aftermath of the hostage take-over of the Moscow Theater calls for
a reevaluation of Putin's regime and the cause of Chechen independence.
Moscow 750 people were held hostage on October 23 though 26. Nearly
50 hostage-takers under the command of Basaev demanded the end of
Russian genocide in Chechnya. The Russian government was given three
days to comply with this demand, but never gave it serious consideration.
Instead it spent these days planning the attack that was conducted
in the early morning of 26th of October. A poisonous
gas was used to incapacitate the hostage-takers inside the building.
The military entered and killed almost all terrorists. The gas incapacitated
hostages as well and killed 118 of them [unofficial sources say
the real figure is more than 200].
were furious for not being warned and prepared. It has been reported
that many corpses were transported to hospitals, while those still
alive were transported to morgues in panic. People's lives were
lost due to lack of transportation, not enough space in the hospitals,
and doctors were not told what substance was used (recently announced
to be Fentanyl, a potent opium-based narcotic that affects pain
receptors and causes sleepiness and, in high doses, can lead to
respiratory failure, and perhaps something else as well) and therefore
were not able to prescribe appropriate treatment. That did not surprise
Russians, however; such irresponsibility by the authorities is commonplace
there, and it is impossible to shock Russians with government's
actions that cost innocent lives.
the takeover, the hostages were allowed to talk to the media. One
woman called Echo Moskvy (a well-known radio station) was talking
at the moment when the attack started. She said they could feel
the gas in the building and they were trying to protect themselves
by holding wet cloths at the mouth. But so could the terrorists.
Women hostages speaking in Moscow Hospital Number 13 to RFE/RL's
Tatar-Bashkir correspondent asserted that the terrorists knew about
the gas, could smell it, and did nothing to blow everything up even
though there was plenty of time. The Russian government also fabricated
the information that the terrorists started shooting the hostages
earlier than promised if their demands were not met. Officials kept
saying that terrorists were shooting people and they had to go in.
doctors and hostages are forbidden to talk to the Russian press
and say what everyone suspects: this was another action of the Russian
state against its own people in pursuit of political interests.
amazing 80% approval rating of ex-KGB officer Putin is the result
of disinformation fed to the Russian public about the events in
Chechnya, which are nothing but genocide, racial cleansing, mass
rape, bombing of villages, and disappearance of people. No wonder
that almost all hostage takers were shot in their sleep during the
attack. Why? The Russian government does not want to have a public
trial of terrorists that could turn into a trial of Russian genocide
in Chechnya. The terrorist leader Baraev was photographed dead with
a bottle of cognac, which was placed into his hands after he was
shot, bringing back the memory of Stalin's tricks to humiliate his
opponents even after their death.
Russian press raised a lot of questions immediately after the operation.
After the initial hours of free expression, however, the Kremlin
gave orders and criticism was replaced by praise to Putin and his
lieutenants. "We can't let the terrorists know what we really
think" was the reasoning. Reporters were forced to produce
half-true reports. Now, only days after the attack, the Duma is
pushing for a new law limiting the media in connection to terrorist
actions. This law could completely erase freedom of speech in Russia
(at least in relation to the war on Chechnya). The video of the
spokeswoman for the hostage-taker group was never released on Russian
TV. One of the sites supporting the Chechen rebels — www.kavkaz.org
– was shut down hours after the beginning of the crisis. An
antiwar demonstration by relatives of the hostages while the situation
was still continuing was dispersed, and the demonstrators arrested.
They arrested relatives of the people held hostage? Yes. Another
antiwas protest demonstration planned by the Committee of Antiwar
Actions in Moscow was forbidden by Putin.
Litvinenko, a former FSB agent who got political asylum in Britain,
in his book Blowing
Up Russia: Terror From Within – Acts of Terror, Abductions &
Contract Killings Organized by Russia's Federal Security Services,
writes about the crimes of Russian high ranking officials and the
Chechen wars. The "government force structure" of Russia
employs too many people used to being fed by the state and not willing
to let that go. In their fight for "survival," they are
prepared to do everything to suppress liberty in Russia. The war
on Chechnya is one of their tools to keep the population terrorized
and obedient. The war has no other reason for continuing (or starting,
for that matter) than the Russian ruling elite's lust for power
and money. Two wars against Chechnya in just the last 10 years have
killed more than 100,000 civilians and completely destroyed cities
and villages of the country.
