Chechnya: Very Briefly

28 April 2005

This is a short essay that I wrote in April 2005 for my Modern Russia class, taught by Dr. William Risch. It was a quick assignment that I felt came out well enough to repost here.

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The history shared between Russia and the Republic of Chechnya is one of ongoing conflict. Dating back to the beginning of the eighteenth century during the reign of Tsar Peter I, and escalating in the century that followed, Chechnya has suffered much at the hands of Russia, who at that time was trying to expand its territory into the Caucasus region with little regard for the natives living there. Chechnya and its neighbors fell prey to the Russian imperialist onslaught and abuse. Under the guidance of Imam Shamil in 1817, the peoples of the Caucasus united in the fight to defend against the Russians. It was under Shamil that the act of guerrilla warfare in the region developed, which is still practiced today. Russo-Chechen strife continued up through the dissolution of imperial Russia and into the new Soviet Union.

During the 1917 civil war many Chechens joined the Red Army and took part in fighting off the White Army forces who were attempting to overrun Vladimir Lenin and his Bolshevik control of the nation. Despite their wartime accomplishments, and after initial suggestions of a greater Chechen acceptance, very little actually changed for the beleaguered Caucasians. By the time World War II came around, Joseph Stalin had succeeded Lenin as Soviet leader and had established the purges as a national policy. As one might expect, the Chechens were no exception. During Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Chechens once again held their ground against the invaders as they did in 1918, fighting with the Red Army. Still, Stalin saw them as a potential threat that may have the opportunity to provide assistance to the Germans. In 1944 nearly the entire population of Chechnya was deported, sent by train to Siberia and central Asia (Kazakhstan). A great many did not survive the trip, and even more would perish during their exile. Come 1956, Nikita Khrushchev had the Chechens returned as part of his destalinization policy. Russo-Chechen tensions settled for a time until the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev introduced glasnost and Chechnya lobbied for independence. After all, since many of the other Soviet republics – Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus, and the like – were breaking away, then by all means Chechnya should be given that right as well. They would find themselves sorely mistaken as the new Russian Federation closed up around Chechnya under the guidance of President Boris Yeltsin. The last straw, as they say, had been pulled.

Despite Russia’s rejection, Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev nevertheless declared independence. Yeltsin responded in 1994 by sending 40,000 Russian troops into Chechnya to quell the independence movement and regain Russian control over the small republic. This would lead to the creation of the First Chechen War as the the conflict extended from a short, decisive fight to a prolonged military engagement. Russian military might was a pale shadow of its former power. Financially crippled by the burdons of a prolonged arms race, fighting in Afghanistan, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s army was in poor shape, made up of insufficient equipment and conscripted troops. If anything, this put them on par with the Chechens, who similarly lacked proper armaments. Grozny, Chechnya’s capital city, was all but leveled in the war, and guerrilla warfare became a favored tactic of the resident peoples, causing the control of Grozny to be quickly shifted back and forth between sides. In 1996 a truce was called and fighting stopped for a time.

The truce was short-lived, but allowed both sides to recuperate. Dudayev had been killed in the war, and the presidency was assumed by Aslan Maskhadov. Fighting soon began again in August 1999 as Russia launched a reinvasion force into the Caucasus. However, it was not until a series of apartment building explosions occurred that the Russian forces actually entered Chechnya. Whether or not the apartment bombs were planted by Chechen terrorists was somewhat irrelevant, even with several signs pointing to Russian agents as the perpetrators. That December Yeltsin stepped down from office, allowing Vladimir Putin to win the presidential election by a landslide. The Second Chechen War continues even today. Chechnya is barely recognizable from its past self. Grozny and many of the other cities lay in ruins. As recent as last month [March 2005], president Maskhadov was assassinated, an act which will likely prolong the struggle even more. Guerrilla fighting still goes on as Chechens and Russians fight for control of the republic. Peace may come someday, but not after a great deal more fighting it seems, as the Chechens strive for independence and the Russians try to maintain control from Moscow.


Engaged 23 March 2002 | Updated 4 March 2006