The Soviet Mountain Republic


On 20th January 1921, while Said Bek's uprising was still blazing,
a Congress of Mountaineers was convened in Vladikavkaz. Moscow sent
the People's Commissar for Nationalities, Stalin, to the Congress. Stalin explained to the Congress the policy of the Soviet government regarding nationalities, and proclaimed an amnesty for all those who had participated in the revolt of Said Bek on condition that the movement would cease and the authority of the Soviet government would be recognized. Furthermore, he declared that the Soviet government recognized the internal sovereignty and independence of the Mountaineers. In the name of his government, he recommended the creation of a unique 'Soviet Mountain Republic' (Gorskaia Sovetskaia Respublika), endowed with a large measure of autonomy so that the old dreams of the Mountain people might come true and their own independent government become a reality.

The constitutional assembly of the new Republic made their recognition of the Soviet government conditional on the Shariat and the adat being officially acknowledged as the basic constitutional laws of the Republic of the Mountain, and that the central government should not be intervening in their internal affairs; also on the lands of the Mountaineers, of which they were deprived by the Tsars, being given back to them. Stalin accepted both conditions, after which the delegates officially recognized the Soviet government. The Soviet Mountain Republic was proclaimed as a result of this agreement between the Mountaineers' representatives and the Soviets. It comprised Chechnya, Ingushetia, Ossetia, Kabarda, Balkaria and Karachay. Daghestan was declared an independent Soviet Republic. Thus was created a completely unnatural Soviet Republic with a Soviet emblem on its banner and a Shariat constitution. The Bolsheviks directed that portraits of Shamil and his naibs should replace those of Lenin and Politburo members in all administrative institutions schools and public places. Several Cossack settlements (stanitsa) were transferred into the Russian interior on the orders of Stalin and Ordzhonikidze, and the lands were returned to the Chechens and Ingush (including those that the population had previously seized).

The new leaders of the Mountaineers were radical intellectuals who had supported the Bolsheviks from the first days of the Russian Revolution, having been attracted by their promise to give nations the right to self-determination and secession. During the Civil War, this intelligentsia had naturally preferred the internationalist Lenin to the champion of the Great Russian State, Denikin. The requirements of this radical communist intelligentsia were very modest: they wanted complete domestic autonomy in the North Caucasus in the guise of a Soviet Mountain Republic within the RSFSR. Ordzhonikidze and Kirov, future members of the Politburo, lived at that time in the territory of the mountains and supported the claims of local communists. After the end of the Civil War, it was the members of this native communist intelligentsia who were placed at the head of the Mountaineers: Samurskii, Korkmasov, Dalgat, Mamedbekov, Takho-Godi in Daghestan; Elderkhanov, Kurbanov, Tokaev, Oshaev, Arsanukaev in Chechnya; Malsagov, Ziazikov, Albagashiev, Goigov in Ingushetia; Takoev, Mansurov, Butaev, Ramonov in Northern Ossetia; Eneev, Katkhanov, Kalmykov in Kabardino-Balkaria; Kurdzhiev in Karachay; Hakurati in Cherkessia. The government of these 'padishahs' was a period of maximum political peace and harmony between the various Caucasian nations, and popularity of the Soviet government among the Mountaineers. Furthermore, this was the time of the NEP (New Economic Plan) regime 1921-8 which did not give rise to any serious national or political disruption in the country, except some isolated acts of provocation emanating from the GPU. At that time the Soviet authorities were engaged in punishing their individual enemies, past and present; as yet there were no attempts at reprisal against whole nations.

The padishahs and their constituents were allowed to voice their opinions, which were taken into consideration by Moscow. Moreover, the Bolsheviks pursued a most flexible and prudent policy in the Caucasus--everything was done to reinforce the belief of the North Caucasians that they had really achieved their long-desired independence. Immediately after the insurrection of Said Bek Shamil had been quelled, Lenin addressed a special letter to the communists of the Soviet Mountain Republic in which he urged all North Caucasian communists 'not to copy our tactics but to adapt them to Caucasian conditions'.

