Russia and Caucasus: The Role for Historical and Cultural Discussion in Easing Conflict

March 08, 2004 // 11:00am12:00pm

At a recent Kennan Institute talk, Yakov Gordin, the Chief Editor of the journal Zvezda (St. Petersburg) and a Regional Fellow at the Davis Center of Harvard University, spoke about the situation in Chechnya as a "multi-faceted tragedy." A historian by training, Gordin argued that the methods adopted by the Russian Federation in the region have been ineffective, and that policymakers must first understand the territory's historical experience to find a way out of the current crisis.

Gordin drew parallels between the current conflict and the Russian imperial state's campaigns in the Caucasus in the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. He suggested that the Russian Federation is repeating the mistakes made by imperial officials: rather than asking what the situation was on the ground and determining how to deal with it, they saw the Caucasus as a "proving ground" for various administrative schemes and models.

Gordin explained that the "unification model" chosen by the Russian authorities is psychologically unacceptable to much of the population of the Caucasus. It does not reflect the long and ancient traditions that most Chechens view as the only foundation for peace in the region. Society in the Caucasus is highly diverse, with different groups holding different value systems. The speaker suggested that solutions to conflict in the region, indeed, require an "organic" approach that takes into consideration these different value systems and originates within Chechnya itself. The most appropriate role for the Russian federal authorities, according to Gordin, is to review proposed options—some of which may be termed "unorthodox"—and find the best compromise within the framework of European law and the context of the local situation.

One such "unorthodox" option outlined by the speaker was that put forth by a former Chechen politician who claims that Chechen mentality denies the state as an overarching political authority. He calls upon the Chechen elders to enforce a ceasefire, after which individual Chechens could choose whether they want to be part of the Russian state or not. Those who choose not to be part of the state would live in designated areas and live by Muslim law. Anyone breaking the ceasefire once that choice has been made would be deemed an outlaw by the elders. Although Gordin does not fully endorse the Duhaev plan, he emphasized its importance as a locally originated idea that takes into account the cultural background of the population and the history of the conflict.

Gordin concluded that Russians do not have a clear understanding of the roots of the conflict and therefore cannot develop a nuanced plan for the contemporary crisis. Gordin and his colleagues in St. Petersburg have therefore begun a public awareness campaign that will help teachers, military officers, and policymakers understand the legacy of the past in Chechnya. They hope that this will help Russian society work towards peace in new ways, utilizing models that may have greater appeal to the diverse groups living in the region.

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