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Popular Support and Military Inadequacy in the Transcaucasic Sphere of Strategic Dominance: a 1805 Georgian Lamentation

Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


Popular Support and Military Inadequacy in the Transcaucasic Sphere of Strategic Dominance: a 1805 Georgian Lamentation

By: Roberto A. Scattolin, Italy


Sadly neglected in modern history works, the 1804-1813 conflict is a topic which should attract further interest to any discerning researcher of military history.

The conflict started as a territorial dispute between the strong powers of the Persian Empire and Imperial Russia. Fath Ali Shah Quajar, a determined Persian monarch, had resolved giving priority to consolidating the reaches of the Qajar dynasty in the northern sphere of strategic influence.

To prop up against Russian expansionism, military priorities were established by the Shah’s high ranking officers; and they focused securing the territories near the southwestern cost of the Caspian’s sea.  That is the region of modern Azerbaijan , plus the Transcaucaus – a most mountaneous country that includes modern Georgia and Armenia . Czar Alexander I had determined to gain these areas and to put them under Russia’s political and military supremacy. The challenge was taken, and the military results which ensued were to prove bloody and damaging.

In the year 1804, Russian army contingents were quickly organized; troops were moved on the offensive, and were sent to capture the Persian stronghold of Yerevan, a mighty fortressed site – with a cannon factory and arsenal – that guarded the strategic marches with the Ottoman Empire.

At the head of the expeditionary force stood a man whose brutality and uncontrolled temper made him a distinguished and feared personality: Prince Pavel Dmitriyevich Tsitsianov. All the mobile forcess were placed under his authority. However, military circumstances were not predictable and the Georgian general was forced to withdraw his fighting units.

The Russian strategy proved to be ineffectual and  turned into failure, and it thus forced a number of Armenian notables, their families, and their retainers to seek refuge to Georgia .

Sadly disappointed at the empasse of his own military machine, which was to be considered his responsability as military commander, Tsitsianov realized that local Armenian assistance – in the khanate of Yerevan – had proved poor, almost elusive, and untrustworthy.

Basically, he thought that is was due to this emerging factor that  the Persian forces had succeeded in holding out against the Russian, and tenaciously manning their lines of fire and resistance.

In his discerning reflections Tsitsianov could not restrain from thinking that the Georgian cause (i.e. Russian) had failed to be adequately sustained by local popular power.

His analysis sensibly focused on the manifest political limitation that had to be considered the first factor of damage, and which further conditioned the Russian failure.

First, gaining the tactical objective; second, succeeding in the efforts of the operative military phase.

Dismayed at the stalemate of 1804 besieging operations, the haughty Georgian prince did not hesitate to write quite a resentful reprimand.  It was the year 1805; and the content was of much rough nature. The recipients – Melik Abraham and Yüzbashi Gabriel – were two prominent  personalities of the Armenian notables.

Because they begged the Georgian general to try again against Yerevan, his reply was savage, and uncontainable.

“Unreliable Armenians with Persian souls — You may for now eat our bread, hoping that you may purchase it. But if by next fall your people have not planted enough grain to have a surplus for sale, then be warned that by spring I shall chase you not only to Erevan but to Persia.

Georgia is not required to feed parasites. As to your request to save the Armenians of Erevan, who are dying in the hands of unbelievers: do traitors deserve protection?



Let them die like dogs; they deserve it.

Last year when I surrounded the Erevan fortress, the Armenians of Erevan, who do not deserve even a grain of pity, were in control of Narin-Kale –––––  [note: an outlying bastion]. They could have surrendered it to me but did not, and you, Yüzbashi, being the main advisor of Mohammad Khan of Erevan, were in league with them and helped the khan in his intrigues and lies against me.

Now you have fled, and God has punished you for betraying the favors of his Imperial Majesty.

Do you think I am like other generals, who do not realize that Armenians and Tatars are willing to sacrifice thousands for their own benefit?

[…] Do you, therefore, think that I can rely on the word of two yüzbashis and Persians, who promise to surrender the fortress upon the appearance of Russian forces?”

Early in 1806, to secure Russian dominion from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea, Tsitsianov organized an expedition against the Fortress of Baku(1); his army troops were conjointly supported from the sea by Zavalishin’s naval squadron.

Tsitsianov intended to capture the inner city through the Gosha Gala gates.

