Chechnya: Russia’s Inferno

Chechnya: Russia’s Inferno

Chechnya has long been a hotbed of violence and discontent and a thorn in the side of Russian leaders. Chechnya has been fighting the Russians in their various political incarnations for nearly three centuries and has been the site of atrocities by both sides of the conflict. Having shown that it has been unable to fully govern itself as a de-facto independent state during the 1990s, but also that it is completely unwilling to accept Russian control, the only real solution for stability in Chechnya is “conditional independence under an international administration,” as put forward by Maskhadov, the former Chechen president (Evangelista, 2003, p. 6).

Cultural Considerations

Chechnya is primarily a Muslim country; Islam was strongly established in Chechnya during the eighteenth century (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 31). Religious tensions with the Russian Christians in the era of the Tsars and later the anti-religious Soviet Union have added fuel to the conflagration of Russian-Chechen relations. Chechens also have a strong clan-based social structure that ties individuals to a large family and to the land itself; these relationships, combined with their ties to Islam, have prevented Chechen assimilation into Russian society (Gall & de Waal, 1998).

Historical Context

Monica Toft, in her work The Geography of Ethnic Violence, explains that “Chechen history has been riddled with wars of conquest and these wars have imprinted on Chechen identity a virulent determination to resist any form of colonization by outsiders” (2003, p. 65). “Long before they came to fight a guerilla war with Russia… the Chechens were the most rebellious people in the Russian empire” (Gaal and de Waal, 1998, p. 20). Only by understanding the historical context of this conflict can we understand the basis for the hatred that has driven the violence in Chechnya.

Chechnya was first invaded by the Russian empire in 1722, when Peter the Great led an expedition against Persia through the Caucasus Mountains, sparking the first Chechen battle against the Russian Army (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 37). The first real organized revolt was led by a Chechen named Ushurma in 1785, who called for an Islamic jihad against the Tsars that ruled Russia. Ushurma was eventually captured 1791 and his insurrection put down (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 38), but the Chechens would not remain quiet long.

Alexei Yermolov, who was appointed as a Tsarist general to subdue the Caucasus, founded Grozny, the future capital, in 1818 on the ruins of six Chechen villages he had razed, but then had to fight a strong Chechen rebellion in 1825 (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 40). In 1834, Imam Shamil led a rebellion that lasted twenty-five years, followed by yet another uprising in 1877 (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 43).

The rise of the Soviet Union would not change much in Chechen-Russian relations. Lenin and Stalin promised freedom to the Chechens in 1917 in exchange for help during the Bolshevik Revolution (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 53). Although in 1919 Uzum Haji, a Chechen jihadist, led a force against the White Army, his words of hatred showed that no lasting peace would ensue: “I weave a rope to hang engineers, students and all those who write from left to right” (Gall & de Waal, 1998, p. 21). The Chechens revolted against Soviet rule first in 1920, and then again in 1929 when collectivization of Soviet agriculture spread to Chechnya.

The Soviets struck back with brutal methods. Stalin began mass executions in 1937, and in 1944 he ordered troops off of the front line of World War II to deport over six hundred thousand Chechens to Kazakhstan. Within four years of their exile, nearly one-fourth of all the Chechens had died (Gall and de Waal, 1998, p. 61). But, in keeping with tradition, the Chechens rebelled in Kazakhstan in 1954. The hatred that had begun with Tsarist exploitation and brutality now solidified in the cold of exile, unifying the Chechens that were before divided between clans into one true nation (Gall and de Waal, 1998, p. 74).

The Chechens were allowed to return to Chechnya as part of Khruschev’s destalinization program, but they were still brutally oppressed. All of their mosques were closed by 1961 (Gall and de Waal, p. 33). With their long history of bloodshed and conflict with the Russians, it is no surprise that Chechnya would declare its independence in 1991 in the midst of the collapse of the Soviet Union (Gall and de Waal, p. 98).

The Chechen Wars

Russia was not about to just let Chechnya go, however. As soon as it got itself back on its feet after the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union, they sent troops to quell this latest rebellion in Chechnya. Russian president Boris Yeltsin was particularly concerned that if Chechnya were allowed to secede unchallenged, there would be a “domino effect” as the many other ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation took similar action and the country would disintegrate into many independent states (Toft, 2003, p. 81).

Russian troops fought a bloody and vicious war in Chechnya from 1994 until 1996. Despite overwhelming military superiority, Moscow lost to an underequipped and undermanned guerrilla insurgency that often used terrorism to achieve its goals. In the face of huge casualties they withdrew, making Chechnya a de-facto independent republic (Toft, 2003, p. 79). Matthew Evangelista explained the result of such a settlement thus: “The lessons learned by many Chechens- at least the ones with guns- were that Russia is vulnerable to terrorist acts, that the Russian people are easily demoralized, and that their leaders will heed their views and withdraw as the costs mount” (2003).

After three years of instability and continued violence, President Vladimir Putin invaded Chechnya again, citing apartment bombings in Russia that killed almost three hundred people that were blamed on Chechen terrorists and an invasion of Dagestan by Islamic radicals based in Chechnya (Evangelista, 2003). Russian troops reestablished federal control of Chechnya, and declared their counter-terrorism effort finished in 2009 (Schwirtz, 2009b).

But recent events have shown the resilience of the Chechen resistance. Chechnya has flared up again in the summer of 2009. Islamic militants declared that “all members of law enforcement and state officials are traitors to Islam and enemies that should be exterminated” (Schwirtz, 2009a). They have attacked these groups as collaborators with the Russian occupation. Police officers, judges, government officials, and the civilians caught in the crossfire have died in increasing numbers, with more than 120 killed between January and June 2009 (Schwirtz, 2009a), with 436 more killed from June through August (Barry, 2009). Grigory S. Shvedov, a local journalist, sums it up: “The number of bombings, terrorist attacks and murders as in the past remains high; they occur every week. It is a fairy tale that Chechnya has become a stable region” (Schwirtz, 2009b).

