Chechnya is a poisoned word. To the average reader of the foreign news pages, it holds associations of car bombs, drunken rampages of Russian soldiers, even severed heads and fingers. The moment an explosion killed several dozen people at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport on January 24, 2011, “Chechens” were immediately invoked—with the term “terrorists” not far behind. Chechnya is put in the same category as Somalia, a black hole of depressing headlines.
But, if you haven’t been paying attention for a while, this is no longer the same Chechnya as the last time you looked. Current-day Chechnya is still troubled, yet it is different in a way that confounds many previously made assumptions. First of all, the violence in the North Caucasus is no longer about Chechen independence. Many Chechens became disillusioned with the idea of full secession after the bitter experience of two bouts of de facto self-rule from 1991 to ’94 and 1997 to ’99. Moscow has exploited that wariness with some success by pursuing a policy of “Chechenization” within Russia, handing off power to local lieutenants, latterly the hotheaded Ramzan Kadyrov. Those who say that the younger Kadyrov is a mere lackey of the Kremlin should consider that he now wields more power within Chechnya than the three pro-independence presidents who preceded him ever did. He is the son of Akhmad Kadyrov, a man who fought first for the secessionists and then switched sides in the later years of the conflict, joining forces with the Russians. The elder Kadyrov became president of the Chechen Republic—only to be assassinated a year later, probably by Islamists. Kadyrov the younger now controls almost all men under arms; the revenue flows of the oil industry; and flights in and out of Grozny Airport.
This policy also tells us that Moscow’s agenda here is no longer colonial domination or suppressing Islam; it is about keeping control of the region at any cost. This has escaped the attention of even perceptive commentators like Fareed Zakaria, who wrote recently, “Any signs of religious behavior [in Chechnya] are viewed with hostility.” Not so: Kadyrov has used Russian government funds to impose quasi-sharia law in Chechnya and to build one of the largest mosques in Europe.
Armed resistance is now a region-wide phenomenon: radical Islam is the main ideological driver, pitting itself against not only mainstream Islam but also Russian rule. In his new, scrupulously researched book, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer, a U.S. Army Special Forces officer, reports that Chechnya’s western and eastern neighbors, Ingushetia and Dagestan, are now consistently more violent than Chechnya itself. In 2009, Schaefer writes, at least 332 pro-Russian combatants were killed and at least 636 were wounded in the North Caucasus—numbers he believes to be an underestimation but which, as they stand, exceed U.S. casualties in either Afghanistan or Iraq in the same period.
This casualty list does not of course include the random civilian victims of hideous terrorist acts like the Domodedovo suicide bombing which are now a depressingly frequent occurrence. Attacks like this frame the mainstream Russian narrative that the country is under assault by Caucasian radicals. But this is only the most recent part of a long story. Ask any Chechen and they will tell you that ordinary Russians are now enduring what they, in tens of thousands, suffered at the hands of random Russian bombs and artillery from 1994 until 2002.
Chechens are afflicted by what I would call the curse of “anthropological determinism.” They are stigmatized as being “bandits” and “terrorists” with a natural inclination to savagery who somehow missed out on the modern era. This demonization led to the practice whereby almost all Russian-speaking Islamic fighters in Afghanistan or Iraq after 2001 were labeled “Chechens,” although to my knowledge no confirmed Chechen fighter was ever captured in Afghanistan or Iraq and there were certainly no Chechen captives in Guantánamo Bay. But these warriors were Russian-speaking Muslims so, the logic went, they must have been Chechens.
The alternative cliché, scarcely less helpful to the Chechens, is that they are the embodiment of “freedom fighters,” focused on a struggle of “freedom or death.” This romantic notion also casts them in a premodern mold, portraying the war with Russia as a battle to the bitter end, pitting Chechen liberty against Russian genocide. A book published in France in 2003 bore the title Chechnya: A War unto the Last Man? Thankfully, the reality is more prosaic: modern Russia is not actually in the genocide business nor are Chechens in the self-extinction business.
A new exceptionally honest memoir by former–pro-independence Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov (writing with Miriam Lanskoy) provides welcome assistance to our efforts to understand this complex picture.
It is wonderful that Chechens are finally being published in English. Akhmadov follows in the footsteps of the surgeon Khassan Baiev, whose The Oath, which relates his remarkable experiences as a doctor during the years of the conflict, is, to my mind, the most outstanding book yet on Chechnya, and is flanked by German Sadulaev’s I am a Chechen!, which offers a refreshing literary take on Chechen identity. Very different characters as they are, all help rid Chechens of the clichés that pursue them.
