The recent turmoil in Chechnya and some surrounding areas of the Northern Caucasus have evoked new interest in the era of imam Shamil’s imamate (1834-1859), which contained areas of what is today Daghestan and Chechnya. Shamil’s role in the Great Caucasian War (1817-1864) has been reemphasized heavily since the 90s, as the imam’s person, key to understanding a pivotal period of the regional history, has been in the center of modern nationalisms of both the Daghestani ethnic groups and their neighbors, Chechens. Naturally, distinct interpretations occurred in recent years interpreting Shamil’s legacy, and of especial importance have been ongoing debates on Imam Shamil in light of some attempts of North Caucasian, particularly Chechen, separatists and/or religious extremists seeking to take up the legacy of the Shamil-led Imamate of Daghestan and Chechnya in order to legitimize their specific aims.
This essay is an attempt to bring a non-partisan interpretation of some key features of the current debates, centering on imam Shamil and his relationships with the Chechens. The analysis begins with a basic introduction dealing with the Shamil’s person, Sufi Islam of the Naqshbandiya vird (path) and the principles of the Imamate. As the title implies, the “big debate” on Shamil is embedded into an overall context of the Great Caucasian War, regarding the issue in the widest light of the Russia’s colonization of both the Northern and Southern Caucasus.
Shamil of Gimry: The third Imam
In September 1834, soon after Imam Gamzat-bek of Dagestan was killed as the victim of a blood feud, the congress of ulama (a body of the highest Muslim clerics) selected another Avar as the third imam of Dagestan. The man they chose was Shamil (1797-1871), the son of Mahomed from the highland aul of Gimry. Shamil came to symbolise an entire era of the 19th century anti-colonial wars in the Caucasian highlands. The third imam of Dagestan, and, five years later, the first imam of Chechnya, was blessed with an excellent physique – he was tall, athletic, extremely strong, and able-bodied. He received his education from Dagestan’s best theologists and Arabic teachers. According to Moshe Gammer, he was a “born leader, commander, diplomat, and politician. He repeatedly outmanoeuvred the Russians in battle, intrigues, and negotiations. Contrary to Russian propaganda, he was far from extremism and blind fanaticism.”1
At the beginning of his reign, Shamil, just like most of his predecessors, attempted to negotiate conditions for peace with Russian leaders. Highlanders were willing to accept the sovereignty of the Russian Tsar in exchange for recognition of the sharia as a valid legal system in the regions they occupied. Of course, the validity of the sharia would eliminate serfdom de jure, the entire judicial system would be in the hands of the highlanders, and the payment of taxes to the Russians, who were infidels to the Caucasians, theoretically did not come into consideration. Aware of Russia’s superiority however, Shamil agreed to discuss a mutually satisfactory compromise. But as victors over Napoleon, the Russians regarded the idea of negotiating with “savages” as something unthinkably demeaning; the Russian emperor clearly did not even consider the possibility of negotiating with highlanders. Moreover, Russian governors in the Caucasus thought of Shamil as a “villainous adventurer”. With time, however, it became evident just how extremely mistaken they had been. Over the next quarter of a century, their attitude gave them an obstinate enemy, and this was as much of a disgrace in the eyes of Europe as it was an obstruction to Russia’s expansion to the south. The then-commander of the Caucasian front, General Rosen, demanded Shamil’s immediate and unconditional surrender. When the Imam refused his ultimatum, General Rosen decided to deal with the rebels “once and for all”. Starting in 1836, the tsar’s army launched a new series of violent punitive campaigns against the auls of the insubordinate highlanders.
An essential condition for success in the battle against Russia was the effective organisation of the resistance forces. Shamil’s main objective therefore became the creation of a centralised state (the first in the history of the nations of the northeastern Caucasus), in which everything would be projected towards the achievement of this singular goal. This state entered history under the name of The Military-Theocratic State of Dagestan and Chechnya.
Islam, naqshbandiya and the principles of Shamil’s Imamate
Islam plays an indispensable role in Chechen society. For at least two centuries it has been an integral component of ethnic identification, and during critical moments in the people’s history it becomes a powerful source of social mobilisation. Among the Vaynakhs it did not start to spread until the 15th to 16th centuries, mainly from neighbouring Dagestan and Kabarda, but also under through the influence of the Crimean Tatars and Nogays. The Chechen alphabet, based on the Arabic alphabet (adjaam), originated in as early as the 16th century. Prior to this, some southern Vaynakh societies had adopted Orthodox Christianity being spread by Georgian missionaries. That is why even today structures with unusual architecture, curiously reminiscent of ancient churches in Georgia and Armenia, can be seen in remote mountainous regions of Ingushetia. For a relatively long time, however, the Chechens (just like other ethnic groups in the central and western parts of the northern Caucasus) were very superficial Muslims, whose lives were guided by original pagan customs. The social code of the highlanders did not conform to Islamic law (the sharia) or the socio-legal norms that derived from Islamic traditions, but to the unwritten customary law – the adats.
