The Baltic Course

A baron in battle

By Alexander Mosyakin

In the troubled times of today, the Great Caucasus remain in the center of the world's attention. Two wars in Chechnya, conflicts between Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia and Abkhazia, and nests of international terrorism throughout these regions, all bring back memories of the Caucasian War, traditionally dated 1817-64, and the heroes and tyrants of this war - some of which had lived on Baltic soil

Baron Grigori Zass was born on April 29, 1797. He descended from an ancient Westfallen [now Germany] baronial family, members of which settled in the Baltic Curonian region around the 15th century where they are said to have truly and faithfully served the Russian throne.

A man of hot blood

«Apart from Zass, no Russian army leader caused such fear among the Circassians, and none of them either won such fame among the mountaineers as this peculiar Curonian. His distinguished strategies were equal to his fearlessness, both worth admiring. Besides, Zass also used the opportunity to study the character of the Caucasian nations»
(Andrey Rozen, Notes of a Decembrist).

Following family tradition, Grigori Zass chose a military career, and at the age of 16 he joined the Grodno Regiment as a cadet. In 1812-1813 he took part in the Russian campaign in Europe, and was awarded military decorations for bravery and heroism displayed in fierce battles. He was later promoted and after the end of the war against Napoleon, Zass continued his military service. Very soon he left for the Caucasus where a war with the region's mountain people had just broken out. Zass was later decorated again for participating in the Russian-Turkish War (1828-1829), and holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, was appointed Commander of the Mozdok Cossack Regiment.

In 1831-1832 the Mozdok Regiment executed successful military campaigns in Chechnya and Dagestan, and Zass rose to the rank of Colonel. In the summer of 1833 he was appointed Commander of the Batalpashinsk military district on the Kuban defence line. This may be considered the starting point of his warfare activities in the Caucasus, which later brought him glory and respect among the ranks of the Caucasian army, and even amongst the mountain people they fought against.

New strategy for warfare

Raids across the Caucasus, had as such gradually appeared through the 16th century, and can be explained by the fact that cattle breeding was the main subsistence for mountaineers. Pasture lands in the mountains of the Great Caucasus were rather poor, and loss of any cattle meant death for the community. This was the fundamental reason that forced Caucasian tribal leaders and their men to raid neighboring lands with the aim of robbing people of their cattle, which were usually heavily defended.

Georgian kingdoms, weakened not only by wars having lasted for centuries, but also internal unrest, led the region into an economic collapse in the 18th century, followed by Georgia annexed to the Russian Empire in 1801. The North Caucasus found themselves surrounded by the Russian Empire, living on the vital road leading from Central Russia to Georgia. Victims of the cruel moutaineer raids included people living in the Tersk and Kuba Plains. In order to protect these people, a number of fortified lines between the Black and Caspian Seas were created. Later on these fortresses and stanitsas (large Cossack villages) expanded southwards, raising discontent among the mountain people - this was also among the main reasons for starting the Caucasian War. Yet, the Russians were also convinced that they were bringing civilization to the Caucasus and were prepared to enforce it, if necessary

The Batalpashinsk military district of the Kuba defence line was considered to be one of the most dangerous. Although these military strongholds and Cossack stanitsas were strongly fortified, Circassians, Kabardians, Abazians and other mountaineer tribes, with perfect knowledge of the regions, carried out surprise raids and disappeared before Russian troops could catch them.

Commander Zass understood that in order to successfully fight against the mountaineers it was important to take initiative. Plenty men were at his disposal and soon he was to start his warfare activities by establishing a new innovative war strategy based on three main elements: thorough reconnaissance, punitive expeditions and pure cunning.

Zass and his men carefully scouted the closest vicinity and analyzed the possible routes for movement of enemy troops. For the first time in Russian army practice, Commander Zass developed a wide network of paid informers among the mountain people who reported just about everything that went on. In his military documents Zass accurately listed the names of the most notable mountaineers either killed in battle or taken prisoners and entered any developments, thus always possessed the latest information about his enemy.