There is nothing intrinsically wild about being Chechen. The Chechen diaspora in Jordan has the reputation for producing good civil servants and professional military officers. If we are looking for the key to the intense violence that has characterized Chechen-Russian relations over the past twenty years, we should not look for any innate quality in either nationality per se but seek answers in the horribly failed relationship between the two peoples or, to be more precise, in the specific clash between the Russian military and the Chechens.
Chechens of course have a proud warrior tradition, but not everyone subscribes to it, or they do so only under duress. Ilyas Akhmadov helpfully informs us that probably no more than twelve thousand Chechen men fought in the entire conflict with Russia—a small fraction of the male population.
In the books of Akhmadov and Sadulaev (and their predecessor Baiev), I find the Chechens I used to know: not Russian certainly, but Russianized and Russian speaking while simultaneously proud of their distinct Chechen heritage; witty, adaptable people from the margins of the USSR, still also profoundly shaped by the pluses and minuses of the Soviet experience. Having a very small cultural canon of their own, educated Chechens filtered much of their sense of identity and history through Russian-language sources. As my friend, scholar Aslan Dukayev has pointed out, most Chechens in the 1990s learned about the wars of the nineteenth century not from an unbroken oral tradition but from the popular Russian-language novel of Abuzar Aidamirov, Long Nights. He could have added the nineteenth-century classic Russian literature on the Caucasian wars. In the same vein, German Sadulaev told an interviewer last year, “We have two great Chechen writers—[Mikhail] Lermontov and [Leo] Tolstoy. There are no others. They wrote in Russian but they are Chechen writers in spirit. Especially Lermontov.”
In the glasnost era, a modern Chechen identity began to form among authors and intellectuals that inevitably drew on Russian sources and education. Its locus was Grozny, the largest city in the North Caucasus. More ethnic Russians lived there than Chechens and, as Sadulaev reminds us, Chechens who lived in the villages used to refer to Grozny as simply “the city.” It was a real urban center with cafés, bookshops, an oil academy and a university. You could call the mass destruction of the city and its inhabitants during the first Chechen war in 1994–95—surely the greatest tragedy of all for Chechnya among its many recent disasters—a joint venture by two Soviet military men who had no love for the place: former–Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s defense minister, Pavel Grachev, and Chechen nationalist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.
So Chechnya's late, bloody twentieth-century battle for independence had its internal tensions from the beginning, between city and village, highland and lowland, cultural adaptation to Russia and the proclamation of something entirely new. Dudayev, the man who emerged, controversially, as national leader, was himself an outsider who outflanked the new Chechen intelligentsia. He had a very Soviet identity, a Russian wife and a passion for the poetry of Lermontov—but he was not a Grozny man. A child of the deportations, he grew up in desperate poverty in Kazakhstan and was schooled in the brutal Soviet military, eventually becoming the first Soviet Chechen general. Dudayev never lived in Chechnya full-time before he returned to head the national movement in 1991. Most of the initial wave of intellectuals who formed that first Chechen National Congress, as the movement for independence was called, quickly deserted him. Dudayev drew the mass of his support instead from poorly educated people residing in the villages, children of the Stalinist deportations who felt an instant pride in a strongman with a military demeanor defying the bullying of Moscow. This segment of the population propelled him to become the first president of the breakaway state of would-be independent Chechnya in 1991.
Ilyas Akhmadov was one of the educated Chechens who stuck with Dudayev and the cause of Chechen independence. He had studied political science and served in the Soviet military. Dudayev is only a flickering presence in Akhmadov’s book. At its heart is a twin portrait of the two other main figures in the Chechen independence struggle, Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev—men who led the people first out of war and then into terrorism.
In Akhmadov’s account, the dichotomy between Maskhadov the moderate and Basayev the radical was established even before war broke out with Moscow in December 1994. During the preceding summer, Chechen opposition leader Beslan Gantemirov took up positions in a cemetery and fired on pro-government forces, knowing that it was sacrilege to an ordinary Chechen to open fire on a graveyard. Maskhadov bravely exhorted his men to keep on going and walk through the gunfire, while Basayev led his men straight into the cemetery to attack. “Shamil was the first to cross boundaries that were sacred for most,” Akhmadov writes, “Shamil did not mind being the bad guy—in fact, he relished it.”
Following the killing of Dudayev by a Russian missile in the spring of 1996, Maskhadov became Chechnya’s next leader. He won wide public support because he did not just protect the population from the ravages of the Russian army, but struck up a rapport with various Russian counterparts—and most crucially with Alexander Lebed, Moscow’s security chief at the time and a former general. He was thus able to cut a deal that ended the first Chechen war. In late 1996, Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya.
Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya in January 1997 in a vote monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. He was duly congratulated by Boris Yeltsin. But Chechnya’s status remained undetermined. Maskhadov’s tragedy was that he was unable to deliver on the mandate he was given. Caught in a vise between Moscow and the Chechen radicals, he ended up giving nobody much of what they wanted. Chechnya slid into chaos. The start of 1997 was a brief moment when it might have been otherwise. The majority of the Chechen population, the 60 percent of them who voted for Maskhadov, almost certainly cared more about jobs and reconstruction than about achieving absolute independence—whatever that might mean in a place bombed and shelled into ruins. But as Akhmadov writes, Maskhadov was unable either to get any Russian funds for the reconstruction of Chechnya or to get approval to seek them. “There were, and still are, some very shrill guardians of our independence who will not give an inch, even in rhetoric, in exchange for really important gains like reviving our industrial sector.”
Akhmadov cannot be criticized for doing less than his best. In July 1999, on the eve of the next war with Russia, when Chechnya was wracked by internal violence between the vainglorious commanders who had won the first campaign, he accepted Maskhadov’s offer to be foreign minister of the unrecognized Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. It had no perks attached:
I did not have a phone or a computer or a car and the only person who could help me was the President. There were two of us ministers without guards or jeeps: me and the newly appointed Apti Bisultanov Deputy Prime Minister for Social Programs. It was comical to watch government meetings disband; each minister would get into his jeep full of fighters with their weapons sticking out in every direction, like needles on a porcupine. It would take them a long time to maneuver their way out of the traffic jam in the narrow passage in front of the government building. Apti and I would walk together to the bus stop.
Most confounding for him, Western countries recognized Maskhadov as Chechnya’s elected leader when he was voted into power but then offered no practical help of any kind for the next two years, only rousing when Islamic jihadis arrived and foreigners were taken hostage. Indeed, the interwar years were tough on everyone. The insurgent fighters were left without a war to wage and turned their violence into profiteering through kidnapping. Ordinary Chechens suffered most of all. After war broke out again in 1999, Akhmadov wandered the capitals of the West and recounts that when he tried to draw attention to the conflict, his interlocutors asked for everything but offered nothing. For example, one State Department official advised him “that we should exile any and all foreign extremists fighting in Chechnya and break any ties to foreign financing. This was the only dimension of the conflict that he wanted to discuss.”
Good advice, but without much relation to the realities on the ground. The link to the foreign fighters went not through Akhmadov or Maskhadov but through their nemesis, the implacable warrior Shamil Basayev. The battle inside Chechnya itself had intensified between those who saw the land as an unequivocally independent Islamic state and those willing to work with Moscow and reach out to the West. Akhmadov was initially closer to Basayev, serving as his campaign manager when he ran for president of Chechnya in 1997. The portrait is both nuanced and compelling. We see a man who began with fiery purpose and principle in pursuit of the cause of Chechen nationalism, but who became increasingly radicalized and blood soaked. A fateful alliance with the Saudi mujahideen warrior Ibn al-Khattab converted a onetime Che Guevara into an Islamist terrorist.
In 1998, Akhmadov visited Basayev at al-Khattab’s camp and felt as though he was no longer in Chechnya, finding the gates manned by Central Asians and Arabs:
I had never seen Central Asians in uniform in Chechnya. In a political sense, among Chechens, Shamil’s career had ended, but here he was with people who were to us nobodies—they were foreign vagabonds and misfits, whom many wanted to expel from Chechnya. In a social sense the men now surrounding Shamil not only could not make a claim to political leadership in Chechnya, but could not even marry into a reputable Chechen family.
From this point on, the two men headed in different directions. Basayev plotted the Islamist incursion into Dagestan that helped precipitate the Kremlin’s second military intervention in 1999. He then organized the terrorist acts in Moscow in 2002 when rebels took hostages at a theater performance—a standoff that ended only after the Russian authorities pumped a chemical agent into the ventilation system, killing over 150—and in Beslan in 2004 when a school was seized and 330 civilians died, more than half of them children.
The terrorism was unspeakably awful, but if we pay attention to it alone, we are missing a lot. Robert Schaefer points out that even now 95 percent of militant attacks in the North Caucasus are directed against government or military targets; it is a mistake to consign what is happening there to the “terrorism basket”: “This is not terrorism; this is insurgency—an insurgency that also uses terrorism as one of its tactics.” Schaefer, who is an expert both on counterinsurgency and the Russian military, says that he will deliberately take the “amoral” approach of analyzing the conflict in the North Caucasus as an insurgency and measuring the success of the Russian government’s counterinsurgency methods.
