The voices were shrill, the fear was real, the year was 1944, the place northern Caucasia, the enemy was the Russian army, its mission was the implementation of "a final solution," to solve Russia's "Muslim problem": Stalin had given Beria orders for the genocide through deportation of the entire six Muslim nations in North Caucasia.
Like the many pogroms, holocausts, and inquisitions this catastrophe would leave a deep scar on humanity's conscience, as one-third of these nations would perish during transportation in the coming weeks.
The question that begs for an answer is, why have the Russians been resorting to such callous acts against its Muslim neighbors? A short answer lies within the question i.e., religious intolerance is the hallmark of Russian socio-polity with Muslims and Jews as the prime victims.
Since its inception, the Russian state has been struggling with military insecurity and political vulnerability, two traits that gave birth to Russian authoritarianism. This characteristic was further reinforced during and after the invasion by the Mongols whose style of administration the Russians adopted.
Just as expansion in the west enabled Peter the Great to defeat the Swedes in 1725 and move his capital to St. Petersburg, expansion to the east took the Russians to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, the nineteenth century Janus manifested his two faces in the Russian polity, one European and one Asian. This duality became a hallmark of the Russian political identity.
On September 24, 1834 Shamil was proclaimed imam. Only two days later Major-General Lanskoi attacked Gimrah. The next day the Russians completely destroyed the village and its fields and vineyards; thus, Shamil, who immediately returned to Gimrah, found it a mess of ruins.
Half a Millennium of Religious Intolerance in Caucasia:
Chechnya Will Rise From Ashes … Again
By Zaman S. Stanizai
Associate Editor, Asian Affairs – The Minaret
Imam Shamil seems to have possessed the natural ability to lead men, coupled with intelligence, iron will, self-discipline, self-control and tenacity.”
--Moshe Gammer - Muslim Resistance to the Tsar
The Russians are coming!
The Russians are coming!
Echoed the fearful cries of children in the streets and on rooftops of the beautiful houses nestled against the backdrop of scenic mountains. The voices were shrill, the fear was real, the year was 1944, the place northern Caucasia, the enemy was the Russian army, its mission was the implementation of "a final solution," to solve Russia's "Muslim problem": Stalin had given Beria orders for the genocide through deportation of the entire six Muslim nations in North Caucasia: Chechens, Ingush, Karachays, Balkars, Cherkess, Muslim Ossetians (Digors), and Daghestani Avars.
Amidst fear and havoc and the chaos-inducing surprise attack, the lucky one's were packed in trucks and trains while the less fortunate ones were shot on the spot if any signs of resistance were detected in them by the Red Army. The hue and cry of the children, the tearless eyes of the elderly, the frightful looks of the mothers would send chills down the spines of any human of conscience. Alas that the Russian soldiers were numb, indifferent, and like robots followed order with no emotions.
Like the many pogroms, holocausts, and inquisitions this catastrophe would leave a deep scar on humanity's conscience, as one-third of these nations would perish during transportation in the coming weeks. (Avtorkhanov 1991:101-102). Incredible as it may seem, the mere occurrence of the genocide is the lesser of the two evils; the worse being the indifference of those who knew about it and kept quiet with indifference.
Worse still is the fact that this was neither the first of such Russian atrocities committed against the Muslims of Eurasia, nor would it be the last one. "Since the conquest and destruction of the Khanate of Kazan in 1552 by the army of Ivan the Terrible, which marked the beginning of the Russian conquest of Muslim lands, Russia has persistently tried to convert or assimilate the Tatars in order to eliminate this alien Muslim body in its midst."(Bennigsen Broxup 1994: 78) The magnitude of these human sufferings committed for the last 450 years in the name of religion is immeasurable indeed. The 'merciless slaughter' of the Nogay nomads in 1783 by Suvorov's forces typifies the Russian way of dealing with the natives of Asia and Caucasia:
"Suvorov summoned the Nogay to Eisk, on the shores of the Sea of Azov, and read to them Shaghin Girey's manifesto, in which he abdicated in favour of Catherine. The Nagoy, for centuries subjects of the Crimean khans, took the oath of allegiance to the empress. Later, however, when it became known that the Russians planned to resettle them between the Volga and the Ural (an area depopulated by the Pugachev rebellion and the migration of the Qalmuqs to Central Asia and the borders of China in 1771), the Nogay tried to resist, but found the Russian forces ready and waiting for such a move. The nomads, driven into marshy ground and having no possibility of escape, preferred to kill their wives and children and die rather than surrender – a scene to be repeated again and again during the war in the Caucasus." (Baddeley 1908: 45)
The question that begs for an answer is, why have the Russians been resorting to such callous acts against its Muslim neighbors? A short answer lies within the question i.e., religious intolerance is the hallmark of Russian socio-polity with Muslims and Jews as the prime victims. A good manifestation of this common victimization experience is the 1973 suicide of Ilya Yankelevich Gabai, a Jewish poet and teacher, protesting the mistreatment of Jews and Crimean Tatars during and after World War II. Gabai committed suicide by leaping from the balcony of his eleventh floor apartment in Moscow. (Fisher 1978:150) In the same breath one must add that Stalin's accusation of Tatar's collaboration with the Germans during World War II was unfounded and merely a pretext for the forced migration of millions of Tatars from Crimea. Khrushchev's secret speech to the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 attests to this fact. (Werth 1964: 581)
For a long answer to the question regarding religious intolerance one must go to Russian history wherein lies the roots of such hatred. Russians who belong to the Eastern Slavic group, the other two being Western Slavs and Southern or Balkan Slavs, are believed to have migrated from Central Asia. Eastern Slavs have been hunters, fisherman and farmers without a central government but with some city-states. It was only in 862 that Rurik, a Viking chief became ruler of Novgorod and his successor Oleg, captured Kiev leading to the establishment of Kievan Russia. (Wallbank 1984: 180) This political development made it imperative upon the pagan Russians to deal with Catholic Germans in the west, Orthodox Byzantine in the south and Muslim Bulgars and Khazars in the south and east respectively.
