Chechens? Who Are the Chechens?

By Jay Holmes

Last week the prime suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing attack were identified as two Chechen immigrant brothers. Some are suggesting that the recent history of Chechnya may have had an influence in the motives of the perpetrators. A few are suggesting that the bombers may have been operating as part of a Chechen Rebel faction. The latter suggestion is, as yet, unsupported by evidence. Nonetheless, a brief review of Chechnya can be useful in understanding current events.

Created by Kbh3rd, wikimedia commons

Created by Kbh3rd, wikimedia commons

Chechnya is a 7,600 square mile republic within Russia, located in the far corners of Eastern Europe in the foothills of the northern Caucasus mountains of Georgia. It claims a population of approximately 1.2 million people. This means it it is nearly as large as the US state of Massachusetts but has about a fourth as many people as the Boston metropolitan area. About ninety percent of Chechens identify themselves as Sunni Muslims.

Based on evidence discovered in caves, archaeologists tell us that Chechnya was inhabited by homo sapiens in 120,000 B.C. Adequate evidence has been cataloged across Chechnya to suggest that humans have occupied the area continuously for the past 8,000 years.

Due in large part to geography and in larger part to mankind’s propensity for warfare, Chechnya has a particularly violent history. As various groups have brought pressure to bear against the Chechen people, they have responded by living at higher or lower altitudes as a defensive mechanism. For the most part, the Chechens are a “mountain” people. How far up or down the mountain they have lived depended on their ability to defend their foothill areas and the adjacent high plains margins from other claimants.

In the 1500s, both the Turkish Ottoman Empire and the Russian Empire sought control of the Caucasus mountains. From their mountain enclaves, the Chechens fought with both groups.

In the 1600s, the Islamic religion was introduced in Chechnya. With the hopes of forming an alliance with the Turks, the Chechens converted to Islam. The Russians continued their expansionist policies. The Chechens continued their vertical defensive strategies.

In the 1700s, the Chechens became more organized in their resistance against the Russians. In 1774, the Russian Empire defeated the Ottoman Empire, and Russia attempted to consolidate control over the Caucasus. In 1784, Chechen general Sheik Mansur led a revolt against the Russians. The revolt failed, but he remains a folk hero in Chechen culture.

In 1834, Imam Shamil established a theocratic state in Chechnya and other Caucasus areas not under Russian control. He instituted Sharia law. Only twenty-five years later, the Russians defeated him, further cementing Russian control over the northern Caucasus.

In 1917, as the Communist Revolution took hold across the Russian Empire, Chechens banded together with other north Caucasus ethnic groups and formed the Confederation of North Caucasian Peoples. In 1921, the Soviet army defeated the Confederation and began the phase of Russian/Chechen conflict that continues to this day.

In 1944, Soviet Dictator Josef Stalin ordered the deportation of all of the Chechens that the Soviets could round up—about half a million people. Half of them died during their deportation and exile.

In 1953, after Stalin committed his one act of kindness to the Soviet peoples by dying, the Chechens were allowed to return to their homeland.

After the fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991, in the new Russian spirit of “freedom and equality for all,” the Chechens tried to secede from the fledgling Russian Federation. When economists pointed out to Russian leader Boris Yeltsen that Chechnya contained valuable petroleum deposits and oil pipelines, Boris realized that Chechnya needed a little less freedom. He refused to allow them to leave the Russian Federation. Proving that all Russian Federation members are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Since Chechnya was refused its independence, the Chechens have fought two wars with Russia. In reality, the two wars are phases of one long war that intensified after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The term “two wars” simply refers to periods of heavier Russian military operations inside of Chechnya. Those Russian military operations in Chechnya were brutal and included the large scale murder of unarmed civilians.

In June of 1995, Chechen terrorists, led by Shamil Basayev, conducted a hostage raid on a Russian hospital in Budyonnovsk. They took approximately 1,500 civilians hostage. After a four-day standoff, Russian troops stormed the hospital, and the Chechens escaped with about 110 hostages. Approximately 130 people were killed in the rescue attempt.

On January 10, 1996, Chechen Islamist terrorists kidnapped about 3,000 hostages in the Russian Republic of Dagestan. Russian troops allowed a convoy of the Chechen rebels and 160 hostages to head for Chechnya. Then they surrounded the convoy in the village of Pervomayskaya. After a five-day standoff, Russian troops launched an assault against the Chechen terrorists. Most of the rebels and about 40 of the hostages were killed.

On January 16, 1996, Chechen Islamist terrorists hijacked a ferry with 165 passengers and crew from the Turkish port of Trabzon. They demanded that Russian troops stop fighting Chechen rebels in Pervomayskaya. The hostages were released three days later, after Russian troops captured Pervomayskaya.

On October 23, 2002, forty Chechen Islamist terrorists took about 800 hostages in the Moscow Theater. In the ensuing rescue attempt, all 40 terrorists were killed, and about 160 hostages died due to inhaling the gas used by the Russian rescue team.

In 2003, Russia attempted to install another puppet government in Chechnya based on Russian controlled elections. It’s unlikely that Russians themselves believed the results of the sham election.

