Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus

A journalistic account that wishes
the national question would go away

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


. Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (1998) was written by two Western journalists, Carlotta Gall and Thomas de Waal. who have also worked for The Moscow Times. True to its journalistic origins, Calamity reads smoothly and provides an easy-to-follow account of events leading to the first Russo-Chechen war, the course of this war, and as much about Chechen conditions as one is likely to find in bourgeois literature. Some of the events read like today's news, such the savagery in the "filtration" camps where the Russian military interrogates and brutalizes Chechen males whom they have rounded up on the slightest pretext, or no pretext at all, or the description of the anarchic economic conditions in Chechnya.

The Bolshevik revolution and Chechnya

. But if Calamity in the Caucasus is the most readable of the books reviewed here, it shares with them the same prejudices and biases. For example, along with other bourgeois books, it seeks to present the history of the Soviet Union as an anti-communist morality tale. So, after tracing the history of the savage tsarist annexation of Chechnya, it presents Soviet history simply as a continuation of that oppression. However, in the course of asserting that the Bolsheviks wanted to build a new empire, Gall and de Wall grudgingly admit that the early Soviet history was rather different from the later Stalinism. They write:

. "The Caucasus became a battlefield for the differing conceptions of nationalities policy of Lenin and Stalin. Although both were in effect set on rebuilding the Russian empire, Lenin favored a more equitable relationship between Russia and the other republics, whilst Stalin, although an ethnic Georgian, was implacably in favor of centralization and keeping a tight rein on the regions. The milder Leninist model broadly prevailed until the late 1920s. The Party cadres were staffed with many natives and no attempt was made at the redistribution of land. There was the beginning of the policy of korenizatsiya or 'indigenization'. For the first time the policy explicitly linked ethnicity and boundaries with an administrative system. It had some positive effects: books and newspapers were published in written Chechen, in a new script formed from the Latin alphabet in 1924, and literacy rates, which had been below 2 per cent before the Revolution, jumped enormously." (p. 54)

That's pretty much it for Gall and de Waal's discussion of the more theoretical aspects of the early policy of the Soviet regime towards Chechnya, or for the theory of the national question altogether.(1) Yet the Bolshevik revolution had marked a fundamental change in the national question, not just from tsarism, but also from the ideas held by previously by many socialists concerning the national question. Lenin struggled to put into effect a policy which had many different facets:

. * Lenin, following Marx and Engels, held that the right to self-determination must be respected under socialism. Back then some leftists disagreed with this, just as now some hold that proletarian internationalism means that a workers' regime should disregard all national issues as outdated "ethnicizing" and as, no matter what the national policy, racism from the past. Lenin, on the contrary, held that the unity of different nationalities had to be built up on a voluntary basis, and to achieve this the dominant nationalities had to recognize the right to self-determination of the other nationalities.

. * Moreover, Leninism held that, besides the right to self-determination (which concerned peoples who formed a majority in their national areas), there also had to be special attention to protecting the rights of people who lived as national minorities scattered among majorities of different national and ethnic background.

. * Leninism also advocated that various regions, for whom the right to self-determination wouldn't make any sense, should have an autonomous status. (For example, there are nationalities which were a minority in their own historic areas, as well as tiny nationalities whose national areas are completely mixed up with that of others.)

. * At the same time, Leninism also held that the workers in any one area should unite across national lines. This might seem to contradict Leninism's recognition of the national question, but it does not. Lenin advocated a policy of national freedom as the only policy capable of uniting the world working class. Moreover, it is not sufficient to advocate a democratic solution of the national question, it is necessary to find the class force that could support such a policy consistently. It is the revolutionary movement of the working masses which is the best guarantee of such rights. To organize such a class movement and ensure its greatest strength, and along with this foster the greatest solidarity of workers of one nationality for those of other nationalities, it is important to unite workers organizationally across national lines. But for this to be true unity, these workers' organizations must themselves respect the needs of the national minorities; this must not be the unity of neglect, of closing one's eyes to the existence of national oppression, but the unity of a joint struggle against national oppression. So Leninism held that the workers of differing nationalities should be united in a number of common institutions, such as trade unions, the socialist political party, schools, etc., but that these institutions must pay attention to the language, culture and other needs of the minorities and should support the right to self-determination of the oppressed nationalities.

