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:


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