I met Caucasus expert Thomas Goltz in Tbilisi during Russia's invasion of Georgia. He and I took a nail-biting taxi ride behind Russian lines before furious soldiers at the third checkpoint on the road to Gori turned us back. I wrote about this in my book, Where the West Ends, and will never forget our encounter with terrifying Chechen irregulars on our way back to the capital.
Goltz is back now with a primer on Chechnya for Americans in the wake of the Boston bombing. He's the man to write it. He's the only American author I know who actually lived in Chechnya during the conflict with Russia. He knows the place better than just about anyone who isn't from there.
To start with what is not obvious to many Americans, the Chechens are not Russians but a distinct national and lingual group indigenous to the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, where they have lived since before recorded history. Rather like Native American peoples known by names given them by the white man and whose sad history in the 18th and 19th centuries is a strange and cruel mirror of the experience of the Chechens at the hands of Russian imperialism, the very name "Chechen" is not what the Chechens call themselves. They are the "Noxchi," which translates more or less as "The People."
During the so-called on-again-off-again Murid wars of the 19th century, the Chechens were the backbone of Muslim tribal resistance to the Czarist expansion south, and earned the reputation of being fanatical, fearless Sufism-inspired warriors. After the resistance collapsed with the capture of Imam Shamil (an event somewhat akin to the surrender of Souix/Lakota Chief Sitting Bull), many of those fearless warriors brought their skills into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where they were stationed in problematic border areas, such as the Balkans and the Arab lands of the Levant, where they became known under the generic name of "Circassians," a term that also includes other related North Caucasus mountaineers such as the Ingush, Abkhaz and Adagei who were also driven into Ottoman exile by the czars.
To this day, the palace guard of the king of Jordan are all Circassians; in Syria, they are (or were) concentrated in the Golan heights, but are now attempting a reverse migration to their ancestral lands in Russia, even while undetermined numbers of their "cousins" from Chechnya-in-Russia take up arms along side Jihadists against the secular regime of Bashar al Assad in Damascus.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Chechens (like many of the 150-odd new "nations" in the USSR, many manufactured from whole cloth) maintained a low-boil resistance to Soviet rule and collectivization. But it was also thanks to Joseph Stalin and his commissars that a Chechnya was first defined as an "Autonomous Republic," a territorial entity replete with borders, a Soviet-style official "culture" and other attributes of (Soviet-style) national "statehood."
Many other marginal peoples in the USSR did not fare so well, and were thus absorbed into larger non-Slavic nutshells whenever Stalin sneezed.
For the Chechens, that sneeze came on February 23-24 1944, when Stalin and his fellow Georgian henchman Lavrentii Beria accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazi Wehrmacht, dissolved their Autonomous Republic and sent the new non-people sent into exile in Siberia and Soviet Central Asia. Transportation was provided aboard boxcars chillingly similar to those that brought European Jews to Hitler's death camps.
In the case of the Chechens, an estimated half of the 478,479 people sent into exile died in route.