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International Socialism, Spring 2000


Rob Ferguson

Chechnya: the empire strikes back


From International Socialism 2:86, Spring 2000.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What is this place called?
– ‘Valerik’, said he,
Which means ‘The river of the dead’
And those who named it rest in Heaven.
– How many did the Mountaineers lose?
– Who knows? Why would they be counted!
‘They’ll be counted’, I heard a voice reply
‘This day of blood will not be forgotten’.
I turned and saw the Chechen, nodding,
With a grin of contempt upon his lips.

Mikhail Lermontov, Valerik, 1840 [1]

On 31 December 1994 young Russian conscripts in tanks and armoured personnel carriers advanced into the bombed ruin of the Chechen capital, Grozny. Many had hardly left their schoolrooms. They came from Rostov in the south; from Vladivostok on the Pacific; from the Urals; from Moscow and St Petersburg; from the Arctic north. They came from small provincial towns and from the great, decaying, broken spirited industrial heartlands of Russia. The column passed down Pervomaiskoye Street towards the presidential palace, and towards the units of Chechen streetfighters lying in wait amongst the ruined apartment blocks.

Armour piercing, rocket propelled grenade launchers were fired at point blank range as the Chechen snipers and light machine gunners pinned the terrified soldiers down inside their vehicles. Grenades were dropped from balconies. View ports were covered with tarpaulins. Those who clambered from their ambushed vehicles fell alongside the shattered tank tracks and the burning armour that served as crematoria for those still trapped inside. As Russia celebrated the new year hundreds of young men lay dying in agony and terror in the Caucasus. [2]

Official death counts were adjusted to avoid political embarrassment to the generals and the politicians in Moscow, but back in their home towns the broken bodies added a fierce and bitter fuel to Russia’s internal discontent. Over the succeeding months Russia’s military pounded the Chechen forces back to the southern mountains. But the body count rose inexorably and Russia’s desertion-ridden conscript army never recovered its morale. In the summer of 1996 the Chechens retook the capital, having swept a despairing, unpaid, ill equipped military force, once the pride of the world’s second superpower, to what seemed its final humiliation. Two hundred years after the tsars first set out to conquer the ‘Mountaineers’ of Chechnya, their victories had turned to dust.

But now, hardly six years on, the Chechens again face the horror of war, military occupation and slaughter. Again their lands have become the crucible for Russian domination over the Caucasus. And once again the ‘new world order’ steps bravely into the bloody footprints of the old.

The Caucasus: imperialism and conquest

The states that make up the Caucasus today were forged on the anvil of Russian imperialism. The Caucasus literally means ‘the mountains’, and it spans the territory between the Black Sea and the Caspian. To the north lies Russia, to the south Turkey and Iran. It extends across Russia’s path to the Black Sea and to the Bosphorus, Russia’s sea route to the Mediterranean. Here the tsars’ imperial ambitions clashed with those of Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and Russia embarked on a massive campaign of conquest, determined to secure the ‘great barrier’ on its borders and its route to the sea. The peoples of the Caucasus paid the price.

The territories of the region contained a multiplicity of peoples and, in order to divide and undermine its potential foes, Russia deliberately fostered deep ethnic and religious rivalries. Whole peoples were put to the sword. During the 1860s a million Cherkess and Turkic Caucasians were butchered or driven into exile. Circassia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, ceased to exist. The Abkhaz population fell by more than half. The Caucasus became the empire’s chessboard upon which hundreds of thousands of lives were ruthlessly expended. [3]

Russian rule in the Caucasus was part of an age of 19th century imperial conquest by the Great Powers. It looms large in the writings of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy, represented in language reminiscent of Kipling and the British Raj. But the people who stride most often across their pages are those who rose in the greatest of the Caucasian revolts against the tsars – the Chechens.

Chechnya: the crucible of revolt

The Russians ... assign religious fanaticism as the primary cause of this and all similar outbreaks; but in truth it is only secondary. It was in the role of invaders, oppressors, conquerors – or, to use the current euphemism, civilisers-that they excited such bitter resentment ... The Ghazavat [holy war] would never have been preached in the Caucasus had the Russians been peaceful and friendly neighbours. [4]

Until the 19th century the Chechens were largely isolated from the encroachments of settlement and the incursions of passing armies, protected by the mountains and great forests. Even their language had a unique root, shared only with their cousins, the Ingush. Like mountain peoples elsewhere, their social structure reflected their sparse surroundings. Family groups maintained themselves more or less independently, relying on their own crops, pastures and livestock. The Chechens enjoyed a relatively equal status compared to the sea of serfdom to their north, but were often divided by the need to safeguard their means of economic survival, and they manifested an obsessive demarcation of possessions and holdings. [5] These divisions were reflected in bitter rivalries and blood feuds.