almost all Western narrations on the war in Chechnya, all attention
is devoted to Russians. At best the Chechens – who call themselves
the Nokhchi – are present as some numerary dumb performers
on the bizarre stage of Russian politics. "There is something
basic missing from most Western commentary on Russia's ferocious
war against the secessionist Chechen Republic: the Chechens themselves,"
says the best Western authority on Chechnya, David Damrel of Oxford
University. While many analysts ponder Putin's pursuit of his war
in the Caucasus, "the Chechens appear as little more than an
unexplored foil to the Russians." Most Western observers arrogantly
dismiss their hopes and aspirations, their culture and history.
few Western intellectuals are concerned with the fate of this small
and proud nation fighting for its independence for three centuries.
Anders Aslund, a former Swedish advisor to the Russian government
believes that: "Finally the West should stand by its values
and call Genocide in Chechnya by its true name and evoke the human
rights provisions of the Helsinki accords." "It is high
time," writes professor of linguistics at UC-Berkeley Johanna
Nichols "…to put a human face on a people of great dignity,
refinement, and courage who have paid heavily for their resistance
to conquest and assimilation."
story of Chechen suffering is long indeed. It is also the history
of Russian expansion into the Caucasus — a mountainous territory
between the Black and Caspian Seas with a rich and ancient history
of interaction among Greek, Persian, and Roman cultures and later
— Islam and Christianity. After the collapse of the USSR in December
1991, four independent states — Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan
divided the region. Over 50 religiously, culturally, and linguistically
diverse nationalities and ethnic groups populate the Caucasus. Northern
Caucasus – a long-suffering province of Russia – is home
of three "autonomous" republics: predominantly Muslim
Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. "Islam, when it arrived
in Chechnya," writes professor Edward W. Walker of UC-Berkeley,
"was mixed with traditional religious beliefs and practices,
which may help explain why the brand of Islam adopted by the Chechens
for the most part was Sufism – a mystical form of Sunni Islam
that involves the "journeying" of a disciple (the murid)
under the tutelage of an adept toward God and that in part rejects
sharia law in favor of customary law (adat). In this respect, Sufism
was particularly amenable to the Chechen's traditional highlander
culture, with its village-based individualism, egalitarianism, traditional
practices, respect for elders, and opposition to hierarchy."
Caucasian highlands were apparently relatively populous and prosperous
in ancient times. From the late middle ages until the 19th
century, a worldwide cooling phase known as the Little Ice Age caused
glacial advances and shortened growing seasons in the alpine highlands,
weakening the highland economies and triggering migrations to the
lowlands and abandonment of some alpine villages." This period
of economic hardship coincided with the Russian conquest of the
Caucasus that opened the first chapter in the ongoing tragedy of
1780s Russian Empress Catherine the Great decided to expand Imperial
Russia at the expense of its Southern neighbors. Her troops under
Field Marshal Aleksandr Suvorov won a war against Turkey (1787–1792),
and in 1792 signed the Treaty of Uassy which confirmed the takeover
of the Crimea and paved the way for the Russian annexation of the
Caucasus. Russian troops, victorious over the Ottoman Empire, encountered
fierce resistance by Caucasian Muslims led by their spiritual leader
– Sheikh Mansur Ushurma – who declared a jihad (a holy
war) against the Russian invaders.
Mansur and his Muslim mountaineers inflicted a crushing defeat on
Czarist forces at the Sunzha River in 1785 and were briefly able
to unite much of what are modern Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan.
In the beginning of the 19th century Russia succeeded
in subjugating Chechnya. This subjugation, however, was only formal.
Colonial administration was present only in the capital city, Grozny.
De facto, the country was controlled by the Sufi orders: "Naturally
secretive and disciplined, with broad-based social support and foreboding
mountainous terrain for cover, these orders have proven formidable
adversaries for whoever has tried to rule the Caucasus."
armed revolt against the Russian occupation of Chechnya and Dagestan
resumed in 1824, when a series of Sufi leaders called Imams began
a ferocious guerrilla war of independence that would last for over
30 more years. The Russian Empire resumed its control over Chechnya
only after the Crimean War, after defeating the religious leader
of the Chechens, the legendary Imam Shamil.