Schaefer sees the low point for the insurgency as having been in 2004–05, when the world responded with revulsion to the Beslan attack. In Schaefer’s view, Shamil Basayev miscalculated, believing that the Russians would not endanger children’s lives and would seek negotiations, just as they did after his raid on the town of Budyonnovsk in 1995. Then, he led an operation to take over one thousand five hundred civilians hostage in a hospital. After over a hundred civilians died, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin negotiated the start of peace talks in exchange for the release of the hostages, a major coup for the Chechen separatists. But in 2004, then–Russian President Vladimir Putin refused to negotiate, ordered the storming of the school and Basayev was finished. Basayev was eventually killed in 2006, a year after Maskhadov was assassinated.
In April 2009, the Russian leadership formally declared its “counterterrorism operation” over. But it wasn’t. They mistook a short-term fix for a long-term success. Some critics of Russian policy in the North Caucasus accuse the Russians of implacable military intent. The problem is in fact a different one, that there is no consistency and no coordination in Russian strategy. This has been the case from the beginning. To give two examples: In 1996, while researching my own book on Chechnya with Carlotta Gall, now at the New York Times, I was amazed to discover that different parts of the Russian government had simultaneously been trying to set up negotiations with Dudayev and to kill him—the assassination team was the more successful. In 1997, Boris Yeltsin met Maskhadov in the Kremlin, publicly called him the “president of Ichkeria” and signed a treaty foreswearing the Russian use of force against Chechnya. Two years later, Putin refused even to meet Maskhadov and soon thereafter labeled him a terrorist. The label was then applied to Maskhadov’s envoys, Akhmadov and Akhmed Zakayev, even though they explicitly condemned terrorist attacks by their former comrades-in-arms.
Moscow’s policy continues to be schizophrenic. It has a North Caucasus–wide strategy, set out by the current Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, and led by the Siberian businessman Aleksandr Khloponin, a man who has the job of federal deputy prime minister and regional plenipotentiary for the North Caucasus. His task? To rebuild its economy. But Moscow also has a Chechnya strategy, whose only pillar is full support for one individual, Ramzan Kadyrov. And it should come as no surprise that the Chechen gets the better of the Siberian.
The younger Kadyrov achieved a great deal straight out of the gates thanks to an overwhelming war weariness in Chechnya and that long-awaited influx of federal money, used to rebuild Grozny. Violence in Chechnya dwindled, while the new leader received unchallenged power. Four years on, that arrangement is beginning to look less attractive and Kadyrov himself, at the age of just thirty-four, seems simultaneously irreplaceable and highly mortal. Men like him, who love guns and fast cars and have lots of enemies, do not generally live to a great old age. He has built his myth of a stable, resurgent Chechnya on two highly volatile substances: Russian money and the loyalty of men, many of whom fought against Moscow in the two wars.
Kadyrov’s increasingly bizarre behavior—incoherent rants on television, a private zoo, inviting Mike Tyson to the capital—alienates many. His new Chechnya is also a long way from being traditionally Chechen. He has erected a huge mosque for a people who are traditionally Sufi and hardly ever go to religious services. He tries to impose a head-scarf habit on Chechen women who historically never have worn them. The place he has constructed is neither Chechen nor Russian, but a kind of weird parody of a Gulf state.
This has given the insurgents space to regroup. In 2007, Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, then the head of what was left of the armed insurgency, proclaimed a successor state to the Republic of Ichkeria—a “Caucasus Emirate,” stretching across the entire North Caucasus. At the time the declaration looked like an empty act of desperation by a handful of men hiding out in remote mountains and forests. But in the past three years, the insurgency has strengthened again. Schaefer estimates that there are five hundred full-time rural-based fighters and between six hundred and eight hundred urban-based part-time insurgents in the region, noting, “This is surprising given that, at the beginning of 2008, Ramzan Kadyrov claimed that there were no more than 70 insurgents left in all of Chechnya.” Schaefer concludes, “In other words, what the Russians and many journalists (and U.S. intelligence agencies) had described as the Russian victory over the Chechen insurgency was, in fact, a classic case of insurgent reorganization.” The result is that the current North Caucasus insurgency is a multiheaded, multiethnic hydra, small, led by a virtual unknown and without a charismatic leader like Basayev, but also for that very reason much harder to kill off.
