by Giorgio Rota, Vienna
Once upon a time in Italy, when people still used to read things mostly printed on paper (although inscriptions, usually of a celebratory character, were of course abundantly available on other materials, such as bronze or marble), there was a historical monthly magazine named Storia illustrata, which, although popular in character, was able to offer a wide range of articles, solidly based on sources and penned by authors diverse in background (writers, professional historians, former military officers, even journalists) but unified by a sure mastery of the Italian language and a sense for the meaning and importance of history.
The July 1970 issue of of the magazine hosted an article by Renzo Dall’Ara under the enticing title “Boetti, the Blazing Prophet”. A few years later, the same article ended up in the hands of a still young boy living in a quiet Italian provincial town and, jam-packed as it was with exotic names of peoples, persons and places (from Mosul to Tiflis, from the Mingrelians to the Kabardians, not to mention the Russians, who however seemed to the reader to be a different species from the grey subversive humanoids of the Cold War) could not fail to set ablaze his imagination, being thus at the origin of a lasting fascination with the region and with the “Prophet” himself that is clearly still alive today.
As stated above, the articles in Storia illustrata were well-documented – of course, within the limits of non-scholarly publications of the pre-digital era. For instance, Dall’Ara was not aware of Alexandre Bennigsen’s fundamental contribution on the topic, which had appeared a few years earlier. Instead, his main sources were three Italian authors, among them Ottino and Picco: the former announced the discovery, in the State Archive of Turin, of a manuscript account (Relazione) in French of the life of Boetti; the latter published it for the first time. Dall’Ara took at face value both the Relazione (which, as we now know, is of very dubious authenticity) and the scholarship based on it, reporting an incredible story according to which the ex Dominican missionary Giovanni Battista Boetti (b. 1743) had become, after a long series of adventures, Mansur, a redoubtable military commander and the founder of a new religion meant to replace both Christianity and Islam. Eventually defeated and captured by the Russians, he ended his days as a prisoner in a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands, on the White Sea, in 1798.
But let us start from the beginning. Sheikh or Imam Mansur was actually the Chechen Ushurma, who, as Bennigsen showed on the basis of Russian and, most importantly, Ottoman sources, was born not long before 1760 in the village of Aldi in a family of poor but free peasants. The lower classes also provided the bulk of his followers, which eventually was to be his undoing since the local aristocrats were more than willing to side with the Russians. Illiterate but with a smattering of religious education, he was charismatic enough to be able to spread his message not only in Chechnya but in several regions of the northern Caucasus. In view of the fact that Mansur claimed to offer a “purer” and “reformed” vision of Islam, and that he preached both holy war against non-Muslims and a struggle against adat (customary law), he has often been seen as a Naqshbandi: given the absence of sure evidence on this point, Bennigsen posited at least an “indirect influence” of the order on him. Mansur’s jihad lasted only from the beginning of 1785 to 22 June 1791, when the Russians captured him at the fall of the Ottoman fortress of Anapa. Treated harshly by these improbable agents of modern civilization and imprisoned in the fortress of Schlüsselburg, he died there on 13 April 1794. Mansur was seldom successful on the battlefield but, as Bennigsen (and Baddeley before him) acknowledged, he paved the way for the later leaders of the resistance in Daghestan and Chechnia, which would culminate with Shamil and come to an end with Uzun Haji Saltinskii. Last but not least, Bennigsen could prove that not only Mansur was no Ottoman agent, but that the Sublime Porte often found his action troubling and potentially harmful to the interests of the Empire.
Of course, Soviet scholars paid little to no attention to the discoveries made by “bourgeois” scholars: the late lamented Moshe Gammer skillfully outlined, in an invaluable article which is actually a long book-review of Sharpudin Akhmatov’s book on the Imam, the rhetorical acrobatics performed by more or less serious “historians” hell-bent on following the party dogma on Mansur, or on forging a new one. But this cannot come as a surprise: one needs only to read a sentence like
leaders of resistance movements to Russian expansion were now [in Stalin’s times] dubbed “reactionary” and at the height of Stalinist paranoia, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they were even declared officially to be spies and foreign agents
and change a few words here and there, to recognise a paradigm still at work today. More interesting, however, is what was happening in Italy.
