Russia's War: As the Might of Russia's Great Power Nationalism Faces Chechen Determination, Olivia Ward Explains How Centuries of Bloodshed Have Led to an Impossible Deadlock

By Ward, Olivia | New Internationalist, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Russia's War: As the Might of Russia's Great Power Nationalism Faces Chechen Determination, Olivia Ward Explains How Centuries of Bloodshed Have Led to an Impossible Deadlock


Ward, Olivia, New Internationalist


He was standing in front of a wall of flame, defiantly silent as bombs incinerated the centre of Grozny. A machine - gun in his hands, a large Chechen dagger strapped to his arm. Across his forehead the green head band of the smertniki, warriors who would fight to the death for Allah and their country.

Ruslan was 13 years old when he ran away from home to battle against the Russians who had invaded the separatist Chechen republic in December 1994. He had no plans for the future, only for the next skirmish.

We have a small country so everyone must fight,' he said in a husky, unbroken voice. 'If they kill us, it's better than living as victims'.

A month later Ruslan died, leading a grenade attack on a Russian tank. But for his enemies he and others like him remain a symbol of menace, the incarnation of a fierce unquenchable nationalism that centuries of Russian repression could not erase.

While Chechen guerrillas resisted Russia's attempts to force them back into its fold, inside the huge Russian Federation another kind of nationalism was swelling. Its rallying cry was the glory of the old empire, the pride of a fallen superpower struggling to be reborn. It appealed not to people under siege from tanks and bombs, but to those reeling from the chaos that overtook them when seven decades of cradle - to - grave socialism gave way to survival of the fittest.

This harking back is not new in Russian history, where for centuries 'times of trouble' have bred chauvinism and xenophobia. Today as in the past nationalism appeals to the person on the street, and even more so to the one in the gutter. 'I talk to people on their own level,' says Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the bellowing ultra - nationalist whose ideas range from dizzy to dangerous. 'I don't use long words and theories. I tell them what they want to hear.'

The average muzhik a Russian bumpkin - finds soothing words in Zhirinovsky's speeches and those of other extremists. To disenfranchised people like retired bus driver Dima Yushekov, living alone in his peeling Moscow tenement, personal status or self - esteem are abstract concepts. He can take pride only in his country's glory. When Yushekov hears a politician delivering a message which identifies him with Russia's shattered splendour is music to his ears.

It's not surprising that the phrase most often on confused people's lips is 'law and order'. Nationalists, politicians and even those who claim to be democrats, find it convenient to blame Russia's ethnic minorities, especially Caucasians, for the escalating lawlessness that has accompanied the arrival of the market economy.

In Moscow and other big cities, raids on Caucasian - and Central Asian - run markets were popular with shoppers at election time. Seeing vendors beaten and arrested on charges of price - boosting reassured them that in an out - of - control world, something could be done to defend their interests. Better still, by wiping out 'foreign' influences, the myths of a pure Russia could be restored.

The reborn Communist Party's promise that Russia would once again sit at the head of a restored Soviet Union attracted more supporters in last December's parliamentary elections than those of neofascists interested only in the bashing of non - Russian heads. The most popular extremist party, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, lost a dozen seats in the State Duma, while avowed neo - Nazis all but disappeared.

Great Power' nationalism never really died in Russia in spite of the fall of the Soviet Union. Like the Communists, it was always waiting in the wings for a new day. The struggle that followed Chechnya's 1991 declaration of independence fanned its flames, not because the majority of Russians supported the new military adventure in the Caucasus, but because politicians so adeptly played on Russia's insecurity and shaky sense of identity to warn that the giant multi - national federation could crumble. …

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