Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict

Cold War-style scholarship on Chechnya in the era of free-market Russia

by Joseph Green
(from Communist Voice #24, June 14, 2000)


. John Dunlop's Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a Separatist Conflict (1998) deals only with the situation up to the full-scale Russian invasion of Chechnya in December 1994, soon after the onset of the first Russo-Chechen war. The most notable part of the book is the detailed account of political events in 1990-4. But detail isn't equivalent to thoroughness; the book's narrow focus on political details, combined with an utter lack of interest in the economic and social issues involved, create a narration which makes this intensely turbulent period into something shallow and even, at times, boring. It is "history" in the old-style of the word, emphasizing the recitation of the smallest acts of leaders, and the narration of events without consideration of the conditions underlying them. However, its account of the repeated warmongering acts of the Yeltsin government towards Chechnya, during the entire period from the declaration of Chechen independence at the end of 1991 until the outbreak of war, does provide a refutation of the view that Yeltsin exercised restraint towards Chechnya until allegedly provoked into action by Chechen president Dudayev's extravagant rhetoric.

. The book also includes a narration of general Russian-Chechen relations prior to 1990. But Dunlop, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, sought to make this part of the book simply a list of "communist" atrocities, and the book reeks of the flavor of the Cold War. He has no concern to trace the rise and fall of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the consolidation of Stalinist state-capitalism, because it is all "communism" for Dunlop. He has no concern to trace the social structure in Chechnya either. This isn't basically that different from the other books we review on Chechnya, but Dunlop takes it to an absurd extreme.

Literacy? Who cares?

. Thus, in his zeal to present every act undertaken in the Soviet period as unrelenting evil, Dunlop presents even the spread of literacy as an act of Soviet genocide. Prior to Soviet days, there was no written Chechen language. The overwhelming majority of Chechens were illiterate, and a small number of religious leaders could read or write in Arabic. This was a tremendous chain enslaving the majority of Chechens to backwardness.

. But Dunlop writes that:

. "The regime soon undertook, through deceit and trickery, to detach the mountaineers [Chechens and various other North Caucasian peoples--JG] from the Arabic language. During the years 1923-25, Latinized alphabets were constructed for all of the North Caucasian languages. An orthography in the Latin alphabet had been devised for Chechen as early as 1923. In 1928-29, it was mandated that all languages previously written in Arabic script now had to be transcribed into the Latin alphabet. This clear-cut aim behind this move was to remove Arabic as a lingua franca and an entree to Islam while avoiding the stigma of too obvious Russification, which would have resulted from a decision immediately to shift over from Arabic to Cyrillic." (Dunlop, p. 47)

. Dunlop is unconcerned that previously a few thousand Chechens at most could read or write. He tries to present the matter as not one of education in the Chechen language, but of what script is used to write Chechen, and he denounces the fact that Arabic was not made "the official language of education". Actually, Chechen is not a dialect or variant of Arabic; it isn't even in the same language group as Arabic, nor is any other of the East Caucasian-Dagestani group of languages.(1) Whatever the script used for writing Chechen, it would seem that having education and literature take place in a written form of the actual language of the mass of Chechens would be essential for mass education and rapid progress.

. In the years prior to the Bolshevik revolution, as well as in the early years of the Soviet regime, there was a good deal of discussion and debate about how to eliminate the tsarist oppression of subject nationalities and about the relation of the right to self-determination to revolution. Dunlop is unconcerned about this. He does not evaluate this, nor show how these ideas were later betrayed.

