Thursday, March 22, 2007

Chechnya: the case for independence
(book review)

Russia's bloody wars

Small state seeks new history

Mar 22nd 2007
From The Economist print edition

Chechnya: The Case for Independence
By Tony Wood

Verso; 199 pages; $22.95 and £12.99

Buy it at

CHECHNYA is a rebellious part of Russia that was run by gangsters and Islamic fundamentalists, closely linked to al-Qaeda. After a bloody but necessary war, it has become largely peaceful though occasional terrorist attacks continue.


Washing away history

That, roughly, is what the Kremlin would like the world to believe. Tony Wood's new book takes issue with every part of that argument and puts the case, in a simplistic if passionate manner, for the other side. The truth, he maintains, is that the outside world's “credulousness and cowardice” has enabled a “chilling conjuring trick”, in which the Chechens' aspirations to self-determination have disappeared behind a “cloud of euphemisms and falsifications”.

For a start, Chechnya is not legally part of Russia. It was part of the Soviet Union, true, but it gained the rights of a “republic”, including the right to determine its own future, from the Soviet parliament in 1990. That put it, Mr Wood argues, on broadly the same legal footing as other “Soviet republics” such as Estonia or Ukraine. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Chechnya did not vote to join its successor state, the Russian Federation. The agreements that ended the first Chechen war in 1996 explicitly recognised the republic as a subject of international law.

Mr Wood, assistant editor of New Left Review, a British periodical, concedes that the period of semi-independence that followed was a grisly mess, where kidnapping and slave-trading became big business. But he blames Russia for that, for having ruined the Chechen economy and for the Kremlin's persistent attempts to undermine the Chechen authorities.

He argues strongly against the idea that Chechnya was or is an outpost of international Islamic terrorism. Saudi-financed extremism was alien to the Sufi and nationalist traditions of Chechen Islam, he says, and the ties that have arisen are opportunistic, not ideological. Reports of Chechens fighting abroad have been grossly exaggerated; so have the numbers of foreign fighters in Chechnya.

The wars in Chechnya have been atrocious on both sides. While condemning the “degeneration” of Chechen resistance tactics into terrorism, Mr Wood tries hard to depict them as reactions to the systematic and continuing use of illegal detention, torture, rape and murder by the Russian side. Far from pacifying the republic and restoring normal life, the Kremlin has installed a “vicious client regime” that rules by “larcenous brutality”.

Chechnya has often been a pawn in Russia's internal power-struggles and related swindles, and Mr Wood is right to highlight the Kremlin's cynicism, incompetence and casual brutality. But the book is too slim, simplistic and one-sided to do full justice to the issue. Russians come across as cardboard villains, with no hint of the agonised debates and dilemmas the war has prompted. Equally, he depicts the Chechens as cardboard martyrs, not real people with spectacular virtues and failings. The reader gets little flavour of Chechnya's steamy clan politics, or the rebel leadership's often bizarre and batty notions, nor of the murky deals in which all sides are engaged.


Unknown said...

the agonized debates and dilemmas the war has prompted...

...huh? excuse me, what agonized debates? what dilemmas? and whose? since when Russia is a home to public debates? I think it is high time to eventually relinquish misguided spiritual illusions that such pivotally post-industrial phenomenon as a public debate is at all conceivable in Russia –regardless of whether it has Yeltsin’s gob or the wily grill of Putin.
Russia has incorporated into its mosaic whole chunks of western culture on a cut&paste basis quite a few times before (Peter the Great, NEP) – and yet it never changed its idiosyncratic character, no matter how many beards got cut short. The whole Europeisation of Russia by Peter the Great and Catherine was never meant to do anything more than refurbishment of tsar’s entourage – only in case of tsars entourage extends from the surface of the Emperor’s skin to the furthest frontier of the Empire.
In sweet ignorance of all this, majority of western do-gooders is usually so bedazzled by the array of familiar elements that have been cut and pasted into the Russian mosaic in the periods of refurbishment, that they are readier to declare homogeneity of Russia and Europe and enthuse thereafter on its ‘continuous’ efforts on the way to Europe than devote even mediocre intellectual effort to find out what instruments, how and when to apply to emerge at the end of the day with a thorough and plausible model of what Russia is about.
Even if some individuals actually debate there on whatsoever issue – as they do and have been doing in no small numbers – it still is a grave – and common – mistake of the starry-eyed western observers to see in it a bud of civic society, only on a very early stage …
If you are interested what I back this claim with – read on below…

