Chechnya Lives

Article excerpt

For how much longer can Russia suppress Chechnya's emancipation? BY RAMADAN ALIG

On 15 June 2009, award-winning journalist and human rights defender Natalya Estemirova's body was found. Having acquired hard evidence of Chechnya's state-sanctioned torture, this daughter of Russian-Chechen parents and widow of a Chechen policeman was kidnapped and then executed.

She worked for the Memorial Human Rights Center (, a Grozny-based Russian organization that preserves the memory of Soviet-era abuse. It has since been awarded Europe's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, given each year by the European Parliament to honor those who oppose intolerance, fanaticism, and oppression.

A History of Struggle. Moscow declared victory in Chechnya in April 2008, a decade after then-President Vladimir Putin sent troops to suppress its centurieslong freedom movement in the remote and rugged mountainous territory. Located between the Black and Caspian seas and home to over thirty different ethnic groups, it has done its best to remain free of Russian control ever since 1732, when the men of Chechen-aul village defeated the Czar's forces.

Since Russia's victory statement, reports Philip P. Pan ("The Washington Post," 30 Oct. 2009), violence remains common: the long lull in assassinations of officials, explosions, shootouts, and suicide bombings is over. The fighting is now concentrated in the largely Muslim eastern part of the North Caucasus, an Oregon-sized area with 14 million people from as many as fifty ethnic groups.

After a brief calm following the two Russian-Chechen wars during the 1990s, attacks have spiked in Chechnya as well as in nearby Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. But the violence has been worst in Ingushetia, Russia's smallest and poorest province, where even human rights activists carry guns. Using the al-Qaeda card, Moscow continues to blame regional violence on Muslim "extremists" backed by "foreign governments" and "terrorist networks." While ethnic nationalism fueled the wars during the 1990s, religious fervor became the motivating factor as fighting spilled beyond Chechnya and Russia adopted harsher tactics. Today, Russia has 20,000 federal troops in Chechnya.

Chechens have struggled under various banners and leaders. Amjad Jaimoukha ("The Chechens: A Handbook" [RoutledgeCurzon: 2005]) says that they have resisted Russia since 1732. The Russian invaders inspired fierce resistance from a broad ethnic coalition of Caucasian Muslims. United under the leadership of the Chechen Naqshbandi Shaykh Mansur Ushurma, they defeated the Czarist forces at the Sunzha River in 1785 and briefly united much of what is modern Dagestan and Chechnya under their rule. His disciples continued their low-key resistance even after his 1793 death in a Russian prison.

Full-scale armed revolt resumed in 1824, when a series of Naqshbandi leaders began a bitter guerrilla war that would last for over thirty years. The most famous of these warriors, the Naqshbandi Shaykh Imam Shamil, actually established a short-lived Islamic state in Chechnya and Dagestan before his capitulation in 1859. With Shamil safely imprisoned, the Russians crushed his remaining followers and pacified the region. Many of Shamil's followers were hanged or deported, while his senior deputies escaped to Makkah, Madinah, or Turkey.

The successful suppression of the Naqshbandis, however, did not end the conflict, for a new order - the Qadiris - entered the fight. Together with the rejuvenated Naqshbandis, the Qadiris rose up in 1865, 1877, 1879, and the 1890s. They fought the Russians for years. In fact the Qadiris, along with a Naqshbandi movement led by Shaykh Uzun Haji, spent eight years battling both the White and Red armies to create a "North Caucasian Emirate." The pious, uncompromising Uzun Haji, whose tomb remains a major pilgrimage site for Muslim Chechens, saw little difference between either group (David Damrel, "The Religious Roots of Conflict: Russia and Chechnya," Religious Studies News 10, no. …