. One issue facing the Caucasus was how to deal with extremely small ethnic groups: for example, there were less than 100,000 Ingush at the time, and there were even smaller ethnic groups in Dagestan. Dunlop refers briefly to the policy of seeking to consolidate very tiny groups into larger ethnic groups which might develop into nationalities which actually retain their own identity. His only comment on the experience of such a policy is that supposedly the groups created were still too small to resist Russification, and hence this was really a policy of "Russianization and Russification". (p. 46) Why, the very formation of the Autonomous Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia was supposed to be an act of Russification, because allegedly only the entire North Caucasus as a region could maintain itself. (p. 48)

Stalinist oppression

. But as Stalinist state-capitalism consolidated in Russia, policies of Russification really did make a comeback, while the Chechens were among those who suffered disproportionately from the general Stalinist repression. This culminated in the mass deportation of all Chechens and Ingush from the lands of the Autonomous Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia, a republic which was now replaced by ordinary Russian administrative regions. This fascistic act was carried out amidst a number of massacres with great savagery, and the deportees suffered under harsh conditions and police supervision. The Chechen exile would last from 1944 until 1957 (Stalin having died in 1953).

. The mass deportation of the Chechens and Ingush is not only one of the brutal crimes that will go down in history, but it is a dramatic illustration of the oppressive nature of Stalinism, which, despite retaining the terms "socialism" and "communism", destroyed everything that the Bolshevik revolution had originally brought. The revolution brought an autonomous republic for the Chechens and the Ingush, and Stalinism obliterated the republic. The revolution brought written languages, and Stalinism sought to wipe out the very names of the Chechen and Ingush peoples.

. It might be thought that given this history, even Dunlop could have restricted himself to the facts. But Dunlop gives unreliable figures, which seem to lack even internal consistency, while neglecting to mention anything that happened to the Chechens other than the atrocities. Thus, for example, one discovers the existence of Chechen officials only when Dunlop describes their being removed. His book does, however, alert one to a number of the atrocities of note against the Chechen people.

. Moreover, a major fault of Dunlop's method of approach is that it leads to a very poor account of the period between the end of the Chechen exile in 1957-60 and the fall of the Soviet regime in 1990. The majority of Chechens politically active in the 1990s, indeed all Chechens of that decade unless they were at least in their latter 50s, grew up in this period (or in the immediately preceding exile). And the class structure among the Chechens was recast in this period. Moreover, the Soviet nationalities policy in general went through substantial changes in this period. Dunlop is simply unconcerned with these developments in Chechen social conditions or Soviet policies. His only concern is to show that the Chechens remained oppressed, which is true, but he gives no overall feel for what is going on in this period. He mainly skips over this period, covering it in only a few pages, dwelling on a few incidents and statistics from 1959 or the early 1960s. Such a procedure simply begs the question of what happened in the following decades.

. It might be asked, what difference does it make if Dunlop isn't too accurate, or forgets to examine the changes in Chechen class structure? And what difference does it make if actually a few more or a few less people were killed? As far as it being an atrocity, nothing. But one would suppose that a real attack on national oppression would, for example, involve establishing some principles that should be upheld. Other than that things shouldn't get too bloody, Dunlop doesn't put forward any principle that he would uphold against any other government provided it wasn't "communist".(2) In particular, he never says that Chechnya should have the right to self-determination.

Free-market Russia and the Chechens

. Thus, when Dunlop's narrative reaches the 1990s, and he begins to relate the deeds of post-Soviet Russia and of the Yeltsin administration, his tone changes. Gone is the talk about the evils of Russification. Gone are the lamentations about the fall of Arabic. Gone is the desire to describe every act, even the correction of past injustices, as just another intensification of the evil plots of Moscow. Gone is his longing for a "Mountain" or North Caucasian republic. Instead, let Russia retain Chechnya in any way it can manage to pull off. His only criticism of the free-market Russian regime is that it didn't achieve its aims via negotiations. Any solution that it could have imposed on the Chechen people by arm-twisting would be fine, if only it didn't involve a lot of bloodshed.

