Military history



The Holy War against Russia in
Chechnya and Dagestan, 1829–1859

INSURGENTS DO NOT often set up fortified redoubts; their strengths lie in mobility and invisibility, not in military engineering. But, though relatively rare, rebel strongholds can be devilishly hard to attack if well, meaning inconveniently, situated. One of the first and most famous of all was at Masada, where Herod the Great had built palaces atop a steep mountain in the lion-colored Judean desert, 1,400 feet above the Dead Sea. Here the Jewish Zealot sect, fewer than a thousand in number, held out for three years after the fall of Jerusalem and finally committed mass suicide rather than be captured alive by a Roman army, 15,000 strong, in AD 73. A thousand years later, the medieval Muslim sect known as the Assassins operated out of a nearly impregnable fortress known as Alamut in the Elburz Mountains of northern Persia. Not nearly as well known today, but just as formidable to its besiegers, was the nineteenth-century citadel of Gimri, an aoul, or fortified village, built of stone and sun-baked mud, high in the mountains of Dagestan.

“The bare rock face towered up from the valley in unbroken slabs of limestone,” wrote one traveler. “There were no trees, no foothold anywhere.” Only two tracks led to its entrance, neither one wide enough to let more than one man pass at a time. “A whole regiment could be held at bay by a handful of sharp-shooters.” Reaching Gimri was especially difficult when snow was on the ground, as it was in the fall of 1832 when a Russian army approached the site. Yet the Russians were not dissuaded. Their commander, General Alexander Veliaminov, declared, “Could a dog pass? Then that’s enough. Where a dog can go, so can a Russian soldier.” And he ordered his men upward through a thick mist.

By October 17, 1832, some ten thousand Russian soldiers had surrounded Gimri and were ready to launch an assault. Inside, they knew, was Ghazi Muhammad, the man who three years earlier had proclaimed a gazavat (sacred struggle) against them. He became known as the first imam of Dagestan, and his followers were called the murid (“he who seeks” in Arabic). Although they were influenced primarily by the Sufist tradition, their “fanatical puritan movement,” wrote two historians, “was in many ways comparable to the contemporary Wahabi movement in Arabia.” Ghazi Muhammad managed to make life uncomfortable for the Russians by striking into the neighboring province of Chechnya. In August 1832 he ambushed five hundred Cossacks in a forest, killing more than a hundred of them.

The Russian forces sent out to round up the murids found it a frustrating experience—just as frustrating as it was for American soldiers sent to track down Indian war parties or French soldiers sent to find Haitian or Spanish revolutionaries. General Fedor Fedorovich Tornau left a vivid account of campaigning against this “ferocious, tireless enemy.” Each day, he wrote, was pretty much like another—“only at rare intervals” did face-to-face clashes with guerrillas vary “the deadly monotony of the proceedings.” More often, Russian troops marched from one campsite to another pursued by an invisible foe. “Fighting went on from beginning to end of each march: there was the chatter of musketry, the hum of bullets; men fell; but no enemy was seen.” Soldiers who became separated from the main body, such as sharpshooters who operated in pairs, would suffer a gruesome fate reminiscent of French troops in Haiti: “the Chechens would rise as it were out of the ground, rush at the isolated couples and cut them to pieces before their comrades could come to the rescue.” Even in fortified bivouacs there was little security from “the bullets with which the Chechens favored us nearly every night, creeping up to the camp in spite of all precautions.”

Russian troops reacted much as American troops did against the Indians: “Small columns were sent out on all sides to ravage the enemy’s fields and dwellings. The aouls blaze, the crops are mown down, the musketry rattles, the guns thunder; again the wounded are brought in and the dead.”

On those rare occasions when the murids were cornered, they fought with a magnificent disregard for their own lives. In 1832 the Russians stormed the aoul of Germentchug, the largest and richest in Chechnya, with over six hundred houses. After the initial assault, only three houses remained in the murids’ hands. Under heavy fire, Russian volunteers set fire to the houses and threw grenades down their chimneys. “There was nothing left for the enemy but to surrender or burn,” General Tornau wrote. But when an emissary asked for their capitulation, “a half-naked Chechen, black with smoke,” emerged to declare, “We want no quarter; the only grace we ask of the Russians is to let our families know that we died as we lived, refusing submission to any foreign yoke.” Suddenly the door of a burning house was flung open and a Chechen charged out sword in hand. He was immediately shot down. Five minutes later the same thing happened. By the time the fires had been extinguished, seventy-two murids had died. Not one had been taken alive.

