Premodern Chechnya [Seth Lacy]

The Russian state first showed interest in Chechnya after the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan under the reign of Ivan IV. As had been seen elsewhere in the empire, imperial administration followed the settlement of the Cossacks in the area. Also during
this time period Ivan IV married a Kabartay princess and established a claim to sovereignty in the Northern Caucasus. This marriage was used by subsequent imperial administrations in order to justify their right to rule in Chechnya and the greater Caucasus. At this time the Russian state was far too weak to project their power militarily into the region, and it was largely ignored until the reign of Peter I, who was the next tsar to attempt to intervene militarily in the region. This bid was once again largely unsuccessful due to the strength of local
leaders and opposition of the Ottoman Empire. However, Peter I did have one important legacy in the area which was the establishment of a concrete border (Terek) with a defense line patrolled by Cossack armies. In continuing Peter’s legacy, Catherine II also attempted to project Russian influence into the Caucasus. She was responsible for extending the Terek defense line, as well as building the fortress of Mozdok, which precipitated the Russo-Ottoman war of 1768-74. The most enduring aspect of her rule for the Chechens however would be the massacre of the Nogays. Suvorov, Catherine’s lover and favorite general at the time, was sent to remove the Nogays from their homeland to discourage uprisings. When the Nogays, for obvious reasons, attempted to resist deportation, they were slaughtered fleeing into the wilderness.  This marked a serious turning point in the relations between the Chechens and the imperial state. While it certainly indicated the tie that the Chechen people felt to the land, more importantly it revealed the lengths of brutality to which the Russian state was willing to resort to in order to implement its imperial policy. This institutionalized the idea that the only language which these disparate groups understood was the language of force. It was soon after this point, in 1785 that Sheikh Mansur arrived in the Chechen theatre. He was an advocate of the Naqshbandiyya tariqa of Sufi Islam, and stressed the value of Shari’a law over the pursuit of Gazavat (a form of Jihad). Mansur soon came to the realization however, that diplomatic means were going nowhere with the Russian state. He and his followers responded to perceived Russian aggression with highly organized and effective guerilla warfare. His most long-term contribution to the Chechen conflict was the idea of a unified Muslim front as well as the use of highly mobile guerilla forces. Thus began the cyclical pattern of Russian retribution and propaganda campaigns leading to Chechen ambushes and raids which in turn provoked another Russian response. This type of fighting would come to define the relationship between the Chechens and the Russian state for most of the next century.

In response to this developing conflict, the Russians despatched the highly successful and xenophobic general Yermolov to the Caucasus theatre. Under his command, general Sysoev massacred everyone in the village of Dadi Yurt, as reprisal for a series of Chechen raids. This bears a striking similarity to the absolute brutality previously utilized against the Nogays and helped widen the unbridgeable gap between the Chechens and the Russian state. This, however, was not the answer to the problem, as noted by historian Moshe Gammer: “Not only did his extremely brutal and cruel methods fail to achieve the intended results, they also increased Chechens’ internal resistance to the tactics of terror, virtually eradicating their fear of the Russians” (Gammer 43). This also helped to further convince the Chechens of the necessity of a unified Muslim front to the Russian government.

In 1826 Yermolov attempted a final violent campaign against the Chechens. He destroyed massive amounts of property and killed scores of people but was still unable to subdue the Chechens. This pressure led to the remarkable success of the Naqshbandiyya tariqa in the Caucasus. The success of this tariqa fostered the rise to power of a newcomer, Shamil. While initially not extremely successful, and challenged by some even within his own coalition, Shamil became a major thorn in the side of the Russian state. Through major campaigns in 1832 and 1839-40 the Russians thought they had managed to subdue the Caucasus and Shamil as well. However, these gains were quickly reversed as soon as Russia attempted to impose further administration and confiscate firearms, which were generally passed down from father to son and symbolized both manhood and freedom. The importance of these ideals to the inhabitants of the Caucasus precipitated a rapid return to violence and a rallying behind Shamil. Hiss guerillas learned well from their previous experiences and mobilized their superior mobility, marksmanship, and knowledge of local terrain in order to outstrip the Russian conventional forces.