. Thus Dunlop's criticism of the free-market Russian government is simply that "a significant section of the Russian leadership" believed that they could solve the matter "through the use of force and through 'black' operations rather than through patient negotiation." (p. 223) The idea of "patient negotiation" may sound like an alternative to force and war, but without the Russian bourgeoisie recognizing Chechen rights, negotiations might simply be the public complement to economic blockade, covert force, and secret operations. This is documented in the course of Dunlop's book, but denied in his conclusions. To pretend that negotiations in and of themselves, no matter what stand the various parties to these negotiations are upholding, would solve the problem is simply a way of glossing over the tremendous pressure that Russia was applying on the Chechens. And when Dunlop says that this was simply "a significant section of the Russian leadership", rather than the dominant opinion of the Russian bourgeoisie, he is glossing over the ugly features of the free-market bourgeoisie.

. Dunlop, however, has no intention to call for either Russian or world respect for the right to self-determination of Chechnya, and his one guiding principle is to denigrate state-capitalism (which he calls "communism") and glorify the free-market. So, as soon as it is a question of a free-market regime, there is no longer impassioned denunciation written in large letters. Instead, there is infinite detail on exactly what each leader said and at what meeting. There is no consideration of whether the war against the Chechens stemmed from the new phase of capitalism in Russia; it's just a matter of some leaders overreacting to "separatism".

The myth of restraint

. But Dunlop's detailed account does have some use. It helps refute a number of Western commentators who go further than Dunlop in whitewashing the free-market regime in Russia. As one author put it,

". . . as Ben Fowkes remarks in his short but perceptive introduction to Russia and Chechnia: The Permanent Crisis, a collection of essays by various writers, the striking thing about Russian policy between 1991 and 1994 is the consistency with which Russia resisted taking action to subdue Chechnya and topple Dudaev. As late as August 1994 Mr. Yeltsin was saying that 'forcible intervention in Chechnia is impermissible. . . . There will be so much turmoil and blood that afterwards no one will forgive us.'"(3)

. On the contrary, what is notable is how rapidly Yeltsin and his entourage turned to bloody methods of suppressing Chechnya. The Chechen militants had backed Yeltsin for a time, seeing in him the path to the fastest breakup of the old Soviet regime. In turn, Yeltsin backed them for awhile, as they mobilized vigorously against the old-guard forces who attempted a coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991. But as soon as Yeltsin saw that the Chechen nationalists weren't his pawns, and as soon as he saw Chechnya declare independence, Yeltsin's very first impulse was to use force against them. By October 1991, Yeltsin publicly denounced the Chechens, and on November 7, 1991, he prepared for their forcible suppression by declaring a state of emergency in Chechnya.

. Dunlop, summarizing a period which he had earlier given in detail, refers to "the times when Russia appeared seriously to be contemplating an invasion (November 1991, March 1992, November 1992, November-December 1994)" (p. 212). But in 1991-3, Chechnya was not yet isolated from its neighbors, and a Russian invasion might have been an even larger fiasco than the first Russo-Chechen war. As Dunlop remarks:

. "While the leadership of the Russian Federation adopted a conscious decision to invade Chechnya in both November 1991 and November 1992 (and there was, in addition, a tentative coup launched in Groznyi in late March 1992, while an invasion of sorts seems to have been attempted by MVD [Russian Interior Ministry--JG] 'crimson berets' in September 1992), Yeltsin and his entourage were, in hindsight, fortunate that all of these earlier incursions had to be aborted. The devastation and loss of life occurring during the Russo-Chechen war of 1994-96 would, one suspects, have been quite small in comparison with what might have happened if, say, a war had broken out with Chechnya and the Confederation of Peoples of the Caucasus (KNK) in late 1992." (p. 214)

. When the Yeltsin government wasn't plotting the invasion of Chechnya, it was engaged in various forms of "low-intensity conflict", bearing some resemblance to the American imperialist "contra" war against Nicaragua in the 80s. It blockaded Chechnya, provided weapons and money to opposition groups in Chechnya, and engaged in Russian secret operations, including attempts to assassinate Chechen President Dudayev (eventually killed by the Russians in 1994). This was stepped up in 1994, in the name of the "half-force" strategy.

