Saturday, August 19, 2006

More on Chechens and Navajos

Here is my review of Margaret Ziolkowski’s, Alien Visions: The Chechens and the Navajos in Russian and American Literature (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2005). This book consists of an introduction, three chapters on the Chechens, three chapters on the Navajos and a conclusion. The book is a comparison of the depiction of Chechens in Russian literature and the Navajos in American literature. As such its main focus are the literary images of these two peoples rather than their history. Nevertheless, the book provides a very good historical background on both Chechen-Russian and Navajo-Anglo relations.

The Chechen half of the book deals first with the construction of the “evil Chechen” stereotype in 19th century Russian literature. Lermontov in particular is credited with insinuating the Chechens as the archetypical “oriental savages” and “bandits” into the Russian mindset. Lermontov, Pushkin, Tolstoy and others wrote about the Chechens in the shadow of almost constant warfare by the Russian Empire against Chechen guerillas from 1785 to 1859. This literature created a racial image of the Chechens among Russians that has remained remarkably constant to this present day.

Ziolkowski next deals with the 1944 deportation of the Chechens and the one significant Russian novel tackling the subject, Anatolii Pristavkin’s Nochevala tuchka zolotaia (A Golden Cloud Spent the Night). This book appeared in 1987 at the start of a brief interlude in history when it looked like it might be possible for the Russian people to come to terms with Stalin’s crimes against the Chechens and other deported peoples. Alas a Russian Vergangenheitsbewaltung regarding the ethnic cleansing of the Chechens, Russian-Germans, Crimean Tatars and others did not take place. This chapter provides a very good summary of Chechen history under Soviet rule. It also has a great title, “Sympathy for the Devil: Anatolii Pristavkin and the Chechen Deportation.” It is very rare that one sees allusions to Rolling Stones songs in scholarly works on the Caucasus. In this case it is wholly appropriate.

The last chapter on the Chechens deals with the resurrection of the almost unaltered 19th century stereotype of the “evil Chechen” in Russian literature since 1994. This racial image has been used to justify the two brutal wars launched against the Chechens since this time. The Chechen still remains a “savage” fit only for extermination in Russian popular literature.

The first chapter on the Navajos deals with novels that deal with the issue of boarding schools and assimilation into Anglo culture. Written during the first half of the 20th century these books had largely abandoned the 19th century stereotype of the Navajos as incorrigible “savages” that only understood military force. Thus already a hundred years ago, US depictions of the Navajos in popular fiction had evolved into a more positive series of images than the current Russian literary stereotype of the Chechens. Instead these works took a variety of opinions on the policy of boarding schools. These opinions ranged from support of total assimilation to an advocacy of combining Anglo knowledge with Navajo values to opposition of the policy as alienating the children from their own culture without integrating them into Anglo society.

The second chapter on the Navajos deals with literature that pertains to the Union Army’s round up of the Navajos and their forced march to Bosque Redondo where they spent four years in captivity. In contrast to the dearth of Russian novels on the Chechen deportation the 20th century produced a number of fictional works that refer to Bosque Redondo. American writers have grappled with how to describe and explain this crime against humanity in a variety of ways. Some have even gone so far as to admit that Bosque Redondo was little more than a concentration camp. In many ways Bosque Redondo resembled the special settlements where Stalin banished the Chechens eighty years later.

The final chapter on the Navajos looks at the phenomenon of mysteries set on the reservation with native protagonists. In particular it examines the novels of Tony Hillerman and Aimee and David Thurlo. Here Anglo writers treat Navajo characters both as fully human and expressing that humanity through their own cultural traditions.

Ziolkowski explains the divergence in the US literary representations of the Navajos and other indigenous peoples of North America and the Russian depiction of the Chechens in an oversimplified manner. She claims that it is the fact that the Navajos have been completely subdued and no longer posed any perceived threat to Anglos that allowed American writers to portray them in a more positive light. In contrast continued Chechen opposition to Soviet rule followed by an active attempt to become politically independent of the Russian Federation reinforced Russian racial stereotypes. It is true that since 1868 the Navajos have kept their promise to maintain peace with the US government. They have also not asked for political independence. But, it is very doubtful that Russian racism towards Chechens would have evaporated to the same extent if the Chechens had acted in a similar manner. The Russian treatment of other deported peoples who have remained committed to pacifist agendas and never advocated independence strongly indicates that this is the case.

The plight of the Meskhetian Turks in Krasnodar Krai is another vivid example of Russian racism in practice against a Caucasian people deported by Stalin. After 1989 around 15,000 settled in the region after fleeing a pogrom in Uzbekistan. The local government has systematically denied them legal residency and subjected them to a reign of official harassment and discrimination. It has even turned a blind eye to Cossack violence against the Meskhetian Turks. The local media routinely depicts all Meskhetian Turks as criminals in a manner similar to the national portrayal of Chechens. Unlike the Chechens the Meskhetian Turks never militarily resisted Soviet or later Russian rule. Instead their struggle to return to their homeland followed the example of the Crimean Tatars and eschewed all violence. Also like the Crimean Tatars they merely desired an autonomous territory in the USSR similar to that enjoyed by the Chechens after 1957. This moderate political stance has not dissipated Russian racism towards them to any appreciable degree.

Despite her failure to adequately explain the divergence in US depiction of the Navajos and Russian images of the Chechens, Ziolkowski’s book still is well worth reading. She provides very good summaries of both Chechen and Navajo history. Although the 1864 removal of the Navajos to Bosque Redondo and the 1944 deportation of the Chechens to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have a lot of apparent similarities the differences in the history of the two peoples in the last half a century are immense. They are so immense that attempting to explain them may be an impossible task.

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