Sixty-eight years ago, on the night of 23 February 1944, the Soviet regime started the deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people to Central Asia. The mass deportation was carried out by tens of thousands of army troops and operatives of NKVD (The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the public and secret police organization of the Soviet Union), NKGB (The People's Commissariat for State Security, the Soviet secret police intelligence and counter-intelligence force) and SMERSH, the counter-intelligence agency of the Red Army. Within a day, more than 400,000 Chechens and Ingushs were herded, without food, water or medical supplies, into cattle-trains waiting to transport them to the remote barren steppes of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
An estimated ten percent of all deportees died during the long journey. Typhoid spread quickly among men, women and children packed into the cattle cars. The dead were buried close to the rail lines in the snow. Firing squads executed anyone stepping more than five meters away from the rail tracks during train stops. The length of the journey intensified the suffering. The first train that set off in February did not reach its destination until mid-March.
Stalinist deportation affected many ethnicities – Ingushs, Karachays, Balkars, Kalmyks, Crimean Tatars, so-called Meskhetian Turks, Koreans, Finns, among them. The case of the Chechens is distinguished from others because their tragedy began long before the Stalin era had even begun.
Russians stepped up their activity in the Caucasus after the Tsarist Empire finally gained hold of Georgia in 1801. Russia accelerated construction of the military road to provide a direct link with its new colony. During the construction, villages adjacent to the military road, including those in Chechnya, were burnt down and their residents displaced. The intensive campaign to conquer the mountainous Caucasus region, however, did not actually start until a bit later – after Russia’s war against Turkey, Persia and Napoleon had ended.In the process of colonization, the Russian Empire pursued a policy of “fire and sword” at the same time it tried to buy off the ruling strata of conquered people. Russians failed to find support among elite in Chechnya for one simple reason – no such thing existed there. Chechen society was less hierarchical than the societies of other conquered people; it was mainly organized according to clans or teips. Even today, more than one-hundred-and-fifty teips exist in Chechnya with a combined population of one and a half million. Consequently, it cost Russia a very high price to conquer the Chechen people.
Along with social factors, Chechen resistance was also fueled by religious fervor. It is noteworthy that pagan traditions in Chechnya gave way to Islam rather later, in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Several orders of Sufi Islam, the so-called tariqas, took root there. The most influential among them was the Naqshbandi tariqa. That order played an important role in the fight against Russia.
In 1834, Chechens joined the war being waged by religious leaders of Dagestan against Russian occupation. The Chechens created the united theocratic state of Imamate under the leadership of Imam Shamil, a follower of the Naqshbandi tariqa.
During that time, Georgians played a specific role in colonization of the North Caucasus. A large segment of Georgian nobility pledged loyalty to Tsarist Russia, especially after the collapse of the 1832 Georgian plot against Russian rule. After centuries of sporadic incursions by Dagestan clansmen into Georgia – a period known as Lekianoba – Georgians fought against North Caucasians shoulder-to-shoulder with the Russians. One such Georgian was Romanticist poet Grigol Orbeliani, who served in the Imperial Russian army and distinguished himself in suppressing the Shamil-led resistance. The Russian Empire honored the poet’s military deeds with a number of awards and even appointed him as governor of the Caucasus for a period of time.After Shamil’s rule, another Sufi Islam movement – Qadiri – spread. The Qadiri order was rather influential until the Bolsheviks arrived. In contrast to the Naqshbandi belief that the path to God lay in the reformation of society, the Qadiri focused on inner peace as the way to universal peace. The Qadiri concept was advantageous for Russia in ensuring peace and obedience in Chechnya.
Chechens did not resist the appearance of the Bolsheviks with whom they shared a common enemy – Tsarism. For their part, the Bolsheviks did not treat the Chechens badly at first. That would come later – after the Bolsheviks and the Chechens jointly repelled the White Army. Initial conflicts occurred after the end of the civil war in Russia, during the Sovietization of the mountainous Caucasus. In the 1920s, a new wave of insurgency broke out and continued for years. It was during those times that Chechens were labeled as “bandits” and the entire people declared criminals.
Stalin wanted to settle the Chechen issue once and for all. The Soviet government accused Chechens of collaborating with Nazi Germany. That was the pretext for abolishing the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic and exiling almost its entire population to Central Asia.
It may sound paradoxical, but those very repressions proved conducive to raising national awareness of the Chechen people. Their common ethnic tragedy strengthened national solidarity.Rehabilitation of deported Chechens began in 1956 under Nikita Khrushchev’s rule. Nearly eighty percent of surviving Chechens returned to their homeland. For the Soviet leadership, the region remained problematic: Only a very small percentage of Chechens joined the communist party; the majority of them lacked higher education; and the population was still united by teips, which vied with one another to exert influence and control.