. So that's what Yeltsin's "restraint" amounted to: the nonrecognition of Chechnya, a blockade, assassination attempts, arming of hostile factions, and military pressure. Clearly this paved the way towards the first Russo-Chechen war. When certain Western authors regard this as "restraint", they are implicitly granting market-capitalist Russia similar rights as other members of the Western imperialist club. The imperialist powers regard it as natural to subvert and ravage an area in their "sphere of influence". Thus, while if someone from another country simply makes a campaign contribution in the U.S., the American politicians regard this as a horrible scandal, the same politicians regard anything but the open deployment of U.S. troops on foreign territory as a sign of U.S. moderation and restraint. Free-market Russia itself, while still regarded with some suspicion by the Western imperialists, is for the time being granted imperial rights in the Caucasus and a lot of the Russian "near abroad" (Russian neighbors that were part of the former Soviet Union). The Western imperialists complain only about what they regard as Russian excesses, and gloss over the consistency of the hostility of the Yeltsin and Putin governments toward Chechnya.

. Dunlop, on the contrary, documents the history in the early 90s of "'black' operations, destabilization campaigns, assassinations, and the installation of 'puppet' regimes", but pretends that this is something which is different from the usual practice of capitalist imperialism. For him, it is simply a "resort to Brezhnev (and even Stalin-era practices". (pp. 222-3) Isn't it really capitalist imperialism, no different in principle from the streams of blood the U.S., France, and other powers have shed in Vietnam, Algeria, Central America, and elsewhere? Perish the thought!


(1) For that matter, according to Anatol Lieven, it was not Arabic, but Avar and Azerbaijani Turkic that were used historically by Chechens to communicate with their Caucasian neighbors. (See Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, pp. 305, 416.) Neither language is in the same language group as Arabic, Avar being a Dagestani language, and the Turkic languages being in the Altaic language group, but both were written with a Arabic script until the twentieth century. It may be noted, however, that in the 1920s not just the Soviet Union, but Turkey abandoned the Arabic script.

. In any case, Chechen itself is a Nakh language, which is part of the East Caucasian-Dagestani language group. It is not clear what, if any, connections these languages have to any language outside the Caucasus. Some scholars have proposed a link to Basque, itself an isolated language, others to some other unique languages of the Middle East, such as Sumerian.

. It is only a matter of detail, but Lieven differs somewhat from other authors on when the Chechen written language was developed. He claims that a Cyrillic-based script for Chechen had been devised in the late-19th century; however he agrees with others that the written form of Chechen was "introduced into the school system under Soviet rule in the 1920s, as part of a general process underway at that time among the numerous Soviet peoples whose languages did not possess a written form." (pp. 415-6) Indeed, it wasn't just Chechen, but other languages too, which were given a written form under Soviet rule. However, Lieven to the contrary, it seems what was introduced in the 1920s was the Latin-based script for Chechen; the Cyrillic-based script was introduced later. (Return to text)

(2) A small but notable example is that he denounces the Soviet government for making the "the study of Russian as a second language obligatory in all schools of the USSR" in 1939. He doesn't examine what this decree meant in practice, but presumably regards the very idea of instruction in Russian as a second language as evil in itself. Meanwhile he wrote this in the U.S., where English is the obligatory first language of instruction; moreover, under the banner of "English only", bilingual education has been purged from much of the school system. Yet this contradiction doesn't bother him, or even occur to him. He doesn't try to show why imposing Russian as a second language in the Soviet Union should be bad, while imposing English as the compulsory first language in the U.S. should be good. Nor does he care about what language of instruction Yeltsin's regime imposed in Russian schools.

. However, Dunlop's hypocrisy aside, it's not that the language situation in schools in 1939 in Chechnya, or the decree of 1939, was necessarily proper. It is likely that Chechen was only used in the primary grades, and Russian was needed for all higher education. The 1939 decree might well have indicated a shift towards Russification, but Dunlop's so crude in his denunciation that he doesn't give the necessary information about it. (Text)

(3) Robert Cottrell, "Chechnya: How Russia Lost", The New York Review of Books, Sept. 24, 1998. (Text)

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