Remembering the 1944 Chechen Deportation
Source: Roger Kangas
Today marks the 52nd anniversary of the Stalin's deportation of the Chechen nation to Central Asia. This deportation fueled the Chechens' collective sense of historical grievance, and is an important but often forgotten factor behind the four year standoff between Moscow and the secessionist leadership of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev.
The Chechens have a 200 year history of sporadic resistance against first Tsarist, then Soviet, and now Russian power.
In 1942-43 the German army briefly occupied the north Caucasus, and the collaboration of a small number of individual Chechens resulted in the Soviet government's denunciation of the entire nation as traitors and "tools of the Nazi invaders." On 23 February, 1944, the entire Chechen and Ingush population of the region -- an estimated 425,000 people --was loaded up in train cars bound for Central Asia. Each family member was permitted to carry 20 kilos of baggage, leaving the rest of their possessions and all of their property behind.
During the journey itself, perhaps half (some estimates are even higher) died, primarily of exposure. Among those who survived, and who grew up in exile to return home only after Khrushchev pardoned the Chechens in 1956, were Ruslan Khasbulatov (born in 1942) and Dzhokhar Dudaev himself -- who was born only weeks before the deportation took place. The period of exile is considered by Chechen nationalists to be an attempt by the Soviet government to wipe out the identity of an entire people. Their property was turned over to Russian "settlers"; buildings and historic sites were destroyed. Chechen gravestones were reportedly used to pave the streets of Grozny.
It was not until Khrushchev's 1956 de-Stalinization campaign that the Chechens were permitted to return to their homeland. The estimate number of people deported was between 1.4 and 1.7 million.
Such treatment not only justifies hostage-taking and other acts of violence, such as have been perpetrated by Chechen forces loyal to Dudaev over the past year, but it also helps to explain Chechens' embitterment. In a 1991 interview with Radio Liberty, the Chechen emigre political scientist Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov noted that the Chechen push for independence from Russia was simply a "revolt of the children in revenge for the deaths of their fathers and mothers during deportation and exile, [and] a protest of the whole people against the continuing domination of the old structures...." At the same time, Avtorkhanov called upon both sides to prevent the conflict from spiralling into another "Caucasian War."
Four years later, it is obvious that such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. After 30,000 - 50,000 civilian casualties, cities and villages destroyed, and calls by the Russian leadership that Dudaev and others should be shot for being part of an "anti-Russian conspiracy," people are not surprisingly less than sympathetic to the Chechens on this somber anniversary.
It is a measure of the emotions that the collective memory of the deportation can still evoke, as well as the precarious calm that now obtains in the Chechen capital, that the current pro-Moscow Prime Minister, Doku Zavgayev, has categorically prohibited any anniversary demonstration in Grozny. In his words, such a rally "would be like holding a dancing party during a plague epidemic."