The Russian Army in Chechnya: A Comparison of 19th and 21st Century Tactics

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 8 Issue: 25

In comparing the Russian conquest of Chechnya in the 19th century and the current methods used by the Russian military to subjugate the Chechen people, one comes to the inescapable conclusion that very little has changed during the last two hundred years. That said, the Russian colonizing forces of the 1800s and today’s military of the Russian Federation fight in pursuit of very different goals. The Empire sought to conquer new territory, while Moscow’s current rulers try to prove to themselves and the world that Russia is still a superpower. They do this by attempting to keep a territory that has declared itself independent on the basis of Soviet law from leaving the Russian Federation and becoming an equal member of the worldwide brotherhood of sovereign nations [1].

Chechnya was not the main goal of the 19th century conquest, but she put up the greatest resistance and thus delayed the plans of the Russian Emperors for seizing the entirety of the Northern Caucasus. The Tsars were overcome by the fantastic idea of acquiring the countless treasures of the mysterious Caucasus (much as the Spanish did in the Americas), but had to put aside the idea of profit and maintain the captured territories at the expense of the imperial treasury until the early years of the 20th century.


The official numbers of the losses suffered by the Russian army in Chechnya are simply astonishing. Seven of the 13 Russian generals killed during the 60 years of the Caucasus War were killed in Chechnya. Between 1801 and 1864, 804 Imperial army officers were killed (175 in Chechnya), 3,154 wounded (1,102 in Chechnya), and 92 captured (15 in Chechnya). Among the enlisted and junior grades, 21,142 were killed during the same time (6,424 in Chechnya), 62,168 wounded (20,375 in Chechnya), and 5,915 captured and missing in action, (with Chechnya accounting for 1,133) [2].

Chechnya thus accounts for a total (including captured) of 29,224 casualties of the Russian army, roughly a third (!) of all losses suffered in the entirety of the Caucasus region (which, according to 19th century researcher Gizetti, reached 96,275 men) [3]. It should be noted that the territory of Chechnya is equal to 2-3 percent of the total area of the greater Caucasus, with the population being even smaller proportionally [4].


As far as tactics are concerned, it should be remembered that the cruelty of the Russian military was a constant topic of discussion in the European newspapers of the 19th century. (Given the fact that European armies were not particularly well mannered in their own colonies, one must ask just what made Russian behavior so obviously unacceptable.) It was this reaction that led Russian Emperor Nicholas I to introduce at least a superficial level of civilized behavior into the policies being carried out in the conquered territories during the 1840s. For example, the Cossack practice of scalping the mountaineers was prohibited, and a year later, it was demanded that enemy heads be removed from the stockades that surrounded Cossack villages. These stockades were always bait for the Chechens, since the highlanders inevitably tried to recover their fellow tribesmen’s heads in order to insure proper burials. Russian generals were known to supply European anthropologists with mountaineer skulls, as well as make collections of severed hands, and build pyramids from the heads of the slain [5]. Unfortunately, these things were not the exception, but the rule. The great Russian writer L.N. Tolstoy, who fought in the Caucasus in the early 1850s, colorfully described how every Cossack had to have scalps of slain mountaineers hanging from his saddle.

In today’s world, Russian military personnel introduced the custom of selling Chechen corpses back to their families and demanding ransom for arrested Chechens. The Chechens, on the other hand, amazed the world by offering to give back their prisoners to the soldiers’ mothers, on the one condition that the men be removed from Chechnya. In 1996, a group of families even refused to take their children back, telling Aslan Maskhadov, as the representative of the Chechen command, that they should stay prisoners, since in Russia they would be subject to a military tribunal.

Russian sources from the 19th century clearly indicated that Chechens never allowed themselves to mistreat the bodies of their foes. A. A. Bestuzhev-Marlinskii wrote in his “Letter to Dr. Erman”: “… the Chechens never burnt homes, deliberately trampled fields, or destroyed vineyards. ‘Why destroy the gift of God and the labor of man’ they would say. The rule of the mountain ‘robber’ is a noble ideal that would be the pride of the most educated peoples, had they possessed it…”

The tactics of the Chechens have changed little since that time. All Russian military dispatches indicate that the main tactic of the mountaineers was the practice of rapid attack and immediate withdrawal. This is comparable with the Nazran attack by Shamil Basaev, the events in Nalchik in 2005, as well as the military operations of the dzhamaats in Dagestan and northern Chechnya. This type of guerrilla warfare is most useful against regular army formations and offers serious advantages to the defending side.