The slow dissemination of Islam in Chechnya was primarily due to the country’s nearly inaccessible mountainous terrain, which inhibited individual regions, or groups of inhabitants, from maintaining close contact with one another. During the five-hundred year history of the country’s Islamicisation, the religion entered people’s lives smoothly, absorbing the local traditions and residual pagan cults, as well as the norms of customary law, in an organic manner. This syncretic religion was then given the symptomatic name of “people’s Islam”.
The Vaynakhs did not become definitively Islamic until Mansur and his followers started promoting the religion in the 19th century. In this region, Islam in fact became the ideological basis of the wars for national liberation waged by Caucasian highlanders against Russian colonisation. Islam also became the driving force behind the social mobilisation of an ethnic group that was lacking clear national self-determination. Regional and historical peculiarities also influenced the spread of Islam in the Caucasian highlands. Even Soviet Vaynakh historians acknowledged that “the logic of the situation itself essentially led highlanders to unite under the ideology of a single religion. The new religion of Islam, shared by all the nations of the northern Caucasus except for some parts of Ossetia, provided the best options for achieving unity. The tsar’s administration in the Caucasus was operating in a way that cruelly exploited the simple highlanders; this only contributed to Islam’s shockingly explosive dissemination throughout the region.” 2
Thanks to certain ideological affinities with the highlander value system, a relatively new Sufi teaching – tariq naqshbandiya – began to actively spread throughout the Caucasus in the late 18th century. Tariq is an Arabic word that means “direction” or “path”, while tariqs are also the individual Islamic doctrines, several of which fall under Sunni Islam. The teaching of naqshbandiya was established in the mid-14th century in the Central Asian city of Bukhara. It then spread from northern Azerbaijan (the Shirvan Khanate) into Dagestan, Chechnya and other parts of the northern Caucasus.
Naqshbandiya devotees believed that the Muslim community (umma al-islam) had strayed from the correct path of Muhammad’s commandments. The sharia had been developed with the intention of guiding every member of society, from simple peasants right up to their leaders. It was, nevertheless, the leaders who bore most of the blame for the fact that the umma had forgotten about Islam. The obedience of subordinates to their infidel leaders, i.e., leaders who did not abide by the sharia, was considered a sin; therefore, true Muslims were told not to accept their government nor pay it taxes, but to be free people and make a collective effort to liquidate the leaders’ power and enthrone Islam rule.
The Sufi ideology is very complicated. It is a mystical-religious form of spiritual cleansing achieved by following a path of asceticism and self-perfection through the discovery of holy truth, and this applies to Sufism, whether in Chechnya and the northern Caucasus, Turkey, Central Asia or North Africa. It encompasses a period-dependent worldview, local morals and customs, and religious mysticism. A typical feature of naqshbandiya Sufism in Chechnya and all of the northern Caucasus, just like everywhere else in the Sufi Islam world, is the two-level hierarchy of murshid or ustaz (spiritual leader, master) and murid (disciple, student). In this system, the murid pledges his unconditional obedience and devotion to his spiritual leader, and both are ascetics. In conditions of permanent military confrontation, this ideology became the core of a militant-political organisation. The structure and philosophy of the Sufi tariqs (naqshbandiya and, from sometime around the 1850’s, qadiriya) did not come to an end, even after occasions of deliberate repression – it was passed on to later generations. From the late 19th to the mid-20th century, this teaching inspired several uprisings. Around the 1880s virds (Sufi sects, schools, or brotherhoods) with their own spiritual leaders (sheikhs) began to evolve within individual tariqs. Vird solidarity, together with tribal and ethno-territorial solidarity, then became another type of organisation within Chechen society. At present there are 30 virds in Chechnya. The relations between some of them are very severe and sometimes even downright adversarial.