By the second month of command at the Batalpashinsk military district, Zass led his first punitive expedition. After having discovered that around one hundred Circassians were hiding on the left bank of the Kuban River, Zass quickly assembled a unit of 350 Cossacks, crossed the river and marching at a rapid pace of 80 versts a day, took the enemy by surprise and defeated them. In all his expeditions Zass fought amongst the ranks of soldiers and displayed great heroism in battle.

For three consecutive years Commander Zass successfully led military operations sowing fear among the mountain people. In 1835 he was awarded the Golden Sword for bravery and was appointed Commander of the entire Kuban line. Later his offensive strategy was gradually introduced in all units of the Russian army, and is considered as one of the decisive factors influencing the outcome of the Caucasian War.


Bravery and unseen knowledge of hostile army activities were the two things that brought glory to Zass among the mountain people. He was regarded as a magi, for his tricks of supposed magic. Once when he was receiving Circassian delegates, he sent a trustworthy man to unload their guns and give the bullets to him. In conversation the host addressed his guests by asking them why they carried guns if they could not even hit a target ten feet away. Murmurs of indignant voices answered and Zass urged his guests to shoot at his hat. Taking turns, the Circassians pointed their guns and fired - the cap remained intact, while Zass conspicuously dropped bullets on the floor, one by one. Naturally, his Guests were astonished. But the amazement grew into sheer horror when Zass demonstrated his "immortality" by even acting as a live target. But his popularity with the locals did not rest on hocus-pocus alone. Once Zass released and gave money to an imprisoned Chechen, whose brother had offered his life for the liberation of his brother. Yet he struck mystical terror in the hearts of mountain fighters by his ruthless raids and every local man and woman knew his name. The name they called him was Shaitan, the local word for Satan.

The episode of Zass staging his own death is considered to be the height of his ingeniousness. The Baron spread rumors of him being seriously ill and even received mountaineers wrapped in a shroud - as if he was lying on his deathbed. While the Circassians rejoiced over the supposed death of the great sorcerer and slackened their vigilance, Zass assembled a unit of Cossacks, crossed the Belaya River and unexpectedly attacked the mountain fighters who retreated in panic, as they saw the dead Shaitan leading his troops. Under these circumstances, Zass successfully executed countless military operations against numerous villages, the inhabitants of which had raided the Cossack stanitsas.

During the course of the Caucasian War, battles between the Russian army and mountaineers were often of a severely cruel character. Commander Zass was no exception and Circassian mothers even invoked his name to scare their disobedient children.

Wise policy and retirement

In 1840 Zass took up the post of right flank Commander on the Kuban defence line, stretching westwards from stanitsa Vasyurinsk to the estuary of the Laba River and further upwards reaching Georgievsk. He then commanded such a large region that could have equaled a few European countries in size. Once again, Zass proved his excellent capabilities not only as a military leader, but also as a political strategist and founder.

Around 1843 he created the Labinsk fortification line and established a number of major stanitsas and settlements that functioned both as strongholds and economical centers. He also implemented the policy of displacing aggressive mountaineers from high mountain villages down to the plains amongst Cossack stanitsas filled with peaceful residents coming from different regions in the Russian Empire.

This friendly policy wasn't invented by Zass, but it got him new enemies, and just as before, the gesture was considered a weakness by the mountain fighters, and many resolved that the Caucasian conflict could be solved only by using military force. In disagreement Zass left military service in 1842 and retired. He later demonstrated his military talent once again in 1849, when at the request of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Russian troops took part in the warfare against Hungarian rebels. Although the talents and ruthless use of force by Zass and many other talented Russian generals secured many a military triumph to Russia, they do not seem to have solved the problem that plagues the region even today.

Apparently Zass finally ended his military activities in 1864 and was then enlisted into the military reserves of the Caucasian line. Zass died in December 1883, but until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 his relatives lived in the current territory of either Latvia or Lithuania, after which their traces disappear.

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