Main Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings

Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings

In 2013, the United States suffered its worst terrorist bombing since 9/11 at the annual running of the Boston Marathon. When the culprits turned out to be U.S. residents of Chechen descent, Americans were shocked and confused. Why would members of an obscure Russian minority group consider America their enemy? Inferno in Chechnya is the first book to answer this riddle by tracing the roots of the Boston attack to the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia.

Brian Glyn Williams describes the tragic history of the bombers’ war-devastated homeland—including tsarist conquest and two bloody wars with post-Soviet Russia that would lead to the rise of Vladimir Putin—showing how the conflict there influenced the rise of Europe’s deadliest homegrown terrorist network. He provides a historical account of the Chechens’ terror campaign in Russia, documents their growing links to Al Qaeda and radical Islam, and describes the plight of the Chechen diaspora that ultimately sent two Chechens to Boston.

Inferno in Chechnya delivers a fascinating and deeply tragic story that has much to say about the historical and ethnic roots of modern terrorism
Year: 2015
Publisher: ForeEdge
Language: english
Pages: 306
ISBN 13: 978-1-61168-737-8
File: PDF, 5.05 MB

You may be interested in

 

Most frequently terms

 
 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

ヘルダーリンに寄せて

Language: japanese
File: PDF, 210.14 MB
2

The Sociology Book

Year: 2015
Language: english
File: PDF, 92.21 MB
Massachusetts Dartmouth. He has
published numerous books related
to terrorism and conflict in Eurasia,
including The Last Warlord: The Life
and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan
Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to
Topple the Taliban Regime; Predators:
The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda;
Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to
America’s Longest War; and The Crimean
Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s
Conquest.
























































































































of Islamic history at the University of

















Infernoin
Chechnya




























Brian Glyn Williams is a professor

THE HISTORY OF THE CHECHEN WARS
AND THE ORIGINS OF TERRORISM IN RUSSIA
AND BEYOND

brian
glyn
williams

Inferno in

“Williams once again demonstrates why he is required reading for anyone serious
about understanding the Chechens and their violent struggle against Russia.”
Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer, author of The Insurgency in Chechnya
and the North Caucasus

Chechnya

“An utterly fascinating journey through one of radical Islam’s least-understood
fronts: Chechnya and the Caucasus. Essential for anyone seeking to understand the
historical roots of the Boston bombing.” Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone magazine

“A must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the Chechens and their involvement in contemporary conflicts, this remarkable book provides the full sweep of the
Chechens’ tragic history. The chapters on Chechens in Afghanistan and Syria and on
the Boston Marathon bombings are absolutely brilliant.” Miriam Lanskoy,
director, Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy

THE RUSSIAN-CHECHEN WARS,
THE AL QAEDA MYTH, AND THE BOSTON
MARATHON BOMBINGS

“A sweeping account of warfare, genocide, and conquest in other lands that
ultimately led to America’s greatest terror bombing since 9/11.”
Aurélie Campana, Canada Research Chair on Conflicts and Terrorism

“An inspiring account that captures the essence of how the Chechen highlanders
have been so wrongly portrayed over the past decade in the Western media
by pundits and others pretending to be experts on the Caucasus Mountains
whose narratives about Chechnya have often been shaped by the Russian media
machine.” Glen Howard, president, Jamestown Foundation

“Inferno in Chechnya is a bold attempt to provide a balanced narrative about the
Chechen people, particularly their tragic history and struggle with Russia and the
Soviet Union. The story of the struggle for the soul of a small nation has reverberated
across the Middle East and onto the very streets of Boston.”
Dr. Lester W. Grau, senior analyst, Foreign Military Studies Office, U.S. Army

Jacket illustration courtesy of
Thomson Reuters

ForeEdge
www.ForeEdgeBooks.com

brian glyn williams

Fore
Edge

In 2013 the United States suffered
its worst terrorist bombing since 9/11
at the annual running of the Boston
Marathon. When the culprits turned
out to be U.S. residents of Chechen
descent, Americans were shocked and
confused. Why would members of an
obscure Russian minority group consider America their enemy? Inferno in
Chechnya is the first book to answer this
riddle by tracing the roots of the Boston
attack to the Caucasus Mountains of
southern Russia.
Brian Glyn Williams describes the
tragic history of the bombers’ wardevastated homeland — including
tsarist conquest and two bloody wars
with post-Soviet Russia that would lead
to the rise of Vladimir Putin — showing
how the conflict there influenced the
rise of Europe’s deadliest homegrown
terrorist network. He provides a historical account of the Chechens’ terror
campaign in Russia, documents their
growing links to Al Qaeda and radical
Islam, and describes the plight of the
Chechen diaspora that ultimately sent
the Tsarnaev brothers to Boston.
Inferno in Chechnya delivers a fascinating and deeply tragic story that has
much to say about the historical and
ethnic roots of modern terrorism.

Inferno in Chechnya

Williams - Chechnya.indb 1

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Williams - Chechnya.indb 2

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Inferno in

CHeCHnya

the Russian-CheChen
WaRs, the al Qaeda Myth,
and the Boston MaRathon
BoMBings

Brian Glyn Williams

ForeEdge

Williams - Chechnya.indb 3

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

ForeEdge
An imprint of University Press of New England
www.upne.com
© 2015 Brian Glyn Williams
All rights reserved
For permission to reproduce any of the
material in this book, contact Permissions,
University Press of New England, One Court Street,
Suite 250, Lebanon NH 03766; or visit www.upne.com
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Williams, Brian Glyn.
Inferno in Chechnya: the Russian-Chechen wars,
the Al Qaeda myth, and the Boston Marathon bombings /
Brian Glyn Williams.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-1-61168-737-8 (cloth: alkaline paper)​—
isbn 978-1-61168-801-6 (ebook)
1. Chechnia (Russia)​— History​— Civil War, 1994– 2. Russia
(Federation)​— Relations​— Russia​— Chechnia. 3. Chechnia
(Russia)​— Relations​— Russia (Federation) 4. War and
society​— Russia (Federation)​— Chechnia. 5. Jihad​—
Political aspects​— Russia (Federation)​— Chechnia.
6. Qaida (Organization) 7. Terrorism​— Europe. 8. Boston
Marathon Bombing, Boston, Mass., 2013. 9. Tsarnaev,
Tamerlan. 10. Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar. I. Title.
dk511.c37w55 2015
947.086​
— dc23  2015002114

For the resilient people of Boston and for all
my friends in the city, including Suki Soltysik,
Dana Fine, Heidi Floerke, Ozge and Eric
Getkin, Ed Fallon, Amy Beuchemin, Josh Ready,
Jenny Murphy, Jason and Molly Seto, Corey
and Leandro Lopez, Steve and Ceren Matteo,
John Lawrenz, Alan Hirshfeld, Michelle Cheyne,
Bob and Pat Getkin, Kevin McWilliams, Laura
Barlow, Brad Pinkos, Scott Gollumcan Levi,
Alan Friedman, Jim Stamos, Ona Ridenour,
Volkan and Tansel Sazak, Marc Yanniello,
Hien Cao, Michelle and Selim Gurel, Len
and Carolyn Travers, Razi Usman, Sue Foley,
Mark Santow, Tim Pakopolos, Pat Gallagher,
Chris and Jill Keough, and my wife, Feyza.

Williams - Chechnya.indb 5

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

This is a war for the freedom of a nation.
If the Russians want to call me a terrorist,
a hammer of God, a nightmare creature,
I am happy to be any of these things.
— Chechen field commander turned
notorious terrorist, Shamil Basayev

Williams - Chechnya.indb 6

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Contents
		Acknowledgments ix
		Introduction xi
1

First Blood 1

2

Resistance 18

3

Genocide 35

4

The First Russian-Chechen War 76

5

Chaosistan 116

6

The Return of the Russians 153

7

The Chechen Ghost Army of Afghanistan
and Syrian Battalion 206

8

The Strange Saga of the Boston
Marathon Bombers 230

		Notes 259
		Index 285

Williams - Chechnya.indb 7

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Williams - Chechnya.indb 8

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Acknowledgments
First and foremost, I would like to thank my
parents, Gareth and Donna Williams, for
supporting my research on Chechens for the
last decade and a half. Their proofreading of this
manuscript was, as always, much appreciated.
Many thanks go to my wife, Feyza, who patiently
supported me in writing this story for the last
ten years. I also would like to send my teshekurs
(thanks) to my in-laws, Feruzan and Kemal
Altindag, for providing me with a quiet place to
write this book in their seaside town on Turkey’s
Aegean coast. I would also like to thank my former
advisors Uli Schamiloglu and Kemal Karpat for
teaching me about the history of Central Eurasia’s
ethnic groups at the University of Wisconsin and
Indiana University. In addition, I would like to
thank Norbert Strade for his assistance in helping
me understand some of the complexities of
Chechnya’s recent history and Glen Howard at the
Jamestown Foundation for his support over the
years. Last, I would also like to thank the Chechens
I have met over the last two decades for sharing
their homes and tales with me. Their tales inspired
me to write this work.

ix

Williams - Chechnya.indb 9

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Williams - Chechnya.indb 10

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

southern russia and the caucasus. Courtesy of I. B. Tauris

Introduction
April 15, 2013 — as warm a Patriot’s Day for the annual
running of the Boston Marathon as anyone could
ask for. As the early spring temperature rose to sixty,
thousands of cheering spectators lined the sunny
route leading to the finish line at Boylston Street. I
was among the crowd, watching the runners from a
spot on nearby Beacon Street, two blocks from my
house. It was a perfect spring day to put aside the
memories of the long, cold winter; to cheer on the
runners — many of whom were running for local
charities; and to join in a celebration of all things
Boston.
We had our first inkling that something had gone
horribly wrong when a woman next to us received a
cell phone call and ran screaming into a nearby bar.
“There’s been a bombing at the finish line,” she
yelled. “There’s been a bombing! Oh my God!”
I ran after her into the Publick House, where we
all stared in disbelief at the large-screen television
on the wall. But all we saw were reassuring images of
runners, and we relaxed.
And then the news broke. A clearly distraught
local reporter came on tv to announce that there
had been two bombings at the finish line. The earlier scenes of a joyous race succumbed to images of
panic and horror.
This can’t be happening. Not here. Not now!
You expect to see gruesome images of war-torn
Baghdad, Beirut, or Kabul, but not in the city we
affectionately call “Beantown.” As the crowd in the
bar stared blankly, several people began to sob while
xi

