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Chechnya: Life in a War-Torn Society

Valery Tishkov
With a foreword by Mikhail S. Gorbachev
Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 302
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This book illuminates one of the world's most troubled regions from a unique perspective—that of a prominent Russian intellectual. Valery Tishkov, a leading ethnographer who has also served in several important political posts, examines the evolution of the war in Chechnya that erupted in 1994, untangling the myths, the long-held resentments, and the ideological manipulations that have fueled the crisis. In particular, he explores the key themes of nationalism and violence that feed the turmoil there. Forceful, original, and timely, his study combines extensive interview material, historical perspectives, and deep local knowledge. Tishkov sheds light on Chechnya in particular and on how secessionist conflicts can escalate into violent conflagrations in general. With its balanced assessments of both Russian and Chechen perspectives, this book will be essential reading for people seeking to understand the role of Islamic fundamentalist nationalism in the contemporary world.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93020-9
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-xiv)
    Mikhail S. Gorbachev

    The war in Chechnya is a difficult trial for the new Russian state and for all its citizens, especially the Chechen people. The reasonable desire of the population of this former autonomous region of the Soviet Union to enjoy democratization and to correct the historical injustices done to the Chechen and Ingush peoples—the Stalin-era deportation and subsequent discrimination—have been misused to fuel nationalist hysteria and anti-Russian feeling.

    In the prewar years, the socioeconomic and political situation in Checheno-Ingushetia was difficult. Many young men were without work, especially in the hill country. The leadership of the republic suffered deep...

    (pp. xv-xix)
  5. ONE Ethnography and Theory
    (pp. 1-15)

    Along the way, I found myself confronted by a moral dilemma not easy to explain. For eight years, Chechnya has been a part of my life: from my attempts to settle the conflict when I was federal minister of nationalities in 1992 under Boris Yeltsin to participation in Russia’s delegation at the talks with the Chechens in December 1994; in my work on the Russian government’s proposed peace plan in 1995–96; at disparate conferences and in publications of various sorts; and in backhanded remarks by my wife, Larisa, “Formulating the Chechen situation again, are you?” It was she, in...

  6. TWO Indigenization, Deportation, and Return
    (pp. 16-31)

    Evidence from Chechen citizens, mainly those from ethnic Chechen backgrounds, makes clear that strides were made toward modernization during the Soviet period. Though the regime’s repression, particularly the 1944 deportation, dealt a heavy blow to the social and demographic structure of Chechnya, it was preceded and followed by a policy of encouraging Chechen culture and the economic potential of the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic as a constituent unit of the Russian Federation under the USSR. But while Chechnya remained a dynamic society moving at the pace of the modern world, contradictory state policies would eventually contribute to the outbreak of war....

  7. THREE Contradictory Modernization
    (pp. 32-48)

    In the fire of war, after human beings, printed materials, especially books, are the next to perish, and writing this chapter brought this forcefully home to me. Few written sources had survived. I asked many of those to whom I spoke to lend me some local publications containing material about Chechnya before 1991, but the answer was always, “All that burned up in Groznyy during the war.” So I turned to whatever was available: publications from the Soviet period; oral evidence from informants; the material on the Checheno-Ingush Autonomous Republic inThe Great Soviet Encyclopedia, written mostly by Chechen and...

  8. FOUR Chechen Images
    (pp. 49-56)

    In examining how violent conflict has reshaped the Chechen identity, the question arises of whether identity emerges within changing forms of organization, politics, and external influences or is transmitted through early childhood, internal collective narrative, and sociobiological mechanisms. If the Chechens profess a self-image centered on a rigid set of cultural characteristics, how might war affect such an image? In part, war encourages the emergence of uncritical self-perceptions, self-proclamations, external borrowings, and fantasies reflecting the absurdity of violence and the impasse confronting efforts to explain it with rational arguments. These fantasies around group identity constitute a message to the outside...

  9. FIVE The Road to War
    (pp. 57-74)

    The idea of Chechen self-determination as a form of nonnegotiable secession first arose under Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika, when nationalism on the periphery overpowered the process of democratization pursued by both reformist communists and their radical-democratic opposition. Ethnic nationalism demonstrated a great mobilizing power, and the granting every Soviet ethno-nation its own state was viewed as natural, desirable, and democratic. Seemingly, all the necessary preconditions for putting this idea into practice existed. Fifty-three autonomous ethno-territorial entities nurtured by the Soviet system, and above all, the fifteen union republics—with a variety of state institutions, ambitious bureaucrats, and intellectual elites...

  10. SIX Dzhokhar: Hero and Devil
    (pp. 75-89)

    Academics rarely give enough attention to the role of charismatic leaders in a conflict, and in Chechnya, the war was a highly personal struggle in which charismatic leaders strongly affected the flow of events. Dzhokhar Dudayev, formerly a general in the army of the USSR, and president of the self-proclaimed republic, stands out as its preeminent hero. In order to understand the emergence of such leaders in the post-Soviet context, the following questions need to be addressed: How did a new breed of “national leaders” emerge from liberalization? How did the post-Soviet populace perceive them, and why did the masses...

