Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Chechnya: An Open Wound

Two recent books that throw light on what has happened in Chechnya, at Transitions Online.

31 July 2004
Chechnya: An Open Wound
Two recent books show why Stalin's deportations remain an open wound for the Chechens, one through the dry brutality of new archival findings, the other through a tale of human suffering.
By Brian Glyn Williams

Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migration in the USSR, by Pavel Polian. Central European University Press, 2003. Hardcover and paperback, 444 pages.

The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, by Khassan Baiev. Walker Books, 2003.Hardcover, 400 pages.

While the collapse of communism in the Balkans and Soviet Eurasia brought many positive concepts into the world's lexicon, such as "glasnost" and "Velvet Revolution," the seismic consequences of those events also introduced a darker term into the world's vocabulary, "ethnic cleansing." The Western press mainstreamed this term to describe such post-communist hellholes as Bosnia and Kosovo--but those in the field of Sovietology know that the concept actually has older roots in the region.

In the late 1930s and 1940s the Soviet Union institutionalized ethnic cleansing on such a massive scale that the USSR ranks among the world's worst perpetrators of this crime against humanity. While the war crimes of the Nazis and Serbs have been widely exposed, it is a testimony to the total power of the Soviet organs of oppression and secrecy that the Soviets' successful cleansing of whole nations was by contrast kept largely secret both at home and abroad.


The shroud of secrecy surrounding the deportation of millions of Soviet citizens belonging to targeted ethnic groups was lifted, to a degree, by the publication of two trailblazing books on the topic in the 1960s: Alexander Nekrich's The Punished Peoples and Robert Conquest's The Nation Killers. But these works were, perforce, based on anecdotal evidence smuggled out of the USSR.

Now, following the same trail, comes Pavel Polian's Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migration in the USSR, an ambitious study that, largely using declassified NKVD sources made available since 1989, provides a systematic analysis of the cleansing of a wide variety of ethnic groups whose existence was hardly recognized by the outside world. While Polian's work provides an essential outline for those studying ethnic oppression in the USSR, it also has wider applications for scholars in a variety of fields from those engaged in comparative genocide studies to those focusing on nationalities policies in Soviet (and post-Soviet) Eurasia.

A scholar at the Russian Academy of Sciences widely known for his studies of deportations and ethnic cleansing in the USSR, Polian is the author of 300 articles and a number of books. The Russian original of Against Their Will appeared in 2001.

In essence, Polian's well-documented new study offers the most comprehensive chronology to date of the Kremlin's brutal cleansing (Stalin actually used the Russian term ochistit, "to cleanse," in his orders to Lavrenti Beria, head of the NKVD security police) of a wide variety of peoples ranging from the Far Eastern Koreans (who were deported in anticipation of war with Japan) to Finns and Poles deported from territories annexed by the USSR in the initial days of World War II.


A theme that emerges from Polian's study is the arbitrary nature of the targeting of peoples inhabiting the USSR's borderlands for "removal" in order to fulfill Soviet foreign policy exigencies. In particular, Polian demonstrates that Stalin sought pre-emptively to remove distrusted non-Slavic ethnic groups from near the borders of countries that he intended to invade. Stalin and Beria, for example, ordered the expulsion of distrusted Muslim minorities inhabiting the USSR's southern flank--in its main naval bastion facing Turkey on the Black Sea, the Crimea, and along the Georgian Military Highway through the Caucasus--in anticipation of an offensive struggle with Turkey in 1943 and 1944. Although Stalin never invaded Turkey, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Crimean Tatars, Karachais, Balkars, Chechens, Ingush, and Meskhetian Turks were nonetheless deported on the spurious charge that they had engaged in collective "betrayal of the Soviet homeland" to the Nazi invaders. Polian's work clearly demonstrates that, for the most part, Orthodox Slavs
did not, by contrast, experience deportation even though Russians and Ukrainians collaborated with the Germans to a greater extent than any of the deported nations (the homelands of the deported Chechens and Meskhetian Turks, for example, were never conquered by the Nazis, thus preventing any mass collaboration of the sort manifested by Russians and Ukrainians). This fact might lend credence to a claim made by many deportation survivors I interviewed in the Crimea and Uzbekistan, that Soviet policies of deportatsiia were driven more by latent racism and prejudice toward Muslims--which was endemic among the Slavophile Soviet elite--than by a
considered state-sponsored security policy.

