Imam Shamil was born in 1797,
in the small village (aul) of Gimry, which is in current-day Dagestan , Russia
The Chechen peoples desperate struggle for freedom has taken many Muslims by
surprise. As with Bosnia three years ago, the very existence of this Muslim
country was unknown to many in our community. But now, as the savage hordes of
Tsar Boris the First pour down from the barbarian lands of the north to bring
fire and the sword to the Chechens, it is worth remembering that the Caucasus
has always been the graveyard of Christian invaders and the birthplace of Muslim
heroes whose names still resound in the forests and valleys of that most
romantic of all mountain lands.
Caucasian life was dominated by the blood-vendetta, the kanli, which ensured
that no wrong, however slight, could go unavenged by the relatives of a victim.
Tales abound in the Chechen epic literature of centuries-long conflicts which
began with the simple theft of a chicken, and ended with the death of an entire
clan. Warfare was constant, as was the training for it; and young men prided
themselves in their horsemanship, wrestling, and sharpshooting.
Muslims have never conquered the Caucasus: even the Sahaba, who swept before
them the legions of Byzantium and Persia , stopped short at these forbidding
cliffs. For centuries, its people continued in their pagan or Christian beliefs;
while the Muslims of neighbouring Iran regarded it with terror, believing that
the Shah of all the Jinn had his capital amid its snowy peaks.
But where Muslim armies could not penetrate, peaceful Muslim missionaries slowly
ventured. Many achieved martyrdom at the hands of the wild, angry tribesmen; but
slowly the remote valleys and even the high aouls accepted the faith. The
Chechens, Avars, Circassians and Daghestanis entered Islam; and by the
eighteenth century, only the Georgians and the Armenians were still unconverted.
But despite this victory, a new threat was gathering on the horizon. In 1552,
Ivan the Terrible had captured and destroyed Kazan , the great Muslim city on
the upper Volga . Four years later the Russian hordes reached the Caspian. At
their van rode the wild Cossacks, brutal horsemen who reproduced themselves by
capturing and marrying by force the Muslim women who fell into their hands. As
pious as they were turbulent, they never established a new settlement without
first building a spectacular church, whose tolling bells rang out over the Tsars
everexpanding empire in the steppes.
By the late eighteenth century the Christian threat to the Caucasus had not gone
unnoticed by the mountain tribes. Their lack of unity, however, made effective
action impossible, and soon the fertile lowlands of North Chechenia and (further
west) the Nogay Tatar country were wrested from Muslim hands. The Muslims who
remained were forced to become the serfs agricultural slaves of Russian lords.
Those who refused or ran away were hunted down in an aristocratic Russian
version of fox-hunting. Some were skinned, and their skins were used to make
military drums. The enserfed women often had to endure the confiscation of their
babies, so that the pedigree Russian greyhounds and hunting dogs could be
nourished on human milk.
Overseeing this policy was the empress Catherine the Great, who sent the
youngest of her lovers, Count Platon Zubov (he was twenty-five, she seventy), to
realise the first stage of her Pan-Orthodox dream by which all Muslim lands
would be conquered for Christianity. Zubovs army broke up along the Caspian
shores, but the warning had been sounded. The Caucasus looked up from its
internal strife, and knew it had an enemy.
The first coherent response to the danger came from an individual whose obscure
but romantic history is very typical of the Caucasus . He is known only as
Elisha Mansour an Italian Jesuit priest sent to convert the Greeks in Anatolia
to Catholicism. To the anger of the Pope, he soon converted enthusiastically to
Islam, and was sent by the Ottoman sultan to organise Caucasian resistance
against the Russians.. But at the battle of Tatar-Toub in 1791 his resistance
came to an untimely end; and, captured by the enemy, he spent the rest of his
life a prisoner at a frozen monastery in the White Sea , where monks laboured
unsuccessfully to bring him back to the Christian fold.
Mansour had failed, but the Caucasians had fought like lions. The flame of
resistance which he lit soon spread, nursed and fanned by one man of genius:
Mollah Muhammad Yaraghli. Yaraghli was a scholar and a Sufi, deeply learned in
the Arabic texts, who preached the Naqshbandi Way to the harsh mountaineers.
