Why are Chechens so angry?

Why do Chechen women volunteer to blow themselves and their fellow citizens up on the crowded Moscow metro? The history of Russia’s attempts to quell the Chechens since 1721 explains a lot, suggests Oliver Bullough. Perhaps all they ever wanted from Russia was to be left alone

Oliver Bullough
2 April 2010

Chechens and Russians are citizens of the same country, products of the same education system, holders of the same passports. And yet, two women could walk onto the Moscow metro and blow themselves up, along with 40 blameless commuters.

There could be no more graphic example of the giant gap in comprehension between the two nations than this, and it is a gap that has lasted since the first encounter between them back in the 18th century.

When these two peoples first met, it was the ultimate in culture clashes.

In 1721, Russian troops, servants of Peter the Great, emissaries of Europe’s most autocratic state, rode west off their line of march and met Chechen horsemen. The Chechens came from an opposite culture. They had no government -- every village ruled itself -- with individuals moderating their behaviour through the influence of custom, and the dangers of blood feud.

This first encounter set the tone for all that followed. The meeting turned into a fight. The Russian unit was wiped out.


A second invader was also, with more success, seeking to conquer the Chechen lands around this time, and that was Islam. Led by wandering adepts of the Naqshbandi Sufi groups, Chechens were believers by the end of the 18th century, and it was under the green or black banners of Islam, that resistance to Russia would be organised.

Chechnya, November 11 2008, Photo CC2.0 LOrBoNoSi

“On the opposite bank of the river Sunzha in the village of Aldy a prophet has appeared and started to preach. He has submitted superstitious and ignorant people to his will by claiming to have had a revelation,” wrote a Russian major-general in a letter in 1785. This was unacceptable, and a mission was despatched to Aldy to show the prophet – who was calling himself Sheikh Mansur – who was boss.

On arriving at Aldy, however, the Russians found it empty. They burned a few houses, and turned for home, only to discover their victory was far from complete. The villagers were waiting for them in the forests along the road and the punitive expedition turned into a humiliating rout. Half the force was destroyed and many of the rest drowned in the Sunzha.

The Naqshbandi brotherhood – of which Mansur may have been a part – spread deep into the mountains after his victory, as the highlanders enjoyed the breathing space given them by the Napoleonic Wars. Fresh from their victory over the French, however, the Russians did not plan to let this continue for long.

Alexander Yermolov, one of the greatest heroes of those wars against Napoleon, believed in controlling these turbulent people, and in writing his philosophy across the map.

Starting in 1817 he erected forts called Vnezapnaya (“Sudden”), Neotstupny Stan (“No Retreat”), Zlobny Okop (“Malicious”) and Burnaya (“Stormy”). At the heart of them all was a fort that would become a town, then a city. He gave it the same name as that used to describe Ivan “the Terrible”: Grozny.

“The Caucasus may be likened to a mighty fortress, marvellously strong by nature, artificially protected by military works, and defended by a numerous garrison. Only thoughtless men would attempt to escalade such a stronghold. A wise commander would see the necessity of having recourse to military art; would lay his parallels; advance by sap and mine, and so master the place,” said one of the Yermolov’s generals, laying out a strategy that has been used ever since.

It was not a strategy calculated to win much support from civilians, however, as villagers found themselves treated as soldiers, resettled out of the mountains, or forced further into the high valleys if they refused to submit. Every summer the Russians destroyed Chechen villages, and every autumn the Chechens rebuilt.

In September 1819, the Russians came to Dadi-Yurt, where the inhabitants defied them. Encouraged by their women and children, the men fought to the last. The massacre was terrible. Only 14 men survived, and only 140 women and children were led into captivity. We do not have a Chechen voice to tell us how they felt after these horrors, but words written by Lev Tolstoy almost a century later ring true.

“The fountain had been fouled, evidently on purpose, so that water could not be taken from it. Similarly defiled was the mosque, and the mullah and his pupils were cleansing it,” he wrote of a different massacre in his masterful book Hadji Murad.

“The elders of the village had gathered on the square and, squatting down, were discussing their position. Nobody even spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling that all Chechens, both young and old, experienced was stronger than hatred. It was not hatred, but the refusal to recognise these Russian dogs as people, and such revulsion, disgust and bewilderment before the ridiculous desire of these beings, that the desire for their destruction, like the desire for the destruction of rats, poisonous spiders and wolves, was just as natural a feeling as the feeling of self-preservation.”

But Leo Tolstoy was a rare Russian, who could sympathise with the highlanders. Most Russians have forgotten these massacres, if they even knew about them in the first place, and their leaders even boasted at times of peace of the two nations’ equality, as if the Chechens had willingly united with them to form a union state. The actions of their generals have been forgotten. In Soviet times, there was even a statue of Yermolov in the centre of Grozny and, seeing it, every Chechen would know what this supposed hero had done, but few Russians would.

