Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Thomas Goltz's Primer on Chechnya

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Chechnya, with its complex and sad legacy, is in the news.

Apropos of that, Thomas Goltz, a Montana-based writer and Caucasus specialist, sent me his notes on Chechnya's recent history.

I met Goltz in London in the late 1990s when my mid-summer visit for Paris Review business coincided with his exit, under a storm of Russian bombs, from a reporting trip in Grozny.  We both landed at the same friend's flat in Belsize Park.  (Goltz, as it happens, introduced me via a tour of Camden pubs to the world of English real ale and explained that REAL ale was a living thing... but more on that another time.)

Shortly after that visit, Goltz was back in Chechnya, and was at one point the only Westerner living in the forsaken town of Samashki, which became the symbol of Russian brutality as a result of a gratuitous massacre. His camera-shaking reportage appeared on PBS stations in the USA and then the BBC. while his writing in all the major US newspapers.

Meanwhile, this week he writes:
To start with what is not obvious to many Americans, the Chechens are not Russians but a distinct national and lingual group indigenous to the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, where they have lived since before recorded history. Rather like Native American peoples known by names given them by the white man and whose sad history in the 18th and 19th centuries is a strange and cruel mirror of the experience of the Chechens at the hands of Russian imperialism, the very name "Chechen" is not what the Chechens call themselves. They are the "Noxchi," which translates more or less as "The People."
During the so-called on-again-off-again Murid wars of the 19th century, the Chechens were the backbone of Muslim tribal resistance to the Czarist expansion south, and earned the reputation of being fanatical, fearless Sufism-inspired warriors. After the resistance collapsed with the capture of Imam Shamil (an event somewhat akin to the surrender of Souix/Lakota Chief Sitting Bull), many of those fearless warriors brought their skills into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where they were stationed in problematic border areas, such as the Balkans and the Arab lands of the Levant, where they became known under the generic name of "Circassians," a term that also includes other related North Caucasus mountaineers such as the Ingush, Abkhaz and Adagei who were also driven into Ottoman exile by the czars.

To this day, the palace guard of the king of Jordan are all Circassians; in Syria, they are (or were) concentrated in the Golan heights, but are now attempting a reverse migration to their ancestral lands in Russia, even while undetermined numbers of their "cousins" from Chechnya-in-Russia take up arms along side Jihadists against the secular regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
continued after the break...





In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chechens (like many of the 150-odd new "nations" in the USSR, many manufactured from whole cloth) maintained a low-boil resistance to Soviet rule and collectivization. But it was also thanks to Joseph Stalin and his commissars that a Chechnya was first defined as an "Autonomous Republic," a territorial entity replete with borders, a Soviet-style official "culture" and other attributes of (Soviet-style) national "statehood."

Many other marginal peoples in the USSR did not fare so well, and were thus absorbed into larger non-Slavic nutshells whenever Stalin sneezed.

For the Chechens, that sneeze came on February 23-24 1944, when Stalin and his fellow Georgian henchman Lavrentii Beria accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazi Wehrmacht, dissolved their Autonomous Republic and sent the new non-people sent into exile in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Transportation was provided aboard boxcars chillingly similar to those that brought European Jews to Hitler's death camps.

In the case of the Chechens, an estimated half of the 478,479 people sent into exile died in route.
Read the whole things here.  Also cross posted at Michael Totten's blog here.

Also look for Goltz's books Chechnya Diary (2003) and Georgia Diary (2006/09).

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