If there is a crumb of comfort here for Russians it is that this insurgency is not a mainstream movement and the “Caucasian emirate” is as much of a parody as Kadyrov’s shiny new Grozny. If you look at their main website, Kavkaz Center, you find a pseudotheological discussion about whether Ottoman or Arabic should be the “state language” of the emirate. There is no mention of Russian, the main language of the website itself and of the people who live in the North Caucasus. We should be skeptical about how much support the Caucasian emirs have in society—they have no grassroots political movement and they build no schools or mosques, as do Hamas and Hezbollah. Moreover, the connection to al-Qaeda and the global jihad is fairly tenuous—even though both the leaders of the “emirate” and the Russian authorities have a vested interest in talking it up. In the late 1990s, foreign Islamic warriors such as al-Khattab did travel to the Caucasus and did have a fateful influence on the Chechen independence movement. But by 2002, Moscow had fairly effectively sealed the borders with Azerbaijan and Georgia and eliminated most of the jihadis. What remains is a small movement ideologically influenced by the global jihad but still deriving most of its recruits, weapons and money locally. Yet it is deadly, in large part because Russian bureaucracy and law enforcement is so corrupt that a few bombers can bribe their way into strategic locations and wreak devastation.
This makes me a little skeptical of Schaefer’s argument that the current insurgency is the heir of the Islamist resistance campaigns of the czarist era, led by Shamil Basayev’s namesake Imam Shamil and his allies in the nineteenth century. The modern insurgents’ radical Islam is in fact a very crude badge of identity, one that is in conflict with much of the mainstream Islam practiced by ordinary people in the region.
When it comes to Chechens, their supposed extreme religiosity should be taken with a large grain of salt. Imam Shamil, an ethnic Avar (the largest ethnic group in Dagestan), complained that they were good warriors but never sufficiently pious. He famously noted, “In addition to Arabic, I know three other languages: Avar, Kumyk, and Chechen. I go to battle with Avar, I speak Kumyk with women, and I make jokes in Chechen.” In my many visits to Chechnya in the 1990s I rarely heard anyone talk about their Muslim faith—rather than nationalism—as a motive for fighting the Russians. And I remember Chechnya’s supposed chief Islamic ideologue Movladi Udugov as a beer-drinking, Marlboro-smoking cynic.
Paradoxically then, Chechen nationalism is a phenomenon that Moscow should actually be encouraging insofar as Chechens’ natural nonconformism turns them against militant Islam just as surely as it turns them against Russian nationalism. I for one continue to believe that Chechnya is not entirely lost. At any rate, so long as there are Chechens like German Sadulaev there is still hope.
Sadulaev grew up in the small Chechen town of Shali but was educated in St. Petersburg, and he freely crosses back and forth between these two different worlds. He recently drew the wrath of Ramzan Kadyrov by saying that the main problem for Chechnya was a mass of frustrated young men forced to live by the strict new canons of Kadyrov’s Islamified republic while remaining connected to Russia’s licentious media space. Or, in his words, “The main issue in Chechnya is the issue of sex.”
Sadulaev’s book is a collection of lyrical short stories. War and death are never far away. But it is not a dark book, filled as it is with childhood reminiscences, love affairs, humorous descriptions of eccentric neighbors. Its power is all in its title, proudly stating “I am a Chechen” in beautifully written Russian prose. It is a challenge to the Russian reader, “Do you accept me as part of your civilization or don’t you?”
In Sadulaev’s description, conflict in Chechnya was the collision of warriors from two war-cultures, that of the Chechens and that of the Russian military, neither of which had the wisdom to back away:
This era will become myth. War always becomes myth. They’ll write thousands of books about it, make films of the books. That’s all for kids. New generations of little boys will read about the war, watch films about it, stay awake at night imagining what they would have done if they’d been there; in the daytime they’ll play at war, just as we played at fighting with the Nazis when we were kids. And once again, they’ll be sorry that they weren’t born earlier, that “not a single bullet came their way.” And they will get their war, a war of their own. Each generation gets a war, because writers write books about it, because war is celebrated in poems and songs.
Stated like this, war in Chechnya is not a Chechen problem or a Russian problem but a shared problem of two peoples who are still mutually entangled whether they like it or not. The challenge for Russia is to establish a larger Russian civic identity in which Caucasians feel they have a stake. Unfortunately, events are only driving Russians and Chechens further apart.
Ilyas Akhmadov and Miriam Lanskoy, The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 288 pp., $35.00.
German Sadulaev, I am a Chechen!, trans. Anna Gunin (London: Harvill Secker, 2010), 256 pp., £12.99.
Robert W. Schaefer, The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), 303 pp., $59.95.