Where’s Chechnya?—And a Brief Look at Its Bloody History

May 19, 2014 by


As the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings—Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, killed by police, and his brother Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19—have been identified as immigrants of Chechen origin, it’s worth taking a look at their homeland, Chechnya, and its bloody history. It should be remembered, however, that the two suspects lived most of their lives outside of Chechnya, in Kyrgyzstan, Dagestan, and later in the U.S.






Chechnya is an internal Russian republic located in the mountainous Caucasus region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. It holds a strategic geographic position linking the rest of Russia by pipeline and rail to the rich Caspian Sea oilfields. While most ethnic Chechens live in Chechnya, smaller communities also reside in the neighboring Russian republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and in Central Asia as well (for reasons to which we return below). The Chechen language belongs to the Nakh grouping in the Northeast Caucasian language family; other languages in this family are spoken in Ingushetia to the west and Dagestan to the east. The map on the left is a fragment of the GeoCurrents linguistic map of the Caucasus.* Most Chechens are Sunni Muslims.

Caucasus_USSR Chechnya’s struggle against the Russians goes back to pre-Soviet times, in fact to the late 1700s. Between 1824 and 1859, Chechens fought a protracted war that ultimately resulted in Russian victory and the incorporation of Chechnya into the Russian Empire. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Chechnya became part of the Soviet Union. Together with neighboring Ingushetia, it constituted the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. Stalin’s policies provoked a new uprising in the 1930s, which was harshly put down as thousands of Chechens were executed or imprisoned.



During World War II, some Chechen separatists saw an opportunity to escape Russian domination by siding with the fast-approaching Nazis, who pushed into the North Caucasus in November 1942, attracted by the rich oil fields near Baku (see map on the left). Under that slight pretext, Stalin ordered virtually the entire Chechen population to be herded up and shipped by train to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Siberia on February 23, 1944. Up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process, according to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark. Houses of the exiled Chechens were offered to refugees from the war-ravaged western regions of USSR. But Stalin sought not only to move the Chechens away from the area of potential German conquest, but to destroy their ethnic identity. Chechen gravestones and cultural monuments were demolished; whole villages were deleted from maps and encyclopedias. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, those Chechens who had not perished during their harsh 13-year exile were “rehabilitated” and permitted to return back to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights. They have also continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial, and have endured years of discriminatory public discourse.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, sovereignty passed on to the USSR’s fifteen union republics. KGB veteran Nikolai Leonov once remarked that “the Soviet Union was like a chocolate bar, already marked with lines that made it easy to break apart”. Most of those fifteen pieces of the chocolate bar themselves had internal divisions based on ethnicity, but ethnic groups without their own union republic found that the breaking apart stopped short of independence for them. As HNN’s David R. Stone said,

“The end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Already in 1991, the Chechen Assembly, dominated by local nationalists who resented rule from Moscow, adopted a resolution of sovereignty and elected Dzhokhar Dudaev president (was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev named after him, I wonder?). In one of his first acts, Dudayev declared the independence of the “Chechen Republic of Ichkeria”. But Chechen autonomy and the breakdown of law and order that accompanied it were more than Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government were willing to accept. Russian authorities feared that Russia itself could break up if any of its own internal republics gained independence. In response, Russia thus imposed an economic blockade and attempted to de-stabilize the Dudayev regime—already weakened by the infighting of local clans—by supporting armed rebels. While Dudayev tried to consolidate Chechnya, it continued to languish in discord and dissention until 1994, when Russia proposed autonomy agreements with the breakaway republics of Chechnya and Tatarstan. Russia was willing to allow enhanced self-rule in these areas, but not outright independence. Tatarstan’s government agreed to the new terms, but Dudayev maintained his claim of independence. In December 1994, Yeltsin ordered Russian troops to invade Chechnya.

In the ensuing First Chechen War, the Russian air force and artillery hammered Chechen cities, particularly the capital of Grozny, which is now considered “the most destroyed city in the world”. Hundreds of thousands of Chechen refugees were driven out of Chechnya and into other parts of the Caucasus, particularly Ingushetia and Dagestan (where the younger of the Boston bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, attended school). Others went further afield, to the United States, Europe, or Central Asia, where Chechen communities remained since the exile ordered by Stalin. In the meantime, rebel forces in Chechnya retreated to the mountains, resorting to guerrilla warfare and terrorist attacks. Using tactics similar to those developed by the mujahideen in Afghanistan, rebels wore down the Russian troops; alcohol, drugs, and terror also took a heavy toll on the Russian military enterprise. Russian forces responded by fighting not only the armed rebels but also by inflicting destruction and rape on the peaceful Chechen population. As Russian casualties mounted, public opinion turned against the war. Russia agreed to a ceasefire in 1995, but since the political issues underlying the conflict were not resolved, violence soon resumed. After Dudayev was killed by two laser-guided missiles fired by a Russian aircraft, a new ceasefire agreement was brokered in 1996, calling for withdrawal of Russian forces and a political resolution in 2001.


In the wake of the 1996 settlement that gave Chechnya de facto autonomy, the Chechen leadership, faced with a difficult task of reconstruction, began to split. Relative moderates became increasingly at odds with radicals, inspired by the Wahhabi branch of Islam and eager to spread their struggle beyond Chechnya. On the more moderate side, Aslan Maskhadov, elected President of Chechnya in 1997, tried to find some form of working relationship with Moscow but his efforts were undermined by more violent elements. As Chechnya descended into unbridled lawlessness, the Saudi militant known as Khattab and the Chechen fighter Shamil Basayev took control of large portions of Chechnya and engineered an invasion of neighboring Dagestan in August 1999. The goal of Chechen independence was gradually replaced by hopes of spreading radical Islam through the rest of the North Caucasus and establishing an Islamic state in the region (see map on the left). Combined with a series of notorious bombings of several apartment buildings that were immediately blamed on Chechen rebels but that remained unexplained to this day, the Dagestan invasion gave Yeltsin and his newly-appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin the grounds they needed to launch another invasion of Chechnya in October 1999.

