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(17971871), the most famous and successful anti-Russian Islamic resistance leader during the nineteenth century; lionized by Chechen and Dagestani nationalists and co-opted by Russian literature and the public consciousness as a sign of tsarist imperial expansion and the Russian mission in Asia.

Born in Gimri, modern Dagestan, Shamil demonstrated an early skill with weapons and horses. He entered a madrassah where he learned grammar, logic, rhetoric, and Arabic. There he joined the Murids, of the Naqshbandi-Khalidi Sufi order, in 1830. Following the transfer of Dagestan from Persia to the Russian Empire, Murids initiated a jihad against Russia under the leadership of Shamil's mentor, the first imam of Dagestan, Ghazi Muhammed. After his death and the brief leadership of Hamza Bek, Shamil became the third imam of Dagestan and declared it an independent state in 1834. His personal charisma, political acumen, state building, and military ability as well as his blending of an egalitarian interpretation of Shari'a (Islamic Law) with proclamations of jihad against the Russian advance made him a popular political and religious leader (even among the non-Muslims of the North Caucasus).

For twenty-five years (18341859), Shamil led raids on Russian positions in the Caucasus. He reached the peak of prestige in 1845 devastating the advance of Mikhail Vorontsov, who organized an army to complete the final conquest of the Caucasus. In these years of struggle, Shamil unified the disparate communities of the North Caucasus, built a state, organized a regular army, and completed the Islamicization of Dagestan and Chechnya. In 1857, the Russian Empire took a more aggressive stance; Generals Alexander Baryatinsky and Nikolai Evdokimov overwhelmed the weaker and exhausted forces of Shamil. By April 1859 his fortress at Vedeno fell and Shamil retreated to Mount Gunib. On September 6, 1859, Shamil surrendered to the Russians and the resistance movement never recovered. He was taken to St. Petersburg for an audience with Tsar Alexander II, paraded around Russia as a hero and menace, and then exiled to Kaluga. In March 1871 he died and was buried in Medina.

Drawing from the rich literary tradition of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Alexander Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, Shamil emerged as a Caucasian hero of Russian Romanticism and a symbol of Russian expansion and its civilizing mission. Shamil was an international celebrity; his exploits serialized in numerous languages. Soviet historians initially lauded Shamil as a hero of a national liberation movement against tsarist imperialism; this became problematic when his name was linked with anti-Russian and anti-Bolshevik opposition. Thus, Shamil was depicted by Soviet historians during the second half of the twentieth century as personally progressive while his movement was corrupted by anti-popular and religious elements.

See also: caucasus; islam; nationalism in the tsarist period


Gammer, Moshe. (1994). Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan. London: Frank Cass.

Michael Rouland

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