Williams - Chechnya.indb 11

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

introduction

others frantically dialed up friends and family who were right down the
street from us at the finish line.
But no one could get through to them. The police had already disabled
the cell towers so that the bombers couldn’t use their phones to detonate
more bombs. Within minutes, several police officers burst into the bar,
calling for us to evacuate — just in case. We all left, hurrying down the
street toward our homes in stunned silence.
When I reached our house, my wife, Feyza, searched the Internet and
found images of maimed victims being rushed to ambulances. Unable to
look at them any longer, she broke into tears, damning the terrorists who
had inflicted so much senseless pain on—of all days—one of such joy.
Early in the morning, four days later, my phone rang. It was a friend
telling me that the authorities had identified the bombers and had
launched an unprecedented citywide dragnet to catch them. They were
said to be from an ethnic group in Russia known as the Chechens.
Can’t be, I thought. The Chechen highlanders were the ancient enemies of Russia, not of the distant usa.
“Don’t you teach a class on Chechnya?” my friend asked.
“Yes, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Why?”
Because, he told me, one of the bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, attended that very university and had been seen on campus calmly going
about his business several days after the bombing.
“My God,” I said.
My friend paused before asking me the question that many of the students who took my class on Chechnya would later ask: “Why on earth
would Chechens want to attack America?”
Why, indeed. The answer, on the surface, is seemingly “for many reasons.” This book is a background journey which explores that perplexing question. It will take readers into the mighty Caucasus Mountains
of southern Russia and introduce them to the ancient Chechen highlanders and their centuries-long war with the invading Russians. It will
explain the reasons for their hatred of their Russian foes, who chopped
down their primordial forests, burnt their villages, raped their women,
and waged scorched-earth tactics to break their determined resistance.
Most important, this background journey will take readers into the Soviet
Union’s genocidal decision to ethnically cleanse the entire Chechen peoxii

Williams - Chechnya.indb 12

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

introduction

ple from their ancestral lands in 1944, and their long struggle to return to
their beloved Caucasus homeland.
But the heart of this book lies in its retelling of the two bloody wars the
Chechen mountaineers fought for independence from post-Soviet Russia. In the process of exploring this blood feud, it will show how Russian
and Soviet savagery against this small nation subsequently ignited an Islamist terrorist response among the Muslim Chechens that was to lead to
Europe’s deadliest terror campaign. Ultimately, it also will demonstrate
how the rise of jihadi terrorism in the war-blackened villages of tiny
Chechnya spawned a terror plot that reached the shores of America with
deadly consequences.

xiii

Williams - Chechnya.indb 13

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Williams - Chechnya.indb 14

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

1

First Blood
The Chechens are a numerous people, but they
have no aristocracy. “We are all princes” is the proud
contention of the Chechen. They are a people who
have no superiority of rank, and never had, and into
whose language the word “command” cannot be
rendered . . . They are always in a chronic state of
feeling themselves insulted by their fellow-creatures,
and maintain that nobody can be considerate enough
to them as a completely free people.
— Essad Bey, Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, 1930
Cattle-lifting, highway robbery, and murder were in
this strange code, counted deeds of honor; they were
openly instigated by the village maiden, who scorned
any pretender having no such claims to her favor;
and these, together with fighting against any foe, but
especially against the hated Russians, were the only
pursuits deemed worthy of a grown man.
— John F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest
of the Caucasus, 1908

1

Williams - Chechnya.indb 1

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

Wolves The Ancient Highland Tribes
The Chechen national symbol is the gray wolf, and since the collapse
of the Soviet Union, this emblem has appeared in their poems, on their
battle standards, and on their national flag, and it has come to symbolize
the Chechens’ stubborn defense of their homeland. The Chechens like to
compare themselves to the gray wolf that has roamed the primeval forests of the Caucasus Mountains since the beginning of time. According
to the mountaineers, the gray wolf does not attack humans unless they
trespass on its lair, and in this behavior, the Chechens see a parallel to
their own relations with the Russians.
As any Chechen will tell you, their ancestors never set out to conquer
Russia; the troubles with their empire-minded neighbors began when
Russia’s generals set their sights on the Caucasus and brought fire and
sword to the Chechens’ homeland in the late eighteenth century. It
was the Chechens’ bloody experience of “pacification” at the hands of
Russians —to use a nineteenth-century tsarist euphemism for ethnic
cleansing, scorched-earth campaigns, and a decades-long war of attrition — that was to poison the relations between these two peoples. While
many nonexperts discovered the Chechens after 9/11 and see them only
in this context, one cannot claim to know the Chechens without first
being familiar with the tragic story of their conquest by Russia’s armies in
the nineteenth century.
Prior to Russia’s imperial adventures in the lands of the Chechens and
neighboring tribes, this mountainous land on the distant fringes of Europe had been something of an unknown land for most in the West. Western Christian civilization ended in the lowland shadows of this mighty
mountain barrier that separated Europe and the southern borders of the
empire of the Orthodox tsars from Asia and the Islamic lands of the Turks
and Persians. Forming the highest mountain chain in Europe, the mighty
Caucasus range extends 650 miles from the shores of the Black Sea to the
landlocked Caspian Sea, and its highest peaks are covered in snow yearround. This rugged rampart dwarfs the Alps in its scale, and its average
height is over ten thousand feet.
The massive Caucasus chain has some of the most inaccessible mountain valleys and highland pastures in the world and has served as a refuge
2

Williams - Chechnya.indb 2

7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM

first blood

for fleeing tribes and ethnic groups since the dawn of history. The hardy
highlanders whose cliff-top auls (villages) clung tenaciously to the sides
of the mountains lived in settlements built on the edges of sheer precipices and guarded by stone towers. In these impenetrable highlands, a
village could hold off an army as its warriors defended the narrow path
along a dizzying cliff.
In the misty depths of time, when the Indo-Europeans (the forebears
of the modern nations of Europe) first arrived in the region, they forced
the ancient mountain people already living in the Caucasus lowlands to
flee deeper into the wooded valleys of the northern slopes. In the process, the easily defended mountain peaks and impenetrable valleys of
the north Caucasus came to serve as a sanctuary for some of the oldest
races of Eurasia.
In the twentieth century, long after the older races had been pushed
into the mountains, modern anthropologists and linguists would find
traces of tribes that had disappeared from history long before the birth
of Christ. The origins of some of these races extend back to the ancient
peoples of pre–Old Testament Sumeria, Elam and Uratau.
The forest-clad mountains of the Caucasus are home to dozens of
ethnolinguistic groups and serve as a storehouse, preserving the ethnic
residue of all the passing waves of invaders who have swept through this
region since the beginning of time. In some areas each village speaks
a different language that, like the pages of history, can be read back in
time to provide a historical account of the various tribes of conquerors
that ebbed across this tumultuous land. Similar to the rings on a tree, the
layers of races in the north Caucasus tell us the history of the mountains.
The Dagestan region, which is located in the northeastern Caucasus to
the east of Chechnya, for example, is home to more than thirty different
ethnic groups, most of whom speak unrelated languages. The confusing
array of languages left by previous invaders in the Caucasus led the medieval Arab Muslim conquerors, who believed that fierce jinns (demons)
lived in this cloud-covered realm, to name this rugged land the Jabal
Alsuni (Mountain of Languages).
As history tells us, waves of horse-mounted Scythians, who drank
fermented horse milk and wine from their enemies’ skulls, Zoroastrian
Iranians bringing their ancient worship of fire, savage Huns on their
3

Williams - Chechnya.indb 3

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

way to ravage Rome, Arab warriors spreading their new Islamic faith,
Jewish horse-mounted Khazar nomads, world-conquering Mongol Tatars, e­ mpire-​building Ottoman Turks, Shiite Persians, and many others
lapped up against the mountain barrier of the Caucasus and left remnants of their peoples amid the older races already ensconced in their
mountain valleys.
As a result, in the northern Caucasus today you find the half-pagan,
half-Christian Ossetians, who worship carved wooden poles in much the
same fashion as their distant ancestors, the Alans, who partook in the
great barbarian migrations that brought down the Roman Empire. You
also encounter the Cherkess, the pitiful remnants of the once-mighty
Circassians, who provided slave warriors and the most comely of women
for harems of the caliphs of medieval Baghdad. In the eastern plains of
the northern Caucasus you also find small pockets of Nogai Tatars, the
sheephearding descendents of Genghis Khan’s mighty nomadic Mongol
armies.
As one leaves the plains of the Nogai steppe and probes deeper into
the mountains, however, one finds ancient ethnic groups whose origins
are even older than these previously mentioned races. These include the
fierce Jewish highlander tribe known as the Tats, whose origin goes back
to the original Old Testament dispersal of the Jews in the eighth century bc. You also find other groups who inhabit the bleak mountains of
Dagestan (a region whose name translates to “Land of the Mountains”),
such as the Dargins, Avars, Lezgins, Laks, Aguls, Rutuls, Tabassrans, and
countless others, who fiercely defended their lands against outsiders
over the centuries.
Most of these ancient groups, who continued to fight with sabers,
shields, and medieval-style armor up until the late nineteenth century,
were unknown to the Western world, whose ethno-geographic horizons ended in the more familiar lands of the Orthodox Russians and
Ukrainians.
Among the oldest and most powerful of the north Caucasian races
are a farming and cattle-breeding people known as the Vainakh, who
have inhabited the forested slopes of the northeastern Caucasus for
millennia. Made up of dozens of independent teips (clans) and known
for their industriousness, refusal to submit to any authority, skill in the
4

Williams - Chechnya.indb 4

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

time-honored sport of cattle raiding, and love of freedom, the unruly
Vainakh were divided into two separate tribes by the Russians, who first
began to encroach on their lands in the late 1700s. The Russian Cossacks,
the “cowboys of Russia,” and later Russian imperial administrators called
the western Vainakh the “Ingush.” Those Vainakh residing in the east,
near a village known as Chechen Aul, were called “Chechens.” Over time,
the two Vainakh tribes, who spoke mutually comprehensible languages,
internalized these ethnonyms and became distinct groups. Today the
Chechens and the much smaller Ingush people are recognized as separate nations in spite of their close ethnolinguistic links.
When the Russians first shared their accounts of the mysterious
Chechen highlanders to the outside world, they spoke of a primordial
mountain people who were ruled over by a council of tribal elders known
as the Mehq-Qel (the Council of the Land). These wise elders were chosen
by their clans (teips) to represent their interests in community councils.
Councils of the people were called to mediate blood feuds, organize the
defense of the ka’am (the “nation,” or more precisely “people” in a premodern sense), and uphold the ancient traditions of the people, which
were based on a blend of ancient pagan customs and the later imposition
of Islamic law. Traditionally, the Chechens have given great respect to
their clan elders, and all Chechens direct their loyalty to their clan first
and then to their tukhum (their larger tribal alliance).
Interestingly, there was no class of nobility among the egalitarian
Chechen people, and one observer noted:
The equality among the people of the Eastern Caucasus is clear-cut.
They all possess the same rights and enjoy the same social position.
The authority with which they invest their tribal chiefs grouped within
the framework of an elected council is limited in time and power . . .
Chechens are gay and witty. Russian officers nicknamed them the French
of the Caucasus.1

Islam, it should be mentioned, arrived late in the lands of the Chechen
and Ingush, and many of this people did not convert to the religion of
the Prophet Mohammed until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries. Even then, Robert Schaefer writes, “Chechnya was not particularly devout.”2 Prior to the advent of Islam, this people worshipped Yalta,
5