The naqshbandiya ideology subsequently jarred the principles not only of Russian colonial rule, but also of the local feudal aristocracy, mainly in Shamil’s native Dagestan. A peculiarity of the Caucasian highlands was that, in some of its regions, ancestral feudal aristocracy (i.e. aristocracy in the classic sense of the word) was distinct from so-called “wartime aristocracy.” The latter consisted of warlords who had solicited an aristocratic station, or rather social consideration, on the grounds of having excelled in military campaigns, for which the aristocratic attribute of bey (a Turkic prince or leader), or its equivalent in other languages, was added to their names. However, the borders between social classes in most parts of the Caucasian highlands were not clearly defined. A ghazavat, or holy war, thus had to be directed first against the local aristocracy, which was, as a rule, favourably inclined towards the state of Russia (in occupied territories, Russian leaders were executing cunning policies: they secured privileges for the feudalists, thereby stabilising their status, and often paid them for mere loyalty) then against the infidels in their own ranks, and thirdly against Russians. That is why Shamil had most of the khans and beys in Dagestan killed, liberated the serfs, and divided feudal lands amongst the peasants. Basing his reasoning on observations of the profiteers’ “corrupted manners”, he also forbade people from mining for silver.
In 1839 the council of elders of the Chechen teyps summoned Shamil in order to ask him to lead their resistance against Russian expansion. The Imamate thus expanded into Chechnya as well. For the first time in history the Chechens became, even if for a short period, part of a truly centralised state. The rebellion gained a fresh impulse and mobilisation among the Chechens and Dagestanis was massive. Soon thereafter, Chechnya exploded in its great uprising of 1840. Russian historian Mikhail Pokrovsky wrote the following about its aftermath: “By 1843, every fortress in Dagestan and Chechnya had been demolished and occupied, their garrisons either liquidated or imprisoned […]. After this, all Chechnya’s lowlands fell into the hand of the Imam, and places where Russian forces had been marching undisturbed since Yermolov’s time became, in the words of one contemporary, ‘something imaginary’ for us.” 3
Shamil succeeded in uniting disparate highland ethnic groups into a uniform confederation of states with a single civil and military system, in which no ethnic group or even social class was privileged. The Imamate’s power formally extended as far as the territories of the northwestern and central Caucasus; it was divided into fifty provinces, each ruled by a nayib, that is, a military-administrative governor. The Imamate’s authority was limited to the activities of the state executive – the Divan (as of 1841), consisting of the most eminent theologues, nayibs and vekils (Shamil’s deputies), as well as murshids (militant exponents of naqshbandiya). The council decided on most non-military matters using the principle of majority voting.
The sharia applied throughout the territory of the Imamate. Murids strictly punished those who carried out blood feuds and adhered to adat laws, as well as anyone caught smoking tobacco or consuming alcohol; As a matter of fact, Islamic law accepts vengeance only in relation to the person directly responsible for a murder; moreover, it does not contain categories like “blood offence” or “pledge of honour”.
Shamil prohibited celebrations and holidays (except those that were religious), and all entertainment. He supported polygamy, a custom that had hitherto been rather exotic in these regions, as well as marriages between highlanders of differing nations, and reduced the amount of the kalym (dowry for a bride) to a maximum of ten silver rubles. Along with sheikh Ushurma Mansur's rebellions, Shamil's rule was an important period in the Islamisation of the Chechens.
Shamil and the Chechens: An Arduous Relationship
With a certain amount of hyperbole, it can also be said that characteristics of this “inter-civilisation” conflict also became evident in relations between Shamil’s Imamate and Chechen societies. The stringency of the centralised military-theocratic state of Dagestan and Chechnya, with the sharia and strictly observed Islamic laws as its foundations, was outlandish to the Chechens, whose frame of reference regarding belief was virtually limited to formal adherence to religious rituals. Despite the painstaking efforts of Shamil’s murids, elected municipal governments (mekhk kkhels) that headed the Chechen villages primarily abided by the standards of customary law, which did not always necessarily conform to the principles of the sharia. Perhaps of even greater significance was the fact that the concept of central government itself, where officials were not elected by the people but rather named by Shamil, was absolutely alien to the Chechens. No matter how unshakeable Shamil’s renown as an unvanquished commander and skilful statesman may have been among Chechen peasants and herdsmen, his authoritative method of governance in Chechnya often provoked serious, and sometimes even armed, manifestations of resistance. On many occasions when Shamil named a nayib without the approval of the village councils, entire auls erupted in protest. Chechens living in these rebellious auls were sometimes even prepared to allow their territory to be placed under Russian administration. When Shamil got into a dispute with the distinguished Chechen nayib Tasho Haji in 1841, he summoned the nayib and replaced him with another nayib who was Dagestani, just like Shamil. The Chechens killed the new nayib and forced the Imam to re-appoint Tasho Haji. 4
Anna Zelkina also reminds us of another similar case: “When Jevat-khan, one of Shamil’s nayibs, imposed a new tax in the amount of one ruble per family for repairs to the border bridge over the Argun River, the Chechens refused to respect the directive and accused the nayib of violating the sharia, because he wanted to take money from the poor as well. When Jevat-khan’s murids attempted to intervene in the conflict and urge the inhabitants to obey, the Chechens started to shoot, forcing Jevat-khan and his people to retreat. Immediately after Jevat-khan’s departure, the Chechens held a congress during which they ruled not to regard Jevat-khan as their nayib and imposed a fine of 50 rubles on every Chechen who would not willingly agree with their decision. They allowed Jevat-khan to return after Shamil stepped in and convinced them that he himself would oversee his nayib’s activities.” 5 At the same time, however, the Great Imam himself brutally punished others for betrayal and disobedience, slaughtering entire clans and burning down villages.