Gammer remarked that Italy was the only European country where Mansur’s deeds found resonance. Already John Baddeley had expressed doubts on the possibility that Mansur could have been in fact an Italian missionary gone both rogue and native, while Bennigsen found it “bewildering” (ahurissante). In spite of that, in 1977 Lucia Rostagno published a very interesting article, aimed at analyzing Shaykh Mansur’s religious message as expressed in his “Twenty-four Commandments” (contained in the above-mentioned biographical Relazione), and placing him in the twofold frame of Islamic theology and European (and especially Italian) literature of the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, not only did Rostagno fail to use Baddeley’s and Bennigsen’s work but she also based herself exclusively on Italian sources: as a result, the outcome of her analysis is as engaging but also as fictional as her sources. In her turn, Rostagno involuntarily mislead Lucetta Scaraffia, the author of an otherwise valuable work on the question of Christian renegades in the Mediterranean basin.
Franco Venturi seems to be the first (1986) to have identified the author of La riforma dell’Alcorano [“The Reformation of the Coran”] as the Tuscan revolutionary and later Jacobin Filippo Buonarroti (1761–1837): allegedly a translation from Arabic, the Riforma, the social and religious manifesto of Boetti-Mansur, appeared in printed form in Italy in 1786. In 1991, Venturi published a much shorter version of the same article.
What is the origin of the Boetti-Mansur legend? Giovanni Battista Boetti really existed: a missionary in Kurdistan and a hothead, he came into conflict first with his colleagues in the East and then with the Church authorities in Italy. Eventually, Boetti defrocked himself (perhaps in 1784) and disappeared: the Relazione (which purports to be based on Boetti’s own diary) was allegedly penned on 28 October 1786. At the same time, journals and other sources conveyed news about Mansur, occasionally claiming that he was of Italian origin. A mix of early Orientalism, curiosity for the exotic, revolutionary ferment and social criticism, vague and distorted news about an egalitarian preacher and Muslim victories in the Caucasus (probably those by Umma Khan, the nutsal, or chief, of the Avars) contributed to the beginning of the story. As for Buonarroti, he did what Montesquieu had done in his Lettres persanes and the Piedmontese (like Boetti) Giuseppe Baretti (1719–1789) in and for his journal La frusta letteraria (1763–1765), when he invented the figure of Aristarco Scannabue, the former mercenary soldier in Mughal service turned fierce literary critic: he created an alter ego for himself. Legitimate pride in local history but also the necessity to find forerunners who, in times of foreign domination, had kept the flame of the Italian “genius” alive (forerunners who were probably particularly welcome if they could somehow bolster the self-esteem of the unified Kingdom of Italy, which both during the liberal and the Fascist phase of its life was toying with the idea of a colonial empire) is probably what encouraged 19th- and early 20th-century scholars, many more than those mentioned here, to believe blindly in the story of a Muslim Caucasian prophet born in Italy. And of course, the life and (partial) success of men like Cagliostro and Casanova proved that almost nothing was impossible to men of extraordinary talent (especially if they were born in Italy).
Furthermore, Shaykh Mansur can be ascribed a place within the series of “Saviours from the East” (that is, military leaders who were supposed to provide a solution to the strategic problems of a given age by attacking the enemies of Christendom, Europe or a given European country from the East) which started with the fabulous Prester John and the very real Mongols and continued at least until the end of the 18th century: an illustrious, and probably more famous contemporary of the Imam was Tipu Sultan of Mysore (or citoyen Tipu, as his French Republican allies were pleased to call him, 1782–1799), until he was defeated and killed by the British at siege of Seringapatam. Shaykh Mansur may have embodied a hope of military help in the eyes of the Ottomans: to what extent he did it for those European powers which worried at the increasingly aggressive Russian imperialism is a question that would require the scrutiny first of all of the ambassadorial reports from Constantinople and St. Petersburg, and then of the works of the policy makers of the time. And, as said above, he may have looked as an ally to those who wished for a radical change in the European society and Zeitgeist of the 18th century.
