History of Russian-Chechen Relations: Attempt at a Polemic View
Emil Souleimanov, special to Prague Watchdog
The nearly three hundred year history of conflict between Chechnya and Russia has left very little room for friendly relations. Yet examples of good neighbourly conduct, mutual understanding and a wish to live in peace can be traced back to the second half of the sixteenth century when both nations were aligned geographically. The following is an attempt at briefly analyzing the chronology of Russian-Chechen relations, trying to understand the dynamics of their history, and accentuating their positive attributes.
First Period – Ivan the Terrible
After Ivan the Terrible´s conquest of the Tatar Khanates on the Volga river the so-called Turkish period of Eurasian history ended and the Russian period began, which brought Moscow to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains in the north. In ancient times Caucasus became the objective of the powerful Ottoman Empire, which controlled the entire Black Sea coast of the Caucaus, as well as a number of regions on the southern and northern slopes of the mountains.
Chechens faced not only the expansion of the Turkish-Azerbaijani Safavid dynasty, but also frequent attacks by the Crimean Khan, a vassal and ally of the Ottoman sultan. At that time the attempts by Muscovites to conquer areas north of the Terek river were usually welcomed by local feudalists and independent rural communes since Moscow was regarded as a natural ally in their fight against military and political expansion from the south.
Friendly relations between the Vainakhs (ancestors of Chechens and Ingushs) and adygs (Kabardinians, Cherkess, Abazins) were sustained by the peaceful settlement of Slavic peoples (Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks) in the foothills of the Caucasus. Colonization of the region by Cossack farmers led to mutual interactions and a certain ”cultural exchange“ between them and the highlanders, out of which emerged many similarities of traditions, morals and characteristics that are still in evidence today.
Even during this period Moscow attempted to annex some strategically located regions inhabited by the Caucasus, such as the Dagestani Tarks, but these were not usually very successful due to the weakness of Russia at that time. Especially during the Livonian War, when Ivan the Terrible’s ambitious plans failed, and when the Crimean Tatars led by Khan Devlet-Giray reached Moscow and burnt down the city. Military expeditions organized at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century were also unsuccessful.
Second Period – Peter the First
This period began in the first half of the 18th century when Peter the First set his sights on the Caucasus and the Black Sea hoping that the Ottoman Empire would participate in this endeavour, which neither they nor the Crimeans were willing to do. In 1722, the strategically important fortress “The Holy Crucifix“ (now Budyonnovsk) was founded on the lower part of the Sudak River, which marked the beginning of colonial expansion in the Caucasus.
Russian troops, wishing to conquer the Caucasus (necessary for further expansion to the south and Persia) had been continually moving southward. The previously profitable trade and economic relations shared with local nations were now replaced by a colonial policy.
Although serfdom still existed in tyrannical Russia where peasants were freely traded, the situation in the Chechen lands was entirely different. Chechens, who had never had a ruler, had no desire to give up their freedom and so it was natural for them to resist, which resulted in a "clash of civilisations".
The situation was further aggravated by the fact that based on a special 1721 Decree by Peter the First, all male Cossacks, both from the flatlands and the mountains, were under the jurisdiction of the Military College, the then defense ministry. Subsequently they became instruments of colonialism, which led to punitive expeditions into the mountain villages, auls, during which hundreds of thousands perished. Thus the good neighbour tradition of Russians and Chechens was severely damaged.
Military and Administrative Colonization in the 19th century
Beginning with the uprising of the legendary Chechen Sheikh Mansur (1785-1791), Russian-Chechen relationships took on a shape that has persisted to this day. Meanwhile, colonization existed throughout the region - Russian troops moved ever closer to Chechen settlements, building fortresses, redoubts, and roads; the so-called “Caucasus Line“ was expanded and large territories were purged of inhabitants that stood in their way.
Colonial administrators were appointed soon after who became engaged in deployment of Cossacks into the territories occupied by highlanders, Russian officials and others loyal to the Empire. Being unfamiliar with the morals of local inhabitants and wishing to impose order, they often crudely meddled in the lives of the mountain communities that led to armed resistance by the highlanders.
It is interesting to note that the massive engagement of Chechen auls on the side of the 3rd Chechen and Dagestani Imam Shamil in the war against Russia (1839-1840) was triggered by a punitive expedition led by General Grabbe, which turned villages into a sea of blood, and by the Russian authorities' new order stating that all Chechens had to lay down their arms.
At that time in Russia the right to bear arms was considered a privilege of the higher classes. Yet different rules about men`s honour applied in Chechnya and in the mountains of the Caucasus: any attempts made at preventing the carrying of weapons, wearing the papakha, a local headdress, and against the land itself were regarded as aggressions; attacks against the honour of women and girls, insults about one’s household and character were considered to be so serious that they could only be expiated with bloodshed. And this often led to a mass declaration of blood feuds, with all its horrible implications.
As a result, attacks against Russian garrisons, Cossack stations and Cossacks, Russians and anyone else associated with Russian power and statehood, became frequent occurrences in the first half of the 19th century.