Although he converted many thousands, his leading pupil was Ghazi Mollah, a
religious student of the Avar people of Daghestan, who began his own preaching
in 1827, selecting the large aoul of Ghimri to be the centre of his activities.
For the next two years Ghazi Mollah proclaimed his message. The Caucasians had
not accepted Islam fully, he told them. Their old customary laws, the "adat",
which differed from tribe to tribe, must be replaced by the Sharia. In
particular, the kanli vendettas must be suppressed, and all injustices dealt
with fairly by a proper Islamic court. Finally, the Caucasians must restrain
their wild, turbulent egos, and tread the hard path of self-purification. Only
by following this prescription, he told them, could they overcome their ancient
divisions, and stand united against the Christian menace.
In 1829, Ghazi Mollah judged that his followers had absorbed enough of this
message for them to begin the final stage: of political action. He travelled
throughout Daghestan, openly preaching against vice, and overturning with his
own hand the great jars of wine traditionally stored in the centre of the aouls.
In a series of fiery sermons he urged the people to take up arms for the Ghazwa:
the armed resistance: A Muslim may obey the Sharia, but all his giving of Zakat,
all his Salat and ablutions, all his pilgrimages to Makka, are as nothing if a
Russian eye looks upon them. Your marriages are unlawful, your children
bastards, while there is one Russian left in your lands!
It was the time of Jihad, he proclaimed. The great Islamic scholars of Daghestan
gathered at the mosque of Ghimri, and, acclaiming him Imam, pledged their
The murids at Ghimri, standing out from the other mountaineers by their black
banners, and the absence of any trace of gold or silver on their clothes and
weapons, marched out behind Ghazi Mollah, chanting the Murid battle-cry: La
ilaha illaLlah. Their first target was the aoul of Andee, which was submissive
towards the Russians; but so impressive were the Murids that at the very sight
of their silent ranks the formerly treacherous village submitted without a
fight. Ghazi Mollah then turned his attention to the Russians themselves.
At this time, the Russians had moved few colonists into the region. Large
military outposts had been established in the plains to the north, at Grozny ,
Khasav-Yurt and Mozdok, but elsewhere the process of clearing the Muslims from
the land had only just begun. Ghazi Mollah could therefore count on local
support when he attacked the Russian fort of Vnezapnaya. Without cannon, he
proved unable to capture it; but its defenders, commanded by Baron Rosen, were
forced to send for help. This came in the form of a large relief column, which,
thinking it feared nothing from the Muslims, pursued them into the great forest
which then stood south of Grozny .
In the dark woods, the murids were fighting on their own ground. Shooting from
the branches of the giant beech trees, constructing traps and pitfalls for the
stoical but disoriented Russians, they methodically picked off the enemy
officers, and captured many of the bewildered foot-soldiers. In this twilight
world of vast beech trees and tangled undergrowth, the lumbering Russian column,
led by priests bearing icons and huge crosses, and burdened with oxcarts
carrying five-foot samovars and cases of champagne for the officers, found
itself slowly eroded and scattered. Only remnants emerged from the woods: and
the first Mujahideen victory had been won.
Baying for revenge, the Russians attacked the Muslim town of Tschoumkeskent ,
which they captured and razed to the ground. But they paid heavily for this
conquest: four hundred Russians had been killed in the operation, and only a
hundred and fifty Murids. Even greater was their humiliation at Tsori, a
mountain pass where four thousand Russian troops were held up for three days by
a barricade, which, they later found to their chagrin, was manned by only two
Raging, the Russians rampaged through Lower Chechenya , burning crops, and
destroying sixty-one villages. Slowly, the Chechen and Daghestani murids
retreated to the mountains behind them. Ghazi Mollah and his leading disciple
Shamyl decided to make a stand at Ghimri. After a bitter siege, with many
casualties on both sides, the aoul was stormed by the Russians troops, who found
Ghazi Mollah among the dead. Still seated on his prayer-carpet, the Imam,
uncannily, kept one hand on his beard, and the other pointing to the sky. But in
the meantime, his deputy, fighting with sixty murids in defence of two stone
towers, seemed invincible, picking off with unerring aim any Russian who came
near. At last, when only two Murids remained alive, Shamyl emerged, to
imaugurate a reputation for heroism in combat which would resound throughout the
Muslim Caucasus. As a Russian officer described the incident:
“It was dark: by the light of the burning thatch we saw a man standing in the
doorway of the house, which stood on raised ground, rather above us. This man,
who was very tall and powerfully built, stood quite still, as if giving us time
to take aim. Then, suddenly, with the spring of a wild beast, he leapt clean
over the heads of the very line of soldiers about to fire on him, and landing
behind them, whirling his sword in his left hand, he cut down three of them, but
was bayoneted by the fourth, the steel plunging deep into his chest. His face
still extraordinary in its immobility, he seized the bayonet, pulled it out of
his own flesh, cut down the man and, with another superhuman leap, cleared the
wall and vanished into the darkness. We were left absolutely dumbfounded.”
