The terrifying military aggression that Ukraine faces today and the inhumane treatment of Ukrainian citizens in the occupied territories are not unprecedented in the history of post-Soviet Russia. Replacing foreign policy with direct violence is characteristic of Putin’s regime. Let us not forget that its formation started with the Second Chechen War. In 1999, while the aging Yeltsin was unable to make political decisions, Putin proposed using military seizure, indiscriminate bombing, and terror against civilians to resolve the so-called “Chechen crisis”.
However, outside the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, only a few people, primarily human rights activists and journalists, have noticed the horror of the events. Despite the seeming inclination of Russian society toward democratic and humanist values in the 1990s, it turned a blind eye to the inhumane methods of warfare in Chechnya. This shortsightedness, fueled by a belief in the threat of the Mujahideen terrorists, an image propagated by the media, was probably the precursor to indifference to the subsequent military aggressions. There were no mass protests against the invasion of Georgia in 2008, or against Russian involvement in the war in Syria and in South Africa in 2010. Eventually, in 2014, most of the country’s population saw the occupation of Crimea as a sign of the revival of the homeland’s greatness.
The Second Chechen War ended with the establishment of Akhmad Kadyrov’s authoritarian regime in the Chechen Republic. This fact can throw some light on the objectives of Putin’s regime in the occupied territories of Ukraine. It seeks to install total control over the public sphere, the violent suppression of the opposition (filtration camps, abductions, torture, persecution of activists and members of their families), unconditional loyalty to the regime, lack of civil rights and freedoms, and use of the region’s inhabitants as a human resource in armed conflicts (forced mobilization).
Colonial violence works like a boomerang: once tested in colonial territories, it returns to the metropolis. We can witness how methods of torture, surveillance, kidnapping, brutal detention, intimidation, and the demand for public apologies (recorded on video) from those who criticize the regime, migrate from Chechnya to other regions of Russia. When developing defiance strategies against the regime, the current anti-war movement should take a closer look at the experience of people who, for the last 25 years, have been resisting under the never-ending state of emergency. Their situation may not be the same as what we experience today, but it is structurally similar.
Russian Colonialism and the Caucasus
An essential part of the modern Russian ideological narrative is the claim that Russia never waged colonial wars, unlike European states. However, the long history of the conquest of the North Caucasus and the repression of the North Caucasians proves this wrong. Furthermore, from 1801 to the present day, history demonstrates the lasting colonial nature of the different forms of Russian statehood: the Russian Empire, the USSR, and the Russian Federation.
The colonialist perspective on the history of the Caucasus and the wars in the region is deeply ingrained in Russian society, and permeates education and culture. Classical Russian literature (works by Lermontov, Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Griboyedov, etc.), which is in the compulsory school curriculum, is a good example. It is full of orientalist and exoticizing images: the authors portray the peoples of the Caucasus as “proud and rebellious highlanders” who require “pacification”, “subjugation”, and “Christianization”. Here war is just a “historical necessity”, and officers and generals of the Russian army (such as Aleksey Yermolov), known for their brutal methods of warfare, sometimes appear as brave commanders and even heroes.
One can argue that some of these authors expressed an anti-war stance, criticized the Russian Empire’s policy in the Caucasus, and sought to create poetic, complex images of the “highlanders”, which is true. Nevertheless, most of them became Russian army officers by their birth duty and origin. In contrast, native Caucasian authors’ point of view (on the Caucasian War and the history of the region’s development) is hardly represented in the broad Russian cultural domain. This has never been a subject of public discussion.
