Chechyna: What You Need to Know

News Abroad
tags: Russia, Boston Marathon bombing, Chechnya, David R. Stone, Chechen Wars


Russian artillery bombarding a Chechen village in 2000, during the Second Chechen War. Credit: Wiki Commons.

Editor's Note: With the identification of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings -- Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed by police; and his brother Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19 -- as immigrants of Chechen origin, it's worth taking a look back at Chechnya's bloody history.

Walt Richmond, professor of Russian at Occidental College, wrote an article for HNN last month about the blood-soaked, possibly genocidal Russian conquest of the Caucasus region in the nineteenth century -- a campaign that included the conquest of what is now Chechnya. Norman Naimark, Robert and Florence McDonnell Professor in Eastern European Studies at Stanford University, wrote about Soviet atrocities under Stalin -- including the deportation of the Chechen population from their ancestral homelands to Central Asia in 1944 -- for HNN in 2010, and Thomas R. Mockaitis, professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has written about Chechen suicide bombings in Moscow.

Here, David R. Stone, a professor of Russian history at Kansas State University, has written extensively on Soviet and Russian military history, explains what you need to know about recent Chechen history, in particular the two bloody wars fought between Russia and Chechen rebels in the 1990s.

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When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, one of the chief causes was the power of local nationalists who resented rule from Moscow. But there were limits to what those nationalist sentiments could achieve. The end of Moscow’s authority meant that power and sovereignty flowed to the Soviet Union’s fifteen union republics, roughly analogous to American states. KGB veteran Nikolai Leonov once remarked that the Soviet Union was like a chocolate bar, already marked with lines that made it easy to break apart. Those fifteen pieces of the chocolate bar themselves had internal divisions, but Soviet ethnic groups which lacked their own union republic found that the breaking apart stopped short of independence for them. The Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.

Under the leadership of President Dzhokhar Dudaev, Chechnya worked from 1991 to 1994 to assert its independence from Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. Both Chechen autonomy, and the breakdown of law and order that accompanied it, were more than Yeltsin’s government could accept. When efforts at a political compromise failed, Russian troops invaded Chechnya in December 1994.

The horrors of that First Chechen War transformed the Chechen cause. It drove hundreds of thousands of Chechens out of Chechnya itself as refugees into other parts of the Caucasus: Ingushetia or Dagestan (where Dzhokhar Tsarnaev attended school). Others went further afield: the United States, Europe, or even Central Asia. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where the Tsarnaev brothers lived for several years, still have a substantial population of Chechens dating back to Joseph Stalin’s deportation of the Chechen people from their historic homeland in 1944.

The First Chechen War had pernicious effects that lasted well beyond the uneasy 1996 settlement that gave Chechnya de facto autonomy. The traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement. Chechen refugees within the Caucasus moved into environments that were less ethnically Chechen, but still largely Muslim. Ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more.

Islam in the North Caucasus had generally been tolerant in its practice and not especially strict, but the pressure of war made it increasingly fundamentalist. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against infidel Russians. The result was that the Chechen resistance became increasingly internationalized and radicalized. The relative importance of Chechen independence shrank. Instead, jihad became a far more important element of the Chechen cause.

The Chechen leadership, facing a horrendous task of reconstruction after 1996, thus began to split. Relative moderates, capable of accepting some form of association with Russia, were increasingly at odds with radicals, inspired by the Wahhabi branch of Islam and eager to spread their struggle beyond Chechnya. On the more moderate side, Aslan Maskhadov, president of Chechnya from 1997, tried to find some form of working relationship with Moscow but found his efforts undermined by more violent elements in his own movement. As Chechnya descended into rampant lawlessness, the Saudi militant known as Khattab and the Chechen Shamil Basayev engineered an August 1999 invasion of Dagestan. They no longer aimed at Chechen independence but instead spreading their form of radical Islam to the rest of the North Caucasus. When combined with a series of controversial and still mysterious apartment bombings, the Dagestan invasion gave Boris Yeltsin and his newly-appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin the grounds they needed to launch a Second Chechen War in October 1999.

This second war went far better for Russians than the first. Maskhadov made several abortive attempts to cut a deal with the Russians, but found himself dismissed by Moscow and increasingly ignored by his own compatriots before being killed by Russian special forces in March 2005. Basayev engineered more and more horrific terrorist attacks, including the seizure of a Moscow theater in October 2002 and the massacre of a school full of children in Beslan in September 2004. This ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of full Chechen independence. The Russian government was then able to find Chechens willing to accept Russian hegemony in return for local autonomy. In 1999, Chechen religious authority Akhmad Kadyrov broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. After serving as chief administrator of Chechnya on Putin’s behalf, he became Chechen president in October 2003. Though Kadyrov was assassinated the next year, his son Ramzan Kadyrov became Chechen president in turn in February 2007. Kadyrov has continued his father’s policy of cooperating with Moscow and smashing any resistance to his own control with brutal efficiency.

The result has been the death of old Chechen nationalism. The current Chechen government accepts that leaving Russia may never be an option. The activist remnant of the Chechen movement has been left with little besides radical Islamism, a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil.

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