Main Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon Bombings
Inferno in Chechnya: The Russian-Chechen Wars, the Al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston Marathon BombingsBrian Glyn Williams
In 2013, the United States suffered its worst terrorist bombing since 9/11 at the annual running of the Boston Marathon. When the culprits turned out to be U.S. residents of Chechen descent, Americans were shocked and confused. Why would members of an obscure Russian minority group consider America their enemy? Inferno in Chechnya is the first book to answer this riddle by tracing the roots of the Boston attack to the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia.
Brian Glyn Williams describes the tragic history of the bombers’ war-devastated homeland—including tsarist conquest and two bloody wars with post-Soviet Russia that would lead to the rise of Vladimir Putin—showing how the conflict there influenced the rise of Europe’s deadliest homegrown terrorist network. He provides a historical account of the Chechens’ terror campaign in Russia, documents their growing links to Al Qaeda and radical Islam, and describes the plight of the Chechen diaspora that ultimately sent two Chechens to Boston.
Inferno in Chechnya delivers a fascinating and deeply tragic story that has much to say about the historical and ethnic roots of modern terrorism
Brian Glyn Williams describes the tragic history of the bombers’ war-devastated homeland—including tsarist conquest and two bloody wars with post-Soviet Russia that would lead to the rise of Vladimir Putin—showing how the conflict there influenced the rise of Europe’s deadliest homegrown terrorist network. He provides a historical account of the Chechens’ terror campaign in Russia, documents their growing links to Al Qaeda and radical Islam, and describes the plight of the Chechen diaspora that ultimately sent two Chechens to Boston.
Inferno in Chechnya delivers a fascinating and deeply tragic story that has much to say about the historical and ethnic roots of modern terrorism
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Massachusetts Dartmouth. He has published numerous books related to terrorism and conflict in Eurasia, including The Last Warlord: The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior Who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime; Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda; Afghanistan Declassified: A Guide to America’s Longest War; and The Crimean Tatars: From Soviet Genocide to Putin’s Conquest. of Islamic history at the University of Infernoin Chechnya Brian Glyn Williams is a professor THE HISTORY OF THE CHECHEN WARS AND THE ORIGINS OF TERRORISM IN RUSSIA AND BEYOND brian glyn williams Inferno in “Williams once again demonstrates why he is required reading for anyone serious about understanding the Chechens and their violent struggle against Russia.” Lieutenant Colonel Robert Schaefer, author of The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus Chechnya “An utterly fascinating journey through one of radical Islam’s least-understood fronts: Chechnya and the Caucasus. Essential for anyone seeking to understand the historical roots of the Boston bombing.” Janet Reitman, Rolling Stone magazine “A must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the Chechens and their involvement in contemporary conflicts, this remarkable book provides the full sweep of the Chechens’ tragic history. The chapters on Chechens in Afghanistan and Syria and on the Boston Marathon bombings are absolutely brilliant.” Miriam Lanskoy, director, Russia and Eurasia, National Endowment for Democracy THE RUSSIAN-CHECHEN WARS, THE AL QAEDA MYTH, AND THE BOSTON MARATHON BOMBINGS “A sweeping account of warfare, genocide, and conquest in other lands that ultimately led to America’s greatest terror bombing since 9/11.” Aurélie Campana, Canada Research Chair on Conflicts and Terrorism “An inspiring account that captures the essence of how the Chechen highlanders have been so wrongly portrayed over the past decade in the Western media by pundits and others pretending to be experts on the Caucasus Mountains whose narratives about Chechnya have often been shaped by the Russian media machine.” Glen Howard, president, Jamestown Foundation “Inferno in Chechnya is a bold attempt to provide a balanced narrative about the Chechen people, particularly their tragic history and struggle with Russia and the Soviet Union. The story of the struggle for the soul of a small nation has reverberated across the Middle East and onto the very streets of Boston.” Dr. Lester W. Grau, senior analyst, Foreign Military Studies Office, U.S. Army Jacket illustration courtesy of Thomson Reuters ForeEdge www.ForeEdgeBooks.com brian glyn williams Fore Edge In 2013 the United States suffered its worst terrorist bombing since 9/11 at the annual running of the Boston Marathon. When the culprits turned out to be U.S. residents of Chechen descent, Americans were shocked and confused. Why would members of an obscure Russian minority group consider America their enemy? Inferno in Chechnya is the first book to answer this riddle by tracing the roots of the Boston attack to the Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia. Brian Glyn Williams describes the tragic history of the bombers’ wardevastated homeland — including tsarist conquest and two bloody wars with post-Soviet Russia that would lead to the rise of Vladimir Putin — showing how the conflict there influenced the rise of Europe’s deadliest homegrown terrorist network. He provides a historical account of the Chechens’ terror campaign in Russia, documents their growing links to Al Qaeda and radical Islam, and describes the plight of the Chechen diaspora that ultimately sent the Tsarnaev brothers to Boston. Inferno in Chechnya delivers a fascinating and deeply tragic story that has much to say about the historical and ethnic roots of modern terrorism. Inferno in Chechnya Williams - Chechnya.indb 1 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Williams - Chechnya.indb 2 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Inferno in CHeCHnya the Russian-CheChen WaRs, the al Qaeda Myth, and the Boston MaRathon BoMBings Brian Glyn Williams ForeEdge Williams - Chechnya.indb 3 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM ForeEdge An imprint of University Press of New England www.upne.com © 2015 Brian Glyn Williams All rights reserved For permission to reproduce any of the material in this book, contact Permissions, University Press of New England, One Court Street, Suite 250, Lebanon NH 03766; or visit www.upne.com Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Williams, Brian Glyn. Inferno in Chechnya: the Russian-Chechen wars, the Al Qaeda myth, and the Boston Marathon bombings / Brian Glyn Williams. pages cm Includes bibliographical references and index. isbn 978-1-61168-737-8 (cloth: alkaline paper)— isbn 978-1-61168-801-6 (ebook) 1. Chechnia (Russia)— History— Civil War, 1994– 2. Russia (Federation)— Relations— Russia— Chechnia. 3. Chechnia (Russia)— Relations— Russia (Federation) 4. War and society— Russia (Federation)— Chechnia. 5. Jihad— Political aspects— Russia (Federation)— Chechnia. 6. Qaida (Organization) 7. Terrorism— Europe. 8. Boston Marathon Bombing, Boston, Mass., 2013. 9. Tsarnaev, Tamerlan. 10. Tsarnaev, Dzhokhar. I. Title. dk511.c37w55 2015 947.086 — dc23 2015002114 For the resilient people of Boston and for all my friends in the city, including Suki Soltysik, Dana Fine, Heidi Floerke, Ozge and Eric Getkin, Ed Fallon, Amy Beuchemin, Josh Ready, Jenny Murphy, Jason and Molly Seto, Corey and Leandro Lopez, Steve and Ceren Matteo, John Lawrenz, Alan Hirshfeld, Michelle Cheyne, Bob and Pat Getkin, Kevin McWilliams, Laura Barlow, Brad Pinkos, Scott Gollumcan Levi, Alan Friedman, Jim Stamos, Ona Ridenour, Volkan and Tansel Sazak, Marc Yanniello, Hien Cao, Michelle and Selim Gurel, Len and Carolyn Travers, Razi Usman, Sue Foley, Mark Santow, Tim Pakopolos, Pat Gallagher, Chris and Jill Keough, and my wife, Feyza. Williams - Chechnya.indb 5 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM This is a war for the freedom of a nation. If the Russians want to call me a terrorist, a hammer of God, a nightmare creature, I am happy to be any of these things. — Chechen field commander turned notorious terrorist, Shamil Basayev Williams - Chechnya.indb 6 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Contents Acknowledgments ix Introduction xi 1 First Blood 1 2 Resistance 18 3 Genocide 35 4 The First Russian-Chechen War 76 5 Chaosistan 116 6 The Return of the Russians 153 7 The Chechen Ghost Army of Afghanistan and Syrian Battalion 206 8 The Strange Saga of the Boston Marathon Bombers 230 Notes 259 Index 285 Williams - Chechnya.indb 7 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Williams - Chechnya.indb 8 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Acknowledgments First and foremost, I would like to thank my parents, Gareth and Donna Williams, for supporting my research on Chechens for the last decade and a half. Their proofreading of this manuscript was, as always, much appreciated. Many thanks go to my wife, Feyza, who patiently supported me in writing this story for the last ten years. I also would like to send my teshekurs (thanks) to my in-laws, Feruzan and Kemal Altindag, for providing me with a quiet place to write this book in their seaside town on Turkey’s Aegean coast. I would also like to thank my former advisors Uli Schamiloglu and Kemal Karpat for teaching me about the history of Central Eurasia’s ethnic groups at the University of Wisconsin and Indiana University. In addition, I would like to thank Norbert Strade for his assistance in helping me understand some of the complexities of Chechnya’s recent history and Glen Howard at the Jamestown Foundation for his support over the years. Last, I would also like to thank the Chechens I have met over the last two decades for sharing their homes and tales with me. Their tales inspired me to write this work. ix Williams - Chechnya.indb 9 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Williams - Chechnya.indb 10 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM southern russia and the caucasus. Courtesy of I. B. Tauris Introduction April 15, 2013 — as warm a Patriot’s Day for the annual running of the Boston Marathon as anyone could ask for. As the early spring temperature rose to sixty, thousands of cheering spectators lined the sunny route leading to the finish line at Boylston Street. I was among the crowd, watching the runners from a spot on nearby Beacon Street, two blocks from my house. It was a perfect spring day to put aside the memories of the long, cold winter; to cheer on the runners — many of whom were running for local charities; and to join in a celebration of all things Boston. We had our first inkling that something had gone horribly wrong when a woman next to us received a cell phone call and ran screaming into a nearby bar. “There’s been a bombing at the finish line,” she yelled. “There’s been a bombing! Oh my God!” I ran after her into the Publick House, where we all stared in disbelief at the large-screen television on the wall. But all we saw were reassuring images of runners, and we relaxed. And then the news broke. A clearly distraught local reporter came on tv to announce that there had been two bombings at the finish line. The earlier scenes of a joyous race succumbed to images of panic and horror. This can’t be happening. Not here. Not now! You expect to see gruesome images of war-torn Baghdad, Beirut, or Kabul, but not in the city we affectionately call “Beantown.” As the crowd in the bar stared blankly, several people began to sob while xi Williams - Chechnya.indb 11 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM introduction others frantically dialed up friends and family who were right down the street from us at the finish line. But no one could get through to them. The police had already disabled the cell towers so that the bombers couldn’t use their phones to detonate more bombs. Within minutes, several police officers burst into the bar, calling for us to evacuate — just in case. We all left, hurrying down the street toward our homes in stunned silence. When I reached our house, my wife, Feyza, searched the Internet and found images of maimed victims being rushed to ambulances. Unable to look at them any longer, she broke into tears, damning the terrorists who had inflicted so much senseless pain on—of all days—one of such joy. Early in the morning, four days later, my phone rang. It was a friend telling me that the authorities had identified the bombers and had launched an unprecedented citywide dragnet to catch them. They were said to be from an ethnic group in Russia known as the Chechens. Can’t be, I thought. The Chechen highlanders were the ancient enemies of Russia, not of the distant usa. “Don’t you teach a class on Chechnya?” my friend asked. “Yes, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. Why?” Because, he told me, one of the bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, attended that very university and had been seen on campus calmly going about his business several days after the bombing. “My God,” I said. My friend paused before asking me the question that many of the students who took my class on Chechnya would later ask: “Why on earth would Chechens want to attack America?” Why, indeed. The answer, on the surface, is seemingly “for many reasons.” This book is a background journey which explores that perplexing question. It will take readers into the mighty Caucasus Mountains of southern Russia and introduce them to the ancient Chechen highlanders and their centuries-long war with the invading Russians. It will explain the reasons for their hatred of their Russian foes, who chopped down their primordial forests, burnt their villages, raped their women, and waged scorched-earth tactics to break their determined resistance. Most important, this background journey will take readers into the Soviet Union’s genocidal decision to ethnically cleanse the entire Chechen peoxii Williams - Chechnya.indb 12 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM introduction ple from their ancestral lands in 1944, and their long struggle to return to their beloved Caucasus homeland. But the heart of this book lies in its retelling of the two bloody wars the Chechen mountaineers fought for independence from post-Soviet Russia. In the process of exploring this blood feud, it will show how Russian and Soviet savagery against this small nation subsequently ignited an Islamist terrorist response among the Muslim Chechens that was to lead to Europe’s deadliest terror campaign. Ultimately, it also will demonstrate how the rise of jihadi terrorism in the war-blackened villages of tiny Chechnya spawned a terror plot that reached the shores of America with deadly consequences. xiii Williams - Chechnya.indb 13 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Williams - Chechnya.indb 14 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM 1 First Blood The Chechens are a numerous people, but they have no aristocracy. “We are all princes” is the proud contention of the Chechen. They are a people who have no superiority of rank, and never had, and into whose language the word “command” cannot be rendered . . . They are always in a chronic state of feeling themselves insulted by their fellow-creatures, and maintain that nobody can be considerate enough to them as a completely free people. — Essad Bey, Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus, 1930 Cattle-lifting, highway robbery, and murder were in this strange code, counted deeds of honor; they were openly instigated by the village maiden, who scorned any pretender having no such claims to her favor; and these, together with fighting against any foe, but especially against the hated Russians, were the only pursuits deemed worthy of a grown man. — John F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, 1908 1 Williams - Chechnya.indb 1 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM Wolves The Ancient Highland Tribes The Chechen national symbol is the gray wolf, and since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this emblem has appeared in their poems, on their battle standards, and on their national flag, and it has come to symbolize the Chechens’ stubborn defense of their homeland. The Chechens like to compare themselves to the gray wolf that has roamed the primeval forests of the Caucasus Mountains since the beginning of time. According to the mountaineers, the gray wolf does not attack humans unless they trespass on its lair, and in this behavior, the Chechens see a parallel to their own relations with the Russians. As any Chechen will tell you, their ancestors never set out to conquer Russia; the troubles with their empire-minded neighbors began when Russia’s generals set their sights on the Caucasus and brought fire and sword to the Chechens’ homeland in the late eighteenth century. It was the Chechens’ bloody experience of “pacification” at the hands of Russians —to use a nineteenth-century tsarist euphemism for ethnic cleansing, scorched-earth campaigns, and a decades-long war of attrition — that was to poison the relations between these two peoples. While many nonexperts discovered the Chechens after 9/11 and see them only in this context, one cannot claim to know the Chechens without first being familiar with the tragic story of their conquest by Russia’s armies in the nineteenth century. Prior to Russia’s imperial adventures in the lands of the Chechens and neighboring tribes, this mountainous land on the distant fringes of Europe had been something of an unknown land for most in the West. Western Christian civilization ended in the lowland shadows of this mighty mountain barrier that separated Europe and the southern borders of the empire of the Orthodox tsars from Asia and the Islamic lands of the Turks and Persians. Forming the highest mountain chain in Europe, the mighty Caucasus range extends 650 miles from the shores of the Black Sea to the landlocked Caspian Sea, and its highest peaks are covered in snow yearround. This rugged rampart dwarfs the Alps in its scale, and its average height is over ten thousand feet. The massive Caucasus chain has some of the most inaccessible mountain valleys and highland pastures in the world and has served as a refuge 2 Williams - Chechnya.indb 2 7/15/2015 7:21:33 PM first blood for fleeing tribes and ethnic groups since the dawn of history. The hardy highlanders whose cliff-top auls (villages) clung tenaciously to the sides of the mountains lived in settlements built on the edges of sheer precipices and guarded by stone towers. In these impenetrable highlands, a village could hold off an army as its warriors defended the narrow path along a dizzying cliff. In the misty depths of time, when the Indo-Europeans (the forebears of the modern nations of Europe) first arrived in the region, they forced the ancient mountain people already living in the Caucasus lowlands to flee deeper into the wooded valleys of the northern slopes. In the process, the easily defended mountain peaks and impenetrable valleys of the north Caucasus came to serve as a sanctuary for some of the oldest races of Eurasia. In the twentieth century, long after the older races had been pushed into the mountains, modern anthropologists and linguists would find traces of tribes that had disappeared from history long before the birth of Christ. The origins of some of these races extend back to the ancient peoples of pre–Old Testament Sumeria, Elam and Uratau. The forest-clad mountains of the Caucasus are home to dozens of ethnolinguistic groups and serve as a storehouse, preserving the ethnic residue of all the passing waves of invaders who have swept through this region since the beginning of time. In some areas each village speaks a different language that, like the pages of history, can be read back in time to provide a historical account of the various tribes of conquerors that ebbed across this tumultuous land. Similar to the rings on a tree, the layers of races in the north Caucasus tell us the history of the mountains. The Dagestan region, which is located in the northeastern Caucasus to the east of Chechnya, for example, is home to more than thirty different ethnic groups, most of whom speak unrelated languages. The confusing array of languages left by previous invaders in the Caucasus led the medieval Arab Muslim conquerors, who believed that fierce jinns (demons) lived in this cloud-covered realm, to name this rugged land the Jabal Alsuni (Mountain of Languages). As history tells us, waves of horse-mounted Scythians, who drank fermented horse milk and wine from their enemies’ skulls, Zoroastrian Iranians bringing their ancient worship of fire, savage Huns on their 3 Williams - Chechnya.indb 3 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya way to ravage Rome, Arab warriors spreading their new Islamic faith, Jewish horse-mounted Khazar nomads, world-conquering Mongol Tatars, e mpire-building Ottoman Turks, Shiite Persians, and many others lapped up against the mountain barrier of the Caucasus and left remnants of their peoples amid the older races already ensconced in their mountain valleys. As a result, in the northern Caucasus today you find the half-pagan, half-Christian Ossetians, who worship carved wooden poles in much the same fashion as their distant ancestors, the Alans, who partook in the great barbarian migrations that brought down the Roman Empire. You also encounter the Cherkess, the pitiful remnants of the once-mighty Circassians, who provided slave warriors and the most comely of women for harems of the caliphs of medieval Baghdad. In the eastern plains of the northern Caucasus you also find small pockets of Nogai Tatars, the sheephearding descendents of Genghis Khan’s mighty nomadic Mongol armies. As one leaves the plains of the Nogai steppe and probes deeper into the mountains, however, one finds ancient ethnic groups whose origins are even older than these previously mentioned races. These include the fierce Jewish highlander tribe known as the Tats, whose origin goes back to the original Old Testament dispersal of the Jews in the eighth century bc. You also find other groups who inhabit the bleak mountains of Dagestan (a region whose name translates to “Land of the Mountains”), such as the Dargins, Avars, Lezgins, Laks, Aguls, Rutuls, Tabassrans, and countless others, who fiercely defended their lands against outsiders over the centuries. Most of these ancient groups, who continued to fight with sabers, shields, and medieval-style armor up until the late nineteenth century, were unknown to the Western world, whose ethno-geographic horizons ended in the more familiar lands of the Orthodox Russians and Ukrainians. Among the oldest and most powerful of the north Caucasian races are a farming and cattle-breeding people known as the Vainakh, who have inhabited the forested slopes of the northeastern Caucasus for millennia. Made up of dozens of independent teips (clans) and known for their industriousness, refusal to submit to any authority, skill in the 4 Williams - Chechnya.indb 4 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood time-honored sport of cattle raiding, and love of freedom, the unruly Vainakh were divided into two separate tribes by the Russians, who first began to encroach on their lands in the late 1700s. The Russian Cossacks, the “cowboys of Russia,” and later Russian imperial administrators called the western Vainakh the “Ingush.” Those Vainakh residing in the east, near a village known as Chechen Aul, were called “Chechens.” Over time, the two Vainakh tribes, who spoke mutually comprehensible languages, internalized these ethnonyms and became distinct groups. Today the Chechens and the much smaller Ingush people are recognized as separate nations in spite of their close ethnolinguistic links. When the Russians first shared their accounts of the mysterious Chechen highlanders to the outside world, they spoke of a primordial mountain people who were ruled over by a council of tribal elders known as the Mehq-Qel (the Council of the Land). These wise elders were chosen by their clans (teips) to represent their interests in community councils. Councils of the people were called to mediate blood feuds, organize the defense of the ka’am (the “nation,” or more precisely “people” in a premodern sense), and uphold the ancient traditions of the people, which were based on a blend of ancient pagan customs and the later imposition of Islamic law. Traditionally, the Chechens have given great respect to their clan elders, and all Chechens direct their loyalty to their clan first and then to their tukhum (their larger tribal alliance). Interestingly, there was no class of nobility among the egalitarian Chechen people, and one observer noted: The equality among the people of the Eastern Caucasus is clear-cut. They all possess the same rights and enjoy the same social position. The authority with which they invest their tribal chiefs grouped within the framework of an elected council is limited in time and power . . . Chechens are gay and witty. Russian officers nicknamed them the French of the Caucasus.1 Islam, it should be mentioned, arrived late in the lands of the Chechen and Ingush, and many of this people did not convert to the religion of the Prophet Mohammed until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even then, Robert Schaefer writes, “Chechnya was not particularly devout.”2 Prior to the advent of Islam, this people worshipped Yalta, 5 Williams - Chechnya.indb 5 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya the god of wild animals and patron of hunters; Seli, the god of fire; and myriad other supernatural denizens of the snow-covered alpine peaks and forested slopes of the Caucasus. Among the woodland sprites worshipped by the Chechens were ghostly forest creatures called almas, who lived in springs and rivers. Lesser gods included Khi-Nama, the “Mother of Water”; Darsta Nama, the “Mother of Snowstorms”; and Moh Nama, the “Mother