A Conversation on Chechnya

September 13th, 2004 - by admin

Bill Mandel – 2004-09-13 08:38:19


A Chechen was in the American-Soviet Peace Walk of 1990 to Moscow’s nuclear test site in Kazakhstan. He addressed me not by name but as father (I speak Russian) because I was the eldest participant. That is Chechen culture.

Second to bomb testing, the issue of greatest concern to us all was protection of the environment. When we learned of an enterprise in a city we passed through that was a particularly egregious polluter, his proposal was direct action to stop production. Voted down, he was bewildered. Finally, during a heated discussion, he reached into his shirt for a knife. We calmed him down, but required that he leave the Walk.

Half a century earlier, I had met Fannina Halle, author of a book about women in the Caucasus. She wrote of meeting a man who had personally participated in the last warfare for independence in Tsarist times. As I was in my early 20s, that seemed impossibly long ago. In fact, the man was about my present age.

Today,. as I thought about the Chechen in the Peace Walk, I realized that he was no more remote in time from Halle’s acquaintance than my 18-year-old great-granddaughter is from me.

The heritage of resistance to Russian rule is very much alive in the Caucasus, where they came more recently than did Europeans to what is now the United States.

It was in the early 1700s that the navy of Peter the Great gained control of the northeastern shoreline of the Black Sea. Conquest of the mountainous hinterland required invasion from the north, which went on for centuries. Famous Russian writers of the first half of the 1800s had served there as officers and dealt with that in their writings.

Shamil Basayev, identified most often as the probable leader of the assault on Beslan, is named for the most successful leader of Chechen uprisings in the 19th century.

The Bolsheviks, in the Civil War of 1918-1920 to preserve Soviet rule over the entire territory of the former tsarist empire, had indigenous leaders from the Caucasus: Stalin and other Georgians, Shahumian and Kamo among the Armenians, Azizbek in Azerbaijan. Shahumian and Azizbek were among over a dozen “commissars” shot in Baku by the British in 1918 as the West sought control of Caspian oil, then the world’s major source.

Lenin was convinced that the economic and social revolution he had led would win the loyalty of non-Russians.

To a major extent, it did. Although the Chechens numbered less than a million people, one of them, Khasbulatov, occupied the post corresponding to Speaker of the House in the Russian parliament that Yeltsin dissolved by tank fire in 1993.

Although Chechnya is a landlocked region, a Chechen became captain of a nuclear-powered icebreaker in Soviet efforts to open the Arctic to year-round navigation. In World War II, men from the Caucasus contributed massively to victory over the Wehrmacht, not only as foot soldiers but as officers up to the highest rank, marshal. I followed that as it occurred in my capacity as “Expert on Russia” for UPI (then the United Press) during that war.

They fought under the command of Stalin, but his ruthless behavior when confronted with the slightest evidence of disloyalty contributed to the present situation. The Germans got as far as Grozny in Chechnya in 1942, creating a situation in which any Chechens whose attitude was “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” could cooperate with them. Some undoubtedly did, although today the Russians say that Chechens fought in the Red Army with particular valor.

The Chechen Deportations of 1944
In any case, the Chechens were one of several Caucasus nationalities Stalin deported to Central Asia in their entirety in 1944. Between one-half and one-third died en route of the hardships.

A Black American friend, the late Neal Burroughs, evacuated with the entire student body of Moscow University to Turkmenistan east of the Caspian Sea to safeguard the intellectual capital for postwar reconstruction, described the hardships suffered by that trainload as it was repeatedly shunted out of the way of reserves being moved in the opposite direction.

I was left with no doubt that the sufferings of such as the Chechens were monstrous in consequence if not intention. (Total Soviet deaths in World war II were 27,000,000, fifty times as large as those of the United States.)

The Return to Chechnya
Nikita Khrushchev, successor to Stalin, returned the surviving Chechens to their native territory, and they subsequently multiplied to a million.

When Yeltsin, as President of Russia, dissolved the Soviet Union, some nationalities within former Soviet republics sought independence for themselves. The Chechens were one of these, and a decade of war began, waged first by Yeltsin and then Putin.

Had these demands been raised in a world in which Moscow felt secure against dismemberment from without, it is conceivable that the post-Soviet Russian leaders would have granted them. In certain cases, such as Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and Sakha, this actually happened to a degree satisfying those peoples. However, NATO expanded to incorporate several western former Soviet republics.

The United States has established air bases in several of the “stans” of Central Asia, and has a significant military training mission in Georgia, immediately south of Chechnya.

Under these conditions, Putin sees relaxation of his grip on any area within the geographic boundaries of Russia proper, as Chechnya is, to mean opening the door to the physical dismemberment of Russia, which people as influential as Brzezinski, our Polish-born onetime National Security Advisor, has repeatedly called for. As he is a Democrat, this may explain why Putin spoke in highly favorable terms of President Bush in his interview with American academics and journalists the other day.

Putin will not remove his forces from Chechnya. Nor is today’s Russia capable of eliminating the rebel groups under Basayev and others.

The situation that has existed for the past half century in Israel-Palestine provides as clear a model of the future of Chechnya for the foreseeable future as can be envisaged. Should the war in Iraq end more or less as did that in Vietnam, that would leave Russia with a much greater sense of security than is presently the case.

William Mandel is the author of five books on the Soviet Union and, most recently, an autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER. He has been a Fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, has taught at UC Berkeley, at Syracuse, and elsewhere, and for 37 years broadcast over KPFA and other stations on the Pacifica network. He may be reached at wmmandel@earthlink.net)

Mandel’s autobiography, SAYING NO TO POWER (Introduction by Howard Zinn), is a history of how the American people fought to defend and expand its rights since the 1920s employing the form of the life of a 30s AND 60s activist, one who was involved in most serious movements: student, labor, 45 years of efforts to prevent war with the USSR, civil rights South and North, women’s liberation, 37 years on Pacifica Radio, civil liberties. You may hear/see Mandel’s testimony before different McCarthy-Cold-War-Era witch-hunting committees [used in six films and a play]) at, http://www.billmandel.net Mandel is the author of five academic books. For an autographed copy, send $24 at 4466 View Pl.,#106, Oakland, CA. 94611