The Chechen Tragedy

Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin; drawing by David Levine

My last—and only—visit to Grozny was in the spring of 1991. My wife had been invited to mount an exhibit of her photographs and I could not resist the temptation to see what was then called Chechen-Ingushetia, an area which had until recently been closed to foreigners, especially diplomats. I knew several Chechens well and had long been fascinated by their culture, their tragic history, and their language, which is related only to a few others spoken in the vicinity of the Caucasus mountain range. So I decided to tag along.

The trip turned out to be one of the most memorable of the many I made during my eleven-year stay in the Soviet Union. Not that Grozny was a particularly picturesque city; filled with the nondescript architecture of the post-World War II Soviet Union, it looked much like other Soviet provincial cities. It was located, however, near some of the most spectacular scenery in the entire world.

But I did not go for the scenery, and it was not the scenery that I remember most. Rather, it was the people. I had expected something special, and I found it. Chechens, like many of their neighbors, are famed for their hospitality, but they also had a knack for going beyond the traditional banquet tables, folk dances, and flowery toasts in their sturdy red wine, which figured more prominently in their rituals than the scattered remnants of their Islamic heritage. The most unexpected event took place at the conclusion of our “meeting with the public.” Held in a large auditorium, it was part press conference to publicize Rebecca’s exhibit and part dialogue with “informal organizations,” the euphemism at the time for groups organized in opposition to Communist Party rule.

I had begun my comments at the meeting with a few paragraphs in the Chechen language, prepared with the help of a Chechen friend in Moscow, and this nearly brought down the house, though I am sure that all were relieved when I switched to less labored Russian. When the time came for the final question, a stocky man came forward from the audience and requested the microphone.

He was, he explained, an athlete, and fate had been kind to him: he had won the USSR championship in weight lifting several times and was an Olympic gold medalist. “I have more gold medals than I need,” he continued, “but you and your wife are champions of diplomacy and I want to share them with you.” Whereupon, he hung one of his medals (a USSR championship, not the Olympic one) around my neck and sent another to Rebecca, who had left to deliver antibiotics donated by an American firm to a local hospital. I am rarely speechless, but his gesture left me groping for words: it was a gift that could be neither refused nor reciprocated.

To all outward appearances, Grozny, despite its architectural…

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