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Chechnya: How Russia Lost


When Anatol Lieven says he has

…never wholly lost the sense that to go among the Chechens is to go into a certain kind of morning, cold and stormy, but bright and somehow transcending the normal run of existence…

it is fairly clear on which side of the Chechen-Russian conflict his sympathies will lie. And when he declares that he has

…come to look on the Chechen people almost as on the face of Courage herself—with no necessary relation to justice or morality, but beautiful to see…

we are hearing the authentic tone of a man in love. The hard, violent, self-sufficient world of the north Caucasus seems to have the same sort of romantic appeal as the Bedouin life did to an earlier generation of adventurers. And the Chechens have an unarguable claim to heroic status. They have been struggling against Russia for most of the past four hundred years. They were the backbone of resistance and revolt against the armies of Catherine the Great and Alexander the First, which subdued the Caucasus in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Russians captured their main leader, Imam Shamil,1 in 1859, and established colonial rule. But the Chechens were never quite pacified; and the Russians never trusted them.

Indeed, the Russians scarcely understood them. The Chechens were protected from assimilation by their family and clan lineages, warrior traditions, esoteric Caucasian language, and part-Islamic, part-animist beliefs. Stalin was acting half out of malice and half out of paranoia when he ordered them deported en masse to Central Asia in 1944. Those who survived were allowed back to Chechnya in 1957, and it was their sons and grandsons who beat Russia to its knees in 1994-1996.

The victory of 1996 was yet another triumph of sheer Chechen fighting spirit. But to say, as Mr. Lieven does, that the war was also “a key moment in Russian and perhaps world history” is stretching a point. Russia’s interest remains exactly what it was in the eighteenth century: it wants to dominate the entire pivotal region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea in order both to secure its own trade routes and southern borderlands and to control the main trade into Central Asia. The development of new oil and gas fields in the countries around the Caspian Sea has merely raised the stakes. The struggle for Chechnya is not ended: it is only in remission.

It may be deduced that Mr. Lieven’s feelings toward the Russians are somewhat less admiring. He seems, in fact, to nurse a sort of horrified fascination with them. While mainly treating the Chechen war and its causes, he pursues and captures the utter awfulness, moral and material, of the Soviet legacy—and, by extension, much of modern Russian life—with a relish that would do credit to a far more general work. Here, for example, he is taking a train from Azerbaijan, making his first trip to Chechnya in 1992:

The train itself was close to being a wreck, icily cold, filthy, enveloped in a fug of cigarette smoke, urine, sweat, alcohol and cheap scent. As evening drew on, it crawled clanking through a hellish landscape—the oilfields of northern Azerbaijan, perhaps the ugliest post-industrial environment in the world. Hundreds, no thousands of abandoned, stunted, archaic-looking derricks sit amidst pools of oil and fragments of rusted machinery. In summer, the stench can make you physically ill; in winter grey sky, black oil and brown desert merge into a symphony of gloom. The whole tragedy of Soviet “development” was in that scene.

And the passengers?

The passengers were by turns tragic, pitiable and disgusting, human flotsam from the wreck of the Soviet Union, which had finally sunk barely a month earlier…. One of them was wearing a suit apparently made entirely from imitation silver thread, which shone faintly in the dim light as he made undulating lunges in my direction, hinting at various things he could sell me, including the mercenary favours of the conductress, a plump, heavily made-up, resilient-looking Russian woman in her mid-thirties.

Bursts of disgust notwithstanding, Mr. Lieven insists that he does not belong to what he calls “the more Russophobe or paranoid Western school of thought concerning Russia” (he considers Richard Pipes and Zbigniew Brzezinski to be among the leaders of this “school”). But with friends like Mr. Lieven, Russia has no need of more unthinking enemies. If his Russia is not something to provoke fear or hatred, that is only because it has decayed into something more worthy of pity and contempt. Indeed, Russia emerges from his analysis as a place so hideous that the only thing redeeming it is the completeness with which it has allowed itself to be defeated. Bringing about that defeat has been Chechnya’s main claim to virtue—or, as Mr. Lieven might prefer, the source of its beauty.

In trying to explain the Russian defeat in Chechnya, Mr. Lieven traces it back to the rottenness of the Russian state. He finds there to be no guiding morality in public and political life: “Corruption, crime and disobedience are not simply aspects of the present Russian state, as the analysis of some Western economists suggest—they lie at its heart.” Russia, in other words, is a nation of thieves. A similar view was fairly common among nineteenth-century writers on Russia—so perhaps it is his desire not to seem Russophobic that leads Mr. Lieven to insist on this pervasive corruption as a legacy of Soviet communism rather than as something intrinsically Russian. He argues that

Communist “morality” supplanted traditional morality, and when it collapsed…it left moral anarchy. As a result there is no reason truly enshrined in established social, cultural or state tradition, let alone in the behavior of rulers, why Russians today should not steal or take bribes….