Despite having briefly abandoned the “one-blow” approach in dealing with the insurgents, the Russian commanders soon returned to Yermolov’s tactics. They resurrected the practice of razing villages and committing reprisal killings on an epic scale. At this point, they also began the practice of razing all the trees on the sides of the roads out to two musket shots. This made it considerably more difficult to ambush convoys, but also completely devastated the landscape. This war of attrition took a major toll on the Chechen population, forcing them to near surrender. In 1853, as the Russian state neared their goal of pacification of the Caucasus, they made the folly of suggesting deportation, resurrecting Shamil from near defeat. Despite this brief resurrection, Shamil was finally forced by the Russians to surrender in 1859. However his legacy would have a role to play for many years to come. He shifted the populace from growing grain to growing maize, encouraged strict enforcement of Shari’a, and most importantly advanced the Chechen self-consciousness.

The Russian state once again pressed its advantage by implementing obligations and duties, rather than consolidating their position. This led to the reemergence of revolt by 1860. The Russian administration tried to use divide and rule tactics, but it was often found that Chechen units refused to fight other Chechens, and could only be deployed effectively outside of the Caucasus. This period saw the emergence of a new tariqa, Qadiriyya. The champion of this tariqa, Kunta Haji was at first endorsed and then just as quickly condemned by the Russians. This is an apt example of the Russian administration not being able to react to a developing situation in the Caucasus, namely due to a lack of local knowledge. Increasing tensions found an outlet in the Russo-Ottoman war of 1877-78. The Russians once again attempted divide and rule tactics, coupled with relocation as a punitive measure. As in the past, these actions only ended up fomenting further resistance rather than discouraging it. The Russians then resorted to tactics of deceit, something not altogether uncommon previously. After promising Albik Hajii, a leader of resistance, freedom for his surrender, he was arrested and sentenced to death. This led the Chechens to further distrust the imperial administration in all dealings.

After the 1877 uprisings, the Russians attempted to repress Qadiriyya by arresting religious leaders and prohibiting the dancing of the zikr.  Punishment for dissenters centered completely on deportations. The change of climate coupled with the removal from their homeland equated to a death sentence for many Chechens. The majority of Chechens refused to participate in agriculture in their new locale and instead drifted aimlessly. The policy of deportation truly broke the back of the resistance to Russian hegemony and quelled uprising until almost 1918. This was not however the end of discontent, with resentment over unequal distribution of oil wealth and imposition of administration, among other issues, simmering for 40 years.

Soviet and Post-Soviet Chechnya [Max Gordon]

As elsewhere throughout the former Russian Empire, the chaos of the 1917 Revolution found its way to Chechnya. In the absence of the imperial government, several political organizations rose to prominence and vied for power. Members of the Chechen/Daghestani intelligentsia, desiring a Western-style democratic government, established the Alliance of the United Mountaineers of the Northern Caucasus (AUMNC). The Cossacks formed their own Cossack Host Provisional Government, and the Bolsheviks themselves worked through the Council of Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers. One reason they were able to gain support was through addressing the tensions between the landlord Cossacks and the landless, exploited gortsy and inogorodtsy. Due to Russian Imperial history in the region, they managed to muster greater numbers than were the Whites, led by General Denikin, who were largely seen as a continuation of imperial policy. Though Imam Najm al-Din al-Hutsi proclaimed yet another gazavat in August 1920, the Soviets were able to quell Chechen resistance via superior numbers, heavier industry, and a carrot-stick policy of providing Chechen farmers with seeds during a time of famine.

The next step for the Soviets was consolidating power, and this was done by targeting the Muslim clergy, both along classic, atheistic Marxist lines and general Islamophobia on the part of Europeans in the region. Deceitful methods similar to those used by the tsarist government were employed to get rid of religious leaders such as Ali Mitayev, the most powerful Sheikh and leader of Kunta Hajji’s Qadiriyya sect. A Latin alphabet was adopted in 1926, and the traditional Arabic script was done away with. Sharia courts were abolished in the same year, and in 1929 many mosques and Arabic schools were shut down. These anti-Islam efforts coupled with collectivization led to two insurrections by Shita Istamulov, which required massive resources to quell, and included the arrests of as many as 35,000 arrested as ‘kulaks‘.