Given such fanatical resistance, which was hardly typical of nineteenth-century imperial campaigns, the Russians were understandably pleased to have cornered Ghazi Muhammad in 1832. Eliminate him, they figured, and his movement would collapse. As usual, the murids fought to the death, but the Russians smashed through their fortifications. As they were about to complete the conquest of Gimri, however, a group of soldiers noticed a man in the doorway of a house just outside the aoul. He was “very tall and powerfully built” and was on an elevated stoop. He pulled out his sword, hitched up his robe, and charged through the door. An officer described what happened next:

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.

The Russian soldiers were “left absolutely dumbfounded” by this spectacle, but they thought no more of it. What, after all, was the escape of one man when the rest of the murids had been killed, Ghazi Muhammad among them? Surely now, they must have thought, these ignorant mountaineers would reconcile themselves to the enlightened rule of the tsars. Little did the Russians suspect that the man who escaped—his name was Shamil—would wage unremitting warfare on them for the next quarter century and become one of the legendary guerrilla commanders of the century.49

JUST LIKE THE English settlers of North America, the Russians started off on the periphery of a continent—in their case, Asia—and over the course of centuries advanced toward the Pacific Ocean as well as points north and south. Both nationalities, whose advance eventually collided in Alaska, justified their conquests with sweeping doctrines: the Americans claimed to be pursuing “manifest destiny,” the Russians to be championing Orthodox Christianity.

From our perspective, the most telling similarity was in the adversaries they encountered. Both bumped up against some relatively advanced states: the United States would fight Britain, Mexico, and Spain; the Russians clashed with Poland, Sweden, Persia, Turkey, and China. But most of the opposition in both America and Asia came from nonstate peoples. The “Wild Field,” as the Russians called their steppe frontier, was even more unsettled and dangerous than the Wild West, because Asian nomads were more numerous than the American Indians. Russian attempts to regulate relations with Mongol and Turkic tribes proved as unsatisfactory as the interactions of their American counterparts with the Seminole and Sioux. In both cases the tribes were so decentralized that no headman could bind all of his warriors or enforce control over recognized international boundaries. That led both Washington and St. Petersburg to fight countless small wars against skilled if primitive guerrillas.

The Russians had relatively little trouble subduing Siberia from the 1550s to the 1600s and Central Asia from the 1860s to the 1880s, because the terrain in both places was relatively flat and accessible. In between came the conquest of the Caucasian isthmus wedged between the Black Sea and the Caspian. That was tougher going. The Caucuses had some of Europe’s tallest mountains, and they were home to obstreperous tribesmen, mostly Muslims, who had raided their more settled neighbors for centuries. “Every man was a born rider, a keen swordsman, and a good shot,”50 wrote the English author John F. Baddeley, who traveled in the region during the late nineteenth century. Another English traveler, Lesley Blanch, who arrived in the twentieth century, described their violent code of conduct: “Vengeance, vendetta, or kanly, was often pursued through three or four generations, decimating whole families, till there was no one left.”51 Constantly warring among themselves, these mountain peoples would unite to repel outsiders.

General Alexei Yermolov, a hero of the Napoleonic Wars, tried to impose order on this unruly region, much as the Americans were to do with the trans-Mississippi West, when he was appointed its administrator in 1816. He began by erecting the fort that grew into the city of Grozny (“Menacing”). To deal with Chechens who sniped at his construction crews, he left a cannon at a predetermined spot not far from the city walls. When the Chechens rushed out of hiding to claim the seemingly abandoned gun, they were mown down by grape and canister shot. This was indicative of Yermolov’s brutal methods, which were decidedly not of the population-centric school. “I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses . . . ,” he declared in a classic expression of the “scorched-earth” approach to counterinsurgency practiced by Assyria, Nazi Germany, and many other autocratic states over the ages. “Condescension in the eyes of the Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably severe. One execution saves hundreds of thousands of Russians from destruction, and thousands of Mussulmans from treason.”52

For a time Yermolov did manage to bring about a semblance of pacification. But in the end he generated more rebellion than he suppressed. Leo Tolstoy, who as a junior officer served in the Caucasus, wrote that the inhabitants’ feelings toward the Russians became “stronger than hate”: “it was such repulsion, disgust, and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them—like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves—was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation.”53 That repulsion manifested itself in the gazavat that broke out in 1829 in Chechnya and Dagestan, which together had a population of about 200,000.54

Neither Ghazi Muhammad, the first imam, nor his successor, Hamzat Bek, had much luck in rallying the highlands tribes. Tribal elders did not accept their authority to impose a puritanical version of sharia law that banned dancing, music, and tobacco. In 1834 Hamzat Bek was assassinated by tribal rivals.55 Shamil, who had escaped the Russian assault on Gimri two years earlier, became the third and last imam. He had a good deal more success in fomenting a broad-based, long-lasting insurgency against the “infidels”—one that would continue to inspire Chechen rebels against Russian rule well into the twenty-first century.

