Sunday, August 28, 2005

A very brief history of the Chechens

This post will be much shorter than my three entries on the Kalmyks. The history of the Chechens, particularly during the last decade is much more familiar to most Anglophone readers than that of the Kalmyks. The Chechen diaspora in the US is also much more recent and smaller than the 1,000 Kalmyks that have lived in PA and NJ since the early 50s. I am also not going to deal too much with the post-Soviet period of Chechen history. This is a basic historical background post.

The Chechens are native to the North Caucasus. Their native language is closely related to that of the neighboring Ingush. Both of these languages are part of the Ibero-Caucasian family and considerably different from the nearby Turkic languages of Karachai and Balkar. The Chechens have traditionally been Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school, but have been strongly influnced by Sufi brotherhoods (Tariqas). These brotherhoods have frequently been used to organize Chechen resistance to Russian and Soviet rule.

Russian settlement of Chechen lands began in earnest in the second half of the 18th century. In 1779, Catherine II sent Prince Potemkin with an expeditionary force to subjugate the North Caucasus. Military resistance by native Muslims began in an organized fashion in 1785 under Shaykh Mansur. In 1827, Khazi Mulla declared a holy war against the Russian encroachment into the North Caucasus. This Jihad had especially strong support among the Chechens. In 1832, the Russians killed Khazi Mulla. A man named Hamzat Bek took his place in leading the Muslim resistance to the Russians in the North Caucasus. In 1834, fellow Muslims killed Hamzat Bek. The leadership of the Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus fell to one of the greatest military minds of all time, Imam Shamil. An ethnic Avar, Shamil organized Avars, Chechens and other North Caucasian Muslims into an effect guerrilla army. Under his leadership these guerrillas kept the Russian army from subduing the region for over a quarter of a century. In 1859, the Russians captured Shamil and the resistance disintegrated. By the summer of 1864, the Russians had defeated the insurgents. Chechen resistance to Russian rule flared up again in the 1930s and 1940s when it took an anti-Soviet form.

Anti-Soviet uprisings among the Chechens flared up in 1929-1930 against the collectivization agriculture. Armed resistance against Soviet officials continued until 1933. In 1938 they again turned to attacks on Communist Party officials and state property in retaliation for Chechens killed in the Great Terror. Finally, in 1939 a large scale insurgeny against Soviet rule in Chechnya flared up under the leadership of Hasan Israilov. This rebellion continued to rage until Spring 1941 before being supressed by the NKVD.Small bands of anti-Soviet Chechen guerrillas continued to operate throughout the the war. These consistent armed revolts, particularly the last one motivated the Stalin regime to implement a final solution to the Chechen problem.

Between 23-29 February 1944, the NKVD deported nearly 390,000 Chechens and over 90,000 Ingush from their homeland to special settlements in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. In the process of this round up, the NKVD committed numerous massacres of the civilian population. Most notably at Khaibakh where NKVD soldiers burned to death over 700 Chechens in locked buildings. In exile they suffered incredible harships. They could not adjust to the unfamiliar climate and agriculture of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. By 1950 malnutrition, typhus and other poverty related causes had killed in excess of 125,000 Chechens and 20,000 Ingush in the special settlements. Strong agitation by the exiled Chechens to return home paid off in the years after Stalin's 1953 death. In 1957 the Soviet government allowed the Chechens and Ingush to return to the Caucasus.

The Soviet government deported the entire Chechen population to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to both prevent further uprisings and collectively punish the Chechens for their past resistance. The official justification of Nazi collaboration has no basis. The Nazis only reached the western most Ingush populated areas of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR during World War II. The only Chechens that the Germans could recruit came from POW camps. Yet, few Chechens served in German organized units compared to many nationalities not subject to deportation. The numbers are so small that German records don't have them listed. In contrast 20,000 Georgians, 18,000 Armenians, 180,000 Kazakhs and Central Asians, 250,000 Ukrainians and 310,000 Russians fought with the Germans against the USSR. The Stalin regime for some reason neglected to deport the entire Georgian and Russian populations as punishment for this collaboration.

From the 1960s to the collapse of the USSR, the Chechens increasingly became more Sovietized. Russian for instance replaced Chechen as their primary language. But, they did not forget the events of the 1940s. When the USSR fell apart the Chechens attempted to gain their independence. The memory of the deportations served as a tool for mobilizing the Chechens to fight against the Russians. Since 1991 there have officially been two wars in Chechnya. The second one is still ongoing with an estimated 100,000 Chechen fatalities out of a population of about a million. The Chechens still desire to be free of Russian rule and the Russians are still taking exterminationist measures to punish that desire.

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