by Naira Sahakyan Armenian Genocide Museum-Institute, Yerevan

Between 2016 and 2020 I visited Daghestan several times to work in the local archives and collect materials on the 1917 Revolutions in Russia. Among the sources I could inspect at the Archive of the Institute of History, Archeology, and Ethnography of the Daghestani Scientific Centre of the Russian Academy of Sciences, I found a good number of memoirs crafted by Daghestanis who participated in the Civil War and fought on the Bolsheviks’ side. These memoirs were collected in 1957 and that should not come as a surprise: that was the year when the Soviets celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Revolution and therefore those texts ought to have served as a collection of popular voices reinforcing the official revolutionary narrative. While premised upon a state-led project designed to shed light on participation of ‘ordinary people’ in the Revolution and the Civil War, at the same time said memoirs stand out for writing events occurring in the North Caucasus outside of the grand narratives of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Here I will tell you how and why.

Designed to privilege certain symbols over others, historical narratives can be deployed to forge communities of meaning. This has been repeatedly noted in the past and there’s no need to rehearse on this adage here, to be sure. However, the peculiar phenomenon which warrants our sustained attention is the entangled relationship between history and memory, especially when manifestations of the latter are said to be locally-situated and represent a collective product. How can an ostensibly local and communal vision of the past be inscribed into an historical narrative usually controlled by the state? Or are we dealing here with a writing practice of cultural subversion, which defies easy categorization?  

There is one text, in particular, which has attracted my attention, for it was written by ten individuals from Akhty, a Lezgin-majority village perched atop the Samur river in the very south of Daghestan. Nothing is known about the authors beyond their names. Also, this historical record was originally crafted in Russian, a linguistic choice that complicates our reading of this source as one which offers a vernacular representation of history. In addition, this memoir differs significantly from other texts belonging to the same genre because it connects to historical narratives expanding beyond the cramped confines of the local community. Indeed, it tells the collapse of the Russian empire as it was seen from the perspective of the village, it addresses the struggle between the local Reds and the Whites, and it also delves into the Turkish invasion of Daghestan. While only cursorily addressing the Bolshevik takeover, the memoir frames all major political actors as manifestations of tyranny.

Like any other memoir, however, this one too is informed by a process of selective memory, of course. More specifically, there are two topics which can help us better understand how memory was constructed through a complex process both of elevation and excision of historical events: one is the figure of Imam Shamil (r. 1834–1859); the other is the image of the Muslim clergy.

Bolshevizing Imam Shamil?

During the era of Shamil, ‘Samursky okrug’ was one of the active participants of the movement to free Daghestan from Tsarist autocracy․ [1]

This is what we read in the opening paragraph of the memoir. To refer to Imam Shamil in the 1950s makes perfect sense, one could say, for he was a key figure in the history of the North Caucasus, which embodied the struggle of the mountaineers against the Russian empire. However, our memoir frames Shamil’s imamate as a political formation fully in accordance with Bolshevik ideology, which amounts to a deliberate distortion of the history of the Daghestani imamate. True, Shamil represented a movement fighting against the Tsarist empire, and if seen from this point of view, he no doubt had something significant in common with the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, it is also important to remind ourselves that Shamil, together with other imams before and after him, fought for the establishment of a socio-political formation, i.e., the imamate, which was at odds with the Soviet political project. Let me explain what I mean. In the nineteenth century, in many parts of the Muslim world many resorted to the teaching of jihad (‘fight or endeavour on the path of God’) as a defensive doctrine against European colonialism. In Daghestan, the leader of that movement became imam Ghazi Muhammad (r. 1829-1832), who declared jihad against the Russian empire. Over the next three decades, a significant portion of Daghestan became ‘the House of Islam’ (dar al-Islam) under the leadership of three consecutive imams: Ghazi Muhammad, Hamza Bek (r. 1832-1834) and Shamil. After fierce fighting, the forces of the Russian empire defeated Shamīl bringing the imamate to an end in 1859. When in 1877, during the Russo-Turkish War, rumours spread that the Ottoman army was about to liberate the Caucasus, spontaneous riots broke out all over Daghestan. Muhammad Hajji (1839- 1877) became imam of Daghestan and Chechnya, but due to a lack of unified leadership and spiritual authority, the uprising of 1877-78 failed. The idea of an imamate was removed from the local agenda for about three decades, to reappear only in 1917. Indeed, after the collapse of the Russian empire, one Najm al-Din Gotsinsky took several steps towards the declaration of an imamate. The Second All-Mountain Congress elected Najm al-Din in the village of Andi as the Imam of Daghestan, a move that was understood in continuity with Imam Shamil’s political project. Even the place was not accidental: Andi was the village where Shamīl’s deputies(naiʾbs) gathered in 1847 to discuss how to organize the Caucasian Imamate. For Gotsinskii, Andi was an ideal spot to establish the imamate because it could serve symbolically to link his new imamate with the legacy of Shamil (and also because it was very far from the cities where his enemies were operating). However, Najm al-Din seeking to establish an Imamate in the North Caucasus became an enemy of the Bolsheviks. He continued his struggle for the imamate until 1925 but was unsuccessful. In 1925 the Soviets defeated his troops and arrested him. On 28 September 1925, Najm al-Din Gotsinskii was executed by the OGPU in Rostov.[2] The link between Najm al-Din and Imam Shamil couldn’t go unnoticed for obvious reasons. And yet, in the memoirs collected during the Soviet era Shamil is presented as a rebel against Tsarism, while Najm a-Din is implicitly considered an enemy of the people and therefore effaced as if collectively forgotten.


