CHECHNYA: Life in a War-Torn Society

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CHECHNYA Life in a War-Torn Society Valery Tishkov Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 3O2pp, US$5o.oo cloth (ISBN 0-520-23887-7), US$19-95 paper (0-520-23888-5)

This is a useful but limited book. It is useful because of its painstaking analysis of the history of Chechnya both before and since fighting erupted in 1994, the reasons for the conflict, and the effect of the war on Chechen society. The study effectively demolishes various legends about the Chechens and their history, describes the brutality on both sides, and portrays the devastating effects of the war on Chechen society. The work has, however, little to suggest on how to end the war or how to avoid the emergence of similar conflicts elsewhere in the Russian Federation. The author takes comparatively little account of the experience of other multinational societies, whether established democracies or ex-communist states, in dealing with minorities, except repeatedly to suggest that the west is applying a double standard in its criticism of Russian behaviour in Chechnya. As a result of these omissions, the book unconsciously illustrates the lack of understanding in the dominant Russian political culture of how to handle minorities in a pluralist society.

For Mikhail Gorbachev, in his foreword, the reasonable desire of the Chechens to enjoy democratization and correct past injustices has been misused to fuel nationalist hysteria and anti-Russian feeling. He supports Tishkov's criticism of "special rights for so-called native nationalities in relation to the rest of the population of the republic" (xi). He believes that this principle led to the war in Chechnya. He recognizes the mistakes made by the Russian government and armed forces, but he finds that, without foreign interference, events might have taken a different turn.

The author, Valery Tishkov, is not only an ethnographer of note but was also the Russian minister of nationalities in the early nineties. As such, he took part in talks with the Chechens in December 1994 and worked on the Russian government's proposed peace plan in 1995-96. In his book, he accepts the description made of him by a Chechen nationalist that his interest is in keeping Chechnya within Russia.

Tishkov notes that the Chechens emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union as both one of the largest minority groups in Russia and one of the least assimilated. Furthermore, they had a historical sense of injured collective dignity because of their deportation by Stalin, and the social, political, and cultural inequalities they had suffered after they were allowed to return to their historic homeland in the sixties. …