In Makhachkala, Dagestan, two energetic prepubescents wrestled in the bleachers during an amateur Pankration tournament. The section the boys selected was desolate and they took advantage of their luck with a friendly skirmish. It was a productive way to pass the time as they waited for their brothers to compete in the tournament.
One day, they would be able to fight in competition as well.
As the two boys wrestled away alongside the indoor football court, teenage boys divided into four age groups amassed at the edge of the converted playing surface. The courts were camouflaged in blue and yellow wrestling mats where the budding fighters would compete in padded competition for their first taste of glory.
Dagestani locals of various ages filled the bleachers throughout the day. Some arrived with their sons and nephews, keen to capture their imaginations with small doses of regulated violence. It remains a rite of passage for many, one that would not be denied by a proud, vigilant father.
Caucasus men have fighting in their blood.
While 13-year-old boys in headgear and shin-pads sprawled and punched their way to victory, a bearded “mountaineer” watched silently from the far end of the room. The highlander’s eyes, cold, piercing, and unmoving, nonetheless seemed to follow the action intently. His magnificent beard, ambitious in length and devoid of colour, thrived on his grey face and connected perfectly with his infamous papakha – a ceremonial hat that never separated from his scalp.
It had been 145 years since Imam Shamil’s death, yet he continued to watch over his people in the form of this portrait. It was a chilling reminder of the anti-Russian resistance that rose up against Tsarist occupancy for half a century. Shamil’s hardened features, forever captured in an iconic photograph, were memorialized in his native Dagestan.
Yet his Dagestan no longer enjoys the freedom of his ancestors. They are Russian nationals – second class citizens in their own republic – with the country’s emblem emblazoned on their official uniforms.
Their only show of resistance is the portrait of Imam Shamil that watches over them – a rebellious provocation directed at their longstanding oppressors, and a poignant reminder of what could have been.
In Blood and War
Alexander Pushkin — Journey to Erzurum
As with many of the saddest tales, this one begins with war.
It is 1816, only four years after the Russian victory over Napoleon’s ‘Great Army’ in 1812; Tsar Alexander I sought to rekindle the Russo-Circassian War started by Peter the Great in 1763 and implement the plans for expansion into the mountains. With it began a near-fifty year conquest of the Northern mountain region known as the Caucasian War; one of Russia’s bloodiest conflicts that disfigured native populations and shaped their modern society.
Though many historians have labeled the conquest as a full-blown invasion of the Caucasus, it was actually divided into two separate conflicts according to the geographic location. The Russo-Circassian War took place in the West (Adyghe and Kabarday), while the Murid War was focused in the East, which included republics like Chechnya and Dagestan. The intention was to incorporate the regions into the Russian state and subject them to a Christian ruler, a move which would shrink the potential influence of the Ottoman Empire so close to the Russian border.
Some territories succumbed to the pressure; Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan were all influenced by the Russian wars with the Persian Empire. However, the aforementioned Northern territories (Chechnya, Dagestan and Circassia) brought significant resistance and refused to bow down to the Tsar.
The result was horrific bloodshed and longstanding tension that remains palpable to this very day.
Russian General Aleksey Yermolov – renowned for his achievements in the Napoleonic Wars and later named the “Butcher” for his exploits in the Caucasus — built several forts along the Sunja River in 1818, with the intention of creating suitable defence mechanism for the Russian army. One of those would later become the foundation for the capital city of Chechnya. Searching for a term to describe the savagery located in the region, the Russians named the site ‘Grozny’ to perfectly express their contempt towards the locals: terrible.
It would not take long for Yermolov to start destroying Chechen tribes and villages along the Sunja River.
Through the first decade of the war, Russia achieved little in terms of success; the casualties piled up and Tsar Alexander I’s death led to the Decembrist uprising, where soldiers protested Nicholas I’s claim to the throne after his elder brother Constantine removed himself from the line of succession. The uprising took place on December 26, 1825 and was suppressed by Nicholas I on the same day. While it was a surprisingly unsuccessful attempt to eliminate the current monarch, some scholars argue that it served as an inspiration for the 1917 Revolutions.
While Imperial Russia was focused on wars with Persia and the Ottomans until 1829, there was much rumbling in the mountains; Dagestan, which had been almost entirely under Russian control by 1824, was about to undergo radical changes. Religious activists began to emerge and challenge the local elites who had become complacent with Russian encroachment.
In 1825, Bey-Bulat captured the Amiradzhiiurt post in a spontaneous Chechen uprising, but was thwarted within a year. In his footsteps, charismatic Islamic scholars like Ghazi Muhammad emerged as leaders capable of mobilizing Islam to counterattack the Russians. Over the next five years, religious leaders in Chechnya and Dagestan who were hostile to Slavic invasion met to establish a supposed Caucasian religious alliance. Unity between the territories would more likely staunch the forthcoming Russian expeditions.
