A reading of an important new study of North Caucasus history suggests a reappraisal of "Chechen identity" is in order. by Rebecca Gould 20 April 2006
The Lone Wolf And the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule
, by Moshe Gammer. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005. 250 pages.
Three hundred thousand dead. A city reduced to ashes. A nation scattered across continents. After more than 10 years of war in Chechnya, one has to ask the question: what was it for? Why did a people offer itself up for slaughter by a world power? What is the sense of butchery? What is the purpose of genocide?
Pose these questions to most political analysts who write on Chechnya and you'll get a variety of answers. But due to a complex set of factors – Soviet ideologies, political naivete, warrior culture, tribal attitudes – the Chechens entered into a battle, which they refuse to surrender to this day, against an unequal enemy. The less analytically minded might say simply that the Chechens sacrificed themselves for freedom. None of these answers explain to me what the Chechen war is about, however. Countless volumes on the subject only seem to demonstrate the impossibility of making sense of war.
A SHORTAGE OF SOURCES
Moshe Gammer’s latest book, The Lone Wolf and the Bear: Three Centuries of Chechen Defiance of Russian Rule
, seeks to make a contribution to the vexing question of why the bloodshed happened by presenting a nuanced story of the history of Russian-Chechen encounters on the field of battle. Gammer established himself as the leading authority on the 19th-century Caucasian War, which resulted in Russia’s annexation of the North Caucasus, with the publication of Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Daghestan
(1994). In addition, Gammer has published a series of groundbreaking articles drawing on untouched scholarly sources on the 19th century Caucasian conflict in the Russian, Arabic, and Turkish languages.
Even more significant than the influence that his work has had on Western scholarship is the impact it has on indigenous scholarship by Caucasian historians, many of whom regard the 1998 translation into Russian of his Muslim Resistance to the Tsar
as the most authoritative recent book on the Caucasian War available to them. (At least that is the situation in the universities and academic institutes of Tbilisi, Georgia, as of this year.) That a book by a foreign scholar surpasses the work of native writers on a subject so central to their own history speaks volumes not only to Gammer’s achievements, but also to the deplorable state of contemporary indigenous North Caucasian scholarship, and to the damage wrought by economic catastrophe and ideological fundamentalism. Now, Gammer has brought his investigation of the roots of the Russian-North Caucasian conflict to bear on the history that followed from that first war of conquest. Gammer’s latest book takes the reader from the beginning of Russian-Chechen tensions with Sheikh Mansur in the 17th century to the present warfare, which he writes, “seems far from over.”
Gammer states presciently at the beginning of his book that “any study of Chechen history … suffers from a severe shortage of sources. The local ones have not only been disregarded, but in many cases destroyed. In some cases this happened during fighting, in others – especially during the Stalin years – this was done on purpose.” Such is the central problem of Gammer’s book, as well as the central problem facing anyone who undertakes to record the Chechen experience in Chechen terms. Throughout his book, Gammer displays a remarkable ability to read between the lines of the regrettably scanty historical sources that do exist. He questions his Russian sources when doubt seems warranted, and never blindly takes them at their word. For example, Gammer sheds doubt on the statistics offered by Russian officers concerning the numbers of native fighters they killed, and reminds us that “mastery of the pen” was often more important to an officer’s career success than his real “achievements on the battlefield."
Such warnings are profoundly apt in the Chechen context, and Gammer is one of the only scholars writing on this topic to combine a mastery of the relevant sources with an even-handed approach that never descends into falsities or exaggerated claims, and always locates itself on the side of objectivity, even while acknowledging the impossibility of ever being truly objective. Gammer’s example ought to be taken as a guide to anyone who seeks to record the colonial experience in a context where the very material evidence of the colonized’s existence has been wiped away by the colonial power.
THE END OF HISTORY
Reading Gammer’s book, however, has suggested to me that perhaps history, as a discipline, is not equipped to deal with the experience of the Chechen people. History relies on texts. Gammer is a brilliant textual scholar, but the problem with Chechnya is that the relevant texts do not tell the Chechen story with a depth that approaches that of the experience itself. The old cliché that history is written by the victor unfortunately holds true in the case of Chechnya. Chechen-language sources, with very rare exceptions, do not date back further than the period following the mass deportation in 1944. Not until the 1960s do we see a blossoming of Chechen literature and the Chechen publishing industry in Grozny. (Even then, Chechen-language sources are confined largely to poetry, plays, stories, and novels. Historical sources and other scholarly texts are for the most part composed in Russian, though there are important exceptions, for example in the realm of Chechen linguistics.)
