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The Chechen Tragedy

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 drabness, was prosperous by Soviet standards. So was the countryside, though it was not one of the most fertile regions of the Soviet Union. Unlike those in many villages of central Russia, houses were well maintained, and construction of new single-family houses was evident everywhere. Our escorts explained that it was a Chechen custom for young couples to begin building their own houses with the help of friends and neighbors from the time of their betrothal. Whatever their age, the rural houses followed the traditions of Chechen architecture. When we knocked on a door chosen at random we were invited in with a cordiality in no way diminished by our unanticipated intrusion. As I entered the spacious anteroom I felt as if I were standing in the place where the opening scene of Tolstoy’s Haji Murad was set.

All the political leaders we met were either Chechens or Ingush, the distinct but linguistically related neighbors whom Stalin had ordered into exile in Central Asia, along with the Chechens, in 1944. But since Khrushchev reversed Stalin’s act of collective punishment in 1956, the Chechens and Ingush had returned and were clearly in charge of their “autonomous republic”—to the degree that any local authorities could be in charge in the crumbling but still centralized Soviet state of mid-1991.

Chechen and Ingush political leaders, along with those of other “autonomous republics,” were seeking enhanced sovereignty within the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic. Some demanded the same status as “union republics” such as Ukraine and Georgia, which—unlike “autonomous republics”—had the formal right to secede from the USSR. At a minimum, they wanted to be treated as equal founders of any new federation, and for a time Gorbachev had granted the autonomous republics seats at the table when the new union treaty he proposed was under negotiation. The union republics, without exception, rejected the idea. Since most of the “autonomous republics” were in the RSFSR, it would give Russia disproportionate representation in federal councils. The RSFSR opposed the proposal with equal vehemence since its leaders saw it as a step toward Russia’s disintegration. In fact, many suspected that Gorbachev stimulated the ambitions of the “autonomies” not for reasons of state but for those of politics: since Yeltsin, as leader of Russia, was contesting Gorbachev’s leadership, dissension within Russia might blunt the challenge.

Nevertheless, by the fall of 1991, as the Soviet Union was rapidly falling apart, the leaders of the former autonomous republics—by then most had renamed themselves “Soviet Socialist Republics” to match the names of union republics—had formidable leverage over the Russian political leadership in Moscow. In return for agreement to stay within the Russian Federation, Moscow was willing to concede them local autonomy and extensive control over natural resources and industries which, up to then, had been managed by a centralized Soviet bureaucracy. In any event, Moscow, with its quarreling political leadership and decayed, corrupt, and ineffective administrative organs, no longer had the means of controlling its territories, whether populated by Russians or other ethnic groups, in the way it traditionally had. Russia was no longer the prison house of peoples Karl Marx had described, but an erstwhile fortress reduced by an internal mutiny, the gates flung open, the moat drained, the barricades leveled.

As I write, the battle for the city of Grozny is still in progress. The city has been substantially leveled and the carnage continues. I cringe at every newscast, appalled by what is happening to the friendly, talented, enterprising people we met in Grozny. Where is the generous weight lifter? Fighting in the rubble? Already dead? Living uneasily in Moscow wondering if the next night will bring a police roundup of all Chechens in the capital?

How did it come to this? How did a situation which, three and a half years ago, seemed so promising for ethnic minorities in Russia—and for the Chechens in particular—turn into the holocaust which has been inflicted upon the city of Grozny?

Many shocked observers, some of whom, three month ago, could not have found Chechnya in an atlas without consulting the index, have a ready answer. They see a revival of Russian imperialism, an unholy alliance by President Yeltsin with the most retrograde elements of the ex-Soviet military and police, a desperate attempt by an embattled president to salvage his evaporating popularity with a quick, though brutal, “victory.” If this interpretation of the attack on Chechnya is accurate, then it is reasonable to conclude that it is an important step toward eliminating the fragile democratic freedoms that Russia has won of late.

There are enough elements of truth in this interpretation to “place one on guard,” as the Russians say. The horrors of Grozny may indeed turn out to be the first tolls in the death knell of Russian democracy. The attempt to subdue Chechnya militarily was without question a political blunder of the first order, and—given the inability of the Russian military to conduct the operation without heavy civilian casualties—a license to atrocity. Nevertheless, the situation is by no means as simple and unequivocal as the Yeltsin bashers would have it. The Chechen “revolt” is hardly a national liberation struggle (though most of the Chechen “defenders” doubtless view it as such), and the President of Russia does have a legitimate duty to suppress armed rebellion within the borders of his country. Those who ignore or distort these important factors will inevitably misunderstand what has happened, and most likely prescribe the wrong remedies—if, indeed, there can be remedies.

First we should consider the Chechen “secession” from Russia. Was this similar to the national movements in the Baltic states, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia—to name just a few of the erstwhile Soviet union republics? Not at all. The national movements which arose in those republics, and others, which succeeded in securing independence in 1991, were all genuine popular movements. Their leaders were elected, the proposals to secede were subjected to referendums or other formal processes of popular approval. Constitutions and legislation implementing them were confirmed by elected assemblies or popular vote. Equally important, they renounced violence and relied exclusively on political methods of struggle. In Stalin’s time this would have been suicidal, but in Gorbachev’s it was possible since, from 1989, there were real elections and genuine and open political debate. If the union republics had armed themselves and challenged the Soviet Union militarily, they would have been crushed just as brutally as the Chechen militants fighting for their “presidential palace.”

What about Chechnya? Its political leaders were maneuvering within the increasingly free (indeed, chaotic) political milieu of the time for maximum autonomy, and in fact were succeeding. There seemed no question that Chechen-Ingushetia, along with other former “autonomous republics,” would obtain de jure what they already had de facto: local autonomy subject only to the powers delegated to the federal state, the particulars of which were still open to negotiation. There was no discernible groundswell in favor of secession from Russia, and—objectively speaking—no need for one, since Russia was no longer a threat to their national existence or their cultural development.

However, shortly after the failed coup attempt in August 1991, an assembly of Chechen elders was called in Grozny to consider the implications for Chechen-Ingushetia. The body was advisory, made up of clan leaders who were, from time to time, consulted by the authorities on local matters. But they had neither legislative nor executive authority—and indeed did not represent many of the urban Chechens or any of the non-Chechen population in the republic. When they assembled, the elders invited Major General Dzokhar Dudayev, one of the highestranking Chechens in the Soviet military, to address them. He was vacationing in the republic, on leave from his air force unit in the Baltic.

Dudayev delivered a stirring speech which traced the history of the tribulations of the Chechen people and, following thunderous applause, the elders voted to make him their leader. Dudayev took this as license to assemble a group of armed men, march to the government house, and take it over. He then declared that Chechnya was independent of Russia. It is always hazardous to seek analogues in different societies and political systems; but the closest American parallel would be for a military officer on home leave making a speech to the state convention of the American Legion, and then, having received a “vote of confidence,” marching to the state capitol with an armed guard and seizing the governor’s office. Even if the state officials were too surprised or disorganized to react, such an event would hardly escape Washington’s concerned attention—and eventual forcible intervention.

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