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A Secret History of Violence

Driving through the Sunzha River Valley in Chechnya is a little like driving through northern Maine: the highway narrows into a pine-flanked two-way that dips and climbs with the flow of the foothills. A tractor unhurriedly turns moist dirt in a clearing that slopes gently toward old mountains dripping with lavender fog. The only difference in the landscape is that the sea here is not to the east but directly beneath you: a sea of underground oil that percolates in black blotches. Here and there a lone, squat oil derrick sends forth a steady flame.

Last winter I drove through the valley, from Grozny, Chechnya’s capital, to the village of Samashki, a onetime rebel stronghold and the site of what Human Rights Watch once described as “the most notorious civilian massacre” of Russia’s recent war in its breakaway province: a summary execution, in April of 1995, of approximately 250 villagers by Russian paramilitary police. Not too long ago, the road from Grozny to Samashki looked like the setting of a Cormac McCarthy novel: a dull porridge of sludge-filled ruts, a vaguely defined tract pulped into muck by thousands of aerial bombs and furrowed by thousands of crisscrossing tank treads. But last winter its two neat lanes betrayed no history of violence. Nor was there outside Samashki, a sluggish village of fruit orchards and brick fences, any memorial or sign recognizing the atrocity that had blackened its clay soil with blood.

The re-paved road, and the clean, bustling cities and towns that it connected, testified to Chechnya’s resurgence after the war that killed between 130,000 and 300,000 people. Grozny, which I remembered from past trips as a post-apocalyptic cityscape studded with charred outcroppings of booby-trapped apartment blocks, had been transformed into orderly boulevards of apartment blocks flaunting sidings of marble and polished granite. The abundance of glass stood out to anyone who had been to Grozny at the height of the war: giant glass panels of storefronts; glass restaurant doors, glass picture windows of a new indoor skating rink. During the fighting such glass would all shatter from bullets, shrapnel, and shockwaves. So glass, all of it intact, was a strong statement that the war was over. But it was not over. Less than two months after my visit, two women dispatched to the Russian capital by the Chechen insurgent leader Doku Umarov detonated their suicide belts in the Moscow subway, killing 39 people.

“The Russians,” the British journalist Oliver Bullough warns in his impressively researched and devastating book, “have not preserved the memory of their wars for the Caucasus, and the ghosts of their victims will haunt them till they do.” Bullough’s book combines intimate personal accounts, formidable historical research, and first-hand observations collected during years of reporting in the region into a heart-scraping testimony of Russia’s systematic and deliberate brutality in the North Caucasus—and the cruel acts of terror that it continues to provoke.

Today, about six million people who belong to more than fifty ethnic groups and speak over forty languages—“by comparison, there are just sixty-five languages native to the entire European Union,” Bullough reminds us—inhabit this mountainous scar tissue of the ancient collision between Arabian and Eurasian plates. These are active tectonics: a 5.8 earthquake shook central Chechnya for forty seconds in 2008. And above ground, the mountains shudder almost constantly from man-made tremors: atrocities that for centuries have lacerated this war-wrecked region, usually unnoticed by the rest of the world, and almost immediately forgotten by their perpetrators.

The title of Bullough’s book refers to a North Caucasus folk tale about the Narts, the mythical ancestors of the nations that populate the region today. The Narts asked their god for a short and glorious life, a life of fame, freedom, and joy rather than a long, prosperous, but uneventful one. “But, in truth, their god did not keep his side of the bargain,” Bullough writes.

Despite what he promised them, their lives have been cut short, fairness has passed them by, they have known endless grief, and their fame has not been great….Many of the peoples that listened to the tales of the Narts around their winter fires were to face slaughter, and have their fate forgotten. Who now remembers the Circassians? Or the Balkars? Or the Karachais? Or indeed the Nogais?

Of the ethnic cleansing campaigns and massacres that Bullough describes, perhaps the only one familiar to the outside world is Russia’s three-hundred-year-old, off-again-on-again war with the Chechens—and only because, during the last decade and a half of vicious bloodletting, this war has metastasized far beyond Chechnya’s borders, flaring into gruesome atrocities against civilians outside the region, and attracting international Islamist terrorists with links to al Qaeda. The rest have perished into the world’s collective oblivion. Who, indeed, remembers the Nogais?