MUCH LIKE TOUSSAINT Louverture, another dispossessed freedom fighter of aristocratic lineage, Shamil was born to a nobleman in Gimri around 1796. He was a childhood friend of the slightly older Ghazi Muhammad, who helped him learn Arabic and instructed him in Islam. A skilled horseman, sword fighter, and gymnast, Shamil cut an impressive figure, standing six feet three inches and appearing taller still because of his heavy lambskin cap, the papakh. His flowing beard was dyed orange with henna, and his face was, in Tolstoy’s telling, “as immovable as though hewn out of stone.” His force of personality was such that one of his followers said that “flames darted form his eyes and flowers fell from his lips.”56 The escape from Gimri gave him a superhuman aura—an impression only heightened in 1839 when he escaped another Russian assault on anotheraoul by sending a raft loaded with straw dummies floating down a river while he and a few followers went in the opposite direction.57

To keep a desperate resistance going against overwhelming odds required the ability not only to inspire hope but also to instill fear. Shamil was a master of both. He traveled everywhere with his own personal executioner, chopping off heads and hands for violating the dictates of Allah and his humble servant, the Commander of the Faithful in the Caucasus.58 He did not hesitate to slaughter entire aouls that did not heed his demands.

When a group of Chechens, hard-pressed by the Russians, sought permission to surrender, they were so afraid of his wrath that they conveyed their request through Shamil’s mother, thinking this would make him more amenable. Upon hearing what she had to say, Shamil announced that he would seek divine guidance to formulate an answer. He spent the next three days and nights in a mosque, fasting and praying. He emerged with bloodshot eyes to announce, “It is the will of Allah that whoever first transmitted to me the shameful intentions of the Chechen people should receive one hundred severe blows, and that person is my own mother!” To the astonished gasps of the crowd, his murids seized the old lady and began beating her with a plaited strap. She fainted after the fifth blow. Shamil announced that he would take upon himself the rest of the punishment, and ordered his men to beat him with heavy whips, vowing to kill anyone who hesitated. He absorbed the ninety-five blows “without betraying the least sign of suffering.” Or so legend had it.59

This street theater—or more accurately the tales told about it, which no doubt improved in the telling—helped animate Shamil’s followers to maintain a fierce resistance. Indeed modern-day Chechen rebels such as the late Shamil Basayev, alleged architect of the 2005 Beslan school siege that killed over 350 people, continue to be inspired by the original Shamil’s penchant for theatrical violence even if they have never been able to match his military success. He mobilized over ten thousand murids to conquer much of Chechnya and Dagestan and inflicted thousands of casualties on Russian pursuers. But just as extreme ferocity can backfire for a counterinsurgent, the same is true for an insurgent. Over time, his ruthlessness cost Shamil popular support—as it did for more recent Chechen rebels. Tribal chieftains who did not want to cede authority to this religious firebrand turned for support to the Russians. So did many ordinary villagers who balked at his demands for annual tax payments amounting to 12 percent of their harvest.60 Even some of Shamil’s top lieutenants defected, notably Hadji Murad, who went over to the infidels in 1851. He tried to return to the murids the following year but was killed by Russian troops—a tragic story that formed the basis of Tolstoy’s novella Hadji Murad.

The Crimean War further damaged Shamil’s cause by flooding the Caucasus with fresh Russian troops, raising the total from 30,000 to 200,000, to deal with the threat of an Ottoman invasion.61 The British, French, and Turks—Russia’s enemies—talked of aiding the murids but did little. A British envoy who visited the region in 1855 was appalled that Shamil and his followers were trying to create “a new Empire in the Caucasus, based upon the principles of Mahomedan fanaticism and domination.”62

