|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
The Chechen-Russian conflict – today and yesterday
By Leo Tolstoy
Published by Hesperus, 2003, £6-99
Reviewed by Clare Doyle
THE HORROR of the Beslan massacre surpasses all previous atrocities carried out in the name of the Chechen people. It is Russia’s 9/11, and nothing can excuse it.
Whether those involved were motivated by desperation and revenge for the cruelty meted out to their families and country or coerced and drugged by gangsters and fanatics, the slaughter of civilians in terrorist attacks inside Russia does nothing to bring nearer the liberation of Chechnya from the domination of imperialist Russia.
The background to the harrowing events of recent times is the Chechen-Russian conflict, stretching far further back than the break-up of the Soviet Union and the devastating wars conducted by Yeltsin and Putin. Colonisation in the Caucasus started as long ago as the 17th century under a long line of tyrannical czars. Major military campaigns to subdue and conquer the combative tribes and clans were conducted early in the 19th century with varying degrees of success. Tens of thousands of young men sent to fight for Russia’s glory fell victim to the sword or to the harsh conditions of army life in the hostile mountain regions. Fortified garrisons enforced Russian military control over local peoples. No period of genuine peace was established.
The only real respite came as a direct result of the Russian revolution of October 1917. The workers’ government set out to lift the yoke imposed by Russian imperialism from all oppressed nations, allowing the option of genuine self-determination. Chechens were involved in the civil war against the counter-revolutionary White forces, and their leaders were convinced to stay within the Federation of Soviet Socialist Republics.
With no written language before the revolution, Bolshevism in Chechnya saw the establishment of an alphabet and a flowering of recorded history, literature and culture. The Muslim nation was allowed to retain its mosques and the freedom of individuals to practice Islam, provided freedom also existed for other religions and atheists.
But as Stalin and his murderous clique climbed onto the back of the revolution and crushed every aspect of workers’ democracy, Great Russian chauvinism reared its ugly head once more. The door was slammed shut on the aspirations of all oppressed nations within the USSR. During Stalin’s horrific purges, representatives of numerous minorities, along with all genuine Bolsheviks and Trotskyists, were murdered or deported to the living death of the prison labour camps or Gulags.
In what can only be described as attempted genocide or ‘ethnic cleansing’, in 1944 three quarters of the Chechen population were physically removed from their homeland. Rounded up from their villages into exile, many ended up as slave labour in the mines of Karaganda, Kazakhstan. It is calculated that half the deported Chechens perished on the journey. Others were slain by Stalin’s firing squads for alleged collaboration with the Nazi enemy, for which no evidence has been established. The man who depended on total obedience for his survival as a dictator could not tolerate the fierce independence of the Chechen warrior clans.
Broken and almost destroyed, in the years after Stalin’s death the Chechen people were eventually allowed to return to their homeland. Gradually, despite systematic repression of their history, language and culture, they regained their strength. Their experience had not broken their will; in fact, a new intensity of national consciousness and cohesion had been created. As the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the demand for independence gathered momentum.
Living and working in Russia then, and at the time of Yeltsin’s brutal ‘first’ Chechen war, I learnt much about this long and bitter struggle of the Chechen people. I went to exhibitions of their art and culture and met Russians, as well as Chechens, who championed the right of Chechnya to independence.
It was then that I was also told, by friends and comrades, about a short story by the great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy. It was inspired by a much earlier Chechen-Russian conflict and an enigmatic leader, Hadji Murat. Graphically and sensitively, Tolstoy portrayed the life and struggle of the Muslim nation, with its complex mores and its leaders’ capacity for great piety and great cruelty. It spoke also, with no holds barred, of the callousness, the banality, the foppery and licentiousness of the Russian court, including Czar Nicolas I himself. It told of the gambling, gluttony and drunkenness of many of the Russian officers and men in the occupying army in the Caucasian region.
