The methods that Russia has used to deal with the break-away Republic of Chechnya has caught the eye of the world media, and not without good cause. This dynamic portion of the former Soviet Union is seen as a predecessor of things to come from other pieces of the dead communist giant. So many different peoples and cultures were pulled into the grasp of Russia for economic or tactical reasons. Now that Russia is waning in power, these peoples may chose to seize the opportunity to regain their independence, hundreds of years lost in some cases, and reestablish their own ethnic identity.
As we will see, Chechnya’s history with Russia and the Soviet Union is a long and checkered past. The Chechen people suffered numerous degradations and humiliations at the hands of their conquerors. Throughout their history the Chechens have attempted in some form to resist the Russians, but time and time again, the Russians held them down to have access to what they perceived as a key piece of land. It would be absurd to say that the sole reason for the Russian invasions of Chechnya, both past and present, were solely based on economic reasons, but it will not be difficult to prove that they were strongly motivated by them.
To begin we must go back to a time before the Chechen people and the Russians ever met. The land of the Caucasus Mountains has classically been considered the natural border dividing Europe from Asia. The Caucasus extend across an isthmus separating the Caspian and the Black Seas. The range extends 650 miles, 400 of which are truly mountainous; the parts most suited for traversing being on the eastern side near the Caspian coast, and the Daryal Pass. The Chechen people, who call themselves Nokhchii, have lived on or near their present territory for around 6,000 years.
This area is a rough quadrangle, blocked by the Terek and Sunzha Rivers to the west and north, the Andi Mountains in the east and the Caucasus to the south. The name Chechnya was given to the people by the Russians, since that was the name of the first Nokhchii city that they came across. From the seventh to the seventeenth centuries, the region was penetrated by the Sunni Muslims. The Nokhchii adopted this religion while keeping some of their basic animistic structure as well. At the same time Orthodox Christianity had pushed through the Daryal Pass and into Georgia.
The conversion of the Golden Horde caused the Muslims to penetrate again into the Caucasus, halting the spread of Christianity southward. The Chechens lived mainly in the mountains until a little ice age ensued in the first half of the sixteenth century. This disrupted their way of life and pushed them back down the mountains to where they had lived before. When they arrived they found that the area had become inhabited by Cossacks, relatively lawless groups of mixed origin who conducted plundering raids on their Muslim neighbors, while clinging fervently to their Orthodox Christian religion.
The Cossacks had already allowed the Russians, under Ivan the Terrible, to construct forts on the river Sunzha in exchange for forgiveness of their crimes. As the Chechens were forced back into their territory there were skirmishes for a couple of hundred years between the Muslim Chechens and the Orthodox Russians and Cossacks. The problem seemed to center around Georgia. Since they had already been converted to Christianity before Islam sealed off the Caucasus Mountains, they were surrounded by the religion of Islam and were constantly asking Russia for help against the Muslims.
In order for the Russians to send help, they had to deal with the Muslims of the Caucasus. Mainly with the resistance of the Chechens and the peoples of Dagestan who held the passes through the mountains. The Caucasus people were defending themselves well against the Russian invaders until the reign of Catherine the Great. She pushed her forts right up to the opening of the Daryal Pass and converted the Ossetians, not far to the Chechens west. With this foothold, Catherine expanded Russia’s holdings west to the Black Sea.
It was around this time that a Chechen named Sheikh Mansur led a resistance movement against the Russian Empire. He brought back the ways of Islam and criticized Chechens who had become lax. Russians mistook his uprising for another smaller uprising by the Cossacks, referring to his band of followers as scoundrels, ignorant people, ragamuffins, and serfs. This same language would be used by Yeltsin to describe the Chechens over 200 years later. It could also be noticed that a portrait of Sheikh Mansur hung over the desk of the Chechen leader Dudayev at the same time.
The Georgians were still beckoning the Russians to come save them from the Muslims, and although Mansur had some interesting victories over the armies of Catherine II, his fame lies in his restoring of Islam to the people of the Caucasus. As soon as the Russians captured Mansur, they annexed Georgia and began a systematic approach of making the Caucasus succumb to Russia’s will. The efforts were led by a General Yermolov, and his name can still evoke harsh feelings of the Chechens. Yermolov singled out the Chechens in his plans for conquering the mountain chain.