Resistance to the Russians in the 19th century was largely led by Avars, neighbours of the Chechens from the high villages of Dagestan. The movement, which had been Naqshbandi in structure, collapsed in 1859 when Imam Shamil, its leader, was surrounded and surrendered. In captivity, he reminisced at length about his decades of war against the Russians. The Chechens had been some of his most ferocious warriors, but he had nothing good to say about them.

“There is nothing worse than this trash in the whole world. The Russians should say thank you to me that I corrected them a little. Without this you would have only one way to deal with them: shoot them to the last man, as is done with harmful animals,” he told his Russian guardian.

“I did not fight them for their loyalty to the Russians. You know they never had that. I did it for their nasty character, and their inclination to theft and banditry. I am speaking the truth, and I am sure that you will now fight them, not for their loyalty to me, but for their same inclination to banditry, which they do not want to abandon.”

It was a prophetic statement, and most of the Chechens did not take his surrender as a reason to stop fighting. They kept up sporadic resistance to the Russian Empire for the rest of its life, eventually taking advantage of the power vacuum after the revolution to re-establish an Islamic-based state taking in Chechnya and mountain Dagestan.

The Bolsheviks were sympathetic to the Chechens, and other repressed peoples of the Empire. They saw them as fellow-victims of the old regime, and thus natural allies in the task ahead.

“The old government, the landlords and the capitalists have left us as a heritage such browbeaten peoples as the Kirghiz, the Chechens and the Ossets, whose land served as an object of colonisation by Cossacks and the kulak elements of Russia. These peoples were doomed to incredible suffering and extinction,” said one Bolshevik official, himself a Georgian from the other side of the mountains, in 1921.

“The position of the Great-Russian nation, which was the dominant nation, has left its traces even on the Russian Communists, who are unable, or unwilling, to establish closer relations with the toiling native masses, to comprehend their needs, and to help them emerge from their backward and uncivilised state.”

Hidden within his sympathy, there was a major and mistaken assumption, however, and that was the belief that the Chechens wanted to “emerge from their backward and civilised state”. They did not. In fact, they rather liked it. United by the Sufi brotherhoods, they clung to their own traditions. Bandits haunted the mountains and, eventually, the patience of the sympathetic official – whose name, Joseph Stalin, was later known throughout the world – broke.

In the circumstances of World War Two, a war for the very existence of the Soviet state that he had built, Stalin could not tolerate lukewarm loyalty. So, on February 23, 1944, his security forces ripped the Chechens from their homes, shipped them by truck and railway, and dumped them in the wastes of Central Asia.

This is an event – one of several deportations that claimed between a quarter and half of the lives of the various deported nations – largely forgotten or ignored in Russia. Set against the suffering of their nation in World War Two, perhaps they consider it irrelevant. Among the Chechens, however, it has the status of a holocaust.

Survivors of the deportation live among the Chechens to this day. Researching my book, I tracked down many of them, recording their stories and trying to comprehend what had happened. Khozemat Khabilayeva, for example, was a girl when Stalin ordered the Chechens controlled for ever, and had to walk – with her sister – for three days from their high village to the plains. Their mother had an infant to care for, so they were largely left to their own devices, and their lives were only saved by a faithful sheepdog called Khola, who curled up with them in the freezing nights, and kept them safe.

He could not be fitted into the trucks for deportation, however. The men’s Islam refused to allow the proximity of a “filthy” animal, however faithful, and he was run over when they finally drove away. Khabilayeva cried when she told me of her dog, but her eyes were dry and hard when she talked of the horrors that awaited them in Kazakhstan.

“I saw how my cousin, my second cousin, died of hunger,” she said. “This was a month after we arrived at our destination, he was 11 years old. We used to know the time from the sirens of the factories. He asked me when the siren would go off, and I said soon. He went to sleep and just died there, with all this green stuff coming out of his mouth.”

Between 1926 and 1939, the nation grew by 26 percent. In the next 20 years, it grew by only 2.5 percent. That statistic hides a lot of death. And there was humiliation too. The nation was kept under police guard in the villages of Central Asia, and a generation grew up hardened by the experience, and surrounded by nostalgia for their lost homeland. Among those who were born at this time were Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Akhmed Zakayev, Apti Bisultanov and others – men who would first lead a cultural renaissance, and then a political and military campaign.

When the nation returned from exile after Stalin’s death, it was excluded from the best jobs and traumatised by its experiences, and Chechens became infamous as gangsters in the Soviet Union. The “Chechen mafia” became a brand to be conjured with, renowned for brutality and impenetrability.