Under the circumstances, he requested the Khan to permit a garrison force counting some of 600 to 1,000 Russian soldiers to enter the city walled perimeter – much probably, a shrewdly thought escamotage to occupy the place.

At first, the khan seemed much benevolent welcoming the Russian, and sensibly agreed to meet Tsitsianov himself in front of the Double Fortress Gates. But the odds were heavily stacked against the military occupation.  On February 8th, while riding out to negotiate the capitulation of the fortress with the  Khan of Baku(2), Tsitsianov was treacherously assassinated. He was shot(3) by Ibrahim, the cousin of the Khan; however regrettable the incident was, his death was little lamented.

Such was the terror inspired by Tsitsianov.

And as a proof of his devotion to the Persian power (and to avoid any silent stub), the khan promptly sent his head and hands to the Shah. His mutilated body was hastly buried in front of the Shamakhy gates, the location where the murder had been committed.

Newly appointed Russian leaders were more tactful and diplomatic in their relations. Although the Armenians of Yerevan were found to be suitable allies, the chances of them liberating  themselves by a military uprising seemed a fairly remote possibility. The Persian garrison was much too strong, and to be counted as many as a 1000 to 3000 men  ready to fight. In 1808, a new attempt at the hands of General Ivan Vasilyevich Gudovich(4) failed once more.  And the Russian troops had to retreat to Georgia. Yerevan remained a militarized town, and the site of a strong presidial garrison, but the fortress started gradually losing its strategic importance.

With the death of Tsitsianov, the Caucasus was deprived of the stunning capabilities of a man of undisputed ability. Faithfully devoted to expanding Russian civilization, but in contrast to sharp military conquest, he tried to mitigate the influences and abject strictness of imperialism by respecting local traditions.

Chronological references

1801: 18 January: Emperor Paul issued a manifesto and decided to annex the kingdom of Georgia to the Russian crown; on October 12th, shortly after Paul’s death, Emperor Alexander I confirmed the annexation – and Imperial troops reached Tiflis (April 1802), because the Czar felt that maintaining a presence in the capital was critically important.

Eastern Georgia and Daghestan came under Russian protection.

Tsar Alexander I abolished the kingdom of Kartli-Kakhetia, and the heir to the Bagratid throne was forced to abdicate.

Hegemony soon turned into straight armed conquest; to secure a permanent strategic holding on Georgia , Tsitsianov exercised a classical principle of dominance to extend his control over the Azerbaijani khanates.

Shaki, Shirvan and Qarabagh choose to sign peace treaties with Russia ; and surrendered their rights to wage wars and to conduct autonomous foreign policy.

Ganja, Belokan and Ganja were instead subjected to conquest, and further incorporated into Russian Empire as uezd.

1803: Balakan is occupied by Russian troops; November 20: the Russian army moved from Tiflis against Ganja; December: Tsitsianov started the siege operations; 1804, 3 January: the fortress of Ganja is taken by Russians; Javad Khan is killed in battle; 1804: Russian forces are defeated near Zaqat; 1804: Prince Tsitsianov fought a three days battle against the Persian troops at Echmiadzin.

1805, 14 May: Tsitsianov forces the Khan of Karabagh to submit; 21 May: Shaki is annexed to the Russian Empire; summer: on the River Askerani, and near Zagam, Imperial troops succeeded defeating the Persian army, thus saving Tiflis from destruction; 25 December: Shirvan (Shamakha) is annexed to Russia .

Georgia administration

1802-1806: administration of Infantry General Prince Pavel Dmitrievich Tsitsianov; 1806-1809: administration of the General Field Marshal Count Ivan Vasilyevitch Gudovitch; 1809-1811: administration of Cavalry General Alexander Petrovitch Tormasov; 1811-1816: administration of General-Lieutenant Marquis Philip Osipovitch Paulucci, and Infantry General Nikolai Fyodorovitch Rtishtchev; 1816-1827: administration of General Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov. 

Military Synopsis  

Pavel Dmitrievich Tsitsianov belonged to an ancient Georgian family (Tsitsishvili).

His aristocratic birth, and his native origins, were of princely extraction. He was born in Moscow on September 8th, 1754.  In his early thirties (1786) he was promoted to the rank of commander in the Grenadier Regiment of St. Petersburg; he participated in the Russo-Turkish War  (1787-1791), and experienced further military campaigning in the suppression of the Polish rebellion led by Thaddeus Kosciuszko (a native of Siechnowica, Eastern Poland; February 4, 1746) in the year 1794.  In 1796, in the Persian expedition, he acted as an assistant to the commander-in-chief Valerian A. Zubov (1771-1804).  