But whatever the cause, Mr. Lieven gets his main point across clearly enough, which is that Russia, when it invaded Chechnya, was a country for which no sane person would willingly fight, still less die. It is true that most Russian soldiers were ready to sell their weapons to the Chechens, buy vodka with the proceeds, and turn their attentions to plundering and brutalizing civilians. And why expect otherwise? They were merely undertaking at a retail level the sort of thieving and profiteering that the Russian generals and politicians were practicing wholesale.

Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power is in effect Mr. Lieven’s second draft of this particular piece of history. As a journalist, he wrote the first draft when covering the Chechen war for the London Times. His reporter’s notebooks are the foundation on which this later edifice, handsome if sometimes rambling, rests securely. He ranges so deeply into the hinterlands of the conflict that there are moments when he almost loses sight of Chechnya entirely. But when that happens he always has something else equally interesting in view. His approach, as it happens, makes a happy complement to that of Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal, authors of Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus.2 Ms. Gall and Mr. de Waal, who also covered the war as newspaper correspondents, have produced a book that sticks much closer to the front line of military and political events.

Ms. Gall and Mr. de Waal have been especially successful in interviewing almost all of the main leaders involved in the war save for Boris Yeltsin himself. Their book is assured of its place as a main source for any future work in this area. Doubtless it will help inform the second volume of John Dunlop’s two-volume study, Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict.

The first volume covers events up to November 1994, moving confidently through the ancient and modern history of the Caucasus. Reaching back to Chechen origins five or six thousand years ago, Mr. Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, shows how the various elements in the Chechen identity—linguistic, religious, social, political—evolved and combined to create the sense of national solidarity essential for semipermanent warfare. He chronicles the repressions and revolts that continued in Chechnya after the Bolshevik revolution:these were denied by the Communists and erased from the public record, in favor of the fiction that all nationalities flocked to the Soviet flag. To put down one Chechen insurrection in 1929-1930 the Red Army needed four infantry divisions, three artillery divisions, two regiments of border guards, and three GPU squadrons. Perhaps Russia might have proceeded a little more prudently in Chechnya in the 1990s if its leaders had known a little more about the true history of relations there. But the Soviet system had allowed them only a limited knowledge of that history, and they were indeed condemned to repeat it.

As the story moves toward the outbreak of war in 1994, there are moments when Mr. Dunlop’s more detached views enable him to discern perhaps more clearly than those closer to the action the logic of the increasingly entangled political events in the Russian camp. By tracking carefully the machinations among advisers and ministers around Mr. Yeltsin, he shows how their individual distractions and collective arrogance defeated any serious inquiry into Chechen sentiments, which might have been possible before war broke out. But working, as he appears to have done, almost entirely from secondary sources, also has its hazards. He regrets in his preface that “greater access to pro-secessionist Chechen sources…[was] not available.” But such access was, and is, fairly readily available, if one is willing to go to Chechnya.

Not, of course, that access ensures understanding. As Mr. Lieven observes: “The underlying reasons for developments within Chechnya are habitually shrouded in several layers of opacity: anthropological, religious, linguistic and, indeed, criminal.” To which it might be added that the same is true of developments in Russia. There the workings of a large, incompetent, and mendacious bureaucracy add a further layer of deliberate mystification to public life. Among the Russians, the notion that a government should be accountable to its people, and a people accountable for its government, has not caught on.


The freedom of the Russian government to operate more or less by caprice was essential in making the Chechen war possible. Russia was handicapped—as was Chechnya—by an arrogant and emotional leader who surrounded himself with partisan and conspiratorial courtiers. Many in the Kremlin were new to their jobs following the collapse of the Communist regime in late 1991, and the weak institutional structures of government meant there was nothing to stop them from behaving foolishly, as they often did, for reasons of incompetence and inexperience. That made the period leading to the war hard for outsiders to interpret; and when Russia finally invaded Chechnya in December 1994 it was still hard to establish quite what was going on, but for different reasons. The Russian campaign proved so chaotic and corrupt as to defy belief much of the time, let alone explanation.

  1. 1

    He was, in fact, an Avar from Daghestan. Shamil was weakened by the defection of his ally, Haji Murat, a course of events which supplied Tolstoy with the plot for his late novel.

  2. 2

    First published in Britain as Chechnya: A Small Victorious War (Pan, 1997).

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