The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Mar 15, 2010

Tales of Chechnya

For the Chechens, the fall of the Soviet Union turned out to be a disaster of unmitigated proportions. For centuries since they were first defeated by the Imperial Russians, they had - along among the tribes of the Caucasus - waged off and on rebellions against authority. During the occasional ceasefire, their martial prowess was absorbed into the Russian army, where, despite their obstreperous natures, they served with iron discipline. Few of them gained the full trust of their ostensible masters, and, like all their fellow highlanders, they were always discriminated against. And so in the brave new world of the Imperium, they were forced to continue in their age-old rhythms of life - loyalty to the clan, a rigid class system, and a deep suspicion of all outsiders.

When the Soviet Union imploded, the Chechens found themselves with a freedom they suddenly couldn't handle. Without an external force to throttle their exuberance, they returned to their traditional pastimes of raiding and pillaging. The elders of the major clans made it clear to the minions that class divisions would continue. Some clans created a Russia-wide network of smugglers, carting across the porous borders all manner of commodities. Everything was fair game: women, drugs, oil, medicines, food. The gun-runners made money off both sides of the internecine wars that erupted all around the Caucasus. The loyalty to clans and the fall of civic authority led to establishment of Mafia families with long reaches deep into every region of the old USSR.

Along with every major republic, the Chechens declared independence in 1991. Immediately, the Russians invaded. They couldn't just stand around, they said, while their country was eviscerated. Sending callow conscripts into battle with scarcely a strategy, the Red Army was savagely crushed by the dzhigits.

Interestingly, throughout this first war, the Chechens maintained their smuggling networks. The Russian soldiers were so badly off that they sold their fuel and weaponry and even each other to obtain food and security. Corruption ruled absolutely. For a price, anybody in the old USSR could be kidnapped or sold. Chechnya became a kidnapper's paradise, a hiding place for kidnappers and their victims.

The Chechens, a proud and manly people, have also been known for their black sarcastic humour. They told a joke about the Russians, who, troubled by all the kidnapping and violent crime going on in Moscow and St Petersburg, decided to send their best spy, Stirlitz, to find out who was responsible in Chechnya for it all.
Stirlitz ponders his move, lying in a ditch after having parachuted from an airplane. "Should I go to the government to find out if they are the villains?" he thinks. "Or should I go to their rivals first? Bah. I'll go to the government."

As he steps out of the ditch, a Chechen warrior appears and fires his machine gun into the air, shouting, "Where are you going?"

Stirlitz says, "To the government."

The dzhigit says, "Better not. You know what they do to people like you? They beat you, they strip you, they take everything you've got, and release you naked as a jaybird."

Stirlitz thinks, "Good to know", and heads off in the opposite direction. Again, the dzhigit fires into the air.

"Don't go that way either! Over there, they'll beat you, strip you, take everything you've got, and release you naked as a jaybird as well."

"So where am I supposed to go?" says Stirlitz, spreading his arms apart.

"You're not going anywhere," yells the dzhigit. "You'll strip right here!"
During the years of 'independence', the Chechens did little to organise their state. Clans fought each other and raised ruckus in neighbouring lands. Some of the Chechens had gotten religion, something that had been pretty much purged out of them during the long years of Communism. Newly returning mujahideen from the Afghan war, seething with nascent Wahhabism, began to exercise their muscle. They derided the old clan loyalties as spurious. Islam alone, they said, was the unifying force. They also revolted against the class system that had ensured the supremacy of the senior clans. People at the bottom of Chechen society found that this egalitarianism appealed to them. Finally, their voices could be heard.

For the old guard, whose faith was somewhat suspect (at the best of times, the Chechens had mixed Islam with old folk beliefs), this two-pronged attack against them came as a considerable surprise. To disdain the new-fangled faith would be suicidal. They began to tout their own religious credentials, hoping to co-opt the bearded men.
Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen president, suddenly becomes pious.

"We are the most devout Muslims in the world," he declares to his people. "We are so pious that we pray thrice a day!"

His deputy, embarrassed by his clear lack of understanding of the tenets of Islam prompts him, "No, Dzhokhar. Not three times, but five."

Completely unabashed, Dzhokhar yells,"And if you like, you can even pray five times a day. That's the kind of freedom we have here."
Pleased by the new egalitarianism, all sorts of ruffians raised private armies. A mighty convict, Ruslan Labazanov, skilled in the martial arts and leader of a prison revolt, decided that he would serve the new Chechen state. For a time he even became Captain of the Presidential Guard. After some slight from Dudayev, Ruslan rushed off to form a party of his own, which he called Justice. He would rob the rich, he said, and pay the poor.

Among the Chechens, he was considered a dim-wit, a clown of majestic proportions. They told this anecdote to each other:
Ruslan raids a rich farmstead and lines up the owners to be shot. "Before I shoot you," he says, "Tell me your names so I know who it is I am killing." He points his gun at the woman.

"Maliha," says the woman, and Ruslan bursts into tears.

"That's my mother's name," he blubbers. "I can't kill someone with the same name as my mother. You may go."

He then points the gun at the husband. "What's your name?" he says.

"Well," says the man. "My passport says Suleyman, but everyone calls me Maliha."

1. Wojciech Jagielski, Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya


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