A Hero of Our Time. Oil on canvas. 250X167cm. 2018.
In 1832 Imam Shamil famously leapt over the Russian Troops to escape and continue the resistance against Tsarist rule for another 25 years. Gimry, the Dagestani mountain town where Shamil made his leap, has, in recent times, again become the site of Islamic resistance to Russian rule.
A Hero Of Our Time
We were driving in Shamil's Landrover away from Makhachkala on the Caspian Sea and south through lowland Dagestan, towards the mountains that form the southern edge of Russia. The landscape was wide open and scrubby. When Tolstoy was here, the Nogay, a nomadic people originating from Mongolia, moved their yurts around this step which is now on the extreme east of Europe. The wide road we were driving along runs free after the traffic jams of the city. Bulbous, grassy mounds began to rise around us, becoming bigger until fingers of snow started to stripe the hills. A military tank reared up over a small rise and down the other side. ‘Military exercises’ Shamil said with a smile. It was gloomy with low clouds and there was no sign of any mountains only these rising, snowy hills which grew a fuzz of leafless birch before suddenly disappearing as we drove into a tunnel.
The world that reappeared a few minutes later had completely changed into a vast crumbly mountainscape of deep chasms, jutting shards and clear blue sky. It was if the continental plate that the flat expanses of Russia lies on had been abruptly pushed up, broken off and smashed. Looking back over the tunnel, the afternoon sun was lighting up along the top of a mountainous wall at a terrible height above us. Disordered ranks of natural obelisks stood along the upper ridge, terracotta warriors, still alert In 1832, long before the tunnel was built, the Russian army, in unseasonable October snow, had climbed the gentle northern slopes that we had driven through and then managed to descend the 1500m cliff to attack the village of Gimry which lies above a canyon that trenches the landscape below.
It was during this battle that Imam Shamil made his legendary leap for freedom over the Russian troops. Shamil was to become the Imam of a united Dagestan and Chechnya. He was to be both feared and respected as a brilliant military leader by the Russians and famous throughout Europe as the pious barbarian warrior, holding his own against the might of imperial Russia. He was the archetypal North Caucasus warrior that the region was famed for. Shamil was the third imam of Dagestan and Chechnya. In 1825 the first imam, Ghazi Mohammad (and Shamil’s childhood friend), had united the nations of Dagestan and the Chechens under the banner of Islam and called for a jihad to fight off the invading Russians.
During the battle for Gimry on the cold morning of 1832, Shamil and Ghazi Mohammed and sixty others were defending a house above Gimry. The mountaineers were running out in twos and three onto the veranda outside to be gunned down by volleys of shots from the Russian troops outside. But when Shamil, tall and athletic, ran out he leapt over a rank of troops who were about to fire a volley, sword in hand, stabbing three of them as he landed, a fourth Russian thrust his musket bayonet through Shamil's chest and lung, Shamil held the offending musket, dispatched the soldier, drew out the bayonet and escaped.
Imam Shamil and his best friend Ghazi Mohammad grew up in the mountain village of Gimry. At the time the battle of Gimry, the town was the spiritual home of the north Caucasus brand of Mystical Sufism and the headquarters of the militarist Islamic resistance against the Russians. Believing their mountain stronghold was safe behind a mountainous wall that was far too great to be scaled by any army, the Dagestani and Chechens were caught ill prepared by the Russian's mountaineering feat and Gimry was easily taken.
After the battle, in the house from where Shamil had made his legendary long jump, the Russians found the first Imam, Ghazi Mohammad, amongst the dead. He had, according to one Russian officer, died in prayer with one hand grasping his beard, the other hand raised and pointing to heaven.
The Russians thought they had won a great victory having killed the heart of the holy war against them. Shamil, however, had other plans. He spent 6 months recovering from his wounds (he also had a broken rib and shoulder before he made the leap) and went on to become the third of imam of Chechnya and Dagestan and fight off the Russian for another quarter of a century.
There is a sign in Gimry today where Shamil had landed that reads in Russian, Here landed Imam Shamil after his leap and the death of the first Imam, Ghazi Mohammad. It stands five meters from the house he had jumped from. I suggested to Shamil in the Landrover that we take the turning up to Gimry and have a look. He replied that there was no time, we had to get far into the mountains before it got dark. I suspected there might be more to it than that. I had been worried about this if I traveled with locals, that I would only get to see the nicer parts of Dagestan.
Gimry has in recent years, once again become the centre of an Islamic resistance against Russia.
I was told in Makhachkala by a rather blunt lawyer who spoke good English, that the people of Gimry were '..., they have to carry numbers’. According to the lawyer, the Russian Security Forces makes every Salifist in the Gimry area carry a Number card, a card which if they lose, they will disappear. I had read articles by human rights activists about these disappearances, of whole villages being detained for months at a time with many of the men, never to return and those that do had undergone abuse and torture at the hands of the FSB. I had spoken to a Dagestani women in London who had claimed asylum in the UK with her husband and children. She said that her husband would regularly come home beaten and bruised after interrogations from the FSB.
Salafism entered the North Caucasus region in the 1980s from Saudi Arabia. An ultra conservative form of Islam, they found issue with Sufi Islam and how it had intertwined with the traditional mountain beliefs. A militant faction of Salafism spilled over into Dagestan from the chaos of the first and second Chechen wars of the 90s and 2000s and an insurgency continues, if much reduced till this day, targeting police checkpoints and police and military buildings. The 2010 suicide bombings in the Moscow metro were linked to a Dagesatani militant leader and Dagestan made a rare appearance in the western media when the 2013 Boston bombers were found to be from the republic. From 2011 to 2015, Russian special forces carried out military strikes on suspected terrorists in the Gimry region and now the area is tightly controlled.
Imam Shamil is still seen as a symbol of resistance against the Russians in Dagestan and this resistance, as many Human rights activists and foreign journalists point out, is a result of the alleged brutality carried out by the FSB and one of the main reasons young men turn to terrorism, or ‘go to the forest‘ as they say locally.
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