With the end of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, there has not been so much global attention paid to the Black Sea city since the time of the American Civil War. In the eighteen-sixties, it was hard to read the news and not see a mention of the Caucasus Mountains, made famous by Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin, and Lord Byron. These writers were among the many who extolled the beauty of the women from the region, particularly the Circassians, an indigenous group in the Caucasus. The plight of Circassian women sold into what was called white slavery—sexual slavery in Ottoman harems—led to intense interest from abolitionists across America and Europe. When Alexandre Dumas began his 1859 book, "Adventures in Caucasia,” with the declaration, "I have no doubt that my readers know of the region as well as I do,” he was probably right.
Part of the rabid attention had to do with the racial lore of Circassia and the Caucasus. The influential German physiologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach made the claim that the Caucasus was where one could locate the origins of the white race, inaugurating the term "Caucasian” for whiteness. Circassians, who were white, primeval, and supposedly close to God’s image for humankind, were cast as the most beautiful racial type. Yet Circassians were so decimated during the Caucasian War (1817-1864)—Russia’s battle to obtain access to the Black Sea—that few people today have even heard of them. Fewer still know how the region, once seen as the homeland of "whiteness,” became a divining rod for American’s own struggle with racial identity.
At the end of the Civil War, newspapers in the U.S. were focussed on the demise of Circassia as if it were a stand-in for the end of America’s Confederate South. "CIRCASSIA IS BLOTTED FROM THE MAP,” said a headline out of Newport, Rhode Island, on June 4, 1864. "The last hope of Circassia has vanished,” The Deseret News reported on July 6, 1864, "so has come the end of a brave and heroic people.” The Circassian warriors seemed to vanish. Decimated, the Circassians were regarded as an "extinct race.” To Americans, this mattered. To contemplate the history of Sochi, of Circassia, was to consider the racially complicated fate of America itself.
The battlefields of the Northwest Caucasus, particularly of Sochi—the last stand of the Caucasians against Russia—offered a clear, if distant, comparison with the outcome of the Civil War. With the leader of the Caucasus, Schamyl, referred to as the region’s Jefferson Davis, Circassia became a thinly veiled analogy for Southern Confederate striving. As reports emerged about the Circassian plight during the Civil War, the vision of mass death, suffering, and national upheaval had a special significance for a nation laying its fallen soldiers to rest. By 1865, approximately six hundred and twenty thousand soldiers had died in the American Civil War. By 1864, more than five hundred thousand Circassians had died in the last phase of the Caucasian War, in the fight against invading Russian forces. Many accounts in American newspapers described Circassian bodies being "thrown out,” cast overboard with a frequency that recalled slaving practices, and "washing on shore” on the Black Sea coast. The combat, the death toll, and the white slavery in the Circassia-connected Black Sea battle were echoes of Civil War nightmares.
The more that readers in the U.S. learned about the Caucasian War, however, the more they saw that the Caucasus was nothing like the pure-white image put forth by racial science. Nearly all of the assertions that Blumenbach had made about Caucasians—from their supposed exemplary whiteness and laudable beauty to their antiquity-rooted heritage—were contested. The storied locus of white racial purity became seen as the heterodox region it actually was: an area bound by what were, at the time, considered to be opposites—Europe and Asia, Christianity and Isla—with a plurality of racial groups nestled between the White Mountains and the southern Black Mountain.
George Kennan, an American traveller to the Caucasus in 1870, tried to explain the confusion to the American Geographical Society soon after he returned: "In thinking of the Caucasians we must remember that the Caucasian mountaineers as a whole are made up of fragments of almost every race and people in Europe and Western Asia,” he said. "How such a heterogeneous collection of the tatters, ends, and odd bits of humanity ever blended into one coherent and consistent whole I don’t know, but there they are, offering problems to ethnologists and comparative philologists which will be hard to solve.”
In September of 1864, in a time of fraught racial tensions in New York City, the consummate trickster P. T. Barnum saw a chance to capitalize on this Janus region of the Caucasus. He débuted a performer at his American Museum on Broadway, in New York City, as an "extraordinary living FEMALE SPECIMEN OF A NEW RACE from a remote corner of Circassia.” The impresario presented a pseudo-ethnographic narrative of her life, alluding to her homeland. The widely popular Circassian Beauty, as she would become known, would sit still on the museum stage with a hairstyle that looked a bit like an Afro. It was done up "in a great mass, like the boll of a ripened dandelion,” one journalist wrote, and was large enough to "just about fit a bushel basket.” More Circassian Beauties followed, and at least one was of African descent. The Circassian Beauties remained popular because they embodied the racial riddle of the Caucasus. This performance, popular from the eighteen-seventies through the turn of the century, shows how the idea of whiteness itself was a curiosity worthy of the stage.
Who could be considered Caucasian is one question, but the Caucasus’s strife had opened an even more fraught concern: What did the people from the Caucasus, now Russia’s south, actually look like? President Woodrow Wilson was concerned enough with the question that he took the time in 1919 to request "a report on the legendary beauty of the Caucasus women” from his Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and the leader of the American Mission in Georgia and Azerbaijan. What was most provocative about Wilson’s request is not that he asked to see the Caucasus women’s image but, rather, when he did. At this historical moment, Wilson was engaged in international peace negotiations, and presided over a political period when concerns over what constituted "whiteness” sheeted and stretched over the U.S. political and cultural landscape like a shroud.
When Wilson asked for his beauty report, there was a continuing sense of bewilderment about the image of the Caucasus. In 1913, for example, reports and photographs had emerged of villages in Circassia being somehow made up entirely of "Negroes.” The Russian newspaperKavkaz had published a story about the discovery of nearly five hundred "Black Russians living in the Caucasus,” to the Sukhumi district of Abkhasia, the heartland Circassia. In 1927, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky even went to Adzyubzha to discern thee origins of these black Caucasians. Five years later, Langston Hughes travelled to the southern Soviet Republics, just east of the Caucasus, and noted in his diaries that he was surprised to find himself around people who would be considered "colored” in America. He thought some were "brown as russet pears” or "dark as chocolate.”
Questions about the look of Caucasians continue today. In Russia, some now describe "peoples with Caucasian features” as "black.” During the Chechen wars in the nineteen-nineties, the darker-skinned men and women of the Caucasus were called "black” in Russia. None of this will be told in the guidebooks to Sochi. It is not uncommon to see a standard Black Sea atlas mark where the Circassians lived from 1800 until 1860 and in a map of the region after 1860 to find that they are simply gone, as if a mythical, invisible group. Yet what has endured in America is the idea of the Caucasus, the hopelessly tangled racial riddle that created the false foundation for the concept of whiteness.
Read David Remnick’s Letter from Sochi, in this week’s issue.
Sarah Lewis is the author of "The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery” and a forthcoming book about the Caucasus, the Civil War, and Frederick Douglass.
Photograph: Misha Friedman