Twelve years of bloodshed - who is to blame?
Timur Aliyev interviewed historian Magomed Muzayev about the origins and ensuing consequences of the 1991 Chechen revolution.
Shortly after winning the presidential election, Akhmat Kadyrov announced his intent to set up a commission to investigate the events surrounding the dissolution of the Supreme Council of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1991, which led to an outbreak of war in Chechnya in the early 1990s. But can the people who took part in this revolution from its inception really be faulted for all the miseries that befell Chechnya?
There were many people who sincerely believed that freedom would enable us to achieve greater independence; that the nation would benefit from its oil and other natural resources; that we would overcome corruption; and abolish the communist party’s hold on power.
Dokku Zavgayev headed the republic at that time, but his term lasted only about a year. Yet his election actually caused a great deal of excitement. And for good reason. This was the first time in our history that a Chechen was elected to a top party post.
Less than a year later, however, this euphoria vanished. The Soviet Union was in the midst of unraveling and people were becoming free of its pervasive influence. Zavgayev was now criticized for joining the party, for surrounding himself with too many unsavory relatives, and for the wide-spread corruption in the republic.
Meanwhile, a great many active-minded citizens thought that once he was removed, some sort of democratic force would appear; that some intelligent, selfless and virtuous people would arise and fight for the nation. Personally, I had my doubts about this.
During the Soviet era we were constantly told that our nation must remember its past failings, we were expected to be forever humble and to repent the sins of our past - sins that were usually fabrications.
They told us, “You should all be grateful to the great Russian nation with its many illustrious people.” But that only created animosity. This intrusiveness was humiliating enough also for other nations than Chechnya, but here it was enforced in a tough, relentless, and ill-tempered manner.
Meantime, it was all but forbidden to talk about any of the historical accomplishments Chechens had achieved. They would always say that if not the Russians, then some other nation, even in ancient times, had played a major role here. According to them, our land was inhabited not by Chechens, but by Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans, and others; they evidently thought that Chechens lived for centuries somewhere up in the mountains, wistfully looking down at civilizations unfurling below them. That’s how Russians invented our history and culture.
In addition, a large number of Chechen toadies emerged who were nothing but yes-men and bootlickers. Seeing how the authorities were behaving, they decided to get a share of that power by copying their methods. They assumed that the more they denigrated their own nation, the more they’d appear as “internationalists.” I have never heard of any greater national self-abasement than what happened in our country.
Chechen-Ingushetia was a very strange enclave with an oddly covert colonial-communist system. When some of us young intellectuals used to meet in those days, we suspected the most severe method of chauvinist colonialism was being exerted in Chechen-Ingushetia. And if it turned out to be effective, it would then be applied in other autonomous republics, we thought.
After all, this was the only place where Secretary-General Titov told an assembly of Chechen and Ingush writers, “I can turn any Chechen or Ingush piece of shit into a writer, and any writer into a piece of shit.” When my father told me this I asked, “Why didn’t someone stand up and punch that scumbag in the mouth?” He replied that because they were so aghast and taken aback at such open contempt for our foremost creative intelligentsia, it never entered their minds.
This abasement of the intelligentsia was later used by Dudayev and others that led to the event of 1991.
Was this the only reason?
No, there were others. Until then Chechens were not permitted to get near their oil reserves, and very few were able to get a job in oil mining company “Grozneft.” Nor were people allowed to return to their villages in the mountains, even though many desperately tried going back to their former homes. Instead, they were sent to Cossack-made towns.
When the Soviet Union started to collapse, Chechens and Ingushetians who lived and worked in the USSR were chased out; having lost their jobs, they headed back here. So there was this huge mass of angry people who had no idea how to survive. Thus, they united in a common cause with the discontented intellectuals. Even party officials, who were barred from holding higher positions, became disgruntled.
So here we have these masses, not knowing what to do and where to go. I recall how they formed into groups and moved into various hotels, asking to be helped. And to make matters worse, there were disastrous landslides in the mountains; many people lost their homes and so they too flocked into Grozny.
Against this backdrop, the Soviet Union collapsed. Prior to this, small political parties were not particularly significant. First on the scene was the demagogue [Khozh Akhmed] Bisultanov (even though he did a lot of useful things), later replaced by Yandarbiyev’s Vaynakh Democratic Party (VDP), which would not have lasted very long on its own. Yandarbiyev was such a pitiful figure that even Busultanov couldn’t decide whether or not to let him organize a demonstration. However, it was the intelligentsia who came to Yandarbiyev’s aid.
