Dave Crouch is a journalist who lived in Russia during the 1990s. He reports on the bloody history of Russia’s war
THROUGH A history of sustained violence against Chechnya, Russia sowed the seeds of the Beslan tragedy.
For decades it watered those seeds with Chechen blood and Chechen tears. Now it is reaping a harvest of blind hatred and despair.
The brutalised Russian troops, their heads stuffed with insane racist filth, have ceased to see Chechens as human beings.
This, and their long tragedy under Russian rule, has meant some Chechens have stopped seeing Russians as human beings too. This is the explanation of Beslan.
The horror is on Putin’s conscience. The anti-war movement must inscribe his name alongside those of Bush and Blair as a war criminal.
North Ossetia, the tiny Caucasus republic where the siege took place last week, is a Russian military outpost.
After the USSR fell apart, the Kremlin poured weapons into the republic. By 1992 it had the highest quantity of arms per head of population of any country in the world. It was from North Ossetia that Russian tank columns rolled into Chechnya in December 1994.
This was the first of Russia’s most recent attempts to destroy Chechen independence.
That war saw Chechen cities razed to the ground under a carpet of fragmentation bombs.
The scale of destruction in the capital, Grozny, hadn’t been seen in an advanced industrial city since the battle of Stalingrad in 1943. For 18 months Russian troops raped, burned, looted and murdered.
An estimated 80,000 Chechens died, and a quarter of a million were made homeless.
The extreme brutality of the Russian army was summed up by the massacre at Samashki in April 1995. Like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Samashki became a symbol of Russia’s war on the Chechen people.
For two days elite Russian troops stormed through Samashki torching houses, burning people alive or shooting them. Over 100 were killed, all but four were civilians.
In May 1995, while the slaughter raged, Moscow celebrated 50 years since victory in World War Two. Yeltsin, the Russian president, compared the Chechens to the Nazis.
Chechens had heard this talk before—from the dictator Joseph Stalin. In 1944 Stalin deported the entire Chechen population—men and women, old and young.
Chechens were loaded into cattle wagons and deported to the freezing wastes of Kazakhstan. Some 130,000 perished during the journey.
Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis. In reality he wanted to crush the resistance to Russian imperialism from nationalities within his empire. From 1938 to 1944 many other peoples were also deported to Siberia.
Stalin made sure no trace of the Chechen people or culture remained. Russian colonists took over Chechens’ homes and jobs. The headstones on Chechen graves were used to pave the streets.
Statues to the Tsarist general Yermolov were erected in towns and cities. Yermolov led Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus in the early 19th century.
But, as one Russian wrote at the time, “although the crater of the volcano had been cleansed, the internal fire was far from extinguished”.
In 1825 the volcano erupted in Chechnya. An uprising engulfed the country and spread across the Caucasus.
For the next 25 years the Chechens waged a furious struggle against Russian occupation, led by Imam Shamil.
Yermolov responded with the same methods used by Russian troops today—rape, siege, torture, burnings alive, putting entire villages to the sword.
In 1859 Shamil surrendered to the Russians. But 85 years later it was the memory of his resistance that Stalin wanted to destroy.
True to their traditions, the Chechens fought back against Stalin’s repression with assassinations and mass rebellions. The deportation in 1944 was supposed to be the final act in smashing their resistance.
It failed. From the late 1950s Chechens illegally began to make their way back home.
The trickle became a flood. By the time the USSR collapsed in 1991 they were once again a majority in their homeland.
As the nations of the Soviet Union broke away from Russian rule, an uprising in Chechnya overthrew the puppet regime in Grozny and declared independence.
The Kremlin was desperate to restore its control of the Caucasus.
The oil pipeline to Russia from the Caspian oil fields ran straight through Grozny. Azerbaijan had opened negotiations with US, British, Turkish and Iranian companies to reroute supply to the south.
Russia also wanted to re-assert itself as an imperialist power. In 1992 it exploited national tensions to re-establish military outposts in Georgia and Moldova.
In December that year Russian troops assisted North Ossetian gangs in ethnically cleansing 70,000 Ingushis—close neighbours of the Chechens—from their homes.
The Ingushis had, like the Chechens, been deported by Stalin in 1944.
The scene was set for a full-scale invasion of Chechnya. But the Kremlin made a spectacular miscalculation.
Expecting to seize Grozny in hours, instead it met mass resistance. The first tank column that entered Grozny was wiped out.
Eighteen months later the Chechens retook Grozny from the Russian army.
The war had become deeply unpopular with ordinary Russians and the Kremlin sued for peace.
The tiny Chechen nation had won a staggering victory—at a huge cost.
Russia’s rulers never stopped looking for a chance to retake Chechnya.
It came in 1999 with NATO’s bombing of Serbia. The West’s attack on Russia’s “Slav brothers” was a gift to the Kremlin, which whipped up a storm of indignation.
Nationalist fever gripped the population, which was itself despairing after eight years of disastrous market reforms.
A series of suspicious explosions in Moscow that autumn were blamed on Chechens—although the real culprits have never been found.
Russia, now led by current president Vladimir Putin launched another bloody assault on Chechnya.
The consequences of this new occupation for the Chechen population beggar belief.
In June Amnesty International talked of “rampant human rights abuses” by Russian troops.
Arbitrary detentions, murder, robbery, rape, torture and disappearances have left no Chechan family unscathed.
Tens of thousands barely survive in abandoned refugee camps.
Many young people know nothing but despair, all hope has been abandoned.