Initially, the Second Chechen War went better for Moscow than did the First Chechen War. Russia launched massive and indiscriminate air strikes, forcing as many as 400,000 Chechens to flee. However, Moscow quickly became trapped again in an Afghan-style quagmire, while international condemnation mounted. Chechen president Maskhadov made several abortive attempts to cut a deal with the Russians, but found himself dismissed by Moscow and increasingly ignored by his own compatriots. He fled Grozny in 1999, as violence continued to escalate on both sides (eventually, Maskhadov was killed by Russian special forces in March 2005). He was replaced by a Chechen cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. After prolonged and bitter resistance, the Russians finally recaptured Grozny in early 2000, though the insurgency phase continued throughout the 2000s.


In June 2001, Vladimir Putin, now Russia’s President, installed a new puppet Chechen administration led by Akhmed Kadyrov. This choice pleased neither the separatists nor the Russian loyalists. After the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the U.S., Putin eagerly joined President Bush in his war on terror, characterizing the Chechen separatists as Islamist terrorists and vowing to track them down. However, the Chechen terrorist campaign soon reappeared on Moscow’s doorstep. In October 2002, Chechen terrorists seized a Moscow theater during a performance of the Nord-Ost musical (in Russia, this terrorist attack became known after the title of the musical). In the theater building, 800 spectators were taken hostages. After a prolonged stand-off, Russian Special Forces stormed the theater, killing all 41 terrorists as well as 129 hostages in the rescue attempt. Two years later, the Chechen militant Shamil Basayev engineered an even more horrific terrorist attack in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia, the only majority Christian internal Russian republic in the North Caucasus. On September 1, the traditional first day of school in Russia, a group of terrorists captured a school full of children. Hundreds of hostages were packed into the gym, where wired explosives were attached to the basketball hoop. After another tense stand-off with Russian Special Forces, the school was stormed by the troops, resulting in a massacre of over 385 people, most of them children. Nearly a thousand others were wounded.

These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence. As a result, Russia soon found Chechen forces willing to accept Russian supremacy in return for local autonomy. After serving as chief administrator of Chechnya on Putin’s behalf, Akhmad Kadyrov became Chechen president in October 2003. He was assassinated the next year, but his son Ramzan Kadyrov advanced to the presidency of Chechnya in February 2007. The younger Kadyrov has continued his father’s policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow and of smashing any resistance to his own control with brutal efficiency. He has become much more than the president of a semi-autonomous, war-torn republic. Nor is he a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. More apt is Yulia Latynina’s description: “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”. Ramzan Kadyrov is by far the most powerful man not only in Chechnya, but possibly in all of North Caucasus. His word has proven to be decisive in several business disputes involving Russian oligarchs. The only organization still fighting in opposition to Ramzan Kadyrov is the Caucasus Emirate, officially announced by its first and only Emir, Dokka Umarov, in October 2007.** Both Russia and the U.S. consider the Caucasus Emirate, which is fueled by Salafist jihadist ideology, to be a terrorist organization, rather than a would-be state.

The result of the two Chechen wars has been the death of the old Chechen nationalism and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use the Chechens as the much-needed enemy figure. The situation in Chechnya is further complicated by the criminal gangs that emerged from the death and destruction that has ravaged the region. These criminal elements engage in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs. Caught between intractable enemies, Chechen civilians have paid the greatest costs in this decades-old conflict, suffering severe human rights abuses from all sides. Many have been forced to flee their homes for relative safety, watching their country being destroyed.

In the meantime, the remnants of the Chechen resistance movement—both in Chechnya proper and among refugee communities in Dagestan—have become increasingly radicalized. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war turned it in a fundamentalist direction. According to David R. Stone, “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity matters less, and religious identity matters more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were pushed in the direction of radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight, jihad, against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buriat who has become an Islamist militant leader,***

“Gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia. The most recent attack was the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people.

One of the issues that the American authorities will have to grapple with as they prosecute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is whether he is to be considered an enemy combatant, trained and dispatched by a foreign power at war with the U.S. But what can that foreign power be? Ramzan Kadyrov’s government does not pursue the Chechen independence cause or a wider Muslim jihad. In contrast, Dokka Umarov of the Caucasus Emirate does not represent any sovereign power. Moreover, both Kadyrov and Umarov vocally disavowed the Tsarnaev brothers.




*Genetically, Chechens are fairly uniform: the mostly commonly found Y-DNA haplogroup is J2a4b, which is found predominantly among the Chechens. Much less frequent among the Chechen men are haplogroups J1 (frequent among Dagestani men) and G2a1 (common among Ingush men); see the linguo-genetic map from Oleg Balanovsky’s dissertation on the left.

**Umarov, sometimes described as the “Russian Osama bin Laden,” was the President of the unrecognized break-away Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from 2006 to 2007.

***Most Buriats are Tibetan Buddhist. As a young teenager, Said Buryatsky (born Alexander Tikhomirov) studied at a Buddhist monastery. Because of the influence of his Chechen stepfather, he converted to Islam at the age of 15, studied in Egypt and Kuwait, and joined the Caucasus Emirate. He was killed in March 2010 during a counterterrorist operation in Ingushetia.

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