of Winds.” The Chechens and Ingush owe their submission to Allah to the neighboring tribes of the northeastern Caucasus region known as Dagestan. Dagestan, a foreboding mountainous tableland that separates the more gentle slopes of Chechnya from the shores of the Caspian Sea, had been conquered by the Arabs during their great period of Islamic expansion in the eighth and ninth centuries. For this reason the people of Dage stan were familiar with the preaching of the Prophet Muhammad from an early date. In Dagestan, mullahs (Islamic clerics) who spoke Arabic and Persian delved into the scriptures of the holy Qur’an, the chant of the muezzin (the prayer caller) drifted from the minarets across the mountain valleys, and camel caravans brought the goods of the greater Dar al-Islam (the Islamic Realm) to the villagers inhabiting their well- fortified mountain auls. Over the centuries, mystic Islamic holy men wandered from Dagestan into the neighboring forestlands of the animistic Chechens and preached their tolerant, frontier version of Islam, known as Sufi Islam. Many of these Muslim mystics were purported to have worked miracles in order to convert the pagan Chechens to Islam. The sites of these miraculous events subsequently became places of pilgrimage, although some of these sacred spots were clearly pre-Islamic holy places. The Chechens converted to this mystical Sufi version of Islam, in part, because it allowed them to keep many of their ancient, pre-Islamic traditions. Muslims from the Middle East who visited the vales of Chechnya in the late nineteenth century found that Chechen women did not wear the full veils worn by women living in Wahhabi-dominated Arabia. On the contrary, the laws of the land were dominated by adat (ancient, pre- Islamic custom) more than shariah (Islamic law). In the Caucasus, mystical chants and dances known as zikirs were performed to assist the Chechens in attaining Allah’s grace and imitate the movement of the cosmos. In this 6 Williams - Chechnya.indb 6 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood frontier region, tolerance toward neighboring Christian or pagan peoples (such as the Orthodox Christian Cossacks or the animist Ingush, who did not convert to Islam until the mid-nineteenth century) was widespread. In other words, many of the austere facets of puritanical Wahhabi Islam of the sort being spread by the Saud family in nineteenth-century Arabia were not found on this fluid mountain frontier between Islam, Christianity, and traditional native animism. It was only in response to the Russian conquest that an increasingly xenophobic form of warlike Islam spread among the outnumbered warriors of this tolerant Sufi mountain people. In addition to their adherence to an indigenous, mystical version of Islam, the Chechens also were known for their fighting skills. In a land where blood feuds (known as kanli), raids, and clan warfare were a way of life, Chechen boys grew up mastering the deadly sharpshooter’s rifle, the wicked kinjal blade, and the hardy mountain steed. The swaggering Chechen highlander who arrived in the Russian lowlands for trade, with his saber dangling from his side, rifle over his shoulder, breast pocket bandoleers brimming with bullets, and tall fur hat placed rakishly on the back of his head, was given a wide berth. Not surprisingly, this people’s culture glorified feats of combat and bravery. Highlander raiders known as abreks proved their manhood by engaging in dangerous raids on the neighboring people. While the Russians deplored the highlanders’ “evil deeds, raids and robbery,” the Che chens lionized famous abreks, who proved their daring by slipping past the enemy’s patrols and seizing booty. In his analysis of abreks in the Caucasus, Russian scholar Vladimir Bobrovnikov writes, “The main hero of their culture — the so called abrek, i.e., professional bandit—was a figure who was praised for engaging in a profession that was seen as noble and honorable, in the fashion of Robin Hood.”3 Another quality recognized among the Chechens was the supreme importance they placed on providing hospitality. A visitor was considered family, and an injury done to a protected guest could lead to a blood feud. In many respects, the premium placed on hospitality by this warlike people, who at the same time prided themselves on their raids on their neighbors, resembles the tradition of hospitality manifested by the Aryan Pashtun tribes of distant Afghanistan.4 Thus this proud, warlike, Sufi mountain people may have remained, 7 Williams - Chechnya.indb 7 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya living in relative isolation on the edges of Christian Europe, engaging in their timeless pursuits of raiding lowlanders and farming. But in the nineteenth century the “White tsars” living in far-off St. Petersburg, Russia, decided to include the Chechens’ homeland in their expanding empire and “civilize” the region’s wild inhabitants. In so doing, the Russians were to plant the seeds for centuries of violence and begin a war that continues in various forms to this day.5 Contact Russia’s Initial Probes The Russians first became involved in the Caucasus following their conquest of the last remnant of the once-mighty Mongol Tatars, the Black Sea state of the Crimean Khanate. After absorbing this troublesome raiding state in 1783, the Russians moved eastward from the Crimean Peninsula and into the plains north of the Caucasus.6 It was this inexorable progress, which was motivated largely by the urge to gain new lands and glory, that was to leave a bitter legacy between the Caucasian Muslim highlanders and the modernizing Russian Empire. After the fall of the Muslim bastion of the Crimean Khanate, the Russians began a series of advances into the Caucasus Mountains that culminated in their bold crossing of this range and annexation of the Christian land of Georgia on the southern flanks of the Caucasus. Soon thereafter, Russian settlers began to pour into the foothills of the northern Caucasus and to displace the region’s indigenous inhabitants. The first Caucasian people to flee the relentless advance of the Russians were the Nogai Tatars shepherds of the north Caucasian plains. Taking handfuls of soil from the graves of their ancestors, this Turkic Mongol herding people abandoned their native steppes in Europe’s last great nomadic migration and settled in the sheltering lands of the Ottoman sultan.7 As the Russians probed deeper into the dark forests of the lower slopes of the Caucasus Mountains known to the Chechens as the Bash Cam (Melting Mountains), they clashed with fierce local tribes, who were quick to react to Russia’s incursions. It was at this time that the Russians encountered ferocious resistance from the two largest tribal conglomerations inhabiting the north Caucasus flank, namely, the Circassians (in the west) and the Chechens (in the east). 8 Williams - Chechnya.indb 8 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood In the initial periods, Russian warfare with the Caucasus’s two great raiding peoples took on an almost sportsmanlike quality. Tsarist officers in search of glory, such as the great Russian authors Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Lermontov, cut their teeth in clashes with their respected highlander adversaries. This conformed with the flamboyant highlanders’ traditional form of warfare, which consisted of raids, daring skirmishes, personal duels, and martial proofs of manhood that were recounted in the highlanders’ colorful epics. In many ways, the Chechen mountaineers’ ritualistic form of warfare resembled the cattle raids of the ancient peoples of Europe, such as the Celts or their descendants the Scottish highlanders. The mountaineers’ traditional form of combat was most certainly not the prolonged, regimented sort of warfare of the Napoleonic era or the professional armies of Russia. In all fairness to the Russians, who have been condemned for their harsh treatment of the Caucasian natives in the nineteenth century, it should be noted that the raids for plunder launched by the Chechens into the lowlands claimed by Russia constituted a perpetual menace to the tsar’s newly conquered lands. While these pillaging razzias were considered the honorable pastime of Chechen abreks, they took their toll on the lowlanders whom the Russian conquerors claimed as subjects. Russia’s feared frontier generals had no qualms about responding to these raids with an overwhelming display of retaliatory force. Thus the warfare in the Caucasus developed a rhythm that often had little to do with the court of the tsars in distant St. Petersburg. In this respect, it was similar to the warfare that emerged in North America between the Plains Indians and the expanding Americans. As the tempo of this mounting conflict between cultures accelerated, the Chechens continued to fight in the way of their ancestors. A Chechen ballad from this period, which describes the sad fate of a legendary abrek raider, captures the martial spirit of the Chechens, who relished conflict with their Russian neighbors as proof of their manhood: The bold Hamzad, with the gallant horsemen of Ghikh, crosses the left bank of the Terek [a river that separated the lands of the expanding Russians from the Caucasian foothills] and leaves the river behind him. 9 Williams - Chechnya.indb 9 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya The brave Hamzad has crossed the Terek and entered the Nogai Steppes. He has captured a herd of white horses and recrossed the Terek, driving it before him. At the dawn of day he crossed it and drove the herd into the brushwood of Shirvan on the Hill of the Circassians. There was danger by day, and the riders were tired. They halted at Shirvan-Koulee and hid their spoil in the thicket. When he had hidden his booty and his companions in the wood, Hamzad ascended a high kurgan [ancient burial mound], and looked through his glass to see if the Russians were coming. Hamzad looks and sees a numerous band darkening the place where he had forded the Terek. As fast as a black cloud driven by the wind that band comes galloping on his traces. Seeing the multitude he went down from the kurgan and said to his companions “They follow as fast as the wind follows the clouds. Be not afraid, we will fight like famished leopards.” And again he said unto them “We will slaughter the horses and the cattle and surround ourselves with them as with a rampart. So shall we be able to defend ourselves.” His companions joyfully gave their consent. They cut the throats of the horses and stabbed the horned cattle and made a strong fence round themselves. And again Hamzad spoke to his companions and said “The Naib [Muslim deputy ruler] of Ghikh, Akhverdi Mahoma, stands likewise no doubt with his men on the [distant] hill-top.” “When he hears the noise of our fighting with the Russians he will fly to our aid like a bird of the air.” But this he said but to hearten his companions. Hamzad sat down with his riders behind the bloody breastwork and ordered one to keep watch on the enemy. The sentinels stand gazing earnestly. And lo! a horseman gallops out in front of the crowd — [he is] Prince Kagherman—and coming within hail he cries out [to the surrounded Chechens] “What prince’s people are you?” Hamzad laughed “We know no princes nor want to, we are riders from Ghikh, and came for spoil.” 