Dec 12, 2013
Steve Wasserman on the Scourge of Czarist Russia
Posted on May 20, 2010
In 1843, the tribes of Great and Little Chechnya are besieged by Russian troops. Shamyl’s men are occupied elsewhere and can send no aid. The Chechnyans’ predicament is increasingly desperate, and rather than continue a futile resistance, they conclude that the better part of valor is to submit to the czar. Fear of Shamyl’s wrath, however, prompts them to send a delegation to Dargo, then his mountain headquarters, to beg his permission. But no one has the courage to ask directly. Instead, they decide to ask Shamyl’s aged mother to intercede on their behalf. She is known to exercise a considerable and moderating influence over her fanatic son. He is said to revere her and to confide in her as to no one else apart from Fatimat, his first wife.
She listens to their entreaties and agrees to speak to her son on their behalf. At midnight, he emerges from her audience with him, his face inscrutable, and strides directly to the nearby mosque, where he remains alone for the rest of the night. His mother tells the trembling Chechnyans that the imam says it is for Allah to decide and that therefore he has gone to the mosque, where, with prayer and fasting, he will await Allah’s command.
For three days and three nights he stays closeted in the mosque. Finally, he sends word that the entire population of Dargo, along with the delegation from Chechnya, is to assemble in the town’s square to hear the divine decision. The people wait for Shamyl to emerge. They have been wailing and praying on their knees for hours.
Suddenly the doors of the mosque are flung open and Shamyl appears, “livid pale, his half-closed cat’s eyes glinting.” He stands stock still, “as if turned to stone,” expressionless. A silence descends; the streets and rooftops are empty, only the dogs prowl. Two of his executioners accompany his mother, who kneels before him. Shamyl raises his left hand: “Mighty Prophet, Thy will be done! Thy words are law to thy servant Shamyl. Inhabitants of Dargo! I bring you black news. Your brothers, the Chechnyans, have spoken shamefully of submission to the czar. But they knew their audacity, their lack of faith, their dishonour: they did not dare to face me themselves, but used my mother, through her womanly weakness, to approach me. For love of her, as proof of her persuasions, I laid their request before Mohammed, Allah’s prophet. For three days and nights I have sought the Prophet’s judgment. And now, at last, he has deigned to answer my prayers. … It is Allah’s will that the first person who spoke to me of submission should be punished by a hundred lashes! And this first person is my mother!”
The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus
By Lesley Blanch
Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 512 pages
The crowd gasps, the mother cries out and falls to the ground. The assemblage begins to wail. His henchmen bind his mother, and Shamyl seizes the whip from his executioners and begins to lash the shrieking woman. At the fifth blow, she faints and Shamyl flings himself across her body, sobbing uncontrollably.
Suddenly, he springs to his feet, “his face now radiant, his eyes ‘darting flames.’ ” “Allah is great!” he cries. “Mohammed is his first Prophet, and I am his second! My prayer is answered! He allows me to take upon myself the remainder of the punishment to which my wretched mother was condemned. I accept with joy! I welcome the lash! It is the sign of your favor, O Prophet!” He tears open his tunic and orders his executioners “to deliver the rest of the 95 lashes upon his own back, threatening them with death if they do not strike hard enough.” He kneels beside his unconscious mother.
The blows begin to fall. He utters not a sound, and only the thwack of the lash upon his back can be heard. No grimace distorts his impassive face nor is any grunt of pain permitted to escape his lips. At last, the final blow is delivered. Shamyl, his shoulders bleeding, rises to his feet: “Where are the Chechnyan traitors? Where is the deputation who brought this punishment upon mother?”
The Chechynans grovel, they lay in the dust, prostrate with fear. They await their fate, unable even to beg for mercy.
Shamyl orders them to stand, enjoins them to “take heart, to have courage and faith.” He tells them to “Return to your homes. Tell your people what you have seen and heard here. Depart in peace. Hold fast to the rope of God. Farewell.”
Needless to say, there was no further talk of submission. Shamyl’s place as Allah’s prophet upon earth was secure.
Until one day it wasn’t. In the end, he would not be able to overcome the Russians might and he and his stalwart sons would be forced to surrender, his people decimated, the victims of a nearly genocidal policy pursued by a series of successive Russian generals who did not scruple to cut down whole forests to deny Shamyl’s warriors the cover and refuge they needed to survive.
What happened next is utterly surprising, and it would be a sin to even hint at it in this review. Suffice to say, the reader who spends time with “The Sabres of Paradise” will find instruction of a sort that will not soon be forgotten.
Steve Wasserman is literary editor of Truthdig and works as a literary agent in New York for Kneerim & Williams, whose website is www.kwlit.com.
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