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The Caucasus region is a relatively compact area centered on the Caucasus Mountains. The foothills to the north and some of the steppe connected to them form a northern border, while the southern border can be defined by the extent of the Armenian plateau. The Black Sea in the west and the Caspian Sea in the east form natural boundaries in those directions. It is a territory of immense ethnic, linguistic, and national diversity, and it is currently spread over the territory of four sovereign nations.

The Caucasus region has long been known for the diversity of its peoples. Pliny the Younger in the first century, writing in his Natural History (Book VI.4.16), cited an earlier observer, Timosthenes, to the effect that three hundred different tribes with their own languages lived in the Caucasus area, and that Romans in the city of Dioscurias, encompassing land now in the Abkhaz city of Sukhumi, had employed a staff of 130 translators in order for business to be carried out.

The relative remoteness of the Caucasus from the Greek and Romans lands led to erroneous ideas concerning its location, not to mention exotic claims for its people. Some thought that the mountains extended far enough to the east that they joined with the Himalayas in India. The Caucasus was the scene of the legendary Prometheus' captivity, the goal of Jason's Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece, and the homeland of the famous and fantastic fighting women known as Amazons. When Pompey invaded the region, he was said to have wanted to see the mountain where Prometheus had been chained.

The main Caucasus range is often considered part of the boundary that separates the state of mind that is Europe from that of Asia, despite aspirations of people to the south to be a part of Europe. The highest peak is Mount Elbrus at 18,510 feet (5,642 meters), making it the highest in Europe; other prominent summits include Kazbek (Qazbegi) in Georgia at 16,558 feet (5,047 meters). The lands to the south are protected by the barrier they form against the cold northern winds, to the point that lands along the Black Sea coast, although at latitudes above 40º N, possess a subtropical climate.

To the north of the Caucasus range is the Eurasian steppe, which stretches far to the east and west; it has been the route of countless invasions. To the south are a variety of lesser mountain ranges, plateaus, and plainsan area that has also been a crossroads of military and economic inter-coursePersians from the east, various Greco-Roman states from the west, and Semitic cultures from the south have interacted with the peoples of the South Caucasus.

There are a variety of climates in this region due to the steep gradient in elevation from sea level to mountain peak. Glaciers are nestled at the tops of the mountains only a couple hundred miles from citrus and tea plantations. Fast-moving rivers course along this gradient. By and large, the mountain rivers, cutting steep gorges, for example, the Pankisi in eastern Georgia and the Kodori in Abkhazia, are not navigable, but there are rivers to the south and northsuch as the Mtkvari (Kura), which starts in Turkey and flows through Georgia and Azerbaijan to the Caspian Sea, and the Terek to the north, which flows also to the Caspianthat have been important water highways throughout human history. The mountains hold mineral resources such as coal and manganese. The Caucasus is near the oil resources of the Caspian Sea and pipelines run to, or are planned for, the north and south of the mountains.

There is great potential for promoting a prosperous tourist industry. Alpine skiing, pristine mountain lakes, white-water rafting, and the breathtaking scenery of snow-capped mountains juxtaposed with fertile plains are all available to the visitor, and the hospitality of the many peoples of the region, when they are not fighting among themselves, is the stuff of story and legend.

The region, formerly contained within the boundaries of the Soviet Union, is in the early twenty-first century spread over four nations: the Russian Federation to the north; and the three republics of the South Caucasus, also known as Transcaucasia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The Russian part of this area is divided into several ethnic jurisdictions: Adygea, Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan.

The Northwest Caucasian languages include Abkhazian, spoken in Georgia, and Abaza, Adyghe (or Circassian), and Kabardian in Russia.

Balkar-Karachay is a Turkic language, as is Kumyk of Dagestan. These languages were left behind as Turkic peoples moved along the steppes from Central Asia.

The Ossetes speak an Iranian language, as do the Judeo-Tats of Dagestan. The Tats have the added distinction of being Jews in the midst of a predominantly Muslim territory; many of them reside in Israel.

The Ingush and Chechen languages are fairly closely related and are collectively known as Vainakh languages. They might have been considered one language, but Soviet-era language policy often encouraged a fragmentation in linguistic definition. At the same time, languages that had little or no written expression before the twentieth century were given alphabets and encouragedprincipally, of course, to be instruments of communist propaganda. Such was the case with many of the languages of the Caucasus, the two major exceptions being Armenian and Georgian with alphabets dating from the fifth century.

The languages of Dagestan to the southeast are divided into a long list of small groups, including Aghul, Akhvakh, Andi, Archi, Avar, Bagvalal, Bezhta, Botlikh, Chamalal, Dargwa, Dido, Ghodoberi, Hinukh, Hunzib, Karata, Khvarshi, Lak, Lezgi, Rutul, Tabassaran, Tindi, and Tsakhur.