. * Leninism also held that there had to be support for the class struggle of the toilers of the minority nationalities, and not a hands-off policy to the revolutionary struggle in these nations. Gall and de Waal seem to suggest that the Leninist policy meant to abandon such support ("no attempt was made at the redistribution of land"--but in fact little progress was made in collectivization throughout the Soviet Union in the early and mid-20s). Lenin's policy was rather different. He advocated that the communists had to maintain the class struggle, but recognize how the different national conditions modified its pace and methods. In a letter of 1921 to Caucasian communists (including those of Chechnya, which was then in the "Mountaineer Republic" of the North Caucasus), he wrote of the importance of the transition to socialism in those areas, but he said that they must

"refrain from copying our tactics, but thoughtfully vary them in adaptation to the differing concrete conditions . . . You will need to practice more moderation and caution, and show more readiness to more concessions to the petty bourgeoisie, the intelligentsia, and particularly the peasantry. . . . What the Republics of the Caucasus can and must do, as distinct from the R.S.F.S.R. [Russian Republic] is to effect a slower, more cautious and more systematic transition to socialism. . . . Do not copy our tactics, but analyze the reasons for their peculiar features, the conditions that gave rise to them, and their results; go beyond the letter, and apply the spirit, the essence and the lessons of the 1917-1921 experience."(2)

. In the complex situation in the Soviet Union, there were many obstacles to carrying out this many-faceted policy:

. # The Leninist policy itself was controversial among the Bolshevik activists, and was only applied to a certain extent. Other policies were applied by activists who either weren't familiar with the Leninist stand, or who disagreed with it.

. # Although there were a number of examples of democratic solutions of the national question previously, the wide range and scope of the measures proposed by the Leninist policy was new. Moreover, the situation in the Soviet Union was extremely complex, with many different nationalities, at different stages of development, and inhabiting the most diverse sort of territories. It took a lot of effort to work out what this policy should mean in practice, and these ideas had to be modified in accordance with on-going experience.

. # Pre-capitalist conditions were much more prevalent among the Chechens and a number of other former subject nationalities of the Tsarist empire than among the Russians. Thus the economic conditions and class struggles of the Russian toilers differed from those of these nationalities. This retarded unity between the toilers of these nationalities, as well as facing the Bolsheviks with a number of complicated questions of tactics concerning social conditions which differed dramatically from the ones in which their earlier tactics had been worked out. There were some revolts of traditionalist forces in Chechnya against the revolutionary regime in Russia, but there were also Chechens who fought for social change in Chechnya.

. # The harsh conditions facing the revolution, including the attempt by the outside capitalist world to strange it, also affected relations with the non-Russian nationalities. Thus, the emergency measures and the system of so-called "War Communism", which developed during the Civil War, adversely affected relations with the peasantry. Such measures as the confiscation of all agricultural surpluses were bound, over time, to result in peasant discontent. This sharply affected predominantly agricultural regions such as Chechnya, and was the cause of the traditionalist revolt in 1920.

. # Moreover, the overall revolution, overwhelmed by the pressures against it, ultimately decayed into Stalinist state-capitalism. The rise of a new bourgeoisie resulted in a new nationalities policy which only gave lip-service to the right of self-determination and the rights of national minorities. Places like Chechnya suffered disproportionately from the forced collectivization, the mass arrests, and the whole weight of Stalinist oppression. This reached the point of the criminal mass deportation in 1944 of all Chechens from Chechnya. The Stalinist regime attempted to wipe out the very name of "Chechen" from the Soviet Union. Amidst several massacres, it transported Chechens in cattle cars to places of exile, mainly in Kazakhstan. It wasn't until 1957, several years after Stalin's death, that Chechens could start to go back to Chechnya.

. As a result, several different trends on the national question were evident in the early Soviet Union. Nevertheless, prior to Stalinism, the Leninist policy had enough of an influence to demonstrate that it not only marked a major break with Tsarist imperialism, but the most promising policy for forging links across national lines. Soviet nationalities policy has, in fact, had a major influence on the policies followed in other revolutions this century. All in all, the history of the Bolshevik revolution with respect to the nationalities is complex and worthy of study.

. If Gall and de Wall devote little attention to theory of the national question underlying early Soviet policy, they don't discuss any other conception of the national question either. They have no intention of establishing standards that might be held up against the current Russian government or the Western bourgeoisie. Their attitude is simply that some type of solution should be found that avoid open conflict, and, presumably, let's get on with more important things, like privatization.