Williams - Chechnya.indb 5

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

the god of wild animals and patron of hunters; Seli, the god of fire; and
myriad other supernatural denizens of the snow-covered alpine peaks
and forested slopes of the Caucasus. Among the woodland sprites worshipped by the Chechens were ghostly forest creatures called almas, who
lived in springs and rivers. Lesser gods included Khi-Nama, the “Mother
of Water”; Darsta Nama, the “Mother of Snowstorms”; and Moh Nama,
the “Mother of Winds.”
The Chechens and Ingush owe their submission to Allah to the neighboring tribes of the northeastern Caucasus region known as Dagestan.
Dagestan, a foreboding mountainous tableland that separates the more
gentle slopes of Chechnya from the shores of the Caspian Sea, had been
conquered by the Arabs during their great period of Islamic expansion
in the eighth and ninth centuries. For this reason the people of Dage­
stan were familiar with the preaching of the Prophet Muhammad from
an early date. In Dagestan, mullahs (Islamic clerics) who spoke Arabic
and Persian delved into the scriptures of the holy Qur’an, the chant of
the muez­zin (the prayer caller) drifted from the minarets across the
mountain valleys, and camel caravans brought the goods of the greater
Dar al-Islam (the Islamic Realm) to the villagers inhabiting their well-​
fortified mountain auls.
Over the centuries, mystic Islamic holy men wandered from Dagestan
into the neighboring forestlands of the animistic Chechens and preached
their tolerant, frontier version of Islam, known as Sufi Islam. Many of
these Muslim mystics were purported to have worked miracles in order
to convert the pagan Chechens to Islam. The sites of these miraculous
events subsequently became places of pilgrimage, although some of
these sacred spots were clearly pre-Islamic holy places. The Chechens
converted to this mystical Sufi version of Islam, in part, because it allowed them to keep many of their ancient, pre-Islamic traditions.
Muslims from the Middle East who visited the vales of Chechnya in
the late nineteenth century found that Chechen women did not wear
the full veils worn by women living in Wahhabi-dominated Arabia. On
the ­contrary, the laws of the land were dominated by adat (ancient, pre-​
­Islamic custom) more than shariah (Islamic law). In the Caucasus, mystical
chants and dances known as zikirs were performed to assist the Chechens
in attaining Allah’s grace and imitate the movement of the cosmos. In this
6

Williams - Chechnya.indb 6

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

frontier region, tolerance toward neighboring Christian or pagan peoples
(such as the Orthodox Christian Cossacks or the animist Ingush, who did
not convert to Islam until the mid-nineteenth century) was widespread.
In other words, many of the austere facets of puritanical Wahhabi Islam
of the sort being spread by the Saud family in nineteenth-century Arabia
were not found on this fluid mountain frontier between Islam, Christianity, and traditional native animism. It was only in response to the Russian
conquest that an increasingly xenophobic form of warlike Islam spread
among the outnumbered warriors of this tolerant Sufi mountain people.
In addition to their adherence to an indigenous, mystical version of
Islam, the Chechens also were known for their fighting skills. In a land
where blood feuds (known as kanli), raids, and clan warfare were a way
of life, Chechen boys grew up mastering the deadly sharpshooter’s rifle,
the wicked kinjal blade, and the hardy mountain steed. The swaggering
Chechen highlander who arrived in the Russian lowlands for trade, with
his saber dangling from his side, rifle over his shoulder, breast pocket
bandoleers brimming with bullets, and tall fur hat placed rakishly on the
back of his head, was given a wide berth.
Not surprisingly, this people’s culture glorified feats of combat and
bravery. Highlander raiders known as abreks proved their manhood by
engaging in dangerous raids on the neighboring people. While the Russians deplored the highlanders’ “evil deeds, raids and robbery,” the Che­
chens lionized famous abreks, who proved their daring by slipping past
the enemy’s patrols and seizing booty. In his analysis of abreks in the
Caucasus, Russian scholar Vladimir Bobrovnikov writes, “The main hero
of their culture — the so called abrek, i.e., professional bandit—was a figure who was praised for engaging in a profession that was seen as noble
and honorable, in the fashion of Robin Hood.”3
Another quality recognized among the Chechens was the supreme
importance they placed on providing hospitality. A visitor was considered family, and an injury done to a protected guest could lead to a blood
feud. In many respects, the premium placed on hospitality by this warlike
people, who at the same time prided themselves on their raids on their
neighbors, resembles the tradition of hospitality manifested by the Aryan
Pashtun tribes of distant Afghanistan.4
Thus this proud, warlike, Sufi mountain people may have remained,
7

Williams - Chechnya.indb 7

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

living in relative isolation on the edges of Christian Europe, engaging in
their timeless pursuits of raiding lowlanders and farming. But in the nineteenth century the “White tsars” living in far-off St. Petersburg, Russia,
decided to include the Chechens’ homeland in their expanding empire
and “civilize” the region’s wild inhabitants. In so doing, the Russians were
to plant the seeds for centuries of violence and begin a war that continues
in various forms to this day.5

Contact Russia’s Initial Probes
The Russians first became involved in the Caucasus following their conquest of the last remnant of the once-mighty Mongol Tatars, the Black Sea
state of the Crimean Khanate. After absorbing this troublesome raiding
state in 1783, the Russians moved eastward from the Crimean Peninsula
and into the plains north of the Caucasus.6 It was this inexorable progress,
which was motivated largely by the urge to gain new lands and glory, that
was to leave a bitter legacy between the Caucasian Muslim highlanders
and the modernizing Russian Empire.
After the fall of the Muslim bastion of the Crimean Khanate, the Russians began a series of advances into the Caucasus Mountains that culminated in their bold crossing of this range and annexation of the Christian
land of Georgia on the southern flanks of the Caucasus. Soon thereafter,
Russian settlers began to pour into the foothills of the northern Caucasus
and to displace the region’s indigenous inhabitants. The first Caucasian
people to flee the relentless advance of the Russians were the Nogai Tatars
shepherds of the north Caucasian plains. Taking handfuls of soil from the
graves of their ancestors, this Turkic Mongol herding people abandoned
their native steppes in Europe’s last great nomadic migration and settled
in the sheltering lands of the Ottoman sultan.7
As the Russians probed deeper into the dark forests of the lower slopes
of the Caucasus Mountains known to the Chechens as the Bash Cam
(Melting Mountains), they clashed with fierce local tribes, who were
quick to react to Russia’s incursions. It was at this time that the Russians
encountered ferocious resistance from the two largest tribal conglomerations inhabiting the north Caucasus flank, namely, the Circassians (in the
west) and the Chechens (in the east).
8

Williams - Chechnya.indb 8

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

In the initial periods, Russian warfare with the Caucasus’s two great
raiding peoples took on an almost sportsmanlike quality. Tsarist officers
in search of glory, such as the great Russian authors Tolstoy, Pushkin, and
Lermontov, cut their teeth in clashes with their respected highlander adversaries. This conformed with the flamboyant highlanders’ traditional
form of warfare, which consisted of raids, daring skirmishes, personal
duels, and martial proofs of manhood that were recounted in the highlanders’ colorful epics.
In many ways, the Chechen mountaineers’ ritualistic form of warfare
resembled the cattle raids of the ancient peoples of Europe, such as the
Celts or their descendants the Scottish highlanders. The mountaineers’
traditional form of combat was most certainly not the prolonged, regimented sort of warfare of the Napoleonic era or the professional armies
of Russia.
In all fairness to the Russians, who have been condemned for their
harsh treatment of the Caucasian natives in the nineteenth century, it
should be noted that the raids for plunder launched by the Chechens into
the lowlands claimed by Russia constituted a perpetual menace to the
tsar’s newly conquered lands. While these pillaging razzias were considered the honorable pastime of Chechen abreks, they took their toll on the
lowlanders whom the Russian conquerors claimed as subjects.
Russia’s feared frontier generals had no qualms about responding to
these raids with an overwhelming display of retaliatory force. Thus the
warfare in the Caucasus developed a rhythm that often had little to do
with the court of the tsars in distant St. Petersburg. In this respect, it was
similar to the warfare that emerged in North America between the Plains
Indians and the expanding Americans.
As the tempo of this mounting conflict between cultures accelerated,
the Chechens continued to fight in the way of their ancestors. A Chechen
ballad from this period, which describes the sad fate of a legendary abrek
raider, captures the martial spirit of the Chechens, who relished conflict
with their Russian neighbors as proof of their manhood:
The bold Hamzad, with the gallant horsemen of Ghikh, crosses the left
bank of the Terek [a river that separated the lands of the expanding
Russians from the Caucasian foothills] and leaves the river behind him.
9

Williams - Chechnya.indb 9

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

The brave Hamzad has crossed the Terek and entered the Nogai
Steppes. He has captured a herd of white horses and recrossed the Terek,
driving it before him.
At the dawn of day he crossed it and drove the herd into the brushwood of Shirvan on the Hill of the Circassians. There was danger by day,
and the riders were tired. They halted at Shirvan-Koulee and hid their
spoil in the thicket.
When he had hidden his booty and his companions in the wood,
Hamzad ascended a high kurgan [ancient burial mound], and looked
through his glass to see if the Russians were coming.
Hamzad looks and sees a numerous band darkening the place where
he had forded the Terek. As fast as a black cloud driven by the wind that
band comes galloping on his traces.
Seeing the multitude he went down from the kurgan and said to his
companions “They follow as fast as the wind follows the clouds. Be not
afraid, we will fight like famished leopards.”
And again he said unto them “We will slaughter the horses and the
cattle and surround ourselves with them as with a rampart. So shall we
be able to defend ourselves.”
His companions joyfully gave their consent. They cut the throats of
the horses and stabbed the horned cattle and made a strong fence round
themselves.
And again Hamzad spoke to his companions and said “The Naib
[Muslim deputy ruler] of Ghikh, Akhverdi Mahoma, stands likewise no
doubt with his men on the [distant] hill-top.”
“When he hears the noise of our fighting with the Russians he will
fly to our aid like a bird of the air.” But this he said but to hearten his
companions.
Hamzad sat down with his riders behind the bloody breastwork and
ordered one to keep watch on the enemy. The sentinels stand gazing
earnestly.
And lo! a horseman gallops out in front of the crowd — [he is] Prince
Kagherman—and coming within hail he cries out [to the surrounded
Chechens] “What prince’s people are you?”
Hamzad laughed “We know no princes nor want to, we are riders from
Ghikh, and came for spoil.”
10

