The Forgotten Nation

Terror in Moscow

The aftermath of the hostage take-over of the Moscow Theater calls for a reevaluation of Putin's regime and the cause of Chechen independence.

In 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].

Doctors 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.

During 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.

The 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Alexander 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.

The Forgotten Nation

In 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.

Only 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."

The 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."

"The 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 the Caucasus.

In 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.

Sheikh 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."

Full-scale 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.

Young 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.

Chechnya Under Communism

Vladimir 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.

Chechens 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.

During 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.

The 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 Shashani gives the following description of Soviet atrocities of deportation:

"On 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 in Chechnya.

The 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."

The 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"

After 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.

Upon 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.

A 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 ulema.

It 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.

The 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.

Russia, out of Chechnya.

November 4, 2002

Tanya 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.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts