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Russia: Ingush Commemorate Landmark Protest

  • Liz Fuller

Thirty-five years ago, on January 16, 1973, Ingush began congregating in front of the headquarters in Grozny of the Checheno-Ingush Oblast Committee (Obkom) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to demand either that the disputed Prigorodny Raion of neighboring North Ossetia be transferred to the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR), or that the existing ban on allowing Ingush to return to their homes there be abolished.

Over the next three days, tens of thousands of Ingush converged on Grozny from throughout the republic and from North Ossetia. Many Chechens, too, joined the meeting in solidarity; others brought supplies of food for the participants. An archive photograph shows the square literally jam-packed with people. The orderly demonstration continued for three days, until security forces moved in late in the afternoon of January 19 and dispersed it using water cannon. Although in contrast to the 1962 workers' protest in Novocherkassk no one was killed, the organizers and many of the participants were fired from their jobs and expelled from the CPSU, a punishment that negatively impacted their careers and lives for years to come.

In an interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, and a separate article posted on January 16 on the independent website, one of the participants, Beslan Kostoyev, recalled the events that preceded it. Prigorodny Raion had been part of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR until the February 1944 mass deportation of both Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia on orders from Soviet leader Josef Stalin, after which it was incorporated into the neighboring North Ossetian ASSR. At the 20th congress of the CSPU in February 1956, CPSU Central Committee General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev exonerated the Chechens and Ingush of the accusations leveled against them by Stalin of collaborating with advancing Nazi German forces. One year later, the Chechens and Ingush began returning to their home republic, but Ingush were not permitted to reclaim their former homes in Prigorodny Raion.

The January 1973 protest in Grozny was the culmination of months of persistent lobbying of the Soviet authorities. In March-April, 1972, 27 Ingush Communist Party members addressed an appeal to the CPSU Central Committee entitled "On Violations In The Checheno-Ingush ASSR Of The Leninist Nationality Policy Of The CPSU." That letter was swiftly denounced as "defamation of Soviet reality" at an April 11 plenum of the Checheno-Ingush Obkom of the CPSU, and a meeting on August 24 in Nazran of the local party committee delivered a similar condemnation of unnamed "nationalists who artificially exaggerate the Prigorodny Raion problem."

In November 1972, a group of Ingush intellectuals composed an 80-page letter entitled "On The Fate Of The Ingush People," addressed to Khrushchev's successor, Leonid Brezhnev. Five of the co-authors traveled to Moscow, where they personally submitted that missive on December 2 to Central Committee functionary Yevgeny Razumov, who pronounced it at odds with party policy and not reflecting the interests of the Ingush people as a whole. According to Kostoyev, the authors were threatened with dismissal from their jobs and expulsion from the Komsomol or the CPSU.

Looking back, Kostoyev stressed that the January 1973 protest meeting was "not only exclusively democratic," but disciplined, organized, and politically moderate. He rejected categorically the charge of "nationalism." Another writer, Ismail Bokov, recalled that the participants carried portraits of Lenin and other prominent communists, and banners proclaiming not only "Let Justice Triumph!" but also, in classic Soviet propaganda style, "Glory to Red Ingushetia, the vanguard of Soviet power in the North Caucasus!"

Despite the peaceful and pro-Soviet nature of the meeting, troops were called in to disperse the participants, but curiously, refrained from making any arrests. The wave of reprisals, arrests, and dismissals began only days later, and included not only the five authors of the November letter to Brezhnev, who were mistakenly identified as the organizers of the meeting, but hundreds of other "national movement activists," including Kostoyev. On January 21, Politburo member Mikhail Solomentsev flew to Grozny, where he accused the meeting participants of "nationalism" and warned that "the Ingush were not rehabilitated, they were pardoned," implying that the rationale for the 1944 deportations was not unfounded.

In March, 1973, the CPSU Central Committee adopted a resolution "On Anti-Social Nationalist Manifestations In Grozny;" lower-level party meetings similarly condemned the January meeting and castigated its participants. The chairman of the Checheno-Ingush ASSR Supreme Soviet, Kureish Ozdoyev, was dismissed in August, 1973; the republican party first secretary, Semen Apryatkin, managed to cling to his post for another two years.

But the Ingush did not abandon their claims on Prigorodny Raion, or their hopes that one day it would be reincorporated into their republic. In April 1991, the USSR Supreme Soviet fuelled those hopes by adopting a law "On The Rehabilitation Of The Repressed Peoples" that stated that Prigorodny Raion should be handed back to the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, but failed to specify how and over what time period this should be done. The Checheno-Ingush ASSR split into separate Chechen and Ingush republics in July 1992, but the borders of those two territories were not formalized.

The conflicting claims of the Ossetians and Ingush to Prigorodny Raion led to a short but brutal war in October-November 1992 in which over 500 people died and between 34,000 and 64,000 Ingush who had unofficially returned to Prigorodny Raion were forced to abandon their reclaimed homes and flee. Since late 1992, the Ossetian authorities have dragged their feet over implementing successive plans drafted in Moscow to permit the Ingush to return to Prigorodny Raion. Meanwhile, the competing claims on that territory have come to dominate and poison relations between the two peoples, each of which continues to lobby Moscow tirelessly to rule in its favor.