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 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.

Dudayev’s coup d’état in Grozny, of course, did not escape the Russian government’s attention, but the initial reaction was circumspect. Moscow declared Dudayev’s seizure of power illegal, but otherwise did little except order a reinforcement of Russian garrisons in the area. This brought a storm of protests in Russia by mothers fearful for their sons’ lives, and a demand by the Russian parliament that the reinforcing troops be withdrawn. Yeltsin complied—perhaps unwisely, as subsequent events were to demonstrate, but in deference to the vote by the Russian legislators.

Dudayev rapidly armed his supporters with weapons bartered, bought, or stolen from Soviet forces, and by 1992 Chechnya had become a major hub of both arms and narcotics trafficking. Yeltsin imposed an economic blockade on the republic, but it was ineffective, and arms, drugs, and money moved freely across the ill-guarded borders. Meanwhile, Chechen gangs in other Russian cities intensified their activities, shaking down business establishments, funneling the proceeds of illicit trade and racketeering into ostensibly legitimate fronts, and dealing with their competitors and traitors in typical gangland fashion.

Stephen Handleman, who has done the most thorough and careful study published up to now on post-Soviet crime, sums up the Dudayev government’s role in all of this as follows:

Whether or not the Dudayev government directly profited from the illicit arms trade, it made little effort to stop the business. In Moscow, police traced the Chechens’ swift rise to power in the post-Soviet crime world to their profits from the sale of drugs and weapons. Within two years of Dudayev’s appearance as president, the Chechens were the premier arms dealers of post-communist society. They owned more than five hundred flats in the capital, as well as an estimated 140 businesses and joint ventures and half a dozen hotels. While no one could come up with a conclusive link between the syndicates and the government in Grozny, there was circumstantial proof of their mutual dependence.1

Nationalism was the weapon Dudayev used to defend his seizure of power and declaration of secession, and the Chechen nation had sufficient grievances of past injustices for his demagoguery to have an effect. Still, it is difficult to judge just how much support Dudayev had among Chechens, let alone non-Chechens, until the fullscale Russian attack in December united them fervently against Russia. The “elections” Dudayev conducted were so obviously rigged that they told us nothing about his real support. What was clear was that those who did not support him were either too cowed or too weak to remove him.

There are times and situations when nations or ethnic groups are so oppressed by a political system which offers no legal recourse that armed rebellion may be justified. The Russian Empire, at times, was such a system, as was the Soviet Union throughout most of its history. But in 1991 and 1992, Russia was not. Under different leadership, the Chechen nation could have achieved by legal means more autonomy than American states enjoy. That nation’s current agony was caused, first of all and most fundamentally, by its misfortune in falling under the control of unscrupulous adventurers who exploited the appeal of a wounded national feeling for totally different ends.

As chief executive of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin had both the right and the obligation to quell an illegal seizure of power within his country, employing—if absolutely necessary—military force to do so. Today’s tragedy might have been averted if he had had the means to remove Dudayev’s hoodlums from control of Grozny before they were able to spread arms throughout the republic, whip up nationalist sentiment, and develop a well-financed network of illicit agents throughout the Russian Federation.

However, opposition by the Russian parliament made this impossible; and doubts about the ability of the Russian military to plan and carry out a military operation in Chechnya may also have discouraged Yeltsin from taking action. Economic pressures, if effective, might have induced the Dudayev clique to negotiate seriously, but they were not effective. In fact, the Chechen political leaders usually had the upper hand, with hired allies throughout the Russian bureaucracy and business “partners” in the military-industrial complex. They were far more effective in buying and manipulating the Russian bureaucracy than Yeltsin was as the nominal chief of state.

Deprived for long of a military option and unable to bring economic pressure to bear, the Russian government then, in 1994, attempted to exploit divisions within Chechnya by covertly backing one of Dudayev’s rivals, Umar Avturkhanov, who attempted to unseat Dudayev by force. Though they had the backing of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, the successor of the KGB, Avturkhanov’s irregulars were stopped short of Grozny by forces loyal to Dudayev in October. This reverse made it clear that Yeltsin had made no real headway in bringing the Chechnya rebellion under control. In fact, he had lost ground, since his failures strengthened Dudayev and convinced him that there was no need to negotiate with Moscow.2

Nevertheless, though Yeltsin had the right and duty to find a way to reestablish legality in Chechnya, his order to invade was a ghastly error. As unsatisfactory as the situation was in Chechnya, Yeltsin had tolerated it for three years and nothing new had emerged to require precipitate action. The Russian military was ill prepared and ill suited for such a mission. Intelligence provided by the KGB’s successor must have been woefully inaccurate.