On September 1, 2004, thirty Islamist terrorists from Chechnya and the neighboring republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia seized a school in Beslan, near Chechnya. They held approximately 1,100 children, teachers, and parents hostage. It is believed the guerrillas were made up of Chechen, Ingush, and ethnic Russian Islamist militants. When a bomb inside the school was detonated, the hostages attempted to escape. The terrorists set off more bombs and opened fire on the fleeing children and adults. At least 330 hostages were killed, including 155 children. Nearly 600 were wounded. Russian prosecutors held Shamil Basayev, the most ruthless of the Chechen rebel commanders, responsible for the incident.

Russia’s New Age Stalin, Vladimir Putin, has attempted to use a divide and conquer strategy by repeatedly trying to prop up one Chechen faction against another. Thus far, the strategy has failed. The struggle is now reduced to a fight between militant Islamists backed by al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups, and the Russian government and their local proxies.

To what degree the Tsarnaev brothers, who allegedly set the bombs at the Boston Marathon, were influenced by events in Chechnya is difficult to measure. Until now, Chechen nationalists have refrained from striking against Western targets. Given the variety of Islamic terrorist groups operating in Chechnya and elsewhere, anything is possible, and though individuals in Chechnya may be connected to the Tsarnaev brothers, it is unlikely that the greater Chechen nationalist movement would have reason to strike against a target in the US or the West. One can only hope that the FBI will succeed in discovering a clear and complete view of the Boston Marathon Bombing and of any participants connected to it.

14 comments on “Chechens? Who Are the Chechens?

  1. mairedubhtx says:

    The Russians haven’t had a very good track record rescuing hostages taken by Chechen rebels, have they? Apparently our Chechen bombers were upset by American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. How bizarre is that? They were not even worried about Chechnya. Go figure.

    • Piper Bayard says:

      From Holmes:

      Hi Mariedubhtx. I’m still not sure how connected to anything the two bombers were. I’m upset about our poor management of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well, but I’m not bombing anyone.

      In some instances terrorists are similar to urban gang members in motivation. They do it, too, because they don’t value their own lives, don’t see a future for themselves, and want to be part of something bigger than themselves. In many cases the ’cause’ has little meaning for the terrorist.

  2. Good, well researched article, as usual, Jay. I also found the intial reports of this confusing. i figured if their “beef” was Chechnya they would want to hit a target associated with Russia, say a consulate or the Russian Club in New York. But marathon runners?? As someone who had a multiple amputee in my family I was particularly repulsed by the number of early reports of leg amputations. It’s all so ****ing senseless.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Richard. It is sad. Though this will ring hollow to the badly injured folks in Boston, I am glad that the bombing was not more effective. I am also proud of how the bystanders reacted. Without quick attention there would have been many more deaths.

  3. Dave says:

    Thanks for writing this. Great alternative to the drone coming from the networks. I can’t tell you how many times I saw the same footage shown, with nothing new. It appears to be all about Face time for the talking heads.

  4. Thanks for the refresher. I remembered the school and the theater – and how desperate the negotiations were and everyone knew it was hopeless based on past actions. I don’t think the Boston pair are part of any Chechen nationalist group. These types of people are dangerous because of what you said: no hope, no concern for their own safety, only want to be part of a bigger game -even as a pawn. Very different mindset.
    The whole time I cringed thinking with our poor education system ( and tendency to not listen closely), people are going to confuse Chechens with Czech.
    Boston – you did us proud. It was patriots’ day for sure.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Philosopher. Thank You. Apparently the Czechs have indeed received some misguided anger over the two Chechen bombers.

  5. Julie Glover says:

    From what you describe and what I’ve heard about the two bomb nuts, it seems unlikely that there was a direct connection. But the culture of Chechnya certainly could have had an effect. In some places, it seems like war, hostage-taking, terrorism, etc. are a way of life.

    I did smile when you referred to Stalin’s one kind thing being his death. I’ve read extensively about him, and oh, how true that is.

    • Good point Julie. We all tend to to forget what’s ‘normal’ is what you’re used to. If you get bought up in this environment it’s not surprising it rubs off. And yeah, while I’m a bit stick-in-the-mud- about flippancy on serious subjects, the line about Stalin’s death did crack a smile on my face. jay’s comments about Gangs members in the US also rang true: young guys with no real future who want to part of something ‘bigger’. It’s all so frickin sad and depressing.

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Julie. The north Caucasus region does indeed have a long history of kidnaping and hostage taking.

  6. Fascinating. I knew next to nothing about Chechnya. If asked, I probably would have said that Chechens was some kind of band or maybe an unusual but delicious snack. *blush*

    Truly excellent article. I love how you packed in so much history (sadly, so bloody) in such a short, readable space. Where were you when I was hating high school history? 🙂

    • Jay Holmes says:

      Hi Sonia. In HS I dated my HS history teacher. She was fascinating. She added a certain thrill to the learning process. No, not really, I just had to say that. The less exciting reality is that I was lucky and I had several very good history teachers in HS.

  7. Not sure how I missed this post. Good write up. I have to think that anyone coming from this type of violence-all-around background would have a sense of normal that is quite different to someone growing up in the US. Countries, races, religions, can be such a volatile mix.


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