This column was first published in 2010.
There is an old saying about the fierce Chechen tribes who inhabit southern Russia’s Caucasus mountains: “Chechen cannot ever be defeated. They can only be killed.”
Chechen are Russia’s nemesis. Even the notoriously brutal Russian mafia fears the ferocious Chechen, and for good reason.
Last year, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin proudly proclaimed that resistance to Russian rule in the North Caucasus had been eliminated. The region was pacified.
Confounding Putin’s claim, Chechen suicide bombers hit Moscow’s subway last week, killing 39 and injuring over 70. Chechen suicide bombers in Dagestan killed twelve, mostly policemen. There were further attacks in neighboring Dagestan. The North Caucasus was again at a boil.
The attacks seriously rattled Russians and left the Kremlin deeply embarrassed and enraged.
Two “black widows” – wives or daughters of Chechen independence fighters killed or raped by the Russians (Russians call them “Islamic terrorists” and “bandits”) – took their revenge last week, as so often in recent years.
The latest Chechen leader, Doku Umarov – all his predecessors were liquidated by Russia – claimed from his hideout in the Caucasus mountains that the subway attacks were reprisal for the recent killing of Chechen civilians by Russian security forces.
He warned Moscow, “we will make you feel what we feel.”
In recent years, Chechen “black widows” have brought down two civilian airliners. Other Chechen hijacked an entire Moscow theater, and derailed the “Alexander Nevsky” Express that runs from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Chechen are a tiny but fierce North Caucasian mountain people of Indo-European origin. They, and other Muslim Caucasian tribes, such as Dagestanis and Cherkass (Circasians), have battled Russian imperial rule for the past 300 years.
In 1877, Imperial Russia killed 40% of the Chechen population of about 220,000. Four hundred thousand Cherkass were expelled.
Stalin, from neighboring Georgia, hated Chechen. He divided Chechnya, creating the republic of Ingushetia. Then, in July 1937, his secret police, NKVD, shot 14,000 Chechen.
In 1944, Stalin ordered the entire Chechen people rounded up and shipped in cattle cars to his Siberian concentration camps or dumped to perish into icy fields. Other Muslims followed: Ingush, Tatars, Karachai, Balkars.
Neither bullets nor gas chambers were needed in Stalin’s death camps. A third of the prisoners died each year from cold, starvation or disease in the concentration camps. In all, some 2.5 million Soviet Muslims were murdered by Stalin, “the Breaker of Nations,” among them half of the Chechen people.
In my new book, American Raj, I entitle the section on the Chechen, “Genocide in the Caucasus.”
Gulag survivors filtered back to Chechnya. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Chechen demanded independence like the Soviet republics.
Instead, Boris Yeltsin’s government invaded Chechnya, killing some 100,000 Chechen civilians through massive carpet bombing and shelling. Chechen leader Dzhokar Dudayev was assassinated, reportedly thanks to telephone homing equipment supplied to Moscow by the US National Security Agency. President Bill Clinton actually lauded Boris Yeltsin as “Russia’s Abraham Lincoln.”
Incredibly, Chechen fighters managed to defeat Russia’s army and won de facto independence.
But in 1999, apartment buildings in Russia were bombed, killing some 200 people, and creating a national panic.
Chechen “terrorists” were immediately blamed. But there was disturbing evidence that government agents staged the bombing to justify invading Chechnya.
Moscow media reported that a group of Federal Security Service (FSB – the successor to the KGB’s internal security service) agents were caught red-handed planting explosives in an apartment building. They claimed the explosives were merely bags of “sugar,” part of a “test.”
An ex-FSB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, joined other critics in accusing the government of a false flag operation in staging the attacks to justify a new war against the Chechen. In 2006, Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium-210 in London.
Litvinenko also accused the Kremlin of being behind the murder of the crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She told me before her death that she was marked for assassination by the government because of her stinging exposés of Russia’s human rights violations in Chechnya.
FSB chief Vladimir Putin was catapulted into power by the anti-Chechen hysteria caused by the mysterious bombings. Two years later, the eerily similar 9/11 attacks would similarly turn George Bush from a non-entity into a hero, and provide a pretext for the US to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
Powerful Russian forces invaded and crushed the life out of Chechen resistance. All moderate Chechen leaders were assassinated, the last in Qatar in 2004, leaving mostly militant Islamists. A Moscow-installed Chechen puppet regime imposed a rein of terror upon the population, using torture, murder, mass reprisals, hostages and rape.
The world ignored these violations but paid rapt attention to another crime, the death of over 300 Russian child hostages in the still murky school massacre at Beslan.
The outside world totally ignored the death of another 100,000 Chechen after Moscow successfully branded them, “Islamic terrorists.” A quarter of the Chechen people, Muslims and Russians, died from 1991 until 2010, not counting Stalin’s mass murder. But Chechen keep fighting on.
Moscow worries insurrection is spreading across its soft Caucasus underbelly. President Dimitri Medvedev made laudable efforts to humanize Russia’s rule there. But after the subway atrocity, Putin and Medvedev vow to “destroy” remaining resistance in Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia.
Moscow should end this historical tragedy by granting Chechnya independence. Doing so is of course risky: it could spark demands by other Caucasian Muslims for independence, and enflame some of Russia’s 20 million-strong Muslim minority – though most still appear content to live in the Russian Federation.
An independent Chechnya could also open another door to growing US penetration of the Caucasus and campaign to encircle Russia. The US and Russia came frighteningly close to a head-on clash over Georgia. The Cold War has not ended.
An independent Chechnya would be unstable and violent. But that is better than the savagery and atrocities that this terrible conflict continues to generate.
Modern Russia needs to set the Chechen free.