Certain elements of that early reality lingered on. Since its inception, the Russian state has been struggling with military insecurity and political vulnerability, two traits that gave birth to Russian authoritarianism. This characteristic was further reinforced during and after the invasion by the Mongols whose style of administration the Russians adopted. In later years, along the path of its socio-political growth, Russia developed an inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West and a Christian Orthodox messianic zeal vis-à-vis the Muslim East, leading to a cultural and political identity crisis that has always created a problem for Russia's neighbors.
Among the Slavs, the first to adopt a monotheistic religion were the Bulgar tribes who converted to Islam. The Bulgar Kingdom officially adopted Islam in 922. (Bennigsen Broxup 1994: 82) The Keivan Russian princes also considered adopting Islam as their religion, but among other reasons they could not abandon their fondness for alcoholic beverages, which Islam forbid and proscribed. (Even today, Russian alcoholic consumption is among the highest of any society and attempts to curb the dreaded effects of alcoholism resulted in the failure of Gorbachev's first reform in 1986.) Islamic conquests in the south shifted Russian trade to the north, creating small cities that eventually lead to the confederation of Russ. It wasn't until 955 that Olga, the ruling princess of Kiev and the first female ruler in Russian history, was converted to Christianity by Byzantine missionaries. Olga's new faith and Russia's fate that was condemned to trade isolation provided her grandson Vladimir the opportunity to officially adopt Christian Orthodoxy in 988. (Wallbank 1984: 180-181)
Nearly three centuries of Russian rule came to an abrupt end with the Mongol conquest that lasted another two centuries. Under the Mongols Muscovite Russian princes gained power and cooperated in tax collection and other administrative affairs. With the gradual demise of the Mongols as they withdrew to the East, Christian Europeans filled the vacuum. Muscovite Russians sustained political power by exploiting the hatred of the Slavic people for their Mongol conquerors and by extension against all their co-religionists, the Muslims of the East.
The Russians built a state based on the Mongol model -- centralized and authoritarian -- two characteristics that have defined the Russian state throughout its history. The third characteristic, that of religious fervor, emerged ironically in the same year that the Ottoman Muslims triumphed over the Christian Byzantine in 1453. In that year the seat of the Christian Orthodoxy was transferred from Constantinople, now Islambul (Istanbul) to Moscow and the Moscow prince became the head of the Orthodox Church, the Czar (Kaiser or emperor) or "the little father" (as opposed to the Great Father in Heaven - according to Orthodox Christian theology).
The reemergence of Muscovite Russia as a viable state established the Russian political psyche based on the triad of centralization, authoritarianism, and religious mission. The implementation of this psyche in the political area fluctuated between a "crusader mentality" against the Muslims of Asia, and a mission of "manifest destiny" in trying to "civilize" the people of the East. In a limited way this also helped the Russians to remedy their inferiority complex vis-à-vis the West as the conquest of the Asian plateau helped them achieve parity with the other European colonial powers.
Just as expansion in the west enabled Peter the Great to defeat the Swedes in 1725 and move his capital to St. Petersburg, expansion to the east took the Russians to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Thus, the nineteenth century Janus manifested his two faces in the Russian polity, one European and one Asian. This duality became a hallmark of the Russian political identity. (Historically, the Russians see St. Petersburg as the brain of Russia, while Moscow is considered the heart, and Kiev the mother of Russia).
In its push towards the East, the Russians destroyed and annihilated many nations that lay in its path. In Caucasia and Central Asia, the devastating effects of the Russian Yoke on the cultural heritage, arts, agriculture, and industry of the people equalled only those of the Mongols a few centuries earlier. Russian atrocities were particularly severe against the people of Trans-Caucasia whose unique way of life, cultural heritage, and religious identities were consistently attacked.