North Caucasian literature had an oral tradition in autochthonous languages and a written one in Arabic (due to the Islamization of the region, which was brought to an end in the 16th century). The repression and deportation of the peoples of the Caucasus destroyed all traces of folklore knowledge, cultural objects, and texts. Only a handful of Arabic literary artifacts and recordings of folklore, including in the Chechen language, have survived. The available texts, however, are absent from both Russian educational programs and the country’s broad cultural context. The colonial legacy has almost erased the memory and knowledge of local cultures. One of the few surviving historical and literary accounts of the Caucasian War is Muhammad Tahir al-Qarahi’s (1809-1882) chronicle The Brilliance of Dagestan Checkers in Some Shamil Battles, written in Arabic in the 1850s and translated into Russian in 1941. The only people in Russia who show any interest in this text are students and scholars of Russian Arab Studies. However, it is not studied in the History or Philology departments.
This points to a systemic issue. People in multinational Russia speak, write and think in more than 180 languages besides Russian, and none is part of its literary history. Curiously enough, the so-called “Russian literature” taught in school and university curricula means neither written “in Russia” nor “in the Russian language”. On the one hand, it excludes works by authors from Russia written in languages other than Russian. On the other, nor are there works in the Russian language written by authors from other countries. This double exclusion creates the illusion of homogeneity of Russia’s linguistic and cultural space. It also equates the territories where the Russian language is spoken to the territories within the state’s borders. This type of thinking is within an ace of the idea that Russian-speaking territories should become territories within Russia.
In Russia, the way culture is embedded in the state’s politics and functions as its instrument is not a subject of reflection. This is due, among other things, to the widespread view of literature as an unchanging aesthetic canon in which artistic traits are the only ones worth considering. This uncritical and depoliticized approach to literature leaves the history and circumstances of the creation of the canon itself, and individual works within it, out of the picture. It also allows one to leave the history of violence and oppression unquestioned.
In order to understand the current stage of Russian colonialism and find possible ways of solidarity in political opposition to the regime, we must review the history of the conquest of the Caucasus. First and foremost, it has to be approached as a history of resistance to the domination, universalization, and erasure of the region’s identity, history, and languages. This means discerning the subjectivity of the Caucasus: military resistance and direct opposition to Russian generals during the imperial period; the preservation of religious, cultural, and linguistic folk traditions during the early Soviet repression; and the human rights, journalistic and activist work of the last 30 years, which will be the focus of this text.
Chechen Resistance: 1991 to the Present
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia had a chance to accept responsibility for the occupation, colonization, and repression of the indigenous peoples whose territories it had incorporated as a result of the long history of imperial expansion. The demand for this reevaluation, as well as for national self-determination, was in the air at the time. The Chechen Republic of Ichkeria declared its independence. If Yeltsin had recognized it, a secession process of the other national republics probably would have begun. This possibility apparently caused apprehension among some groups within the authorities. We shall never know whether this would have led to the de facto federalization of the country or have remained a unique precedent. Nevertheless, the chance to decolonize and democratize the country was missed in 1991, and instead of abandoning the colonial policy, the authorities adopted a course to prolong it.
Even before the first Chechen campaign began, resistance to the new Russian government in Ichkeria appeared. There were four types of dissent: militant, political, legal, and ethical actions, all of which exist up to this day. Militant resistance implies armed clashes with representatives of the power structures at the federal and (after the establishment of Akhmad Kadyrov’s regime) regional levels. Political resistance includes demonstrations, rallies, and the creation of political unions and platforms. Legal resistance, composed of activist and human rights groups, lawyers and attorneys, journalists and bloggers, focuses, for example, on the protection of the rights of female residents of Chechnya and the documentation of their violations. Ethical resistance that appeals to the categories of justice, dignity, recognition of crimes, and the right to grieve for their victims, includes preserving the memory of the events in Chechnya and collecting oral testimony from survivors of war and repression (and testimony from their families members).