In 1990 they decided to organize the first congress of the Chechen nation. When Yandarbiyev, who initially mocked the idea, saw the huge crowds he realized this was exactly what he needed. At that time VDP’s popular support had greatly waned as people stopped joining them. And now they simply wanted to oust Umkhayev, chairman of the Congress organizing committee, as well as many of our writers, including Musa Akhmadov and Apti Bisultanov. They later told us they achieved this by spreading rumors about each of them. And gradually all the committee seats were filled with Yandarbiyev’s people.
When they saw they were not powerful enough to remove Umkhayev, who was very popular, they invited the highly respected General Jokhar Dudayev to join them. He was the first Chechen to get that rank despite a secret regulation enacted in 1942 stating all distinguished medals for Chechen and Ingush servicemen were to be withheld, and that the highest rank one could reach was that of colonel. Because Dudayev broke this glass ceiling, he became an icon in the eyes of the people.
Unlike many others, I am not ready to accept Dudayev as a simple secret service agent or a man who was sent here on a mission. I prefer calling him a reactionary and a romantic idealist who, at the end, stood apart from all the crooks and bandits who had ousted all the honest folk around him. Yet he made a few mistakes himself. On one hand, there were some rather strange actions of his; on the other, there was his lack of leadership. To some extent he was a somewhat tragic figure.
What about Khasbulatov – was his role really negative?
Khasbulatov’s role was indeed negative. I remember him from those street rallies. Actually, he was widely praised early on - his popularity as Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic was very high during that period. But he was strongly against the then party leader Dokku Zavgayev who had tried hard to prevent Khasbulatov’s being elected Deputy of the Supreme Council. So there was this ongoing personal animosity between them.
Although Khasbulatov was extremely capable, he was also extremely self-assured and believed that whatever he imagined was actually real. Therefore he considered all enemies of Zavgayev to be his allies, including Dudayev who, along with his people, skillfully capitalized on. Pretending to be on the side of the democrats and supporting Yeltsin and Khasbulatov, they gradually rendered Zavgayev powerless and became heads of the republic themselves.
Many of those who might have prevented the takeover, such as Alsultanov, head of the Chechen Interior Ministry, started to switch sides. When Zavgayev took a cunning position during the Soviet coup d'etat in August 1991 (his only option at the time), Yandarbiyev and Dudayev said that he supported the State Committee for the State of Emergency (GKChP), a group formed by the organizers of the coup. By drawing huge crowds at demonstrations, they even managed to convince Yeltsin and Khasbulatov about it.
What about Kadyrov?
He was still unknown at the time. However, once war broke out and Alsabekov, a former mufti from Central Asia proclaimed this was not a gazavat, a holy war, other more radical muftis replaced him and Kadyrov then adamantly declared that this was, indeed, a holy war. It was a statement he has not denied making.
When the radical Wahhabi Islamic sect came to Chechnya, hoping to create an independent Islamic state, Kadyrov as a traditional supporter of Sunni Islam and ustazes (respected religious figures), was expected to either disappear or become a kowtowing Wahhabi. Instead, he was staunchly opposed to them.
So in the final analysis, who is to blame for these 12 years of bloodshed?
Both combating sides have perpetrated many crimes, particularly their leaderships. In many respects Dudayev must share some of the blame. From the moment he declared that Chechnya had to be a secular and democratic republic and kept reiterating it, he boxed himself in; once the situation changed he tried to act accordingly, but because his prior statement remained etched in people’s minds, they no longer trusted him. Then, when the intellectuals started to desert him and were gradually replaced by unscrupulous characters, Dudayev turned to religion for help. Wahhabism did not arrive here by coincidence.
But part of the blame must go to Yeltsin as well; Dudayev repeatedly requested that they meet to find a joint resolution to the problem. Had they been able to get together, then perhaps the need for full sovereignty would not have come up. We might have become autonomous like Tatarstan. But the people around Yeltsin were opposed to any meeting, and the same was true for the Chechens, who were afraid that afterwards Dudayev would be officially recognized.
If a serious investigation was undertaken, you’d find a huge number of guilty people. But first you’d have to identify everyone, on both sides, who exacerbated the situation. It’s possible they could be found, but who would try them? Which commission has the power to do this?
Magomed Muzayev is a historian specializing in ancient and modern history of Chechnya. He lived in his native land during these turbulent years and personally knew all the protagonists who were in some way involved in Chechnya‘s 1991 revolution. Today he is Director of the Archive Office of the Government of the Chechen Republic.