It's Not Important

. Thus Gall and de Waal have a very simple plan for settling the national question. They wish to brush it aside as irrelevant. They think that if "Moscow repeated the slogan of `territorial integrity', [while] Chechnya repeated the slogan of `independence'", all that was necessary was to satisfy both slogans simultaneously with a face-saving "constructive compromise" on a term like "special status". (3) Mind you, they don't even suggest what such a "special status" should have been. Doesn't their support for the term "special status" imply that they actually agree with Yeltsin that Chechnya had no right to leave Russia, no matter what the will of the majority of the people living in Chechnya? Not in Gall and de Waal's eyes, since they held that all that was important was to have an agreement signed, not whether anyone actually followed it:

. "The tragedy of Chechnya is that the war could have been avoided and pride satisfied on both sides if the Chechens could have struck a deal with Moscow on `special status' or a moratorium on independence in 1992 and 1993. The Chechens could have agreed to it even if they didn't intend to observe it." (4)

. Thus it doesn't matter what the terms of an agreement are, since you don't have to follow it: just get any agreement, and all will be well. Amazing! But if the Chechens would be able to defy the agreement, then surely the Russians would also be able to defy it. If the agreement meant nothing and resolved nothing, then how would it have ended the crisis in Russo-Chechen relations?

. Gall and de Waal's plan implies that they really think that the national question is irrelevant, and will go away if it is simply swept under the rug. Thus, in their views, disagreements are simply the fault of a few stiff-necked individuals who don't know how to write nice-sounding, diplomatic documents that mean nothing but keep everyone happy. Such agreements would allegedly allow the wool to be pulled over the eyes of the major class forces fighting over the national question, and allow the issue to dissipate. Gall and de Wall don't see that there is an issue of what principles must be embodied in an agreement if it is to have a chance of being durable. Nor do they examine what are the major class and political forces involved in the struggle. They don't see that there really is an issue of the drive to domination by the Russian free-market bourgeoisie under Yeltsin, and not simply of Yeltsin's arrogance. And they don't see that the "freedom and human rights of a long-oppressed people", which they claim to believe to be the real issue, requires that this oppressed people actually have the right to decide on the issue of independence.

. As a matter of fact, history hasn't been kind to Gall and de Waal's idea that any agreement, whether the contracting parties intended to follow it or not, could have averted the tragedy of the first Russo-Chechen war. After all, this war was ended by an agreement, the Khasavyurt accords. In line with Gall and de Waal's advice, it resolved everything and nothing--it ended the war while leaving Chechnya with a totally ambiguous situation: the Chechens were left with an independent government that was recognized by no one and still suffering economic and political pressure from Russia. The agreement followed Gall and de Waal's advice in putting a moratorium on independence, which was left for decision by December 31, 2001. And what has been the result? It turns out that, when the time was ripe, the Russian government tore up the accords, denounced the Chechen government as criminals and terrorists, and invaded Chechnya all over again.

The Tatarstan model

. This, of course, hadn't yet happened at the time that Calamity was written. So Gall and de Waal thought they could prove that any agreement, no matter what it said, would do by referring to the fact that "The Kremlin signed a power-sharing treaty with Russia's only other rebel region, Tatarstan, in February [1994--JG] after two years of negotiations, which gave the Tatars broad economic and political rights but kept them within the federation." (p. 143) They don't say anything else about the conditions--political, economic, or national composition--in Tatarstan. They didn't examine whether these conditions were similar to those that had existed in Chechnya, or give any reason to believe that similar solutions could be applied in Tatarstan and Chechnya. For that matter, they didn't look much at the agreement itself. Hey, it's an agreement, that's all that matters.(5)

. But will this agreement even last? In order to reach agreement, the agreement with Tatarstan called for matters to be regulated by the constitutions of Russia and Tatarstan, which contradict each other, and moreover, this agreement was never properly ratified in Russia.(6) These facts may suddenly be remembered if the Russian government decides to tear up the agreement. Legal irregularities aside, Putin, the new Russian President, is now on a drive to cut down the prerogatives of Russia's regions, and to bring them back under central authority. In a desperate attempt to placate him, many regional leaders, such as Tatarstan's leader Mintimer Shaimiyev, mobilized support for Putin in the parliamentary elections last year and in presidential elections this year. Journalistic observers now predict that the regions will be brought further to heel, one saying that

. "From the beginning, Tatarstan was the pioneer. It was the first to get results with its declaration of sovereignty, and now it will be the first to make corrections [i.e. lose various of its prerogatives--JG]."(7)

