Russia’s Splitting Headache – A Brief History Of Chechnya

chechnya mapStrabo at the time of Jesus mentions 26, already ancient, Albani tribes in the Caucasus that, by linguistic argument, included the Chechens (and Ingush). Most of the 55 ethnic groups in the Caucasus mountainous region between the Black and Caspian seas speak unique Caucasian languages. Chechen is a Northeast Caucasian language called Veinakh, meaning ‘our people’. Language, people, culture and religion are absolutely different from Russian.

Russia, since well before the 16th century’s Tsar Ivan Grozny (same name as the city, meaning ‘Terrible’) regarded Caucasus as a buffer between the then Ottoman Turkey, and Persia. As part of the long-advancing Russian fortified line, Grozny was founded as a fortress in 1818. During the 1800 – 1864 Russian subjugation of the Caucasus, Daghestani and Chechen Mountaineers resisted though outnumbered 100 to 1, notably under Daghestani – Avar Imam Shamil, from 1831 to his honourable surrender in 1859. That period was followed by many seeking exile in Ottoman lands.

Stories of the war were famously recorded by Tolstoy and Lermontov, who were stationed in Grozny.

In 1823 oil was found in Grozny but not exploited industrially until 1893 when the train line was built.

The Chechen Soviet Autonomous Republic was imposed in 1922 and then changed to Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic (ASSR) in 1934. In 1937 14,000 Chechens were purged, and in 1944 Beria and Stalin liquidated the ASSR and deported 390,000 Chechens and 90,000 Ingush, on the pretext of collaboration with Nazis, in spite of 40,000 Chechens fighting with distinction in the Red Army. 20% of those deportees died in frozen cattle trucks on the journey to Siberia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In total, 200,000 Chechens and 30,000 Ingush had died in harsh exile by 1957, when Krushchev restored the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. In 1952 316,000 Chechens were registered in Central Asia.

Grozny had become the 2nd oil refinery centre in the USSR by 1989, when its population was 400,000, of whom only 1/3 was Chechen. There were 294,000 Russians in Chechen-Ingush ASSR. In the 1989 census there were near 1 million Chechens counted in the USSR, of which 3/4s were in Chechen-Ingush ASSR.

The break-up of Soviet power saw Djokar Dudayev democratically elected president in 1991 for Chechen independence, which was blocked by Russia. Russians left Chechnya and by 1993 the population of Grozny was 118,000.
Between December 1994 and August 1996, the 1st Russian war was waged on Chechnya, which resulted in extensive destruction. Dudayev was killed in April 1996 and Maskhadov made a peace agreement with Lebed-Yeltsin in September of the same year, which the Russians, incidentally, never implemented. For example, they failed to rebuild Grozny, which had suffered worse bombardment than Berlin, and an estimated 24 times bombardment of Sarajevo.

Maskhadov was democratically elected president in January 1997.

Though the true numbers of Chechen casualties was not known, Ahmed Zakhaev gave estimates of 200,000 with hundreds of thousands of refugees in Ingushetia, Daghestan and Southern Russia. There were also 15,000 elderly Russians killed in Grozny, leaving only some 30,000 survivors.

The Sept 1999 apartment bombs that former Col. Litvinenko has exposed as agent-provocateur, Stalin-style actions, in addition to warlord Shmail Basayev’s (more below) ill-judged incursion into Daghestan in August, condemned by Maskhadov, were Putin’s pretext for election victory, linked to 2nd war that effectively continues today. June 2000 saw Chechen, Akhmad Kadyrov, appointed by Moscow as administrator of Chechnya – the population of destroyed Grozny varied between 90,000 – 190,000 (rising to 223,000 in 2002).