Russians come across as cardboard villains…

- Are they not? Insofar as we agree that 'Russians' in this context denominate those of the Russian Army and other muscovite mosquitoes my only objection to 'villains' is its being a gross underestimation of the ugliness of evil they incarnate; as a matter of fact, no word, in fact, would be repulsive enough. What possible could you produce in their defense?
And if you called for justice to be given to honest and decent Russians (like those of Memorial or the Chechen-war-conscripts Mothers) - they are not capable of any influence whatsoever-either directly in Ch. or in Russia proper. in broader perspective they all; 'good Russians' and the core of the Chechen population - are equally victims of home violence of the same monster.

It has always been the main theme and the tragedy of Russian inteligentsia how to embrace the essence of the all-Russian soul - cruelty - and not get devoured by it. It has never, as a group, been a part of Russia in sense of constituting it in harmony and since its true emergence in the XVIII century has been maintained in a state of premeditated internal rejection by tsars and communists alike - occasionally graced with momentary privileges only to be humiliated even more the next minute and constantly reminded that the intellectual class is alien to the post-Byzantine theocracy which has by definition one and only one center of power and that the power it wields is absolute, and indivisible; spiritual and political at all times.
It has remained so today and has to be realized if one wants to understand Russia within one epistemic frame - intelligentsia in Russia, all those remarkable minds and souls like Vladimir Bukovski, Memorial-activists and Pushkin and Dostoevsky before them etc have had a really bad time being tainted with love of their unlovable and inhuman land in constant threatening shadow of a 'Russian man' or the Russian people; this monstrous and mute collective of unbelievable cruelty.
if you have any doubt, consider two separate and very different phenomena that at different points in history of the last 200 years became a formative experience for Russian intellectual class:
one is the rituals of humiliation that so many of Russian great minds were repeatedly and deliberately put through, note one of those; just how many political death-row prisoners were granted pardon at the Fatherly hands of Tsar in what they were convinced had been the last seconds of their lives? Dostoevsky is one , note also in this context the case of Pushkin's duel and a hundred and fifty years later - psychiatric wards where brains were so effectively and intricately tortured by means of words only (mind you, how insignificant in this was the usage of medication or physical therapy such as electro-stimulation - so vividly setting this apart from 'the German way' of Mengele whose ingenuity was fixed on repetitive physical torture - Germans never quite knew how to torture psyche while Russians knew all about it!)
2. the other phenomenon takes us into the 60-s and 70-s of Khrushchev and Brezhnev - to the generation called accordingly - the shesdiesiyiatniki (Bukovski, Brodski, Visocki, Sakharov et al) and the tremendous and profound love of everything Polish that they all shared and which they still have in their hearts if they are only alive! They looked to the West but they were not just looking 'through' Polish culture but were avidly absorbing it for its own value - just compare with the abundant material of these dissident generation' testimonials, listen to how Bukovski speaks of Poland and how often he comes here, note Brodsky and his friendship and admiration of Milosz as well as Herbert, note what reverence Wajda enjoys out there and so much more.

Emil Perhinschi said...

This post needs a couple clarifications:

Chechnya a republic of the Soviet Union ? As far as I remember it was an "autonomous republic" which was something with less autonomy than an US county.

I remember a Sky News documentary from late 1999 or early 2000: a "Chechen" woman was complaining about the abuses of the Russian army ... in an Ukrainian dialect ... makes one wonder. The SU "republics" were administrative units based only vaguely on linguistic criteria and more on traditional borders withing the Russian Empire administrative structure. The opportunistic politicians of the post 1991 era pretended to forget about this, hence the Western/Eastern Ukraine issue, the disenfranchisement of Russians in the Baltic states, Moldova's troubles etc.

During a televised debate shown in the early '90s on Moskva 1 (now I guess it's called Ostankino) TV channel one guest was asked: "What does 'Russia' mean to you ?" and the answer was along the lines: "Those who want to remain in". They have acted pretty much on this line since then ... if Chechnya is an exception, maybe it's worth looking deeper into it than talking about "freedom fighters" and "the evil empire".