Co-authors of the war

. Despite their sympathetic account of the sufferings of the Chechens at the hands of the Russian army, and their condemnation of pre-1990s Russian governments, Gall and de Waal blame the Russian invasion of Chechnya on the Chechens almost as much as on the Russian bourgeoisie and present-day Russian free-market government. They reconcile these positions by suggesting that the outbreak of war was simply a matter of the quirks of individuals, and they hold that Dudayev and Yeltsin were "co-authors of the Chechen war" with Yeltsin bearing more responsibility solely because "the bigger player must take more responsibility".(8) In essence, they regard the Chechens as guilty of the assertion of the right to self-determination, which "provoked Russia". But, in order to avoid explicitly denouncing the Chechen struggle, they attribute this provocation mainly to Dudayev as an individual. They regard that he was too insistent on independence, "reject[ing] the evolutionary approach in favour of a Bolshevik-style seizure of power."(9)

. Thus Gall and de Waal make a lot of Dudayev's well-known penchant for long, raving speeches (although they seem particularly upset at his affronts to the dignity of Russia's government). They write that

"The Chechen President liked producing an effect on his listeners. . .  On this occasion, coming away from the interview, it was hard to convey anything but the impression of a man possessed. In Russia they accused the Chechens of banditry and of organized crime. Here it was the other way around...In Moscow people were suggesting that Dudayev was crazy, but he turned the accusation round on Yeltsin. . . . Sometimes when he [Dudayev] softened his tone, the demands he was asking for seemed quite acceptable. But then the flights of fantasy, the accusations and the threats persuaded Kremlin politicians they could not talk to him."(10)

So Gall and de Waal accept the pretexts of Russian free-market politicians, while ignoring the fact that these politicians hadn't accepted the right to self-determination of Chechnya.

. But struggle between Yeltsin and the Chechen government didn't start because Yeltsin was offended by something Dudayev said. As late as August 1991, Yeltsin was allied with Dudayev and the Chechen nationalists in the struggle against the attempt of the old guard of the Soviet "Communist" (actually, state-capitalist) Party to stage a coup d'etat in the Soviet Union. But by October Yeltsin publicly denounced the Chechen movement, and in early November declared a "state of emergency" in Chechnya, that is, threatened to subdue Chechnya by force. These acts were due to Yeltsin's refusal to accept any Chechen government that wasn't both in Russia and his pawn. From then, right up to the Russo-Chechen war, one threat and accusation after another poured out from the Yeltsin government and Russian Duma. These threats were backed up by an economic blockade of Chechnya and financial and military aid to opposition forces in Chechnya, similar to Reagan's "contra" war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. Gall and de Waal's own account shows that the timing of the war followed from the Yeltsin government's insistence on the overthrow of the Dudayev government and its search for a "small victorious war" to prop up Yeltsin's failing popularity. They also show that the Chechen government repeatedly asked for negotiations and that Dudayev envisioned maintaining some sort of association with Russia. Any Chechen president who didn't bow down to Yeltsin would have faced the same problems.

. But Gall and de Waal think that a different Chechen president would have made a big difference. Dudayev having finally been killed by the Russians in March 1996, during the latter part of the first Russo-Chechen war, there were new presidential elections after the war ended. The winner was one of the main generals of the war, Aslan Maskhadov. Gall and de Waal wrote that

"His victory was a vote for peace and pragmatism. . . . Chechens are no different from anyone else in wanting a peaceful future for their children, jobs and stability. They saw Maskhadov as the man who could deliver that, as the man who could work with the Russians. . . . In Maskhadov, in contrast to Dudayev, Moscow had a leader it could work with. Even before the final tally was announced, Yeltsin had sent Maskhadov a telegram of congratulations carefully phrased to be ambiguous about Chechnya's status." (pp. 366-7)

. Here again, history hasn't been kind to Gall and de Waal's views. Maskhadov is still president, and yet Russia has invaded Chechnya again. But Maskhadov still insists on Chechen independence, So no matter how moderate he is in speech, no matter how much he seeks to placate Russian demands, Putin still denounces Maskhadov, and all Chechens who support independence, as criminals and terrorists.

In conclusion

. Gall and de Waal end up with such superficial views about the causes of the Chechen war because they don't believe that free-market capitalism can give rise to catastrophes and bloody clashes. If such catastrophes and wars exist, then they must, in their view, be due to this or that personal failing of some individual, or to hang-overs of state-capitalism (which they regard as "communism").(11) The politicians may foul up the wonderful possibilities supposedly bequeathed them by the new market conditions, but it doesn't strike Gall and de Waal that the market conditions themselves may devastate the masses or generate exploitative and aggressive ruling classes. So convinced are they of the virtues of modern market capitalism, so self-evident does it seem to them, that they don't bother to argue about it, or even to state it: they just apply this view of the free-market to every situation they come across.

