Chechens I Used to Know

April 19, 2011 Topics: HistoryTerrorismSociety Regions: Russia

Chechens I Used to Know

Mini Teaser: The typical vision of Chechnya: a violence-filled land of terrorists fighting for independence from the Kremlin’s iron grip. The reality is a land torn between nationalism and a Russian civic identity.

by Author(s): Thomas de Waal

Ilyas Akhmadov and Miriam Lanskoy , The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 288 pp., $35.00.

German Sadulaev , I am a Chechen! , trans. Anna Gunin (London: Harvill Secker, 2010), 256 pp., £12.99.

Robert W. Schaefer , The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 303 pp., $59.95.

[amazon 031338634X full]CHECHNYA IS a poisoned word. To the average reader of the foreign news pages, it holds associations of car bombs, drunken rampages of Russian soldiers, even severed heads and fingers. The moment an explosion killed several dozen people at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on January 24, 2011, “Chechens” were immediately invoked—with the term “terrorists” not far behind. Chechnya is put in the same category as Somalia, a black hole of depressing headlines.

But, if you haven’t been paying attention for a while, this is no longer the same Chechnya as the last time you looked. Current-day Chechnya is still troubled, yet it is different in a way that confounds many previously made assumptions. First of all, the violence in the North Caucasus is no longer about Chechen independence. Many Chechens became disillusioned with the idea of full secession after the bitter experience of two bouts of de facto self-rule from 1991 to ’94 and 1997 to ’99. Moscow has exploited that wariness with some success by pursuing a policy of “Chechenization” within Russia, handing off power to local lieutenants, latterly the hotheaded Ramzan Kadyrov. Those who say that the younger Kadyrov is a mere lackey of the Kremlin should consider that he now wields more power within Chechnya than the three pro-independence presidents who preceded him ever did. He is the son of Akhmad Kadyrov, a man who fought first for the secessionists and then switched sides in the later years of the conflict, joining forces with the Russians. The elder Kadyrov became president of the Chechen Republic—only to be assassinated a year later, probably by Islamists. Kadyrov the younger now controls almost all men under arms; the revenue flows of the oil industry; and flights in and out of Grozny Airport.

This policy also tells us that Moscow’s agenda here is no longer colonial domination or suppressing Islam; it is about keeping control of the region at any cost. This has escaped the attention of even perceptive commentators like Fareed Zakaria, who wrote recently, “Any signs of religious behavior [in Chechnya] are viewed with hostility.” Not so: Kadyrov has used Russian government funds to impose quasi-sharia law in Chechnya and to build one of the largest mosques in Europe.

Armed resistance is now a region-wide phenomenon: radical Islam is the main ideological driver, pitting itself against not only mainstream Islam but also Russian rule. In his new, scrupulously researched book, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, reports that Chechnya’s western and eastern neighbors, Ingushetia and Dagestan, are now consistently more violent than Chechnya itself. In 2009, Schaefer writes, at least 332 pro-Russian combatants were killed and at least 636 were wounded in the North Caucasus—numbers he believes to be an underestimation but which, as they stand, exceed U.S. casualties in either Afghanistan or Iraq in the same period.

This casualty list does not of course include the random civilian victims of hideous terrorist acts like the Domodedovo suicide bombing which are now a depressingly frequent occurrence. Attacks like this frame the mainstream Russian narrative that the country is under assault by Caucasian radicals. But this is only the most recent part of a long story. Ask any Chechen and they will tell you that ordinary Russians are now enduring what they, in tens of thousands, suffered at the hands of random Russian bombs and artillery from 1994 until 2002.

CHECHENS ARE afflicted by what I would call the curse of “anthropological determinism.” They are stigmatized as being “bandits” and “terrorists” with a natural inclination to savagery who somehow missed out on the modern era. This demonization led to the practice whereby almost all Russian-speaking Islamic fighters in Afghanistan or Iraq after 2001 were labeled “Chechens,” although to my knowledge no confirmed Chechen fighter was ever captured in Afghanistan or Iraq and there were certainly no Chechen captives in Guantánamo Bay. But these warriors were Russian-speaking Muslims so, the logic went, they must have been Chechens.

The alternative cliché, scarcely less helpful to the Chechens, is that they are the embodiment of “freedom fighters,” focused on a struggle of “freedom or death.” This romantic notion also casts them in a premodern mold, portraying the war with Russia as a battle to the bitter end, pitting Chechen liberty against Russian genocide. A book published in France in 2003 bore the title Chechnya: A War unto the Last Man? Thankfully, the reality is more prosaic: modern Russia is not actually in the genocide business nor are Chechens in the self-extinction business.

Pullquote: I remember Chechnya’s supposed chief Islamic ideologue Movladi Udugov as a beer-drinking, Marlboro-smoking cynic.Image: Essay Types: Book Review