One year later, he left active army service, only to resume it in 1802.  At that time, he was appointed infantry inspector of the Caucasus, Military Governor of Astrakhan, and commander-in-chief of Georgia .  His talents were prolific, and he succeeded concluding treaties of reciprocal friendship with some Dagestani feudal lords. In 1803 his troops conquered the fortress of Djaro-Belokan; in 1804, it was instead annexed the Gyandji Khanate.  Overcoming the political opposition of the Georgian feudal aristocracy, he achieved – – through cunning negotiation – the joying of Imeretia and Megrelia to Russian’s shere of political dominance.

In the Russo-Iranian conflict (1804-1805), the Russian warlord first repulsed Abbas-Mirza’s Persian troops offensive, and then defeated them. Shekin, Karabakh, the Shirvani Khanates and the Shurageli sultanate were annexed to Russia in 1805.  Tsitsianov’s ashes were transported to Tiflis, and buried in Sion Cathedral (1811).

Transcaucasican Geo-Political Strategies

A Prince of Georgian extraction, Tsitsianov (1754-1806) was surely one of the most distinctive figures of his time. His personality is certainly most complex, and his attitudes towards the Asian people, and the Asian sphere of strategic influences, were subjected – and conditioned – to the severe political necessities and military emergencies in that eventful time of uninterrupted geo-political incongruences, local intrigues, and endless struggles to gain the supremacy in the Transcaucasica. A Russianized Georgian, Tsitsianov became the Russian commander-in-chief in the Caucasus, and the years following the annexation of Georgia were marked by his tenacious will and relentless dynamics of conquest.

Consequentially, his military thinking resented the failures of his time. At a time (1801), after having been appointed General Commander in the Caucasian region, his strategic thinking was well defined and relied on subjective evidence. The Prince perorated that only the severe and decisive dispositions could gain over the lack of discipline and stubborness of the Asian peoples who were long past accustomed to unlimited despotic authority. It is known that he often lamented with the Emperor about the topic, and that he considered that these foreign etnikoi would have certainly distorted the equanimous applications and generous effort of the Russian administration as a display of weakness.

Tsitsianov’s ferocity singularly embodied the limitations of Russian imperialism, and his applications were quite often a methodology of sufferings and blood shedding for the local populations. His methods bore resemblance to the proficiencies of an Asian monarch, and the languages of force and fear were the distinguishing attributes of his dominance. Further, his viceroyalty effectively exhibited an uncontained spirit of belligerence which denoted high aggressiveness. 

The drive to expand Russian domination in the Transcaucasican region was exceedingly sauvage and militarized. Once the submission to the Russian ruler was gained, all the predicaments of military art ceased and the views to existing social structures became conciliatory. Although Tsitsianov wanted to be feared, he knew that his military cadres were inadequate to sustain protracted warfare and synergic efforts against the oriental enemy phalanges (i.e. Persia ).

In March 1803, Tsitsianov’s determination reached the apex of his vigorous will. Hostilities broke out between the Russian forces and the Leghi. Once more, Tsitsianov envisaged his strategic option on the mainspring of fear:



“Has one already seen on earth that a fly entered in pourparler with the eagle? To the strong is properly to order, and the weak is born to be submissive to the strong.”

Traits of his behaviour conformed to the sheer necessity, and to the unitive facetings of his stout personality; his privileged roughness of manners, and to be good and keeping faith to his word. All of these choices denoted a symbiotic parallelism with the functions of an ancient Persian satrap – honeyed words and flatteries regarding the oriental etnikoi were forgotten. The cohesive unification of Georgia to the Russian domain proved Tsitsianov’s towering capabilities, and it appeared to be a most striking political – and military – achievement early in XIXth Century.

Georgia’s extended territories had been dismembered for almost 400 years.  The region of Mingelia, the western part of the new acquisition adjoining the Black Sea, was persuaded to join the sphere of Russian strategic dominance, while another part of the Georgian kingdom – Imeretia– was forced into benevolent pourparler under Russian threat. The capital, Kutais, was consequentially exposed to the pernicious influences of the Russian power, and the circumstances proved fatal to its collapse after the 1804 submission. The conquest and annexation of the semi-independent Persian khanates was another phase of strategic importance.