Ghazi Muhammad (also known as Qazi Mullah) became the first Imam of the loosely formed alliance. He was an islamic scholar who regularly appeared at great halls for the Caucasian elites, who marveled at the depth of his knowledge and the limitlessness of his piety. Eventually, he was elected Imam by a group of scholars and immediately attempted to transform the region’s cultural heritage from one of loose customs derived from their mountainous lifestyles, to one that follows the Sharia (Islamic law). It was a belief system he had derived during his younger years, yet he implemented it in full force during his reign with the hopes of unifying the North Caucasus under one religious government. His ambition would be achieved by his protege Imam Shamil.
It was political mobilization in its simplest form. Ghazi continued to weed out old timeless tradition and replaced them with devout Islamic beliefs molded to suit his political and military intentions.
Muhammad’s movement arose mainly in Chechnya and Dagestan. He demanded undeniable allegiance to the true Islamic cause – a Wahhabi influence that preaches ideals such as holy wars (ghazawat). However, Mullah also preached an unquestionable disdain for all disbelievers, mainly Christian Russians.
While the intention was to secure a unified state that would fight a common enemy under the banner of Islam, the Imams were instead faced with growing resentment from non-Islamic sections of the Caucasus like the Ossetians who abstained from the fighting. The fanaticism isolated Chechnya and Dagestan, and had a clear counter-productive effect that kept the mountaineers from ever truly unifying.
This would inevitably play into their demise.
Imam Shamil’s Holy War
Alexander Pushkin – A Prisoner in the Caucasus
The Russians, fuelled by successful campaigns in Turkey and Persia, resumed their mission to quash the rebellious ethnic population in the North Caucasus in 1830. However, this was immediately disrupted by an inspired resistance led by Qazi Mullah, who died on the battlefield in 1832. He was eventually succeeded by Gamzat-bek, but the second Imam only lasted a couple of years, as he was killed by Hadji Murad – the leader who later inspired Leo Tolstoy’s book with the same title. Tolstoy’s novella is based on this particular event, while his fascination with Murad was rooted in the rebel’s exploits, mystique and eventual downfall as an outcast.
During these early years of the war, Shamil had already been elevated to one of the respected leaders and heir to the Imamate because of his childhood friendship with Qazi Mullah and the loyal following he had accumulated over the years.
Following the death of Gamzat-bek, the now legendary Avar was proclaimed the third Imam, and the Caucasus prepared itself for three decades of guerrilla warfare – a Caucasian jihad that would be remembered as one of the bloodiest in Russian history.
In 1834, Shamil attempted to unite the tribal leaders in Dagestan and neighbouring Chechnya, many of whom were hostile towards Slavic rule, and even succeeded in creating the Islamic State that his predecessors had failed to complete before their untimely deaths just two years apart. In part, Shamil was helped by his his background as an Avar, meaning he already commanded the support of the largest mountain tribe in Dagestan before he began his ambitious holy unity.
The 19th century Islamic State he formed would later become the inspiration for the Chechen insurgency in the 1990s that led to establishment of an Islamic caliphate and two consecutive wars with Russia.
Shamil followed in his mentor Qazi Mullah’s footsteps and preached a purified form of Islam ridden of Western corruption. Apart from exploiting religious texts for his benefit, Shami took advantage of the peasant class’ struggle for equality in an age-long battle with local chiefs. He incorporated this ideology with Islam, which preached equality among all men. The struggle went beyond an anti-Russian resistance. It was also a rebellion against the complacent elites and an opportunity for radical social change.
The Northern Caucasus region was looking for the ancient freedom their forefathers enjoyed.
To many, Shami’s spiritual enlightenment and militant sufism was enough to swear fealty. His cleansing approach to the religion unified a large portion of Dagestan. It gave them a sense of brotherhood, a purpose, and a target for their newfound fanaticism.
Shamil’s plan was simple: launch a full scale guerrilla war on the invading Russians from the deep seclusion of their mountainous terrain.
By 1840, Shamil had managed to unite a fair portion of the Avars, Dargins, Lezgins, as well as the “wild” Chechens who didn’t necessarily agree with his spread of fundamentalism. However, decades of abuse under Russian control – destroyed livestock, defiled women, and ancient forests burned to the ground – finally led the Chechens to join the religious uprising with their own xenophobic undertones.
Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat offers a tragic description of the devastation that the Russian army left in their wake:
Two ricks of hay that were there had been burnt; the apricot and cherry trees that he had planted and trained were smashed and, worst of all, the beehives were burnt. The wail of women was heard in all the houses and on the square, where two more bodies were brought. Small children howled with their mothers…
The Chechen hatred for the harsh Slavic rulers was well utilized by Shamil.
His success in Chechnya was particularly pivotal, as they represented the deadliest contingency of the Muslim resistance. The united groups collected under menacing black banners with religious slogans and fought with inspiration rooted in their fanaticism.