The Russians paid little attention to Shamyl's escape, confident that with the
destruction of the Murids capital they had achieved a final victory. They could
not guess that thirty years of war, at a price of half a million Russian lives,
awaited them at his hands.
After his dramatic escape from Ghimri, the wounded Shamyl painfully made his way
to a saklia, a cottage in the glacier-riven heights of Daghestan. A shepherd
sent word to his wife Fatima, who came secretly to him, and nursed him through a
long fever, binding up eighteen bayonet and sword wounds. Months later, Shamyl
was able once more to travel, and hearing of the death of Ghazi Mollahs
successor, was acclaimed by the Muslims as al-Imam al-Azam, Leader of all the
Shamyl had been born in 1796 to a noble family from the Avar people of southern
Daghestan. Growing up with his friend Ghazi Mollah, he divided his austere
childhood between the mosque and the narrow terraces around Ghimri, where he
grazed his familys sheep. Often he would look over the edges, down into the five
thousand foot abyss beneath the village, and watch the lightning flash in the
thunderclouds below. In the further distance, on the slopes, could be seen the
ghostly glow of naphtha fires, where natural oil came bubbling up through the
stones, burning for years.
This harsh landscape, and the rigorous Caucasian upbringing which went with it,
accustomed the future Imam to a life with few worldly pleasures. When only a
child, he persuaded his father to abandon alcohol by threatening to fall on his
own dagger if he did not stop. The difficult spiritual discipline required of
him as a young scholar seemed to come naturally, and by his early twenties he
was renowned for all the virtues which the Caucasus respected: courage in
battle, a mastery of the Arabic language, Tafsir and Fiqh, and a spiritual
nobility which left a profound impression on all who met him.
Together with Ghazi Mollah, he bacame the disciple of Muhammad Yaraghli, the
strict mystically-minded scholar who taught the young men that their own
spiritual purity was not enough: they must fight to make Allah's laws supreme.
The Sharia must replace the pagan laws of the Caucasian tribes. Only then would
Allah give them victory over the Russian hosts.
Shamyl's first exploits as Imam were purely defensive. The Russians under
General Fese had launched a new attack on Central Daghestan . Here, in the aoul
of Ashilta, as the Russians approached, two thousand Murids took an oath on the
Quran to defend it to the death. After a bitter hand-to-hand fight through the
streets, the Russians captured and destroyed the town, taking no prisoners. The
stage was set for a long and bitter war.
Shamyl was no stranger to war with Europeans. While performing the Hajj in 1828,
he had met Emir Abd al-Qader, the heroic leader of Algerian resistance against
the French, who shared with him his views on guerilla warfare. The two men,
although fighting three thousand miles from each other, were very similar both
in their scholarly interests and in their methods of war. Both realised the
impossibility of winning pitched battles against the large and well-equipped
European armies, and the need for sophisticated techniques for dividing the
enemy and luring him into remote mountains and forests, there to be dispatched
by quick, elusive guerilla attacks.
The weakness of Shamyl's position in the Caucasus was his need to defend the
aouls. His men, moving with lightning speed, could always dodge an enemy, or
deal him a surprise blow from behind. But the villages, despite their
fortifications, were vulnerable to Russian siege methods backed up with modern
Shamyl learnt this lesson in 1839, at the aoul of Akhulgo. This mountain
fastness, protected by gorges on three sides, was itself divided into two by a
terrifying chasm spanned by a seventy-foot bridge of wooden planks. Akhulgo had
already filled with refugees fleeing from the Russian advance, and the presence
of so many women and children to feed made the prospect of a long siege an ugly
one. But he would retreat no further: here he made his stand.