Williams - Chechnya.indb 10

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

“Art thou not Hamzad?” asked Kagherman.
“I am Hamzad!”
“It is a pity, Hamzad, that you came here. A Russian band has overtaken
you—overtaken and surrounded you. Unless you can grow wings as of
the migrant birds and fly up in the air you cannot escape. The Russian
commander has sent me; he will spare you if you surrender without
fighting.”
To this Hamzad answered “I came not here, oh Kagherman, for want
of money; I came to win the death of gazavat [holy war]. And were I to
surrender to thee, all of the people of Ghikh would laugh me to scorn.
“As a wolf tired and hungry longs to reach the forest, as a horse unfed
and mettlesome the fresh clean meadow — so do I and my companions
thirst for a fight to the death. Nor do I fear thee, Kagherman. I laugh at all
thy force, for our hope is in God, the all-powerful.”
And again Hamzad said to Kagherman “Ever we sought booty and
gold, but for such a day as this there is nothing so precious as black
gunpowder.” And again he said “Gold is not money today, today the trusty
Crimean flint is pure gold.”
Kagherman went back to the Russian commander and told him that
Hamzad refused to surrender. And Hamzad returned to his rampart and
sat down with his companions.
Then the troops came up and began firing and Hamzad and his riders
fired back. Thick was the smoke of their firing, and Hamzad said “May
this day be accursed! So hot it is that we have no shade but that of our
swords.”
And again he said “How thick is the smoke, how dark the day! Our only
light is the flash of our guns.”
And again Hamzad said “The houris [beautiful women] of paradise
look down on us from their windows in Heaven and wonder, they dispute
together whose they shall be, and she who falls to the braver of us will
vaunt it before her friend—and she who falls to the less brave will blush
for shame, and she will close the lattice on him and turn away, and if any
of you plays the coward this day may his face be black when he stands
before God!”
But Hamzad thought in his heart that while that death was upon him,
he could hope no more.
11

Williams - Chechnya.indb 11

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

High in the heavens he saw the birds flying and called to them “Oh
birds of the air! Give our last greeting, our ultimate salutation, to the Naib
of Ghikh, Akhverdi Mahoma. Greet also from us the beautiful ones, the
damsels fair, and tell them that our proud breasts serve to stop Russian
bullets—tell them that our wish was to rest after death in the graveyard at
Ghikh, where our sisters would have wept on our tombs, and all the people
would have sorrowed—but God grants no such grace. Not the sobbing of
our sisters will be heard above us but the howling of famished wolves. Not
relatives in troops will gather round, but a flock of ravens swart.”
“And tell them too, on the Circassian hill, in the land of the infidel, bare
blades in hand, we lie dead. The ravens pick out our eyes, the wolves tear
our flesh.”8

As becomes obvious from both Chechen ballads and Russian records
from the frontier, raids such as that commemorated in the ballad of
Hamzad were a constant source of tension in this turbulent region. The
highlanders in general, and the Chechens in particular, made turbulent
neighbors, and the mountaineers engaged in raids for booty and captives
on the lowlander populations as a way of life. One nineteenth-century
Russian contemporary of the Chechens recorded this people as follows:
Chechens are tall and well built. Their women are beautiful. They are
considered to be gay and witty, “the Frenchmen of the Caucasus,” and
impressionable, but they are less liked than the Circassians, owing to their
suspicious, treacherous, and harsh nature — probably from ages of armed
struggle. They are known for dauntless bravery, deftness, and hardiness
and are cool headed in a fight—qualities long recognized even by their
enemies. In time of peace they rob. Cattle rustling and abducting women
and children—even it if be at the risk of their lives or having to crawl
miles—are their favorite occupation . . .
In the period of independence the Chechens, unlike the Circassians,
had no feudal system or class divisions. They lived in free communities
governed by people’s assemblies. “We are all uzdeni,” they explained, that
is, free and equal.9

The following Russian account of the raids of the highlanders brings
the turbulent nature of this frontier to life and helps explain the Russian
motives for aiming to subdue the predatory mountain tribes:
12

Williams - Chechnya.indb 12

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

In 1809 during the attack of a party of Kabardians [a noble Circassian
tribe] on the village of Kamennobrodsk, 58 inhabitants were wounded,
51 people were taken captive. By comparison, in repulsing the attack, 12
soldiers died, 19 were wounded, including one officer. In the attacks on the
fort of Kruglolsk on the 13th of May 1823, 50 local people were killed, 41
wounded, and 302 were taken captive (the losses to the army —17 killed,
10 wounded). In the attacks of Gazi Mullah [a Dagestani war leader] on the
city of Kizilyar [in Dagestan] on the 1st of November 1831, 103 peaceful
inhabitants were killed, 29 were wounded and 155 were taken prisoner.10

Raids of the sort that were deplored in this Russian record and glorified in the ballad of Hamzad failed to prevent the Russians from systematically establishing forts in the Caucasian foothills to subdue the restless
mountaineers. As the Russians moved deeper and deeper into the Caucasus, they established military lines and protected them with wooden forts
that resembled those built by the American military in the lands of the
nineteenth-century Plains Indians. Among the most important fortresses
established by the Russians to control the turbulent highlanders was a
fortress city constructed in the lowlands of Chechnya named Grozny,
a name that in Russian translates to “The Terrible” or, more accurately,
“The Foreboding.”
While the highlanders had no way of knowing it at the time, the establishment of Grozny in 1818 was a signal that the Russian conquest of
the Caucasus had entered a new stage. Having subdued the Caucasus
lowlands, Russia’s generals now were preparing to march deeper into the
foothills and break the spirit of the troublesome highlanders once and
for all. Russia’s total war with the Chechens and surrounding tribes was
about to begin.

Empire The “Pacification” of the Highlanders
No general was more feared for his brutality in conquering the Che­
chens than Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov, also known as “the Butcher,”
who subdued the Chechens in the 1830s.11 This feared conqueror, whose
contempt for the Caucasians led him to engage in all sorts of atrocities
against the Chechens, once commented, “Condescension in the eyes of
Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably
13

Williams - Chechnya.indb 13

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and
thousands of Muslims from treason.”12 Yermolov’s policy of executing
conquered mountaineers to “save them from treason” not surprisingly
succeeded in spreading fear throughout a region that had always had a
more symbolic form of ritual warfare.
Israeli scholar Moshe Gammer relates, “When he decided to push the
Chechens south of the Sunja he surrounded a village and slaughtered all
its inhabitants — men, women and children. On other occasions, captured women were sold as slaves or distributed to Russian officers, so
that winter quarters ‘for the officers, at least, the Commander-in-Chief
setting the example, the time passed pleasantly enough in the company
of native wives.’”13
In the face of Yermolov’s brutality, the stunned highlanders initially
failed to forge a united front. Those Chechens living in the lowlands of
the Caucasus surrendered to the might of the Russian armies in order to
preserve their exposed villages from total destruction. Russia’s transition
from a gradual conquest to a more concentrated effort to subdue the
region appeared to be paying off. But as Schaefer points out, “Because
Yermolov was only concerned with coercive behavior, he lost the battle
for the Chechen hearts and minds, and poisoned entire generations.”14
It was at this time that many Russian peasants settled in the plains
of northern Chechnya, a region known as the above-Terek district, and
began displacing the Chechen lowlanders. In the process, the lowlander
Chechens became more Russified, their clan system weakened, and
they became less prone to joining the uprisings of holy warriors from
the mountains. In Russian terms, these lowland Chechens had become
“civilized.”
After pursuing a successful policy of divide and rule among the lowland Chechens, the Russians subsequently were able to subdue most
of the tough fighters of the lands lying to the east of Chechnya in the
mountainous land of Dagestan. Like the Chechen lowlanders, the Avars,
Darghins, Lezgins, and other Dagestani tribes of the eastern Caucasus
sullenly submitted to the might of Russia’s professional armies in order
to preserve their welfare and their very lives.
In the conquest of Dagestan, however, many local rulers made agreements with the Russians that did not reflect the feelings of their people.
14

Williams - Chechnya.indb 14

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

These Russian-dominated quislings quickly earned the contempt of their
devout Muslim countrymen, who despised the Orthodox Russian conquerors as infidels. For in Dagestan, Islam was older than in the lands of
the Chechens, and the Dagestanis had a deeper attachment to the faith
of Muhammad.
But the Russians encountered even more difficulties in the west. The
Circassians, from the western Caucasus as previously mentioned, stubbornly refused to submit to Russia’s battalions, and the tragic fate of this
tribe was to serve as a warning to all its neighbors. In response to the
Circassians’ stubborn resistance, imperial Russia pursued a scorchedearth policy that saw their homeland ravaged, orchards cut down, fields
destroyed, mountain villages burnt, and this once-proud people ethnically cleansed from its ancient hearth. It was to be modern Europe’s first
genocide. The slaughter and expulsion of as many as three-quarters of
a million Circassians, a noble people who had long been respected by
their neighbors in the Caucasus, spread ripples of fear throughout the
mountains.15
The following eyewitness account of Russian operations in Circassia
captures the nature of this all-out war, which surpassed the colonial conquests of the French and English in its brutality:
The mountain auls (villages) were burnt by the hundreds. The snow had
only just melted away, but it was before the trees had become clothed in
their greenery; the crops (of the highlanders) were eaten by the horses
or even trampled down. If we managed to catch the inhabitants of the
auls unawares they were immediately led away under military escort
to the Black Sea and then sent to Turkey. How many times did it happen
that in the huts which had been hurriedly abandoned upon our approach
we found warm gruel with a spoon in it on the table, clothing which was
being repaired with the needle still in it, and various children’s toys which
looked as though they had been spread out on the floor next to a child.
Sometimes—to the credit of our soldiers — very seldom, bestial atrocities
were committed.16

While the above author seemed proud of the fact that Russians rarely
carried out “bestial atrocities,” such claims are not borne out by other
eyewitness accounts. The Russian subjugation of the Circassians was a
15

Williams - Chechnya.indb 15

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

bloody affair marked by numerous atrocities. One Russian officer quoted
in Walter Richmond’s groundbreaking work, The Circassian Genocide,
wrote, “On the road our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses
of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by
dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to
move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs
while still alive.”17
The last pitiful remnants of the Circassians fled from their burning
villages and rampaging Russian soldiers to the coastal town of Sochi.
There the terrified survivors boarded ships and fled to the sanctuary of
the Muslim Ottoman Empire. While few people today are aware of the
Circassians because they were largely exterminated, Doku Umarov, the
Chechen terrorist leader who took control of the insurgency in 2006
and created the Caucasian Emirate terrorist group, tried to remind the
world of their cruel fate. On the eve of the 2014 Winter Olympics held
in Sochi, Russia, Doku Umarov lashed out at the Russians and launched
three suicide bombings that took the lives of forty people in the nearby
Russian town of Volgograd. He warned Russian president Vladimir Putin
that holding the Olympics in Sochi was “satanic dancing on the bones of
our ancestors.”18
While the Circassians largely have been forgotten (their survivors
peacefully protested Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics), at the time the annihilation of this race caused considerable consternation in Britain. The
conquest and total expulsion of this people, the first genocide in modern
Europe, was also meant to send a message to all the other highlander
tribes. While the Caucasian tribes could sustain a short-term conflict,
Russia’s massive, professional armies could outlast them in duration and
overwhelm them with sheer numbers, determination, and systematic
brutality.
As the Russians’ unprecedented punitive operations against the Circassians made abundantly clear, resistance to the tsar resulted in total
warfare and collective punishment. This mode of warfare applied not just
to the warriors, but also to all noncombatants: women, children, the elderly. If a fighter from a nearby village fired on their troops, all the villagers were held responsible for his actions by the Russian conquerors and
were punished. Those suspected of providing succor to the highlander
16

Williams - Chechnya.indb 16

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

first blood

abreks were held responsible, and whole districts were torched, their
cattle driven off, and their crops destroyed in Russia’s punitive missions.
With the expulsion of many nineteenth-century Chechens to the Ottoman Empire and the subjugation of the majority of those who remained,
the Russians had reason to believe that the north Caucasus had been
subdued by the late 1830s. After this date, members of the Russian nobility could ride in carriages through the Chechen villages observing the
“quaint local costumes” of “the newly tamed highland natives” and revel
in the rugged natural beauty of the empire’s latest acquisition.
As the highlanders were to show their Russian “masters” on many occasions, however, they were far from subdued. It took only the smallest
of sparks to set off an inferno that could sweep through their valleys and
set this “pacified” province on fire. As one British observer ominously
noted, “No impartial reader of the Russian accounts of this period can
doubt that they [the Chechens] were cruelly oppressed.”19 For in spite of
the fact that the Russians had written off the lowlanders as a people who
had been humbled by the power of imperial Russia, this proud people
seethed under the scepter of Russia and prepared to revolt.
The spark that was to set the conquered mountaineers on the road to
holy war against the Russian conquerors was to take the form of a redbearded Dagestani holy man. That holy man’s name was Imam Shamil,
the Lion of Dagestan, and his revolt was to cost tens of thousands their
lives and to earn the Caucasus the title of “Graveyard of the Russian
Empire.”