While the Russian army was made up of thousands of uprooted peasants – cannon fodder – that was easily disposable, Shamil’s forces could not afford to sustain the losses the Russians were willing to sacrifice in the name of victory. The Chechens were particularly useful in this facet, as they brought their vastly superior guerrilla tactics to the resistance, which mainly involved tactical ambushes, raids, and sheltered attacks from the mountain side.
Even proud Russian soldiers, many of whom fought Napoleon’s army, trembled at the oncoming storm:
“We have never had in the Caucasus an enemy so savage and dangerous as Shamil. Owing to a combination of circumstances his rule has acquired a religious-military character, the same by which at the beginning of Islamism Muhammad’s sword shook three quarters of the Universe.”
By 1845, Shamil’s forces had captured several key outposts in Avaria and even withstood Prince Vorontsov’s inspired Russian full blown attacks at various points in Gergebil. The fighting waged on at at forts like Dargo and Grozny, with few winners at any point. The Russians suffered large losses, while Shamil’s remained on the defensive in terms of his greater ambitions of a Holy War. Despite his relative success in battle, the Russian army was relentless and seemingly infinite in numbers. They were better equipped and supplied with resources, which made it impossible for Shamil to attempt traditional attacks.
It wasn’t a question of if the Imam could be stopped. It was simply a question of when.
While the Russians focused their efforts on the Crimean War between 1853-56, they launched another massive campaign on the Caucasus shortly thereafter, determined to rid themselves of their savage rivals. This time, the Russians destroyed the surrounding landscape, including forests and agricultural land, which cleared their path and limited Shamil’s options for guerrilla warfare.
By 1859, Shamil had been driven out of Chechnya and back into Dagestan, where he slowly watched his numbers dwindle. His fragmented army, exhausted from multi-directional onslaughts in the wilderness, collapsed before his eyes. The Russian forces, led by General Aleksandr Baryatinsky, cut through the rebels until one final siege at the Battle of Ghunib, where Shamil was left little choice: surrender or die.
He chose to surrender.
The Imam’s 25-year campaign was over. The Caucasus once again came under unquestionable Russian control.
Tsar Alexander II exiled Shamil to Kaluga, a small town near Moscow, where he lived for several years in comfort. He was then transported to Kiev before setting sail on the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in 1870.
He completed his religious duties in Mecca and died shortly thereafter in Medina.
“For We the live without power of law, like flocks of ravens for They have come and sweep of the over the land.”
Imam Shamil towered over his former subjects in stoic silence from his colorless portrait.
He watched as local Dagestani youngsters competed in MMA competitions under the resolute colors of the Russian flag.
He watched as his once-proud people chanted Russian songs and celebrated Russian holidays.
He watched as the mountaineers arrived dressed in Western garb instead of traditional clan attire.
He watched as the precise language of his teachings withered like the last of his people’s freedom.
He watched as the Caucasus forgot his name or the significance of his resistance.
Shamil’s piercing stare captured it all.
145 years after his death, the Imam remains as defiant as ever - his portrait hung as a symbolic reminder of the inspired days when the Dagestan Khanates, along with the remainder of the Caucasus, believed they could rid themselves of their Slavic overlords. And though his memory and historic tale are firmly entwined within North Caucasus history, the gradual retelling of the stories captures the various conflicting perspectives on Shamil and his accomplishments.
For some, particularly in his native Dagestan, Shamil is lionized as the savior of the Caucasus, and framed as their inspiration to remain stubbornly rooted in their “non-Russian” traditions. He is seen as the tragic underdog who united the highlanders against their common enemy.
Other natives, however, consider him the beginning of the end of Caucasus freedom.
Some argue that Shamil forced the region to radicalize towards fundamental Islam. Though many regions in Chechnya and Dagestan joined his cause, they did so because they wanted to unite against their Russian rulers, not to religiously reform their own societies and culture. Shamil left little choice, as he spread Wahhabi Islam and Sharia law throughout the land.
Shamil also laid the blueprint for the Chechen insurgency in the 1990s. Through guerrilla warfare, radically-charged raids, religious unity, and an urge to expel the “infidels”, the feared rebels of the 90s were able to rekindle Russia’s dark days at war with the Caucasus.
At that time, Chechnya’s capital city was bombed to dust.
For all this, Shamil’s memory is a difficult one to generalize. He is iconized by some and vilified by others. He is a tragic hero and textbook villain. He is seen as evil, manipulative and power-hungry, but also pious, charismatic, and fair.
And as Tsarist Russia burned North Caucasian towns, destroyed their crops, and exiled their people from ancestral homes, the memory of Shamil’s campaigns burned brighter than their destroyed livelihoods.
All the while, Shamil watched over his people in absolute silence.
The Ghosts of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus — Charles King
Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings — Brian Glyn Williams
Conquests of the Caucasus From Pushkin to Tolstoy — Susan Layton
Article originally published on BloodyElbow.com by the same author.