Report on Chechenia II: Long, difficult and turbulent history of Chechenia

By: Antero Leitzinger (1999 11 17)
Edited by Klaus Susiluoto, facts concerning Georgia by Bessarion Gugushvili.


World has been surprised because of the tough resistance of Chechens against Russians. There is, however, historical background to this. The conflict between official Russia and the Chechens has lasted more than 250 years, mainly because of Russia's brutal policy in this distant corner of Europe and Chechens unwillingness to subdue to Russian command.

Cossacks were not a threat

The history of Chechenia is long, difficult and turbulent. ("Chechnya" is Russified form of the name of this territory. The Chechens actually call their country "Ichkeria" nowadays but we use Chechenia here). The tribes that later formed the Chechen nation have been mentioned in the Armenian and Georgian documents already from the 7th century on. Armenians and Georgians had adapted Christianity at an early stage, it was a state religion from 4th century on. There is also Church remnants on Chechen territory, so part of the population may have been Christian. Later Islam became more important, however, but paganism prevailed in many areas until the 18th century - when Islam started to act as ideology of independence and self determination.

There were many Chechen tribes, but common to them was love for freedom and emphasis on equality (many sources refer to this). The form of government was a free men's democratic society similar to that of the Swiss, also a mountain people. They were skilled warriors who sometimes used their energy in robberies, taking also hostages under certain regulations. There was not land-tied serfdom in the Chechen lands. They also lacked a nobility, which made it difficult for Russia to give grants and to create a local pro-Russian upper class.

Chechens had cattle, and they cultured soil as well, but most of the land was forest until the century, when Russians destroyed big part of the woods in connection with their war efforts - this was ecological catastrophe and essentially changed landscape and agriculture of the region. Chechens were not "plain people" or plainsmen as Russians (liking their Steppes); Chechens had their great forests, beautiful hills and desolate mountains. For example Chechen tribe of Ichkers lived as free men in the forest of Ichkeria - which later gave the name to the contemporary state. There were even regulations to protect old trees.

"Chechnya" - how the area became called by Russians - was relatively compact and peaceful. Some tribes adopted Islam earlier than others, while some tribes emphasized their traditional way of life. The common Vainakh - as they call themselves - nation was very democratic, and each tribe and family could decide very much for them selves. This was how the Russian invaders were able to separate the more hierarchically organized people in Daghestan (where Khanates existed) and the peaceful Ingush tribe from the more independent-minded Chechens.

The real clashes with Russians did not start until the century, although Cossacks had lived in the Northern part of the Terek river since 16th century (Ryazan Cossacks possibly already in the century. The Cossacks adapted some Caucasian habits, but they remained Christians, whereas many mountaineers converted into Islam at the same time.

There were not, however, religious wars. The role of Cossacks in Russian empire was to gain new lands, they were not tribe or ethnicity but semi-military unions - fights were mainly for cattle and land but Chechen tribes had campaigns (at least 1604, 1685, 1712) to drive the Cossacks to the North of Terek river. On the other hand, there were interethnic marriages and peaceful coexistence most of the time.

Imperialist policy starts

The first real conflict between the Russians and Chechen tribes began during the reign of Peter the Great who at the same time declared himself as heir and crown-prince of Georgian Kingdom (although Georgia before this was independent, having much older statehood and culture than Russia). Russia's imperialistic policy in Caucasus had thus started. The (official) Russian troops encountered the Chechens for the first time in the summer 1722 while attempting to conquer the village of Ender. The Chechens won the battle, and Peter the Great persuaded the Kalmuks to a campaign of revenge against them.

During the next decades the Russians were not very successful, but they started using Cossacks in Russian politics in Caucasus who became under Russian state special protection (they now raised rebellions against state only when their privileges were attacked) Cossacks were used as a Russian armed hand in campaigns in Caucasus. In the 1760's Kizljar became the Russian capital of Caucasus. The Chechen Kist tribe attacked the city in the late 1760's killing its inhabitants. During 1765-1779 the Kabardos fought against the Russians, having assistance from the Chechen tribes. One feature of Northern Caucasus was - and still is, in spite of Russification - a rich texture of small nations and languages. Contrary to a common belief, they share a lot of everyday habits, and religious wars have not been very usual.

Grozny founded in 1818

During the reign of Catherine the Great Russia's imperial policy strengthened. Catherine's favorite Count Potemkin established Vladikavkaz in the beginning of 1780's. It was abandoned but re-established in 1799. Important factor for Chechenia and all North Caucasus was establishing of rule of Russia in Georgia (started from early 18th and ended in 1750th), Armenia and today's Azeri areas, when North Caucasus was rounded by Russian colonies. Also is important official state politics of Tsarist Russia. Russian colonization of Caucasus meant also ethnical cleansing and as well as demographic colonization, so there were big changes of ethnic structure in these territories. -This was officially -not secretly- declared.

