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    History of Chechnya -

    History of Chechnya

    Whatever the outcome of the present fighting in Chechnya, it is unlikely to prove conclusive. Nor is it likely to dampen the fervor with which the Chechen people pursue their goal of independence, a battle they have been fighting for more than 200 years, resisting attempts drive them out of the region or to assimilate them. The struggle long ago became a defining part of Chechen identity and one for which they have often paid a heavy price. Through the pages of TIME and other Web resources, here is a history of Chechnya's struggle.

    The Land, the History, the Culture

    Chechnya is one of a necklace of states that fringe the North Caucasus Mountains--the geographical divide between Europe and Asia. The fertile lowlands of the north extend down to Grozny, south of which the plains give way to forested hills as far as the vast mountains and glaciers that mark the southern border with Georgia. The Chechen people are--and have always been--a predominantly rural people, working as farmers and herdsmen. Around 100 ago, however, the region assumed greater economic and strategic importance with the discovery of large reserves of oil.

    In 1996 the Chechen Republic of Ichkeriya (to give it its proper title) had an estimated population of 921,000. As recently as 1989, Grozny itself had a population of some 400,000--half of them Russian. By 1995 only 182,700 people were left in the capital.

    Ethnically, the Chechens and their near neighbours, the Ingush, appear to have inhabited the region for several thousand years, speak a distinct language of their own (though most can also speak Russian) and have been predominantly Muslim under the influence of Sunni missionaries from the 17th to the 19th centuries.

    Earlier Struggles

    Over the centuries, the Chechens have found their land fought over by Ottomans and Persians. Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godunov both sought to exert control in the Caucasus with little success. But resistance to Russia's expansionist tendencies can usefully be traced to 1732, when Russian colonial forces were defeated in a skirmish in the village of Chechen-aul by the Noxche tribe of the region, who from that point on came to be known in Russia as Chechens. Russian incursions in the region grew until 1783 when Catherine the Great signed a treaty which handed her military control of Georgia to the south. In Sheikh Mansur, the Chechens found an inspirational leader who, declaring holy war on Russia, united all the near-isolated tribes of the North Caucasus and mobilised their resistance until his capture in 1791.

    The fighting went on, however, culminating in the Caucasian War of 1817-64, during which Imam Shamil emerged as a charismatic leader. (A colorful account of the Shamil's military career can be found in The Jihad of Imam Shamil, from the Haqqani Foundation of the U.S.) Grozny was founded at this time by the Russians as one of a number of fortress towns from which they waged a ruthless and destructive campaign, which finally took Chechnya in 1858. Over the next decade many Chechens were deported or fled to the Ottoman Empire and Russians began to settle in the lowlands--a process that accelerated with the discovery of oil near Grozny in 1893.

    Sporadic resistance to Russian rule continued and with the coming of the Russian Revolution a Chechen Oblast (autonomous province) was established in 1922. It merged with that of the neighboring Ingush in 1934 and became a Soviet Republic in 1936, though Stalin's purges of that period cost the lives and liberty of thousands of Chechens and did nothing to win their support as war with Germany loomed. The German invasion of Russia in World War II came close to Chechnya, as this report from TIME, Oct. 19, 1942, shows. In 1944, Chechnya paid a shocking price for continued defiance of Russian rule which, Stalin charged, went so far as collaborating with the German invaders. On Feb. 23 and 24, 400,000 Chechen and Ingush people--almost the entire population--were rounded up and deported, mostly to Kazakhstan. 30-50% of them are estimated to have died within the year--one of the most devastating incidents of ethnic cleansing in the 20th century. Yet, amid the turbulence of the war, the episode went largely unnoticed outside the region. In the issue of July 8, 1946, TIME sourly noted:

    "The Soviet Union has a social system of its own but borrows from others ... from tribal jurisprudence, group punishment for individual guilt ... Because 'many' Chechens and Crimean Tartars fought on the side of the Germans and the 'main mass of the population ... did not give opposition,' their 'autonomous' republics were expunged by Moscow. Charged with treason, sabotage and collaboration, an estimated 400,000 men, women and children were driven from the land on which their ancestors had lived for untold generations, and ordered to trek eastward. Where? Nobody knew--probably to the vast Kazak steppes beyond the Caspian Sea."

    Only with the passing of Stalin did Russia begin to acknowledge its inhumane crime against the Chechens. General Secretary Khruschev's address to the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February 1956 sounded heartfelt, but stopped short of legally returning land and property to the Chechens. Eventually in Jan. 1957, the ban on their return was lifted and their autonomy as a Soviet Republic restored.

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