Imam Shamil was born in 1796 in the Avar village of Gimry, Dagestan and grew up with the future Imam, Ghazi Mohammed. Later, during their studies at Yaraghl, both adopted a strain of Sufi Islam called Naqshbandiyya, which was brought to the region by Arab conquerors in the 8th century (Blanch, 57). By the time Shamil reached adolescence, Russians were already present in the North Caucasus. Beginning in 1785, Sheikh Mansur had led a six-year campaign to resist Russian expansion. Mansur’s fighters were inexperienced and no match for the Russian army and the resistance ultimately failed. Mansur did introduce two elements, Sufi teachings and ghazawat (holy war), that would become central to future resistance movements including Shamil’s (Smith, 40). The atrocities conducted on the North Caucasians during Russian General Yermolov’s campaign added to a growing sense of discontent among the population. Gammer says of Yermolov’s actions, “not only did his extremely brutal and cruel methods fail to achieve the intended results, they also increased Chechen’s internal resistance” (Gammer, 43). Ghazi Mohammed, the first Imam of Dagestan and Shamil’s childhood friend, was able to gather a group of followers, or murids, who formed a rough army willing to participate in the ghazawat. His successes caused the Russian army to begin a full-scale assault in 1932. Shamil joined the muridism movement and served under the next Imam, Hamza Bek. When Hamza Bek was assassinated in 1834, another guerilla, Hajji Tasho, challenged Shamil’s claim to be his successor. The competition between the two lasted until 1836, when Hajji Tasho finally recognized Shamil’s superiority (Gammer, 51).
In response to Shamil’s growing guerrilla movement, the Russian army launched another round of military campaigns in Dagestan in 1837 and 1839. For a brief period of time, Russian administrators believed they had defeated Shamil and his forces, who had merely relocated to Shutoy in Chechnya. Impressed with Shamil’s religious wisdom and military prowess, the population of Shutoy asked Shamil to lead a renewed resistance movement (Gammer, 56). After several failed attempts by the Russian army to crush the guerillas with massive manpower and force, Tsar Nicholas sent a new viceroy, Count Vorontsov, to contain the situation. Vorontsov quickly fell back on the tactics of General Yermolov, whose brutal campaigns from 1816 to 1826 were a factor in the mobilization of Caucasian resistance in the first place. In 1845, Vorontsov led a campaign to capture Shamil’s capital in Dargo. When Russian troops entered the city, it appeared that the guerillas had been forced to retreat. In reality, they were setting themselves up to unleash a barrage of ambushes and sniper attacks on the Russian army, which was eventually forced to retreat (Smith, 47).
The defeat at Dargo revealed the Russian army’s complete inability to fight unconventional guerilla warfare and led Vorontsov to adopt tactics more appropriate for the insurgency the Russian army faced. Some 50,000 Russian troops were needed to separate Shamil and his fighters from the population that supported them (Smith, 49), but by 1858 the Russian army controlled most of Shamil’s domains (Gammer, 64). Finally, in 1859, Shamil surrendered to Prince Baryatinsky at Gunibin. After his surrender, Shamil was taken to Russia and put under house arrest in Kaluga, where he befriended Tsar Alexander II. Imam Shamil was allowed a pilgrimage to Mecca before his death in 1871 (Smith, 52). Although Shamil and his murids failed to drive the Russians out of the Northern Caucasus region, the movement had a lasting impact there. Future resistance movements would continue Shamil’s dedication to shari’a law and use Sufi Islam to mobilize support.
- Lesley Blanch, The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus ( New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004).
- Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006).
- Sebastian Smith, Allah’s Mountains: Politics and War in the Russian Caucasus (New York: I.B. Tauris, 1998).