Imam Shamil was an Avar who heralded from present day Dagestan. He united the traditionally warring North Caucasian tribes in defense against Russian expansionism and led the Caucasian Imamite from 1834-1859. Shamil escaped from the Russians after his forces were defeated in the 80 day seige at Akhoulgo and continued to raise troops from the diverse tribes of the region, waging an Islamist holy war against Russia until his surrender in 1859. At this point, his story takes a strange turn.
The Imam was transported to St. Petersburg, where he was treated as an honored guest of the tsar and before settling on a well-appointed estate outside of Moscow toured the country (“By the will of the Almighty, the Absolute Governor, I have fallen into the hands of unbelievers … the Great Emperor … has settled me here … in a tall spacious house with carpets and all the necessities”), where he was greeted with near fanatical enthusiasm by the Russian public. After 12 years of exile in Russia, he requested and was granted permission by Tsar Alexander II to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he died.
Thomas M. Barrett discusses the significance of Shamil in exile to Russian attitudes towards imperial expansion and developing notions of empire in his article “The Remaking of the Lion of Dagestan: Shamil in Captivity,” writing “the celebration of the capture of Shamil was a mixture of entertainment and imperial boasting, of Romantic infatuation and national pride. Shamil represented the mixing of literary imperialism and state imperialism; he was both a hero of the Russian imagination and a striking example of the fruits of tsarist expansion.”
Imam Shamil’s treatment was a turnaround from the fate of other Caucasian rebels at the hands of the Russian empire, most of whom were either killed outright or sent into solitary exile in one of Russia’s many fortresses or prisons. Rather than strip rebels of their power through literal means or isolation, they began to wage what more resembled a PR campaign. Shamil assisted in the creation of harmonious relations by pledging loyalty to the tsar and repudiating the ongoing efforts of the Caucasian rebels. Bariatinskii, who was Viceroy of the Caucasus under Alexander II, developed a close and cooperative relationship with the former rebel, requesting official statements and dictating many of his political opinions, at least in the public realm. Military personnel were encouraged to visit Shamil and his family on their estate outside of Moscow, where their hosts would greet them in ceremonial dress in this “museum of the East in a Russian provincial town.”
The myth of Shamil proved harder to articulate than Russian authorities must have hoped. Before his capture, he had become a source of fascination in Western Europe, with Thomas Peckett Prest (author of Sweeney Todd)’s serialized story, Schamyl; or the Wild Woman of Circassia. An Original Historical Romance, appearing in London papers, complete with lurid woodcut illustrations. Due to the popularity of Western travel writers accounts of the Caucasus, more was perhaps known about Shamil in the West than in Russia at the time of his capture. Russian authorities hoped that their generous treatment of Shamil in captivity would soften Western attitudes to Russian expansionism in the Caucasus. But his capture and position afterward elicited a mixed response among Russian supporters of the conquest, who feared that Shamil’s new status in the Russian imagination would trivialize Russian exploits in the Caucasus. One anonymous letter writer to a St. Petersburg newspaper expressed outrage at his depiction as a “leader of bandit horseman,” writing:
“Shamil–an autocratic ruler of an enormous expanse of the mountains before whom hundreds of thousands of a warrior population trembled; Shamil–who fought the Russian army for 25 years, more than once getting the upper hand over large divisions led by foreign generals; Shamil–who from poor, wild mountain people has been elevated to the ranks of a university historical personage thanks to his intellect and energy; Shamil–in the understanding of Mr. Author, a leader of bandit horsemen?!?!”