Under the Reign of the White Czar
It must be noted that although some Vainakh communities were not opposed to accepting the supremacy of the White Czar, they did, however, want to retain their own internal social rules, community laws and the Sharia law. The “Treaty Concluded with Chechens About Their Subjugation to Russia” of 1807 states that:
· “We, the undersigned elders, (…) commit ourselves and the entire Chechen nation to swear on the Holy Koran eternal allegiance to the All-Holy Russian Imperial Throne according to our custom.”
· “We commit ourselves (…) to always remain loyal and not undertake any harmful acts against Russian nationals either through the use of weaponry or any other means (…).”
· “We commit ourselves to faithfully return all Russian nationals (…) without exception and without delay (…).”
· “We pledge (…) to immediately return any horses or cattle that we took from within the borders of Russia (…).”
· ”Finally, for any breach whatsoever of this agreement, we, as an unfaithful and false-hearted nation, will submit without resistance to the severest punishment and to the destruction of our homes.”
(Fifty-two fingerprints and explanatory notes follow.)
And there were many such similar documents issued. Unfortunately the absence of basic respect vis-à-vis the “wild nations” of the Caucasus was a natural occurrence among the victors of the war against Napoleon. Local rulers (generals who became administrators) had little respect and even less desire to negotiate with Caucasians in the initial period of the Caucasian Wars (end of the 18th – beginning of the 19th century). It is worth noting that all reports of the then military command anticipated that the mountain nations would easily submit.
To negotiate with outlaws and bandits, or even to share power with them, seemed to be unnecessary and demeaning. Unfortunately, the unwillingness of the top Russian echelon to understand the mountain nations and share power with them often undermined the good intentions of Chechens, as well as the Russians who had lived in the Caucasus and understood its distinctions. The people who peacefully lived side-by-side often did want to reach an agreement, unlike the lofty cabinet members for whom Chechnya was just a small spot on the Russian map.
Trade between Russians and Chechens went on uninterrupted, however, even during periods of heavy fighting and genocide. The markets of Kizlyar, Mozdok, Vladikavkaz and other towns were frequented by Chechens as well as people from the mountain nations regardless of their ethnic origin or faith.
Relationships between some Chechen teips and Russian Cossacks are well-known both in Chechnya and abroad. There had been many cases of Russian soldiers being captured by Chechens and either converting to Islam, assimilating into the new environment, or establishing new clans. Chechens considered these clans to be Russian and still do even today. (For more information about this see the work of ethnographer Yan Chesnov “To be a Chechen: Individuality and Ethnical Identification of a Nation“ at the website: http://www.sakharov-center.ru/chs/chrus04_1.htm.)
The 20th Century Wars
Thousands of Chechens took part in World War I on the side of Russia. Although Muslims in the Russian Empire traditionally did not have to serve in the army, the military and feudal elites of some Muslim nations (Dagestanis, Adygs, Azerbaijanis, Crimean Tatars and others) considered it a matter of honor to serve in the army. And the Chechens desire to serve was almost a mass movement to do so.
Following is a letter of appreciation from Emperor Nicholas the Second to the Governor General of the Terek territory, dated August 25, 1915:
“The Ingush regiment took the German Iron Division by storm and was supported by the Chechen regiment. (…) In less than an hour and a half the Iron Division, feared by the best military units of our allies, was destroyed. Therefore, on my behalf (…) warm fraternal regards are extended to the fathers, mothers, sisters, wives and brides of those valient warriors of the Caucasus, whose fearless bravery marked the beginning of the end of the German hordes. Russia will never forget their bravery. We salute them!”
Chechens have always been known for their incredible bravery and personal courage during the Great Patriotic War, the Afghan War and others waged by Russia since the end of the 19th century. However, because of official animosity towards Chechens, the issuance of orders and medals for valor during WWII was quite biased; and this especially applied to the period after 1944 when they were deported to Central Asia.
Sadly, it must be noted that despite the death of thousands of Chechens during the Second World War and the Afghan War, there was only one Chechen general among them at the beginning of the 90s - Jokhar Dudayev. Yet there were almost no deserters among Chechen soldiers in Afghanistan, even though the Chechen nation had been subjected to a strict discriminatory policy from the moment their country became an occupied territory (in the fifties and sixties of the 19th century).
Intermarriages were quite frequent in Chechnya during the Soviet period. Multi-national Chechnya composed of Ingushetians, Russians, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Jews, and Belarusians, all lived together peacefully, which was a true example of tolerance and mutual respect of peoples with diverse origins and religions. A good example of this can be seen in the photographs showing Grozny citizens saving the Russian elderly from Russian bullets and shells during the war at the end of the last century.
There is no need in this article to discuss the ongoing war between Chechnya and Russia as we are all too aware of the blood, pain, humiliation and the many open wounds that have been left unhealed. We can only hope that history will eventually teach a lesson to those in power, a lesson that so far has either not been learned or did not want to be. And that the common man, both Russian and Chechen, will find it in his heart to once again be neighbourly and live in peace.
Emil Souleimanov (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a political scientist. He works at the Charles University in Prague.