Yet the Russian invader threatened all. Forests were cleared, crops burned, villages destroyed. Forts were constructed and tsarist law imposed. Resistance was met with the most savage slaughter. General Yermelov urged his commanders to ‘destroy auls [villages], hang hostages, and slaughter women and children’. [6] As one Russian officer chillingly observed, ‘Our actions in the Caucasus are reminiscent of all the miseries of the original conquest of America by the Spanish.’ [7]

The Chechen revolt of the 19th century is therefore one of the most remarkable instances of resistance in modern history. It inspired the opponents of reaction across Europe, including Marx, who sang the praises of its foremost leader, Imam Shamil. The wars lasted half a century, costing Russia tens of thousands of lives. At their height 200,000 tsarist troops were engaged. In 1845, in just one of many Russian defeats, Vorontsov’s 10,000-strong army was forced to flee, having lost three generals and 3,628 men. [8]

The key figure in this resistance was Imam Shamil, an Avar from Daghestan. He united the disparate settlements, clans and tribes under the banner of his Sufi brotherhood, the Nakshabandi. [9] The Nakshabandi preached equality between rich and poor, and combined the aspiration for spiritual reformation with that of liberty from oppression. But Sufiism not only provided spiritual inspiration, it transformed the mountain peoples’ social organisation. In order to enable mobilisation on a scale sufficient to face the Russian armies, Shamil had to establish a structure of rule and unite the mountain peoples under one command. His Sufi brotherhood combined both religious and military organisation through the murids, or disciples. These charismatic religio-military commanders and administrators established a system of military rule over the heads of local chieftains. At the heart of their nascent state lay a new structure of common law, sharia. The petty rivalries between families, villages and clans were now subjected to superior authority as sharia became a tool in the struggle against Russian oppression. As John F. Baddeley observes, ‘The new teaching was essentially popular, and from this time onward Muridism was a political movement grafted upon one in itself purely religious’. [10]

Shamil and his commanders were able to gather and disperse their armies at phenomenal speed against the Russians. When one Russian general thought he had thrown his enemy into flight, 10,000 Chechens appeared to attack another. Shamil fought the Russians for a quarter of a century, but his defiance could not last. The Russian onslaught combined terror and slaughter on an unprecedented scale and served to undermine the very basis of Shamil’s new social institutions from within. They razed the vast forests with fire. Villages were destroyed and their inhabitants massacred. Every family suffered. Tens of thousands were driven north. A vast swathe of land was effectively depopulated. Grand duke Mikhail Nikolayevich explained, with the impeccable logic of the imperialist butcher, ‘It was necessary to exterminate half the Mountaineers to compel the other half to lay down its arms’. [11] The Russians broke the allegiance of local chieftains to Shamil with pardons and pensions, and the unity that he had forged began to tear asunder.

The material basis for Muridism lay in military mobilisation. As the Chechens recoiled under the Russian onslaught that basis began to disintegrate. The exactions of the Sufi military administrators were increasingly resented. As Shamil became besieged, he resorted to ever harsher methods. Where inspiration failed terror was deployed, leading to ever greater demoralisation and collapse.

In 1859 Shamil finally surrendered. Over 25 years 70,000 Chechens had died, one third of the population. Shamil continues to inspire the Chechen fighters today but it was not his aim, nor was it within his ability, to establish a Chechen nation. Baddeley astutely observes that the conceptions of the mountain peoples were ‘still limited for the most part to the narrow bounds of the communities into which from time immemorial they had been divided’. [12] This, however, was to change. And it changed under the hammer blows of revolution and dark reaction.

New dawn, dark night: from Red October to the gulag

Muslims of Russia! Tatars of the Volga and the Crimea! Kyrgys and Sarts of Siberia and of Turkestan! Turks and Tatars of Trans-Caucasus! Chechens and mountain people of the Caucasus! All you whose mosques and prayer houses used to be destroyed, and whose beliefs and customs were trodden underfoot by the tsars and oppressors of Russia! From today your beliefs and your customs and your national and cultural constitutions are free and inviolate. Organise your national life freely and without hindrance ... Comrades! Brothers! Let us march towards an honest and democratic peace. On our banners is inscribed the freedom of oppressed peoples.

Thus read the Appeal to All Muslims, Toilers of Russia and the East, issued by the Council of People’s Commissars, 3 December 1917. It was the banner of revolution that at last created the possibility of breaking the tsarist yoke. In 1919 the north Caucasus rose in support of the Bolsheviks and tied down one third of General Denikin’s White Army. In March 1920 Grozny fell and Deniken was evacuated by the British. But local rulers feared the threat to their own power. With the White armies defeated, the imam Najmudin Gotsinski led a rising against the Bolsheviks in September 1920. Their attitude was expressed by Gotsinski’s predecessor, Ujun Haji: ‘I am weaving a rope to hang engineers, students, and in general all those who write from left to right’ (i.e. in Latin or Cyrillic script). [13] Many Chechens and Ingush fought solidly alongside the Bolsheviks against Gotsinski, led by the outstanding Caucasian revolutionary Najmuddin Samursky. [14]

Finally, in 1921, a Mountainous Autonomous Republic was created and a constitution granted based on sharia law. [15] Chechen and Ingush artefacts stolen by the tsars were returned, as were the lands occupied by Cossacks who had fought with Denikin. The Chechens had no written language, so a new Latin script was devised and for the first time books and newspapers were published written in Chechen. Literacy rates soared. For the first time in their history a free nation was being forged from the fires of revolution. The possibility of liberation and fraternity began to open up across the Caucasus.

However, the window of freedom began to close all too prematurely. Stalin’s chauvinism and divisive manoeuvres as Commissar for Nationalities were already beginning to leave their dark stain. And worse was to come. At the end of the 1920s the last vestiges of the October Revolution were swept aside. In 1929 tens of thousands of troops were deployed in the Caucasus to crush a rebellion in eastern Chechnya and quell disturbances over ‘collectivisation’ of land. The Chechen historian Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov recounts how, in 1930, the regional party secretary, Chernoglaz, an ethnic Russian, mounted a wave of repression across Ingushetia. In the village of Galashki an old man, imprisoned for assassinating the tsarist governor no less, stood to address him:

I was sentenced to penal servitude for life, but 12 years later the revolution liberated me. The Soviet government is good, but you, Chernoglaz, are a bad man. I do not want to kill you. Instead, I am giving you wise advice: go away from Ingushetia while you still have a head on your shoulders. [16]

Chernoglaz had the ‘old bandit’ arrested. That night Chernoglaz was killed and beheaded.

The Chechen revolt against Stalin was unique for the leading role played by Chechen communists, ‘Old Bolsheviks’ who had fought Ujun Haji in 1921. Stalin wreaked a terrible vengeance. On one night in 1937 14,000 Chechens and Ingush were rounded up and killed in mass executions and buried in a common grave at the base of Goryachevodskaya mountain. The massacre triggered yet another rebellion, brutally crushed. Stalin’s purges now spread their pall over the Caucasus. Countless numbers perished in the gulag. [17]

In 1944 Stalin perpetrated the greatest crime in the history of the mountain peoples of the north Caucasus. In his bloody determination to crush any possibility of nationalist resistance emerging in the aftermath of war, the entire Chechen and Ingush population of half a million were deported to Kazakhstan along with the Kalmyks, Karachais, Balkars, Meskhetian Turks, Crimean Tatars, Pontic Greeks, Kurds and Koreans. Over 130,000 Chechens and Ingush died. The operation diverted 100,000 soldiers, 12,000 train carriages and fleets of Studebakker lorries from the front. Four thousand oil workers were deported. At the village of Khaibakh the Russian secret police, the NKVD, ordered 700 people who were too old or weak to walk down from the mountains to be burned alive in a barn. [18]

The deportations are the defining moment of the modern Chechen experience. Street names were changed and gravestones uprooted to pave the roads. A statue of General Yermelov, the favourite butcher of the tsars, was erected in Grozny, bearing the inscription, ‘There is no people under the sun more vile and deceitful than this one.’ Every Chechen over 60 can remember the deportations. A generation of Chechens were born in exile.

In 1957 the then Soviet president, Khrushchev, gave the Chechens permission to return and granted them their former territory. [19] This was not just benevolence on his part. In exile the Chechens had forged a new unity in the face of suffering and hardship. They organised work strikes and a mass breakout of 4,000 at Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Secretly, increasing numbers left Kazakhstan for Chechnya, braving arrest and imprisonment. By 1957 it had become impossible for the authorities to stem the flow. The character of the Chechens’ experience had been transformed. The separateness of mountain and rural life had been broken by the experience of deportation and exile. Their social unity was further deepened by economic development. Between 1959 and 1989 the Chechens rose from 9 percent to 42 percent of the urban population. [20]

But the ordinary Chechen always remained a second class citizen. Public discussion of the deportations was prohibited until 1989. On every key socio-economic indicator Chechnya, despite its oil wealth, ranked bottom of all the regions of the Soviet Union. Ethnic Russians dominated the top posts in the party and state apparatus as well as industry. Russians received preferential allocation of housing. Young Chechens faced unemployment and were forced to rely on seasonal labour in construction and on collective farms outside Chechnya.

In 1991 the Chechens watched the world’s second superpower collapse. For the first time in 70 years the prospect of freedom once more raised its head. But the ‘new world order’ that appeared to promise so much was soon to turn into an era of renewed imperialist rivalry. It was in such circumstances that Chechnya embarked on its struggle for independence.

The politics of oil and the fuel of war

Russia is participating in this confrontation between world powers in disadvantageous conditions. But in spite of this, we must defend our position on the Caucasian bridgehead. – Kim Tsagolov, Russian Deputy Minister for Federation and Nationality Issues

The Caspian oil supplies and the pipelines that criss-cross the region are a vital factor in the rivalries between the regional powers in the Caucasus and the major imperialist powers. The importance of oil lies not only in its commercial value, but in its strategic significance. An oilfield is a fact of geography. You either control the tap or you do not. Military blocs and alliances become as important as commercial contracts. Britain, the Ottoman Empire and tsarist Russia all vied for the Caucasian oilfields, which became a crucial objective for the German army during the Second World War. [21]

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the formation of newly independent states along its borders has now paved the way for a return of what in the 19th century was called ‘the Great Game’. Under the shadow of the major imperialist powers, regional states vie to control both the supplies and the pipelines. Ethnic and nationalist conflicts become weapons in the battles for regional dominance. There is not a single state not subject to these explosive tensions. Since 1991 there has been an almost permanent state of conflict across the Caucasus. Georgia has suffered a civil war and two separatist conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. During 1992–1993 Armenian troops, bolstered by Russia, fought Azerbaijan over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. When this war threatened to extend to the Azeri enclave of Nakhichivan, Turkey threatened to bomb the Armenian capital, Yerevan. The Russian republic of Ingushetia clashed with neighbouring North Ossetia. Turkey is fighting an ongoing war against the Kurds. Chechnya is now suffering its second invasion. To the south lies Iran, whilst across the Caspian lies Central Asia, itself a site of war and conflict.




Ingushetia-North Ossetia,



Georgia-South Ossetia,






Georgia – civil war,





1st Chechen war,



2nd Chechen war,
Sept 1999–........






* Estimates are almost impossible to judge but this must be a minimum figure

Russia has continually intervened in these conflicts in its bloody determination to reassert dominance over its ‘near abroad’. NATO for its part is making strenuous efforts to draw key states into its own sphere of influence, expanding along the whole of Russia’s southern flank. The formation of GUUAM, the NATO-inclined bloc consisting of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova, is one evident example. Azerbaijan has even called for NATO to protect the planned Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. This route, one of the key options amongst several backed by the US, would pass from Azerbaijan through Georgia and eastern Turkey to the port of Ceyhan. [22] Considering the geography of conflict outlined above the latest James Bond plot, aptly titled The World is Not Enough, has the appearance of a mild disturbance in comparison to this explosive mix of regional rivalries and imperialist interference.

Whilst Russia could not prevent the ‘union’ republics from breaking away in 1991, it has gone to great lengths to reassert its power and influence through economic pressure and by fomenting conflict and division, backed by the threat of its own military force. An independent Chechnya would represent a massive blow. If Chechnya (a country smaller than Wales) was victorious, Russia’s strategy for the Caucasus and the whole of its ‘near abroad’ would be in jeopardy. And much as the US and NATO would like to see Russia weakened in respect of their own military and economic might, a Chechen victory would also represent a blow to imperialism as a whole, sending a signal to the oppressed across the region that they too could defy the great powers and win.

The phoenix rises: independence and war

In 1947 Tony Cliff wrote:

The struggle for national independence against Russian imperialism is sure to continue as long as Russian imperialism does. It is one of the most important factors which could seal the fate of the Stalinist regime. [23]

The collapse of the Soviet Union was indeed heralded by the growth of mass independence movements across the former Soviet republics. From the Baltic states to Central Asia, millions took to the streets to demand an end to decades of dictatorship and oppression. A new future, full of hope and liberty, seemed to beckon. ‘Popular fronts’ were formed to demand greater autonomy, democracy and, finally, independence. As the Soviet power structure shook, erstwhile Communist leaders were faced with the choice of trying to ride the storm by recasting themselves as nationalists, or throwing their lot in with the old regime. The turning point came with a vengeance. In August 1991, a group of hardliners launched a putsch in Moscow and declared a state of emergency. A key objective was the annulment of a new Union Treaty granting the republics greater autonomy and the prospect of independence. Either the putsch would be defeated or the hopes of the popular movements would turn to ash. The coup failed, and the Soviet Empire went into meltdown. [24]

When news broke of the putsch in Chechnya, vast crowds poured in from the villages and towns to fill the centre of Grozny. In the midst of a general strike Doku Zavgayev, the Chechen party boss of 15 years standing, was dragged out of a sitting of the Supreme Soviet by the crowd and forced to sign an ‘act of abdication’. [25] A new leadership took power, demanding full independence, led by general Dhokar Dudayev and the Congress of the Chechen People.

The congress had been formed in 1990. The founders included moderate figures from the elite and some adventurists, all looking to carve out a new role for themselves from the ruins. The first congress was organised by the head of the state road construction company and bankrolled by the oilman Yaragi Mamodayev. A key figure was Beslan Gantemirov, former policeman turned racketeer, now turned Russian stooge. They rode with popular sentiment, demanding greater autonomy and democracy.

The key figure, however, was Dudayev. He had resigned his commission and returned to Chechnya with the aim of turning the congress into a radical political movement for full independence. Dudayev was no Islamic rebel from the hills. He was ‘a model Soviet officer’. He had commanded a bomber fleet in Afghanistan, destroying the mountain villages that gave support to the mujahaddin. In 1988 he was promoted to command a division of long range strategic nuclear bombers in Estonia. He had bitter memories of exile, but had been educated in the Soviet Union and had spent very little of his life in Chechnya. As Lieven noted, he appeared ‘uncomfortable in his new Chechen skin’. [26]

Dudayev won 85 percent of the vote in the presidential elections in October 1991. In November he declared Chechnya an independent republic. Moscow’s response was to send in the notorious Interior Ministry police. This was met with fury by a population that had returned the highest vote in the whole of Russia for Yeltsin in the presidential elections five months before. [27] Hundreds of thousands turned out to demonstrate in Grozny, and Moscow was forced to pull back. Dudayev’s position was now secured and Chechnya became a de facto independent state.

However, Chechnya’s position was precarious, caught between the collapse of the command economy on the one hand and a world market too ailing to regenerate some forgotten corner of the Caucasus. The Chechen leaders’ pleas for recognition went studiously unheard. Not one state thought that the much vaunted new world order of independent nations extended to the Chechens. Here the line in the sand was finally drawn.

The new Chechen leadership degenerated rapidly, following in the footsteps of the ruling class across Russia itself. Any assets that could be seized and converted to cash were carved up between them, often with the aid of armed criminal groups. As ordinary Chechens saw the very fabric of modern life fall apart, the Chechen rich were ever more prominent. In this the ruling class in Chechnya was no different to that of Russia itself. The image of the Chechen ‘bandit’ comes rich from Moscow politicians accustomed to carrying sports bags with hundreds of thousands of dollars in ‘campaign contributions’, and whose foreign bank accounts are awash with nice fat chunks of an estimated $60 billion of capital that has ‘flown’ the country. [28] But the impact of the corruption and growing misery upon the Chechens was evident.

By 1994 Dudayev and his regime had become deeply unpopular. The Kremlin was optimistic that they could deal with their errant republic. Dudayev was despised and the regime seemed shaky. Russia cut the oil supplies and the economy went into free fall. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s fascist Liberal Democratic Party had rocked the Kremlin with a massive rise in electoral support during the December 1993 elections to the Russian parliament. Yeltsin’s advisers saw bringing Chechnya to heel as an opportunity to restore the president’s standing. In addition, as the jockeying over the oil pipeline routes from the Caspian gathered pace, Russia faced the problem that the cheapest pipeline option ran through Chechnya. Moscow backed and armed a stooge Provisional Council set up by opponents to Dudayev which launched an ‘attack’ on Grozny supported by Russian units. It proved a fiasco and in the face of a humiliating rout the pressure built for direct armed intervention by the Russian army. The stage was set for war.

The shelling of Grozny that began in December 1994 marked the heaviest artillery bombardment since the Second World War. At the height of the siege of Sarajevo 3,500 shells a day fell upon the city. In Grozny it was 4,000 an hour. [29] The foundations were destroyed and water supplies and sewerage systems demolished. And as Anatol Lieven points out:

Grozny was not some small, half-baked provincial town of the Third World; it was a large industrial city, the second biggest oil refining centre of the world’s largest oil producing country, and formerly the world’s second biggest industrial power. The oil refineries around Grozny are themselves whole cities, stretching for dozens of square miles. [30]

The majority of victims in Grozny were ethnic Russians. Two thirds of the city’s population had been Russian and unlike many Chechen inhabitants they had no relatives in the villages to whom they could flee. An estimated 27,000 civilians died in Grozny alone, predominantly the old and poor.

Outside Grozny Chechen civilians were herded into ‘filtration camps’ as suspected ‘bandits’. Many were thrown into mud pits or subjected to electric shock treatment. Rape and summary executions were widespread. [31] Red Cross vehicles were shelled and reporters shot. The tsars’ brutality had returned to Chechnya with all the armoury of modern warfare.

Popular resistance and the ghost of Imam Shamil

You could say that the whole population is involved in the defence. Every street has provided several groups of four or five volunteers ... If they see something suspicious, they fire three shots, and all the armed men in the town will take up position ... behind us there is a local staff, made up of men with Soviet military experience ... There are no formal commanders here. We just work together ... As you see we are not an army. We are just ordinary people defending our homes. [32]

The myths of Russian propaganda regarding the character of the armed Chechen revolt have permeated out to the West. The foremost is that of the Chechen ‘bandit formations’, the terminology used by Russian imperialism for two centuries. The second is that of Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, linked to that pantheon of villains which stretches from Osama bin Laden to Gadaffi.

The Russian army was not defeated by ‘bandits’, but by popular resistance. Here the role of two emergent military commanders, Shamil Basayev and Aslan Maskhadov, is especially significant, representing two strands of military and political leadership. Maskhadov was Dudayev’s chief of staff. As a colonel in the Soviet army he had served all over the USSR and Eastern Europe. Shamil Basayev described his own childhood as that of ‘an all-Soviet kid’. He had studied in Moscow and there found inspiration from Che Guevara (whose picture he kept in his pocket throughout the war). During the 1991 putsch he stood on the steps of the Russian parliament to defend Yeltsin. His military experience came as a fighter in the Abkhaz war against Georgia in 1992–1993 and he draws on the image of Imam Shamil to provide a historical root for his modern version of Islamism and for a vision of a united mountain people of the north Caucasus.

Both commanders were instrumental to the defeat of the Russians in the 1994-1996 war and they demonstrated a fantastic grasp of both guerrilla and urban warfare. But the war was not won simply by virtue of guerrilla armies made up of mountain villagers and the unemployed young men who had grown up during the Soviet collapse. There was another element: spontaneous uprisings by large numbers of ordinary Chechens, many of whom were workers from Grozny and other towns. Lieven describes watching a column of volunteers in the ruins of Grozny, ‘marching towards the roar of the guns, into a battle against apparently hopeless odds, cheering as they went: ‘One old man raised his fist and cried, “No pasaran!” – the kind of soldiers of whom most commanders can only dream’. [33] The war became a combination of classic guerrilla war and spontaneous popular militias. It was this, combined with the low morale of unpaid Russian conscripts who were treated as sheer cannon fodder by their commanders, that created the conditions for the Russian defeat. [34]

However, the dynamic of war exposed deep rooted political tensions within the Chechen leadership. In mid-1995 the situation was desperate. The guerrillas were under siege in the southern mountains and their mountain villages were subject to savage air bombardment. One raid killed 11 of Basayev’s own relatives. Meanwhile the West remained entirely indifferent to the Chechens’ plight. [35] On the eve of a meeting of the G7, Basayev launched a spectacular expedition into southern Russia culminating in a mass hostage crisis at the town of Budyennovsk. Basayev and his fighters escaped into Chechnya. This was a massive blow to Moscow in the midst of what was already a deeply unpopular war. But it was an act born of isolation, despair and weakness. Basayev’s own explanation for his action is significant:

Before, I was not a supporter of that sort of action ... because I knew what measures and cost it would entail ... But when last year we were thrown out of Vedeno, and they had driven us into a corner with the very savage and cruel annihilation of villages, women, children, old people, of a whole people, then ... [we said] ‘Let’s go to Russia ... we will stop the war or we will all die’. [36]

The siege at Budyennovsk was followed by another in Daghestan, led by Dudayev’s nephew, Salman Raduyev. This lost the Chechens popular sympathy in Daghestan and reinforced the propaganda images from Moscow. Nonetheless, opposition to the war in Russia and within the army was intense and Moscow was forced to conclude a truce in the run up to the elections. By the summer of 1996 resistance had revived. The course of war turned and finally Russia was forced to sign a peace deal. The issue of formal independence was deferred and Aslan Maskhadov became leader following the successful assassination of Dudayev by the Russians.

But the tensions over future strategy remained. Basayev and Maskhadov were divided over whether to try and reach some form of modus vivendi with Russia or take a more militant and hostile stance. The 1997 presidential elections were essentially fought along these lines with Maskhadov standing as the moderate against Basayev. Maskhadov won 60 percent, reflecting the overwhelming desire for peace and reconstruction, but Basayev still won 26 percent of the popular vote. In fact, their differences did not lead to an immediate breach and Basayev was appointed as Maskhadov’s deputy. But their strategy was premised on the restoration of subsidies and (legal) trade with Moscow, and above all upon the reopening of the oil pipeline as the channel for the new reserves from the Caspian. The subsidies did not materialise. Those that did simply lined the pockets of the Chechen and Russian elite. Hopes for the pipeline were dashed as the alternative Western-backed routes emerged bypassing Chechnya and Russia.

At a more fundamental level, the crisis faced by the Chechen leadership reflects a wider crisis in the politics and class character of national liberation struggles in the context of post-Cold-War imperialism. There is a constant tension between the opposition of Chechen workers to the Russian occupation and distrust of their own bourgeois leadership:

For five months they haven’t paid me for coming to work for their government – the only reason I come is to eat in the canteen. When we ask them for pay they reply, ‘How can you think of money at a time when the nation is in danger?’ And then I have to watch them stuffing themselves with food at their feasts, building palaces for themselves at our expense, and this has been going on for three years. God punish them! [37]

Chechnya was now a state whose entire modern infrastructure had been destroyed. All hopes of reconstruction evaporated and all the old corrupt practices returned with interest. Beslan Gantemirov, mayor of Grozny, was jailed for appropriating 54 billion Russian roubles intended for reconstruction and was rumoured to have had a personal oil quota of 100,000 tonnes. (He has now been released by acting president Vladimir Putin to form a pro-Russian militia.) In parts of the country sheer gangsterism took hold and desperate youth who had known only war and unemployment resorted to crime and abductions.

Basayev broke with Maskhadov and began to rebuild his guerrilla forces. Increasingly, more Chechens began to articulate their struggle in the language of Islam, particularly the young. Islam had not been strong in Chechnya prior to the war and zealotry had always been looked upon askance by most of the population. Even during the war most Chechens remained extremely cynical about the trappings of religious piety adopted by their leaders, the ever growing length of their beards, and their evident self enrichment. [38]

We listen to the radio and watch TV. Now we realise that our leaders and the Russian leaders are really singing from the same hymn sheet. They wrap themselves up in Islam but it’s just a cover for them to make money. [39]

But in the absence of any other world view Islam did begin to take greater root. It seemed to give expression to Chechen aspirations for freedom and independence whilst articulating a wider pole of unity beyond Chechnya’s borders.

Basayev seems largely to have avoided being caught up in the institutionalised corruption of the Chechen elite by ‘taking to the hills’. In what was perhaps not an unconscious imitation of Guevara’s own endeavour to spread the liberation struggle, Basayev united with the mysterious Khattab in an attempt to spread resistance to Russia across the mountain republics of the north Caucasus. This moved the emphasis increasingly away from Chechen nationalism to pan-Islamism. In August 1999 Basayev and Khattab launched a joint expedition across into Daghestan with the hope of rousing the population against a corrupt local regime and spreading the revolt beyond Chechnya’s borders. The attempt ended in disaster with ordinary Daghestanis arming themselves against the Islamic rebels. Moscow used the raid to full effect as a pretext to justify renewed invasion. [40]

It is not possible to be certain of the outcome of the current war. It is still too early to tell how far war weariness and disillusion with the post-independence regimes have fractured the cohesion of the Chechen population or undermined their determination to resist. Russia, however, has cause to fear for the long term fate of its most recent military adventure in Chechnya. Basayev and Maskhadov have again united their forces and it is clear that hatred of the Russian occupation remains unabated.


