Staunton, August 24 – Continuing reports of mistreatment of Muslim draftees in the Russian military and Moscow’s promotion of Cossack units to function as para-military and para-police units has prompted new interest among non-Russians in the possibility of reviving something like the tsarist-era units collectively known as “the Savage Division.”
(For background on those unusual units and interest in them in recent years among people in the North Caucasus, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2016/06/moscows-use-of-cossacks-leading-north.htmlwindowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/11/two-russian-military-innovations-at-end.html and this author’s article at jamestown.org/program/chechnyas-kadyrov-wants-to-revive-tsarist-era-savage-division/.)
Now, writing on the KavToday portal, historian Andrey Shulgin has argued that the Savage Division which included units complected of various nationalities displayed “a genuine spirit of inter-ethnic concord” and, what is more important, performed far better than units not so composed (kavtoday.ru/article/6332).
The division was formed immediately after the outbreak of World War I. It consisted of six regiments, named for the nation who provided most of the soldiers – Kabardin, Cherkess, Chechen, Ingush, Tatar, and the second Daghestani Cavalry. By November, it has been dispatched to Lviv and began period of military glory.
‘ There are many versions of why it came to be called “the savage division.” But most of them reflect the fact not that its soldiers were undisciplined or cruel but because they retained their national dress and therefore did not look like the other soldiers of the Russian Imperial Army.
When revolutionary attitudes spread through most of the Russian Army, these had little impact on the Savage Division which famously retained its loyalty to the government and its obedience to its commanding officers, most of whom were Russians. After the October revolution, some in the division fought for the reds but many more for the whites.
The bravery and skill of its officers and men was reflected in the fact that its members in a large number of cases received the Soldier’s Cross of St. George, which because almost all were Muslims was redesigned with the imperial double eagle rather than the Christian St. George on its face.
North Caucasians remember the Savage Division to this day as an exemplar of their nations’ military prowess and recall with affection the way its officers and men always addressed each other in the familiar rather than the formal way, Haji-Murad Donogo, editor of the Avar journal Akhulgo, says.
Not surprisingly, given this reputation, the Savage Division is a model many in the North Caucasus would like to see adopted. They are unlikely to get their way. While Russian commanders might be happy to see Muslim troops isolated with their own units, few of them would want to see the emergence of non-Russian units that might someday fight against them.
Nonetheless, the idea of a revived Savage Division has not gone away, testimony to the continuing power of memory about its actions and organization and to the fact that Russia today has not found an effective way to integrate Muslim troops.