In this regard the deportation of ethnic groups in the USSR may actually have had more in common with the ethnic cleansings carried out much more recently in the Balkans than has been argued. As Russophone Georgians, Stalin and Beria seem to have evinced a deep-seated distrust of their Muslim neighbors from the Caucasus, and this probably played a greater role in the deportations than Polian recognizes.


This neglect to consider the human motivations of his actors is the only major flaw in Polian's work. The human element is all too often lost in his dry recounting of the "spoilage rate" in the deportation trains, in the litany of NKVD deportation decrees, in the numbing recitation of mortality statistics in the places of exile, and in the useful (but perforce cold) geographic "displacement" information collated by the author. While Polian's meticulous study will be an important resource for those who seek to quantify and trace Stalin's policies of ethnic-based oppression,
anthropologists, political scientists, ethnographers, and others concerned with the effect these deportations had on the targeted peoples on the human level will find Polian's work lacking in this important ingredient.

Sleptovsk, Ingushetia, June 2000: A woman wounded during a house search.

The human element is foremost in Khassan Baiev's The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire. This powerful book offers a case study of the Kremlin's past and present efforts to crush the most stubborn of all nations in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation, the Chechens. Baiev's work is a truly epic tale of his efforts to run a hospital in a Chechen village during the two Russo-Chechen wars that have dragged on throughout the last decade but for a respite between 1996 and 1999. By telling the background story of his upbringing as a distrusted Chechen in the USSR and his subsequent efforts to run a village hospital during the Chechen conflicts, Baiev brings his people's story to life.

In so doing, Baiev's work succeeds in humanizing a nation that has been variously depicted as "untamable savages" by the Romanov Tsars and "Nazi traitors," "anti-Soviet elements," and "mafia ethno-thugs" by more recent rulers. Baiev's richly descriptive prose illuminates the traditions of the Chechen mountaineers as a backdrop to his own personal narrative, as he lovingly describes the rhythms of Chechen life, from his people's respect for their elders to the Sufi folk Islam of the mountains. In the process, Baiev weaves in the stories of "The Deportation" as a background to understanding his people and their historically contentious relations with Russia.

Baiev recounts being taken to his ancestral mountain village by his father to hear ritualized stories of those who were killed during the Soviet expulsion of the Chechens. And it soon becomes apparent from Baiev's account that, far from being a bygone event, the memory of the Chechens' deportation in February 1944 is very much alive today in the hearts and minds of this people. Villagers whose deaths were recorded as statistics in the sanitized NKVD accounts utilized by Polian are still mourned by the Chechens as beloved aunts, uncles, grandparents, or parents who died at the hands of "the Russians."


Most importantly, the vivid picture Baiev paints of the Chechens' generational transfer of their sense of victimization to those who did not actually experience the 1944-1956 deportation and exile helps to explain the real roots of the ongoing conflict between the Chechens and Russia. In this respect Baiev's firsthand account offers an invaluable eyewitness counterpoint to Kremlin reports on the Chechens that once again seek to vilify this people by portraying them, on this occasion, as an "Al Qaeda terrorist nation." While the memory of the deportation continues to be a
powerful source of discord between Chechens and Russians, the Russian Federation's clumsy efforts to destroy Chechen secessionists (and genuine terrorists) through a policy of state-sponsored terrorism may have superseded the horrors of the deportation in the collective consciousness of the Chechens.

Baiev graphically describes the course of the last decade's two wars from the perspective of a doctor who ministered to hundreds of Russian soldiers and Chechens wounded in this forgotten heart of darkness. Over and again he relays stories of Chechens whose limbs are blown off, loved ones slain, and lives terrorized by those who seek to dehumanize them. And as one follows the author's struggle to keep his hospital up and running during wartime, one ingredient emerges from his tale that has been all too often lacking in media reports on the Russo-Chechen conflict--the human face of his people.

Brian Glyn Williams is an assistant professor of Islamic history at the
University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. He is the author of The Crimean
Tatars: The Diaspora Experience and the Forging of a Nation.

Photographs by Stanley Greene. These photographs are reproduced from his
book Open Wound: Chechnya 1994 to 2003 with the kind permission of the
publisher, Trolley.

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