But obviously Chechen history predates the 1960s. What was the texture of Chechen life before that? For all the centuries of conflict, for all the wars, all the media coverage and all the wearing familiarity of words such as "resistance," "Islam," and "freedom," we know surprisingly little. Reliance on Russian sources, while inevitable and necessary, is anything but a satisfactory compromise to filling this epistemological gap, this hole inside the imagination.
One unfortunate result of the fact that we are left with largely Russian accounts of the Chechen experience, and even more crucially, with texts composed in the midst of war by authors who fought on the Russian side, is that the Chechens are known to the world according to a single stereotype, in the light of the resistance they have offered to Russian rule for the past three hundred years. The Russian public came to know the Chechens in battle; thus the world knows the Chechens as fighters and nothing more. The time has come to resist the reduction of Chechen culture to a long history of resistance to Russian rule.
Gammer acknowledges the limitations of the resistance stereotype when he writes that “like almost all human societies under similar circumstances in history, the overwhelming majority of Chechens had to carry on with their lives after the Russian occupation and to negotiate their own compromises with reality … those who chose to openly defy, resist, and confront the Russian authorities – and suffer the consequences – were a tiny minority.” I would argue that those negotiations and compromises with reality are at least as important to Chechen history as are the stories of resistance. Why? Because resistance is an ideology, and, like any other ideology, it falsifies. The idea of resistance as the defining feature of Chechen culture was created by Russian officers eager to romanticize their foes. The resistance imagery has been revived among the Chechens in recent years by media-savvy demagogues who understand the workings of the Western media better than they understand their own people.
On another front, the reduction of the Chechen experience to a long history of resistance automatically excludes the female half of the Chechen population, not to mention the vast majority of men who did not and do not plan to fight the Russians, and who wish for nothing more strongly than they wish for peace. Having witnessed the exclamations of an old woman, Amina, in a village not far from Grozny as a line of young, muscular, Kalashnikov-armed Chechen fighters passed us by – “look at those beautiful young boys! I am so proud of them!” – I will be the first to acknowledge that resistance is one of the central ideologies that unites the Chechen people across the board, regardless of age, gender, or social status, in their relation to Russian power. However, I should also note that that very same woman whose heart lifted at the sight of the young Chechen heroes, the t’emaloi
(fighters) who were willing to sacrifice themselves for the freedom of their people, told me once that she would give anything for peace to be restored in Chechnya.
It didn’t matter if peace implied reincorporation into the Russian empire, she told me, anything so long as her granddaughters, 13-year-old Kheda and 10-year-old Malika, who didn’t speak a word of Russian in spite of having spent their entire lives inside the Russian state, could attend school and receive an education. That their education would take place in the Russian language was of secondary concern. And it is no coincidence that when I asked Amina who her favorite Chechen leader was, she named Doku Zavgaev, the first secretary of the Chechen Republic before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the first and only leader of Chechen ethnicity whom the Chechens had at the uppermost echelons of power during the Soviet period. Not Dudaev, Maskhadov, Basaev, Kadyrov, or any of the other names better known to Western audiences.
Amina’s story tells me that, for the Chechens, resistance is more an expression of cultural pride than a political choice. How many Chechens have ever had the power to define their own political destiny? The 1997 elections in which Aslan Maskhadov won the vast majority of electoral votes have been widely attested to as fair, but then as always, there was no power in place to implement the wishes of the Chechen people. This is why I fail to see the agency of the Chechen people in the scholarly accounts that tell us that the Chechens have spent their entire history fighting the Russians.
The unfolding of the recent Chechen wars over the past 12 years, as well as those Russian-Chechen conflicts that occurred three centuries ago, have remarkably little to do with what Chechens would like their culture to be, with what it in fact already is
, when considered on its own terms. It is for this reason that I would advocate steering clear of terms such as the “Chechen psyche,” which scholars are all too apt to resort to in their well-meaning efforts to make sense of Chechen history. I hope we can learn to avoid referring to the Chechens collectively when discussing battles in which a small percentage of the Chechen population fought, as though every single Chechen was a born to be a warrior. Such views have implanted themselves inside our imaginations because they are fed to us by Russian, Chechen, and Western elites.