Post factum othering of Daghestani Muslim leaders

In the same memoir we read:

After the October Revolution, [people] mainly from the clergy and the so-called national committees took power in the local provinces. The toiling masses were distrustful of them. They knew well that this government was busy protecting the interests of the rich, not the poor.

The term ‘clergy’ deserves our attention, for it suggests that there existed a coherent group of Muslim scholars who were opposed to the Bolsheviks. In fact, this terminological choice represents what we can be termed a ‘post-factum othering.’ Indeed, atheism was a long-term goal of the Soviet state and anti-religious institutions pursued this objective by adopting various strategies. However, until the end of the 1920s, the Soviet government actively cooperated with a local group of Muslims leaders. For example, the famous Sufi leader Ali Hajji Akushinsky rubbed shoulders with the Bolsheviks for several years; and so did many Muslim reformist scholars too during the 1920s! These examples warn us that there was no coherent group of ‘Muslim clergy’ and that many religious leaders used to cooperate with the Bolsheviks against other Muslim leaders.

Another passage from this memoir is also worth quoting, for it shows how in the late 1950s authors had begun to project the ideological opposition between Muslims and Bolsheviks onto the early post-imperial period. To review the following paragraph will help the reader, I hope, appreciate what I mean:

When the Turks came to power, the masses welcomed them as saints, that is, very cordially as co-religionists. They enjoyed enormous authority and trust among the masses. However, later, when the people saw with their own eyes their barbarity, robbery, drunkenness, the masses broke away from them and began to ally themselves with the Bolsheviks. The Turkish police beat up Mr. Velikhanov Remikhan for trivia. Velikhan was a strong believer: after this incident he stopped praying and signed up for the party.

As we can see, the authors create this dichotomy of Muslims vs Bolsheviks and situate it in the early years after the Revolution. Once again we’re dealing here with a distortion of the crudest kind, for in that period one could hardly distinguish the two camps.

What do we make of all this? Reading local sources such as the memoir from Akhty against the grain suggests that, after the establishment of the Soviet power, the Bolsheviks unified the revolutionary lexicon and Bolshevized revolutionary history. The resulting outcome was clear: one vision of the past, i.e., the narrative of those who came to power, acquired a dominant position in the historiographical landscape of the region.[3] And such a process was premised upon the distortion and the effacement of everything which did not fit the Bolshevik’s narrative. When and how Daghestanis began to identify with such narratives, domesticated them, and made them their own memory remains to be explained.

[1] Vospominaniia uchastnikov Grazhdanskoi voiny v Dagestane. IIAE DFITs Ran, F. 2. О. 1. F.  183

[2] More on this see, Sahakyan, Naira. “Chapter 1 and 2” in Sahakyan, Naira. Muslim Reformers and the Bolsheviks: The Case of Daghestan. Routledge, 2022. Pp. 19-88.

[3] Badcock, Sarah. Politics and the People in Revolutionary Russia. A Provincial History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007. P. 3.