Stalin forgot Lenin's words when he began his 'all-out offensive of socialism on all fronts'. When the infamous "ezhovshchina" was unleashed throughout the Soviet Union, the Caucasian old guard was not spared. All the Mountain padishahs were arrested on the charge of bourgeois-nationalism. Some were executed and others deported. Lenin's renowned national policy, when applied by Stalinists, turned into the most shameless form of colonial oppression. To ensure the success of this policy, it was essential to transfer 'autonomous sovereignty' from Caucasians to the Moscow cheka (secret police). The first official act in the course of this gradual, though systematic, process was the liquidation of the Soviet Mountain Republic which ceased to exist in 1924, the Soviet government having already created six autonomous regions: Karachay-Cherkess (12 January 1922), Kabardino-Balkar (16 January 1922), Adyghe (27 July 1922), Chechen (20 November 1922), Ingush (7 July 1924), and Northern Ossetian (7 July 1924).

Soviet leaders in Chechnya-Ingushetia

The first act of the internal government organizations in Chechnya and Ingushetia, after they were endowed with the status of autonomous regions, was general disarmament. Not only did the Soviets confiscate existing personal weapons but they also imposed on every house the obligation to hand one firearm to the authorities; to carry out this assignment the Chechens and Ingush bought weapons from Red Army soldiers and from the Chekists themselves. The disarmament itself, albeit a normal procedure in peace time, was interpreted as preparation for a forthcoming repression and as an attempt to deprive them of the rights granted by the Shariat constitution. To mitigate this impression, leaders of the Soviet government paid several visits to Chechnya-Ingushetia. Thus Kalinin, the Soviet President, visited several auls where he delivered propaganda speeches on the theme of friendship between the Chechens and Soviets.8 He was followed in 1925 by Rykov, President of the Sovnarkom (Council of People's Commissars) and heir to Lenin, and Chicherin, People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs. In Grozny (which had become the capital of Chechnya) Rykov and Chicherin, accompanied by K. Voroshilov, the commander of the North Caucasian Military District, and Mikoyan, secretary of the kraikom of the Bolshevik Communist Party of the USSR (VKP[b]), delivered speeches assuring the Chechen-Ingush population that the Soviet government was firmly resolved to fulfil their hopes and to serve the interests of the Caucasian Mountaineers. Rykov declared that the time of persecution was definitely over and that from 'now on, the freedom-loving heroic Mountaineers will know only happiness and prosperity'.

Later came Bukharin and Lunacharskii, the People's Commissar for Education. In brilliant propaganda speeches, they sang the praises of the Caucasians and the indestructible 'friendship of the peoples of the USSR' declaring that the Soviet government was called upon by history to save the Mountaineers. Nevertheless, it was decided to operate this salvation not in Bukharin's but in Stalin's style. Collectivisation began.

Collectivisation and armed insurrection

Socially, economically and psychologically the Chechens were the least prepared among the population of the Soviet Union to face the onslaught of compulsory collectivisation. Exactly a year before it began, the kraikom and the Central Committee decided to convene a 'Regional Conference of the Poor' in Grozny. The resolutions of the conference stated that the main task of the Party and Soviet authorities was to raise the level of prosperity of the Chechen peasantry by various measures of assistance: credit to peasants, and provision of tools and seeds together with allocations of additional plots of land to those needing them. The Chechens were urged to take advantage of generous government assistance to develop their agricultural economy.

Naturally, not a word was said in the Party instructions or in the conference resolutions on the subject of the kolkhoz. Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1929, the Chechen obkom received a telegram signed by A.A. Andreev, a member of the Politburo and secretary of the kraikom of the Bolshevik Communist Party of the Soviet Union, stating that the North Caucasus was the first territory in the Soviet Union where complete collectivisation of the rural economy would be introduced, beginning with the liquidation of kulachestvo as a class. Andreev indicated the practical measures to be taken and added that collectivisation would be implemented in all the national regions, Chechnya included. At first the Chechens did not attach much importance to Andreev's telegram. However, representatives of the kraikom and the Central Committee later arrived in the auls, and proceeded to confiscate personal and real estate from some peasants who were arrested as kulaks and deported with their families to Siberia. From others they seized possessions that were to be turned over to the kolkhoz.

