Aleksey Petrovich Ermolov (also spelled Yermolov) was a Russian general who played a prominent role in the tsar’s campaigns into the Caucasus during the early nineteenth century. Ermolov first gained notoriety in his defense of Russia from foreign conquest during the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, he was well respected in his own time as a military leader. As a result, Ermolov was entrusted with the primary responsibility for leading the military campaign into the Caucasus. Ermolov employed a number of brutal techniques to subdue the people of the Caucasus, and as a result he became the face of Russian brutality in the region. The Russian forces entering the Caucasus in the early nineteenth century struggled to compete against the local partisan forces in the mountains.
Ermolov harsh occupation policies included the destruction of local agriculture and cultural institutions, in an attempt to break the spirit of the Chechens and move forward with the process of civilizing the local population (Kappeler, 183). Tsar Nicholas I eventually removed General Ermolov from his post in the army when it became apparent that the cruel policies against the Chechens were only breeding further discontent. Despite his removal from command in 1827, Ermolov’s legacy in the Caucasus lived far beyond his time as a military commander. In their cultural depictions of the Caucasus, Russian writers such as Pushkin praised Ermolov and glorified his adventures into the Caucasus in their novels. Similarly, the Soviets in the twentieth century revived the image of Ermolov as a “Civilizer” in the region. However, the local population resisted these campaigns and continued to resist the Russian occupation which Ermolov represented. The Chechen resistance to these symbols, particularly the removal of Ermolov’s statue from the central square in Grozny, demonstrates that Ermolov is still a relevant and controversial figure. Ermolov remains the most notable symbol of Russia’s repressive policies towards the Chechens over the past two centuries.
General Ermolov’s campaigns into the Caucasus from 1816 to 1826 feature prominently in Chechnya’s history. Ermolov’s policies towards the Chechens were particularly brutal. Ermolov and his forces perpetrated massacres against entire villages of unarmed civilians and carried out mass deportations of Chechen prisoners to Siberia (Evangelista, 13). Ermolov did everything in his capacity to weaken the local partisans militarily, even if his strategy meant the devastation of cultural institutions and the local economy. He was motivated by the strategic importance of Chechnya. Ermolov believed that Chechnya was the breadbasket of the whole mountainous region, and that by conquering Chechnya the eastern flank of the Caucasus would be easily within his grasp (Bullough, 280). For that reason, Ermolov took precautions to ensure that any sign of Chechen rebellion was met with expedient rapid response by Russian forces.
One of the high-profile rebellions to take place against Ermolov in Chechnya was led by Beg-Bulat in 1825. Beg-Bulat, a local Chechen leader, originally traveled to Daghestan to learn about the new Sufi teachings of Islam (Khodarkovsky, 76). While on the journey, Beg-Bulat learned about the new fort in Grozny. Angered by the Russian fort, Beg-Bulat demanded that the Russians vacate the fort and return to the region beyond the Sunzha River. His forces overwhelmed the garrison at the Russian fort in Grozny, killing 98 and capturing 13 of the 181 defenders (Khodarkovsky, 76). Ermolov acted swiftly and brutally against the uprising. The local population, outraged by the harsh policies imposed by Russian administrators, often attempted to push back by weakening the military fortifications in the Northern Caucasus. However, on this occasion Beg-Bulat had succeeded in humiliating the Russian forces by taking the fort at Grozny. Ermolov sought revenge with a massive military force consisting of six infantry companies, nearly 600 Cossacks, and nine pieces of artillery to crush the small group of rebels. Ermolov also rebuilt the military fortifications at Grozny and added a new fort near New Aksai (Khodarkovsky, 78). Ermolov’s treatment of the forces led by Beg-Bulat was truly grotesque, and he sent a clear message to the Chechens that rebelling against Russian influence would be met with the harshest imaginable treatment.
Ultimately, Tsar Nicholas I grew impatient with Ermolov’s brutal massacres against the Chechens. In early 1827, Nicholas I attempted to change the course of Russian occupation in Chechnya, dismissing Ermolov from his duties in the Caucasus. The tsar believed that the bloody retributions against the Chechens led by Ermolov only bred resentment and hostility among the local population towards the Russian forces (Khodarkovsky, 79-80). However, Russian intervention into the Northern Caucasus only continued to increase in the following decades. Even without General Ermolov leading the campaign in the Caucasus, the Russian forces continued to implement brutal policies against the local Caucasus peoples (Bullough, 60). The people of the Caucasus only strengthened their resolve to push Russian influence out of the homeland and continued to fight Russian soldiers in the mountains. Russia responded by increasing its presence in the region. By the 1840s, Russia sent a force numbering over 200,000 to Tiflis in order to restore order over the rebellious Caucasians. While the local population established a strong resistance movement, it was nearly impossible for rebels to overcome the massive Russian Imperial army in the Caucasus (Tien, 139). Whether or not Ermolov led the army against the local partisans in the Caucasus, military policies were designed to promote Russian influence over the Chechens. However, Ermolov’s role in the occupation gained special significance because the influential writers of the earlier nineteenth century specifically glorified his military campaigns in the region.
