The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war keeps monopolizing world media, and now Russia might have further lost credibility because of what’s already termed as the Bucha massacre: in the liberated Ukrainian city of Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, dozens of unarmed civilians have been summarily executed by the retreating and frustrated Russian forces.
But assuming these reports are true, this is not the first time Russia has committed such atrocities.
The Chechens, numbering around 2 million today, are a Muslim ethnic group found mainly in Chechnya, a region in the north-Caucasus, in other parts of the Russian Federation as well in the diaspora (being exiled primarily due to the Russian actions).
Their struggle against Russian imperialism, like that of other groups in the region such as the Avars of Dagestan, goes back to the beginning of the 1700s, when Russia’s ruler, Peter the Great, an admirer of the Enlightenment, tried to forcefully subdue them.
This was a humiliating defeat, especially since Peter the Great was the first to transform Russia from a “tsardom” into an “empire.” The new title emulated continental Europe’s successes, and here the Russian Empire basically lost to “barbarians.”
It was then only natural that in their future Caucasian adventures, the Russians would adopt the brutal methods we’re now witnessing.
The year 1816 saw the appointment of General Alexei Yermolov as Commander-in-Chief in the Caucasus and the resumption of a ‘forward policy’ aimed at ending raids by the Mountaineers into Russian territory, and bringing the khans and tribes of the region to a state of full submission. It was this policy, pursued by Yermolov with extreme brutality – even a fellow Russian general wrote of him that ‘he was at least as cruel as the natives themselves’ – which led to a revolt of the Chechens in 1824, followed in 1829 by the revolt of Qazi Mullah, the spread of war to the whole region, and the continuation of the struggle by his disciple, Imam Shamil, for no less than thirty years. The Chechens remember Yermolov with hatred to this day, attributing to him the sentiment that ‘the only good Chechen is a dead Chechen’ – some fifty years before General Philip Sheridan said the same thing about the Red Indians.
Very frequently, of course, these punitive expeditions, and any attacks on Chechen mountain villages (auls), also became the occasions for Russian soldiers to indulge in rape and pillage on their own account. This was freely admitted by Russian generals, who later in the war made some attempt to check these excesses.
So, since then, Russians have been treating Chechens like US Americans treated the Native Americans.
There were many heroic Chechens standing up against Russian imperialism, but perhaps the most outstanding was Baysangur of Benoy, a deputy (na’ib) of Imam Shamil (himself being an Avar and not Chechen contrarily to what many think) who lost an eye, an arm, and a leg during the battles but still wanted to continue the fight even when Imam Shamil himself had to surrender. Baysangur eventually was executed.
After imperial Russia, came Soviet Russia.
Of course, it wasn’t any better for Chechens: Stalin deported hundreds of thousands of Chechens (and Ingush), virtually the whole Chechen population, accused of helping national-socialist Germany, with up to 25% of them perishing during the process.
During these deportations, which were not the first ones but the most brutal, the Russians acted like they did during the Bucha massacre.
The Chechen deportation gave way to violence and abuse. Unhealthy persons and those who opposed the expulsion were systematically shot on the spot. Testimonies also confirm the existence of mass killings in the mountains. To meet the objectives, soldiers were ordered to eliminate persons considered “unfit to travel”. About 700 persons originating from Khaibakh, a small mountain village and the surrounding farms, were killed. They were locked in a stable and burnt alive. It would have taken too much time to transport them to the valley on the snowy roads. The transport conditions were equally fatal to many Chechens: disease (like typhus), starvation and the cold took the most vulnerable persons. The non-respect of some traditions also caused the deaths of some Chechen women who refused to relieve themselves in front of men.
These mass deportations are the reason why many Chechen independence leaders, like Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, were born in countries such as Kazakhstan.
When the Mujahideen buried the cursed Soviet Union in 1991, many Chechens naturally felt relieved, thinking that now they could attain their independence like a dozen of other former Soviet republics.
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But the geostrategic position of Chechnya, and its natural resources such as oil and gas, ensured that Russia wouldn’t let go of this region so easily. When Dzhokhar Dudayev announced the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the frustration in the Russian Federation was palpable.
After socially engineering an opposition (helping with funds and even weapons) and then meeting armed resistance from Dudayev, Russia, under the Federation’s inaugural president, Boris Yeltsin, made its intentions clearer and formally invaded Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, on New Year’s eve, launching the so-called First Chechen War which would last from 1994 to 1996.
Sebastian Smith, in his 1998-book Allah’s Mountains, a work about this war he saw first-hand as a journalist, gives some context which is quite reminiscent of what’s happening in Ukraine nowadays.
He writes p. 148:
Of course I knew – everyone knew – that the former superpower army was in trouble. Every year there were thousands of non-combat deaths, some due to accidents, but most suicides and murders during bullying and hazing. For example 2,824 soldiers died in 1992 according to official figures, 4,000 according to non-official sources (…) teenaged conscripts on five dollars a day (if they were lucky) became virtual slaves, used to build civilian roads, pick cabbage and potato crops (…) there were other warning signs. Even after a week of operations, the three-pronged Russian advance on Grozny was only crawling forward.
High casualties unreported, teenage conscripts, and no real military gains after weeks of conflicts: this is precisely what we read about Russia’s recent intervention in Ukraine.