Testimonials from Shamil’s era show that he did not place much confidence in the Chechens because he feared their inscrutable dispositions. He relied far more on his Dagestani compatriots, who held key administrative appointments in the Imamate. Shamil’s territorial policies added to the frustration that the Chechens felt because of their collective unwillingness to pay taxes. In several regions, Shamil imposed a principle of dedicating land to individual ownership. In fact, this was not unusual in predominantly feudalist Dagestan; in some regions this existed concurrently with municipal ownership. Shamil presented land as gifts to his loyal combatants, muhajirs, most of whom were Dagestanis. This contradicted the basic principles of Chechen adat laws, according to which land always belonged to the village, never to individuals, and furthermore could not be passed into the hands of foreigners. Seen from the perspective of common Chechens, it could be said that either side (Shamil’s Imamate or Great Russia’s colonialism) in the Chechen war was intent on imposing a reformist system containing traces of messianism on pre-class Chechen society. As Vitaliy Degoyev writes: “As of around the 1820s, quarrels between clans began to evolve into increasingly heated conflicts between the adherents of traditional adat laws and sharia supporters, as much through words as through force. The fiery spirits of the Islamic troops faced villagers determined to defend deep-seated norms of existence that had been sacred for centuries. A custom centred around self preservation was resisting an attack by a foreign ideology […]. In other words, tradition was resisting reforms that were being reflected in efforts to modernise society in accordance with a military-theocratic scenario.” 6
Nevertheless, Shamil, with the power of persuasion and persuasion of power, succeeded in achieving the unthinkable – he united under his authority a diverse collective of Caucasian ethnic groups, tribes and clans that had reached different levels of social evolution, spoke mutually incomprehensible languages, and - in the case of the clans - often openly bore grudges against one another. Shamil’s indisputable merit in the region’s history lies in the fact that, perhaps for the very first time in the Caucasian highlands, he introduced an idea that had hitherto been utterly foreign and unheard-of in this region: the idea of a single, centralised, and powerful state. In addition to Shamil’s military and diplomatic genius and his undeniable charisma, it was the immeasurable authority of Islam combined with St. Petersburg’s short-sighted policy that largely determined the Imam’s success. The moral and psychological legacy of Shamil’s Imamate, like his legitimacy as a leader, is so deeply embedded in the consciousness of the highlanders that to this day certain parts of devout Dagestan and Chechnya nurture the hope that the Islamic state will rise again. In their nationalistic ideology, highlanders romanticise Shamil’s era, in reality a very controversial reign, as a “golden age” of the country’s common history, despite the enormous losses they suffered.
Between Resistance and Loyalty
It would be misleading to state that the Caucasian war was waged in an atmosphere of permanent Russo-highlander hatred and intolerance. There were also occasions of co-operation, mutual respect, and understanding. The friendly relations that the Vaynakh and other Caucasian ethnic groups had with tribes and immigrants from the north were fostered by the gradual settling of the Caucasian foothills by Slavs – Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks. Colonisation of the region by Cossack peasants, which had begun as early as in the 16th century, had not resulted in any kind of serious conflict (as long as it was limited to regions situated north of areas settled mostly by Caucasians) and was rather characterised by the development of cultural and social relations. These in turn led to a clear understanding between Slavonic Cossacks and Caucasian highlanders. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the Caucasian atalyk custom was sometimes practised even between (northern) Chechens and their Cossack neighbours. The Caucasian (Terek, Kuban, and Greben) Cossacks and highlanders of the northern Caucasus thus have a lot in common with respect to their manners, customs and mentalities, which Leo Tolstoy observed and recorded in his novella “The Cossacks”: “To this day the Cossacks and the Chechens value the familial ties between their peoples, and the love of freedom, leisure, plunder and war are the chief characteristics of the Greben Cossacks. Russia’s influence only presents itself in a negative light: coercion during elections, the confiscation of church bells, and the troops who are either stationed here or marching in this direction. A Cossack is less inclined to hate a jiggit highlander who has killed his brother than a soldier who has been stationed near him to defend his village, but has also filled his hut with tobacco smoke. He respects his highland enemy, but despises the soldier, who is, in his eyes, a foreigner and an oppressor […]. For him, being smartly dressed means to be dressed like a Circassian. The best weapons are obtained from highlanders, the best horses are bought, or stolen, from them as well.” 7