10 Williams - Chechnya.indb 10 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood “Art thou not Hamzad?” asked Kagherman. “I am Hamzad!” “It is a pity, Hamzad, that you came here. A Russian band has overtaken you—overtaken and surrounded you. Unless you can grow wings as of the migrant birds and fly up in the air you cannot escape. The Russian commander has sent me; he will spare you if you surrender without fighting.” To this Hamzad answered “I came not here, oh Kagherman, for want of money; I came to win the death of gazavat [holy war]. And were I to surrender to thee, all of the people of Ghikh would laugh me to scorn. “As a wolf tired and hungry longs to reach the forest, as a horse unfed and mettlesome the fresh clean meadow — so do I and my companions thirst for a fight to the death. Nor do I fear thee, Kagherman. I laugh at all thy force, for our hope is in God, the all-powerful.” And again Hamzad said to Kagherman “Ever we sought booty and gold, but for such a day as this there is nothing so precious as black gunpowder.” And again he said “Gold is not money today, today the trusty Crimean flint is pure gold.” Kagherman went back to the Russian commander and told him that Hamzad refused to surrender. And Hamzad returned to his rampart and sat down with his companions. Then the troops came up and began firing and Hamzad and his riders fired back. Thick was the smoke of their firing, and Hamzad said “May this day be accursed! So hot it is that we have no shade but that of our swords.” And again he said “How thick is the smoke, how dark the day! Our only light is the flash of our guns.” And again Hamzad said “The houris [beautiful women] of paradise look down on us from their windows in Heaven and wonder, they dispute together whose they shall be, and she who falls to the braver of us will vaunt it before her friend—and she who falls to the less brave will blush for shame, and she will close the lattice on him and turn away, and if any of you plays the coward this day may his face be black when he stands before God!” But Hamzad thought in his heart that while that death was upon him, he could hope no more. 11 Williams - Chechnya.indb 11 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya High in the heavens he saw the birds flying and called to them “Oh birds of the air! Give our last greeting, our ultimate salutation, to the Naib of Ghikh, Akhverdi Mahoma. Greet also from us the beautiful ones, the damsels fair, and tell them that our proud breasts serve to stop Russian bullets—tell them that our wish was to rest after death in the graveyard at Ghikh, where our sisters would have wept on our tombs, and all the people would have sorrowed—but God grants no such grace. Not the sobbing of our sisters will be heard above us but the howling of famished wolves. Not relatives in troops will gather round, but a flock of ravens swart.” “And tell them too, on the Circassian hill, in the land of the infidel, bare blades in hand, we lie dead. The ravens pick out our eyes, the wolves tear our flesh.”8 As becomes obvious from both Chechen ballads and Russian records from the frontier, raids such as that commemorated in the ballad of Hamzad were a constant source of tension in this turbulent region. The highlanders in general, and the Chechens in particular, made turbulent neighbors, and the mountaineers engaged in raids for booty and captives on the lowlander populations as a way of life. One nineteenth-century Russian contemporary of the Chechens recorded this people as follows: Chechens are tall and well built. Their women are beautiful. They are considered to be gay and witty, “the Frenchmen of the Caucasus,” and impressionable, but they are less liked than the Circassians, owing to their suspicious, treacherous, and harsh nature — probably from ages of armed struggle. They are known for dauntless bravery, deftness, and hardiness and are cool headed in a fight—qualities long recognized even by their enemies. In time of peace they rob. Cattle rustling and abducting women and children—even it if be at the risk of their lives or having to crawl miles—are their favorite occupation . . . In the period of independence the Chechens, unlike the Circassians, had no feudal system or class divisions. They lived in free communities governed by people’s assemblies. “We are all uzdeni,” they explained, that is, free and equal.9 The following Russian account of the raids of the highlanders brings the turbulent nature of this frontier to life and helps explain the Russian motives for aiming to subdue the predatory mountain tribes: 12 Williams - Chechnya.indb 12 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood In 1809 during the attack of a party of Kabardians [a noble Circassian tribe] on the village of Kamennobrodsk, 58 inhabitants were wounded, 51 people were taken captive. By comparison, in repulsing the attack, 12 soldiers died, 19 were wounded, including one officer. In the attacks on the fort of Kruglolsk on the 13th of May 1823, 50 local people were killed, 41 wounded, and 302 were taken captive (the losses to the army —17 killed, 10 wounded). In the attacks of Gazi Mullah [a Dagestani war leader] on the city of Kizilyar [in Dagestan] on the 1st of November 1831, 103 peaceful inhabitants were killed, 29 were wounded and 155 were taken prisoner.10 Raids of the sort that were deplored in this Russian record and glorified in the ballad of Hamzad failed to prevent the Russians from systematically establishing forts in the Caucasian foothills to subdue the restless mountaineers. As the Russians moved deeper and deeper into the Caucasus, they established military lines and protected them with wooden forts that resembled those built by the American military in the lands of the nineteenth-century Plains Indians. Among the most important fortresses established by the Russians to control the turbulent highlanders was a fortress city constructed in the lowlands of Chechnya named Grozny, a name that in Russian translates to “The Terrible” or, more accurately, “The Foreboding.” While the highlanders had no way of knowing it at the time, the establishment of Grozny in 1818 was a signal that the Russian conquest of the Caucasus had entered a new stage. Having subdued the Caucasus lowlands, Russia’s generals now were preparing to march deeper into the foothills and break the spirit of the troublesome highlanders once and for all. Russia’s total war with the Chechens and surrounding tribes was about to begin. Empire The “Pacification” of the Highlanders No general was more feared for his brutality in conquering the Che chens than Aleksey Petrovich Yermolov, also known as “the Butcher,” who subdued the Chechens in the 1830s.11 This feared conqueror, whose contempt for the Caucasians led him to engage in all sorts of atrocities against the Chechens, once commented, “Condescension in the eyes of Asiatics is a sign of weakness, and out of pure humanity I am inexorably 13 Williams - Chechnya.indb 13 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya severe. One execution saves hundreds of Russians from destruction and thousands of Muslims from treason.”12 Yermolov’s policy of executing conquered mountaineers to “save them from treason” not surprisingly succeeded in spreading fear throughout a region that had always had a more symbolic form of ritual warfare. Israeli scholar Moshe Gammer relates, “When he decided to push the Chechens south of the Sunja he surrounded a village and slaughtered all its inhabitants — men, women and children. On other occasions, captured women were sold as slaves or distributed to Russian officers, so that winter quarters ‘for the officers, at least, the Commander-in-Chief setting the example, the time passed pleasantly enough in the company of native wives.’”13 In the face of Yermolov’s brutality, the stunned highlanders initially failed to forge a united front. Those Chechens living in the lowlands of the Caucasus surrendered to the might of the Russian armies in order to preserve their exposed villages from total destruction. Russia’s transition from a gradual conquest to a more concentrated effort to subdue the region appeared to be paying off. But as Schaefer points out, “Because Yermolov was only concerned with coercive behavior, he lost the battle for the Chechen hearts and minds, and poisoned entire generations.”14 It was at this time that many Russian peasants settled in the plains of northern Chechnya, a region known as the above-Terek district, and began displacing the Chechen lowlanders. In the process, the lowlander Chechens became more Russified, their clan system weakened, and they became less prone to joining the uprisings of holy warriors from the mountains. In Russian terms, these lowland Chechens had become “civilized.” After pursuing a successful policy of divide and rule among the lowland Chechens, the Russians subsequently were able to subdue most of the tough fighters of the lands lying to the east of Chechnya in the mountainous land of Dagestan. Like the Chechen lowlanders, the Avars, Darghins, Lezgins, and other Dagestani tribes of the eastern Caucasus sullenly submitted to the might of Russia’s professional armies in order to preserve their welfare and their very lives. In the conquest of Dagestan, however, many local rulers made agreements with the Russians that did not reflect the feelings of their people. 14 Williams - Chechnya.indb 14 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood These Russian-dominated quislings quickly earned the contempt of their devout Muslim countrymen, who despised the Orthodox Russian conquerors as infidels. For in Dagestan, Islam was older than in the lands of the Chechens, and the Dagestanis had a deeper attachment to the faith of Muhammad. But the Russians encountered even more difficulties in the west. The Circassians, from the western Caucasus as previously mentioned, stubbornly refused to submit to Russia’s battalions, and the tragic fate of this tribe was to serve as a warning to all its neighbors. In response to the Circassians’ stubborn resistance, imperial Russia pursued a scorchedearth policy that saw their homeland ravaged, orchards cut down, fields destroyed, mountain villages burnt, and this once-proud people ethnically cleansed from its ancient hearth. It was to be modern Europe’s first genocide. The slaughter and expulsion of as many as three-quarters of a million Circassians, a noble people who had long been respected by their neighbors in the Caucasus, spread ripples of fear throughout the mountains.15 The following eyewitness account of Russian operations in Circassia captures the nature of this all-out war, which surpassed the colonial conquests of the French and English in its brutality: The mountain auls (villages) were burnt by the hundreds. The snow had only just melted away, but it was before the trees had become clothed in their greenery; the crops (of the highlanders) were eaten by the horses or even trampled down. If we managed to catch the inhabitants of the auls unawares they were immediately led away under military escort to the Black Sea and then sent to Turkey. How many times did it happen that in the huts which had been hurriedly abandoned upon our approach we found warm gruel with a spoon in it on the table, clothing which was being repaired with the needle still in it, and various children’s toys which looked as though they had been spread out on the floor next to a child. Sometimes—to the credit of our soldiers — very seldom, bestial atrocities were committed.16 While the above author seemed proud of the fact that Russians rarely carried out “bestial atrocities,” such claims are not borne out by other eyewitness accounts. The Russian subjugation of the Circassians was a 15 Williams - Chechnya.indb 15 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya bloody affair marked by numerous atrocities. One Russian officer quoted in Walter Richmond’s groundbreaking work, The Circassian Genocide, wrote, “On the road our eyes were met with a staggering image: corpses of women, children, elderly persons, torn to pieces and half-eaten by dogs; deportees emaciated by hunger and disease, almost too weak to move their legs, collapsing from exhaustion and becoming prey to dogs while still alive.”17 The last pitiful remnants of the Circassians fled from their burning villages and rampaging Russian soldiers to the coastal town of Sochi. There the terrified survivors boarded ships and fled to the sanctuary of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. While few people today are aware of the Circassians because they were largely exterminated, Doku Umarov, the Chechen terrorist leader who took control of the insurgency in 2006 and created the Caucasian Emirate terrorist group, tried to remind the world of their cruel fate. On the eve of the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Russia, Doku Umarov lashed out at the Russians and launched three suicide bombings that took the lives of forty people in the nearby Russian town of Volgograd. He warned Russian president Vladimir Putin that holding the Olympics in Sochi was “satanic dancing on the bones of our ancestors.”18 While the Circassians largely have been forgotten (their survivors peacefully protested Putin’s 2014 Winter Olympics), at the time the annihilation of this race caused considerable consternation in Britain. The conquest and total expulsion of this people, the first genocide in modern Europe, was also meant to send a message to all the other highlander tribes. While the Caucasian tribes could sustain a short-term conflict, Russia’s massive, professional armies could outlast them in duration and overwhelm them with sheer numbers, determination, and systematic brutality. As the Russians’ unprecedented punitive operations against the Circassians made abundantly clear, resistance to the tsar resulted in total warfare and collective punishment. This mode of warfare applied not just to the warriors, but also to all noncombatants: women, children, the elderly. If a fighter from a nearby village fired on their troops, all the villagers were held responsible for his actions by the Russian conquerors and were punished. Those suspected of providing succor to the highlander 16 Williams - Chechnya.indb 16 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM first blood abreks were held responsible, and whole districts were torched, their cattle driven off, and their crops destroyed in Russia’s punitive missions. With the expulsion of many nineteenth-century Chechens to the Ottoman Empire and the subjugation of the majority of those who remained, the Russians had reason to believe that the north Caucasus had been subdued by the late 1830s. After this date, members of the Russian nobility could ride in carriages through the Chechen villages observing the “quaint local costumes” of “the newly tamed highland natives” and revel in the rugged natural beauty of the empire’s latest acquisition. As the highlanders were to show their Russian “masters” on many occasions, however, they were far from subdued. It took only the smallest of sparks to set off an inferno that could sweep through their valleys and set this “pacified” province on fire. As one British observer ominously noted, “No impartial reader of the Russian accounts of this period can doubt that they [the Chechens] were cruelly oppressed.”19 For in spite of the fact that the Russians had written off the lowlanders as a people who had been humbled by the power of imperial Russia, this proud people seethed under the scepter of Russia and prepared to revolt. The spark that was to set the conquered mountaineers on the road to holy war against the Russian conquerors was to take the form of a redbearded Dagestani holy man. That holy man’s name was Imam Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan, and his revolt was to cost tens of thousands their lives and to earn the Caucasus the title of “Graveyard of the Russian Empire.” 