Polo's Bastards Editor, Lee Ridley with Chechen Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmed Zakayev.The nature of war changed in June 2000 with the first suicide bombers in Chechnya, and in July 2002 in Moscow. Always condemned by Maskhadov, responsibility was claimed by Basayev. In Oct 2003 Kadyrov was ‘elected’ president in deeply flawed elections. Putin took the war outside of the Russian Federation, when Yanderbayev, Dudayev’s brief successor before Maskhadov, was murdered in Qatar by two, since convicted, Russian SVR agents in February 2004. In May 2004 Kadyrov was murdered in the Stadium bomb on Victory Day, leaving his savage son in charge of Chechen self-policing. On 8 March 2005 Maskhadov’s corpse was exhibited as a Russian casualty, and the best peace negotiator, who Putin repeatedly refused to talk to, was lost. On 10 March Basayev promptly announced a successor – Abd al-Khalim Saidullayeva, who Zakhaev had said was an an anti-Wahhabi cleric, who had been close to Maskhadov.

Among many other NGOs, Amnesty I, Memorial, Helsinki, HRW, IWPR, US State Department and the UK Home Office CIPU have all reported massive Human Rights abuses, but Europe and US have virtually remained silent. Russia has leadership of G8 this summer with a large conference planned in summer 2006. Will anyone mention what’s going on in Chechnya? More importantly, will they discuss that what’s happening can technically be defined as genocide?

Chechen social history
Chechnya occupies a small diamond-shaped area less than 150km across. The top is plains and the lower part the heartland in the northern Great Caucasian Mountain chain. From antiquity there were volnaya obchestva, similar to & smaller than ancient Greek city-states – polis, ruled by a local council of elders. Similar to the Highlands of Scotland, over 130 clans or teips were recorded in late 19th century with combined clans or tukkhum. In spite of Shamil’s attempts to impose Sharia Islamic law, and in later years moves to impose Tsarist Russian law, the traditional Customary Law system called adat continued – and does today. The worst aspect was blood feud vendettas that were stopped in 1923, but reappeared after the Soviet period.

Sunni Islam spread during the 18th and 19th centuries in a predominantly animist society. Membership of Naqshbandi and Kadyriye Sufi tariqats were inherited within families and clans. Fierce Soviet suppression of Islam from 1928 to 1938 was only eased during Glasnost when c1988 people were permitted to go on Hajj to Mecca. Young men were targeted by well-financed Saudi Wahhabis and converted, which split families because Wahhabis ban sheikhs, shrines and the act of revering ancestors, an essential part of Caucasian Sunni Islam. The independent warlords, such as Basayev, have converted to Wahhabism and claim responsibility for suicide attacks in Russia and Chechnya. My Daghestan academic colleague Dr Magomedkhanov estimated that by 2002, some 25% of young men in Chechnya were Wahhabis, compared to 5% in neighbouring Daghestan.

Parties involved in the Chechen war
It is usually confusing to work out who is responsible for what, in Chechnya, so here are the ‘participants’. On one side, there is the Russian Army, which is making a living by extortion following cleansing operations, black market in arms, drugs & trafficking of people. The Russian FSB, put in by Putin to balance the Army and according to ex-Lt. Col. FSB Litvinenko, likely as corrupt; And the pro-Russian Chechen administration and security personnel.
In the middle are Chechen, Russian and multi-national organised criminal groups.

On the other side are the Maskhadov pro-democratic separatist rebels, such as Zakhaev; the independent Chechen warlords, such as Basayev, who are Wahhabi fundamentalist and, according to President Putin, who seeks to link the war to international terrorism, foreign Islamist and Arab forces. However, only Russian-made arms have ever been found in Chechnya.

Of course, rapid changes in local conditions have given rise to a variety of different alliances, and the organised criminals are often part of most of the above groups. The victims of this war are the civilians in Chechnya, a diminishing number of refugees in Russia and an estimated 15,000 dead and 60,000 – 100,000 wounded Russian military, who have returned to their homes throughout Russia; and of course tens of thousands of brutalised FSB officers who have served 3-6 month tours of duty!

Robert Chenciner

a Senior Associate member of St Antony’s College, Oxford, England since 1987. He visited Chechnya in 1986 and neighbouring Daghestan between 1984 and1995. Chenciner wrote the book ‘Daghestan Tradition and Survival’ in 1997, which included translation and comments on Chechen-Russian peace agreement. Between 2001 and 2005 Robert Chenciner produced human rights and area reports on Chechnya for UK commissions. 

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