I wonder what have the Chechen "aspirations to self-determination" to do with attacking Dagestan ?

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...


to take this even further down the petty lane:
No, to be exact, it was an autonomous republic but not of the USSR, however, but within the Russian SSR, then within the Russian Federation, which is legal succesor to the Soviet Union as a whole.
Analogous was the charitable chain of SFRY to FR Serbia to Kosovo as an autonomous province in the administrative belly of the latter.

Then, Chechens are a lot like Albanians but note the marked difference between Serbs and the Russians!

It is not that the Serbs are less liberal and less full of tolerance for the craze of self- determination extravaganza. No! Serbs, too, are brimful of tolerance and consideration toward all human beings no lesser than their Slavic brothersese qualities.(Anecdote proves that*)..
So whence the grudge in Serbs?
its low envy of their Russian brothers unlimited liberty of they entertain fully in showering their sensitivity to national issues on those seeking self-determination. to top it off: they can pick toys as they fancy: vacuum bombs, for example!aah, life is all but fair...
And Serbs? They had barely been able to score a mere decent number of commonly slaughtered when American bullies called it a day...injustice!

...once upon a time,when there was Yugoslavia from Alps to the lake of Ohrid and its name brought with it only a fragrance of vacation paradise, and Slobodan Milosevic was an unassuming president of merely one and only a littel better among otherwise equal Yugoslav republics - he was once approached by a delegation of Kosovar Albanians - with Ibrahim Rugova at its sharp end - Kosovo was like we said cherished in Serbia's loving grip like today only harder. They came filled with nothing but deep appreciation of all the relentless love their Kosovo had been receiving and they were resolved to declare they are ready to mature and take responsibilities out of the beloved Serbia's hands. Not the first time it was that they were coming - alas to no avail. At one point of their visit Mr Rugova decided to use his wunderwaffe to win Mr Milosevic for te case of Kosovo as constitutive republic by means of the striking parallel of irresistable force. He had been rehearsing for weeks, so he says: "Mr. President, consider in your kindness such cases as, say, Monaco with its 50 thousand citizens - still they enjoy statehood! And us there is a full million..."
Milosevic smiled warmly and replied likewise: "Come again when you are 50 thousand - you have my word, I'll give you statehood"...I think Chechens, if only they were not so quicktempered and impatient an stopped harrasing Dagestanis, could, too, strike such mutual-commitment deal with Putin...don't you

Has this clarified things a bit for you?

Edward Lucas said...

just a couple of points.

1) It is odd to deny that there was an agonised debate in Russia about the second Chechen war. It wasn't a debate inside the political elite, but sections of the intelligentsia were indeed torn between their loathing of Putin's war machine and their abhorrence of Islamist terrorism. I don't say they were right to make the choice they did, just that the debate was going on. I was in Moscow at the time.

2) it is the contention of the book that Chechnya was no longer an ASSR by the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The argument is quite technical and not very well expressed in the book but in essence it goes like this: Chechen-Ingushetia stopped existing. The Russian parliament gave the ASSRs sovereignty if they wanted it. The Chechens did. By the time the Russian federation took shape as a sovereign country and successor to the USSR, Chechnya was no longer part of it.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

I advise you to concentrate better on understanding what is being said in a mesage so that you will not look like a fool when someone actually reads throroughly my post and then your answer only to see that you clearly have not read more then the first paragraph yourself:

In yur article you made it a point against the book that it paints an incomplete picture by forgetting to mention agonised debate in Russia and on the same breath, that it portrays Russians as cardboard villains in doing so.
I said that even if there was a surge in this or that emotions in Russia (obvious) - it was mere hamletizing and far from being enough to be called a debate - let alone purporting it would add anything to the picture and wishing it was included in an overall balance of good and bad (characters). It is unimportant to mforget to mention it, because - I argued - a public debate is only then,when its outcome weighs at all on the scales of decision making and may effect the following political practice. I do not think that is posible in Russia. I do not think, therefore, that accusing the author of disregarding it is valid, as the picture painted is exactly the same: with it or without it Russians in Chechnya look villains and any good at hearts of Russians elsewhere does not weigh an ounce. That is all.
What is odd is that you fail to think in terms other than relating all and everything taht is being said to your own individual immediate experience, trimming every surplus above the line of your eyesight