A Russian Reverie: Chechnya's Literary Legacy

By Layton, Susan | History Today, February 1997 | Go to article overview

A Russian Reverie: Chechnya's Literary Legacy


Layton, Susan, History Today


* During a televised debate prior to France's 1995 presidential election, Jacques Chirac recalled a 'viscious Chechen' in a poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41), an author best known outside Russia for his novel A Hero of Our Time (1840). The quoted phrase correctly suggests historical antecedants to current Russian stereotypes of Chechens as a rebellious people prone to crime. However, Lermontov himself was no agitator for war against Chechnya. On the contrary, be was one of several writers who gave Russian readers thrilling images of the Caucasus as a realm of freedom on their despotic country's southern edge. This romantic literature contributed to a split in nineteenth-century Russian public opinion comparable to the modern-day cleavage between the Kremlin's party of war and proponents of non-violent resolution of tensions with Chechnya.

A division in Russian attitudes toward Caucasian mountain peoples occurred soon after the Napoleonic Wars. Certain Russian nobles then were envisioning the empire's peaceful assumption of control over Chechnya and other wild, Caucasian frontier territories. But the Russian state chose the war path instead, largely due to General Alexey Ermolov, the Caucasian viceroy and commander of the Caucasian army from 1816 to 1827. Ermolov convinced Tsar Alexander I that nothing but force would work, especially with Chechens, whom the general called the region's most dangerous, ethnic group. With a mind to pacifying, the area, Ermolov in 1818 founded Fort Grozny (a Russian name promising terror), and during the next few years Russia built more military outposts in Chechnya and Dagestan. Naturally alarmed at the incursion, the mountaineers began resisting. To punish, them for excessive 'love of independence,, the general instituted genocidal raids on their villages. Russian muskets were poor, and soldiers untrained in shooting. Raiders relied primarily on the bayonet and often did not spare even infants.

The ferocity of Ermolov's methods achieved the opposite of the Russian state's objective: instead of beating the mountaineers into submission, the raids encouraged a Muslim resistance movement in Chechnya and Dagestan. Well before the late 1820s, when the jibad against Russia started assuming major proportions, the self-defeating character of Ermolov's strategy struck Mikhail Orlov, a general who took no part in the Caucasian conquest. As Orlov wrote in a private letter of 1820:

It is just as hard to subjugate the Chechens and other peoples

of this region as to level the Caucasian range. This is not

something to achieve with bayonets but rather with time and

enlightenment, in such short supply in our country. The

fighting may bring great personal benefits to Ermolov, but

none whatsoever to Russia.

Orlov's prophetic assessment indicates the lesson that today's Kremlin warmongers astonishingly failed to learn: Chechnya and Dagestan held the Tsar's troops at bay until 1859. Though greatly outnumbered, the mountaineers scored spectacular successes against the imperial army, particularly during bungled Russian campaigns into the Caucasus' rugged heights. Ultimately Russia achieved a military victory but at the cost of many tens of thousands of lives (vastly more lost to disease than combat). Mindful of the high price Tsarist Russia paid for the northern Caucasus, today's Chechen guerrillas derive psychological strength from their ancestors, formidable resistance, a factor which promises to keep them tough bargainers in negotiations for independence.

While the post-Soviet conflict with Chechnya has repeated military history in striking ways, the context of Russian civilian response to war has altered completely. Beginning with the January 1995 invasion of Grozny, the Russian media provided extensive coverage of carnage in Chechnya. Shocking television images in particular provoked anti-militarist outcries from Russian parliament members and ordinary citizens concerned for their relatives in uniform. …

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