The whole of Chechnya exploded and rose as one. It is impossible to describe accurately the nightmarish events which followed, so we will limit ourselves to the main points. The most important and the best organized revolts took place in Goiti (led by Mullah Ahmet and Mullah Kuriev), in Shali (led by Shita Istamulov) and in Benoi (led by laroch and Hodja). The insurgents occupied all the rural and regional institutions, burned official archives, and arrested the staff of the regional government, the chiefs of the GPU included. In Benoi they seized the petroleum refineries and instituted a provisional government that presented the following demands to the Soviets:

(1) Illegal confiscation of peasant property, i.e. 'collectivisation', must be stopped.

(2) Arbitrary arrests of peasants under the pretext of fighting kulachestvo must cease.

(3) The GPU chiefs must be recalled from Chechnya and replaced by elected civil officers of Chechen origin whose right to prosecute would be limited to criminal elements.

(4) The 'popular courts' imposed from above would be liquidated and the institution of Shariat courts, as foreseen by the constitutional congress of the Soviet Mountain Republic in Vladikavkaz in 1921, reinstated.

(5) The intervention of regional and central authorities in the internal affairs of the 'Chechen Autonomous Region' had to be stopped, and all the economic and political decisions taken by the Chechen Congress of elected representatives as foreseen in the status of 'autonomy'.

The insurgents' leadership sent these requests directly to Moscow stating that only when they were given satisfaction on all of them would they agree to disarm and recognize Soviet authority. A government delegation from Moscow came to Grozny in order to 'peacefully liquidate' the insurrection. It comprised K. Nikolaev, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party; Ryskulov, vice-Chairman of the Sovnarkom of the RSFSR, and other high-ranking off1cials. A local peace commission was set up which included three religious leaders Shamsuddin Haji, Sultan Mullah, Mullah Ahmed Tugaev; D. Arsanukaev, and Hasman an old Moscow Bolshevik, respectively chairman and secretary of the Regional Party Committee. The peace commission was empowered to engage in direct negotiations with the leaders of the insurgents; in Shali it declared to them that the responsibility for recent events lay with the local executives who had not acted in keeping with Party and government instructions, and it promised that the authorities in question would be severely punished once the fighting stopped.

As to the insurgents' claim regarding the re-establishment of autonomous status, it was dealt with by the commission's 'Declaration to the Chechen People' which stated that 'Chechnia's internal matters will be settled in future by the Chechen people'. The insurgents accepted these explanations and agreed to return to their homes while awaiting the execution of the promises made by the Soviets. At the same time, the governmental commission published a telegram stating that a special GPU detachment would come to Shali to arrest and punish rural and regional leaders. People felt reassured when the detachment arrived and arrests were made among the local leaders. The GPU detachment completed operations against the Soviet executives in three days, and on the fourth day, towards one o'clock in the morning, it surrounded the house of the former leader of the insurgents, Shita Istamulov. He was taken by surprise, but in response to an ultimatum to surrender he and his brother Hassan opened fire. At dawn, when help came to Shita, part of his house was ablaze and Hassan was badly wounded. Some hundred Chechen horsemen surrounded the GPU detachment besieging Shita's house, and after an hour of fighting the GPU force of about 150 men was practically annihilated. Shita Istamulov appealed to all Chechens to join in a holy war for the re-establishment of the imamate of Shamil and the eviction of 'infdels' from the Caucasus. In response to this call Shali Goiti and Benoi rose up in arms once again, and at the same time revolts flared up in Daghestan, Ossetia, Kabarda (Bekseneks), Balkaria and Karachay, all proclaiming the same national-religious slogans. It is difficult to establish whether there was any connection in the organization of these uprisings, but their national and ideological bond was obvious. The slogans of ghazawat were common to all the fighters for the Mountaineers' independence: Mansur, Hamza Bek, Ghazi Muhammad and Shamil.

In the middle of December 1929, regular detachments of the Red Army began to arrive at the Chechen border. Towards the end of the month, Belov, commander of the North Caucasus Military District, sent the following forces against the insurgents: four infantry divisions, the 28th Combat Division from Vladikavkaz, the Vladikavkaz Infantry School, the Krasnodar Cavalry School, three artillery divisions and two regiments of border guards taken from the Turkish and Iranian border. Furthermore, three squadrons of the GPU forces were brought in the operation: from Grozny, Vladikavkaz and Makhachkala. They were commanded by Kurskii, the vice-chairman of the regional GPU. Due to the concentration of such large forces on the relatively small territory of Shali-Goiti (150,000 inhabitants) whose local conditions did not favour defensive war, both insurgent centres were conquered towards the middle of January 1930: Goiti was vanquished after the complete annihilation of the insurgents' general staff, including Kuriev and Ahmet Mullah, and Shali after an orderly retreat of Istamulov's forces to Upper Chechnya, in the mountains.