  11. SEVEN The Sons of War
    (pp. 90-106)

    In my work, I have to rely on informants from the ranks of Chechen fighters to write about those who are actively involved in the war. Many Chechens shared their information readily. The Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov, for example, lectured in the United States on the experience of fighting in urban conditions, and there are numerous reports, videotapes, songs, and poems about the actions of these freewheeling insurgents, their fighting efficiency, and the atrocities they committed. It is known that Chechens often delayed their military operations until somebody in the group found a camera. As Dzhabrail Gakayev remarked, “They...

  12. EIGHT The Culture of Hostage-Taking
    (pp. 107-126)

    The lucrative business of holding hostages for ransom developed among Chechens during the first war and after the peace agreement escalated into a full-fledged crisis by 1999. It graphically illustrates the progression from the initial cycle of violence to the outbreak of new hostilities three years later, as Chechen military groups gained a powerful economic and political tool for leveraging their aims. In outlining the problem, Sanobar Shermatova and Leonid Nikitinskii (2000) write:

    In the “period between the two wars,” hostage-taking developed into a branch of Chechnya’s economy. Business flourished because trading partners were found on the other side of...

  13. NINE Violence in Secessionist Warfare
    (pp. 127-150)

    If we reject simplistic and politically influenced notions of “inherent” Chechen or Russian cruelty, what is the sociocultural basis for the widespread violence that surfaced in the Chechen conflict and in Chechen society as a whole? More important, what happens to society and to an individual in a context of secessionist warfare? The Chechen war was neither a conflict between two ethnic groups nor one between two states. It was a group-versus-state conflict. The fact that President Yeltsin launched a military invasion into the breakaway region without the necessary technical and logistical preparation complicated matters immediately and substantially. Why was...

  14. TEN The Impact on Family Life
    (pp. 151-163)

    As it is in all contemporary societies, the family is the primary social institution in Chechnya, and before the conflict, nuclear family structures and marriage customs there were essentially similar to those in the Russian Federation as a whole. There was some cultural specificity in the child socialization and family rituals observed by Russian ethnographers and sociologists doing fieldwork in Checheno-Ingushetiya in the 1980s (Pchelintseva and Solovieva 1996). Chechen social scientists conducted a number of serious research projects proving rapid modernization changes and a high degree of sociocultural commonalities in local life compared with other parts of the North Caucasus...

  15. ELEVEN Religion and the Chechen Conflict
    (pp. 164-179)

    The spread of Islam into the land of the Chechens and Ingush has a long history. Archaeological data and various written documents link it to the period of the Arab-Khazar wars of the eighth to eleventh centuries, the dominance of the Cumans in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and the invasions by the Golden Horde and Khan Timur (Tamerlane) in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (Muzhukhoyev 1979). Many old beliefs and cults of the mountaineers have been transformed or adopted wholesale into Islam. For a long time, Islam was present in social life alongside the ‘adat—a broad term for...

  16. TWELVE The Myth and Reality of the “Great Victory”
    (pp. 180-195)

    We need now to analyze postwar Chechen society during the three years between August 1996 and the onset of the new war in 1999. Certain aspects of this period are self-evident, including the devastated infrastructure, a thorough economic collapse, a mass exodus from the republic, and the disintegration of civil institutions, leading to the proliferation of high-level criminal activities such as hostage-taking. Thomas Graham, an academic-turned-politician under the Bush administration, one of the thoughtful observers of Russia, described the situation as follows:

    After the victory in 1996, Chechnya once again fell quickly into a state of near anarchy. The Chechen...

  17. THIRTEEN An Ideology of Extremes
    (pp. 196-209)

    In the months following August 1996, striking changes occurred in Chechnya. While the air around the Palace of Culture was being rent by automatic gunfire in honor of President Maskhadov’s inauguration, influential media in the republic erupted with calls for vengeance. There was a sudden outburst of cultural and political theorizing; newspapers were filled with historical articles, poems, and pseudo-philosophical rhetoric by local authors. Verses about the glorious new Chechen heroes began appearing in great abundance (mostly in Russian). Texts and photos celebrating Chechen history and its achievements served as a means of propaganda and political mobilization, all the while...

  18. FOURTEEN Chechnya as a Stage and a Role
    (pp. 210-223)

    I began writing this concluding chapter late on August 8, 2000, upon returning from the building that houses Russia’s Federation Council, where, in the office of Krasnoyarskikrai’s Governor Alexander Lebed, I had been working on the documents of his peacemaking mission in the North Caucasus, especially those having to do with the release of hostages in Chechnya. As I was driving back home, I passed Pushkin Square, and, turning into Tverskaya Street, I heard the muffled sound of an explosion in the underpass behind me. At home that evening, I saw on the television news the horrific scenes of...

  19. Conclusion
    (pp. 224-232)

    In mid June 2001, an all-Russian television station announced that a group of Russian scholars was conducting “the first scholarly study of the Chechen war.” The very fact of such a study, leaving aside its results, is now newsworthy. How do we explain this? Does it reflect hope of some miraculous insight, of a formula for resolving the problem, or is it just part of the usual lobbying efforts of the academic community for financial support and publicity? Is it naïve to hope that scholarship holds the key to solving the challenge presented by the Chechen war? It would be...

  20. NOTES
    (pp. 233-238)
    (pp. 239-246)
    (pp. 247-250)
    (pp. 251-268)
  24. INDEX
    (pp. 269-284)