In this respect, Alexander Tsutsiyev speaks of “the romantic personage of the highlander melded with the personage of the Cossack. The cultural and ethic kinship that the Greben Cossacks had with the highlanders, and, conversely, the pronounced dissimilarity separating Cossacks and Russians (one must remember Tolstoy’s ‘advice’ from an elderly Cossack to a young one: ‘If you want to be a hero, be a jiggit, not a muzhik’) was not merely a romantic notion from a classic story. The Cossack became the symbol of the paradoxical blending of the ‘Slovanic soul’ with the highland ‘code of honour’, or the epic figure of the jiggit-wolf ‘gentleman thief’.” 8
The idealised image of the freedom-loving highlander has been immortalised in works by Pushkin, Lermontov, and Leo Tolstoy – it has become downright proverbial. The Caucasian highlanders, who were seen by many as “noble savages”, were known for their bravery and love of freedom, their sincerity and sometimes naturally brusque manners, as well as their enviable loyalty in friendships and persistence in enmity. Corresponding with Rousseau’s notions of genuine close ties to nature and Byron’s then-defiant individualism, these traits became objects of wonder and concepts worthy of observation to Russia’s liberal intelligentsia of the 19th century, who very painfully bore the servility, duplicity, and hypocrisy that ruled at that time, especially in “distinguished circles” of society. 9
The 1840s and 1850s witnessed apparent indications of mutual respect between Shamil and the Russian generals, who expressed their sympathy for the highlanders’ mettle and tenacity. In addition to this, hundreds of Russian soldiers (serfs) deserted to join the highlanders during the Caucasian War, and assimilated among them. 10 The defectors included a particularly high percentage of Polish convicts (galley slaves) who then often fought alongside the Caucasians. 11
Some of the Caucasian leaders at the time, Shamil being among them early in his career, did nothing to hide attempts to reach a sort of compromise regarding “division of power” with Russian governors that would enable highlanders to maintain their way of life (internal social order, i.e., customary law and the sharia) and self-governance in exchange for the recognition of the sovereign authority of the “white tsar”.
The vainglorious vanquishers of Napoleon, however, lacked elementary respect for the “wild tribesmen of the Caucasus”, and were consequently unwilling to accept them even as equals during negotiations - an effect of the Europe-centrism that was typical of the era. In the early 19th century, local leaders – governors appointed by St. Petersburg – were showing less and less willingness and made less effort to reach an agreement with the Caucasians. It is important to remember that at the time one government report after another predicted that the insubordinate highlanders would soon be humbled. Meeting with bandits and barbarians, let alone sharing power with them, struck the Russian leaders as being absurd and, in the light of then-favourable expectations, even unnecessary. Despite this, from the 1840s and especially from the 1850s, negotiations took place and it is interesting to note that Shamil was far from being their only initiator. But the establishment of muridist ideology, the intensification of St. Petersburg’s colonial policy, and ongoing violent clashes, which, over time, achieved epic proportions on both sides and have been immortalised in countless legends and songs, did not fundamentally limit the extent to which local Russians and Caucasians could attempt to reach an agreement.
It is important to note that higher-ranking Russian officials and sovereigns were unwilling to learn about local customs, forget about the Empire’s generally accepted clich's, and, in due course, share authority to prevent escalating violence. This attitude often thwarted the most sincere local efforts to achieve peace, from the Russian as well as the Caucasian side. After all, people living beside each other always have a greater tendency and more motivation to talk than a cabinet of sovereigns, to whom Chechnya was just a dot on the colossal map of Russia. In the end, it was not only the war and the attacks of the Russians, who displayed seemingly limitless strength, but also the terror of Shamil’s forces that wore down the Caucasians.
Starting with the uprising under the legendary Sheikh Mansur, Russo-Chechen relations took on a nature that is similar to todays. The colonisation scenario remained practically the same: while building fortresses, watchtowers and roads, Russian garrisons were drawing closer to Chechen - in some cases Circassian, Dagestani, etc. - villages; and various “military lines” were being shifted, ridding the extensive territory behind them of bothersome local inhabitants. Finally, a colonial administration was set up to oversee the settlement of occupied territories by Cossacks and foreigners loyal to the empire, mainly tradesmen and merchants of Armenian, Georgian, Pontic Greek, or Jewish origins, in some cases Mozdok Kabardians as well as Ossetians (both Orthodox Christian), and, of course, Russian officials and immigrants. A deep-seated necessity to guard the Russian colony against the highlanders’ devastating raids was an indispensable part of the endeavours of tsarist governors in the Caucasus.