Russia’s territorial integrity is in greater danger now than before. Russia has, in effect, suffered humiliating military and political defeat. This can please only separatists and morally degraded people who hate the words ‘patriotism’ and ‘statehood’ ... One thing is clear, it is not the end of the tragedy. The Russian state is still in danger. – Boris Fyodorov, former finance minister and free-marketeer at end of first Chechen war

The Russian army is reviving in Chechnya, faith in the army is growing and a politician who does not think so cannot be regarded as a Russian politician. In this case there is only one definition – a traitor. – Anatoly Chubais, former finance minister and free-marketeer at beginning of second Chechen war

The final year of the 20th century closed with the two major powers of the Cold War launching brutal wars that claimed thousands of civilian victims in two regions that rank as the most unstable casualties of the Soviet collapse. The Balkans and the Caucasus face one another across the Black Sea, forming opposite ends of an arc of tension and instability that stretches from the southern underbelly of central Europe, through Turkey, to the southernmost borders of Russia. A new fault line has appeared along the very frontiers of the major powers and ‘the Great Game’ of the 19th century has returned to haunt us.

The response of the two camps to each other’s militarism has been marked by cynicism and cant. Madeleine Albright, US secretary of state, recently described Russian acting president (and ex-KGB chief) Putin as ‘a problem-solving patriot’. [41] NATO’s cup of humanitarian concern quickly ran dry when it came to the Chechens. In fact, both NATO and Russian strategies have been remarkably similar, whether cloaked as ‘humanitarian intervention’, or combating ‘rogue’ and ‘bandit’ states or ‘international terrorism’. [42] The connection runs deeper still. NATO’s intervention in the Balkans and its expansion eastwards undermined the popular opposition to militarism within Russia itself that was so critical in forcing an end to the first Chechen war. Finally, war and the crisis of the free market march hand in hand. The south east Asian crash that spread to Russia in the summer of 1998 plunged millions of ordinary Russians deeper into poverty and fuelled the despair upon which militarism and chauvinism have grown.

Yet Russia’s rulers are playing a high risk game. Workers’ contempt for their rulers has not dissipated. Mistrust runs deep. Despite support for the war running at 70 percent in the polls, most believe that the most reliable source of information on the war comes from the Chechens themselves! The conditions that gave rise to the mass opposition to militarism witnessed during the first Chechen war remain. Half the population are in dire poverty. The corruption, criminality and ostentatious display of wealth on the part of the elite are everywhere in evidence.

However, as the world’s imperialist powers seek every opportunity to extend their reach at each other’s expense and lesser regional powers vie for dominance, armed intervention risks unpredictable outcomes and ever growing instability. The US is attempting to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Russia has been rattling its nuclear arsenal.

Therefore much is at stake. The Chechens are confronting the new post-Cold-War imperialism at its most vile. Once known only as a small and distant land – if known at all – Chechnya is now, for the worst of reasons, a household name. But its people are still referred to in the idioms of 19th century travelogue and racist prejudice. We are presented with images of a mountain people, a warrior tradition or, less romantically, bandit clans, vendetta codes and mafia crime. To these has been added the inevitable ingredient of fundamentalist Islam, and of course, its brother in arms – terrorism.

The left must be unequivocal in its response. For two centuries the Chechens have fought the Russian Empire. They are in every sense an oppressed nation. They were forged, and have forged themselves, on the anvil of modern imperialism. Their struggle for self determination is not a throwback to the past, but an act of resistance against the new world order. As Marx supported the struggle of the ‘Mountaineers’ and the wider struggle against the Great Powers during the 19th century, and as the left supported the liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam, so we should support the Chechens today. Their victory would be a vital blow to imperialism and the new world order.

The Chechens, however, face tremendous odds. If they win their independence they will still face the overwhelming economic might of an imperialist world order, and the oppression of class rule. Yet here the Chechens have a powerful ally. The Chechens and the international working class, both in Russia and beyond, face a common foe. It is in mobilising that force that the deadlock can be broken, and the struggle for self determination united with the struggle for socialism.


I would like to thank Dave Crouch and John Rees for their comments and suggestions.

1. Lermontov and Tolstoy fought in the Tsar’s armies. Lermontov was at the massacre of Valerik. In providing a more or less literal translation I’m afraid Lermontov’s poetic structure has been lost.

2. As many as 2,000 troops died on New Year’s Eve. See C. Gall and T. de Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War (London 1997), p. 16. For accounts of the fighting in Grozny see ibid., pp. 1–19 and pp. 204–228; also A. Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven and London 1999), pp. 108–117.

3. Ibid., pp. 314–315.

4. J.F. Baddeley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (Richmond 1999).

5. On the eve of emancipation from serfdom in 1861 only 2 percent of the population were serfs. The absence of a feudal class structure largely explains the prolonged resistance of the Chechens when compared to their neighbours, whose rulers were incorporated by the tsars. See F. Kazemzadeh, Russian Penetration of the Caucasus, in T. Hunczac, Russian Imperialism (New Jersey 1974), p. 255.

6. J.F. Baddeley, op. cit., p. 148.

7. F. Kazemzadeh, op. cit., p. 253.

8. J.F. Baddeley, op. cit., p. 402.

9. Sufiism is a mystical, ascetic branch of Islam whose adherents assert their own union with God.

10. J.F. Baddeley, op. cit. p. 287.

11. Ibid., p. 261.

12. Ibid., p. 479.

13. A. Lieven, op. cit., p. 317.

14. M. Broxup, The Last Ghazawat: The 1920–21 Uprising, in M. Broxup (ed.), The North Caucasus Barrier (New York 1992); and E. Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (London 1987), pp. 225–226. Samursky was later executed by Stalin.