The year 1480, traditionally referred to as the end of "Tatar Yoke," served as a turning point in the history of Russia. It is in this year that the attacks from the east, reversed and the Russian expansion into Asia began leading to the conquest of Kazan, as the first prize. "By conquering Kazan Khanate and seizing its lands, Ivan IV destroyed the major obstacle to Russia's eastward expansion, and began the movement that led ultimately to the creation of the gigantic, multinational Russian empire in Asia. (Donnelly 1968: 13) After Kazan, Ivan turns to Volga and the areas farther south to the Caspian Sea whence attempts to colonized the Kazan Tatars, Udmurts, and Chuvashes began.
Due to its geographic and political isolation little is known about the indigenous inhabitants of Caucasia outside the region. A brief look at the Caucasian history of the past 160 years is testimony to the heroic resistance of its people and the long list of its heroes who fought Russian treachery and deception.
"Sheikh Mansur Ushurma, a Chechen Naqshbandi sheikh initiated by a Bukhran haji, was the first to lead the North Caucasus, from Chechnia and north Daghestan to Kuban, in a holy war against the Russians. In 1785 Mansur's warriors encircled an important Russian force on the bank of the river Sunja and completely annihilated it -- the worst defeat ever inflicted on the armies of Catherine II." (Bennigsen Broxup 1994: 84)
From 1829 when Ghazi Muhammad was proclaimed imam of Deghestan until November 1832 when he was killed in battle the imam campaigned against the Russians in Daghestan, Chechnia, Chartalah, Derbend, Qidhlar, Nasaran, and Groznaia. Hamza Bek was proclaimed second imam in 1832 who continued jihad against the Russian invaders until his assassination on September 19, 1834.
On September 24, 1834 Shamil was proclaimed imam. Only two days later Major-General Lanskoi attacked Gimrah. The next day the Russians completely destroyed the village and its fields and vineyards; thus, Shamil, who immediately returned to Gimrah, found it a mess of ruins. Discovering that one of the villages had served as an informer for the Russian force, he executed him as an example to 'all traitors'. (Drozdov, pp. 254-5 as quoted in Gammer) The imam attacked the Russians from both flanks, 'killed a senior officer' (Qarakhi, p. 39 as quoted in Gammer) and 'retook Gimrah by storm, putting Lanskoi to flight'. (Bodenstedt, p. 420 as quoted in Gammer)
Russian atrocities made it imperative upon imam Shamil to start his campaign of keeping the Russians away from Caucasia. As a man of valor and courage, Shamil resisted the Russian intrusions into Caucasia for 25 years through warfare and diplomacy.
In his early life, Shamil studied under Said al-Harakani to be initiated into the Naqshbandiyya by Shaykh al Sayyid Jamal al-Din and to be ordained as a khalifa by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaraghi. (Hajj Ali, p. 11 as quoted in Gammer). Shamil "became, through endless exercise, an almost unrivaled horseman and could outdo almost anyone in his mastery of musket, sword and dagger. Stories and legends about his exceptional strength, endurance, luck and exploits undoubtedly contributed to his prestige and helped to create an aura of leadership around him. but that was not all. Shamil seems to have possessed the natural ability to lead men, coupled with intelligence, iron will, self-discipline, self-control and tenacity." (Gammer 1994: 69)
Imam Shamil's numerous successful military campaigns that took him to every valley and every mountain in Caucasia are testimony to his knowledge of military warfare. His courage and his resiliency at such an old age are a source of inspiration even today to those who want to resist social and political injustice. (Shamil was 63 years old at the time of his last campaign).
Towards the end of his 25-year campaign Shamil was isolated geographically in Ghunib, and abandoned politically by Persia and the Ottomans while the people of Daghestan and Chechnya lived under continuous Russian military attacks. Under these circumstances the mountaineers' resistance collapsed in the face of a Russian advance on Ghunib on August 21, 1859. "The imam, with his family and 400 followers, took position on top of Mt. Ghunib, determined to fight to the end." (Gammer 1994: 286) The Russian forces encircled Ghunib the following day. During the following two weeks Prince Aleksandr Bariatinskii, the Russian commander, eager to capture Shamil alive, perhaps for the 10,000 rubles reward that the viceroy had offered for that purpose, tried to negotiate with the imam (Gammer 1994: 1057), but to no avail. On the night of 5-6 September the Russians stormed the mountain and surrounded the village. (Baddeley Vol. II 1908: 49) Shamil was finally persuaded to surrender in order to save the lives of the children and women, which he did that day, 6 September 1859." (Gammer 1994: 286)
From Ghunib imam Shamil was taken to St. Petersberg, to meet Alexander II and afterwards he was allocated a house in Kaluga where he and his family lived in a golden cage for several years. (Krasnyi Arkhiv 1941: 115-39) In 1868 imam Shamil performed hajj. In 1871 the imam died and was buried in Medina.
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Avtorkhanov, "Chechens and Ingush," and his Narodoubistvo v SSSR (Genocide in the USSR), Kommunist (February 1991): 101-12.
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