With such little understanding of local customs, the colonialists’ efforts to “establish a rule of law” in newly occupied regions and to “civilise” the highlanders became a rude attack on the local inhabitants’ traditional way of life and often provoked them to take up arms in protest. This can clearly be seen in the origins of the great Ingush uprising of 1877. A newly appointed official by the name of Cherepov arrived at an Ingush highland village on his official journey to the Caucasus. The first thing he said to the aul elders was: “Tell the girls to clean themselves. And you better not send me any old hags!” He emphasised his intentions by making lascivious gestures in the direction of a female passer-by. That night the eager official was assaulted by a group of young men – obviously the girl’s brothers. First they castrated him, then cut out his tongue, gouged his eyes out and sliced off his fingers and nose. The official bled to a slow agonising death. Then the soldiers who had escorted Cherepov were slaughtered. A brutal punitive campaign ensued as a result.
The Chechen auls also felt a collective sympathy for Imam Shamil’s side in the war against Russia (1839 – 1840); this sentiment was induced by General Hrabbe’s devastating punitive campaign, which literally drenched Chechen villages in blood, as well as by the Russian sovereign’s newly issued decree that forbade Chechens from bearing arms. At the time, Russia regarded the right to bear arms as a privilege of the higher classes who had access to the court. In Chechnya, as well as throughout the Caucasus, such prohibition and its enforcement was an inconceivable affront to the men. According to a typical Caucasian proverb, “To disarm a man is akin to pulling off his trousers.”
The obnoxious behaviour of the colonialists (considering such integral parts of European warfare as pillaging, rape, etc.) inevitably provoked the Caucasians to declare blood feuds en masse. Thus it did not matter who had provoked a blood feud, whether they were Russian, Caucasian or pagan: Caucasian conflicts tended to start on account of everyday incidents that, to the Russians, were of apparently little meaning. However, over the course of the next decade these clashes took on a cultural-religious and, later on, an ethno-nationalistic character. From around the 1830s onwards, there was an unprecedented increase in the number of attacks on Russian garrisons and Cossack outposts, as well as on all institutions and individuals that were, in the minds of the highlanders, connected with the Russian sovereign and state. Even after the official end of the great Russo-Caucasian war, the Caucasians admired the ideal of the fearless, rebellious abreks, who, in his attacks against the detested state and its shackles (thus against Russia), became a symbol of highlander resolve and love for freedom. The legendary Chechen abrek Zelimkhan, who caused many problems for the Russian military command in Chechnya in the early 20th century, is still regarded as a national hero. In southern parts of the Caucasus, where Russophobia was not so widespread, conflicts were of a more social nature – attacks and looting by local abreks (gachags in Azerbaijani) were aimed mainly against the new phenomenon of profiteers from their own ranks; the patriarchal public sentiment despised their betrayal of traditional values and their reprehensible lust for profit. In folk songs and renaissance literature respected abreks Dato Tutashkhia (Georgia) and Nabi (Azerbaijan) live on to this day.
Trade relations between the Russians and the Chechens were not severed by even the fiercest of battles, not even by genocide. Throughout the year, the markets of Kizlyar, Mozdok, Vladikavkaz, and other north Caucasian towns enjoyed considerable patronage from Chechens and members of other highland nations, irrespective of their ethnicity or religious beliefs. As mentioned in the preceding chapter, over the centuries familial relations between Slavonic Cossacks and Chechens, together with the capture and Islamicisation of Russian soldiers in the highland regions, led to the creation of several Chechen teyps (in the northern countries) that are still regarded as Russian.
It is worth noting that in the First World War, hundreds of Chechens fought alongside Russians. Although the Muslim inhabitants of the Russian Empire had become exempt from compulsory military service, the military-feudal elite of some of the Muslim nations (Dagestanis, Adygeans, Circassians, Karachayevs, Azerbaijanis and Crimean Tatars) regarded army service as something honourable.
On August 25, 1916, Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor, wrote in a thank you letter: “Like a mountain avalanche, the Ingush regiment smashed through the German Iron Division. The Chechen regiment supported them shortly after that. In the history of the Russian nation, including the exploits of our Preobrazhensky Regiment, there has never been an occasion during which riders have attacked an enemy’s heavy artillery units: four and a half thousand casualties, three and a half thousand taken captive, two and a half thousand wounded – in less than an hour and a half the Iron Division, which had aroused fear in our allies’ best armies, ceased to exist. Give warm brotherly greetings on behalf of the tsar’s court, the Russian army, and myself to the fathers, mothers, sisters, and brides of these brave eagles of the Caucasus, who, by means of their fearless heroism prescribed the beginning of the end of the German hordes. Russia never forgets such heroism; honour and praise to them! With brotherly greetings, Nicholas II.” 12 The aforementioned regiments, Chechen and Ingush, were part of the famous Savage Division, which comprised primarily volunteers from the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus.