In Iraq between 2007 and 2008 the success of the American “surge” was made possible by waning support for Al Qaeda in Iraq and an influx of American troops, but it still took the arrival of a new general with a fresh concept of counterinsurgency to deliver the coup de grâce to a faltering insurgency. Much the same thing happened in Chechnya and Dagestan in the 1850s. The Russian precursor of David Petraeus was Prince Alexander Bariatinsky. He took over as viceroy of the Caucasus in 1856, following the accession of his childhood friend as Tsar Alexander II. In contrast to the reactionary predecessor, Nicholas I, the new tsar was a modernizer and a liberal. He encouraged Bariatinsky to try a more conciliatory approach. Whereas Shamil traveled with his executioner, Bariatinsky traveled with his treasurer, doling out bribes to tribal leaders. Those elders also received more autonomy within the imperial system and protection from the fanatical murids. “I restored the power of the khans as a force inimical to theocratic principle,” Bariatinsky explained.63 In addition, he encouraged Muslim clerics to denounce Shamil as an apostate and to preach a doctrine of nonviolence. To address local grievances, he issued orders to allow women and children to escape from besieged aouls instead of simply killing everyone as in the past. He even sponsored greater educational opportunities for women. “I believe it is important,” Bariatinsky wrote, “to win the greatest possible devotion of the territory to the government, and to administer each nationality with affection and complete respect for its cherished customs and traditions.”64

Like all great counterinsurgents, even the most liberal, Bariatinsky did not limit himself to such “hearts and minds” appeals. Building on the work of his predecessor Mikhail Vorontsov, he undertook large-scale clear-cutting of forests to flush out the murids, and he built bridges to reach their mountain aeries. He also issued his soldiers rifled weapons, which were considerably more effective than the flintlocks employed in the past. Rather than undertake futile punitive expeditions, he launched a systematic reduction of all rebel strongholds in Dagestan.

The final push began in 1858 with three armies converging on the murids’ fortresses. Shamil’s aeries fell one after another until finally he was left with just 400 followers in the aoul of Gunib facing an army of 40,000. Seeing the hopelessness of the situation, Shamil surrendered on August 25, 1859. He pledged allegiance to the tsar and urged his followers to lay down their arms. Thus ended three decades of murid wars.65

THE CIVILIZATIONAL STRIFE pitting Muslim raiders against countries full of unbelievers may not be new, but it has changed shape over the centuries. Shamil’s willingness to give up was characteristic of other nineteenth-century Muslim resistance leaders such as Samory Touré in West Africa and Abd el-Kader in Algeria—and quite different from most of their twenty-first-century successors. Few nineteenth-century rebels was as fanatical as modern-day jihadists. Many showed greater regard for innocent life, even the life of Christians and Jews, than is the case with Hezbollah or Al Qaeda. Abd el-Kader won widespread approbation, including a letter of thanks from Shamil, for interceding during his exile in Damascus to protect Christians from Muslim rioters in 1860. It is hard to imagine a leader of Al Qaeda showing similar regard for “crusaders.” In turn, it is hard to imagine Al Qaeda captives being treated as well as Shamil or Abd el-Kader were. Far from being sent to a detention facility such as Guantánamo, the former was given a country house in Russia and an allowance by the tsar, while the latter, after leading resistance against French rule in Algeria for fifteen years (1832–47), was provided a generous French pension and a comfortable exile.66

One thing that has not changed over the years is the steep cost of these wars. The British traveler and historian John Baddeley summed up the Caucasus after the end of their “pacification”: “whole families exterminated, whole villages destroyed, whole communities decimated.”67 Even among the victors, the toll was high. According to a modern history, “From the annexation of eastern Georgia in 1801 until the end of the Circassian campaign in 1864, as many as twenty-four thousand Russian soldiers and eight hundred officers were killed in the Caucasus, plus perhaps three times that number wounded and captured.”68

In other words, the pacification of the Caucasus was twenty-one times more costly than the pacification of the trans-Mississippi West. No wonder that Russian authors such as Tolstoy and Lermontov, who served in the Caucasus, produced a rich literature chronicling the Russian achievement in epic if ambivalent tones that in sheer artistic achievement put to shame the numerous novels and movies of the American West.69

Rudyard Kipling aside, the British did not produce a comparable literature of empire. But the raw materials were certainly there. It is hard, for example, to imagine a more moving or tragic event than the famous retreat from Kabul in 1842, which, like the wars in the Caucasus, occurred at a time—prior to the last quarter of the nineteenth century—when Europeans did not yet have an insuperable technological advantage over the peoples of Asia. Westerners may have possessed superior warships and artillery, but they did not yet have machine guns and repeating rifles, let alone radios, armored cars, and aircraft. Their opponents were often armed with rifles and muskets just as good as, if not better than, their own—and they fought on their home ground, which was often inhospitable to European attempts to bring massed firepower to bear. Even more brutally than Custer’s Last Stand, the First Afghan War showed how under such conditions the arrogance and carelessness of Westerners could lead them to disaster.

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