One could say more on the Italian sources on Boetti-Mansur, but it would be impossible to do so here: suffice it to say that there is still room and need for more research. In the meantime, the Imam does not cease to fascinate scholars, be they real, aspiring or soi-disant. In 2006, a book by Serena Vitale bearing the rather orientalising title of L’imbroglio del turbante (“The Swindle of the Turban”, but also “The Tangle of the Turban”) appeared. Of course Vitale did not solve the “mystery” of whether Boetti and Mansur were one and the same person: however, if, on the one hand, she unabashedly chose to flog the almost dead horse of Mansur’s “double identity”, on the other she had the merit to introduce in the plot even more shady characters who may have actually played some role in the story, like Giuseppe Montemurli and the marquis Cavalcabò. In 2015, a book by Cristina Erdas appeared which, like Rostagno’s article, blissfully ignores the existing scholarship. Unfortunately, O tempora! O mores!, it also ignores the rules of the Italian language.
More importantly, Mansur has not lost his ability to serve as a rallying point in the fight against Russian aggression, as the presence of a Shaykh Mansur Battalion shows: created during the fight in eastern Ukraine in 2014, it is still fighting there in 2022.
The Russian conquest of the Caucasus (or, for that matter, of the other areas of the Empire) was no less brutal and murderous than the American conquest of the West: the only differences are that the Russians did not shoot an infinite number of movies on that topic and, furthermore, that they created the perverse notion of the “friendship of the peoples”. Given the analogy, it is perhaps fitting to end with a line from a Western movie that, like all the classic instances of the genre, does not really deal with the (American) West only: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
Sharpudin B. Akhmadov, Imam Mansur (Groznij: Kniga, 1991);
John Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1908);
Alexandre Bennigsen, “Un mouvement populaire au Caucase au XVIIIe siècle”, Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique, 5 (1964): pp. 159–205;
Filippo Buonarroti, La Riforma dell’Alcorano, ed. Alessandro Galante Garrone and Franco Venturi (Palermo: Sellerio, 1992);
Renzo Dall’Ara, “Boetti, il profeta fiammeggiante”, Storia Illustrata, XIV, 152 (1970): pp. 108–115;
Brian Davies, The Russo-Turkish War, 1768–1774 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015);
Cristina Erdas, L’uomo che volle farsi profeta (Saarbrücken: Edizioni Accademiche Italiane, 2015);
Moshe Gammer, “A Preliminary to Decolonizing the Historiography of Shaykh Mansur”, Middle Eastern Studies, 32 (1996): pp. 191–202;
E. Ottino, Curiosità e ricerche di storia subalpina, vol. II (Turin: Fratelli Bocca, 1876);
Francesco Picco, “Un Avventuriere Monferrino del secolo XVIII”, Rivista di storia, arte, archeologia della provincia di Alessandria, 10 (1901): pp. 23–107 (later reprinted without the original documents as Il Profeta Mansur, Genua, 1915);
Lucia Rostagno, “Il profeta Mansur ovvero padre Giovanni Battista Boetti”, Rivista degli Studi Orientali, 51 (1978): pp. 113–128;
Lucetta Scaraffia, Rinnegati (Rome – Bari: Laterza, 1993);
Clemens P. Sidorko, Dschihad im Kaukasus (Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2007);
Franco Venturi, “La riforma dell’Alcorano ossia il mito italiano dello Sceicco Mansur”, Rivista Storica Italiana, 98 (1986): pp. 47–77;
Franco Venturi, “The Legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur”, Central Asian Survey, 10 (1991): pp. 93–101.
Serena Vitale, L’imbroglio del turbante (Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 2006).
 Brian Davies, The Russo-Turkish War, 1768–1774 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015), p, 248.
 For an interview with its commander, Muslim Cheberloevskij, see www.youtube.com/watch (downloaded on 15 May 2022).
 John Ford, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, 1962 (screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck).