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Banned Chechen Movie Screened At Moscow Film Festival

A screen grab of the film "Ordered to Forget," which looks at a reported atrocity that occurred during the Chechen-Ingush deportation of 1944.
The Chechen film "Ordered to Forget" («Приказано забыть») which tells how some 700 residents of the Chechen village of Haybakh were burned alive at the time of the February 1944 deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations on Soviet leader Joseph Stalin's orders, was screened on June 20 at the Moscow International Film Festival.

The premiere had originally been scheduled to take place in Grozny last month, but Russia's Ministry of Culture refused to certify the film for public distribution on the grounds that, since the archives of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD, the forerunner of the present-day Interior Ministry) contain no evidence that the atrocity ever took place, the film constitutes "a falsification of history" that could give rise to interethnic hatred, according to its Chechen producer Ruslan Kokanayev.

According to Kokanayev, it was intended to give an impression of life in the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) during the period 1939-1945, i.e. at the height of the Stalinist terror. "We try to show that the story of Haybakh is interwoven human tragedies," he explained. "Some were forced to give orders, others to carry them out. A few tried to resist, a few refused to kill [people]."

WATCH: A trailer for the film "Ordered to Forget"

Sulban Khasimikov, director of the Grozny film studio, said the movie, which was financed by Chechen businessmen, is not about the 1944 deportation as such. He said it is in part a love story, which at the same time showcases the customs and traditions of the Chechen people and the "difficulties" of life at that time.

Kokanayev says the Ministry of Culture did not raise any objections when he first submitted the scenario for approval, and that, when the finished film was first screened in Moscow in early February, Union of Cinematographers of Russia First Deputy Chairman Sergei Lazaruk praised it and said he hoped it would be a success. Kokanayev plans to contest the ban in court.

The rationale for the Haybakh killings was shockingly banal: Stalin's Mingrelian henchman Lavrenti Beria had issued orders that the entire Chechen and Ingush nations (an estimated 485,000 people) were to be rounded up, loaded onto trains and deported to Kazakhstan and Central Asia within 15 days (February 23-March 9). Some local officials realized that they would be unable to meet that deadline due to logistical constraints (inclement weather conditions, lack of transport or gasoline), and so, rather than incur the wrath of the regime by failing to comply, they simply killed the population of some villages on the spot.

In Haybakh, some 700 people, including twin infant boys born that morning, were herded into a barn that was set alight. Those who tried to escape the flames were mown down by mortar fire. Some 200 people died on the same day in the Ingush village of Targim. Similar mass killings took place in the Chechen mountain village of Melkhesty and at Kezenoy-Am, the mountain lake that Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov is transforming into a resort.

In his landmark "secret speech" to the 20th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in February 1956, then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin's crimes, including the deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Balkars, Karachais, Kumyks, and other ethnic groups, and gave the green light for their rehabilitation and return home.

It was Khrushchev, too, who ordered the first investigation into what happened in Haybakh after meeting with Dziyaudin Malsagov. As a senior official in the Checheno-Ingush ASSR Justice Ministry, Malsagov had witnessed the events first hand and subsequently submitted written reports, first, in January 1945, to Stalin, and then to U.S.S.R. Council of Ministers Chairman Georgy Malenkov.

The findings of the Khrushchev-era probe were never made public, however, and Haybakh remained a taboo subject until the late 1980s, when then CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev launched his policy of glasnost. First to raise the issue was young journalist Said Bitsoyev, now deputy editor of the Moscow daily "Novye izvestiya." In response to his article, the prosecutor's office in Chechnya's Urus-Martan district opened a criminal case in 1989.

Ruslan Tulikov, former ideological secretary of the local Communist Party district committee, now deputy administrator of Urus Martan district, described in a recent interview how he and a group of others began digging in the ruins of Haybakh and found charred bones, together with coins, earrings and spent bullets. He recalls how Malsagov showed up a few days after they started digging and explained to them precisely what happened.

Both Kokanayev and the Chechen authorities have challenged the Ministry of Culture's claim that no documentary evidence of the mass killing exists. Chechen parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov told the official Chechen daily "Vesti respubliky" in early June that "we have such documents and they will be made public in the next few days." He mentioned in particular Malsagov's letter to Malenkov. But neither that missive nor any other relevant materials have appeared in the Chechen press to date.

Kokanayev, for his part, told Caucasus Knot that, in writing the script for the film, he drew on the expertise of a group of Chechen scholars who co-authored a book on the Haybakh killings based partly on the testimony of witnesses. (One of those authors, Salamat Gayev, was five years old at the time; he, his mother, and three siblings managed to escape death by hiding in the surrounding forest.) Kokanayev further points out that the film includes at the very end footage of Mumadi Elgakayev, one of the last remaining eyewitnesses, a few months before his death. He is unable to speak for weeping.

-- Liz Fuller

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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