The losses of the Reds were heavy. In the Goiti battles practically the whole 82nd Infantry Regiment was annihilated. Near Shali, Belov lost a whole division. At the end of March 1930, he received reinforcements from Transcaucasia and embarked on a campaign in the mountains, his objective being to capture the last fortress held by the insurgents: Benoi. In April 1930, after two months of fierce fighting with heavy losses, Belov entered Benoi but found the place empty: all the inhabitants, women and children included, had been evacuated to remote hiding places in the mountains. The victorious Belov sent a negotiator to the insurgents offering honorable peace conditions to all those who would return of their own free will and surrender their weapons. The insurgents replied that they would return to their auls only when Belov and his army left.

Meanwhile, an abrupt change had occurred in the country's policy. Stalin and the Central Committee were re-examining the failure of the kolkhoz movement. A special decree of the Central Committee condemned the leftist deviators responsible for collectivisation and declared that the kolkhoz would be transformed into voluntary unions. In national regions such as Chechnya and Ingushetia, kolkhoz were banned altogether as premature. Only 'comrades' associations' (TOZ-- tovarishchestvo obrabotki zemli) were allowed to be set up to cultivate the land. The Chechen Party leaders (Hasman, Zhuravlev and Arsanukaev) were dismissed from their posts as leftist deviators. Armed forces were withdrawn from Chechnya and large quantities of industrial goods, at very low prices, were sent there. Amnesty was declared in the name of the central government for all the leaders and participants in the insurrection. The insurgents returned to their auls. Shita Istamulov (who had formerly been a Red guerrilla fighter) returned to Shali, and on orders from above was even appointed to the post of president of the Rural Consumers Cooperative.

In the autumn of 1931 Baklakov, chief of the regional GPU, invited Istamulov allegedly to hand him the official amnesty act from Moscow. Baklakov gave him the document with one hand while firing the entire charge of a Mauser pistol with the other. Though badly wounded, Istamulov had time to stab Baklakov to death before being killed by a guard stationed outside. Istamulov's brother Hassan organized a new 'gang' which hunted and killed Chekists to avenge the murder of Shita until 1935.

The killing of Shita marked the beginning of a large-scale GPU operation in Chechnya to eliminate the 'kulak counter-revolutionary elements and mullah-nationalist ideologists'. According to the lists drawn up by the regional GPU of Grozny and Rostov, and confirmed by the government of the Soviet Union, about 35,000 men were arrested. They were judged and convicted by an 'Extraordinary Commission of Three' created by the GPU for this purpose, presided over by the GPU chief G. Kraft. It is hard to determine the percentage of those who were shot, but not many regained their freedom.

The NKVD and the myth of the bandits

As a general rule, not one of the chiefs of the Chechen-Ingush GPU- NKVD was a Chechen. All were appointed from Moscow, and their knowledge of the people over whose destiny they presided was limited to reference-books composed by tsarist authorities. Total ignorance of the psychology, traditions and history of the native people was compounded by an amoral, or simply criminal mentality in the case of Deuch, Abulian, Pavlov, Kraft, Raev, Dementev, Ivanov and Riazanov. The avowed objective of each new chief was to be decorated. As a result, they were interested not in the pacification of Chechnya-Ingushetia but rather in the continuation of the war with the Soviets. We have already seen how the 'national centre of Chechnya' was organized. Let us now see how individual 'bandits' were created.