17

Williams - Chechnya.indb 17

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

2

Resistance
It is probably true to say that for the Russian state,
Chechnya is a hated obsession, a focus of the deepest
wells of ethnic and religious contempt and fear. A
strain in Russian thought, voiced by people ranging
from the Tsars to the soldiers, has called for the
destruction of this entire nation.
— Robert Seeley, Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800–20001
Everywhere there are mountains, everywhere forests,
and the Chechens are fierce and tireless fighters.
— General Tournau, 18322

18

Williams - Chechnya.indb 18

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

The Flames of Resistance
The Chechens, whose homeland was devastated by the conquering Russians and whose ancient liberty was lost, were more profoundly shaped
by their experience of conquest and subjugation than the victorious Russians.3 In the numbed aftermath of the initial Russian conquest of the
north Caucasus, scores of Chechen hamlets had been transformed into
smoldering ruins, and the ritual wailing of the Chechens mourning lost
loved ones drifted through the mountain vales. Their laments proclaimed
to the world that the Chechen highlanders, untamed since the dawn of
history, had at long last been subdued.
While a Russian soldier who served on the Russian general Yermolov’s
staff may have opined “who cares for history?” the proud Chechens have
a different relationship with history. Like many conquered peoples, from
the Scots and Welsh to the Native American Indians, the Chechens have
defined their identity around their past defeats. The Chechens’ transgenerational ballads of desperate last stands and holy fighters who were
“martyred” provide a residue of ritualized hostility and symbolic grievances whose legacy is still felt in the north Caucasus today.
For over a century, the Chechens have based their collective identity
on opposition to the Russian and later Soviet states that conquered and
oppressed them. As a result, it is not surprising that their culture glorifies
the notion of arms in defense of liberty. In the Chechens’ martial culture,
the events of the mid-nineteenth century are not relegated to the dustbin
of history, they are very much alive today.
For military historians, the nineteenth-century Chechen uprising
against the Russians appears as a dress rehearsal for the twenty-first
century conflict between the secessionist Chechen rebels and the post-​
Soviet Russian Federation. As in the Russia of the twenty-first century, in
the nineteenth century the occupying tsarist forces arbitrarily arrested
many Chechens suspected of being insurgents, launched preemptive
sweeps (known as zachistkas in the modern wars) in search of rebels, and
engaged in a policy of collective punishment.
Having brutally subdued the Chechens and their neighbors, the
nineteenth-century Russians also requisitioned their possessions, offended local Muslim sensibilities with their licentious behavior, and
19

Williams - Chechnya.indb 19

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

supplemented their meager military pay through “taxes” arbitrarily levied
on the conquered population. After subduing the Chechen lowlands and
neighboring territory of Dagestan, tsarist forces confiscated the natives’
crops, attempted to forcefully regulate the mountaineers (who respected
no outside authority), and most important, attempted to disarm this warlike people, who considered their weapons to be the supreme marker of
their highlander identity.
To the nineteenth-century Chechens and other mountain peoples,
arms were both a sign of manhood and an important means of defense
against the inroads of neighboring raiders. They were an ancient part
of the Chechens’ martial culture. Russia’s military leaders must have
foreseen the outrage their policy of forcefully collecting weapons would
cause among the proud highlanders. But few could have foreseen the
magnitude of their violent response to this order when it was channeled
by one Imam Shamil into a full-blown jihad (holy war).
The Russian military’s attempt to forcefully wrest the Chechens’ weapons from their hands was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s
back. This single act transformed the simmering fury of this subjugated
mountain people into a full-blown rebellion.
As the Russians launched weapons collection sweeps, the mountain
people sought a leader to unite them in expelling their hated oppressors.
While most Chechens resembled the famed abrek Hamzad in “recognizing no prince,” their clan leaders wisely realized that they needed a
strong war leader to unify them and help them rid themselves of their
tormentors.
It was at this time (1834) that a charismatic imam (a religious leader)
appeared among the Avars, the most numerous highlander tribe living
nearby in Dagestan. This legendary Avar strategist would succeed, for the
first time, in uniting all of the quarreling mountain tribes of the northeastern Caucasus and forming a united fighting force to resist their common
Slavic enemy. In the process, Shamil also would succeed in building a
short-lived Islamic state uniting the Muslims of the north Caucasus in an
alliance that he hoped would enable them to drive the Christian invaders
from their lands. It is this state that the Dagestani jamaats (military and
terror units) and Chechen insurgents in the post-2009 Caucasus aim to
reconstruct as part of the so-called Caucasian Emirate.
20

Williams - Chechnya.indb 20

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

resistance

The nineteenth-century Shamil was a devout Sufi Muslim and a visionary who, like Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab (an eighteenth-century
puritanical religious reformer in Saudi Arabia who spread an intolerant fundamentalist version of Islam known as Wahhabism), sought to
cleanse the pagan corruptions found in Dagestani Islam. As in many
Muslim frontier lands that were undergoing encroachment by European
colonial powers, Shamil’s militant Sufism provided new hope in the face
of a creeping sense of defeat. Shamil’s anti-Russian Sufi brotherhood also
provided a higher sense of spirituality for many Muslims in the region
who had never strictly adhered to the tenets of the holy Qu’ran.
Shamil preached a new form of Islam, which sought to cleanse the
local versions of Islam of their mystical “corruptions” and pagan holdovers. He also sought to provide the highlanders with a sense of spiritual unity in the face of Russian policies of divide and conquer. As the
nineteenth-century Wahhabi Saudi fundamentalists had done in Arabia,
Shamil sought to cleanse the Muslim highlanders’ beliefs, eliminate their
worship of local saints and mystics, and abolish their freewheeling ways,
which involved drinking, smoking, and singing. Only by teaching the lax
highlanders purified Islam could Shamil transform them into dedicated
holy warriors. Shamil clearly understood that the mountain tribes could
never withstand the bayonets and cannons of the mighty Russian kafirs
(unbelievers) if they were divided. But united by a new strict form of shariah Islamic law, they could launch a full-scale guerilla war that would
shake the very foundations of the Russian Empire.4
As Imam Shamil’s message of defensive jihad against the infidels resounded across the valleys of the Russian-occupied Caucasus Mountains,
it radicalized the local Islamic culture. It also created a unity of purpose
among this divided people, who had never had a fanatical adherence to
their faith prior to this. While the easygoing Chechens instinctively disliked Shamil’s austere interpretation of Islam, they were willing to submit
grudgingly to Shamil’s naibs (deputies) if it meant expelling the hated
Russians. In so doing, their desperate struggle with the Russians over
land and freedom took on religious undertones and gradually became a
full-fledged holy war.

21

Williams - Chechnya.indb 21

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

Mountain Jihad
By 1840 the Caucasus, which many Russian officials had prematurely
declared “pacified,” was on fire. As the Russians tried to confiscate their
guns, the mountain people spontaneously took to the hills and commenced a coordinated guerilla struggle against the tsar’s armies under
the black banners of Shamil. Even the wild Chechens, who were known
for their inability to surrender their prerogatives for self-rule to any man,
agreed to submit to Shamil. The Chechens soon formed the most deadly
contingent of his trans-Caucasian resistance army.
Having succeeded in uniting the prickly highlander peoples of Dage­
stan, such as the Avars, Dargins, Lezgins, and Kumyks, with the Che­
chens, Shamil unleashed a holy war on the Russian Empire. A Russian
officer described the electrifying effect of Shamil’s call for jihad among
the previously disunited mountaineers as follows:
He threatened the enemy north, east, west and south, kept them continually on the move, dispersed his commandos to their homes, gathered
them again as if by magic, and aided by the extraordinary mobility of his
mounted troops who required no baggage, nor any equipment or supplies
but what each individual carried with him, swooped down on the Russians
continually where least expected.5

Another officer wrote:
Establishing a new mode of operations to be constantly followed in the
future, almost always successfully, they avoided pitched battle with our
forces, thanks to their amazing speed. Our columns were brought to
extreme exhaustion by trying to chase them.6

Yet another Russian commented:
We have never had in the Caucasus an enemy so savage and dangerous
as Shamil. Owing to a combination of circumstances his rule has acquired
a religious-military character, the same by which at the beginning of
Islamism Muhammad’s sword shook three quarters of the Universe.7

The Chechens quickly began to play a prominent role in the united
north Caucasian struggle against the Russians. Shamil knew that the re22

Williams - Chechnya.indb 22

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

resistance

sistance to the might of Russia’s imperial armies could be sustained only
if this people’s fierce warriors kept up their struggle side by side with the
mountain people of Dagestan. For this reason, Shamil fought tirelessly to
convert the Chechens to his puritanical version of Islam and to instill in
them a devotion to the cause of the anti-Russian jihad.
Russian commanders on the front lines at the time noticed that many
Chechens heeded Shamil’s call and joined his murids (holy warriors).
In Russian terms, these Chechens had become more “fanatical” in their
determination to defend their families and villages and their willingness
to die for the cause of the jihad.
It became obvious to many Russian officers in the field that Russia’s
harsh treatment of the Chechens had inspired a new strain of fiercely
anti-Russian, xenophobic Islam among the Muslim clans of Chechnya.
While it must be stated that the majority of Chechens resented Shamil’s
representatives for attempting to enforce shariah fundamentalism in
their villages, even those who did not join his murids were more than willing to join his holy war if it meant destroying the hated Russian occupiers.
Regardless of Chechen society’s perceptions of the Islamic fighters, in
the nineteenth-century wars, Chechens who took up the novel cause of
the jihad proved to be some of the fiercest guerrillas the Russian imperial forces ever had encountered. As the Chechen resistance to the tsar
increased in the 1840s, the Russian army commenced a massive deforestation campaign designed to destroy the trees of Chechnya, which
provided cover for the Chechen fighters.8 In addition to systematically
chopping down ancient forests, the Russians directly occupied the villages of the Chechen lowlanders and punished those suspected of supporting ­Shamil’s murids in the mountains by destroying their farms and
livestock.
As the Russians increasingly became frustrated with their failure to
destroy Shamil’s elusive guerrillas, the differences between the tsar’s
armies and the Chechen fighters became glaringly obvious. The Russian
invading armies were largely made up of serf conscripts taken from the
villages of the Russian heartlands and forced to fight in the alien and foreboding mountains of the Caucasus. The Russian conscript soldier, while
stolid and able to withstand all sorts of privations, was often not inclined
to engage in acts of individual heroism that might reward him with an
23