By this time, the Naqshbandi army numbered some six thousand, divided into units
of five hundred men, each under the command of a Naib (deputy). These Naibs,
tough and scholarly, were a mystery to the Russians. In the thirty years of the
Caucasian war, not one was ever captured alive. At Akhulgo, these men fortified
the settlement as best they could, and then, in the evening after sunset
prayers, went upon the roofs to sing Shamyl's Zabur, the religious chant he had
composed to replace the trivial drinking-songs they had known before. There were
many other chants, too; the most familiar to the Russians being the Death Song,
heard when a Russian victory seemed imminent and the Chechens tied themselves to
each other, and prepared to fight to the end.
The Russian attack began on June 29. The Russians attempted to scale the cliffs,
and lost three hundred and fifty men to the Mujahideen, who threw rocks and
burning logs upon them. Chastened, the Russians withdrew for four days, until
they could place their artillery so as to bombard the walls from a safe
distance. But although the walls were pounded to rubble, each time the Russians
attacked, the Murids appeared from the ruins of the aoul and threw them back
with heavy casualties.
Conditions in the village, however, were becoming desperate. Many had died, and
their bodies were rotting under the summer sun, spreading a pestilential stench.
Food supplies were almost exhausted. Hearing this news from a spy, the Russian
general, Count Glasse, decided on an allout assault. Three columns he directed
to attack simultaneously, thereby dividing the defenders fire.
The first column, carrying scaling ladders, climbed a cliff on one side of a
ravine. But from the apparently bare rocks on the opposing cliff, gunfire
directed by Chechen sharpshooters decimated their ranks within minutes. The
officers were soon all killed, and the six hundred men, their backs against the
cliff, were left trapped by the Murids in the knowledge that exhaustion and
exposure would finish them off before dawn.
The second column attempted to make its way to the aoul along the ravine floor.
This too ended in disaster, as the defenders rolled down boulders upon them, so
that only a few dozen returned. The third column, inching along a precipice,
found itself attacked by hundreds of women and children who had been hidden in
caves for safety. The women cut their way through the Russian ranks, while their
children, daggers in both hands, ran under the Russians and slashed at them from
beneath. Here, as always in Chechenya, the women fought desperately, knowing
that they had even more to lose than the men. Under this screaming and bloody
onslaught, the Russian column staggered and fell back.
Baffled, Count Glasse sent a messenger to Shamyl to arrange a parley. Conditions
at the aoul were extreme, and Shamyl, with a heavy heart, struck a deal,
agreeing to release his eight-year old son Jamal al-Din as a hostage, on
condition that the Russian army departed and left the aoul in peace. But no
sooner had the boy been put on the road to St Petersburg than the artillery
barrage opened up again, and Akhulgo was once more pounded from every side.
Shamyl realised that he had been duped.
The next day, the Russians advanced again on Akhulgo, and found it populated
only ravens greedily feeding on corpses. The survivors had slipped away during
the night. The only Muslims to remain, those too weak to withdraw, were
discovered hiding in the caverns in the nearby cliffs, which were reached with
the utmost difficulty. A Russian officer later recorded this as follows:
“We had to lower soldiers by means of ropes. Our troops were almost overcome by
the stench of the numberless corpses. In the chasm between the two Akhulgos, the
guard had to be changed every few hours. More than a thousand bodies were
counted; large numbers were swept downstream, or lay bloated on the rocks. Nine
hundred prisoners were taken alive, mostly women, children and old men; but, in
spite of their wounds and exhaustion, even these did not surrender easily. Some
gathered up their last force, and snatched the bayonets from their guards. The
weeping and wailing of the few children left alive, and the sufferings of the
wounded and dying, completed the tragic scene.”