Young men born in exile sought to restore their destroyed culture. Working in Grozny, where even speaking Chechen was enough to get a boy a slap in the 1960s and 1970s, they staged plays and wrote poems, discussing the Caucasus war, the deportations and everything else.

Names given to children reflected the focus on history. One boy, for example, was born in the mountain village of Vedeno in 1965. His father, Salman Basayev, called him Shamil after the 19th century leader. He would go on to outdo even his famous namesake for mercilessness.

So, as the 1990s dawned, and the Soviet Union fell apart, Russians and Chechens were as divided as ever. Huge crowds of Chechens gathered in central Grozny, to discuss their past and their future, to publicly dance the zikr – the circular ritual of the Sufis – and to mingle. Russians, who still made up much of the population of the city, were confused and uncertain.

“In 1981, the Russians in Grozny would not even reply if I said hi to them on the street. Now, they would come up to me and ask how I was doing,” remembered one of the nationalist activists of those times many years later.

In 1990, the Chechens organised a national congress, at which an Air Force General called Dzhokhar Dudayev made an electrifying speech. It was a call to arms, an appeal to Chechens to restore their lost independence, and it made a sensation. Dudayev was a handsome man, with a twinkling smile. He had commanded a nuclear bomber wing. He was a star.

When, a year later, Soviet hardliners tried to head off the liberalising reforms coming out of the Kremlin, Dudayev spoke out. While communist officials waited to see who would win the coup, his supporters took over the streets, seized the Supreme Soviet and threw a Russian communist out of the window.  That was the only casualty of the revolution in Chechnya, but it was a decisive one nonetheless.

On November 2, 1991, he declared Chechnya independent.

Under Soviet law, he had no right to do so. Only Union Republics – like Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, or Russia itself – had the right to secede. But, Chechens argued, the laws had been written without their input, they had never asked to be join the state, and the state had happily broken the laws against them.

For a couple of years, there was an uneasy coexistence. Russia had other things to worry about and could ignore the showman in charge of Chechnya. But, as the economy collapsed, both Dudayev and Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin began to feel the need for an external enemy. Dudayev’s anti-Russian rhetoric was unwise and non-productive, and Yeltsin was more direct. In November, he sent tanks, seeking, in the words of one of his aides “a short, victorious war” to bolster his support.

For the Russians, it may have been a restoration of constitutional order. For the Chechens, it was a continuation of the same war that started in 1721. The nation united behind Dudayev, and the Russians were stunned by the ferocity of the resistance.

Frustrated and angry, the Russians poured shells into Grozny. One man who lived through the horrors of winter 1994 and spring 1995 said he counted 47 shells landing on the city in less than a minute, and he speculated on the chaos that had broken out after 1991.

“When the government in Chechnya became Chechen, it lost that aura that any government puts around itself. For a Chechen, it had ceased to be a government but was someone’s son or brother who ended up in a good position when the Muscovites left. And, by what right? Why not me? How is his father better than mine,” the man, Sultan Yashurkayev, asked.

The Russian savagery was not at that time matched on the Chechen side. Captured conscripts were at first treated well, and handed back to the mothers who came to look for them. But the atmosphere did not last.  In June 1995, a group of Chechens led by Shamil Basayev – the young man who bore the Imam’s name -- seized a hospital in the town of Budyonnovsk north of Chechnya, and demanded a ceasefire.

One of Basayev’s lieutenants later justified the raid, which resulted in more than 100 hostages dying, by comparing it to an attack on his home village.

“We analysed the tactics of the Russian troops on Chechen territory and concluded that only diamond cuts diamond. Therefore, we concluded that the only way to stop the war was to retaliate in the same way,” he said.

“We did not make these plans except as a last resort. Why was the world silent when Shali was bombed, when some 400 people were killed and wounded? In fact, the evil we did in Budyonnovsk was not even 30 percent of what they did in Shali.”

Russia’s humiliation appeared complete when Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was filmed negotiating with this bearded bandit, and finally agreeing to halt fire, and to let the group of kidnappers go. But actually, the disaster for Russia was only just beginning, the Chechens retook Grozny the next year, and Moscow was forced to admit defeat.

But tens of thousands of civilians had been killed, and the infrastructure ruined. Chechnya might have been free of Russian troops but, without outside assistance, it sunk into chaos, where money ruled and kidnapping was an industry. Western sympathisers were revolted by the murder of six sleeping Red Cross workers, and the decapitation of some telephone engineers. Chechnya was on its own.

When Russian troops returned in 1999 there was less sympathy for the highlanders. The plucky freedom fighters were now seen as terrorists following an unprovoked assault by Basayev on Dagestan, and a series of mysterious apartment bombings that new Prime Minister Vladimir Putin blamed on them. The shells poured into Grozny once more. All bonds of humanity appeared to have been severed. In Aldy – Sheikh Mansur’s village two centuries previously, now a suburb of Grozny – at least 60 Chechen civilians, women and old men, were killed in a passport check operation, in February 2000. It was just one of many massacres.

