All this week, the Volokh Conspiracy is kindly allowing me to run excerpts from my newly released book, Invisible Armies: an Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Modern Day. Today’s section concerns Shamil, the great Muslim leader who fought Russian occupation of Chechnya and Dagestan in the 19th century. The story begins with the Russian campaign to defeat his predecessor as rebel leader, Ghazi Muhammad:
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….
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.”
The escape from Gimri gave him a superhuman aura—an impression only heightened in 1839 when he escaped another Russian assault on another aoul by sending a raft loaded with straw dummies floating down a river while he and a few followers went in the opposite direction.
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. 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.
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.
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.