The Middle East in Transition: Studies in Contemporary History

By Walter Z. Laqueur | Go to book overview

THE SHAMIL PROBLEM

by PAUL B. HENZE


HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

SHAMIL, BORN in 1797 and most active in the years 1834-59, was the last and the most successful of the great Moslem resistance leaders who fought to stem the Russian advance into the Caucasus. Based in his native Dagestan, his movement spread to include more than a dozen mountain peoples, most of whom were to some degree inspired by a form of militant, fundamentalist Islam called Muridism. While Shamil and his followers would probably have welcomed Turkish or Western assistance, they received no substantial aid from abroad. Hopes which rose high during the Crimean War were shattered as 'the Allies neglected an opportunity which will never recur of placing a belt of independent tribes in a position of vast natural strength rearwards of the Russian movement in Asia'.1 Shamil was captured by Russian forces in 1859. Several hundred thousand Caucasian mountaineers fled to various parts of the Middle East in the years that followed. Large-scale Caucasian resistance thus ended, but Shamil has remained a legendary hero among the native Moslem peoples of the Caucasus to the present day. The fact that he lived comfortably for twelve years after his capture under protective surveillance in Russia and eventually died on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1871 is an interesting measure of the difference between the Tsarist and Soviet régimes in treatment of resistance leaders.

Few pre-Revolutionary Russian historians were entirely negative in their evaluation of Shamil. The bravery and colourfulness of the Caucasian mountaineers have always appealed to Russians. There

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1
F. H. Skrine, The Expansion of Russia, 1815-1900 ( Cambridge, 1904), p. 134.

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