My engagement over the past years with Chechen subjects has taught me one thing: when we are speaking of average citizens rather than a political elite, war is the absence of agency. Resistance may feel empowering for a moment and it may look impressive from the distance of think tanks and scholarly symposiums, but in actual fact, at least for the Chechens, it has achieved only one thing: more war. Resistance will not rebuild libraries and universities. Nor will it create an independent Chechen intelligentsia, whose job is, in the terms of the scholar and Palestinian activist Edward Said, to speak the truth to power.
To the contrary, war has polarized – perhaps paralyzed is the better term – a would-be Chechen intelligentsia. Chechens whose views diverge from the double norms of resistance and collaboration are afraid to speak their mind, not only to Russian and outside media sources, but even to their fellow Chechens.
Consider, for example, the limited repertoire of themes available to contemporary Chechen writers, who seem to be permitted to write only about the ways in which they have resisted the Russians. It has been explained to me by Russian and Western scholars that the Chechens are not an “intellectual” people, that I am wrong to expect much from them culturally. I don’t accept this explanation. I believe the origins of the present poverty of Chechen culture lie elsewhere than in biology. While the refugee crisis, the loss of homes, families, and modes of subsistence are the most obvious reasons for the contemporary cultural stagnation, I do not believe that these factors tell the whole story. The voices of those Chechen artists, scholars, and intellectuals who are genuine free-thinkers and who despise the clichés of Chechen nationalism as much as they do the lies of Russian imperialism, are suppressed, either through self-censorship – for who is foolish enough to speak about freedom of speech in an atmosphere of collective resistance? – or simply by being ignored because they do not cater to the ideologies of those in power.
As one Chechen journalist explained to me when I asked him for his opinion of Abuzar Aidamirov, Chechnya’s most famous writer (recently deceased): “It doesn’t matter how good a writer he is. He’s a collaborator with the Russians. Any Chechen who does not fight the Russians in my enemy.” On what grounds was Aidamirov a “collaborator”? He was a member of the Russian-backed Writer’s Union, and, in that capacity, Aidamirov called for a stop to the war. My interlocutor’s views are not those of the majority of the Chechen population; they represent the views of those, best known to the Western world, who have made the task of justifying the Chechen war the business of their lives. These are people who have lost everything and therefore defend the nobility of resistance because they have nothing else to live for.
A START IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Gammer asks at the end of his book whether there is a way out of the vicious cycle of war and bloodshed. He answers his question by saying that “to a great extent, the answer depends on Russia.” Of course, he is right. Russia, not Chechnya – which at this point is hardly a political entity with a will of its own in any case – controls the weapons, the money, and the political machinery to impose its will on those it colonizes.
However, I am not a great believer in the ability of scholarship, particularly of scholarship that remains faithful to itself, to influence the policies of the nations that govern the world. Scholars concerned with the fate of the Chechen people had best turn to fronts that are not adjacent to the field of battle. Perhaps there is another kind of resistance, which is no less available to the foreign scholar, writer, or journalist than it is to the native Chechen intellectual. Consider those aspects of Chechen culture that exist outside the fields of war, and which are simultaneously intertwined with and different from Russian representations: first and foremost, the Chechen language, from which follows the literature, the folklore, and the individual lives of specific Chechens.
Such topics comprise for me the material that stands as the most eloquent resistance to Russian power, and which ought to occupy the imaginations of scholars on Chechen topics in the decades to come. Gammer’s book is a brilliant start in the right direction, and is the best short introduction to the history of Russian invasions into Chechnya available to the nonspecialist reader. (For more general background on the Chechens in English, I would also recommend Amjad Jaimoukha’s Chechens
But I feel compelled to add that even the story of resistance to the Russians ought to be of secondary concern for the Chechens and for scholars around the world who occupy themselves with Chechen subjects. For mere antagonism cannot give birth to the depth that Chechen culture is dying for lack of. A brave young man with a Kalashnikov may inspire us with admiration for his willingness to sacrifice his life for a cause greater than himself, but he is not the master of his destiny. His death will not set the Chechen people free.