He considered them a bold and dangerous people, and resented their patent determination never to submit to Russian rule. Yermolov’s plan was brilliant in its economic simplicity. He wrote that it would take thirty years to militarily take the land from the Chechens, but only five to starve them to death. Every autumn they burned the Chechens crops and slaughtered their livestock. The Chechens fought back relentlessly. Whenever the Russians were building a fort, Chechen snipers were attempting to scare them away. Chechens also drove off the Russians horses during the night.
This only enraged Yermolov and took the war against the Chechens up another notch. He would stand his armies outside of villages and ask that Chechen snipers and horse thieves be given up to be executed. When the villages refused, the entire village would be set ablaze and the army would descend upon the Chechen to pillage. These policies are now regarded by Russian historians M. M. Bliev and V. V. Degoev as Yermolov’s greatest economic mistake. Yermolov’s policies arrested two progressive tendencies of the Chechen people.
By not allowing the Chechens to farm, and by pushing them back into the mountains to avoid deportation to Siberia, Yermolov forced the Chechens back into a primitive and feudal economy, ensuring the existence of a fierce and dedicated enemy to the Russian Empire. After the Caucasus War, Russia attempted to force all Chechens to emigrate to Turkey. Over 100,000 Chechens left and after a few years those who were lucky enough to survive the disease and famine returned. After this point, the Chechen were treated as second rate citizens in their own land.
Though the Chechens outnumbered the Cossacks by about 3:2, the Cossacks held well over twice as much land given to them by the Russians. The Chechens were also subject directly to military law and usually executed while the Cossacks were handed over to the civil authorities. The discovery of oil on the Chechen land in the 1880’s did not help the Chechens at all. An economic “oil boom” came with the discovery. Railroads and pipelines were laid and new petroleum processing plants were opened in 1913.
This led to a middle class in Chechnya, complete with schools and intelligentsia. However, the Chechens were categorically left out of all of these advances while the Russians economically raped their homeland. During the tumultuous time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the Chechens saw a chance to escape the heavy hand of the Russians. They established a Mountain Republic and had unified with many other peoples of the Caucasus region. This Republic would be threatened by the White Armies however, and would be offered a bitter salvation by the Red Armies.
While the Red were originally looked upon as downtrodden brothers, like pilgrims on their way to Mecca, the economics of War Communism soon changed the Chechens opinions. As the Mountain Republic fought the Reds with increasing fervor, Stalin offered the Republic a deal. He suggested that they form a Soviet Mountain Republic consisting of Chechnya, Ingushetiya, Ossetiya, Kabarda, Balkariya, and Karachai. Dagestan was offered their own Soviet Republic. The Soviets even moved some of the Cossacks inside Russian borders and returned the land to the Chechens. Like many of Stalin’s positions, this one soon changed.
A year later the Soviets singled Chechnya out of the Republic to strip her of weapons, and by 1944, had decided to deport all Chechens to Siberia. Stalin’s justification was that the Chechens supported Germany in the second World War, a falsehood allowing him to complete a mass genocide of a people who were troublesome to his regime. After moving the people, Stalin officially wiped Chechnya off of the map. After Stalin’s death the laws that had forced the Chechens deportations were lifted, and the Soviet government found itself battling a wave of legal, and illegal, emigration back to Chechnya.
The ASSR was put back on the map, but the Chechens faced unbelievable racism. Many were pulled into the streets and shot or beaten. Later in the Brezhnev to Gorbachev years the Chechens saw a growing population. They were still not an urban culture; they were still not recruited into any of the industries in their land besides agriculture. However, they succeeded in bringing their population back from the brink of extinction. As the doors opened with Gorbachev’s perestroika, the effects were felt in the Chechen region.
As Yeltsin and Gorbachev argued over power in ’89 and ’90, the Chechens began to hold their own congresses, feeling the vacuum of power being created in the Soviet Union. By late in 1991, the Chechens were ready to declare their independence from the former Soviets. A new leader had been put into place by the people. His name was Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet fighter pilot. Since the government was still running its bureaucracy in Groznyi, Dudayev had to run a coup to oust the Soviet parliament and gain effective governmental power.
Although critics say Dudayev did not have the full support of the people, he did have enough to decisively take the city. After the Chechens declared their independence, Russia did not act for quite some time. At first they perceived that Chechnya was a breakaway area, that was no longer obeying Moscow’s laws, nor paying taxes. The government intended to fund political campaigns of Dudayev’s opponents as long as they stood for reuniting Chechnya with mother Russia. The political funding quickly turned to military funding as discussions in the area became more heated.
