in prison? In his case, torture is perceived as something extraordinary, and reconstitutions of his confinement cell are erected in Berlin and Paris. Racialization, which subjects colonized communities to an “endless war”—which in fact means “endless death”—enables this state by naturalizing it. The notion of “life” is not reserved for Caucasians, as their region is viewed as being intrinsically linked with violence, stemming from “savage mountaineers” who have failed to be civilized. 

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The abandonment of the village by the mountaineers as the Russian troops approached by Pyotr Nikolayevich Gruzinsky (1872).

The connection between racialization and proximity to death is fully revealed in the policies of European states toward Caucasians seeking political asylum or refugee status. A large number of people of North Caucasian ethnicities, particularly from Dagestan, Chechnya, and Ingushetia, are on preventive police registers as prone to “terrorism” or on lists of extremists. Russia submits requests to extradite these people as suspected collaborators with “armed formations,” to which European states respond positively and deport people to a knowingly dangerous environment in which they are subjected to torture and extrajudicial executions. In 2020, France not only deported a 19-year-old man who later died in Chechnya but also provided confidential information about the organizations and people who had helped him. At the same time, a number of white Russians are put on lists of extremists due to the tightening of dictatorial policies, but in this case, European states and media identify this as an act of political repression and would never extradite them to Russia.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the imperial sentiments in Russia have been skyrocketing. It is not a coincidence that Alexei Balabanov’s works became widely exploited in war-justifying propaganda. By portraying Russia as a problematic yet sacred Christian place, he drew a clear racial distinction between “white” and “black.” His most renowned film, Brother (1997), features a bus dialog between a Russian man and two Caucasians whom he forces to pay the fare at gunpoint. This dialog is the answer to the question of whether Caucasians have ever been white or not:

“Brother, don’t kill. Brother…” 

“You are not my brother, black-ass louse”  ■