Shamyl had made a desperate attempt to lead his family and disciples away during
the night. His wife Fatima was eight months pregnant, and his second wife
Jawhara was carrying her two month- old baby Said. But together they managed to
inch along a precipice unknown to the Russians, until they reached the torrent
below. Here, the Imam brought a tree down to form a makeshift bridge. Fatima
crossed safely with her younger son Ghazi Muhammad; but Jawhara was spotted by a
Russian sharpshooter, who killed her with a single bullet, sending her and her
child toppling over to vanish into the raging torrent. Slowly, Shamyl, his
depleted family, and the surviving Mujahideen, dodged the Russian patrols, who
were now being aided by the Ghimrians who had gone over to the Russian side.
Once they encountered a Russian platoon, and in the ensuing fight the young
Ghazi Muhammad received a bayonet wound.. But <Shamyl's sword accounted for the
Russian officer, whose men fled in terror. They were free again: as at Ghimri,
the Imam had effected a miraculous escape.
Count Grabbes report described the capture of Akhulgo in glowing terms. The
Murid sect, he wrote, has fallen with all its followers and adherents. The Tsar
was delighted; but again, the Russian celebrations were premature. While Shamyl
was free he was undefeated. And Moscow had once again given the Caucasus reason
to seek freedom.
In 1840, Shamyl raised a new army, and again unfurled his black banners. With
the Russians falling back along the Black Sea coast in the face of a Circassian
uprising, conditions were right for a major campaign, and by the end of the
year, the Imam had retaken Akhulgo, and led his forces onto the plains of Lower
Chechenya , capturing fort after fort. The Russian response was chaotic: one
sortie led by Grabbe resulted in the death of over two thousand Russians. A new
commander, the Tsars favourite General Neidhardt, promised to exchange Shamyl's
head for its weight in gold to anyone who could capture him; but all in vain.
Again and again the Imperial legions were drawn into the dark forests, divided,
Shamyl's techniques, meanwhile, were improving all the time. On one occasion, he
attacked a Russian position with ten thousand men, only to reappear less than
twenty-four hours later fifty miles away, to attack another outpost: an
astonishing feat. One military historian has written: The rapidity of this long
march over a mountainous country, the precision of the combined operation, and
above all the fact that it was prepared and carried out under the Russians very
eyes, entitle Shamyl to rank as something more than a guerilla leader, even of
the highest class.
Russia 's next move was a bold attack by ten thousand men on Shamyl's new
capital of Dargo. The commander, General Vorontsov, drove through Chechenya and
Central Daghestan , encountering little resistance, and finding that Shamyl had
burnt the aouls rather than allow them to fall into his hands. Confident, and
contemptuous of the Asiatic rabble, he decided to lunge through the final ten
miles of forest that separated him from Dargo and <Shamyl's warriors. But when
the Russians arrived, again to find that Shamyl had fired the aoul, and turned
to retrace their steps, disaster overtook them. Shamyl had watched their advance
through his telescope, and calmly directed his Murids to take up positions from
which to ambush and harry the Russians. Fighting alongside the Muslims were six
hundred Russian and Polish deserters, who dismayed the Russian troopers by
singing old army songs at night, their mocking voices rising eerily from the
hidden depths of the forest.
Shamyl had positioned four cannon slightly above the devastated aoul, and the
Russians charged these and took them with little difficulty. But their way back
lay through cornfields that concealed dozens of Murids, who stood up to fire,
hiding themselves again before the dazed Russians could shoot back. A hundred
and eighty-seven men died before the remains of this column rejoined the main
army. Not even the bayoneting of the Chechen prisoners could raise Russian
spirits after this omen of impending disaster.
The Russians now began to retreat back through the forest. But the woods were
now alive with unseen foes. Slippery barricades blocked their way, and forced
them to leave the paths, slashing their way towards ambuscades and bloody
confusion. Hundreds of Russians died, including two generals. Heavy rain turned
the paths to mud, and made rifles useless, so that at times the two sides fought
silently with stones and bare hands. To escape the invisible snipers, the
terrified Vorontsov himself insisted on being carried inside an iron box on the
shoulders of a colonel. Thus trapped, with over two thousand wounded, and with
only sixty bullets left apiece, the desperate Russians sent messengers to
General Freitag at Grozny , begging for reinforcements.