After the first election, when Dudayev beat his opponent by a small margin, the politicians who wished to reunite with Russia attempted to militarily seize the Chechen capital of Groznyi. The Russian-backed invaders were beaten easily by the fighters of Chechnya and during the next couple of years, Russia only tried a couple of times to take Chechnya. Every time the troops sent were under-armed and not prepared for the task at hand. Many wondered how the Chechens got so many weapons, and the answer is that Russia gave them to her. Russia has long portrayed the Chechens as vagabonds and criminals.
Much of this stems from the train raids that Chechens, acting under Dudayev, carried out in the early years of the 90’s. The economy of Chechnya quickly collapsed over the next two years. There was a mass exodus of Russian speaking peoples, most leaving behind empty positions at Chechnya’s most profitable ventures. Both oil production and oil processing fell rapidly, over 60% in two years. Industrial production fell 30%, agricultural output fell almost 18% and as unemployment mounted, people fled the cities to live with relatives in the country. Under these conditions it is highly likely that people will turn to crime.
Just as the Chechen military has to use terrorism to counterattack their superior opponents, the Chechen economy has been forced to use crime to continue trade. The new Republic of Chechnya was said to be the largest producer of counterfeit Russian government bonds and currency. Chechnya opened their doors to paramilitary trade on their black market. It is said that hand grenades could be purchased like oranges at a market. Billions of dollars of oil was also siphoned off of Chechnya’s pipelines. More than drilling for oil, the Chechen republic was known for processing.
Even after the independence of Chechnya, Russia had to send in crude oil to be processed into fuels. Oil continually flowed in from Russia, allowing the Chechens to process it and usually turn around and sell it as their own. Whether oil was legally acquired or not, the Chechens had little difficulty selling it back to the Russians, proving that Russians had a hand in criminal activity in Chechnya as well. Literally millions of tons of military grade firepower and ammunition, as well as tanks, planes, and other vehicles were hijacked from Russian trains during this time.
What the press failed to point out at this time was that Yeltsin never rerouted the trains, and no investigation went into discovering how the information of train manifests and cargo was being released to the Chechens. The Chechen airport also operated without law at this time. Russia proclaims that planeloads of narcotics flew in and out of Groznyi each day, providing money to fuel other criminal operations. This all went on for quite awhile, and while criminal activity was rampant in Chechnya, many say that it was no worse than in Russia herself.
By the spring of 1994 though, Dudayev was being formally challenged for his power. Since one of the candidates against Dudayev was a former Communist party leader, Russians saw this as a chance to get a pacified Chechnya. It is difficult to say at this time whether Russia had begun to accept Chechnya’s independence or not. What Russia really needed was for Chechnya to be peaceful, and to allow negotiations regarding the oil pipeline. Russia had begun to compete for rights in the Azerbaijani oil project, the “project of the century”.
This project would exploit the oil reserves of the Caspian region, or the “second Kuwait” and transport them to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea for trade. Having control over the Chechen oil pipeline would be crucial for this large deal. As the Russian supported politicians attempted to force Dudayev to resign, military clashes became more prevalent. Dudayev himself was almost killed in a car bomb explosion meant to take his life. Under suspicions that the Russians were spending billions of rubles to finance this terrorism in Chechnya, Dudayev fully activated the military and imposed martial law to rid his armed opponents.
At the same time an influential leader who had taken place in the Moscow coup was released from prison and went to Groznyi. When the Russians finally seized the capital, they let it go a few days later seeing that if elections were to be held, it would be this criminal who would win and not the politicians that they had been backing. One month after Moscow released its hold on Groznyi, they launched a “black” operation to take the city. They paid Russian troops like mercenaries to not shave, appearing more Chechen, and swarm the capital in tanks with a limited, real Chechen dissident infantry support.
The invasion was a large one and was also a complete failure. Since many Russian troops had been captured and tortured for information, this sealed Moscow’s fate that it had to fully invade Chechnya. If they didn’t then they would have to explain the black operation to the world. In conclusion, we can see that the Chechens are a people that deserve to be free after the horrors that they have endured at the hands of the Russians. When independence has been claimed in Chechnya, it has always been crushed by Russia’s superior military and a bit of trickery.
That economics is a major player in the Russian’s lust for Chechnya is obvious. Perhaps the Chechens will no longer fall for the Russian’s tricks, and perhaps Russia is not the giant she once was in regard to military strength. Whatever the reason, Russia is finding it extremely difficult, in all of her campaigns, to establish a stronghold on Chechnya. With the new millenium we can hope to see a free Chechnya recognized by the rest of the free world so that it can receive aid and rebuild its economy after these years of devastating attacks.