As the might of Russia's 'Great Power' nationalism faces Chechen determination,
Olivia Ward explains how centuries of bloodshed have led to an impossible deadlock.
He was standing in front of a wall of flame, defiantly silent as bombs incinerated the centre of Grozny. A machine-gun in his hands, a large Chechen dagger strapped to his arm. Across his forehead the green headband of the smertniki, warriors who would fight to the death for Allah and their country.
Ruslan was 13 years old when he ran away from home to battle against the Russians who had invaded the separatist Chechen republic in December 1994. He had no plans for the future, only for the next skirmish.
'We have a small country so everyone must fight,' he said in a husky, unbroken voice. 'If they kill us, it's better than living as victims.'
A month later Ruslan died, leading a grenade attack on a Russian tank. But for his enemies he and others like him remain a symbol of menace, the incarnation of a fierce unquenchable nationalism that centuries of Russian repression could not erase.
While Chechen guerrillas resisted Russia's attempts to force them back into its fold, inside the huge Russian Federation another kind of nationalism was swelling. Its rallying cry was the glory of the old empire, the pride of a fallen superpower struggling to be reborn. It appealed not to people under siege from tanks and bombs, but to those reeling from the chaos that overtook them when seven decades of cradle-to-grave socialism gave way to survival of the fittest.
This harking back is not new in Russian history, where for centuries 'times of trouble' have bred chauvinism and xenophobia. Today as in the past nationalism appeals to the person on the street, and even more so to the one in the gutter. 'I talk to people on their own level,' says Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the bellowing ultra-nationalist whose ideas range from dizzy to dangerous. 'I don't use long words and theories. I tell them what they want to hear.'
The average muzhik - a Russian bumpkin - finds soothing words in Zhirinovsky's speeches and those of other extremists. To disenfranchised people like retired bus driver Dima Yushekov, living alone in his peeling Moscow tenement, personal status or self-esteem are abstract concepts. He can take pride only in his country's glory. When Yushekov hears a politician delivering a message which identifies him with Russia's shattered splendour is music to his ears.
It's not surprising that the phrase most often on confused people's lips is 'law and order'. Nationalists, politicians and even those who claim to be democrats, find it convenient to blame Russia's ethnic minorities, especially Caucasians, for the escalating lawlessness that has accompanied the arrival of the market economy.
In Moscow and other big cities, raids on Caucasian- and Central Asian-run markets were popular with shoppers at election time. Seeing vendors beaten and arrested on charges of price-boosting reassured them that in an out-of-control world, something could be done to defend their interests. Better still, by wiping out 'foreign' influences, the myths of a pure Russia could be restored.
The reborn Communist Party's promise that Russia would once again sit at the head of a restored Soviet Union attracted more supporters in last December's parliamentary elections than those of neofascists interested only in the bashing of non-Russian heads. The most popular extremist party, headed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, lost a dozen seats in the State Duma, while avowed neo Nazis all but disappeared.
'Great Power' nationalism never really died in Russia in spite of the fall of the Soviet Union. Like the Communists, it was always waiting in the wings for a new day. The struggle that followed Chechnya's 1991 declaration of independence fanned its flames, not because the majority of Russians supported the new military adventure in the Caucasus, but because politicians so adeptly played on Russia's insecurity and shaky sense of identity to warn that the giant multi-national federation could crumble.
Chechnya had developed its own patriotism over centuries of rugged and spartan life in the mountainous republic. With a land mass smaller than Northern Ireland, its population at its height reached only one million - less than one per cent of Russia's 148 million. Cut off from the expansionist north by the spiky Caucasus Mountains, the Chechens were able to form a tightly knit tribal society whose religion combined paganism, the Arab-based traditions of Islam and a militaristic code of self-defence. A martial as well as agricultural society, their tribal blood feuds sometimes lasted one hundred years.
Ironically, it was Russia that united the scrapping society by providing common cause against the enemy. In the seventeenth century the first Russians to brave the mountain barrier were pioneering Cossacks looking for new land. But soon the Tsars took up the cry, expecting an easy conquest, to prepare a corridor to the riches of south and central Asia.