Williams - Chechnya.indb 23

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

unmarked grave in the mountains. Rather, his objective was to survive
his encounters with the feared Chechen irregulars, who were fighting to
defend their homeland.
What the Russians lacked in fighting spirit, however, they compensated for in sheer numbers. Their massive imperial armies in the Caucasus had as many as two hundred thousand soldiers in them by the
mid-nineteenth century and dwarfed the seasonal fighting forces of their
Muslim highlander adversaries.
While the Russians could throw tens of thousands of Slavic peasants
into their imperial enterprise, the numerically inferior highlanders could
not afford to sustain the level of losses that Russia’s generals found acceptable. What the Chechen fighters lacked in numbers, however, they more
than made up for in fighting élan. They were a martial people fighting for
the defense of their families, homeland, and increasingly, their faith. The
Chechens’ ability to fight on against the odds, however, required more
than blind devotion. According to one account, their success stemmed
largely from the fact that “each fighter was armed and maintained by his
family, each fighting unit by its clan. His [Shamil’s] ‘army’ constituted, in
essence, a people’s volunteer corps.”9
The average Chechen fighter had more to fight for in the defense of his
family and clan than the Russian soldier serving far from his home among
the wild tribes of the Caucasus. This is a truism that certainly applies to
the sad fate of tens of thousands of frightened Russian Federation conscripts who served in Chechnya during the more recent post-Soviet wars.
In the time of Imam Shamil, the Chechens also employed military tactics that resembled those of their modern descendants in the wars from
1994 to 2015. To make up for their deficiency in numbers, for example,
the nineteenth-century Chechen fighters avoided direct combat with
the larger Russian armies whenever possible. The mountaineers’ warfare
usually took the form of ambushes, guerrilla strikes, and attacks on isolated outposts. On occasion, however, the Chechen guerrilla fighters also
proved to be capable of launching frontal assaults on Russian columns
and formations.
A nineteenth-century account of the highlanders’ battle stratagems
depicts the sort of fighting skills and tactics that have made the Chechens
such feared adversaries to this very day:
24

Williams - Chechnya.indb 24

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

resistance

It is true that the Caucasian guerrillas rarely expose themselves in a
regular pitched battle, and as they are perfectly acquainted with the
country and its localities, their losses, compared with those of the
Russians, cannot be very great . . . As an irregular soldier, the Caucasian
guerrilla has not an equal in any country . . .
Indeed, when we consider the nature of the country, the strength of
the defiles, the warlike spirit of the people, their continual wars with the
Russians, and [their] determination to maintain their independence at
whatever cost, we cannot wonder that, with such training, they should
be the most accomplished guerillas any country ever produced, nor that
they should undertake the most hazardous and romantic expeditions,
and rarely fail of success; for so great is their cunning and address that no
enemy can calculate on their movements, appearing to be endowed with
the attribute of ubiquity.
In addition to acting in small bodies under their respective chiefs, they
prove a constant source of disquietude, and give perpetual occupation to
whole brigades of Russian soldiers, even within sight of their own forts;
and such is their hardihood, and so great their hatred for the enemy, that,
when in want of ammunition, they, will lie in wait for days in the thickets
till some unfortunate stragglers, or it may be a whole detachment, appear
in sight, when they are instantly attacked.10

While the Chechen cavalry skirmishers (known as murtaziqas) faded
away before invading Russian battalions, the Chechen sharpshooters
were a constant threat as the Russian battalions marched through the
forests of Chechnya. The skilled Chechen marksmen took a heavy toll
on the Russian columns that sought to penetrate their land and made
sure that the Russians paid a price in blood for every meter of land they
conquered.
Prince Bariantsky, a nineteenth-century Russian general tasked with
the unenviable mission of conquering the rebellious Chechens, left the
following account of losses his men faced to Chechen sharpshooters:
The mountaineers were not to be frightened by fighting. Constant warfare
had given them such confidence that a few score men could engage
without hesitation a column several battalions strong, and firing one shot
to hundred would occasion us more loss than we would them. Fighting
25

Williams - Chechnya.indb 25

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

implies some sort of equality, and so long as they could fight, the enemy
had no thought for submission.11

The following account of a Russian campaign, which set out with the
intention to “pass through the country, ruining settlements, destroying
harvests, raiding herds and flocks, and attacking the enemy wherever
they had the audacity to collect in any force,” captures the difficulties the
Russian invaders faced in attacking the Chechens on their home turf.
Once again this eyewitness account could apply to Chechen tactics in the
post-Soviet Russo-Chechen Wars. Replace the muskets of the nineteenth
century with modern sniper rifles and antitank grenades, and the following account could be a description of the Russian defeat in Grozny at the
hands of Chechen guerillas in the winter of 1994–95:
At that time (1832) we had not yet cut avenues through the forests. In the
early “twenties,” indeed, Yermoloff had cleared a distance of a musket
shot on either side of the road through the well-known Goiten forest,
but this had already become overgrown by an impenetrable thicket of
underwood, so that we had to face warfare in Chechnya under the most
difficult conditions. As opponents the Chechens merited the fullest
respect, and amidst their forests and mountains no troops in the world
could afford to despise them. Good shots, fiercely brave, intelligent in
military affairs, they, like other inhabitants of the Caucasus, were quick to
take advantage of local conditions, seize upon any mistake we made, and
with incredible swiftness use it for our own destruction . . . .
In the war with the Chechens, one day was like any other . . . Fighting
went on from the beginning to [the] end of each march; there was the
chatter of musketry, the hum of bullets; men fell; but no enemy was seen.
Puffs of smoke in the jungle alone betrayed their lurking-places, and our
soldiers, having nothing else to guide them, took aim at that.12

In the face of such relentless attacks, the Russians, like a wounded bear,
struck indiscriminately at the Chechen civilians, destroying settlements,
transferring conquered Chechens to easily controlled regions, settling
trusted Cossacks in the pacified lowlands, and destroying the cherished
Chechen forests, which offered the guerrillas refuge.
The real conquest of Chechnya actually was achieved not with the bayonet, but with the forester’s axe. The denuded foothills of Chechnya are, to
26

Williams - Chechnya.indb 26

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

resistance

this day, unnaturally bare and eloquent testimony to the effectiveness of
Russia’s systematic campaign of deforestation. Just as the Russian Federation destroyed the “urban forest” of Grozny in its winter 1999–2000 campaign to eradicate Chechen fighters hiding there, the nineteenth-century
Russians felled the ancient forests of Chechnya to flush out the guerillas
who operated in their dark depths. In so doing, the remorseless Russians
finally pushed the Chechens to the brink.

Caucasian Armageddon The Destruction of Chechnya
Time and again a pattern emerged in Chechnya. As the Russians launched
brutal attacks on the general populace, embittered Chechens left their
burnt forests and villages to join the guerillas. The Russians, in effect,
proved to be excellent recruitment officers for Imam Shamil’s forces.
Many an ordinary Chechen threw down his plow to join the resistance
out of a thirst for revenge following a Russian raid.
The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who, like much of the Russian
intelligentsia, knew the Caucasus and admired the Chechens for their
fierce determination to resist the tsar’s forces, left the following account
of this process of embitterment among the nineteenth-century Che­chens
in his famous novel Hadji Murat:
When they returned, Sado [a Chechen] found his house destroyed; the
roof had caved in, the door and pillars of the balcony were burnt, and the
interior was wrecked. The body of his son, the handsome boy with shining
eyes who had thrilled at the sight of Hadji Murat, was brought to the
mosque on a horse covered with a cloak. He had been bayoneted in the
back . . .
Two ricks of hay that were there had been burnt; the apricot and cherry
trees that he had planted and trained were smashed and, worst of all,
the beehives were burnt. The wail of women was heard in all the houses
and on the square, where two more bodies were brought. Small children
howled with their mothers . . .
The fountain was polluted, obviously on purpose, so that no water
could be taken from it. The mosque was also defiled, and the Mullah was
cleaning it with his pupils. No one spoke of the hatred for the Russians.
The feelings, which all the Chechens, young and old experienced, was
27

Williams - Chechnya.indb 27

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

stronger than hatred. It was not hatred, but a refusal to recognize these
Russian dogs as people, and such a disgust, horror and incomprehension
of the monstrous cruelty of these creatures that the urge to kill them,
like the urge to kill rats, poisonous spiders, and wolves, was as natural a
feeling as the instinct of self-preservation.
The villagers had the choice of remaining in their homes and restoring
with fearful efforts everything that had been built up so laboriously
and so lightly and thoughtlessly destroyed, expecting every moment a
repetition of the same destruction, or, against the laws of their religion
and despite the revulsion and scorn they felt for the Russians, submitting
to them.
The elders prayed and decided unanimously to send envoys to Shamil
asking him for help, and at once started to repair the destruction.13

One cannot overestimate the impact that the telling and retelling of
the accounts of such Russian atrocities had on the Chechens’ views of
the Russians even decades after these events. The feeling of rage, mingled
with a sense of injustice felt by the Chechens in the aftermath of such
unprecedented destruction shaped future generations that grew up as
subjects of the Russian tsar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries.
For many Chechens and Dagestanis who were driven to despair by
the ability of the Russians to field larger and larger armies, there was an
almost-millenarian sense of doom as the years of fighting became decades. By the 1850s, the highlanders felt that their way of life was coming
to an end and the fabric of their society was being torn asunder. It was
this sense of doom, combined with a growing sense of spirituality and
fatalism, that drove many Chechens to fight alongside Shamil’s ascetic
warriors even as their cause appeared finished.
The following eyewitness account of the destruction of a lowland
Chechen village by a Russian battalion captures the growing sense of hatred, despair, and determination evinced by many Chechens who chose
to fight to the finish rather than accept foreign rule:
The defenders listened to the proposal [to surrender to the Russians],
conferred together, and then a half-naked Chechen, black with smoke
came out, made a short speech, followed by a volley from all the
28