Georgia is also divided by the ethnic autonomies of Abkhazia, Ajra, and South Ossetia; and a number of Georgian and other ethnicities reside in the mountainous regions: the Svanetians to the west, speaking a Kartvelian language related to Georgian; the Khevsurs to the west, speaking a dialect of Georgian; Bats, a small group speaking a Vainakh tongue related to Chechen and Ingush; and the Khists, who are related to the Chechens and who occupy the Pankisi Gorge.

The ethnic and linguistic diversity described by Timosthenes and Pliny in antiquity, continues to be a fact of life in the Caucasus. It is a source of wonder, but also of conflict, as boundaries have continued slowly to shift back and forth over the millennia, but with a greater frequency in the past two centuries, as the Russian Empire appeared to claim this territory as its own. The spread of Russia southward was not always by military means, and in the case of the Caucasus, the military was preceded by the gradual migration of Cossacks, except along the Caspian coast, where Peter the Great led incursion early in the eighteenth century. Their collective societies lived at the edge of Russian territory and its legalities; in the eighteenth century they began to come into closer contact with the peoples of the Caucasus. Occasional violent conflict turned eventually into organized warfare.

The wars in the Caucasus throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to defy any logical reference to a benefit that the Russians may have gained from holding on to the land. The great authors of nineteenth-century Russia have left a vast collection of poetry, short stories, and novels that have the ambiguous heroics of war in the Caucasus as part of their plot. One of the most famous is Leo Tolstoy's novella Hadji Murad, set in the central Caucasus. Its prologue, in which the narrator utterly destroys a beautiful yellow flower while attempting to pick it, should be required reading for any who study the Caucasus.

Some of the conflict between Russia and the natives of the Caucasus has traditionally been defined across confessional lines. The North Caucasian peoples were converted to Islam, although some, such as the Abkhaz, have been less intense in their assimilation of that faith. The wars in the nineteenth century came to have religious meaning for both sides, especially with the leadership of the Imam Shamil, from the Avar people of Daghestan, who led the Chechens and others until his capture in 1856. His defeat, and Russia's eventual "pacification" of the region, was followed by a massive migration, not altogether voluntary, of North Caucasian peoples to the Ottoman Empire. Slavs, Georgians, and others often filled the "empty spaces" left behind, adding to the potential for ethnic conflict in later times.

The chaos of Revolution in 1917 was greatly felt in the Caucasus, with Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan all experiencing short periods of independence. The North Caucasus peoples attempted to form a Confederation of Mountain Peoples. All of these, pressed by foreign intervention, as well as White and Red Russian Armies, fell to the Bolsheviks. The shifting realities of ethnic jurisdictions in the Caucasus region is its own study of nationalities policy in the Soviet Union, with the most tragic chapter being written toward the end of World War II when entire groups were forced into exile, including Ingush and Chechens, and several smaller groups. Although allowed back in the 1950s, these deportations are part of the fuel that has fed the fire of revolt and conflict in the Caucasus during the post-Soviet period.

See also: abkhazians; armenia and armenians; azerbaijan and azeris; dagestan; georgia and georgians; nationalities policies, tsarist


Baddeley, John. (1969). The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. New York: Russell and Russell.

Braund, David. (1994). Georgia in Antiquity: A History of Colchis and Transcaucasian Iberia, 550 BCAD 562. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Ethnologue Web site: <>.

Greppin, John A. C., ed. (1989). The Indigenous Languages of the Caucasus. Delmar, NY: Caravan Books.

Pipes, Richard. (1997). Formation of the Soviet Union, revised ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walsh, Warren B. (1968). Russia and the Soviet Union: A Modern History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Paul Crego

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"Caucasus." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 17 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Caucasus (kô´kəsəs), Rus. Kavkaz, region and mountain system, SE European Russia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. Armenia is not crossed by the Caucasus range but is considered part of the greater region. The mountain system extends c.750 mi (1,210 km) from the mouth of the Kuban River on the Black Sea SE to the Absheron peninsula on the Caspian Sea.


As a divide between Europe and Asia, the Caucasus has two major regions—North Caucasia and Transcaucasia. North Caucasia, in Russia and composed mainly of plain (steppe) areas, begins at the Manych Depression and rises to the south, where it runs into the main mountain range, the Caucasus Mts. This is a series of chains running northwest-southeast, including Mt. Elbrus (18,481 ft/5,633 m), the Dykh-Tau (17,050 ft/5,197 m), the Koshtan-Tau (16,850 ft/5,134 m), and Mt. Kazbek (16,541 ft/5,042 m). The Caucasus Mts. are crossed by several passes, notably the Mamison and the Daryal, and by the Georgian Military Road and the Ossetian Military Road, which connect North Caucasia with the second major section, Transcaucasia. This region includes the southern slopes of the Caucasus Mts. and the depressions that link them with the Armenian plateau. The beauty of the Caucasus is much celebrated in Russian literature, most notably in Pushkin's poem "Captive of the Caucasus," Lermontov's novel A Hero of Our Time, and Tolstoy's novels The Cossacks and Hadji Murad.