Russian tactics have also stayed essentially the same, with even the designations of some army divisions stationed in Chechnya remaining unchanged – the 42nd army corps, the 22nd brigade, etc. When General Paskevitch assumed command of the Russian forces in the regions, he was personally instructed by Emperor Nicholas I to destroy all unyielding mountaineers if that became necessary [6]. In Chechnya proper, the Imperial army tired to break the resistance of the locals with fire and sword, often burning whole villages (in today’s world, this has happened to Aldy, Komsomolskoe, and others). Women were given to the soldiers (today’s Budanov story), while children were taken to Moscow and Petersburg to be raised in the spirit of obedience and Russian patriotism (examples include the hero of the war of 1812 Aleksandr Chechenskii and the artist Zakharov from Dada-yurt).


It was the Russians that first introduced the concept of ethnic cleansing to the Caucasus. Cossacks were given lands from which the Chechens had been evicted. In the numerous mixed Chechen-Kumyk villages along the Aktash river, all Chechens were forced to leave on General Ermolov’s command, even when they formed local majorities, as a way of rewarding the Kumyks for their loyalty to the Russian government.

“It is ordered that we approach Dada-yurt unnoticed and offer the inhabitants the chance to voluntarily move to the far side of the river Synzha. Should they refuse, Ermolov has ordered the ataman to storm the aul (village) and offer no quarter. At dawn, on September 15, 1819, Susoev and his troops were ready beside Dada-yurt. The ataman’s troops consisted of five companies of the Kabardin infantry regiment, one company from the Troitskii regiment, 700 Cossacks, and five guns. Susoev explained the ultimatum to the villagers.” This is a description of a cleansing action directed at the inhabitants of Dada-yurt [7].

A similar description from the 21st century is offered by the independent human rights activists from “Memorial.” “On August 16 [2001], the village of Alleroi, in the Kurchaloev district was surrounded by armor at daybreak. Several thousand military personnel (according to the locals no less than 7,000) participated. It appears that the operation included special forces from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the FSB along with regular army troops …”


In comparing the attempts of the Chechens to shift military operations outside of Chechen territory, one cannot help but remember Imam Shamil’s attempt to do exactly the same thing in expanding his theocratic “immamat” state. Then, as now, the most bitter fighting occurred in the northeastern part of the region (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan), while the northwestern area was never successfully integrated into his own command structure. (Today, the same region is much less active as compared to the eastern part of the Northern Caucasus).

During the lengthy war of colonization, it became clear to the Russian army that a numerical superiority was necessary for victory over the Chechens, and by 1858, the Russian Caucasus Corps rose in number to 113,000 men, while the entirety of the Chechen people numbered around 100,000 at the time. In a similar way, during the Second Military Campaign, Moscow chose to rely upon numerical superiority, throwing 140,000 troops against several thousand Chechen guerrillas (with troops moving in from Mozdok, Kizliar, Vladikavkaz, Stavropol, Rostov, Volgograd, Astrakhan, Maikop, Makhachkala, etc. during the initial phases of the Campaign).


The Russians have not changed, but have simply modernized their old methods. At the same time, just as in the 18th and 19th centuries, the question of negotiating with those people over whom the conflict is fought is dismissed. The Chechens lie low, not as a way of avoiding conflict, but as a way of rethinking the situation and beginning anew. This has happened before, and will happen again until Russian political goals fundamentally change in regards to the Chechens and their desire for independence.


1. In accordance with the Soviet Law “Regarding the resolution of questions concerning the withdrawal of a Union republic from the USSR,” dated April 3, 1990.

2. Gizetti, A. A., “Sbornik svedenii o poteriakh Kavkazskikh voisk so vremen voin 1801-1855 gg. A collection of data regarding the losses of the Caucasus army during the years of the wars of 1801-1855,” Tbilisi, 1858.

3. Vatchagaev, M., “Chechnya v kavkazskoi voine XIX stoletia. Sobytia i sudby. Chechnya in the Caucasus War of the 19th century. Events and destinies,” Kiev, 2003, p. 254.

4. Considering the area of the Caucasus region to be 500,000 square kilometers, with Chechnya at the time being roughly 10,000 square kilometers.

5. Voenno Istorichiskii Arkhiv (Military-Historical Archive). Folio 13454, from 8 to 31; folio 13454, from 6 to 561, 1213; also KS vol. 2, 73-74, 279.

6. “Dvizhenie gortsev Severo-Vostochnogo Kavkaza v 20-50 gg XIX v. Sbornik dokumentov. The movements of the highlanders of the North-Eastern Caucasus in the 20s-50s of the 19th century. A collection of documents.” Makhachkala, 1959, p. 58.

7. “AKAK” archive. Vol. VI, part II, pg. 505. General Ermolov’s report from November 28th, 1921.