Reports that Yeltsin was misled by his military advisers, who convinced him that it would be an easy and quick operation, may be accurate, but even if so, this would not relieve Yeltsin of the charge of culpable negligence. Throwing raw conscripts into a battle with determined guerrilla fighters; who freely mix with civilians and often fire from civilian locations, was the height of folly. It should have been predictable that the Russian soldiers would panic, fire indiscriminately, and, if they failed to take their objectives, would call in air strikes to do the job for them, whether or not the President had authorized them.

It is distressing to hear reports from Moscow that Yeltsin may have made the decision for the worst of reasons: grasping for ways to lift his sagging authority, he is said to have succumbed to the illusion that a quick and easy triumph in Chechnya would restore his popularity and authority. There were, in fact, many reasons for Yeltsin’s determination to bring Chechnya back under Moscow’s jurisdiction, including economic ones. An important oil pipeline passes through the republic, and Russia has ambitions to construct an even larger one to move petroleum from the Caspian area, where both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan have concluded contracts with foreign firms. To allow Dudayev control over this important facility was doubtless considered out of the question.

Nevertheless, none of this explains the timing of Yeltsin’s decision as plausibly as an attempt to improve his political position, and if that was his motivation, we must wonder if he is not beginning to lose touch with reality, just as Gorbachev did in the late winter and spring of 1991, when he toyed with the forces of repression and excoriated the democratic reformers as traitors.

What now? Does the carnage of Chechnya end our hopes for Russian democracy?

We cannot know for sure. Too many contradictory currents are swirling in the Russian political cauldron. The temptation by some elements in the Russian government to sweep away the recently won liberties will grow in the aftermath of Chechnya, particularly if the Chechens resort to terrorism in Russia’s cities. In that event, there would be strong pressures to arrest Chechens, and probably other Caucasians, en masse. New moves could be made to restrict the freedom of the press and television, whose accurate reporting has infuriated officials who supported the invasion. Elections could be delayed or suspended altogether.

These are possibilities that must concern all friends of Russian democracy, but they are by no means inevitable. In the past, a spasm of reform has often followed a Russian defeat. Whether that will happen this time remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: the war in Chechnya is a Russian defeat, whether or not Grozny is eventually brought under Russian control. It has laid bare the weakness of the Russian Army, the ineffectiveness of Russia’s civil administration, and the fragmentation of its body politic.

The ugly sides of the current Russian scene are so obvious and thoroughly reported that we sometimes fail to recognize that all is not hopeless. Even the Chechnya tragedy has its heroes, most notably Sergei Kovalev, the chairman of the Russian human rights commission who went to Chechnya when the invasion began and stayed in Grozny to witness, and bear witness to, the savagery. Yeltsin granted him a personal meeting when he returned to Moscow, and one can hope that his words will have an effect. Collectively, the Russian press and television stations, so long a captive of the Soviet regime, truly came of age during this crisis by reporting the facts and relaying the images in heart-rending detail. Banner headlines in the last two issues of Izvestia to reach my desk (January 5 and 6) convey the flavor: “Military Madness and Victims by Design,” “In Such a War Even the Victors Will Be Judged.”

All is not lost in a country with a free press and political leaders able and willing to speak out in opposition. But these signal improvements on the traditional Russian authoritarian system will remain tenuous until more effective democratic institutions are in place. For all of their courage in standing up to the use of force, Russia’s democrats have generally proved inept at the essential but unglamorous tasks of institution building. When they had power in late 1991 and 1992 they failed to take effective steps to reform the bureaucracy—including the military and police—and to start the process of building an independent judiciary and more effective law enforcement. They tried to reform the economy by applying macroeconomic formulas without creating the institutions necessary for a market economy or taking public opinion into account. In the December 1993 elections they were so overconfident that they spent their time debating esoteric propositions among themselves, rather than talking directly and sensibly to the Russian people.

President Yeltsin himself bears much of the responsibility for this failure because of his habit of standing aloof from the day-to-day problems of governance and then making ill-informed decisions prompted by a small circle of cronies. In the past, he has proved capable of changing course when confronted with failure. We must hope that he can find the courage and wisdom to do so again. But if the democratic reformers are ever given another chance, they must learn not only how to condemn bad policies, but also how to create the practical possibility of better ones. Too many lives have been lost because a desperate president, failing to find the scalpel he needed, grabbed the meat cleaver.

January 19, 1995

This Issue

February 16, 1995