October 25th 2006 · Prague Watchdog / Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS

The war in Chechnya and the Russian public

By Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh for Prague Watchdog

The end of the Cold War, which seemed to have reaffirmed the domination of the West, with the USA as a primary force, was soon transformed into a Pyrrhic victory. Non-European/non-Western civilizations have dramatically increased demographic and economic pressure, along with the proliferation of terrorism.

The global response to this pressure is uniform. Xenophobic feeling, a sort of defensive attitude to the newcomers from the East and South, is on the rise. In fact, this defensive attitude is visibly different from that of the approach of Europeans—from East and West—to non-Europeans in the modern era.

Indeed, from the seventeenth to most of the twentieth century, Europeans and Westerners in general had been confident that they could easily absorb and digest non-Europeans, both economically and geopolitically. Sure of their absolute geopolitical/economic domination, they had no fear of non-European demographic expansion.

Now, Europeans in both West and East have seen an influx of non-European non-Westerners, of course defined differently in different countries and perspectives. In the United States, the view is increasingly popular that everything from economic problems to poor schools is due to Mexicans and other people from Latin American countries entering the country looking for a better life. In Europe, there is an increasing fear of Muslims from the Middle East and northern Africa. In Russia the role is increasingly played by people of "Caucasian nationality," usually anyone who comes from the Caucasus regardless of ethnicity or religion. Chechens have been singled out as the most undesirable among them.

There is an increasing influence of Russian nationalism and continuing erosion of the sense of being "Rossiane"--citizens of the Russian Federation who in a quasi-Eurasian way are bound together by a common culture and historical tradition. Nationalism has intensified the war in the North Caucasus and the spread of terrorism and its fear. Still, most important is that "terrorism" in Russia––the country follows the global trend––has become the sublimation of the general fear of instability. For this reason it will not disappear even if the war in the Caucasus were to be put to an end in some distant future.

The continuous war

Official propaganda, mostly beamed from the TV screen, the major source of news for the majority of Russians, presents Chechnya as a place of peace and tranquility, run by the flamboyant Kadyrov but totally faithful to Moscow.

The reality seems to be not so rosy. TV news, despite the desire of the authorities to present life in the North Caucasus as absolutely normal, indicates the continuous intensity of the conflict. Indeed, information about a hospital where those severely wounded in Chechnya were being treated confirmed that the war was ongoing.

There were other signs of conflicts and the concern of the authorities for the spread of terrorism. For example, there was an announcement on TV about the prohibition of activities of organizations that could be defined as terrorist. The war that has lasted almost a generation has created thousands of war-hardened or disabled veterans who seem to be in every big city in Russia. In Ekaterinburg, I saw a sign for the "Committee for Social Protection of Veterans of the Chechen War."

The impact: the fear of terror

The continuous war has affected not only the news—despite the desire of the authorities to present the conflict as solved—but also the mentality of the general public, mostly manifest in the fear of terrorism. A woman I met in a Moscow hotel remembered the terrorist acts in the Metro and the planes that were blown up in the air by groups of suicide terrorists. I reminded her that all these events took place several years ago and there have been no terrorist attacks in Moscow for some time. She said the fact that terrorist acts took place many years ago does not matter--she is still afraid while riding the Metro. This fear seems to exist even in the Urals, in the heartland, thousands of miles from the Caucasus. One of my acquaintances asserted that people are indeed afraid of terrorism. Her son denied this. Still, the fear clearly exists.

While for some Russians the terrorists were not clearly defined individuals, for others they were directly connected with Chechens. In fact, Chechens are primarily associated in the minds of many Russians with terrorists, and those who are too interested in Chechnya are objects of suspicion. One interlocutor who discussed with me practically all subjects—including Putin—became visibly apprehensive when I mentioned that I read Kavkaz-Center, the major Internet site of the Chechen resistance. Staring at me with obvious suspicion, he asked why I read this stuff. I said I did so just for curiosity. He did not believe me and still pressed me on why I was interested in Kavkaz-Center and in Chechnya in general. It seems that at that time he started to question my image as an ordinary Russian he met on the train.

Chechens are not the only source of terrorism, but their image invariably blends with those of other ethnic groups from the Caucasus. One acquaintance conveyed to me the view of the majority that "It was the people of ‘Caucasian nationality’ who brought crime." This is one major reason landlords prefer to rent apartments to ethnic Russians. This is well understood by potential renters, who emphasize their ethnicity when looking for an apartment. In Ekaterinburg I saw an advertisement that an ethnic Russian—ethnicity underlined––would like to rent an apartment.

While analyzing the fear of terrorism among the Russian populace, one should remember that here—as in other parts of the world, the USA included—the fear of terrorism has sublimated many fears and a general sense of instability that often have no direct relationship to terrorism. The conversations I heard illustrate this point.

On the train from Moscow to Ekaterinburg I listened to conversations among the passengers. A young woman told a story about a hobo who asked her to watch his bags while he was in the toilet. Following her spontaneous desire to help a fellow human, she indeed did watch over the hobo’s belongings. But she said she began to worry that the man was a terrorist and that his belongings had a bomb to blow her up, and she was much relieved when he came back and took them. I understood from the conversation that the hobo did not look like a man of "Caucasian nationality." But he did not belong to the "straight" majority and thus could constitute a potential threat; in fact, he exemplified the general instability and fear of unknown and possibly deadly threats. This feeling was articulated by an older woman participant in the conversation. She said that no one could predict what could happen to you and placed the fear of terrorism in the more general context of the uncertainty of life. For this reason, terrorists were rather vaguely defined and the ethnicity/nationality of terrorists was not discussed.

Although Russians' fear of terrorism is to some degree a reflection of a global sense of instability often unrelated to terror, it would be wrong to assume that the whole world, or even all parts of the former USSR, are the same in this respect. While in Russia there was sometimes a sense of danger because of the fear of terrorism, there was nothing of the sort in Kiev, which I also recently visited.

One might assume that it was because there were very few people of "Caucasian nationality." I shared this idea with the curator of the Museum of Ukrainian Art. He told me that I was wrong. The reason for the absence of the fear of terror in Ukraine is because Ukrainians are politically much smarter than Russians. They actually have an aversion to violent political strife regardless of what they state publicly, and for this reason Ukraine will not fall apart. One reason for this understanding is that such strife would lead to chaos, as in Russia. Ukrainians’ treatment of minorities was another manifestation of their more civilized, European-like political culture; for this reason Ukrainians have no problem with Chechnya and actually have a good relationship with Chechens. Dudaev, the first Chechen president, served in Ukraine when he was an officer in the Red Army.


One could conclude that the war in Chechnya, and the North Caucasus in general, is just a local Russian phenomenon. But placing it in a global context one could easily find that it is a part of the global democratic and geopolitical shift, regardless whether Russians and Chechens recognize the fact. Of course, the intensity of the conflict is not the same in all parts of the world, and events are different even within the post-Soviet states; still, the conflict is unmistakably global. The fear of terror often has nothing to do with real terrorism. And here, Russians, similar to many Europeans and Westerners in general, have sublimated into the fear of terror their other fears. For this reason, in a broad context, the war in Chechnya has no end, or at least no closely visible end. It is a part of a "long," one might suspect "very long," war that could lead to marginalization or at the very least drastic transformation of what is known as the West, or Christendom, from New York to Moscow.

October 1, 2006

Dr. Dmitry Shlapentokh is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University South Bend, USA. His recent book is "East Against West" (Publish America, 2005).


 · Caucasian and Chechen phobias within Russian Society (PW, 23.1. 2006)



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