Tsitsianov’s troops succeeded in capturing the flowering town of Gandja, which represented the main seat of Islamic culture in the Caucasus. To honour the graces of the Imperial tsarina Elisabeth, the wife of Alexander I, the location was renamed Yelizavetpol. The success was followed by further military pushing; that same year, another major attack was carried out on the khanate of Yerevan – Erivan. The Persian troops under the authority of Abbas Mirzan were defeated after the military confrontation at Echmiadzin, but the fortified town of Yerevan – which was considered the main strategic stronghold in the region – held out valiantly against any attack of the Russian.

This unexpected failure severely enraged Tsiastinov, but it only partially impeded his military ambitions. However, in 1805, Russian expansion continued; and the khans of Karabagh and Shekeen were forced into submission. The final part of the conquest contemplated to secure the newly acquired dominion from the Black to Caspian Sea. Because of this, Russian attention turned to Baku (1806).

Fighting the Persians

Tsitsianov was a resolute military leader; and feared nothing, no effort, and no enemy threat.  His military disputations with the Persian forces caused quite a sensation. Uncontained in his courage, he did not hesitate to promptly organize his army. In the year 1804, he organized a combat force counting some thousand soldiers; however, the equivalences on the ground did not surpass an operative asset of 4,000 men.

The Persians were led by a talented son of the Fath Ali Shah (1797-1834). Abbas Mirza (August 26, 1789 – October 25, 1833) was a Quajar crown prince of Persia . In 1798, he had been entrusted the viceroyalty of the Azerbaijan province.  Not unexpectedly, at the sudden outbreak of hostilities between Imperial Russian and Iran , the skilful Mirza was made General Commander of the Iranian expeditionary force – whose ranks and military potential were to be feared. The Iranian troops counted not less than 20,000 men; higher figures are given, but truest esteem regarding the fighting corps seems to present less objective data.

In mid-July 1804, Pavel Dmitriyevich Tsitsianov engaged his mobile troops against Abbas Mirza operative units. The disproportion between the contending forces was considerable, but the Russian performed prodigies of duty and bravery. The ratio stood 5:1 (20,000: 4,000) inclining to the Persian opponent; and that meant that one Russia had to fight and sustain the mobility of at least 5 Persoian soldiers. Years of protracted warfare ensued (1804-1813), and they brought the loss of most of Persia ’s Georgian territory.

Referring to the modalities and long term results of the military campaigns, they emphasized the straight necessity to introduce the reforms of the Quajar military establishment, and to suitably improve the military organization to conform to modern standards of western warfare. Maurice de Kotzebüe left a significant work entitled Voyage en Perse, à la suite del’Ambassade Russe, en 1817 – a French translation adapted from the original German text.  The author occasionally visited the sites of the military operations, and he properly questioned the veterans who had taken part in the campaign. To his great amazement, he thought that these instances of valour in action and the continued display of determination had not received much credit and appreciation in Russia. After tracing back with expertise the operations carried out by the Russian forces, he pointed out that the name of Tsitsianov itself was so feared in Persia that it was used as bugbear to young children.

Tsitsianov’s memory, and his military experience, also gained recognition for a reference to Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov. Since 1816, when he was granted the rank of full artillery General, Yermolov became responsible for the Imperial military policies in the Caucasus. Further appointed as commander-in-chief of the Russian troops in Georgia , and commander of the Independent Georgian Corps (21 April 1816), he treasured  Tsitsianov’s threatening behaviour and politics. He relied on the fact that Russian relations with foreign powers and Asian peoples, especially in this spurious geo-strategical asset, had their own distinctive peculiarities, and could be based neither on the principles nor on the political relations that gravitated between major European countries. Reciprocative terms of comprehension, suitable political agreement and trusting good faith, could only be regarded as a distinguishing European mark. Quite the contrary was the position with Asian peoples; only strong power and spreading fear were the pillars that could guarantee the constituted political and military order – almost paradoxically, any dominance could not entirely rely on  mere formalism, and having signed treaties on paper.

This was the thinking of that time.

And it was the cutting edge of the sword that consequentially had to be feared more than the ink.

Further reading

1. English works:

Allen, W. E. D. A History of the Georgian People, from the beginning down to the Russian conquest in the nineteenth centuey. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., London, 1932.

Atkin, Muriel. Russia and Iran , 1780 – 1828. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1980.