In autumn of 1933, at Geldegen in the Shali region, an elderly peasant Ibragim Geldegenskii was accused of 'assisting gangs' although both the NKVD and the people knew him to be a man of unimpeachable character. An active member of the kolkhoz, he had been a Red guerrilla fighter during the Civil War under the command of Sergo Ordzhonikidze. When, during the occupation by the White Army, Ordzhonikidze took refuge in the mountains of Chechnya and Ingushetia, Ibragim Geldegenskii served as his personal guard. Because of his courage Ordzhonikidze nicknamed him 'Zelimkhan of Geldegen'.'l In 1919, Ordzhonikidze sent Ibragim on several secret missions to Astrakhan to carry messages across the White lines to Shliapnikov, the commander of the 11th Red Army. To thank him Shliapnikov offered Geldegenskii a watch engraved with his name, and Ordzhonikidze a Mauser pistol, a 'weapon of honour', bearing his name. When the war ended Ordzhonikidze left for Moscow while Ibragim returned to his native aul and enlisted in a kolkhoz. Time passed and things changed. The watch engraved with Shliapnikov's name stopped working and Ordzhonikidze's 'weapon of honour' was confiscated by the oblast NKVD. Ibragim was indignant: he went to Rostov to complain to Evdokimov himself. He showed the letter signed by Ordzhonikidze stating that he had been rewarded with the gift of the 'weapon of honour' and that he was allowed to carry it at all times. The NKVD confiscated the letter with a polite explanation: 'You have no weapon and therefore you do not need the letter either.'

Losing all hope, Ibragim threatened the Chekists with Moscow's and Ordzhonikidze's intervention. The NKVD replied: 'Good speed to you, but know that sensible people do not waste time complaining about the NKVD.' Ibragim went to Moscow. At the Kremlin command post he registered as Zelimkhan Geldegenskii and 'Ordzhonikidze's friend'. It would seem that Ordzhonikidze had not forgotten the Caucasian tradition of hospitality. He welcomed Ibragim as simply and warmly as Ibragim used to receive him years ago in the mountains of Chechnya. Ibragim told him what had happened, and Ordzhonikidze promised to take the necessary measures. Ibragim returned to Chechnya. A few days later, his Mauser and the letter were returned from Rostov. His vic- tory was a humiliating blow for the NKYD. From that moment on Ibragim's downfall was assured. He was constantly watched and sur- rounded by a network of plots and provocations. Agents provocateurs were sent to see him with suggestions to kill the regional NKVD chief, but Ibragim steadfastly refused.

Later, he received a visit from a man claiming to be a Daghestani mullah who explained that he was making a pilgrimage to Arti-Kort, a holy place near Vedeno, and that before he had left Daghestan his friends had recommended Ibragim Geldegenskii as a trustworthy man and a pious Muslim. The mullah quoted several Daghestani names that Ibragim remembered from the time of the Civil War. The mullah seemed a highly learned Arabist and a very religious man, which duly impressed Ibragim, and he had with him a whole set of theological books. After three days the mullah left, presenting Ibragim with a Quran as a reward for his generous hospitality. The next day the Chekists came and searched Ibragim's house, where they found the Quran with a compromising letter in Arabic in its binding. The NKVD took Ibragim away with the letter and the Quran.

During the investigation that followed, Ibragim explained in what circumstances and by whom the Quran had been given to him and said that he knew nothing about the letter. The chekists claimed that his visitor was not a Daghestani but an 'Anglo-Turkish' spy and that the letter promised to help Ibragim organize a Chechen uprising. A few other peasants from Ibragim's village, together with all his near relatives, were arrested as members of his 'counter-revolutionary' organisation. During the examination, held at night, they were tortured in the office of the NKVD magistrate in Grozny. Ibragim jumped from the second floor into the river Sunja and managed to escape.

A year later, in the autumn of 1934, the villagers of Geldegen witnessed two officers of the NKVD, Slavin and Ushaev, pouring petrol on the severely wounded Ibragim and burning him alive. This public execution provoked profound indignation, not only among the simple masses but even inside the Chechen government. H. Mamaev, President of the Chechen Regional Executive Committee and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Soviet Union; Groza (a Russian), President of the Regional Council of Professional Unions; and la. Ediev, Secretary of the Regional Committee of Shali, sent a written protest criticising the behaviour of the NKVD to the Secretary of the North Caucasian Committee of the Communist Party and to the President of the Ispolkom, and as a result all were dismissed from their posts. Mamaev and Ediev were accused of nationalism and the Russian Groza of right-wing opportunism. Slavin and Ushaev were temporarily transferred to the NKVD of Central Asia, and both were decorated there with the Order of the Red Banner for work accomplished in Chechnya. In 1937 Ushaev was recalled to Chechnya and appointed to the post of President of the Supreme Court of the Chechen-Ingush Republic. That same year, one of his relations served him poisoned food from which he died.


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