The Georgian Military Road was constructed to Tbilisi, Georgia. Although Catherine II (Catherine the Great) and her follower (after a short interval) Alexander I were relatively enlightened rulers, they did not understand the flexible diplomacy that would have needed in this region. The Russian General Yermolov was nominated commander of the Caucasus region in 1816. It was Yermolov who founded Grozny in the middle of Chechen lands in the summer 1818. He was a skillful soldier but very unskillful diplomat. An English observer later remarked:

"Yermolov's strategy was based on the complete terrorizing of the civilian population, which provoked horror and outcry for its cruelty even in Moscow. He promised results within a year, yet he only managed to provoke previously independent other nationalities of the Caucasus into a united holy war against Russia"

No wonder that a common Chechen-Daghestani resistance to Russian colonial rule lasted more than 40 years after the founding of Grozny! It was the surrender of the legendary leader, Shamil, in 1859 when Russia had "peace" in Caucasus - for a while. Around mid-19th century, the perseverance of Shamil's "mountaineers" was followed and analyzed with amazement all over Western Europe, where the Caucasian war was compared to the early freedom fights of Algeria and South Africa. The morality of European colonial wars became questioned (by Karl Marx and many others), and romantic literature flourished with descriptions of both Chechen chivalry and banditry, with frequent but inaccurate references to kidnappings (f. ex. by Alexandre Dumas and Lev Tolstoy). Despite Romanticism, Shamil and his precedessor Sheik Mansur and Gazimullah were not only soldiers but skillful administrators who had keen interest in foreign policy also. In many cases they had to disappoint with Turkey's policy.

Caucasus has often influenced and sometimes even dominated Russian foreign policy. It has been claimed, that the rigidly autocratic rule of Czar Nicholas I was exhausted and the collapse in the Crimean War hastened by the continuous humiliations of Russian military in Chechenia. An early Russian dissident, Ivan Golovin, wrote from his French exile in 1845:

"The war in the Caucasus is under prevalent circumstances a truly fruitless war and the stubbornness, with which the Russian government insists on its continuation, will have nothing but useless bloodshed and increased hate as its consequence, and make every lasting rapproachement impossible. Russia should, first of all, declare war on its own officials who are its greatest enemies, and who, after calling forth the quarrel themselves, make it in its continuance pernicious, by robbing and stealing without mercy. They sacrifice the interest of the country to their own interests and sell enemies even weapons and gunpowder. They conceal the number of the killed ones..."

Not much has changed in over 150 years!

Republic of Mountaineers' People

Despite the official conquest in 1859, war in Caucasus never really ended. Circassians were subdued by 1864, but Chechens rose again in frequent popular revolts in 1862-1865 and 1877-1878. The same policy was used in South Caucasus, where most of Abkhazian-Adigean tribes were totally eliminated (Ubikhs) or forced to migrate to Ottoman Empire (Turkey). Thousands of Chechens were deported and mass emigrations took place in 1901. There are tens of thousands of people in Jordan and Turkey who have Chechen roots.

During the First World War and revolution in Russia in 1917, a "Confederation of North Caucasian Peoples", or a "Republic of Mountaineers" (as it was popularly called) was established. Independence was declared on 11 May 1918, which was de facto recognized by Turkey, Germany and France. The flag contained green and white stripes, which can still be seen in the modern Ichkerian flag (the Republic of Mountaineers, however, included other nationalities as well such as Kumyks and Avars).

The Government had to exile to Georgia and further to France (together with Georgian government) by advancing Russian troops - both White and Red (Bolshevik) - by 1921. Armed resistance was nevertheless recorded until 1925 and again in 1929-1936 and 1940-1951. During the Finnish Winter War Hasan Israilov, journalist by profession, raised a rebellion in Chechenia. The temporary government remained in power for several weeks.

Chechen leaders were executed or deported in 1929 and 1939, and finally in February 1944 almost the whole population (about 400 000) was deported to Central Asia, mainly to Kazakhstan. The reason was: pro-Nazi attitudes - although Nazis never arrived on the Chechen soil! (Only part of Ingushetia was occupied by Germans). Soviets also destroyed Chechen national monuments such as ancient watchtowers and tombstones.

For a while, there was neither Chechenia nor Ingushetia anymore. Although the Soviet Union was officially voluntary federation of numerous more or less nominally autonomous entities, "Socialist Soviet Republics" (SSR's and ASSR's), the existence and status of these pseudo-states was determined by political convenience and the whims of a dictator. Tuva, for example, had been a fully independent state for some decades - just like (Outer) Mongolia, although both were recognized only by the Soviet Union and each other - until 1944, when it was suddenly downgraded into an ASSR within Russia. Chechens could not return to their native land before mid 50's. Some were not granted a permission before 70's and 80's (there was an internal passport in Russia).