But Chechnya is no Ukraine, not only because of the difference in populations numbers (1-2 millions against +40 millions for Ukraine), but in the population’s religion as well. Chechens are Muslims, so you can do whatever you want with them when they resist too much.
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Smith continues, p. 149:
Under President Yeltsin’s bombs Grozny, founded in 1818 by a Russian general, disintegrated. The population, once 400,000, began to vanish. Columns of refugees poured out through the unblockaded south, taking only what they could carry or stuff into cars, their children sitting on top of each other in the back seats, serious-faced, pale. Along the exit route, abandoned dogs sat patiently waiting for their masters to return. Others became wild, formed packs and roamed the deserted streets, shell-shocked and savage (…) moving amazingly fast from disbelief to acceptance, the residents of Grozny learned to live like primitive humans, sleeping underground and thinking only about survival. Electricity and water supplies had halted, so people melted snow and huddled, freezing, around candles or oil lamps.
I’m not sure Putin has dealt with Ukraine that way.
Another interesting quote is from Amjad Jaimoukha, the later historian of Circassian descent, the Circassians being yet another Muslim ethnic group of the Caucasus which suffered immensely because of Russians, to the extent you find more Circassians in Turkey (they fled to the Ottoman Empire) than in their homeland.
He wrote in his book The Chechens: A Handbook, published by Routledge in 2005, in p. 67:
On 11 December 1994, Russia invaded Chechnya. Russian troops were met with little resistance as they converged on Grozny. However, the attack on the city on New Year’s Eve was met with ferocious opposition, with Russian forces suffering horrendous losses. It was only on 19 January 1995 that the Russians were able to dislodge the Chechen resistance fighters from the capital. Moscow interpreted world silence in face of the massive assault as tacit acquiescence. Chechen troops withdrew to the southern mountainous regions to regroup and engage in guerrilla warfare. In March 1995, Moscow installed Salambek Khadzhiev as interim head of the Chechen administration.
Russia’s subsequent policy was to terrorize the Chechens into submission, with indiscriminate massacres committed by Russian forces.
We can compare this with Ukraine. In both cases, Russia lost a lot of men, indeed, but when it was the Chechens there was “world silence.” So Russia continued terrorizing Chechens.
And terror it was: During this First Chechen War, there were many Bucha-like massacres, such as the infamous Samashki massacre, about which the New York Times reported as such in 1995:
There is no longer serious doubt about what happened in this squat Chechen farming village early last month. The circumstances are still vague. But the results are not.
More than 3,000 Russian soldiers took the town, doused its houses with gasoline and set them on fire, and opened fire on unarmed women, children and elderly people, killing more than 100.
For three days the military refused to permit representatives of the Red Cross or any human rights agency into the village. By the fourth day it was too late.
Ultimately, the Chechens won the First Chechen War, despite being a population of around 1 million against a Russia totaling more than 100 million (to get a better idea of this 1:100 ratio, imagine if the US had to fight a nation of 30 billion).
After yet another Russian humiliation, there had to be yet another “strong” response.
It came with Putin.
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Putin in fact was just a former spy who somehow turned politician and whose pick as Prime Minister in 1999 surprised many back then.
It was the Second Chechen War which would make Putin the Putin we know today, the nationalistic figure with a fake sense of machismo.
So, how did Putin deal with Chechens?
In an article from the beginning of March which thought Putin could replicate the Chechnya “model” in Ukraine, we read:
The Russian Federation fought its first war against Chechnya in 1994. It went on until 1996, was hugely unpopular at home, and showed that what had been a Soviet bear of a military was now a toothless Russian tiger. Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin had to settle for a ceasefire over a definitive victory.
As many as 250,000 civilians were killed in the combined Chechen wars, along with many thousands more combatants on both sides. Reports of rape, arson, torture, and other crimes by Russian soldiers were widespread — and cast as a wholly necessary evil by those forces. “Without bespredel [no limits warfare], we’ll get nowhere in Chechnya,” a 21-year-old Russian conscript told the Los Angeles Times in 2000. “We have to be cruel to them. Otherwise, we’ll achieve nothing.”
The Russians employed infantry, special forces, tanks, and artillery, as well as carpet-bombing parts of Chechnya, with seemingly little regard for whether civilians were underneath their planes.
The second Chechen war began in 1999. It was then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s war, and it was to the death. A “they make a desert and call it peace” kind of war. The Chechen capital of Grozny — already damaged by the first war — was left as a hole in a map, called the most destroyed city on the planet by the United Nations. Almost nothing was left standing, nearly no one spared.
There’s also evidence of cluster bombs being employed. These are larger bombs that contain smaller explosive munitions inside; when the larger shell detonates, the smaller bombs spread with no control over where they will land. They’re banned by international treaty largely because they typically cause more civilian casualties than other bombs, though neither Russia nor the United States have signed that pact.
Bucha-like massacres during the Second Chechen War include that of Staropromyslovsky. But now we’re more than a month after the article, so did Putin act with Ukrainians like he did with Chechens?
The sad response, for Chechens, is a definitive no: Chechens would have loved to be treated as “bad” as the Ukrainians, but, well, they’re Muslims, you can dehumanize them through the charges of “terrorism,” “radicalism,” and so on.
I’m just waiting for “Sheikh” Imran Hosein to tell us that Chechens are Gog and Magog and Putin was right all along.
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