Events

The War on Terror and Flight from History: Russian-Chechen Relations

April 28, 2003 // 12:00pm1:00pm

In a recent presentation at the Woodrow Wilson Center, Austin Jersild noted that Russians today often attempt to recast their historic relationship with Islamic frontier regions as part of the contemporary problem of terrorism. Indeed, Jersild emphasized, there have been important Saudi figures fighting alongside Shamil Basaev, the Chechen rebel commander. Khattab, or Samer ben Saleh ben Abdallah al-Sweleim, killed in the spring of 2002, was a veteran of the American-sponsored struggle in Afghanistan, and he has now been replaced by another Saudi, Abu al-Walid. But Shamil Basaev's very name "should remind us of indigenous mountain opposition to Russian colonial and ‘infidel' rule," suggested Jersild.

Jersild contended that the defeat and capture of the nineteenth-century Imam Shamil in 1859 "allowed the military to turn to the Northwest Caucasus with a vengeance, which meant the destruction of numerous Adygei tribes." Military documents from the time of the Caucasus War, Jersild said, "often referred to the importance of what they called ‘cleansing work,' that is, hunting down the mountain people and killing them, or sending them on shoddy vessels across the Black Sea to Ottoman Turkey." The history of conquest and exile continued in the twentieth-century, with the deportation of the Chechens and other Islamic North Caucasus peoples in 1943-44 reminding scholars of the events of 1861-1864. In historical discussion and popular culture and music Chechens throughout the wars of the 1990s have cultivated and fostered the memory of these events. Russian depictions of all Chechens as "terrorists," by contrast, draws on a long history of imperial representation of the mountain peoples.

Jersild reported that the story of the imperial expansion, however, was about more than conquest. The empire was not the russkaia imperiia but the rossiisskaia imperiia, "the empire of the collection of peoples subject to the Tsar." Jersild explained that in terms of historical and political relations with Russia, Georgians were "the crucial accommodated people" in the Caucasus. Georgia has a long history of working with Russia, the predominant power and empire, to maintain its own fragile culture and identity. Tbilisi grew in the nineteenth century as an administrative and military center for the waging of the war against the Chechens and other mountain peoples. Mountain peoples remained distant and different from the culture and practices of the empire, far less incorporated than other non-Russian communities in the Middle Volga or the Transcaucasus. Russia was determined to illustrate its European identity through the process of imperial expansion, and Georgians emphasized to Russians their useful role as a westernizing culture in a region surrounded by Islamic states and cultures, and "savagery" in the mountains.

Jersild concluded by reminding the audience that there is a long history to Russian-Chechen relations that Russians are determined to forget. However, "this is Russia's war, and we have to be sure not to make it our own."

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