17 Williams - Chechnya.indb 17 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM 2 Resistance It is probably true to say that for the Russian state, Chechnya is a hated obsession, a focus of the deepest wells of ethnic and religious contempt and fear. A strain in Russian thought, voiced by people ranging from the Tsars to the soldiers, has called for the destruction of this entire nation. — Robert Seeley, Russo-Chechen Conflict, 1800–20001 Everywhere there are mountains, everywhere forests, and the Chechens are fierce and tireless fighters. — General Tournau, 18322 18 Williams - Chechnya.indb 18 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM The Flames of Resistance The Chechens, whose homeland was devastated by the conquering Russians and whose ancient liberty was lost, were more profoundly shaped by their experience of conquest and subjugation than the victorious Russians.3 In the numbed aftermath of the initial Russian conquest of the north Caucasus, scores of Chechen hamlets had been transformed into smoldering ruins, and the ritual wailing of the Chechens mourning lost loved ones drifted through the mountain vales. Their laments proclaimed to the world that the Chechen highlanders, untamed since the dawn of history, had at long last been subdued. While a Russian soldier who served on the Russian general Yermolov’s staff may have opined “who cares for history?” the proud Chechens have a different relationship with history. Like many conquered peoples, from the Scots and Welsh to the Native American Indians, the Chechens have defined their identity around their past defeats. The Chechens’ transgenerational ballads of desperate last stands and holy fighters who were “martyred” provide a residue of ritualized hostility and symbolic grievances whose legacy is still felt in the north Caucasus today. For over a century, the Chechens have based their collective identity on opposition to the Russian and later Soviet states that conquered and oppressed them. As a result, it is not surprising that their culture glorifies the notion of arms in defense of liberty. In the Chechens’ martial culture, the events of the mid-nineteenth century are not relegated to the dustbin of history, they are very much alive today. For military historians, the nineteenth-century Chechen uprising against the Russians appears as a dress rehearsal for the twenty-first century conflict between the secessionist Chechen rebels and the post- Soviet Russian Federation. As in the Russia of the twenty-first century, in the nineteenth century the occupying tsarist forces arbitrarily arrested many Chechens suspected of being insurgents, launched preemptive sweeps (known as zachistkas in the modern wars) in search of rebels, and engaged in a policy of collective punishment. Having brutally subdued the Chechens and their neighbors, the nineteenth-century Russians also requisitioned their possessions, offended local Muslim sensibilities with their licentious behavior, and 19 Williams - Chechnya.indb 19 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya supplemented their meager military pay through “taxes” arbitrarily levied on the conquered population. After subduing the Chechen lowlands and neighboring territory of Dagestan, tsarist forces confiscated the natives’ crops, attempted to forcefully regulate the mountaineers (who respected no outside authority), and most important, attempted to disarm this warlike people, who considered their weapons to be the supreme marker of their highlander identity. To the nineteenth-century Chechens and other mountain peoples, arms were both a sign of manhood and an important means of defense against the inroads of neighboring raiders. They were an ancient part of the Chechens’ martial culture. Russia’s military leaders must have foreseen the outrage their policy of forcefully collecting weapons would cause among the proud highlanders. But few could have foreseen the magnitude of their violent response to this order when it was channeled by one Imam Shamil into a full-blown jihad (holy war). The Russian military’s attempt to forcefully wrest the Chechens’ weapons from their hands was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back. This single act transformed the simmering fury of this subjugated mountain people into a full-blown rebellion. As the Russians launched weapons collection sweeps, the mountain people sought a leader to unite them in expelling their hated oppressors. While most Chechens resembled the famed abrek Hamzad in “recognizing no prince,” their clan leaders wisely realized that they needed a strong war leader to unify them and help them rid themselves of their tormentors. It was at this time (1834) that a charismatic imam (a religious leader) appeared among the Avars, the most numerous highlander tribe living nearby in Dagestan. This legendary Avar strategist would succeed, for the first time, in uniting all of the quarreling mountain tribes of the northeastern Caucasus and forming a united fighting force to resist their common Slavic enemy. In the process, Shamil also would succeed in building a short-lived Islamic state uniting the Muslims of the north Caucasus in an alliance that he hoped would enable them to drive the Christian invaders from their lands. It is this state that the Dagestani jamaats (military and terror units) and Chechen insurgents in the post-2009 Caucasus aim to reconstruct as part of the so-called Caucasian Emirate. 20 Williams - Chechnya.indb 20 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM resistance The nineteenth-century Shamil was a devout Sufi Muslim and a visionary who, like Muhammad ibn abd al-Wahhab (an eighteenth-century puritanical religious reformer in Saudi Arabia who spread an intolerant fundamentalist version of Islam known as Wahhabism), sought to cleanse the pagan corruptions found in Dagestani Islam. As in many Muslim frontier lands that were undergoing encroachment by European colonial powers, Shamil’s militant Sufism provided new hope in the face of a creeping sense of defeat. Shamil’s anti-Russian Sufi brotherhood also provided a higher sense of spirituality for many Muslims in the region who had never strictly adhered to the tenets of the holy Qu’ran. Shamil preached a new form of Islam, which sought to cleanse the local versions of Islam of their mystical “corruptions” and pagan holdovers. He also sought to provide the highlanders with a sense of spiritual unity in the face of Russian policies of divide and conquer. As the nineteenth-century Wahhabi Saudi fundamentalists had done in Arabia, Shamil sought to cleanse the Muslim highlanders’ beliefs, eliminate their worship of local saints and mystics, and abolish their freewheeling ways, which involved drinking, smoking, and singing. Only by teaching the lax highlanders purified Islam could Shamil transform them into dedicated holy warriors. Shamil clearly understood that the mountain tribes could never withstand the bayonets and cannons of the mighty Russian kafirs (unbelievers) if they were divided. But united by a new strict form of shariah Islamic law, they could launch a full-scale guerilla war that would shake the very foundations of the Russian Empire.4 As Imam Shamil’s message of defensive jihad against the infidels resounded across the valleys of the Russian-occupied Caucasus Mountains, it radicalized the local Islamic culture. It also created a unity of purpose among this divided people, who had never had a fanatical adherence to their faith prior to this. While the easygoing Chechens instinctively disliked Shamil’s austere interpretation of Islam, they were willing to submit grudgingly to Shamil’s naibs (deputies) if it meant expelling the hated Russians. In so doing, their desperate struggle with the Russians over land and freedom took on religious undertones and gradually became a full-fledged holy war. 21 Williams - Chechnya.indb 21 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya Mountain Jihad By 1840 the Caucasus, which many Russian officials had prematurely declared “pacified,” was on fire. As the Russians tried to confiscate their guns, the mountain people spontaneously took to the hills and commenced a coordinated guerilla struggle against the tsar’s armies under the black banners of Shamil. Even the wild Chechens, who were known for their inability to surrender their prerogatives for self-rule to any man, agreed to submit to Shamil. The Chechens soon formed the most deadly contingent of his trans-Caucasian resistance army. Having succeeded in uniting the prickly highlander peoples of Dage stan, such as the Avars, Dargins, Lezgins, and Kumyks, with the Che chens, Shamil unleashed a holy war on the Russian Empire. A Russian officer described the electrifying effect of Shamil’s call for jihad among the previously disunited mountaineers as follows: He threatened the enemy north, east, west and south, kept them continually on the move, dispersed his commandos to their homes, gathered them again as if by magic, and aided by the extraordinary mobility of his mounted troops who required no baggage, nor any equipment or supplies but what each individual carried with him, swooped down on the Russians continually where least expected.5 Another officer wrote: Establishing a new mode of operations to be constantly followed in the future, almost always successfully, they avoided pitched battle with our forces, thanks to their amazing speed. Our columns were brought to extreme exhaustion by trying to chase them.6 Yet another Russian commented: We have never had in the Caucasus an enemy so savage and dangerous as Shamil. Owing to a combination of circumstances his rule has acquired a religious-military character, the same by which at the beginning of Islamism Muhammad’s sword shook three quarters of the Universe.7 The Chechens quickly began to play a prominent role in the united north Caucasian struggle against the Russians. Shamil knew that the re22 Williams - Chechnya.indb 22 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM resistance sistance to the might of Russia’s imperial armies could be sustained only if this people’s fierce warriors kept up their struggle side by side with the mountain people of Dagestan. For this reason, Shamil fought tirelessly to convert the Chechens to his puritanical version of Islam and to instill in them a devotion to the cause of the anti-Russian jihad. Russian commanders on the front lines at the time noticed that many Chechens heeded Shamil’s call and joined his murids (holy warriors). In Russian terms, these Chechens had become more “fanatical” in their determination to defend their families and villages and their willingness to die for the cause of the jihad. It became obvious to many Russian officers in the field that Russia’s harsh treatment of the Chechens had inspired a new strain of fiercely anti-Russian, xenophobic Islam among the Muslim clans of Chechnya. While it must be stated that the majority of Chechens resented Shamil’s representatives for attempting to enforce shariah fundamentalism in their villages, even those who did not join his murids were more than willing to join his holy war if it meant destroying the hated Russian occupiers. Regardless of Chechen society’s perceptions of the Islamic fighters, in the nineteenth-century wars, Chechens who took up the novel cause of the jihad proved to be some of the fiercest guerrillas the Russian imperial forces ever had encountered. As the Chechen resistance to the tsar increased in the 1840s, the Russian army commenced a massive deforestation campaign designed to destroy the trees of Chechnya, which provided cover for the Chechen fighters.8 In addition to systematically chopping down ancient forests, the Russians directly occupied the villages of the Chechen lowlanders and punished those suspected of supporting Shamil’s murids in the mountains by destroying their farms and livestock. As the Russians increasingly became frustrated with their failure to destroy Shamil’s elusive