15. It might seem bizarre that the Bolsheviks were so permissive towards sharia. In fact it reflected a recognition that obscurantism could only be challenged by a break with great Russian chauvinism. In the north Caucasus in particular sharia had taken root as a means of marshalling the struggle against tsarist oppression.

16. A. Autorkhanov, The Chechens and Ingush During the Soviet Period and its Antecedents, in M. Broxup, op. cit., p. 165.

17. Ibid.; and A. Lieven, op. cit., p. 318. This was part of a purge of national leaderships across the Soviet republics. See T. Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London, 1996), pp. 259–264.

18. W. Flemming, The Deportation of the Chechen and Ingush Peoples: A Critical Examination, in B. Fowkes, Russia and Chechenia: The Permanent Crisis (Basingstoke and London 1998), pp. 72–74 and 82; and C. Gall and T. de Waal, op. cit., pp. 59–61. The victims included relatives of Dhokar Dudayev, the first president of independent Chechnya.

19. The Ingush, however, were never granted their territory back in full and the dispute led to savage ethnic cleansing of the Ingush from North Ossetia in 1992.

20. This understates the proletarianisation of the Chechens, since housing in Grozny was disproportionately awarded to Russians. Many Chechen oil workers, for example, had to be bussed in from surrounding villages.

21. At the end of the 19th century the Caucasus provided 30 percent of the world’s oil trade. During the Nazi-Soviet pact Soviet oil accounted for a third of Germany’s imports.

22. For a sharp analysis of the significance of GUUAM and NATO expansion, see J. Rees, NATO and the New Imperialism, Socialist Review 231, June 1999, pp. 17–19. The competitive dynamic of commercial and strategic interests leads to a complex rivalry between the minor and major players in the region. However, the underlying dynamic, irrespective of the immediate intentions of those involved, is towards instability and conflict. The most incisive, albeit partisan, analysis of the re-emergent ‘Great Game’ is to be found in R. Forsythe, The Politics of Oil in the Caucasus and Central Asia (Oxford 1996). Forsythe was Director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs at the US National Security Agency, 1993–1995.

23. See T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 264. The original 1947 manuscript was entitled The Nature of Stalinist Russia.

24. For an analysis of the collapse of the USSR and the national question see C. Harman and A. Zebrowski, Glasnost – Before the Storm, International Socialism 39 (Summer 1988), pp. 30–34; and C. Harman, The Storm Breaks, International Socialism 46 (Winter 1989), pp. 10–15.

25. C. Gall and T. de Waal, op. cit., pp. 93–96.

26. Ibid., pp. 83–89; and A. Lieven, op. cit., p. 66.

27. Yeltsin won 80 percent of the vote in Chechnya and 99.7 percent in Ingushetia!

28. Crime and corruption in Chechnya were closely linked to the criminal activity of the Russian elite. As the economy collapsed, Chechnya became a conduit for trade from the Middle East and a transit post for avoiding tax duty. Indeed the Russian government has itself relied upon the most criminal elements in Chechnya.

29. F. Cuny, Killing Chechnya, New York Review of Books, 6 April 1995, cited in C. Gall and T. de Waal, op. cit., p. 219.

30. A. Lieven, op. cit., p. 40.

31. These camps are again being used as torture and execution centres. See Patrick Cockburn’s articles in The Independent, especially Chechens “Raped And Beaten” In Detention Camps, 10 February 2000, and New Evidence Of Torture And Abuse By Russian Soldiers, 17 February 2000.

32. A. Lieven, op. cit., p. 118.

33. Ibid., pp. 324–325.

34. ‘Hazing’ and ‘fragging’ are endemic amongst the Russian forces. Two thousand Russian soldiers die each year at the hands of their officers and fellow soldiers or through suicide.

35. When Clinton was asked why he did not call on Russia to halt the war he replied, ‘I would remind you that we once had a civil war in our country ... over the proposition that Abraham Lincoln gave his life for, that no state had a right to withdrawal from our Union.’ C. Gall and T. de Waal, op. cit., p. 316.

36. Ibid., pp. 259–260.

37. A. Lieven, op. cit., pp. 82–83.

38. Basayev too mocked the fake Islamism of his opponents during the presidential elections and made great efforts to present a secular image. For a fascinating, informed and perceptive account of the Chechen struggle see G. Derluguian, Che Guevaras in Turbans, New Left Review 237 (1999), pp. 3–27.

39. Inside Chechnya, Correspondent, BBC News 24.

40. The bombings of apartment blocks in Moscow were used to galvanise support for the war. However, it is in my view unlikely that these had anything to do with the Chechens. There is no space here to enter into the detail, but I am now almost entirely convinced that the bombings were perpetrated by elements within the state apparatus.

41. The Guardian, 2 February 2000.

42. Nato commanders and Russia’s generals also seem to match each other’s contempt for those who suffer the consequences of their warmongering. Echoing Russia’s public insistence that the inhabitants of Grozny are perfectly safe, K-FOR Commander Klaus Reinhardt recently maintained that Serbs in Kosovo have themselves never been safer, and would be pouring back to their homes if it was not for the black propaganda of the UNHCR! (Interview, BBC World Service, 24 December 1999)

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