The federal authorities tried to сonfine the military resistance to a single image of a separatist (or terrorist). However, the resistance was far from homogeneous. Different groups fought for power in Chechnya and against Russian troops in the 1990s. These were the troops of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus (including Shamil Basayev, who later formed his own battalion and became the leader of separatist forces); the pro-Russian, anti-Dudayev opposition; a coalition of forces led by Presidents Dzhokhar Dudayev (1991-96), Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev (1996-97) and Aslan Maskhadov (1997-2005); paramilitary groups led Salman Raduyev, Turpal-Ali Atgeriyev, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov, and others. Their ideologies and political strategies were different and also changed over time: from fighting for Chechen independence to creating a confederation of Islamic states or a single state in the North Caucasus that encompasses Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.
So by the mid-to-late 2010s, clashes with Kadyrovites, including the military and the republic’s police, had become more frequent. The security forces symbolize Ramzan Kadyrov’s (appointed president in 2007) politics in the region the best. The main feature of these clashes is that they involved young men who grew up in war conditions and lost members of their families to it. By the early 2020s, militant had resistance declined because during the so-called “anti-terrorist operations” the most active members of the partisan groups were killed or detained. According to Kadyrov’s official justification, they had ties to the radical Islamist organization ISIS. However, he provided no evidence that confirms this claim.
Throughout this period, there were intensive human rights activities and related journalistic work in addition to public rallies and demonstrations against the war (political resistance). They were aimed at gathering evidence of war crimes and abuses by the security forces, torture, and abductions of dissidents. Although the general public has been ignoring Chechnya since the early 1990s, human rights defenders and journalists have continued their work for the past 25 years. Among the most active was the Grozny branch of the Memorial Human Rights Centre headed by the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova. It documented cases of torture, killings, and disappearances, the illegal actions of the local and federal authorities, filtration camps (1), and testimonies of survivors of military and security services’ violence. Estemirova was murdered in 2009, and the center’s work was jeopardized by constant threats, attacks on journalists, and pogroms of offices. Oyub Titiev became the new head of the center after Estemirova’s assassination (2). In 2018 he was charged with illegal acquisition, possession, and transportation of drugs (Article 228 of the Criminal Code is often used in Chechnya to detain activists) and sentenced to 4 years in prison (he was released on parole in 2019). All this abuse resulted in the closure of the Grozny branch of Memorial. However, its archive and the data it collected on victims and perpetrators of repression are still available for public inspection.
Despite the violent pressure, opposition journalism and human rights activities have continued through Telegram channels and activist accounts in social networks, the interaction of grassroots initiatives, and mutual support groups. Since 2003, the independent magazine Dosh (“word” in Chechen) has been covering political and social life in the region. The Telegram channel 1ADAT (3) regularly publishes lists of missing people and conducts investigations. While the author was writing this text, the torture and murder of the channel’s activist Salman Tepsurkayev were acknowledged. Nevertheless, the channel continues to cover the situation in Chechnya. One of the most illustrative cases is the repression against the Yangulbaev family (brothers Ibragim and Abubakar, and their parents Saidi Yangulbaev and Zarema Musayeva), which began in 2015 and is still going on. Activist and lawyer Abubakar Yangulbaev continues to cover this and other cases of the regime’s abuse. For several years he also collaborated with the Committee (now Crew) Against Torture project. In his recent interview, he said that the legacy of the Chechen wars is to blame for today’s repressions.
Keeping alive the memory of historical traumas and repressions of the Crimean wars, the forcible deportation of the peoples of the North Caucasus to Central Asian republics in the 1930s-1940s, and the repression of the region’s languages, cultures, and religion constitutes a value base, an imperative that feeds other forms of resistance. The authorities are aware of this, and they try to ban gatherings and marches on the Day of Mourning, the anniversary of the beginning of Stalin’s deportations of the Chechens, Ingush, Kabardians, Balkars, and Karachais.
To be able to refer to the war as a “war”, to the deportation as a “deportation”, and to the violence as “violence”, under conditions where these terms are forbidden, is an act of resistance. It is an act that shapes personal and collective dignity and political subjectivity. Linguistic activism, and the study and careful attitude to the people’s traditions, allow us to maintain historical ties with previous generations and traditions of resistance, dissent, and the realization of the right to be free.