guerrillas, the differences between the tsar’s armies and the Chechen fighters became glaringly obvious. The Russian invading armies were largely made up of serf conscripts taken from the villages of the Russian heartlands and forced to fight in the alien and foreboding mountains of the Caucasus. The Russian conscript soldier, while stolid and able to withstand all sorts of privations, was often not inclined to engage in acts of individual heroism that might reward him with an 23 Williams - Chechnya.indb 23 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya unmarked grave in the mountains. Rather, his objective was to survive his encounters with the feared Chechen irregulars, who were fighting to defend their homeland. What the Russians lacked in fighting spirit, however, they compensated for in sheer numbers. Their massive imperial armies in the Caucasus had as many as two hundred thousand soldiers in them by the mid-nineteenth century and dwarfed the seasonal fighting forces of their Muslim highlander adversaries. While the Russians could throw tens of thousands of Slavic peasants into their imperial enterprise, the numerically inferior highlanders could not afford to sustain the level of losses that Russia’s generals found acceptable. What the Chechen fighters lacked in numbers, however, they more than made up for in fighting élan. They were a martial people fighting for the defense of their families, homeland, and increasingly, their faith. The Chechens’ ability to fight on against the odds, however, required more than blind devotion. According to one account, their success stemmed largely from the fact that “each fighter was armed and maintained by his family, each fighting unit by its clan. His [Shamil’s] ‘army’ constituted, in essence, a people’s volunteer corps.”9 The average Chechen fighter had more to fight for in the defense of his family and clan than the Russian soldier serving far from his home among the wild tribes of the Caucasus. This is a truism that certainly applies to the sad fate of tens of thousands of frightened Russian Federation conscripts who served in Chechnya during the more recent post-Soviet wars. In the time of Imam Shamil, the Chechens also employed military tactics that resembled those of their modern descendants in the wars from 1994 to 2015. To make up for their deficiency in numbers, for example, the nineteenth-century Chechen fighters avoided direct combat with the larger Russian armies whenever possible. The mountaineers’ warfare usually took the form of ambushes, guerrilla strikes, and attacks on isolated outposts. On occasion, however, the Chechen guerrilla fighters also proved to be capable of launching frontal assaults on Russian columns and formations. A nineteenth-century account of the highlanders’ battle stratagems depicts the sort of fighting skills and tactics that have made the Chechens such feared adversaries to this very day: 24 Williams - Chechnya.indb 24 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM resistance It is true that the Caucasian guerrillas rarely expose themselves in a regular pitched battle, and as they are perfectly acquainted with the country and its localities, their losses, compared with those of the Russians, cannot be very great . . . As an irregular soldier, the Caucasian guerrilla has not an equal in any country . . . Indeed, when we consider the nature of the country, the strength of the defiles, the warlike spirit of the people, their continual wars with the Russians, and [their] determination to maintain their independence at whatever cost, we cannot wonder that, with such training, they should be the most accomplished guerillas any country ever produced, nor that they should undertake the most hazardous and romantic expeditions, and rarely fail of success; for so great is their cunning and address that no enemy can calculate on their movements, appearing to be endowed with the attribute of ubiquity. In addition to acting in small bodies under their respective chiefs, they prove a constant source of disquietude, and give perpetual occupation to whole brigades of Russian soldiers, even within sight of their own forts; and such is their hardihood, and so great their hatred for the enemy, that, when in want of ammunition, they, will lie in wait for days in the thickets till some unfortunate stragglers, or it may be a whole detachment, appear in sight, when they are instantly attacked.10 While the Chechen cavalry skirmishers (known as murtaziqas) faded away before invading Russian battalions, the Chechen sharpshooters were a constant threat as the Russian battalions marched through the forests of Chechnya. The skilled Chechen marksmen took a heavy toll on the Russian columns that sought to penetrate their land and made sure that the Russians paid a price in blood for every meter of land they conquered. Prince Bariantsky, a nineteenth-century Russian general tasked with the unenviable mission of conquering the rebellious Chechens, left the following account of losses his men faced to Chechen sharpshooters: The mountaineers were not to be frightened by fighting. Constant warfare had given them such confidence that a few score men could engage without hesitation a column several battalions strong, and firing one shot to hundred would occasion us more loss than we would them. Fighting 25 Williams - Chechnya.indb 25 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya implies some sort of equality, and so long as they could fight, the enemy had no thought for submission.11 The following account of a Russian campaign, which set out with the intention to “pass through the country, ruining settlements, destroying harvests, raiding herds and flocks, and attacking the enemy wherever they had the audacity to collect in any force,” captures the difficulties the Russian invaders faced in attacking the Chechens on their home turf. Once again this eyewitness account could apply to Chechen tactics in the post-Soviet Russo-Chechen Wars. Replace the muskets of the nineteenth century with modern sniper rifles and antitank grenades, and the following account could be a description of the Russian defeat in Grozny at the hands of Chechen guerillas in the winter of 1994–95: At that time (1832) we had not yet cut avenues through the forests. In the early “twenties,” indeed, Yermoloff had cleared a distance of a musket shot on either side of the road through the well-known Goiten forest, but this had already become overgrown by an impenetrable thicket of underwood, so that we had to face warfare in Chechnya under the most difficult conditions. As opponents the Chechens merited the fullest respect, and amidst their forests and mountains no troops in the world could afford to despise them. Good shots, fiercely brave, intelligent in military affairs, they, like other inhabitants of the Caucasus, were quick to take advantage of local conditions, seize upon any mistake we made, and with incredible swiftness use it for our own destruction . . . . In the war with the Chechens, one day was like any other . . . Fighting went on from the beginning to [the] end of each march; there was the chatter of musketry, the hum of bullets; men fell; but no enemy was seen. Puffs of smoke in the jungle alone betrayed their lurking-places, and our soldiers, having nothing else to guide them, took aim at that.12 In the face of such relentless attacks, the Russians, like a wounded bear, struck indiscriminately at the Chechen civilians, destroying settlements, transferring conquered Chechens to easily controlled regions, settling trusted Cossacks in the pacified lowlands, and destroying the cherished Chechen forests, which offered the guerrillas refuge. The real conquest of Chechnya actually was achieved not with the bayonet, but with the forester’s axe. The denuded foothills of Chechnya are, to 26 Williams - Chechnya.indb 26 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM resistance this day, unnaturally bare and eloquent testimony to the effectiveness of Russia’s systematic campaign of deforestation. Just as the Russian Federation destroyed the “urban forest” of Grozny in its winter 1999–2000 campaign to eradicate Chechen fighters hiding there, the nineteenth-century Russians felled the ancient forests of Chechnya to flush out the guerillas who operated in their dark depths. In so doing, the remorseless Russians finally pushed the Chechens to the brink. Caucasian Armageddon The Destruction of Chechnya Time and again a pattern emerged in Chechnya. As the Russians launched brutal attacks on the general populace, embittered Chechens left their burnt forests and villages to join the guerillas. The Russians, in effect, proved to be excellent recruitment officers for Imam Shamil’s forces. Many an ordinary Chechen threw down his plow to join the resistance out of a thirst for revenge following a Russian raid. The great Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who, like much of the Russian intelligentsia, knew the Caucasus and admired the Chechens for their fierce determination to resist the tsar’s forces, left the following account of this process of embitterment among the nineteenth-century Chechens in his famous novel Hadji Murat: When they returned, Sado [a Chechen] found his house destroyed; the roof had caved in, the door and pillars of the balcony were burnt, and the interior was wrecked. The body of his son, the handsome boy with shining eyes who had thrilled at the sight of Hadji Murat, was brought to the mosque on a horse covered with a cloak. He had been bayoneted in the back . . . Two ricks of hay that were there had been burnt; the apricot and cherry trees that he had planted and trained were smashed and, worst of all, the beehives were burnt. The wail of women was heard in all the houses and on the square, where two more bodies were brought. Small children howled with their mothers . . . The fountain was polluted, obviously on purpose, so that no water could be taken from it. The mosque was also defiled, and the Mullah was cleaning it with his pupils. No one spoke of the hatred for the Russians. The feelings, which all the Chechens, young and old experienced, was 27 Williams - Chechnya.indb 27 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya stronger than hatred. It was not hatred, but a refusal to recognize these Russian dogs as people, and such a disgust, horror and incomprehension of the monstrous cruelty of these creatures that the urge to kill them, like the urge to kill rats, poisonous spiders, and wolves, was as natural a feeling as the instinct of self-preservation. The villagers had the choice of remaining in their homes and restoring with fearful efforts everything that had been built up so laboriously and so lightly and thoughtlessly destroyed, expecting every moment a repetition of the same destruction, or, against the laws of their religion and despite the revulsion and scorn they felt for the Russians, submitting to them. The elders prayed and decided unanimously to send envoys to Shamil asking him for help, and at once started to repair the destruction.13 One cannot overestimate the impact that the telling and retelling of the accounts of such Russian atrocities had on the Chechens’ views of the Russians even decades after these events. The feeling of rage, mingled with a sense of injustice felt by the Chechens in the aftermath of such unprecedented destruction shaped future generations that grew up as subjects of the Russian tsar in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For many Chechens and Dagestanis who were driven to despair by the ability of the Russians to field larger and larger armies, there was an almost-millenarian sense of doom as the years of fighting became decades. By the 1850s, the highlanders felt that their way of life was coming to an end and the fabric of their society was being torn asunder. It was this sense of doom, combined with a growing sense of spirituality and fatalism, that drove many Chechens to fight alongside Shamil’s ascetic warriors even as their cause appeared finished. The following eyewitness account of the destruction of a lowland Chechen village by a Russian battalion captures the growing sense of hatred, despair, and determination evinced by many Chechens who chose to fight to the finish rather than accept foreign rule: The defenders listened to the proposal [to surrender to the Russians], conferred together, and then a half-naked Chechen, black with smoke came out, made a short speech, followed by a volley from all the 28 Williams - Chechnya.indb 28 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM resistance loopholes. What he said was this: “The only grace we ask of the Russians is to let our families know we died as we lived, refusing submission to any foreign yoke.” Orders were now given to [set] fire [to] the saklias [stone houses] from all sides. The sun had set, and the picture of destruction and ruin was lighted only by the red glow of the flames. The Chechens, firmly resolved to die, set up their death-song, loud at first, but sinking lower and lower as their numbers diminished under the influence