. This is how the ultimate cause of the Chechen war becomes, in their summation, the personal failings of Yeltsin and Dudayev. It is how the history they recount about the national oppression of the Chechens becomes irrelevant, except to create some sympathy for the Chechens. It is why they don't see much point to discuss the theory of the national question, neither the innovations and new experience of the early Soviet days, nor what role national conflicts are playing in the world today. And this is why their conclusions and summations clash so often with their own narrative of historical events.


(1) Gall and de Waal's disregard for the national question is reflected in their ignorance of some very basic facts of Soviet history. They write, with respect to the various "Union Republics" that made up the Union of Soviet Social Republics, that "under a little-noticed article in the 1922 treaty forming the Soviet Union, these republics had nominally joined the USSR voluntarily and therefore had the right to secede." (p. 89, but it should be noted that Checheno-Ingushetia was not a Union Republic, but an autonomous republic which was part of the Russian Union Republic). Actually, it was hardly "little-noticed" that the Union Republics were supposed to have the right to self-determination. Lenin advocated it; it became a major point of Soviet doctrine; and the Stalinist state-capitalist regime paid lip-service to it, maintaining it in the "Stalin Constitution" of 1936. (Return to text)

(2) Lenin, "To the comrades communists of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Daghestan, and the Mountaineer Republic", April 14, 1921, Collected Works, vol. 32, pp. 316-8. (Text)

(3) Ibid., p. 370. (Text)

(4) Ibid, p. 370, emphasis added. (Text)

( 5) Similarly Robert Cottrell, a Western journalist in Moscow in 1995-9, writes that "Perhaps the possibilities for real regional autonomy within Russia were not quite so obvious in 1993 and 1994, when regional governments were still learning to flex their muscles. But they were clear enough to Mintimer Shaimiev, president of Tatarstan, who, like Dudaev, resisted signing the new Federation Treaty on which Mr. Yeltsin insisted. Unlike Mr. Dudaev, Mr. Shaimiev, eventually agreed to sign, but he also secured from Mr. Yeltsin a `power-sharing agreement' which guaranteed Tatarstan--in effect, Mr. Shaimiev himself--a free hand to run its affairs more or less as it chose. Tatarstan has been collecting the powers and attributes of statehood ever since. . . . Had Mr. Dudaev signed the Federation Treaty on Chechnya's behalf, he too might now be president of a republic with its own flag, its own language, its own economic policies, and its own constitution--a part of Russia in theory, but a law unto itself in practice."("Chechnya: How Russia Lost", New York Review of Books, Sept. 24 ,1998, p. 46, col. 3) (Text)

( 6) Dunlop, Russia Confronts Chechnya, p. 187. (Text)

( 7) Lev Ovrutsky, quoted in Celestine Bohlen's "Russian regions wary as Putin tightens Control", New York Times, March 9, 2000. (Text)

( 8) Calamity, p. x. (Text)

( 9) Ibid.., p. 370. Here there is the absurd hint that Dudayev was some kind of Bolshevik on the grounds that the Chechen national movement declared independence rather than proceeding like Tatarstan. An actual "Bolshevik-style seizure of power" requires not just that one government overthrows another, something carried out by governments of many different political and social trends, but that working class organizations seize power. Dudayev, however, led a bourgeois nationalist movement. The Chechen working masses were just as confused as the Russian workers about the nature of the Soviet system, and they were unable to organize any independent mass struggle for their own class demands; they were mainly swept alone in the existing trends. (Text)

( 10) Ibid., pp. 138-9. The occasion was the day after the Yeltsin government had announced that its backed the Chechen "Provisional Council" which was seeking to overthrow the Chechen government. This marked the beginning of stepped-up Russian military intervention in Chechnya. (Text)

( 11) They do speak a couple of time of "imperialist habits" in Russia and of Moscow's "historic ignorance of the region and imperialist arrogance", but these are mainly references to carryovers from the past. The Western bourgeoisie isn't entirely certain whether free-market Russia will play along with Western imperialism, but if it doesn't, this can be explained away as a failure to sufficiently embrace the free-market. Thus Gall and de Waal, who aren't fond of Dudayev, seek at times to paint him as a follower of the old system, whether in regard to price subsidies or his "Bolshevik-style" declaration of independence. They cover up the fact that he is actually a bourgeois nationalist. Meanwhile they say nothing about remnants of the old state-capitalist system in Tatarstan, because for the time being they are holding up the Tatarstan agreement as a model for Chechnya. (Text)

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