The Chechen Experience and Solidarity
After the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, discussions about collective guilt and responsibility emerged in the Russian-speaking community, often developing into self-accusations and mutual recriminations. I wish we, as Russians, Russian citizens, and people with Russian passports regardless of ethnicity, would stop discussing this and accept the fact that the actions of the government and the president, whether we agree with them or not, do not deprive us of the ability to choose and act, and thus of responsibility.
In this light, the Chechen resistance experience becomes especially relevant today. The people of Chechnya found and continue to find the strength to fight when the possibilities of struggle are limited, the risks are high, and the authorities try to create an image of a united mass whose interests they claim to represent. The Kadyrov regime appeals to Chechen/Waynakh traditions and values to appropriate its right to represent the Chechen people. The federal government does the same, inventing the interests of the “Russian world”, “traditional values”, and the history of the peoples within the Russian Federation. The Kremlin propaganda continuously fails at this: different peoples sometimes emerge as independent entities, at other times merge into a generalized Russian caricature, and at still other times appear in hybrid and chimerical forms (one can recall the propaganda slogan “I am Kalmyk, but today we are all Russians!”).
The Chechen resistance has a strategy for countering the images of propaganda, which is based on a knowledge of its history, religion, language and culture, heroes and heroines, and alternative images of worthy representatives of the people. They can challenge both images of militants and terrorists created in the media and the pseudo-traditional social roles of Chechen men and women imposed by the Kadyrov regime.
The resistance needs alternative images based on both ethnicity and citizenship. Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many initiatives have combined anti-war and anti-colonial agendas (4). People unite because they see their common history, speak the same language, and imagine themselves as part of a community whose image can be separated from that created by propaganda, separated from the history of the state, the Russian language, and colonial culture. Without a sense of community, sustainable resistance is impossible.
So far, no analog of this alternative image of the Russians in the political field has been created. The caricature of the “good Russian”, which quickly became a meme, demonstrates this lack. What images could unite anti-war, oppositional, and anti-colonial-minded actors in Russia? What could become a commonality and a positive program of civic protest? Furthermore, what could be political alliances in contemporary Russia that do not erase ethnic and cultural differences but welcome them, that do not erase historical and collective traumas, and that are engaged not in discord but in solidarity around a common goal?
The history of resistance in Chechnya may help answer these questions, not because of any similarity of the situation, but because the Chechen experience of colonial violence, so long ignored, requires a reexamination of one’s positions and the development of new grounds for solidarity. For peoples whose lands have been occupied and colonized, whose history and culture are also being erased, and from whose lands Moscow pumps out resources, the Chechen experience is an example of resistance and possible political solutions, the most radical of which may be separatism. For ethnic Russians and those whose ethnic identity is complicated or has been consigned to oblivion, it is an urgent question of willingness to accept colonial violence as an integral part of Russian domestic politics. It is a question of solidarity over identity, defending the rights and freedoms of others as one’s own, and creating political space as a common good.
- At the beginning of the war in 1994, federal authorities created a unique system of detention facilities to “install the constitutional order”. Cruel treatment, beatings, and torture against those held there were usual practices in these “temporary filtration points”, which had no legal status. Detainees were also held illegally at military units, where extrajudicial executions and torture were carried out.
- Both Natalia Estemirova and Oyub Titiyev were of Chechen origin but not born in Chechnya. Their families survived deportations to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, respectively, but returned to their historic homeland.
- Adat is a popular movement calling for an end to the genocide of the Chechen people, unification of the Chechen people, and de-occupation of Chechnya. It highlights human rights violations in occupied Chechnya, cases of corruption, and crimes of Kadyrov’s viceroys, publishes appeals from residents of occupied Chechnya, and works to counteract and expose Putin-Kadyrov propaganda.
- Free Buryaria Foundation, Free Yakutia Foundation, Asians of Russia, Angry Chuvashia, The New Tuva.