of fire and smoke. However, death by fire is a terrible agony, such as all had not strength to bear. There was a flash; a bullet whistled past over our ears, and brandishing his sword, a Chechen dashed straight at us. Artarshtchikov let the raging desperado come within ten paces, quietly took aim, and put a bullet in his bare chest. The Chechen sprang high in the air, fell, rose again to his feet, stretched himself to his full length, and bending slowly forward, fell dead on his native soil. Five minutes later the scene was repeated; another sprang out, fired his gun, and brandishing his sword, broke through two lines of sharpshooters, to fall bayoneted by the third. The burning saklias began to fall asunder, scattering sparks on the trampled gardens . . . Not one Chechen was taken alive; seventy two men ended their lives in the flame! The last act of the bloody drama was played out; night covered the scene. Each one had done his duty according to his conscience; the chief actors had gone their way to eternity: the rest, together with the mere spectators, with hearts like lead, sought the refuge of their tents; and maybe more than one, in the depth of his being, asked himself, why must such things be? Is there no room for all on this earth, without distinction of speech or faith?14 As scenes of this sort were repeated throughout Chechnya, Shamil’s fighters increasingly found themselves hemmed in. Russia’s decades-long war of attrition was finally takings its toll on the highland villagers, who paid the price for Shamil’s increasingly futile resistance. In addition to engaging in total warfare against the highlanders, Russia’s modern armies had a growing technological advantage over their quasi-medieval opponents. With the aid of sophisticated new weapons, such as faster-firing, quick-loading rifles and, most important, portable 29 Williams - Chechnya.indb 29 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya field cannons, the Russians were often able to avoid hand-to-hand combat with the Chechen fighting men and defeat them at a distance. In the face of similar superiority in numbers and weaponry, the Che chen and Dagestani resistance fighters of the nineteenth century found that the villages that supported their struggle were increasingly falling into Russian hands. In the face of relentless Russian advances, Shamil’s forces retreated deeper and deeper into the gorges of Chechnya and Dagestan, where Shamil made a desperate last stand. In 1859 Shamil finally was surrounded by a Russian army and captured, thus bringing an end to the united jihad of the Dagestanis and Chechens. As the mighty Lion of Dagestan was led down from the mountains to captivity in Russia, the highlanders’ dream of retaining their ancient freedom came to an end. Aftermath The Legacy of the Russian Conquest Largely as a result of the ferocious defense of the highlands by mountain gazis (holy warriors), such as Shamil and two earlier imams, it took the Russian Empire not five, or ten, years to subdue the northern Caucasus, but over sixty. This was to be the most drawn-out war the empire ever embarked on. It was with good reason that the Caucasus became known as “The Graveyard of the Russian Empire.” As for the conquered Chechens, when the cannon smoke finally cleared from their burnt and deforested valleys, it left a landscape of toppled minarets, gutted villages, and denuded hills inhabited by an embittered people who dreamed of revenge and freedom. In many ways the following description of the destruction wrecked on the Circassian highland villages by the Russian armies applied to the hamlets of the Chechens as well: At the end of the 1830s, when the Russians began to construct coastal strongholds, the entire coast and mountain belt adjacent to it was an elaborately cultivated oasis where, alongside wild, impregnable cliffs and eternal forests (now relentlessly felled in all the more accessible places), nestled fine vineyards and lush meadows, even laid out here and there on artificial terraces supplied with water from man-made canals and protected from heavy downpours by artificial channels. 30 Williams - Chechnya.indb 30 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM resistance But the bloody war drove out and destroyed the mountain people; their culture was exterminated, the artificial canals became choked up, terraces, which had cost so much work, crumbled. The spacious gardens and fine vineyards were partly cut down during the war and the period when the country was settled by the Russians, or became wild and overgrown, so that now it is difficult to determine where the thicket intertwined with wild vines ends, and where the former cultivated area begins.15 As this and other eyewitness accounts make abundantly clear, for all of the nineteenth-century Russian authors’ musings on the glory of the “civilizing” conquest of this majestic mountain chain, the Russian subjugation of the Caucasus was a cruel and inhumane affair even by the standards of the time. The Russian conquest of Chechnya was a bloody enterprise replete with butchery, ethnic cleansing, total warfare, and every manner of colonial excess. For the nineteenth-century Chechens who surveyed their scorched fields, buried their slain loved ones, rebuilt their desecrated places of worship, and lived with the knowledge that they were no longer a free people, there was cold comfort in the knowledge that they had suffered for the greater glory of the tsar, Orthodoxy, and Mother Russia. Having recognized the brutal nature of the Russian conquest of the Chechens, it should, however, be stated that the Russian subjugation of the Caucasus was no harsher than the us government’s pacification and “resettlement” of the Native American Indians or the European powers’ colonization of Africa and Asia. As Russia’s burgeoning people spread into the “black lands” of the southern Ukraine and into the plains of the northern Caucasus, they considered it to be their “manifest destiny” to tame the unruly tribes on their southern frontier and open up their lands for Slavic settlement. The constant plundering expeditions of the Che chens into the lands of the Terek Cossacks gave the tsar’s frontier generals all the excuse they needed for declaring total war on the mountaineers. That the nineteenth-century Chechens’ raids for plunder and human captives were a threat to the Russian Empire’s subjects in the lowlands and neighboring provinces is not disputed here. In the tsarist period, it was Russia’s duty to protect her expanding borders from the raids of the 31 Williams - Chechnya.indb 31 7/15/2015 7:21:34 PM inferno in chechnya Chechens, and this gave her frontier generals the right then, as now, to subdue the obstreperous highlanders. Furthermore, as Richard Pierce states in his history of Russian expansion in Central Asia, “The idea that it is unethical for one people to control the destiny of another has come late in the development of the human social conscience.”16 The previous description of the Russian campaigns of conquest in the Caucasus is meant not as a moral critique of Russia’s actions in the Caucasus, rather it serves as a means for understanding the Chechens’ current perceptions of their shared history with Russia. While the Russians celebrate the conquests of Yermolov, the heroes of the Chechens’ history are those who made their conquest of the Caucasus as costly as possible. As a defeated nation, the heroes and martyrs of the past have much greater potency as symbols of resistance among the Chechens today than do the Russians’ historical icons from this same period. One cannot understand the Chechens’ contemporary relationship with the Russian authorities without understanding this people’s countermemory of conquest by, and resistance to, their people’s historic “Other,” the Russian Empire. This tragic history, more than any mythical alliance with bin Laden’s Arab-dominated Al Qaeda, explains the Chechens’ rationale for fighting against Russia after the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1991. Not surprisingly, with the collapse of the ussr in 1991 and subsequent efforts by the Kremlin to regain control of the breakaway province of Chechnya, the Chechens and neighboring Dagestanis have developed something of a cult of personality surrounding Imam Shamil and his nineteenth-century resistance to the tsars. Throughout post-Soviet Chechnya there has been an upsurge of interest in the imam’s role in uniting the highlanders of Dagestan and Chechnya against Russia to create a Caucasian Emirate. One of the modern-day Chechen secessionists’ most prominent field commanders, Shamil Basayev, for example, openly emulated the anti-Russian exploits of his legendary gazi namesake. He tried to duplicate his creation of a unified Dagestani-Chechen jihadi state with his 1999 raids into Dagestan. With the defeat of the Chechens in the second war, which officially ended in 2009, there has been the rise of a new Caucasian Emirate based in Dagestan, which is fighting an on-again, offagain terror campaign against Russia. It is a little-known fact that since 2009 Chechnya has been largely pacified, and it is the D agestani-based 32 Williams - Chechnya.indb 32 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM resistance terror organization known as the Caucasian Emirate that has carried out most anti-Russian terrorism. For rogue field commanders such as Shamil Basayev and the terrorists of the modern-day Caucasian Emirate, the glories of Imam Shamil were and are to be emulated in a very real sense. It may have been a desire to follow in Imam Shamil’s footsteps that led Basayev to lead a unit of Chechen, Arab, and Dagestani militants in invading the Russian province of Dagestan in August of 1999, thus commencing the fateful Second Russo-Chechen War. While the memory of Imam Shamil, one of the greatest anticolonial guerillas of the nineteenth century, may have faded away in Russia, he continues to be lionized by the Chechens and neighboring Dagestanis to this very day. Certainly, the memory of Shamil remained alive among the highlanders in the years immediately following their subjugation by Russia. In the decades following Shamil’s capture, the Russian imperial officials and later Soviet commissars who entered the Chechen villages to collect taxes, enforce their alien laws, confiscate guns, and arrest potential troublemakers encountered the hostile stares of a conquered population that kept to itself and stubbornly maintained its native traditions. Outsiders who traveled through this newly conquered province entered a land that was to remain the most distinctly “non-Russian” region in the entire Russian Empire right up until that state’s collapse during the Russian Civil War of 1917–1923. While the Russian government claimed the Chechens as subjects (or more commonly classified them as inorodtsy, “internal aliens”), they were never recognized as trustworthy citizens. In many ways, this situation prevailed through the succeeding Soviet and Russian Federation periods as well. In response, the Chechens kept to themselves. In the timeless mountains of the northern Caucasus, the tsar’s new Muslim subjects continued to hold their zikirs (mystical chants and dances), visit the holy grave sites of slain murids in search of miracles and cures, respect their village elders, and give their loyalty to their Sufi brotherhoods and clans, even as the “infidel” tsarist empire around them entered the turbulent twentieth century. But the Chechen children, who grew up tending sheep in the shadows 33 Williams - Chechnya.indb 33 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM inferno in chechnya of the ruined highland fortresses, recalled the stories of the battles fought there by the great gazi Shamil. Many of them dreamed of one day emulating the legendary mountain fighter in expelling the Russian infidels. It was this collective memory of resistance that was reawakened every time the Chechens revolted against the tsars (in all, seventeen times) that kept this sullen mountain people’s dreams of independence alive as the Russian Empire tottered around them. As a people with a deep well of historical grievances and fresh memories of independence lost, the tsarist-era Chechens passed on their sense of victimization, of highlander pride and martial traditions, to a new generation. This generation was to grow up in the Communist successor to the tsarist empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (ussr), and to experience a horrific fate that surpassed even that of the tsarist conquest in its all-encompassing terror and brutality. While the Soviet heirs to the tsarist throne were to claim to have a humane solution to the “nationality problem” in the multiethnic Communist state, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s cruel solution to the “Chechen problem” was to more closely resemble Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the Jews in Europe. 