The War and its consequences
In retrospect it seems like Russia’s subjugation of the Caucasus was, in its own way, a historical necessity. In the 18th and 19th centuries, characterised by the rise of the Russian centralised state and the confirmation of its expansionist disposition, entry into the west (Poland, the Baltic, and the Balkans), the southwest (the Caucasus), and the south (Central Asia) was inevitable. Rich in fertile, uncultivated land, the extensive territory of the northern Caucasus was enticing prey. Conquering the Caucasus was also vital to subsequent expansion in the direction of the weakening Muslim empire, i.e. towards Turkey and Persia.
It appears that under different historical circumstances, the inaccessible Great Caucasian Ridge would have become a natural barrier to Russia’s entry into the south. The fact that its location had the potential to stop Russian expansion did not escape the attention of British strategists of the day, who were apprehensive about Russia expanding into Persia and then into South Asia, aiming at India, – to areas that English Crown regarded as its exclusive domain. 13 The relatively simple process of seizing small states in a column south of the Great Caucasus, agitated by constant warring and friction between Istanbul and Isfahan/Tehran, however, ended in a situation in which “Russia could not withdraw anymore and was forced to move further into the southwest and southeast in order to fit its new Caucasian domain into a configuration that could hypothetically be defined as one respecting the natural geographical border.” 14 Russia’s southwesternly advancement would certainly have been more forceful, and would not have been limited to the banks of the Arax River, had it not ended in the humiliating defeat in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), had it not been confronted with the diplomatic genius of Otto von Bismarck at the Berlin Congress (1878), and finally, it had it not suffered the consequences of Russian revolutions (1905 and 1917).
But with the northern Caucasus it was much more complicated. The states and small peoples of the southern Caucasus (kingdoms, khanates, and principalities) were more or less precisely defined as territories where Russian policies dealt with specific sovereigns and their regular troops. Therefore, in these territories, Russia knew whom they had to confront, whom to support, and whom, in the event of an uprising, to punish. However, the fragmented half-state and pre-state structures of the highland regions of the southern and northern Caucasus constituted an “impenetrable jungle”, which was for Europeans, thinking within the bounds of classic 18th century international diplomacy, very difficult to fathom. A peace treaty that defined the mutual status and conditions of a region’s post-war structure generally followed armed clashes between Russian armies and Azerbaijani khans or Persian shahs. At the same time, economically dependent peasants acted in accordance with the landowners’ decisions – feudal authorities (princes, beys and aghas), who in turn had to respect the wills of the khans, who were, at the very least, the formal hereditary sovereigns over all lands. Armed attacks against Russian rule in this region were relatively rare and usually flared up due to specific Caucasian reasons, rather than common political ones: whenever, for instance, Russian soldiers or colonial administration officers violated the strict adat laws, the Caucasians felt that reprisals were in order. But even in such cases the rioting peasants mostly faced the retinues of their own feudalists – Georgian princes and Azerbaijani beys and aghas– whom the Russian governors allowed to retain their traditional privileges, and whose support they generally sought in return during critical situations.
That is why, unlike Chechnya, local conflicts in Dagestan and the Adygean-Circassian regions almost never featured elements of Russophobia; they rather took on an internal ethnic and social nature. Among other things, these conflicts were the consequence of the traumatic experience of capitalism’s headlong entry into the region, concentrated in the areas in and around Georgian Tiflis where the seat of the Russian general governor in the Caucasus was located, and in Baku, the empire’s oil-rich metropolis. For the peasants of the southern Caucasus, who were dependent on feudal lands, the exchange of one group of tax collectors (their own, Turkish, and Persian) for another (Russian) made very little difference in their arduous lives. Another reason that more violent conflicts did not occur here lay in the fact that the vast majority of the inhabitants of the southern Caucasus, Armenians and Georgians, were of the Christian faith; therefore, their reactions to Russia’s entry into their territory ranged from favourable to enthusiastic. Yet another aspect contributed to the southern Caucasians’ peaceful existence within the Russian Empire: the Cossacks did not attempt to massively settle in Transcaucasia, although elsewhere they were strongly supported by Russian colonial administration as they did so at the expense of the region’s indigenous inhabitants. Yet the subjugation of regions south of the Great Caucasus – no matter how one looks at this historical event – objectively put an end to the local sovereigns’ protracted wars with Turkey and Persia, which exhausted the region’s lands to a vast extent and set up barriers to social and economic development.