The depictions of the Caucasus in the literary works of prominent cultural figures such as Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Lermontov highlighted Ermolov’s military escapades. In one poem, Pushkin describes Ermolov as an almost omnipotent figure destined to rule over the Caucasus: “Bow down your snowy head, submit, O’ Caucasus, [Y]ermolov is coming” (De Waal, 43). The Russian writings about Ermolov typically praised his leadership and elevated him to the status of a mythic hero i.e. Odysseus. These writings are filled with images of Russian symbols sweeping over the Caucasus. For instance, Prisoner of the Caucasus praised the deeds of generals like Ermolov and Tsiasianov for bringing the “disaffected Caucasians” under the banner of the double-headed eagle (Bullough, 78). Ermolov and his troops carried the double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Russian Empire, into a new sphere of influence. Ermolov was seen as a hero among the people of Russia for bravely venturing into the Caucasus to fight on behalf of the tsar.
Just as these writers praised the valor of generals like Ermolov, they simultaneously depicted the people of the Caucasus as uncivilized warriors in need of the guiding influence of Russia. In order to understand why the Russian forces under Ermolov acted so brutally towards the Chechen population, it may prove instructive to explain how writers like Pushkin and Lermontov led many to fear the people of the Caucasus. Pushkin wrote in Journey to Arzrum about the local Chechens he encountered in the mountains. Pushkin portrayed the Chechen character, Beibulat Taimiev, as a fierce warrior deeply in touch with his spiritual roots. Although he fought against the tsar’s troops, Taimiev looked to interact and learn from the Russians through increased dialogue (Chesnov, 78). However, the Chechens were also seen as barbarians who could not be trusted. Lermontov’s writings on Chechnya reflect the attitude of elite Russians towards the local population, and may help to explain the inhumane treatment of the local villagers by Ermolov. In a poem by Lermontov, a Chechen travels along the banks of a river, carrying a dagger as he prepares to kill a Russian child (Tien, 138). The Chechens posed a direct threat to the Russians in these stories; therefore, it was only ‘natural’ for elite figures to believe that the people in the Caucasus required a stern hand to guide them towards “civilization.” Ermolov’s policies, although extremely brutal by any standard, were based upon a set of preconceptions articulated by the literary minds of the early nineteenth century. Despite their differences from the nineteenth century thinkers, the Soviets similarly depicted Ermolov as a hero for his campaigns against the Caucasus.
During the period of Soviet rule, there was a concerted effort to depict Ermolov’s campaign against Chechnya in the early nineteenth century as a “civilizing” mission (Evangelista, 13). Ermolov, although a depraved man in reality, was portrayed as a paternalistic figure that punished Chechnya only in order to move the local population towards this “civilized” way of life. In addition to the pro-Ermolov propaganda, the Soviets also sought to eliminate signs of indigenous culture from Chechnya altogether. The Soviets often deported local resistance leaders and started propaganda campaigns to re-write the history of Chechnya. The NKVD arrested over 14,000 local officials and intellectuals in 1937 and launched a campaign against the popular anti-colonial hero, Shamil (Tien, 142). However, the resistance against Russians in Chechnya continued despite these Soviet-led initiatives. The Russians have not been able to eliminate Chechen identity, and local resistance movements continue to fight against Russian symbols in the Caucasus.
The statue of General Ermolov in Chechnya was one of the most high profile symbols of Russian dominance over Chechen affairs. The statue erected on Beria’s orders in 1949 in Grozny, the very heart of Chechen resistance against the Soviets, featured prominently in the mind of the local population (Bullough, 237). The monument certainly evoked memories of the brutal tactics used by Ermolov during the Caucasus War, but the statue had a much deeper meaning. The statue symbolized a long history of occupation and cruelty suffered by the Chechens at the hands of the Russians. The statue was also a continuing reminder to the Chechens that they were not a sovereign people, nor had they been for centuries. At the bottom of the statue was an inscription of Ermolov’s famous quote about the Chechens: “There are no other people under the sun more perfidious and knave” (Shibnrelman, 291). The statue quite blatantly intended to denigrate the culture of the Chechen people, and the monument stood as a testament to the prolonged and unwanted Russian presence in the territory. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Ermolov’s statue inspired public hatred. From the 1960s to 1980s, several protesters attempted to either blow up or throw red paint at the Ermolov monument in the central square in Grozny (Shinrelman, 291). Attempts by Chechens to destroy the statue were only a small part of the resistance movement in Grozny. While it may have been a small symbolic victory for the Chechen rebels, the statue was finally removed in 1990 (Tien, 142). As the Soviet Union began to weaken in the late 1980s, Soviet censorship and persecution of the Chechens began to diminish. Within this context, local officials in Grozny were granted the freedom to remove the statue from the public sphere. While the removal of the statue was a minor victory for the Chechens, Ermolov still remains a contentious figure and a symbol of Russian oppression.
Andreas Kappeler, The Russian Empire: a Multiethnic History (Harlow: Longman, 2001).
Davrell Tien, “Chechen Imbroglio,” Index on Censorship 24: 2 (1995): 137-142.
Ian Veniaminovich Chesnov, “Civilization and the Chechen,” Russian Social Science Review 37:4 (July-August 1996): 76-85.
Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars: Will Russia go the way of the Soviet Union? (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2002).
Michael Khodarkovsky, Bitter Choices: Loyalty and Betrayal in the Russian Conquest of the North Caucasus (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).
Oliver Bullough, Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys among the Defiant People of the Caucasus (New York: Basic Books, 2010).
Thomas De Waal, The Caucasus: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Victor A. Shnirelman, “A Revolt of Social Memory: The Chechens and Ingush against the Soviet Historians,” in The Reconstruction and Interaction of Slavic Eurasia and Its Neighboring Worlds; Issue 10 edited by Ieda Osmu (Sapporo, Japan: Slavic Research Center, 2006).