Johar Dudayev’s term as president of the illegally independent Chechen state solidified his place amongst Chechnya’s many heroicized leaders. Like many who governed the state before him, Dudayev has become increasingly popular and and assumed a mythical dimension since his death in the 1990s. Even while he was alive, Dudayev cultivated the association between himself and previous rebel leaders of the Chechen people. One of his first actions as president was to commission postage stamps that bore his likeness, as well as those of Chechen luminaries Sheik Mansur and Imam Shamil (Higgens). In many ways, Dudayev was represented as a modern-day incarnation of these older rebellious Chechen leaders. His tactics in mobilizing the population to fight a war of attrition against the Russian state strongly resembles those used in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, then, Dudayev’s movement of the early 1990s met the same brutal fate as all other Chechen independence movements against the Russian apparat.
Dudayev, like many Chechens in the 1940s, endured the harsh policies of Stalinist Russia. He and his entire family were deported to Kazakhstan for over thirteen years and were unable to reenter Chechnya until after Stalin’s death in 1953 (Higgens). As with many Chechens, Dudayev’s experience with resettlement fostered resentment towards the Russian state. However, this did not prevent him from seeking advancement in the Soviet system, where he joined the air force and became the first Chechen to reach the rank of major general (Gammer, 201).
During his tenure in the Soviet military, Dudayev clearly lost none of his loyalty to Chechnya. In fact, he used his position of power to undermine the central authority of the Soviet Union, notably in Tartu, just prior to Baltic independence. In 1990, when many Soviet republics were loudly clamoring to break away from the Soviet Union, Dudayev was stationed in the Estonian city of Tartu. Massive demonstrations were occurring, as the Estonian military aggressively displayed its nationalist pride and disdain for the Soviet Union. Instead of intervening and preventing the spread of Estonian nationalism, Dudayev allowed it to continue, helping to undermine Russia’s hold on the Baltic region (Higgins). Shortly after the events in Tartu and the subsequent Baltic independence, Dudayev left the Soviet military and returned to Chechnya. Perhaps motivated by his experiences in Estonia, Dudayev encouraged his country to declare independence from the Russian center.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 created years of instability in the region. This chaos allowed Dudayev and his Chechen government to exist with relatively little interference from the Russian government. However, once President Boris Yeltsin consolidated power, he launched a crusade to reclaim what he believed belonged to the newly created Russian Federation. The First Chechen War last from 1994-1996 and helped to define the modern relationship between Chechnya and Russia (Kipp, 184). During the war, superior Russian forces were met with several embarrassing defeats by Dudayev’s forces (Kipp, 186). As in past Russian assaults on Chechnya, the Chechen people resorted to guerilla tactics to wear down Russian resolve. Dudayev was a pivotal force in motivating Chechens against the so-called Russian invaders.
The brutality of the fighting, however, did not help Dudayev to hold on to popular support. His unwillingness to compromise angered many Chechens and pushed them to support the Russian advances. Some came to eventually blame him for provoking war, through his previous threats of terrorist attacks against Russian installations (Gammer, 207). Despite the dissolving unity amongst the Chechens, Dudayev had a strong grip on power in Chechnya. The reliance of the Chechen rebellion on one man created a strong incentive for the Russian forces to target him for removal, and they succeeded in April 1996. A rocket attack was launched after the Russians discovered Dudyaev’s location through his cell phone (Kipp, 188). Once Dudayev was removed, the resistance crumbled. Unsurprisingly, the fight was quickly abandoned and the Chechen government reached a ceasefire agreement a mere five weeks after Dudayev’s death (Gammer, 208).
The circumstances of Dudayev’s death solidified his position as a great leader in Chechen history. The anger many Chechens felt towards Dudayev for his arrogance during the fighting is largely overlooked. Instead, Dudayev is placed within the larger narrative of historical Chechen rebellion that begins with Sheik Mansur and continues until the modern day. The parallels between Dudayev and his Chechen ancestors, which were tenuous at best during his lifetime, have now been accepted as fact in the years following his death. This will remain unchanged, as each new resistance leader in Chechnya will continue to invoke Dudayev’s image as a unifying symbol, in an effort to legitimize new claims to power. Despite his brief and tumultuous stint as the leader of the Chechens, Dudayev is now an inescapable part of Chechnya’s larger historical legacy.
- Moshe Gammer, The Lone Wolf and the Bear (University of Pittsburg Press, 2006).
- Andrew Higgens, “PROFILE: Dzhokhar Dudayev: Lone wolf of Grozny,” The Independent (22 Jan 1996).
- Jacob Kipp, “Putin and Russia’s Wars in Chechnya” in Putin’s Russia: Past Imperfect, Future Uncertain, edited by Randy R Fujishin, Dale R Herspring (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2002).