Issues of Sovereignty in Chechnya

Tony Wood, in his book Chechnya: The Case for Independence, claims that Chechnya has a defined territory, a specific group that claims that territory, and had a legitimately elected government with effective control of the population, meeting three prerequisites for national sovereignty (Ware, 2007). However, the invasion of Dagestan by Basayev and Khattab, Islamic militants who led 1200 fighters across the Chechen border, shows that the independent Chechen government was unable to control radical elements (Abdullaev, 2004).

Tony Wood also claims in his book that the international world should have recognized Chechnya as an independent state when the Soviet Union fell apart, as they did 15 other former soviet republics. However, the Soviet republic Chechnya that was a part of also included Ingushetia, which broke from Chechnya in 1992 (Ware, 2007).

The European Union’s view of the conflict in Chechnya has evolved over the years. The European Parliament has issued repeated resolutions attacking human rights violations in Chechnya by both Russia itself and local security forces loyal to Moscow, as recently as January 2006 (Francis, 2008). Despite their repeated declarations, “their concrete proposals were not translated into meaningful action” (Francis, 2008). The furthest the European Union was willing to go was to freeze some 120 million euros in aid to Russia and call for a commission of inquiry that was never actually implemented (Francis, 2008).

The European Union has never questioned the territorial integrity of Russia, and while calling for a negotiated end to the violence, has never accepted the Chechens’ claim of independence as legitimate (Francis, 2008). The attacks of 9/11 softened much worldwide criticism of Russia’s heavy hand in Chechnya, because President Putin was better able to frame his war in the context of the global war on terrorism, with several Chechen groups declared terrorists by the United States (Evangelista, 2003). Putin’s Chechenization policy of indirect rule through non-separatist Chechens has almost completely silenced the EU’s previous demands of negotiation (Francis, 2008). Without European support, Chechnya’s hopes for sovereignty and independence are abysmal.

Lessons of the Chechen Conflict

Chechnya is a prime example of the power sub-state actors wield in today’s fragmenting world. Chris Berzins and Patrick Cullen explain: “Allegiance to the nation-state appears to be bending in significant ways to sub-state forms of political identity, for example at the local and regional level, as well as to supra-state forms of political allegiance at the global level” (Berzins & Cullen, 2003). They also explain that we now live in a neo-medievalist world, with overlapping loyalties that resemble feudalism as practiced during the Middle Ages (Berzins & Cullen, 2003).

Chechnya also shows us the influence of supra-state actors like the European Union. It is likely that Putin’s decision to adopt indirect rule in Chechnya was made largely to silence EU criticism of the situation in Chechnya (Francis, 2008). Transnational terrorism has also been facilitated by the disintegrating borders and shifting allegiances of the modern neo-medieval world; the advances of technology have also made it easier for foreign fighters to reach remote areas and communicate without state control (Francis, 2008).


The situation in Chechnya is complicated by the fact that neither side of the conflict has the moral high ground. The Chechens have used acts of terrorism that have led to huge death tolls of non-combatants to achieve their goals; Russian troops have violated the Geneva Convention and engaged in state-sponsored terrorism by “wholesale destruction of villages, mass bombing of the Chechen capital of Grozny and other cities, indiscriminate roundups of civilians, torture, and extrajudicial killings” (Evangelista, 2003). The Russians have brutalized the Chechens for three centuries; the Chechen militants seek to establish a religious state based on the brutal Islamic code of law known as sharia, and to force that ideal upon the entire Caucasus region, not just Chechnya (Ware, 2007). After all, the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen militants helped to spark the second Chechen war (Abdullaev, 2004).

The Chechens have shown that they will never accept Russian occupation, and will not stop fighting until they have driven the Russians out once and for all. The Russians will not let go either, as Abdullaev explains: “since foreign elements and an emphasis on terrorism have virtually hijacked the Chechen cause, Moscow believes that it has no other viable choice but to continue its war in the Northern Caucasus.” Russia will not tolerate a failed state in the Caucasus. The only real solution for stability in Chechnya is “conditional independence under an international administration,” as put forward by Maskhadov, the former Chechen president (Evangelista, 2003, p. 6). This is the only way that the Chechen people will put down their weapons and yet ensure that Chechnya does not fall into a fundamentalist Islamic state that will be a harbor for terrorists.

Abdullaev, Nabi. Chechnya ten years later. Current History 103(675). Retrieved from the ProQuest Index.

Barry, E. (2009). Echoes of a grim past: Chechnya and its neighbors suffer a relapse. New York Times. Retrieved from Lexis Nexis.

Berzins, C. & Cullen, P. Terrorism and Neo-Medievalism. Neo-Medievalism and Civil Wars 6(2). Retrieved from APUS online classroom.

Evangelista, M. (2003). Chechnya’s Russia problem. Current History 102(666). Retrieved from the ProQuest index.

Francis, C. (2008). ‘Selective Affinities’: The reactions of the Council of Europe and the European Union to the second armed conflict in Chechnya (1999-2006). Europe-Asia Studies 60(2). Retrieved from the Ebsco index.

Gall, C., & de Waal, T. (1998). Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus. New York: New York University Press.

Schwirtz, M. (2009). Judge is latest victim of Caucasus violence. New York Times. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

Schwirtz, M. (2009). Russia announces end of operation in Chechnya. New York Times. Retrieved from Lexis-Nexis.

Toft, M. D. (2003). The geography of ethnic violence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ware, R. B. (2007). Remember Chechnya? Current History 106(702). Retrieved from the ProQuest index.

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