North Caucasia, part of Russia, includes the Adygey Republic, Chechnya, the Dagestan Republic, Ingushetia, the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, the Karachay-Cherkess Republic, Krasnodar Territory, North Ossetia-Alania (see Ossetia), Stavropol Territory, and parts of Kalmykia and the Rostov region. Transcaucasia includes Georgia (including Abkhazia, the Adjarian Autonomous Republic, and South Ossetia), Azerbaijan (including the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic and Nagorno-Karabakh), and Armenia.

Major cities in the Caucasus are Bakı, Yerevan, Grozny, Vladikavkaz (formerly Ordzhonikidze), Tbilisi, Krasnodar, Novorossiysk, Batumi, Ganja (formerly Kirovabad), and Kumayri (formerly Leninakan).

People and Economy

More than 40 languages are spoken by the ethnic groups of the entire region. The Ossetians, Kabards, Circassians, and Dagestanis are the major groups in North Caucasia. The Armenians, Georgians, and Azeris are the largest groups in Transcaucasia.

The Kura and Rion river valleys have traditionally been the main thoroughfares of the Caucasus. Now the Rostov-Makhachkala-Bakı RR links North Caucasia with Transcaucasia, and there is a line connecting Rostov-na-Donu and Armavir with the port of Batumi, beyond the Caucasus. In Transcaucasia the main line cuts through the center of the region from Bakı, Tbilisi, and Kutaisi, and there are lines along the Turkish border and the Caspian Sea.

Oil has been the major product in the Caucasus, with fields at Bakı, Grozny, and Maykop. There is an oil pipeline from Bakı, on the Caspian, through Tbilisi to Batumi, on the Black Sea, and pipelines from the fields at Grozny to the port of Makhachkala and to Rostov-na-Donu. Iron and steel are produced at Rustavi from the ores of Azerbaijan. Manganese is mined at Chiatura, and there are ferromanganese plants at Zestafoni. Power for these industries is produced at several large hydroelectric stations, notably at Kura.

On the mountain slopes, which are covered by pine and deciduous trees, there is stock raising. In the valleys, citrus fruits, tea, cotton, grain, and livestock are raised. Along the Black Sea coast between Anapa and Sochi there are many resorts and summer homes. Pyatigorsk and Kislovodsk are notable among the health and mineral resorts in North Caucasia.


The Caucasus figured greatly in the legends of ancient Greece; Prometheus was chained on a Caucasian mountain, and Jason and his Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece at Colchis. Persians, Khazars, Arabs, Huns, Turko-Mongols, and Russians have invaded and migrated into the Caucasus and have given the region its ethnic and linguistic complexity. The Russians assumed control in the 19th cent. after a series of wars with Persia and Turkey. The people of Georgia and Armenia, then predominantly Christian, accepted Russian hegemony as protection from Turkish persecution. In Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and the historic region of Circassia, the people were largely Muslim. They bitterly fought Russian penetration and were pacified only after the uprising led by Imam Shamyl. In World War II the invading German forces launched (July, 1942) a major drive to seize or neutralize the vast oil resources of the Caucasus. They penetrated deeply, but in Jan., 1943, the Soviets launched a winter offensive and by October had driven the Germans from the region. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, demands for smaller, ethnically based nations in the Caucasus, both in Russian North Caucasia and in the newly independent nations of Transcaucasia, have given rise to a number of disturbances and armed rebellions. Largely Muslim areas (Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan) in the region have also suffered from Muslim extremist violence; Chechnya was devastated in the 1990s as a result of civil war.

See studies by O. Bullough (2010) and T. de Waal (2010).

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Caucasus (Bolshoi Kavkaz) Mountain region in se Europe, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, extending se from the mouth of the River Kuban on the Black Sea to the Apscheron Peninsula on the Caspian Sea. The system includes two major regions: n Caucasia (steppes) and Transcaucasia. It forms a natural barrier between Asia and Europe. There are deposits of oil, iron and manganese, and cotton, fruit and cereal crops are grown. The highest peak is Mount Elbrus, 5637m (18,493ft). Length: 1210km (750mi).

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CaucasusCrassus, Halicarnassus, Lassus •tarsus •nexus, plexus, Texas •Paracelsus •census, consensus •Croesus • narcissus • Ephesus •Dionysus • colossus • Pegasus •Caucasus • petasus •excursus, thyrsus, versus

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