34 Williams - Chechnya.indb 34 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM 3 Genocide The Jews understand us best. — Lyoma Usanov, member of a Chechen delegation speaking to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, dc, February 20001 Religion is not the key to understanding Chechens; their painful past is. — Fred Weir, American journalist2 35 Williams - Chechnya.indb 35 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM “Comrades” The Chechens in the ussr With the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the ensuing years of civil warfare between the Bolshevik Communist “Reds” and the tsar ist “Whites,” the Chechens, like the other recently conquered mountain peoples, briefly regained their liberty. The memory of their former independence was fresh in the minds of the Chechens, whose elders still sang ballads lionizing the anti-Russian jihad of Imam Shamil. Like the Poles, Finns, and the peoples of the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, who seized the opportunity afforded by the Soviet Communist overthrow of the Russian Empire in 1917 to regain their liberty when the tsarist “Prison of Nationalities” collapsed, the Chechens took advantage of the collapse of Russian central authority to reclaim their former independence. While other non-Russian Muslim subjects of the empire, such as the Volga Tatars, had long been subsumed in the multiethnic Russian Empire, the recently conquered Chechens still lived on stories of their old freedoms and cherished the historical memory of their grandfathers’ struggle against the Russian tsars. During the course of the Russian Civil War (1917–1923), the Chechens largely remained spectators to the ebb and flow of conflicting Russian-dominated armies, although their forces fought on both sides to maintain their independence. Chechen forces, for example, fought vigorously against the White (pro-tsarist) forces of General Denikin, which sought to destroy their self-proclaimed Mountain Republic and reincorporate it into the Russian Empire.3 This desperate struggle between the Chechens seeking their independence and tsarist forces aiming to keep the empire together at any cost resulted in tremendous Chechen loses and the destruction of their lowland city of Gudermes. Ultimately, the tsarist Whites lost the Russian Civil War. The fact that such a large percentage of their forces were involved in suppressing the militarily proficient Caucasian highlanders instead of fighting against their Bolshevik Communist enemies did not help their cause. It should also be noted that on occasion the Chechens fought on different sides during this conflict, with the Russified Chechen lowlanders joining the tsarist Whites and the highlanders supporting the Bolshevik Communists. 36 Williams - Chechnya.indb 36 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM genocide By 1921 the Bolshevik Communists finally won the battle for control of the Russian Empire, and the Chechens’ homeland once again was forcefully incorporated into a transcontinental state dominated by ethnic Russians, now known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. On this occasion, however, the official role of the ethnic Russians in the new Communist state was to be less pronounced than it had been under the Russian tsars. In the new transethnic Soviet state, a genuine effort was made to create a union of nationality-based Soviet Socialist Republics (ssrs). This union of fifteen full Soviet republics was no longer considered to be an empire of, and for, the Russians. Unlike the explicitly Russian Empire of the Romanov tsars, the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was to make an effort to accommodate and even promote the non-Russian nationalities. It is often forgotten that there were many Bolshevik Communist idealists in the ussr who genuinely worked to construct a more progressive society for the empire’s “uneducated, backward, toiling masses,” regardless of their nationality. Not surprisingly, the social revolution resulting from Soviet rule was to lead to vast transformations among the ussr’s undeveloped Muslim peoples. During the Soviet period, the conservative, inward-looking Islamic population of the Russian provinces was forcefully modernized, secularized, and Europeanized by their Communist masters. But the battle to drag the former Russian Empire’s “backward” Muslim populations into the new Soviet era was not easy. For the Soviet commissars who arrived in the mountain villages of the Caucasus, the Chechens epitomized the very backwardness that the new Communist state sought to forcefully eradicate in the name of Marxist progress.4 The “superstitious” Chechen men were members of impenetrable Sufi mystical brotherhoods, the women hid their faces from outsiders and were married off when they were young, the villagers lived in walled auls with winding alleys and stone houses that had specially designated women’s quarters, and the distrustful mountaineers engaged in such “antiprogressive” activities as blood feuds, pilgrimages to local shrines for cures, and uprisings that were inevitably led by xenophobic mullahs. It was a generation of bold, idealistic Communist Party activists and commissars who were to carry out a transformation of this region. In the 37 Williams - Chechnya.indb 37 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM inferno in chechnya Caucasus region, the Communist Party activists transformed Chechen society (often at gunpoint) by going into the most inaccessible mountain villages and spreading mass literacy, opening schools, and exiling or executing traditional community leaders who resisted their “infidel” innovations. Instead of attending mosques for traditional religious education, a new generation of Chechen children grew up becoming Soviet Young Pioneers or members of Komsomol (the Leninist Communist Youth League). In the process of forcing their Marxist worldview on the conservative highlanders, Communist officials also directly confronted obscurantism and stifling local traditions among the Chechens and Dagestanis that kept women from fully participating in society. In addition, Chechen children (including girls) were given a compulsory education in which they studied secular topics instead of the previous religious-based curriculum that had been in Arabic. A major facet of the Bolsheviks’ modernizing policies that aimed to bring the perceived benefits of the Communist revolution to all Soviet peoples was their war on religion. Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin considered religion to be a conglomerate of superstitious holdovers from the feudal period or earlier. Like Karl Marx before him, Lenin contemptuously described all religions (but reactionary Islam in particular) as the “opiate of the masses.” In their efforts to forcefully secularize the Chechens as a means of “liberating them from the chains of superstition,” the Soviet commissars closed their mosques, banned their Islamic celebrations and replaced them with Soviet holidays, and undermined the influence of their village elders and priests. In the face of these campaigns, the Chechens’ two main Sufi religious brotherhoods, known as the Naqshbandi and the Qadiriya orders, went underground to avoid detection. Ironically, even Chechen members of the Communist Party surreptitiously partook in Sufi religious ceremonies during the Soviet period. Good Chechen Communists secretly partook in zikirs (chants) and continued to have Muslim burials. As these Muslim Marxists noted, socialism may have offered a “workers’ paradise” on earth, but it offered no heaven for the Communist Party faithful after their death. During their offensive on Islam, the Soviets executed mullahs, replaced 38 Williams - Chechnya.indb 38 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM genocide the Chechens’ Arabic script with the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, and on many levels dragged the Chechens from the era of anti-Russian jihads and muridism into the modern, industrial era. As part of this developmental process, the capital of the newly established Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (assr), Grozny, was developed into a major urban center. Tens of thousands of Soviet Russians were settled in the city. These Russian “big brothers” were utilized in the development of the oil industry in Chechnya. In the process, Grozny eventually was chosen as the site for the construction of one of the Soviet Union’s largest oil refineries. As the simple Chechen farmers and peasants watched in awe, oil wells went up throughout their countryside, Russian factory workers came to work in the new centers of industry in Grozny, new roads were built into the two main mountain valleys of the south, schools were constructed even in the smallest of villages, and the Socialist Revolution began to be felt in the most remote mountain hamlets. In effect, the Kremlin launched a vast campaign of social engineering in the Caucasus that aimed to do nothing less than transform the highlanders from “backwards, tribal, religious reactionaries” into modern Soviet citizens. The newly envisioned Chechen “Soviet Man” ultimately was to be an “internationalist,” whose loyalties and sense of community transcended his narrow attachment to his ethnic origins and linked him to the greater ussr. He also was to be an atheist, speak fluent Russian (the language of international communication), and identify with his fellow Soviet workers in the experiment in state socialism known as the ussr. Not surprisingly, the Soviet project strongly altered the Islamic culture of the Chechens. In many ways their experiences behind the Iron Curtain accelerated their isolation from the rest of the Muslim world and increased the already dominant role of informal Sufi folk Islam among the common people. During the Soviet atheist period, the average Sovietized Chechen Sufi grew to have even less in common with the typical Arab living in the Gulf states of the Middle East, where strict Islamic practices remained unaltered. With the closure of their mosques, execution of their trained religious leaders, destruction of their holy Qur’ans, Europeanization-secularization of their culture, replacement of their Arabic alphabet with Cyrillic, and so on, the Soviet Chechens’ social and 39 Williams - Chechnya.indb 39 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM inferno in chechnya religious practices became limited to informal customs and ancient folk beliefs. These local religious traditions had little in common with strict Orthodox Islam officially enforced with such severity in Saudi Arabia by the Wahhabi conservatives and religious police. In addition to these far-reaching social projects, the Soviet revolutionaries also enacted several important territorial-administrative changes in the Caucasus that were to profoundly affect the Chechens. Most important, the Chechens and the neighboring Ingush people were given their own dual administrative-republic homeland like other nations and ethnic groups in the ussr (including the multiethnic Dagestanis). The Chechen and Ingushes’ bureaucratic-territorial unit was known as the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (assr). This assr was, like the neighboring Dagestan assr, included within the administrative framework of the larger Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (the rsfsr). In many ways it was an ethnic “reservation” within the larger ethnic Russian republic. It is important to emphasize that the tiny Chechen-Ingush Autonomous ssr, like myriad other small ethnoterritorial units or “reservations” that found themselves under the auspices of the vast Russian Republic, was not a full-fledged Soviet Socialist Republic (ssr), such as the first-tier Azerbaijan ssr, Georgian ssr, Ukrainian ssr, Kazakh ssr, Armenian ssr, or Russia itself. For this reason, the small Chechen-Ingush territorial autonomy inside of Russia had no officially recognized “right” to secede from the larger ussr or from the Chechens’ mother republic, Russia, should the ussr one day collapse.5 The smaller Chechen-Ingush Autonomous ssr was considered to be under the jurisdiction of the larger Russian Soviet Federated Republic and, following the disintegration of the ussr in 1991, found itself (like many other ethnically based autonomous “reservations,” such as Tatarstan or Dagestan) forever linked to, and ruled by, the Russian Federal Republic. Because of this historical border construction, the Chechens’ microrepublic could not secede from Russia and achieve independence in the same fashion that the fifteen full ssrs did in 1991 when the ussr later collapsed. 40 Williams - Chechnya.indb 40 7/15/2015 7:21:35 PM genocide Rebels Chechen Anti-Soviet Uprisings, 1921–1944 In spite of the undisputed success the Communists’ social and territorial programs had in transforming the conservative highlanders into Soviet citizens, it is important to note that the Chechens, more than any other nation in the multiethnic ussr, actively fought against the Soviets’ attempts to remold their society. This response stemmed to a large degree from the Soviet government’s ham-fisted social policies, which aimed to forcefully transform this c