Williams - Chechnya.indb 28

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

resistance

loopholes. What he said was this: “The only grace we ask of the Russians
is to let our families know we died as we lived, refusing submission to any
foreign yoke.”
Orders were now given to [set] fire [to] the saklias [stone houses] from
all sides. The sun had set, and the picture of destruction and ruin was
lighted only by the red glow of the flames. The Chechens, firmly resolved
to die, set up their death-song, loud at first, but sinking lower and lower as
their numbers diminished under the influence of fire and smoke.
However, death by fire is a terrible agony, such as all had not strength
to bear. There was a flash; a bullet whistled past over our ears, and
brandishing his sword, a Chechen dashed straight at us. Artarshtchikov
let the raging desperado come within ten paces, quietly took aim, and put
a bullet in his bare chest. The Chechen sprang high in the air, fell, rose
again to his feet, stretched himself to his full length, and bending slowly
forward, fell dead on his native soil.
Five minutes later the scene was repeated; another sprang out, fired
his gun, and brandishing his sword, broke through two lines of sharpshooters, to fall bayoneted by the third. The burning saklias began to fall
asunder, scattering sparks on the trampled gardens . . . Not one Chechen
was taken alive; seventy two men ended their lives in the flame!
The last act of the bloody drama was played out; night covered the
scene. Each one had done his duty according to his conscience; the chief
actors had gone their way to eternity: the rest, together with the mere
spectators, with hearts like lead, sought the refuge of their tents; and
maybe more than one, in the depth of his being, asked himself, why must
such things be? Is there no room for all on this earth, without distinction
of speech or faith?14

As scenes of this sort were repeated throughout Chechnya, Shamil’s
fighters increasingly found themselves hemmed in. Russia’s decades-long
war of attrition was finally takings its toll on the highland villagers, who
paid the price for Shamil’s increasingly futile resistance.
In addition to engaging in total warfare against the highlanders, Russia’s modern armies had a growing technological advantage over their
quasi-medieval opponents. With the aid of sophisticated new weapons,
such as faster-firing, quick-loading rifles and, most important, portable
29

Williams - Chechnya.indb 29

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

field cannons, the Russians were often able to avoid hand-to-hand combat with the Chechen fighting men and defeat them at a distance.
In the face of similar superiority in numbers and weaponry, the Che­
chen and Dagestani resistance fighters of the nineteenth century found
that the villages that supported their struggle were increasingly falling
into Russian hands. In the face of relentless Russian advances, Shamil’s
forces retreated deeper and deeper into the gorges of Chechnya and
Dagestan, where Shamil made a desperate last stand.
In 1859 Shamil finally was surrounded by a Russian army and captured,
thus bringing an end to the united jihad of the Dagestanis and Chechens.
As the mighty Lion of Dagestan was led down from the mountains to captivity in Russia, the highlanders’ dream of retaining their ancient freedom
came to an end.

Aftermath The Legacy of the Russian Conquest
Largely as a result of the ferocious defense of the highlands by mountain
gazis (holy warriors), such as Shamil and two earlier imams, it took the
Russian Empire not five, or ten, years to subdue the northern Caucasus,
but over sixty. This was to be the most drawn-out war the empire ever
embarked on. It was with good reason that the Caucasus became known
as “The Graveyard of the Russian Empire.”
As for the conquered Chechens, when the cannon smoke finally
cleared from their burnt and deforested valleys, it left a landscape of
toppled minarets, gutted villages, and denuded hills inhabited by an
embittered people who dreamed of revenge and freedom. In many ways
the following description of the destruction wrecked on the Circassian
highland villages by the Russian armies applied to the hamlets of the
Chechens as well:
At the end of the 1830s, when the Russians began to construct coastal
strongholds, the entire coast and mountain belt adjacent to it was an
elaborately cultivated oasis where, alongside wild, impregnable cliffs and
eternal forests (now relentlessly felled in all the more accessible places),
nestled fine vineyards and lush meadows, even laid out here and there
on artificial terraces supplied with water from man-made canals and
protected from heavy downpours by artificial channels.
30

Williams - Chechnya.indb 30

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

resistance

But the bloody war drove out and destroyed the mountain people;
their culture was exterminated, the artificial canals became choked up,
terraces, which had cost so much work, crumbled. The spacious gardens
and fine vineyards were partly cut down during the war and the period
when the country was settled by the Russians, or became wild and
overgrown, so that now it is difficult to determine where the thicket
intertwined with wild vines ends, and where the former cultivated area
begins.15

As this and other eyewitness accounts make abundantly clear, for all
of the nineteenth-century Russian authors’ musings on the glory of the
“civilizing” conquest of this majestic mountain chain, the Russian subjugation of the Caucasus was a cruel and inhumane affair even by the
standards of the time. The Russian conquest of Chechnya was a bloody
enterprise replete with butchery, ethnic cleansing, total warfare, and
every manner of colonial excess. For the nineteenth-century Chechens
who surveyed their scorched fields, buried their slain loved ones, rebuilt
their desecrated places of worship, and lived with the knowledge that
they were no longer a free people, there was cold comfort in the knowledge that they had suffered for the greater glory of the tsar, Orthodoxy,
and Mother Russia.
Having recognized the brutal nature of the Russian conquest of the
Chechens, it should, however, be stated that the Russian subjugation of
the Caucasus was no harsher than the us government’s pacification and
“resettlement” of the Native American Indians or the European powers’
colonization of Africa and Asia. As Russia’s burgeoning people spread
into the “black lands” of the southern Ukraine and into the plains of the
northern Caucasus, they considered it to be their “manifest destiny” to
tame the unruly tribes on their southern frontier and open up their lands
for Slavic settlement. The constant plundering expeditions of the Che­
chens into the lands of the Terek Cossacks gave the tsar’s frontier generals
all the excuse they needed for declaring total war on the mountaineers.
That the nineteenth-century Chechens’ raids for plunder and human
captives were a threat to the Russian Empire’s subjects in the lowlands
and neighboring provinces is not disputed here. In the tsarist period, it
was Russia’s duty to protect her expanding borders from the raids of the
31

Williams - Chechnya.indb 31

7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM

inferno in chechnya

Chechens, and this gave her frontier generals the right then, as now, to
subdue the obstreperous highlanders. Furthermore, as Richard Pierce
states in his history of Russian expansion in Central Asia, “The idea that it
is unethical for one people to control the destiny of another has come late
in the development of the human social conscience.”16
The previous description of the Russian campaigns of conquest in
the Caucasus is meant not as a moral critique of Russia’s actions in the
Caucasus, rather it serves as a means for understanding the Chechens’
current perceptions of their shared history with Russia. While the Russians celebrate the conquests of Yermolov, the heroes of the Chechens’
history are those who made their conquest of the Caucasus as costly as
possible. As a defeated nation, the heroes and martyrs of the past have
much greater potency as symbols of resistance among the Chechens
today than do the Russians’ historical icons from this same period. One
cannot understand the Chechens’ contemporary relationship with the
Russian authorities without understanding this people’s countermemory
of conquest by, and resistance to, their people’s historic “Other,” the Russian Empire. This tragic history, more than any mythical alliance with bin
Laden’s Arab-dominated Al Qaeda, explains the Chechens’ rationale for
fighting against Russia after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991.
Not surprisingly, with the collapse of the ussr in 1991 and subsequent
efforts by the Kremlin to regain control of the breakaway province of
Chechnya, the Chechens and neighboring Dagestanis have developed
something of a cult of personality surrounding Imam Shamil and his
nineteenth-century resistance to the tsars. Throughout post-Soviet
Chechnya there has been an upsurge of interest in the imam’s role in uniting the highlanders of Dagestan and Chechnya against Russia to create a
Caucasian Emirate. One of the modern-day Chechen secessionists’ most
prominent field commanders, Shamil Basayev, for example, openly emulated the anti-​Russian exploits of his legendary gazi namesake. He tried
to duplicate his creation of a unified Dagestani-Chechen jihadi state with
his 1999 raids into Dagestan. With the defeat of the Chechens in the second war, which officially ended in 2009, there has been the rise of a new
Caucasian Emirate based in Dagestan, which is fighting an on-again, offagain terror campaign against Russia. It is a little-known fact that since
2009 Chechnya has been largely pacified, and it is the D
­ agestani-​based
32

Williams - Chechnya.indb 32

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

resistance

terror organization known as the Caucasian Emirate that has carried out
most anti-Russian terrorism.
For rogue field commanders such as Shamil Basayev and the terrorists
of the modern-day Caucasian Emirate, the glories of Imam Shamil were
and are to be emulated in a very real sense. It may have been a desire
to follow in Imam Shamil’s footsteps that led Basayev to lead a unit of
Chechen, Arab, and Dagestani militants in invading the Russian province of Dagestan in August of 1999, thus commencing the fateful Second
Russo-Chechen War.
While the memory of Imam Shamil, one of the greatest anticolonial
guerillas of the nineteenth century, may have faded away in Russia, he
continues to be lionized by the Chechens and neighboring Dagestanis
to this very day. Certainly, the memory of Shamil remained alive among
the highlanders in the years immediately following their subjugation by
Russia. In the decades following Shamil’s capture, the Russian imperial
officials and later Soviet commissars who entered the Chechen villages to
collect taxes, enforce their alien laws, confiscate guns, and arrest potential troublemakers encountered the hostile stares of a conquered population that kept to itself and stubbornly maintained its native traditions.
Outsiders who traveled through this newly conquered province entered
a land that was to remain the most distinctly “non-Russian” region in the
entire Russian Empire right up until that state’s collapse during the Russian Civil War of 1917–1923.
While the Russian government claimed the Chechens as subjects (or
more commonly classified them as inorodtsy, “internal aliens”), they
were never recognized as trustworthy citizens. In many ways, this situation prevailed through the succeeding Soviet and Russian Federation
periods as well.
In response, the Chechens kept to themselves. In the timeless mountains of the northern Caucasus, the tsar’s new Muslim subjects continued
to hold their zikirs (mystical chants and dances), visit the holy grave sites
of slain murids in search of miracles and cures, respect their village elders, and give their loyalty to their Sufi brotherhoods and clans, even as
the “infidel” tsarist empire around them entered the turbulent twentieth
century.
But the Chechen children, who grew up tending sheep in the shadows
33

Williams - Chechnya.indb 33

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

inferno in chechnya

of the ruined highland fortresses, recalled the stories of the battles fought
there by the great gazi Shamil. Many of them dreamed of one day emulating the legendary mountain fighter in expelling the Russian infidels.
It was this collective memory of resistance that was reawakened every
time the Chechens revolted against the tsars (in all, seventeen times) that
kept this sullen mountain people’s dreams of independence alive as the
Russian Empire tottered around them.
As a people with a deep well of historical grievances and fresh memories of independence lost, the tsarist-era Chechens passed on their sense
of victimization, of highlander pride and martial traditions, to a new generation. This generation was to grow up in the Communist successor to
the tsarist empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (ussr), and to
experience a horrific fate that surpassed even that of the tsarist conquest
in its all-encompassing terror and brutality. While the Soviet heirs to the
tsarist throne were to claim to have a humane solution to the “nationality problem” in the multiethnic Communist state, the Soviet leader Josef
Stalin’s cruel solution to the “Chechen problem” was to more closely resemble Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the Jews in Europe.

