Any present-day event always triggers associations with other episodes already captured by history. Analogies of this sort help to understand the advantages and flaws of current actors, who similarly are most often influenced by the specific personalities and events of the past.
Dokka Umarov’s leadership is seemingly inspired by the history of Sheikh Uzun Haji’s emirate state, which was located within the same boundaries claimed today by Umarov’s Caucasus Emirate. Umarov and those behind him view Haji’s emirate as a historical precedent for an Islamic state that existed in more recent times. The website of Dagestan’s Sharia Jamaat features long articles on the life of Uzun Haji and other Sufi sheikhs (https://www.jamaatshariat.com/content/view/69/40/). All of them are portrayed as great religious scholars (alims), yet the fact that all of them belonged to the Sufi branch of Islam is totally ignored. For instance, in addition to Uzun Haji, the websites cite other Sufi sheikhs, including Gazi Mullah, Shamil, Magomed of Yaragi and Jamaldin of Kazikumykh, in support of the Sharia Jamaat’s ideology, and describe them as “the ideologists of Jihad in the Caucasus of Imam Shamil’s era (1820s–1850s)” (https://www.jamaatshariat.com/content/view/178/36/).
When the Russian empire began to break down in 1917, the collapse of the once-powerful state gave way to the establishment of various entities founded on regional, national and religious allegiances. The latter group included the emirate of a Sufi sheikh, Uzun Haji of Salty (his native village in Dagestan), a follower of the Naqshbandi/Khalidi tarikat. Uzun Haji’s emirate , while short-lived—it only lasted from September 1919 to March 1920—left a deep impression on the history of the North Caucasus.
Sheikh Uzun Haji, the head of this emirate state, relied primarily on the support of the people of the mountainous part of Chechnya and a part of Dagestan, although his personal belief was that the boundaries of his state extended to Ingushetia and other regions of the Caucasus where Islam was the dominant religion. Incidentally, this is also the position embraced by Dokka Umarov, who maintains that his emirate state covers a much bigger area, but the key difference between them is that Sheikh Uzun Haji was much more of a genuine ruler of the mountainous region of Chechnya and a part of mountainous Dagestan.
Almost single-handedly, Sheikh Uzun Haji defeated one of the most powerful armies of his time, the army of General Denikin, who had conquered virtually all of non-mountainous Chechnya, Ingushetia and Dagestan up to Derbent, and was intending to continue into the mountains until he encountered the organized resistance led by Sheikh Uzun Haji . Similarly, Dokka Umarov commands rebel fighters in the struggle against the Russian army, one of the world’s largest, but his successes compared to those of Sheikh Uzun Haji of Salty are much more modest.
In contrast with Sheikh Uzun Haji, Dokka Umarov controls divisions that are much more diverse ethnically than the ones led by Sheikh Uzun Haji—in addition to Chechens, Ingush and Dagestanis, the contingent of today’s resistance fighters also include Kabardins, Balkars, Karachais and Nogais.
Dokka Umarov’s army is much smaller than that of Sheikh Uzun Haji, who was able to draft up to 10,000 people to take up arms and defeat General Denikin. In this aspect, Dokka Umarov cannot pretend to compete with his historical predecessor.
Sheikh Uzun Haji’s state had a much more sophisticated level of organization—his cabinet of ministers included highly educated officials and his fiscal system was strategic (supported in part by tax revenues.) His state printed its own money (though backed by very few real assets) and boasted a much higher-level judicial system staffed by learned religious scholars. In contrast, Dokka Umarov’s monetary system depends entirely on outside donations from his sponsors, while his judicial system is operated by those who either have barely graduated or never attended religious educational institutions at all. His ministerial appointments are essentially absent except leaders of certain areas and his General Representative abroad; that is, there is de facto no government, except for Dokka Umarov and his people in the vilayets, who are simultaneously acting as commanders of ethnic jamaats in the republics of the North Caucasus.
Sheikh Uzun Haji enjoyed a much stronger personal reputation during his time. His scholarly credentials in Islamic theology have never been questioned by anyone, which certainly does not apply to Dokka Umarov. The latter does have advisors who know what they want. However, Umarov personally is far from the field of religious studies; he is simply a practicing Muslim (a Sufi of the Qadiri tarikat, a follower of Ustaz Kunta Haji), but certainly no religious scholar. He is a warrior, and as such, knows much more about warfare, which is precisely the expertise that Sheikh Uzun Haji lacked: his military affairs were handled by his military minister, General Inaluk Arsanukayev Dyshninsky, a native Chechen and a reputed military strategist of his time.
There are also certain similarities between the two emirates when it comes to the people who, due to their work, should have been allies but have parted ways as a result of differences in opinion on the political resolution of the Russia issue. Sheikh Uzun Haji’s one-time associate Imam Najjmutdin Gotsinsky from Dagestan became his biggest enemy, opposing Uzun Haji’s vision of the political future of the North Caucasus. This scenario virtually mirrors the current situation: the resistance movement has in fact split into two factions—one that is calling for the immediate implementation of an Islamic state and another that sees itself as heir to the idea of Chechen independence—that is, a radical camp and a democratic camp.
In this respect, and with a bit of a stretch, the situation resembles the Irish resistance movement in Northern Ireland, where the political wing, Sinn Féin, operated quite comfortably alongside the faction engaged in armed resistance to Great Britain’s rule. Almost the same picture can be found in Spain’s Basque region and France’s Corsica. Therefore, the Chechens have not really come up with anything new. What happened had to happen—once the resistance movement expanded beyond Chechnya’s borders and other North Caucasus ethnicities got involved, a common platform for everyone was needed. The best and simplest way to unify different military units today turned out to be Islam, which for a time makes it possible to address the questions of who is going where and who will get what when the enemy is defeated.
By the end of his life, Sheikh Uzun Haji became the Bolsheviks’ number one enemy. This is in spite of the fact that the Bolsheviks themselves hid behind his back during his fight with General Denikin—they realized that he was also capable of defeating them. His sudden death for reasons that are still unknown saved the Soviets from attacks by the North Caucasus emirate. Dokka Umarov would do well to try and emulate, at least to some degree, Sheikh Uzun Haji of Salty, who, as a Sufi sheikh, saw no need to stick to or implement Salafi teachings in any form. Sheikh Uzun Haji relied on his supporters who saw him as a Sufi sheikh, while Dokka Umarov, who until recently was a follower (murid) of Kunta Haji, is trying to find support in the faction of Islamic ideology that enjoys the least popularity in Chechnya and the region as a whole. This clearly indicates his alienation from the absolute majority of the region’s populace—that is, from those who follow the tarikat system.
1. An emirate is one of the forms of an Islamic state.
2. Alexander Uralov (A. Avtorkhanov) The Murder of Chechen-Ingush People. Ethnic genocide in the USSR. Restoration of the North Caucasus Independence. Makhachkala, 2002, page 17.