The Chechen problem resurfaced with fresh force with disintegration of the Soviet Union. It was at that time that the national liberation movement gained steam, led not by intellectual elite but military. Dzhokhar Dudayev, who would later became the first President of the de facto independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was then a Soviet Air Force general. He easily succeeded in neutralizing the disorganized Russian army and in crowding it out of Chechnya. By 1992, there was not a single Russian soldier any longer stationed there.
Chechnya lacked any experience in state-building. Clans started warring against one another. The Kremlin supported that fight and even managed to arm the Chechen opposition. When pro-Russian clans failed to gain the upper hand, Moscow decided to intervene on 1 December 1994.
The First Chechen War lasted nine months. Russia failed in its efforts to occupy Chechnya and lost the battle. To this day, no one knows how many Russian soldiers and civilians died in those military actions. On 31 August 1996, the Khasav-Yurt Accord was signed. Russia agreed to withdraw its army, to launch negotiations on the status of Chechnya and, pending agreement on the status, to put up with the de facto independence of Chechnya.
That success of Chechnya was the result of a number of factors: Chechens fought at home and, besides, the Russian army lacked motivation; corruption was rife there and the arms trade was in full swing – ammunition was easily exchanged for money or alcohol. At that time, a free press was still alive in Russia and harsh media criticism of Russian policy in Chechnya aroused sympathy for Chechen people among both the Russian population and the international community.
Russia’s loss of that battle, however, did not lead to eventual victory for Chechnya. Bloody conflict between the clans made it impossible for the Chechen society to unite around the nationalistic idea.
Against that background, the religious factor came to the fore. Ahmad Kadyrov, the Chief Mufti of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and father of the current Chechen President, declared a holy war – jihad against Russia. It was also at that time that internationalization of the religious war against Russia started. Along with traditional Sufi Islam followers, Wahhabi Muslims emerged in Chechnya and converted a large segment of the youth there. Chechnya was visited by many emissaries from various Muslim countries. With the assistance of those emissaries, many young Chechen were sent off to be educated in Persian Gulf states and Pakistan. They returnedhome radicalized.
Strengthening of the Wahhabis led to an internal religious rift. That nudged a segment of Chechens, mainly followers of Sufi tariqas, to side with the Russians against the Wahhabis.
The form of Chechen resistance fundamentally changed then. Creating an independent nation state was relegated to the back burner and establishing a theocratic state of Imarat [Emirate] was declared the key goal of the Chechen fight. Conventional warfare was replaced by terrorist campaigns.
The Nord-Ost siege and the Beslan massacre eroded the Chechen resistance movement and tarnished the image of Chechnya as an oppressed nation fighting for freedom. It became clear that Chechnya had nothing in common with Tibet’s fight for independence. No one equated Chechen fighters with Buddhist monks.
The situation in Chechnya helped to reinforce the position of the Russian government. With respect for President Boris Yeltsin eroding and popular dissatisfaction rising, the Kremlin began using Chechens as convenient scapegoats. Suspicious bombings of apartment blocks in different Russian cities were all blamed on Chechen radicals. When “hero of Abkhazia” Shamil Basayev invaded Dagestan, Russia used that invasion as a pretext to start the Second Chechen War. These events propelled the career of the head of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Putin, who was quickly promoted, first as Prime Minister and then as acting president until official elections were held. In early 2000, Putin was elected as the second President of the Russian Federation.
Twelve years later, little has changed. Prime Minister Putin is gearing up for his return to the presidency. Despite an untold number of victims, the Chechen problem is still unsolved. Crime statistics as well as terrorist attacks continue to mount year after year in the North Caucasus. The country with ambitions to dominate global political processes still cannot ensure order in a small region of the North Caucasus. The Kremlin maintains ostensible peace only by buying off local leaders.
The current leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, still proves his loyalty to Putin by guaranteeing the ruling party one hundred percent of the Chechen vote in every election. Yet, Russia cannot do anything on its own in this region. Meanwhile, Kadyrov is free to do whatever he likes, not only in Chechnya but even in Moscow too.The unrestrained behavior of Chechen clans continues to inflame Russian nationalism. Concerns about corruption further fuel that fire. The Russian middle class is fed up with maintaining North Caucasian elites, especially when that has not brought about any notable change. Instead of being curbed, terrorism has spread all over Russia.
Instability at the northern border poses a significant challenge for Georgia as well. The country is naturally interested in a peaceful and predisposed environment in its neighborhood. Georgians and Chechens, however, have a troubled history – Georgians participated in Tsarist colonization while Chechen armed formations fought in Abkhazia in the early 1990s and then again in the August 2008 war.
Georgia presumably aims to overcome that troubling legacy with its nascent North Caucasus policy – introduction of a simplified visa regime; opportunities for North Caucasians to study and to conduct scientific research at Georgian universities and schools; creation of a new TV channel – Perviy Informatsionniy Kavkazsky (PIK) – launched to break through the informational isolation of the North Caucasus; official recognition of the Circassian genocide. All those measures are links in one chain. However, it is a fact that Georgia has not yet fully developed a systemic vision or a consistent policy to connect that chain.
This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 89, published 27 February 2012.