At this crucial moment, Imam Shamyl received news that his wife Fatima was
dying. He immediately gave orders for the continuing of the battle, and left for
the day-long journey to the aoul where she lay. After holding her in his arms as
she died, he rode back, to discover, to his deep distress, that his men had
disobeyed him. Melting away at the sight of Freitags troops, they had allowed
Vorontsovs column to limp out of the forest without further loss. Shamyl boiled
with fury, and he fiercely denounced those who had shown faintheartedness
instead of clinching the victory. But Russia had paid dearly, as the forest soil
of Dargo folded around the bodies of three generals, two hundred officers, and
almost four thousand infantrymen. Even today, Russian soldiers remember the
Dargo catastrophe in a gloomy song:
In the heat of noonday,
in the vale of Daghestan,
With a bullet in my heart, I lie ...
For another ten years, Shamyl's flags flew over Chechenya and Daghestan,
proclaiming what Caucasians still refer to as the Time of Sharia. The Tsar,
fuming in his vast palace in St Petersburg , received message after courteous
message from his generals praising their own victories; yet still Shamyl ruled.
Vorontsov, Neidhardt and others were recalled, and died in gilded obscurity. But
in 1851, command was given to a younger man, General Beriatinsky, the Muscovy
Devil who was to change the course of the war for ever.
The new Russian commander knew his enemy, and adapted his techniques
accordingly. He knew that the Chechens disliked going into battle unless they
had performed their wudu-ablutions, so he ensured that great dams were built to
cut off the water supply to his opponents. He adopted a policy of bribing
villages into accepting Russian authority, and delayed the enserfment process
indefinitely. He ended the former policy of informally butchering women and
children during the capture of aouls. But his most significant innovation was
his long, slow campaign against the forests. Like the Americans in Vietnam and
the French in Algeria , he realised that his enemy could only be defeated on
open ground. He thus deputed a hundred thousand men to cut down the great beech
trees of the region. Some were so vast that axes were inadequate, and explosives
had to be used instead. But slowly, the forests of Chechenya and Daghestan
disappeared; while Shamyl, watching from the heights, could do nothing to bring
In 1858, the last great battle erupted. The Ingush people, driven from their
aouls by the Russians into camps around the garrison town of Nazran , revolted,
and called on Shamyl for aid. He rode down from the mountains with his
mujahideen, but sustained a crippling defeat under the cannon of a relief column
sent to support the beleaguered garrison. When he returned to the mountains, he
found the support of his people beginning to melt away. Whole aouls went over to
the Russians rather than submit to siege and inevitable destruction. Even some
of his most faithful lieutenants deserted him, and guided Russian troops to
attack his few remaining redoubts.
In June 1859, Shamyl retreated to the most inaccessible aoul of all: Gounib.
Here, with three hundred devoted Murids, he determined to make a last stand. The
Russians were driven back time and again; but finally, after praying at length,
and moved by Beriatinskys threat to slaughter his entire family if he was not
captured alive, he agreed to lay down his arms.
Thus ended the Time of Sharia in the Caucasus . The Imam was transported north
to meet the Tsar, and then banished to a small town near Moscow . Here he dwelt,
with a diminishing band of family and relations, until 1869, when the Tsar
allowed him to leave and live in retirement in the Holy Cities. His last voyage,
through Turkey and the Middle East , was tumultuous, as vast crowds turned out
to cheer the Imam whose name had become a legend throughout the lands of Islam.
His son Ghazi Muhammad, released from Russian captivity in 1871, travelled to
meet him at Makka. He arrived, however, when the Imam was away on a visit to
Madina. As he was walking around the Holy Kaba, a tattered, green-turbaned man
came up and suddenly cried, O believers, pray now for the great soul of the Imam
It was true: on that same day, Shamyl, murmuring Allah! Allah!, had passed on to
eternal life in Paradise . He was buried, amid great throngs and much emotion,
in the Baqi Cemetery . But his name lives still; and even today, in the homes of
his descendents in Istanbul and Madina, in flats whose walls are still adorned
with the faded banners of black, mothers sing to their children words which will
be remembered for as long as Muslims live in Chechenya and Daghestan:
O mountains of Gounib,
O soldiers of Shamyl,
Shamyl's citadel was full of warriors,
Yet it has fallen, fallen forever ...