The Boston Marathon bombings this past April, carried out by two men of Chechen descent, reminded us of the continuing tension in the Russian Federation’s Chechen Republic.
The most restive of the numerous peoples living in the Caucasus, the Chechens have chafed under Russian domination for 150 years.
In the recent past, they have fought two bloody wars, in 1994-1996 and 1999-2000, for independence; the conflict left at least one hundred thousand dead and the capital, Grozny, a wasteland. Most ethnic Russians living in Chechnya at the time fled.
Following prolonged resistance during the 19th century, the Russians in 1859 finally overcame the forces of Chechen leader Imam Shamil, who had created the first state structures that Chechens had ever known, and they claimed the Caucasus region for the tsarist empire. The Chechens were incorporated into the new Soviet Union following the collapse of the empire after the First World War.
More than a half million Chechens were deported to Siberia in 1944, on the orders of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, officially as punishment for collaboration with the invading German forces in the Caucasus during the Second World War, and their autonomous republic was abolished. Only after Stalin’s death were they given permission to return to their homeland; their republic was also restored, in 1957.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, the Chechens again saw a chance to gain their freedom. Although they lost the two wars, a new constitution granted Chechnya in 2003 did give the republic more autonomy within the Russian Federation.
Since then, Chechnya has been governed by Russian-approved puppets. The current head of the republic is a onetime Chechen rebel, Ramzan Kadyrov, son of a former Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, who was assassinated in 2004.
By 2009, Moscow announced that the situation in Chechnya had improved to such extent that it felt able to end its military operation against the rebels. Sporadic attacks by separatists continue, though.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, Russia has exaggerated the role of international Islamists in Chechnya and tried to link the repression in Chechnya to the broader context of fighting international terrorism.
Vladimir Putin has tended to highlight the role of Islamic fundamentalism in the Chechen insurgency. There are Chechen Islamists fighting alongside the rebels in Syria, and part of the reason Putin supports the Assad regime is the fear that they might get their hands on a chemical-weapons site should the Syrian government lose the war.
But actually, in Chechnya Sufi Islam, the more mystical branch of Islam, has always been practised, and Wahabis, who might be connected to terrorist groups, have in the past been fringe elements.
Still, foreign radicals did arrive in Chechnya in the 1990s to help in what they believed was a religious struggle. Once these foreign fundamentalists, with their money, war tactics, and outside connections, became more established, calls for the establishment of an Islamic Caucasian Emirate became louder.
By 1999, then Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov was forced to introduce Islamic law and had lost control over the radical forces led by Shamil Basayev – in fact he joined them. The incursion into neighbouring Dagestan, which triggered the second war in Chechnya, had the declared aim of establishing an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, much like the one Imam Shamil himself had tried to create.
Things are quieter today, but who knows for how long? Shamil’s image is publicly displayed in Chechnya today, with a memorial complex built in his capital, Vedeno, in southeastern Chechnya. After all, the most important aspect of Shamil’s legacy for Chechen identity is their tradition of “continued resistance.”
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.