Chechnya’s centuries-long bloody strife goes global

To Tolstoy, fighting Chechen rebels in the 1850s, they were a ‘hardy thistle’ defying suppression. Now, it has seeded itself afar

Special forces outside parliament in 2010 in Chechnya’s rebuilt capital, Grozny. Photograph: Viskhan Magomadov/AFP/Getty Images


Although nothing is yet known about what motivated the two young Chechen men, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, suspected of carrying out the bombing of the Boston Marathon on Monday, one thing is clear: Chechnya is as potent a generator of violence today as it has been for blood-soaked centuries.

This small Russian republic, nestled in the mountainous Caucasus, has produced some of the world’s most implacable fighters and most ruthless terrorists. Other places are also generators of far-flung violence beyond their own borders – Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are obvious examples – but none has as long a history of war, resistance, and terror as Chechnya.

The history of Chechnya is one of imperialism gone terribly wrong. In the 13th and 14th centuries, Chechens were among the few peoples to fend off Mongol conquerors, but at a terrible cost. Turks, Persians, and Russians sought to seize Chechnya, and it was finally absorbed into the Russian Empire in 1859.

Chechens are not ethnically or culturally Russian, and have now been fighting for generations to free themselves from Russian rule. Russian attempts to suppress Chechen separatism have even made a contribution to world literature, in the form of Leo Tolstoy’s masterful novella, Hadji Murad, which the critic Harold Bloom has called “my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world.”

Tolstoy served with a Cossack regiment assigned to fight Chechens in the 1850s – a stark reminder of how long this conflict has festered. A hardy plant, the thistle, is for Tolstoy the perfect symbol of Chechnya and its “desperately brave” rebels.

“What vitality!” a Russian soldier marvels as he contemplates a thistle at the end of the story:

Man has conquered everything and destroyed millions of plants, yet this one won’t submit.

During the second world war, Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis – a credible charge, since Chechens will ally themselves with anyone who might help them throw off Russian rule. He deported the entire Chechen population to Siberia and Kazakhstan. Tens of thousands died before he permitted their return after the war.

The end of the Soviet Union brought not respite to the long conflict, but a ruinous intensification of it. Today, Russia – driven by the steely will of President Vladimir Putin – is as determined as ever to crush the insurgency without granting Chechens any form of autonomy or self-rule, much less independence.

This has led some Chechens to take the path of terror. They are held responsible for crimes that make the Boston Marathon bombing seem like child’s play – most of them outside Chechnya. Among the attacks attributed to or claimed by Chechen rebels are the 1999 bombing of a Moscow shopping center, in which 64 people were killed; the 2002 siege of a theater, also in Moscow, that resulted in 120 deaths; the 2004 attack on a school in the town of Beslan, in which 380 people, nearly all of them children, were slaughtered; and just three years ago, an attack on the Moscow subway system by two female suicide bombers that killed 39.

Russia has fought this long conflict with their own kind of savagery. Russian forces have killed tens of thousands of Chechens since the 1990s, and leveled Grozny, the Chechen capital, in the 1994-95 phase of the conflict. A separatist leader, Shamil Basayev, allegedly the planner of the Beslan school massacre, was assassinated in 2004, evidently by Russian security forces. That same year, President Putin named a local ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, to run Chechnya for him.

According to many outsiders, including the US State Department, Kadyrov has become one of the world’s most brutal figures, responsible for widespread torture in secret prisons and many murders. He “has been implicated personally”, according to State, in the murder of the crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.

Chechens decided long ago not to confine their struggle to Chechnya. Some have fought against American-backed armies in Afghanistan and Iraq. In return, foreign militants have turned up in the ranks of Chechen rebels. The US State Department has also reported that some funding for the rebels comes from sources linked to al-Qaida.

This conflict is ethnic and political, but it has a religious overlay. Chechens are Muslim, and some share the belief that the west is engaged in a global campaign against Islam. They have decided that their response should also be global. George Bush’s global “war on terror” has found its corollary: a globalised campaign of terror.


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