Count Leo Tolstoy, who served in the Russian Imperial Army in Chechnya
in the 1840s, was appalled by the unjust and atrocious colonial
war, to the extent that he resigned from the army and wrote about
the Chechen war praising Shamil. Shamil and his followers belonged
to a branch of the Naqshbandis Sufi order, an Islamic mystical brotherhood
that originated in fourteenth century Bukhara. "More traditional
Muslim religious leaders often attacked the Sufi u2018cult of saints'
for non-Islamic practices, but from early on in the Caucasus, Sufism
helped attract converts to Islam at a popular level and offered
a powerful source of spiritual guidance and social identity."
Under the leadership of these Sufi orders, Chechens rebelled against
the Romanovs again in 1865, 1877, 1879, and the 1890s and plagued
Czarist rule in the Caucasus during the Bolshevik Revolution.
Lenin referred to Chechnya as the most backward outskirt of the
Russian Empire – a prison house of nationalities – and
declared that development of these regions would be the primary
aim of the Bolshevik government. This promise became one in the
long line of the broken promises of socialism. Instead, a beautiful
mountain country with proud and industrious people were completely
destroyed by Communism. Stalin's purges of 1937 and consequent deportation
of all Chechens and Ingush from their homeland to uninhabitable
regions of Kazakhstan in 1944 belongs to the most grim pages of
the murderous history of the Soviet Union.
tried to fight back: the independence movement led by Sheikh Uzun
Haji battled for eight years against the White and the Red armies
to create a "North Caucasian Emirate." The categorical
and uncompromising Uzun Haji, whose tomb remains a major pilgrimage
site for Chechen Muslims, saw little difference between the Czarist
Russians and the godless communists. "I am weaving a rope,"
he was quoted by his enemies, "to hang engineers, students,
and in general all those who write from left to right." His
uprising was suppressed in 1925 and he, with many of his followers,
was executed by the Soviet regime. Since then there have been various
Chechen rebellions against Soviet occupation, as well as resistance
to collectivization, anti-religious campaigns, and Russification.
Branding the Sufis "bandits," "criminals," and
"counter-revolutionaries," the Soviets continued to arrest,
execute and deport the freedom fighters until the beginning of the
Second World War.
the war, when disturbances occurred in Chechnya in 1940 and again
in 1943, Stalin responded with genocide. Accusing whole nations
of collaborating with Nazi Germany, Stalin forcibly deported the
Chechens and Ingush, as well as the Karachay, Balkar, Crimean Tatars,
and Volga Germans en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia. During deportations,
these nations lost at least one-quarter and perhaps half of their
population in transit. All told, more than a million Muslims from
the Caucasus were deported, and by some estimates, one-third to
one-half of the population of Chechen-Ingushetia alone – well
over 250,000 people – disappeared after the republic was liquidated
in February 1944.
former Speaker of the Russian parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov (an
ethnic Chechen himself) told us that over a half of the Chechens
were exterminated as a result of the Stalin's "wise policy
towards nationalities." Chechens in Grozny tell blood-freezing
stories of deportation: People crowded into cattle cars without
food, water, or sanitary facilities for several days, corpses transported
with children, killings of innocent protesters at the railway stations
by KGB guards. Chechen publicist Mohammad
gives the following description of Soviet atrocities of deportation:
the eve of February 23, 1944, all citizens of the Chechen-Ingush
Autonomous Republic were to celebrate the Red Army Day in the public
squares of every town. Security forces surrounded each public square
and the military commander read to the citizens of each town the
Decree of the Supreme Soviet of deporting the whole Chechen people
to Central Asia and was ordered to report to specific deportation
centers in few hours… Some men reacted in defiance to the order
and were shot on the spot. The rest of the people were collected
from each home by the security forces and forcibly loaded on trucks
and taken to deportation centers. In some villages where transportation
to the deportation depots was not available the people were herded
into barns, doused with gasoline and burned alive. In one town called
Khaybakh 700 people including men, women and children were burned
alive, and this heinous act was repeated in twelve other villages
deportation process itself was cruel and not worthy of human beings.
Hundreds of people were packed into each wagon. I have talked to
some survivors and they said that they had to stand up in the wagons
packed like sardines with the windows of the trains boarded up and
with no stops for food and hygiene. Many people suffocated and died
and their bodies stayed in vertical positions until the train stopped
at its predetermined intervals and then and only then were the bodies
taken out and dumped on the side of the railway with no permission
to bury any of the dead. The deportation process included truck
and train transportation and walking to reach the designated areas
of banishment. Thousands died from lack of food and medicine. Typhus
spread among the deportees and many perished from this disease.
