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Letter From Chechnya
WHERE `NO SURRENDER' IS IN THE BLOOD
It was a scene straight out of Tolstoy or Turgenev: A wall of bearded men wearing Astrakhan hats surged down a cobblestone street while chanting a Muslim Sufi dirge. Only the rumble of a lone T-72 battle tank and 1,000 commandos in parade dress brought me back to the contemporary setting--the dreary downtown section of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
The date was Feb. 24, 1994--the 50th anniversary of the so-called Day of Chechen Genocide, when Stalin deported the entire population of Chechnya to the wastelands of central Asia. In doing so, he left behind a time bomb that exploded in December, 1994, and now consumes this country of 1.2 million in its desperate fight against the might of Russia. The man to light the fuse was my host, Johar Dudayev, self-styled president of the self-styled republic.
"Come to Chechnya and see how we make the Russians tremble," he said, inviting me to the military parade. Indeed. A year later, the Russian army is gaining the upper hand in Grozny, and Moscow is making plans to install a new Chechen government.
None of which is likely to prevent the Chechens from provoking the Russians again. In October, 1991, Dudayev declared Chechnya free of the Russian Federation. Boris Yeltsin tried to ignore the roaring mouse of the Caucasus for three years--but the tanks, rocket-launchers and marching troops on display on Genocide Day were too much to swallow. From then on, a Russian crackdown seemed inevitable. Still, there was a nagging question about the Chechen armed forces: Where was that weaponry coming from? Today, some in Moscow say the Chechen arsenal was supplied by officials in the highest echelons of the Russian defense Establishment.
Now, selling off chunks of the former military machine for short-term profit was and is common enough in Russia. But the Chechens were uncommon customers. Descendants of the Murids--or Islamic resistance fighters--who held the czars' armies at bay for 50 years in the mid-19th century, the Chechen strategy then and now might be summed up as "no surrender ever."
The Chechen devotion to the cause of freedom was fixed by the leader of the Murid movement, Sheikh Shamyl. It was the winter of 1843, and things were going so badly for the federation of mountain tribes that the Chechens sent envoys to Shamyl to ask permission to surrender for peace.
The delegation found a receptive ear in the person of the Sheikh's mother, who went to her son to plead for peace. Shamyl listened, then rose to his feet and threw his mother to the ground. "The first to plead for mercy shall be publicly flogged with 100 lashes," he cried. After the first five blows, however, Shamyl could stand it no more. The penalty, he announced, might be assumed by a relative--in his mother's case, himself. Stripping to his waist, he ordered his personal guard to apply the remaining 95 blows. Then, he addressed the Chechens: "Go home. Return to your burnt houses and parched fields and fight the infidel until no more blood courses through your veins."
CRIMINAL NEST? A century later came Stalin and World War II. On the night of Feb. 24, 1944, the Soviet security apparatus descended on Chechnya and deported the entire population to the wasteland of central Asia. Of the 800,000 Chechens sent, nearly half died trying to make the journey. "Rehabilitated" by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957, the survivors made their way home filled with a burning desire for vengeance.
Over the years, the Chechens have acted out in unconventional ways. One is involvement in "mafia" operations in the former Soviet Union. If you believe
the Moscow press, the Chechens run everything from prostitution and narcotics rings to "dial-a-murder" services.
According to Moscow, the 60 identifiable Chechen gangs based in Grozny include over 1,000 felons on the run. In addition to forging $3 billion worth of counterfeit rubles and diverting millions in oil products from pipelines and refineries in the region, the Chechen hoods are alleged to have been responsible for 559 train robberies in 1993 and 450 more in the first six months of 1994.
LUXURY VILLAS. Such tales enrage most Chechens, who say they are being set up to provide a rationale for the Russian invasion. But there is little doubt that, at least in part, the Chechen reputation for unorthodox business activities is deserved.
Until Russian shells began to fall on Grozny, the rows of dreary "Khrushchev-style" apartment blocks had begun to give way to luxury villas built with what the locals call "air money"--funds that seem to come from nowhere.
The owner of the largest car dealership in the Caucasus was a Chechen who supplied Mercedes sedans to both Azerbaijani and Armenian mobsters. Discounts were available on cars with bullet holes, and for an extra $500, the cars could be erased from the Interpol stolen-vehicle computer, the owner boasted.
A smoke-and-mirror economy in a noncountry recognized by no one, an army from nowhere--what did it all mean? "You Western correspondents are idiots," said Eduard Katchoukaev, holder of the unlikely title of Chechen chief of foreign investment. "You use words like `democracy,' `pro-Western,' `hard-line,' and even `criminal' which have no meaning here. Explaining Chechnya to you is like asking me to explain the concept `television' to my great-great-grandfather. I describe a television, but what he understands is this: It is a box, in front of which is a mirror that reflects a kaleidoscope of colorful pictures. That is how you all understand the political process happening in the lands of the former Soviet Union."BY THOMAS GOLTZ