The situation of the free highland societies that constituted a major part of the northern Caucasus was completely different. Land here traditionally belonged to the village, not feudalists (the exceptions being the khanates and principalities in parts of Dagestan, the northwestern Caucasus, and Ossetia). Therefore, an attack by Russian troops normally mobilised a village’s entire male population, not just the landowners’ armed units. In this region there was no traditional set of rules for diplomatic games contingent on “a specific head-count and secondary political players with specific designs on gaining their share”. 15 The esteemed elders and military leaders of the village councils that headed the countless military democracies (free highland societies) were much more difficult to corrupt, impose one’s will upon, or fight by using the traditional “divide and conquer” policy of the great world powers. In this regard, it was far easier for the Russian emperor to deal with the small lands of the ambitious “oriental” khans and princes of the southern Caucasus, who adhered to erratic egoistic motives and did not have to take the opinions of their compatriots into consideration. War and armed assaults were, to a certain extent, part of the highlanders’ lifestyle and philosophy. To them, surprise attacks on neighbouring auls traditionally represented an intrinsic component of one’s livelihood and social self-fulfilment.
The Russo-Caucasian conflict also had a distinct ideological dimension. In a manner that was characteristic of the era, the Russian state wholly stylised itself in the role of missionary-moderniser during its forays into the south, carrying “the light of civilisation to the savage peoples” of Caucasus, while the highlanders’ armed resistance soon acquired a unifying religious motif. The Russian “white man”, who bore the cumbersome “burden of civilisation”, was being confronted by the obstinate Caucasian warrior who fought for his beliefs and freedom. “No spoliation, no violence, no oppression on the part of Tsardom, but has been perpetrated under pretext of “progress,” “enlightenment,” “Liberalism,” “the deliverance of the oppressed”, Frederick Engels summarized in 1890. 16 In fact, one might surely say that the same rhetoric was used to legitimize the very pragmatic politics of other European empires at that time.
1 Gammer, M.: Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnya and Dagestan, London 1994, Pg. 292. For more information on Imam Shamil and the Great Caucasian War see Blanch, L.: Sabres of Paradise, London 2004.
2 Akhmadov, Sh. B.: Isayev, S.B., Khasimov, S.A. Istoriya Chechtno-Ingushetii, Grozniy 1986.
3 Pokrovskiy, M.: Rossiya i Kavkaz, St. Petersburg 1995, Pg. 45.
4 Zelkina, A.: Istoriya islama v Chechnye, in: Furman, D. (ed.): Chechnya i Rossiya: obshchestva i gosudarstva, Moscow 1999, online: http://www.sakharov-center.ru/chs/chrus03_2.htm.
5 Zelkina, A.: op.c.
6 Degoyev, V.: Dva veka voyny na Kavkaze, in: Gordin, Y. (ed.), Rossiya i Chechnya. Poiski vykhoda, St. Petersburg 2003, Pg. 217.
7 Leo Tolstoy: Cossacks. A Caucasian Story (1863), online http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/t/tolstoy/leo/t65co/index.html (translated into English by Louise & Aylmer Maude).
8 Tsutsiyev, A.: Russkie i kavkaztsy. Ochek nezerkalnoy nepriyazni. Vestnik Instituta tsivilizatsii, Vladikavkaz 2001, No. 26.
9 For more information on these and close issues see Ram, H.: Prisoners of the Caucasus: Literary Myths and Media Representations of the Chechen Conflict, online http://ist-socrates.berkeley.edu/~bsp/publications/1999_01-ram.pdf; R. Harsha: The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire, University of Wisconsin Press 2001; Gordin, Y.: Kavkaz – zemlya i krov. Rossiya v Kavkazskoy voyne 19 veka. St Petersburg 2000.
10 Pokrovskiy, M.: Diplomatiya i voyny tsarskoy Rossii v 19. stoletii, Moscow 1924, Pg. 201
11 Grochmalski, P.: Czeczenia. Rys prawdziwy, Wroc?aw 1999, Pg. 126.
12 Kontinent (Russian journal) 2004, No 122. Online: http://magazines.russ.ru/continent/2004/122/sot10.html
13 Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 3rd Series, V. 36, Pgs. 622, 637, London 1857.
14 Degoyev, V.: Bolshaya igra na Kavkaze, Moscow 2001, Pg. 388
15 Degoyev, V.: op.c., Pg. 387.
16 Engels, F.: The Foreign Policy of Russian Tsarism (1890). Online: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/russian-tsardom/
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