On September 9, 1999 shortly after midnight, an apartment complex exploded in southeast Moscow, killing 94 inside. This was just one attack in a wave of bombings in Moscow that ultimately claimed over 200 lives. According to the Russian secret service (FSB) investigation, the attacks were the work of Achemez Gochiyayev and his co-conspirators, who operated under the orders of Chechen separatist militants based in the North Caucasus. It was Gochiyayev’s spree of apartment bombings, paired with destabilization in the North Caucasus, that triggered Russia’s Second Chechen War.
But this instance of violence is just one chapter in a protracted and bloody history of conflict between Chechnya and Russia. In the two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, inextricably linked with Chechen nationalism, has weighed heavily on the Russian mind and has played prominent role in Russia’s hegemony over Chechnya. Stereotypes about Chechen ruggedness, tendencies toward revenge and a savage honor code persist in present-day Russia. Peoples from the Caucasus suffer discrimination and physical harassment in Russia, susceptible to the slur “chernyi”— these factors combine with fears of Islamic extremism to produce an enemy that appears to be the embodiment of all things anti-Russian.
Since Imam Shamil led a resistance to Russian annexation in the first half of the 19th century, religious and ethnic movements in Chechnya, Dagestan and other parts of the Caucasus have united behind resistance to Russian authority. While at first Chechnya welcomed Bolshevik rule and the occupation of the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s deportation of thousands of Chechens to Central Asia in 1944 for alleged collaboration with Germany continued the historical trend of abuse. When the Soviet Union fell, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet air force general, was elected president of Chechnya. Seeing the changing power climate as an opportunity for Chechen independence, Dudayey declared the region to be sovereign, however Yeltsin’s desire to maintain Russian territorial integrity led to the First Chechen War in 1994.
Many Russian accounts of Chechnya present a two-dimensional version of who the Chechens are and what it is they want. The Russian narrative effectively blurs the lines between the varying motives that Chechens have for supporting independence, obfuscating the difference between religious activism and ethno-nationalist solidarity. These misconceptions were solidified by a 1994 Russian law that allowed for the “swift removal of journalists’ accreditation,” granted by the state, if they distributed “propaganda of national or religious hatred” relating to the regions of the Caucuses, then at war. Crucially, this particular assault on free press refers to religious and national hatred as part of the same category — thereby assuming that there is a fundamental tie between these two motives toward rebellion. Similarly, during the Second Chechen War, the parliament of Dagestan, a neighbor region to Chechnya, passed a law prohibiting “Wahhabism.” Wahhabism in this context was used to refer to Islamic extremism as a whole (not actual Wahhabism, which has little to no presence in Chechnya) without providing a legal definition of the term — hardly a nuanced policy prescription.
Some scholars even see the Russian depiction of Islamism as an attempt to”create a single enemy that can be eliminated by military means,” as Moshe Gammer wrote in Ethno-Nationalism, Islam and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder. The perception of ethnic and religious foreignness of the Caucasian region as a whole has only solidified in recent years. When the Soviet government collapsed, Orthodox Christianity was revived in Russia — in part, a celebration of ethnic Russian nationality — while in historically Muslim states of the former USSR, Islam became a prominent force as a response to decades of atheist rule from the Soviet core. Religion served as an ideological attachment to national self-determination in the wake of the Soviet collapse.
However, this is not to say that religious views and those of Islam are unified in Russia’s southern frontier. Traditional modes of worship in the North Caucasus are often at odds with a conventional understanding of fundamentalist Islam. Chechen tradition includes worship of saints’ graves and local North Caucasian legal practices are generally informed by local adat codes, which are indigenous to the region but are condemned by Sharia law. On the other hand, there is a growing trend among younger Chechens to observe Islam more strictly, with some young women and girls donning the hijab despite their parents’ objection. In the 1990s, students from the North Caucasus began traveling to centers of Islamic study, often returning home with more radical notions of Islam.
Despite the influx of a more fundamentalist type of Islam, Chechen terrorism remains a multifaceted conflation of divergent identities. Aslan Maskhadov, a prominent separatist, consistently advocated for a secular Chechen state, for instance, alongside Dudayev. When Maskhadov instituted Sharia rule in Chechnya in 1999, it was more a concession to radicals than an affirmation of religious piety. Maskhadov was very explicitly not a pan-Islamist or a proponent for a Muslim Chechen state. His claim that “Arabs, Tajiks and other scum have no business here” is illustrative of a less-than-inviting attitude toward the foreign mujahedeen who joined the fighting in Chechnya. Ethnic divides, religious disputes and distinct visions of separatism illustrate the fault lines between the separatist camps. But you won’t be hearing any of that from the Putin administration.
Depictions of the backwardness of Chechen society and their devout Islamic radicalism lend credence to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “we’ll cut your penis off” approach to dealing with Chechen separatism. This hardliner approach to “those Muslim extremists” legitimizes his authority as provider of law and order and has had the effect of consolidating Putin’s domestic support base by playing on a renaissance in Russian imperial consciousness. It probably also doesn’t hurt that solidifying control of Chechnya might give Russia clearer, better access to the rich oil fields of the South Caucasian countries such as Georgia.
While there surely are violent militants in Chechnya who operate without concern for innocent lives, Putin has been able to wage a popular counter-insurgency against a stylized enemy to further his own interests by labeling Chechens as Islamic extremists. Branding one’s enemies “terrorists” effectively reduces the complications of the situation and persuades the powers-at-be to provide a blank check. The Putin administration’s policy toward the region and the misleading social understanding of who Chechens are will only further the conflict, and as a result, the imperial dynamic between Russia and Chechnya will not be dissolved any time soon. As long as entrenched myths persist in the Russian mindset, real change is unlikely to come any time soon and resolve the protracted saga of Chechen nationalism.
This piece is part of BPR’s special feature on terrorism. You can explore the special feature here.