The conflict in Chechnya appears to be the last leg of the war between international terrorist networks and the Western world. But this conflict has its roots over two hundred years ago: there are strikingly many parallels between the wars in the Caucasus in the 19th century and the wars in Chechnya over the past decade.
- What is the prehistory of the conflict over Chechnya?
- How can history shed light on what is happening in today’s Chechnya?
- What characterizes the development of the conflict in recent years?
As early as the 16th century, there was a struggle for control of the territories of the North Caucasus. The conflict was between Russia, the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate and Iran. But it was not until the end of the 18th century that the Russian Empire began to expand southward into this area.
2: 18th century rebel hero
The North Caucasus consisted and consists of an enormous diversity of different ethnic groups with distinctive languages and customs. In the face of Russian expansion, however, the powerful religious leader Sheikh Mansur in 1785 succeeded in uniting large sections of the North Caucasus population in a holy war against imperial power. The Russians claimed that Mansur was the agent of the Ottoman Empire, but Mansur was simply a farmer from the Chechen village of Aldy. At the same time, he was a passionate supporter of Sufism (see p. 2).
The unexpectedly fierce opposition the Russians faced, especially from the largest of the ethnic groups, the Chechens, triggered a brutal form of warfare. On the resistance side, a combination of uncompromising resistance struggle and religious zeal also characterized the later resistance struggle. After many years of war, Mansur was captured and died in a Russian prison in 1793.
3: New war
In 1817, the Russians wanted to conquer the areas that today include Dagestan and Chechnya. General Jermolov was given a chance to change things around. He described the Chechens as “savages” and “bandits” and therefore considered total war – with extreme brutality – as the only way to subjugate the Chechens. Villages were surrounded and all inhabitants killed.
In 1819, according to COLLEGETOPPICKS, Jermolov founded the fortress of Groznaya, which means “terrifying”; six Chechen villages were wiped out. Even in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chechens continued to blow up the Yermolov statue in Grozny; however, they were constantly replaced with new ones.
During the fighting, Shamil established an Islamic state (imamat) based on sharia law (see facts), and Arabic language and culture spread in the eastern parts of the North Caucasus. The basis of the imamate’s strength and unity, however, was the opposition to an external enemy. In reality, there was strong dissatisfaction with the Islamist regime, because it went against the Chechen traditions and the prevailing clan structure, which was based on equality between the clans. In 1859, however, Shamil had to surrender.
4: The Autonomous Mountain Republic / Deportation
Despite widespread uprisings, the eastern parts of the North Caucasus remained subordinate to the Russian Empire after 1859. A legacy from the Caucasus wars is that mutual hatred and suspicion have become ingrained in people’s memories and in literature.
The protracted wars led to deep-rooted Sufism and Islam in the area. Due to its informal organization in a network of different fraternities, Sufism played an important role in maintaining the Chechen religion and identity under Russian and later Soviet rule. In all uprisings since colonization, Sufism has been a mobilizing force.
During the Civil War (1917–1922), the Chechens originally supported the Red Army in the hope of gaining independence. However, the brutal conduct of the Reds led the Chechens to revolt in 1920. In 1921, a settlement was reached, and the mountain people accepted the Soviet power against the establishment of the “Autonomous Soviet Mountain Republic”, with extensive autonomy and a judicial system based on Islamic law, sharia.
However, the mountain republic had a short life, and in 1924 it was divided into seven national units. After a period in the 1920s, where the Chechens, among other things, got their own written language, a new uprising was triggered in 1929 in connection with the collectivization. This was followed by more repression and new uprisings.
These events were just the prelude to the most groundbreaking drama in Chechen history. In 1944, virtually the entire Chechen population of nearly 400,000 was deported to Central Asia along with several other peoples, accused of collaborating with Nazi Germany.
Probably as many as a third of the Chechens died either as a result of terrible conditions during transport to the east, or as a result of the harsh conditions that befell them after they were dumped on the Kazakh steppe in mid-winter. Chechnya-Ingushetia was deleted from the map, street names were changed, Chechen books burned and gravestones used to build roads. After a short time, Russians and Dagestanians took over the Chechens’ land and homes.