It is during her reporting in Chechnya, during the separatist wars that ravaged the country, that journalist and author Masha Gessen got deeply involved in the larger political context of both the war and Russian President Vladimir Putin's handling of it.
Chechnya lies to the south of the Russian Republic and is bound by Russia on almost all sides - it shares a border with Georgia high in the Caucasus Mountains. The secession attempts following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 were just a couple of many periods of disturbance Chechnya has witnessed. The republic, whose population currently stands at around one million, has been in almost constant battle against foreign rule since at least the 15th century. In fact, the area's original conversion to Sunni Islam may have been in large part so as to receive help from the Ottoman Empire against encroachment by the Russian Empire.
Location of Chechnya (click map for larger image)
The current resistance has its roots in the late 18th century when Russia expanded its territories into areas formerly under the control of the Ottoman Empire and Persia (Iran) including the Caucasus Mountains. After a prolonged conflict of more than forty years, the area was formally annexed by the Russian Empire in 1859.
Since then, secession attempts have flared up pretty much every time Russia's internal politics have showed signs of weakness including rebellions during the Russo-Turkish War in the 1870s; the Russo-Persian War (1804-1813), The Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and the Russian Civil War of 19171923.
Under Soviet rule in the 1930s, the oil-rich region of Chechnya was combined with its even smaller neighbor Ingushetia to form the autonomous republic of Checheno-Ingushetia. In 1944, in response to Chech uprisings during World War II, Stalin gave orders that the entire ethnic population of Chechnya and Inguishetia were to be forcibly relocated. Checheno-Ingushetia was dissolved, mosques and graveyards were destroyed, placenames changed and vast numbers of historical Chechen texts were burned.
It is estimated that about half of ethnic Chechens died between 1944 and 1948. Checheno-Ingushetia was renamed Grozny Oblast and used to settle refugees from the Western Soviet Union. In the center of Grozny, Chechnya's capital city, the Soviets erected a statue with the inscription, "There is no people under the sun more vile and deceitful than this one."
After 1956, during Khrushchev's "de-Stalinization period" Chechens were allowed to return to their country. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Chechnya pushed for recognition as a separate nation but was opposed by Boris Yeltsin's Russian Federation on the basis that, unlike the Baltic and some other Caucasian States, Chechnya had not been an independent entity within the Soviet Union. Since then the territory has been in almost constant struggle for independence.
Since 9/11, Checnya's secession attempts have been framed against the backdrop of the international war on terror. Chechen terrorists have been responsible for horrendous acts including the Beslan school hostage crisis of 2004 which left 380 dead including 186 children, and hundreds more injured; apartment bombings across Russia; and a bombing at Moscow's airport in 2011. More than 90% of the population are Sunni Muslim and, according to a source close to the situation, there is a very virulent Wahabi strain to their faith, as well as a mountain tribal revenge obligation. Add to this a long history of banditry (including wife kidnapping and professional killing) and you have an explosive mix in which journalists and human rights workers are regularly killed, threatened, or disappear without trace.
These days, a shaky ceasefire brokered between Russia and Chechnya keeps the tentative peace. Ramzan Kadyrov, son of assassinated President Akhmad Kadyrov and a dominant figure in Chechen politics, was nominated for the Chechen presidency by Russian President Vladimir Putin in spring 2007 and approved almost unanimously by the Chechen parliament. Kadyrov (a warlord like his father before him) was sworn in in April. Like Putin, Kadyrov believes in ruling with an iron fist from the capital city, Grozny, dismissing critics as not being completely in tune with what it truly takes to keep the republic stable. In 2009, Moscow announced that the situation in Chechnya had improved to the point that it could end its military operation against the rebels, but sporadic attacks by separatists continue. Considering the nature of the region's culture it seems very unlikely that it will be considered stable by international standards anytime soon, so while the city of Grozny is going through a period of substantial reconstruction and there is much to admire in the area's landscape, most foreign governments strongly warn their citizens not to travel to Chechnya under any circumstances and few, if any, foreign journalists currently report from there.
This article was originally published in April 2012, and has been updated for the
March 2013 paperback release.
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