They were to be disappointed. By the early 1820s the struggle had become bloody as well as bitter. Imam Shamil, a legendary Muslim warrior and religious leader, attracted fierce loyalty and instilled a new variety of military Islam, muridism, which was to become part of Chechnya's identity. Spurred on by his followers, the imposing Shamil declared a ghazevat, or holy war, to defend his Caucasian brand of democracy, which held that that all believers were equal under Allah.
Today in the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala, a museum pays tribute to his 30-year struggle, featuring portraits of the mountain fighters beheading and disembowelling hapless Russian troops.
It is a warning Russia was to ignore at the end of the twentieth century. Ruslan, packing his pockets with grenades, is an incarnation of the Munid warriors who willingly died for their land and beliefs.
After Shamil was taken prisoner, revolts continued for decades, infuriating Russian royalists and Bolsheviks alike. In February 1944, Stalin ordered the entire population of Chechnya, along with their Caucasian neighbours, to be rounded up and deported in a genocidal gesture that killed half of the displaced people. It was not until Stalin died in 1953 that the survivors returned to their homeland - still defiant and without official permission.
'There's nobody in my generation who wasn't born in exile,' says Opti, an engineer in his late forties. That's made us tougher and more determined because we'll never let it happen again.'
The war in Chechnya this time began after President Dzhokar Dudayev, a flamboyant Soviet bomber pilot, slipped off Moscow's leash and declared independence. He chose his moment well. In 1991, Russia was dizzy with its own kind of freedom following the end of communism. In a speech he would later regret, Boris Yeltsin told the Russian regions to 'take all the independence you can swallow'.
Yeltsin soon decided Dudayev had gone too far. But it was not until 1994 that simmering tensions came to the boil. For Dudayev, independence was a calculated risk that had paid off in profitable but illegal businesses. Russia imposed economic sanctions that hurt poorer Chechens but were only a joke to the profiteers, as Dudayev formed lucrative trade links with near-eastern countries and former Soviet Republics eager to use this new transit point for the shipment of arms and drugs.
How do we do business without a banking system?' chuckled a former financial official on the eve of war. 'Easy. We carry bags of cash.'
As the war progressed, many separatists loyal to Dudayev gravitated to his field commanders and a minority of exhausted civilians opted for politicians who had been ousted by the Chechen leader. The splits were aggravated by a Moscow-imposed leadership election last December. Although journalists reported that few people turned out to vote, Russia declared its single candidate, Doku Zavgayev, the new legitimate President, officially deposing Dudayev.
Holed up in mountain hideaways, the resilient Dudayev remains a figurehead for separatists whose defiance of Moscow increased after the election. For them, independence is the only acceptable solution to the long and bloody conflict. Most say they are confident that Chechnya can and must go it alone, but after living as regional pariahs for three years, even they are cautious about claiming total economic independence.
The coolest heads among the separatists visualize an economic union with Russia, but on a partnership basis, not as a colonial subject. 'We can't pretend we are an island in the middle of nowhere, and we can't do business without partners,' said a former economics ministry official.
Some form of business accord is more vital than ever, both for Chechnya and Russia.
Russian estimates say that re-starting Chechnya's oil refineries and putting the pipeline into use would bring in a billion dollars a year - a sum that could gradually put the battered territory back on its feet even if the proceeds had to be shared with Moscow.
For the average person in Chechnya, it would mean little unless there was a government with the will to pay wages and rebuild the country's bomb-blasted housing, health-care and welfare systems.
And unless Russia finds a way to retreat from the ideas of empire that have scattered the bones of its soldiers over the Caucasian fields throughout the centuries, it would mean nothing at all.
In a small grave outside his desolate home village lies Ruslan's body. His family visit the grave, but they do not weep. 'When your heart and everything inside you is burning like fire, you don't pour water on it,' says another villager who lost her father and brother in the war. 'You quench the fire with the blood of your enemy.'
Olivia Ward is bureau chief of the Toronto Star in Moscow.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996