Baddeley, John F. The Russian conquest of the Caucasus. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1908.

Bournoutian, George, A. Russia and the Armenians of Transcaucasia, 1797-1889: A documentary Record. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Press, 1998. 

Kalistrat Salia and Katharine Vivian (trans.). History of the Georgian Nation. Paris, 1983.

Kazemzadeh, Firuz. Russian Penetration of the Caucasus. In Russian Imperialism: From Ivan the Great to the Revolution, ed. Taras Hunczak. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1974. 

Qarabaghi, Mirza Jamal Javanshir. A History of Qarabagh (Tarikh-e Qarabagh).

Transl. George A. Bournoutian. Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 1994.

Rhinelander, L. Hamilton. “Tsitsianov Prince Pavel Dmitrievitch, in Wieczynski”. Joseph L. (ed.), The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet History, vol. 40, Gulf Breeze, Academic International Press, 1985.

Swietochowski, Tadeusz. Russia and Azerbaijan : a borderland in transition. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1995.

2. French works:

Bagrationi, Vaxusti. Description géographique de la Géorgie, par le tsarévitch Wakhoucht. Publiée d’ aprés l’ original autographe par M. Brosset. St. Petersburg, 1842.

Brosset, Marie-Félicité. Histoire de la Géorgie depuis l’ antiquité jusqu’ au XIXe siècle. St. Petersburg, 1849-1858.

Heller, Michel. Histoire de la Russie et de son empire. Paris, Flammarion, 1999 (Plon, 1997, 1re éd.).

Kotzebue, de, Moritz. Voyage en Perse, à la suite de l’ Ambassade Russe, en 1817. Traduit de l’allemand par Mr. Breton Orné de gravures coloriées. Paris, Nepveu, 1819.

Tsarévitch Wakhoucht (Prince Vakusht). Description géographique de la Géorgie. L’Académie Impérial des Sciences, St. Petersbourg, 1842.

3. Russian works:

Doubrovin, N. F.. Istoria voïny i vladitchestva russkikh na Kavkaze. SPB, 1888.


(1) From the mid XVIIIth century, up to 1806, Baku was the capital of a khanate that included the Baku urbic aggregation, plus a few tens of villages. There were some some 39 settlements. 

Badkube (i.e. wind-beaten, Town of Winds) was the term referred to this independent principality. A local mint coined its own currency.

(2)Huseyngulu Khan had left the town walled perimeter to present the city’s keys to the Russian victor. It was only later a time, on October 24th, 1813, that, by the peace treaty of Gulistan (in Karabakh), Baku was attached to the Russian Empire. The treaty had been set up by Sir Gore Ouseley, diplomat, and orientalist (b. 24 June 1770, Monmouthshire, Wales ; d. 18 November 1844, Hall Barn Park, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England ), acting as political mediator; for the Persian ruling House, it was signed by Haji Mirza Abol Hasan Khan. Russian power held on Karabagh, with most part of the territories making up present day Azerbaijan .

Persia ’s claims on the Georgian provinces, and Daghestan, were abandoned; and Russia agreed to support Abbas Mirza to the succession of the Persian throne.

The Shah surrendered all his territory north of the River Aras, Baku, and naval rights on the Caspian Sea.

(3)At the moment Tsitsianov accepted the keys of the town, he, and Prince Elizbar Erstov standing next to him, were abruptly killed by two people from among the retinue. Enlivened in their spirit of victory, the citizens of Baku run out of the fortress to chop Tsitsianov’s body on the spot. Deprived of their valiant leader, the Russian soldiers were cut down to pieces and  had hastly to flee.  The Baku artillery pieces immediately cannonaded on the Imperial ships, which retreated to Sara Island – off the coast of Baku. However, on October 3rd, 1806, the troops of General Bulgakov’s captured Baku almost unopposed; Huseyngulu Khan fled to Iran , and the Baku Khanate was annexed to Russia .

(4) Count Gudovich (1741-1820) was promoted to the rank of Imperial Field Marshal after gaining a sound martial success in Armenia – his 7,000 strong contingent had routed the Turkish army of Yusuf Pasha at the battle of Arpachai (June 18).

The Pasha had succeeded to put in the field an operative force counting some 24,000 men. Worth mentioning is that, in this hard fought battle, Gudovich was severely wounded and lost an eye; the gravity of this accident severely affected his vision and taking further active command.


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