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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Fifty-Six Years And Counting

Washington, 23 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Fifty-six years ago today, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin denounced the Chechens as Nazi collaborators and ordered them deported to Central Asia, thus setting in motion the process of demonization and destruction that continues now under acting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But neither Stalin's decisions a half century ago nor Putin's moves now have had the effect their authors intended. Both failed to intimidate the Chechens or lead to their inclusion in the broader society. Instead, they radicalized the Chechens and poisoned the broader society of first the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation.

Their actions have provided the Chechens with yet another justification for the politics of revenge even as they have destroyed the normal process of cultural transmission among generations. And that in turn has left the survivors more open to radical ideas than were their ancestors.

Moreover, the act of demonizing an entire people, of treating it collectively as an enemy, has undermined possibilities both for the rule of law within that society and for cooperation between that society and its neighbors.

Whatever triumph the Russian authorities now claim, they are likely to find them at best to be an extremely costly Pyrrhic victory, one in which the much advertised fruits of triumph may prove to be even more bitter than compromise or even defeat might have been.

Stalin's actions in February 1944 were superficially far more brutal. Reflecting both his own paranoia about the loyalty of the Soviet population to his person and his continuing efforts at ethnic engineering in the Caucasus, the Soviet dictator charged the Chechens along with many of their neighbors with collaboration.

There was no evidence to support this charge even against individuals within the Chechen nation, but the accusation that all Chechens were guilty of working with the Nazis was especially outrageous, prompting several historians to speak of them as one of the most prominent "punished peoples."

And their punishment was severe: Some 400,000 were deported to the wilds of Central Asia, a weeks-long process during which many died. That experience came to symbolize for the Chechens the impossibility of any cooperation with Moscow.

Torn from their native land, brutalized in an alien environment, a new generation of Chechens grew up committed to a return to the north Caucasus and to ever more radical means of expelling the Russians and establishing their own free society.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, many of them were able to return. Moscow finally allowed their republic to be reestablished and even after more than 40 years issued a kind of public apology for what the Soviet leader had done to this small community.

As the USSR collapsed, the Chechens decided that their hour had come. They declared their independence from that country and hoped to join the internationally-recognized community of nations.

Instead, the new Russian Federation insisted that Chechnya was part of the Russian Federation, and in 1994-96, former Russian President Boris Yeltsin launched a military campaign to try to bring Grozny to heel. That effort failed, and the Chechens hoped for a better future.

Once again, they were let down, first by the Russian authorities who did not live up to the provisions of the peace accord that ended the first Chechen war and then by the international community which continued to ignore them.

At the end of last year, the Russian government decided to launch a second war against Chechnya and the Chechens. As was true a half century ago, Moscow sought to brand all Chechens as "criminals" for what even it claimed were the actions of a few. Then, using unprecedented firepower against Chechnya, Moscow's campaign drove hundreds of thousands of Chechens from their homes and left uncounted numbers dead.

Indeed, over the weekend, Russian officials announced that there were fewer than ten thousand people left in the Chechen capital of Grozny, a city that several observers have suggested now looks like one of the bombed-out cities of World War II.

Putin's policy of denunciation allows for few distinctions among the individual members of the Chechen nation. Intentionally or not, his approach supports the policies of Russian officials like Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov to expel from their cities people who look like Chechens.

Once again, as was true 56 years ago, Chechnya lies in ruins and the Chechens have been dispersed. But this repetition of the punishment of an entire people seems certain to further alienate those who remain, possibly setting the stage for even more violence in the future.

At the very least, those Chechens who do survive the current onslaught, like their ancestors 56 years ago, are unlikely to forget what Moscow has done to them again. And Moscow seems certain to have to deal both with that and with the broader consequences of this campaign for a long time to come.