34

Williams - Chechnya.indb 34

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

3

Genocide
The Jews understand us best.
— Lyoma Usanov, member of a Chechen delegation
speaking to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in
Washington, dc, February 20001
Religion is not the key to understanding Chechens;
their painful past is.
— Fred Weir, American journalist2

35

Williams - Chechnya.indb 35

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

“Comrades” The Chechens in the ussr
With the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the ensuing years
of civil warfare between the Bolshevik Communist “Reds” and the tsar­
ist “Whites,” the Chechens, like the other recently conquered mountain
peoples, briefly regained their liberty. The memory of their former independence was fresh in the minds of the Chechens, whose elders still sang
ballads lionizing the anti-Russian jihad of Imam Shamil. Like the Poles,
Finns, and the peoples of the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and
Lithuania, who seized the opportunity afforded by the Soviet Communist overthrow of the Russian Empire in 1917 to regain their liberty when
the tsarist “Prison of Nationalities” collapsed, the Chechens took advantage of the collapse of Russian central authority to reclaim their former
independence.
While other non-Russian Muslim subjects of the empire, such as the
Volga Tatars, had long been subsumed in the multiethnic Russian Empire, the recently conquered Chechens still lived on stories of their old
freedoms and cherished the historical memory of their grandfathers’
struggle against the Russian tsars. During the course of the Russian Civil
War (1917–1923), the Chechens largely remained spectators to the ebb
and flow of conflicting Russian-dominated armies, although their forces
fought on both sides to maintain their independence. Chechen forces,
for example, fought vigorously against the White (pro-tsarist) forces of
General Denikin, which sought to destroy their self-proclaimed Mountain Republic and reincorporate it into the Russian Empire.3 This desperate struggle between the Chechens seeking their independence and
tsarist forces aiming to keep the empire together at any cost resulted in
tremendous Chechen loses and the destruction of their lowland city of
Gudermes.
Ultimately, the tsarist Whites lost the Russian Civil War. The fact that
such a large percentage of their forces were involved in suppressing the
militarily proficient Caucasian highlanders instead of fighting against
their Bolshevik Communist enemies did not help their cause. It should
also be noted that on occasion the Chechens fought on different sides
during this conflict, with the Russified Chechen lowlanders joining the
tsarist Whites and the highlanders supporting the Bolshevik Communists.
36

Williams - Chechnya.indb 36

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

genocide

By 1921 the Bolshevik Communists finally won the battle for control
of the Russian Empire, and the Chechens’ homeland once again was
forcefully incorporated into a transcontinental state dominated by ethnic Russians, now known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On
this occasion, however, the official role of the ethnic Russians in the new
Communist state was to be less pronounced than it had been under the
Russian tsars. In the new transethnic Soviet state, a genuine effort was
made to create a union of nationality-based Soviet Socialist Republics
(ssrs). This union of fifteen full Soviet republics was no longer considered to be an empire of, and for, the Russians. Unlike the explicitly
Russian Empire of the Romanov tsars, the new Union of Soviet Socialist
Republics was to make an effort to accommodate and even promote the
non-Russian nationalities.
It is often forgotten that there were many Bolshevik Communist idealists in the ussr who genuinely worked to construct a more progressive
society for the empire’s “uneducated, backward, toiling masses,” regardless of their nationality. Not surprisingly, the social revolution resulting
from Soviet rule was to lead to vast transformations among the ussr’s
undeveloped Muslim peoples. During the Soviet period, the conservative, inward-looking Islamic population of the Russian provinces was
forcefully modernized, secularized, and Europeanized by their Communist masters.
But the battle to drag the former Russian Empire’s “backward” Muslim populations into the new Soviet era was not easy. For the Soviet
commissars who arrived in the mountain villages of the Caucasus, the
Chechens epitomized the very backwardness that the new Communist
state sought to forcefully eradicate in the name of Marxist progress.4 The
“superstitious” Chechen men were members of impenetrable Sufi mystical brotherhoods, the women hid their faces from outsiders and were
married off when they were young, the villagers lived in walled auls with
winding alleys and stone houses that had specially designated women’s
quarters, and the distrustful mountaineers engaged in such “antiprogressive” activities as blood feuds, pilgrimages to local shrines for cures, and
uprisings that were inevitably led by xenophobic mullahs.
It was a generation of bold, idealistic Communist Party activists and
commissars who were to carry out a transformation of this region. In the
37

Williams - Chechnya.indb 37

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

inferno in chechnya

Caucasus region, the Communist Party activists transformed Chechen
society (often at gunpoint) by going into the most inaccessible mountain villages and spreading mass literacy, opening schools, and exiling
or executing traditional community leaders who resisted their “infidel”
innovations. Instead of attending mosques for traditional religious education, a new generation of Chechen children grew up becoming Soviet
Young Pioneers or members of Komsomol (the Leninist Communist
Youth League).
In the process of forcing their Marxist worldview on the conservative
highlanders, Communist officials also directly confronted obscurantism
and stifling local traditions among the Chechens and Dagestanis that
kept women from fully participating in society. In addition, Chechen
children (including girls) were given a compulsory education in which
they studied secular topics instead of the previous religious-based curriculum that had been in Arabic.
A major facet of the Bolsheviks’ modernizing policies that aimed to
bring the perceived benefits of the Communist revolution to all Soviet
peoples was their war on religion. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin considered religion to be a conglomerate of superstitious holdovers from the
feudal period or earlier. Like Karl Marx before him, Lenin contemptuously
described all religions (but reactionary Islam in particular) as the “opiate
of the masses.” In their efforts to forcefully secularize the Chechens as
a means of “liberating them from the chains of superstition,” the Soviet
commissars closed their mosques, banned their Islamic celebrations
and replaced them with Soviet holidays, and undermined the influence
of their village elders and priests.
In the face of these campaigns, the Chechens’ two main Sufi religious
brotherhoods, known as the Naqshbandi and the Qadiriya orders, went
underground to avoid detection. Ironically, even Chechen members of
the Communist Party surreptitiously partook in Sufi religious ceremonies during the Soviet period. Good Chechen Communists secretly partook in zikirs (chants) and continued to have Muslim burials. As these
Muslim Marxists noted, socialism may have offered a “workers’ paradise”
on earth, but it offered no heaven for the Communist Party faithful after
their death.
During their offensive on Islam, the Soviets executed mullahs, replaced
38

Williams - Chechnya.indb 38

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

genocide

the Chechens’ Arabic script with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, and on
many levels dragged the Chechens from the era of anti-Russian jihads
and muridism into the modern, industrial era. As part of this developmental process, the capital of the newly established Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (assr), Grozny, was developed into
a major urban center. Tens of thousands of Soviet Russians were settled
in the city. These Russian “big brothers” were utilized in the development
of the oil industry in Chechnya. In the process, Grozny eventually was
chosen as the site for the construction of one of the Soviet Union’s largest
oil refineries.
As the simple Chechen farmers and peasants watched in awe, oil wells
went up throughout their countryside, Russian factory workers came to
work in the new centers of industry in Grozny, new roads were built into
the two main mountain valleys of the south, schools were constructed
even in the smallest of villages, and the Socialist Revolution began to be
felt in the most remote mountain hamlets.
In effect, the Kremlin launched a vast campaign of social engineering
in the Caucasus that aimed to do nothing less than transform the highlanders from “backwards, tribal, religious reactionaries” into modern
Soviet citizens. The newly envisioned Chechen “Soviet Man” ultimately
was to be an “internationalist,” whose loyalties and sense of community
transcended his narrow attachment to his ethnic origins and linked him
to the greater ussr. He also was to be an atheist, speak fluent Russian (the
language of international communication), and identify with his fellow
Soviet workers in the experiment in state socialism known as the ussr.
Not surprisingly, the Soviet project strongly altered the Islamic culture of the Chechens. In many ways their experiences behind the Iron
Curtain accelerated their isolation from the rest of the Muslim world and
increased the already dominant role of informal Sufi folk Islam among
the common people. During the Soviet atheist period, the average Sovietized Chechen Sufi grew to have even less in common with the typical Arab living in the Gulf states of the Middle East, where strict Islamic
practices remained unaltered. With the closure of their mosques, execution of their trained religious leaders, destruction of their holy Qur’ans,
Europeanization-secularization of their culture, replacement of their
Arabic alphabet with Cyrillic, and so on, the Soviet Chechens’ social and
39

Williams - Chechnya.indb 39

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

inferno in chechnya

religious practices became limited to informal customs and ancient folk
beliefs. These local religious traditions had little in common with strict
Orthodox Islam officially enforced with such severity in Saudi Arabia by
the Wahhabi conservatives and religious police.
In addition to these far-reaching social projects, the Soviet revolutionaries also enacted several important territorial-administrative changes
in the Caucasus that were to profoundly affect the Chechens. Most important, the Chechens and the neighboring Ingush people were given
their own dual administrative-republic homeland like other nations
and ethnic groups in the ussr (including the multiethnic Dagestanis).
The Chechen and Ingushes’ bureaucratic-territorial unit was known as
the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (assr). This
assr was, like the neighboring Dagestan assr, included within the administrative framework of the larger Russian Soviet Federated Socialist
Republic (the rsfsr). In many ways it was an ethnic “reservation” within
the larger ethnic Russian republic.
It is important to emphasize that the tiny Chechen-Ingush Autonomous ssr, like myriad other small ethnoterritorial units or “reservations”
that found themselves under the auspices of the vast Russian Republic,
was not a full-fledged Soviet Socialist Republic (ssr), such as the first-tier
Azerbaijan ssr, Georgian ssr, Ukrainian ssr, Kazakh ssr, Armenian
ssr, or Russia itself. For this reason, the small Chechen-Ingush territorial
autonomy inside of Russia had no officially recognized “right” to secede
from the larger ussr or from the Chechens’ mother republic, Russia,
should the ussr one day collapse.5 The smaller Chechen-Ingush Autonomous ssr was considered to be under the jurisdiction of the larger Russian Soviet Federated Republic and, following the disintegration of the
ussr in 1991, found itself (like many other ethnically based autonomous
“reservations,” such as Tatarstan or Dagestan) forever linked to, and
ruled by, the Russian Federal Republic. Because of this historical border
construction, the Chechens’ microrepublic could not secede from Russia
and achieve independence in the same fashion that the fifteen full ssrs
did in 1991 when the ussr later collapsed.

40

Williams - Chechnya.indb 40

7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM

genocide

Rebels Chechen Anti-Soviet Uprisings, 1921–1944
In spite of the undisputed success the Communists’ social and territorial
programs had in transforming the conservative highlanders into Soviet
citizens, it is important to note that the Chechens, more than any other
nation in the multiethnic ussr, actively fought against the Soviets’ attempts to remold their society. This response stemmed to a large degree
from the Soviet government’s ham-fisted social policies, which aimed to
forcefully transform this c