Yezhovshchina, or the purges kicked off by Nikolai Yezhov in August 1937, was the next wave of calamity to sweep over Chechnya. This was an effort targeted against the intelligentsia, and resulted in the arrests and executions of thousands as ‘bourgeois nationalists’ (at the very same time as the rise of Great Russian Nationalism). The intelligentsia was rendered illiterate when the Latin alphabet was abandoned in favor of a cyrillic one. Collectivization increased, and in response to the stress on Chechen life, another insurrection erupted in 1939, led by Hasan Israilov. This insurrection carried over into WWII and the Nazi invasion of the Caucasus, quelled only in 1942.

NKVD EmblemFollowing the end of this rebellion, many of its participants left to fight on the side of the Germans. This ‘collaboration’ served as the premise for the massive deportation ordered by Stalin in 1944. The numbers were staggering: between 475-500,000 were deported by the NKVD beginning in February. The deportees were forced into overcrowded trucks and trains which had little ventilation and no sanitation. Underfed, many died en route to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzia, where they were resettled. The forced migration effectively destroyed many of the patterns of life, clan and family relationships, etc. which had allowed the Chechens to survive the harsh environments of Chechnya itself, and this contributed to the deaths of 60-65 percent of the deportees within the first year in their new homes. Not until Krushchev took power was this acknowledged as a crime, and the Chechens were only allowed to return home beginning in 1957. In many cases, however, their homes had already been occupied. Massive riots broke out, and the army was needed to subdue them.

1973 was a watershed moment for Chechens. Mass demonstrations took place, and they demanded more official government positions for the Chechen people, as well as the return of the Prigorodnyi rayon, a district that had originally been part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, but had later been separated. Most of their demands were met by the time of Gorbachev’s administration. Nonetheless, russification had taken its toll: school classes were conducted in Russian, Russian served as the language of political discourse, and much business was conducted in Russian. Mosques remained closed until 1987; however, Islam, and specifically Qadiriyya, reemerged as a source of national identity, with an emphasis placed on pilgrimages and Sufi ceremonies.

Perestroika had reached Chechnya by 1988, and thus followed a demand for greater religious freedom, protection of Chechen language and culture, and (perhaps most controversially) official commemoration of the deportation of 1944 and full rehabilitation of its victims. This was accompanied by an overall desire to change the official versions of Chechen and Ingush Soviet-era history, which had as its basis that the Chechens and Ingush had ‘voluntarily joined’ Russia. Around this time many Chechens began entering the government and replacing unpopular ethnic Russians. Doku Zavgayev became the first Chechen to become First Secretary of the Chechen ASSR. In August 1991 his government was ousted by the All-National Congress of the Chechen People (OKChN), an opposition party, and its leader, Johar Dudayev. Dudayev was elected president on October 27, and declared independence shortly thereafter, on November 2. As might be expected, Moscow refused to recognize the new, independent Chechnya. During the First Chechen War of 1994-96, the Chechens not only halted the first Russian advance on the capital city of Grozny, but managed to accomplich what Moshe Gammer refers to as their two primary objectives. First, “to turn the war into a war between equals, and-more important-to portray it as such: state against state and army against army, and not skirmishes between an army and ‘gangs of bandits’ as Moscow claimed. Second, they succeeded time and again in bursting the balloon of the Russian official version of ‘victory’”(Gammer 209). Though the Russians did eventually take Grozny, the Chechens regained control on 6th August 1996. Peace negotiations, however, failed to give Chechnya independence.

Damaged Buildings from First Chechan WarThe first war left Chechnya devastated. Anywhere between 40-100,000 were killed, with 3-400,000 in refugee camps out of a total pre-war population of 1,000,000. No aid came from Russia, much farmland was rendered useless by landmines, and many homes were destroyed. The leader of the Chechen resistance, Aslan Maskhadov, became president, and Shamil Basaev, one of his former ‘field commanders’, became prime minister. Basaev resigned in 1998 to form a Shura, a council to rival Maskhadov’s authority, and to which he drew other former field commanders, as well as the Sunni ‘wahhabis’, often from Arab countries, who provided him with funding, weapons, and military experience.  He is also the alleged mastermind of the 2004 Beslan School Siege.  Seeing opportunity, Russia invaded yet again and as of now both Maskhadov and Basaev have been killed. With Basaev’s death in 2006, the resistance movement has taken a serious blow, and a Russia-friendly government has been installed in Grozny. Nonetheless, violence continues in the Chechen state, and is not likely to cease completely any time soon.


Works consulted

  • Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear. Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006).

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