Tolstoy had himself served in that army and learned to despise the double standards of his own side. He had undoubtedly understood and felt the great loyalty and respect accorded to the famous and undisputed leader of the Chechen nation, Imam Shamil. As a young man in 1851, when he first heard the story of another Chechen leader, Hadji Murat, being prepared to side with the Russians against Shamil, for reasons of personal revenge, Tolstoy described the affair as ‘a base action’. Though fascinated by the incident and the outcome, the writer put aside the story, re-worked it many times, and finally completed it not long before his death in 1910.
In its finished form, it portrays the Caucasian leader, who became Shamil’s right-hand man, as a warrior with fine principles, great personal courage and integrity. Though Hadji Murat is prepared to treat with the Russians at some length, and is seen as a great prize in their camp, he is eventually prepared to meet his own death or be taken prisoner rather than collaborate with the czar’s forces against Shamil.
Not surprisingly, the book could not be published during Tolstoy’s lifetime. He justifiably feared not only the court censors or the possibility of another banishment from the capital, but imprisonment and possible execution.
Today, intellectuals or socialists who sympathise with the Chechen cause, if not with the methods employed to pursue it, will not face quite such retribution. But it is clear that Putin is adopting more and more of the manners of the Russian despots of old. The poisoning of independent-minded journalists travelling to Beslan to get at the truth, is just a glimpse of the lengths the Russian state will go to prevent expressions of opposition to its policies. (Even a British Embassy official in Moscow was rebuked over statements appearing in the British press from the separatist Akhmed Zakayev.) What would become of a modern-day Tolstoy who trenchantly attacked the dictatorial methods and double standards of the Putin regime and exposed the corruption and treachery at the top of the army and intelligence services?
While today’s self-styled leaders of the Chechen struggle display none of the personal dignity or courage of Tolstoy’s hero, Hadji Murat, its moving and impressive story retains a strong message for the present generation of readers. It does not whitewash the bloody acts of revenge carried out by pious Chechen warriors against their own brothers, let alone against the Russian enemy. Tolstoy allows some of the aristocratic officers of the Russian army, as well as rank-and-file soldiers, to display a certain humanity towards, and even admiration for, the Chechen enemy. But the most violent and tragic scenes in the book are part of Tolstoy’s own crusade against war.
The one part that remained unaltered in the decades that Tolstoy took to finalise it is the opening scene. The author gathers flowers and tries, unsuccessfully, to pluck a majestic thistle to form the centrepiece of his collection. Then walking through a ploughed field he sees no plants left but a badly damaged thistle with flowers which, "Had once been red, but now they were black… It remains standing and does not surrender to man who has destroyed all its brethren around it", he muses. It symbolises the apparently indestructible will of the Chechen fighter.
One of the most impressive paintings in a recent exhibition at London’s National Gallery, Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy, was an 1881 ‘portrait’ of a majestic triple-stemmed thistle in a field of wild flowers above the river Dnieper with an apparently infinite horizon beyond. It conjures up the very beauty, defiance and indestructibility of the plant, known popularly as the ‘Tatar’.
In 1908, four years before Hadji Murat was published, Leon Trotsky wrote of Tolstoy: "In the heat of the vilest and most criminal counter-revolution [following the defeat of the 1905 Russian revolution], this last apostle of Christian all-forgiving, in whom kindles the wrath of Biblical prophets, has flung his pamphlet ‘I cannot keep silent’ as a curse upon the heads of those who serve a hangman…" (the czar), and those who stand by without challenging the state.
Tolstoy’s story, Hadji Murat, is shot through with that same moral indignation, with a final scene that must be one of the most dramatic pieces of writing in European literature. Those who today rage against the injustices of capitalist wars, invasions and occupations would do well to read it. In doing so they will acquire a new historical perspective on the Chechen–Russian conflict and a resolve to struggle for a world federation of independent socialist states as the only way of eradicating once and for all the roots of genocide and war.