Once the deportees reached their destination they were sent to forced
labor camps and the Chechens were the major source of slave labor
that built highways in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kirghizstan through
rough mountainous terrain."
Chechens spent more than a decade in work/death camps in Kazakhstan.
But by all accounts, the forced resettlement failed to break either
the Sufi brotherhoods or Chechen national spirit. Describing the
fearsome "psychology of submission" that prevailed in
Soviet relocation camps, Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed
that only one people refused to be broken by the ordeal: "There
was a nation as a whole – the Chechens – who rejected
the psychological submission…they were openly proud and hostile
to authorities and never tried to please anyone in search of favors
or better conditions for themselves"
Khrushchev's denunciation of "Stalin's cult of personality"
at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
in 1956, the Chechens and other exiled victims of Stalinism were
proclaimed "rehabilitated" and returned to their homeland;
they found that their land had been "Russified." Hundreds
of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian farmers brought in to work
the land during their absence had become permanent residents and
now comprised a quarter of the region's population. Chechens lost
land, economic resources, and civil rights; under both Soviet and
Russian governments, they have been the objects of official discrimination.
return from the Gulag, Chechens, Ingush, and Daghestanis also discovered
that they were no longer permitted to profess their religion. The
Soviet authorities decided to prohibit Islam in the region, closing
more than 800 mosques and 400 religious colleges. Mosques were demolished,
converted into state museums, or made inaccessible. This measures
against mainstream Islam had, however, very little impact on the
Sufi brotherhoods, which had never relied on mosques. Indeed, the
orders themselves – particularly the Naqshbandis – are
noted to this day for organizing their own clandestine Arabic classes
and schools to teach Islam.
new Sufi brotherhood – called the Vis Haji after its founder
Vis Haji Zagiev – was founded during the deportation years
in the camps. The Vis Haji order combines scrupulous adherence to
fundamentalist Islam with fierce anti-Soviet and anti-Russian rhetoric.
"Vis Haji zikr, employing violins and drums, also accounts
for some of the order's popularity. Attractive even to nonmembers,
zikr performances sometimes provide the basis for public assemblies
and displays during religious holidays in many Chechen villages.
In another unique practice, women are welcome to participate in
Vis Haji zikr, and there are reports of women shaykhs leading their
own circles of female adepts. Crucial in preserving Chechen Muslim
identity during the exile, the Vis Haji are recognized today as
the most active and innovative order in the Caucasus." In 1978,
Soviet authorities in the Caucasus decided to “legalize" Islam
and allowed 40 mosques to reopen and staffed them with 300 registered
was no surprise that the long-suffering Chechens declared their
independence immediately upon the collapse of the Soviet Union in
December 1991. So did fifteen other nations recognized today by
the United States and the world community. The case of Chechens
was different – according to the Stalin's Constitution of 1936
only "Sister union" republics were granted a right to
independence, not "autonomous" republics like Chechnya.
The only difference is that Stalin assigned different status
to different parts of his empire. Surely Chechens or Tatars or Dagestani
have as much right to nationhood as, say, Georgians, Armenians.
or East Timorese.
Chechens are a colonized people who have been conducting a struggle
against imperial Russia and the imperial Soviet Union for more than
200 years. It is remarkable that Stalin's Constitution, repealed
even by the Russian Parliament, is still a valid document for the
Bush administration and other Western governments, which refuse
to recognize the right of the oppressed nationalities of Russia
to self-determination. Only courageous Estonia, also a victim of
Stalin's genocide, recognizes and supports the Chechen government
and people. Terrorism is always wrong, whether it's private or State,
but it is about time that in the stale asphyxiating atmosphere of
imperialistic chauvinism we should turn our attention to the plight
of people whose suffering and desperation are absolutely unbearable.
out of Chechnya.
Andghuladze [send her mail],
a free-lance writer and commentator, was born in Russia and now
lives and works in Chicago. Yuri Maltsev
[send him mail], a
member of the senior faculty of the Ludwig
Von Mises Institute, was a Leading Researcher at the Academy
of Sciences in Moscow before he defected to the US in 1989.