In June, a Chechen truck bomb killed at least two – and possibly many more – Russian soldiers. It was the first suicide bombing and, tellingly, was detonated by a woman.

Further atrocities from the Chechens followed –the Moscow theatre siege and the Beslan school siege were just the two highest-profile – and always Russia stood firm in its refusal to agree to peace talks, or a ceasefire. It handed government over to Akhmad Kadyrov, a leader of Chechnya’s Sufis who had been so revolted by the chaos younger men like Basayev had brought that he was prepared to foreswear the dream of independence.

He was killed, and his son Ramzan took over, ruling with a clenched fist.

Russian incomprehension remained, however. It was almost like a reverse of Tolstoy’s question: how could these Chechens be so cruel? What could have been done to Chechen women who were prepared to go and blow themselves up outside a rock concert in Moscow? Or a hotel in Moscow? Or a metro station in Moscow?

A clue was offered by Zarema Muzhakhoyeva, a young woman who lost her nerve, and gave herself and her suicide bomb up to police in 2003. Abandoned by her parents, she had been pregnant with her first child when widowed in 2000. Her daughter Rashana was taken from her, as is traditional, by her husband’s family, and the young woman had been unable to accustom herself to life without her. She stole money from her aunt, grabbed Rashana and tried to flee to Moscow.

Ostracised by everyone, she had the great idea of selling her life. She was not drugged, as some Russian officials claim of suicide bombers, or indoctrinated, she was in despair and wanted just $1,000 to pay her aunt back with.

“Of course, even if at the cost of my life I returned this money, then the disgrace would still remain, but I needed to take action. I always wanted to be good,” she told a journalist later.

Eventually, she lacked the desire to murder, and surrendered. But, if she hoped for leniency, she was mistaken. She was handed a 20-year jail sentence, despite her argument that leniency might encourage women sent out to die to surrender to police in future.

Chechen leaders had become so hardened to suffering that they would exploit such a dreadfully sad tale as a weapon of war.

This hard line on both sides has erased any chances of sympathy. In 2008, Vladimir Zhirinovsky – a Russian nationalist politician and leader of the inaptly named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia – suggested that all non-Russians should be deported from the North Caucasus.

Granted, he likes to play the clown, but he is an intelligent man and, in any healthy political system, should surely have been condemned for such an offensive suggestion, considering 100,000s of Chechens, Karachais, Balkars, Ingush and others had died in precisely such an operation just two years before he was born. The suggestion caused not a stir.

In the circumstances, it is not uncommon for young Russians now – as Imam Shamil did, back in the 1860s -- to speculate that the Chechens are like wild animals. A young Russian lady I spoke to once suggested a high wall should be built around Chechnya and that anyone coming out should be shot.

But, while researching my book, I came to a very different conclusion. I met Chechens from communities in Turkey and Jordan – products of 19th century emigration – in Poland, Austria and Belgium – products of an ongoing exodus of refugees – and in Kazakhstan, where some have stayed since the deportations of Stalin.

In the steppes east of Astana, Kazakhstan, there is a small settlement called Krasnaya Polyana, made up of three adjoining collective farms. Here, astonishingly, is a little Chechnya of 1,300 people or so, almost exclusively Chechen. Their community was founded in the horrors of 1944 by a noble man, a Sufi sheikh, called Vis Hadji.

His fame spread through the diaspora and, gradually, Chechens squeezed out non-Chechens until the current ethnically solid settlement was formed. Here are highlanders on what must be some of the flattest land on earth, but they are happy because they are left alone. They practise polygamy; they dance their circular prayer dances, with their soaring prayer chants; they raise crops; and they live in peace.

Alavdi Shakhgeriev is one of the men I spoke to in the village. Deported from Chechnya as a 14-year-old to the town of Karaganda, he had a sister to support. In a bleak example of Soviet jurisprudence, he was not allowed to work in a coal-mine, the only work available, because that would have violated his rights as a child. Being deported, orphaned and abandoned did not, apparently, violate those rights at all.

He had found peace, however, in Krasnaya Polyana.

Since Vis Hadji died, the community has been led by an old man called Abubakar Utsiev, who was deported as a 19-year-old and left to fend for himself. Perhaps he would have despaired without the holy man, who taught him how to survive.

“This man did not look for anything, he ate just a little,” remembered Utsiev, careful – as are all the Chechens there, not to say Vis Hadji’s name. “I studied with him, and learned from him. I looked for no honours, I worked honestly. I have a garden, livestock, and this has been my life’s work.”

It is a poor village, but a peaceful one, something that is rare for Chechens. Most importantly, everyone else leaves it alone. Perhaps that is all that they ever needed.

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