Many Russians had moved to houses owned by Chechens, and there was unrest in 1958 between Russians and Chechens, but all in all, the two nationalities lived quite peacefully together. Oil industry became leading branch of industry for Checheno-Ingushetia with Grozny as its center.


In 1956-1957, the status of Checheno-Ingushetia was re-established as an ASSR (autonomous republic) within Russia and the Soviet Union. This is the base of contemporary Russia's claim that Chechenia is an integral part of the Russian Federation. While the international community today refuses to recognize the legality of protectorates and annexations of Germany and Japan in the 1930s and 1940s and most countries never officially accepted the annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union in 1940, Stalin's legacy has been sanctioned by accepting the Bolshevik administrative structures and their arbitrary changes between 1918 and 1957. The people in the Soviet Union were never consulted or given a chance to exercise the same democratic rights of national self-determination as granted to the colonies of other European empires. Even a big part of the Russians living in Chechenia are in favor of independence.

Ichkeria declares independence in 1991

In autumn 1991,Checheno-Ingushetia was divided into Chechenia, which declared independence as the "Chechen Republic of Ichkeria", and to Ingushetia, which choose to remain within the Russian Federation. Several experts of international law have considered these changes of legal status equally legal. When the Soviet Union disintegrated in December 1991, all SSR's were recognized as independent states but the Russian Federation, as a kind of rump-USSR, did not grant its own ASSR's the same right, although this should have logically followed.

There was a referendum about the constitution of the Russian Federation in 1993, but Chechenia and Tatarstan did not participate in it. The Russian Federation then negotiated a separate treaty with Tatarstan in 1994, but invaded Chechenia in December 1994. (There had been clashes before this). It has been typical in Russian history to negotiate only with those who are going to agree! - as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin stated boldly in Helsinki in October 1999. Russia admits, that there can be only a peaceful political solution to the problem of Chechenia, but only after all opposition has been wiped out by force!

It should be remembered, that even international observers like the OSCE have evidence of two kind:

1) that the puppet rulers established by Russia in shamelessly rigged show "elections" in 1995-1996 did not enjoy genuine popular support;
2) that the chief of staff of the Ichkerian army, Aslan Maskhadov, was elected as president of Ichkeria in fair and free elections in 1997. Nevertheless, Russian officials have again denied the legitimacy of Maskhadov, with whom Yeltsin signed a treaty in May 1997, and established shadow representations by notorious criminals.(The reason to deny Maskhadov's legitamacy is simple: he is not going to give up the idea of Chechen independence)

How to study history of Caucasus?

In studying the history of the Chechen nation, Moshe Gammer's work "Muslim Resistance to the Tsar - Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnya and Daghestan" (London 1994) is the most valuable source published recently. Details over the resistance from mid-19th to mid-20th century can only be composed from short fragments here and there. Equally important, however, is to study the history of other Caucasian nations and their obvious common denominator, Russia.

There is, for example, an intriguing similarity in what happened in Karabakh and Abkhazia, and generally in Azerbaijan and Georgia in 1988-1993. Chechenia was about to follow the same scenario, but the separation of Ingushetia and the timely military build-up of Jokhar Dudaev - who was an army officer, in contrast to his colleagues Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Abulfaz Elchibey - saved Chechenia for a different fate (coup provoked with demonstrations, which in Georgia had never more than 2000 persons). Western TV showed some "anti-Zviadist and anti-Dudaev demonstrations" which were actually PRO-Zviadist and PRO-Dudaev demonstrations! - This can be read on Georgian banners in the hands of demonstrators (Orthodox Georgians and Muslim Chechens have traditionally had quite good relations).

Georgian and Azeri coups were done by Russian military forces combined with local elite (later president Shevardnadze has taken some distance towards Russians). In Chechenia Russian Army bases were closed in early 1991 - this was one factor Chechens could do better than Georgia or Azerbaijan until late 1994. Another factor for the collapse of democracy in Georgia and Azerbaijan was strong antizviadist and antielchibay propaganda from the Western states - who labeled them as dictators, nationalists etc.

Caspian Sea oil seems to be important to West. Last accord in this deal was signed OSCE's meeting in Istanbul 18.11.1999 - Baku-Jeikhan Pipe - main goal of this summit became actually oil, not Chechenia! This is not a good trend, since human rights and democracy in Caucasus is just as important as in the West.

There was, however, some progress in the Chechen issue also in OSCE's Istanbul meeting (see our other report). Important was that Mr. Maskhadov was understood to be democratically elected President of Chechenya (Finland's President Mr. Ahtisaari, who used EU's speech, took a strong position in Istanbul in favor of Mr. Maskhadov, urging Russia to negotiate with him).


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online