Ethnic Cleansing, Russian Style

The Chechen wars of the 1990s were not the first time Moscow targeted the Chechens. First there were ‘sneaky Orientals’. Then there were “miserly Jews”. Now, thanks to the power of the international media to transmit ideas across borders, another ethnic stereotype has entered the English language. Translated from the Russian, the hitherto unknown “Chechen terrorist” is slowly becoming part of the political dialogue of the Anglo-Saxon world.
Here is how Boris Yeltsin used it, just before stomping off from the European security summit in Istanbul: “We want peace and a political solution to the situation in Chechnya…to achieve this, there has to be complete elimination of the gangs, eradication of the terrorists.” Here is how one of Russia’s generals used it earlier this month: the war in Chechnya will not be halted, he said, until after “the full destruction of terrorists.” He went on to claim the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, had “directly linked up with terrorist formations,” that two of the leading Chechen military commanders were “terrorists”, and that the entire Chechen government worked close with “terrorist and bandit formations.”

In Moscow, the same language is repeated constantly except that away from the television cameras, Chechens are referred to as “blacks.” On a recent trip there, I was stopped walking into a government building becuase I didn’t have the Moscow residency permit that the security guards, then in a frenzied search for illegally resident “Chechen terrorists,” required. Eventually they let me in, however: they would make an exception in my case because, they said, I didn’t look like a “black.” So powerful is this rhetoric, that Russian politicians are afraid to oppose it. “It is repulsive,” writes Yevgenia Albats, one of Moscow’s braver journalists, “that even politicians with democratic leanings are keeping silent for fear of slipping in the ratings.

So powerful, in fact, is this rhetoric, that it has even crept its way into the popular understanding of the Chechen war or rather wars in the West. I’ve lately heard, several times, an argument which goes like this: Terrorism is bad. International terrorism is worse. Aren’t the Russians therefore right to be fighting this lawless Islamic republic? Aren’t tey right to attack them for setting off bombs in Moscow apartment blocks?

In response, I could point out that nobody except the Russians has linked the Chechens to international terrorism I could add that nobody has proven their connection to the still mysterious Moscow bombings. But why should I or anyone else need to make either argument? Given the history of this part of the world, it is not the Chechens who need to be defended from racist insults, but the Russians who need to explain the hubris that allows them to speak of the Chechens in anything but embarased and apologetic tones.

For the Russians have reduced the Chechens to the status of “bandit state” before, and for similar reasons.” First you say “they are not like us.” Then you say, “they are not like us and they cannot live among us.” From there, it is a very short step to say “they are not like us; they cannot live among us; therefore, they cannot live.”

Over the past centurt, Russia’s leaders have proved expert at thus dehumanizing their enemies. The use of biological designations (“poisonous weeds” or “parasites”) and political insults (“enemy of the people”) dates back to Lenin himself, who in one infamous essay proposed to “purge the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects.” Stalin refined the technique and pioneered its use against particular ethnic groups, as well as class enemies and political opponents. As early as 1937, Nikolai Yezhov, chief of the Soviet security police, signed an order: “On the fascist-rebellion, espionage, defeatism, diversion and terrorist activity of Polish spies in the USSR.” Although similar to other orders of the time, which demanded the arrests of kulaks or Trotskyites, this one surprised even some of Yezhov’s colleagues, who understood it as an order to arrest anyone with Polish blood, a Polish passport, or any Polish connections at all. Over the next few years, 180,000 Poles or alleged “Polish sympathizers” resident in the Soviet Union were duly imprisoned or hsot, among them (rather satisfyingly) Nikolai Yezhov.

During the war years, the number of enemy ethnicities rose. AS the Red Army marched West, orders were variously given for the murder and deportation of Latvians and Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Estonians, Moldovans, Armenians, Greeks, Bulgars, Hungarians and other people who happened to live in the newly occupied Soviet terroritories (or even in the old territories) and seemed less than accomodating to the Soviet regime.

Then, as the war turned in Stalin’s favor, he ordered even more brutal attacks on those “enemy nations” who remained within Soviet borders. Not satisfied with the slow method of arresting “spies” or “diversionaries” and shipping them off to camps, he found a faster method to eliminate completely a few, not especially popular, tiny nations whose existence disturbed him. These included the Crimean Tatars, the Volga Germans, the Balkars, Karachai, Kalmyks, Ingush and, more to the point, the Chechens. Before attempting to destroy them, Stalin first labeled them “war criminals.” Under this rubric, the entire nation was accused of Nazi collaboration, and the entire nation suffered.

All of the Chechens all, of them, men, women and children were given a few hours to pack what pots and pans and warm coast they could carry, crammed into cattle trucks and goods trains, and unceremoniously dumped in the wastes of northern Kazakhstan, where half of them died of starvation. Those who survived returned home only in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death.

If it was not quite genocide, then it was ethnicide: Stalin intended that the Chechen people should, sooner or later, cease to exist. As a culture, as a nation with a language and a history, they were meant to vanish, having been removed from the land which had been theirs. Which is why the the Russians, if they knew their history, if they really remembered what they had done to the Chechens in the past, would be no more able today to deride the Chechens as a ‘bandit nation’ or to speak of “total elimination” of this bandit nation than contemporary Germans could speak comfortably about the total elimination of the Jews.

What we are now witnessing in contemporary Russia is no ordinary outbreak of racism, no simple case of abuse of military enemies. The Russian leadership’s insistence on using the adjective ‘terrorist’ before every mention of the word ‘Chechen’ is not merely a piece of succesful wartime propaganda, although it is also that: 65 percent of Russians support the use of force against Chechnya. What we are witnessing, with the renewed bombing of Grozny, the open destruction of civilians, the flow of refugees, is the first concrete consequence of the Russian refusal, over the last decade, to come fully to terms with the Soviet past. For the past decade, those Russian historians and journalists who have labored to uncover and describe the crimes of the past have found themselves working in relative obscurity and silence. Among most Russians, there is no popular understanding and no willingness to understand.

Our own reaction, although not as dramatic, is hardly better. Again, if we really felt if we really, viscerally felt that what Stalin did to the Cechens was evil, it is not only Boris Yeltsin who would be unable to bombard Chechen civilians now, but we who would be unable to sit back with equanimity and watch. The West’s response to the first Chechen war was shocking: we turned away and called it an internal Russian matter. Our response this time is still insufficient. There have been calls for a “peaceful solution” and some mumbling about humanitarian issues, alongside some carefully worded support for the Russian “fight against terrorism.” No one, however, has expressed moral horror. But the assautl on the Chechens is a moral horror.

Of course, we cannot force the Russians to study their history, any more than we can force the Russians to withdraw from Grozny. We are not going to bomb Moscow as we bombed Belgrade, even if that were the right thing to do. But in Western public reactions and statements, we might at least express some outrage, manifest some awareness of what was done to the Chechens in the past. How often have you heard that “history which is not remembered is liable to be repeated”? The truth, alas, is that we don’t even live by our own cliches.

Scroll to Top