Let Our Fame Be Great is a brave and poignant attempt to tell these stories. The introduction begins with the history of Russia’s cold-blooded and meticulous extermination, in the whispering rushes of the Yeya River delta in 1783, of the Nogai herders, the last free descendants in Europe of Genghis Khan’s armies. This event is wholly neglected in Russia, let alone elsewhere in the world—as is the expulsion and decimation in the middle of the nineteenth century of the Circassians, in what Bullough calls “the first modern genocide on European soil.” As the world prepares for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the site of the Circassians’ greatest massacre and defeat—“What if one of the candidates to host the Olympic Games had been Auschwitz Birkenau?,” a coalition of twelve Circassian diaspora organizations wrote in a letter to the International Olympic Committee, and of course received no response—few Circassians today live in or near the resort city in what was once their heartland. Most reside in Turkey, Israel, and Jordan, where Bullough traveled to interview their nostalgia-soaked and far-flung members.

Bullough’s portrayal of Russia’s elaborate decimation of the North Caucasus peoples and its backlash is as relentless as the violence itself. His stories about the Tsarist conquest of the region, painstakingly compiled from obscure and half-forgotten reports by contemporaries and the few historians who did pay attention, segue into harrowing personal narratives of the survivors of the Stalin-era deportations of whole nations—the Karachais, the Balkars, the Ingush, the Chechens—to the steppes of Central Asia at the end of World War II. Of approximately half a million Ingush and Chechens rounded up and shipped in freight cars to Kazakhstan in the winter of 1944, half died of disease, thirst, and hunger on the way:

They traveled for twenty-six days, sitting on the upper level in their carriage, the family below them being the one with the barefoot children and another woman with her son, who was all dressed in red. He was quiet and never spoke. It turned out, after three or four days, that he had died quietly, a victim of the typhus that had raged among the quiet columns of hopeless highlanders. His mother had managed to secretly sew him into a shroud without anyone noticing.

From first-hand accounts, Bullough pieces together the savagery of the Cherek massacre in 1942, when Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD, slaughtered a valley-full of women and children in Balkaria—and then cynically blamed the killings on the Nazis.

The second half of Bullough’s book is devoted to Chechnya. Parents waiting for word on kidnapped sons, tortured and probably killed; families homeless in the icy slush outside the ruins of their wood-and-stucco farmhouses leveled in retribution; disaffected teenage boys joining the jihad in order to avenge their families’ honor—this has been Chechnya’s history since Russian forces led by the Tsarist general Alexei Yermolov burned, pillaged, and raped their way through this land in the early 1800s.  Yermolov’s name became the symbol of the sadistic cruelty with which the Russians, time and again, have tried to subdue the rebellious region. Leo Tolstoy, in 1905 in his great short novel Hadji Murad, described the Chechens’ “repulsion, disgust and perplexity” at the “senseless cruelty” of the Russians—and the vengefulness it inflamed. “The desire to exterminate them,” Tolstoy wrote, “was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation.”

In a way, the anti-Russian jihad began three hundred years ago and never stopped. The cycle of savagery and revenge has come to shape both the region’s identity and Russia’s response to Chechnya’s unfaltering reach for independence. Fifty years after Yermolov’s invasion, Russian troops once again leveled Chechnya’s villages and burned its forests in response to the intifada led, for a quarter of a century, by Imam Shamil, the Dagestani-born preacher and rebel leader. The Chechen uprising in the early 1940s prompted Stalin to order the mass deportation of the entire nation; a disaffected and bitter generation of Chechens was born and came of age in exile. Another half century later, arbitrary detentions and executions of suspected insurgents and their relatives became the calling card of Russia’s most recent two-phased war in Chechnya, from 1994 until 1996 and again from 1999 until 2009, when the Kremlin declared the war finished. Tens of thousands of people who have disappeared at Russian checkpoints and during raids on villages and towns during that war are still unaccounted for.

Bullough suggests that the terrorism that today plagues Russia—the Moscow theater siege in 2002; the attack on the school in Beslan in 2004; the women who become suicide bombers to avenge their men—was born of the combination of these centuries of methodical abuse, and the steadfast denial of this abuse, by the Kremlin. To this equation, Russia appears blind. In his postscript, Bullough quotes an eerie statement by Vladimir Putin in 2007, at the time still Russia’a president, before a group of teachers of history and humanities.

'Yes, there are problematic pages in our history, in just the same way as there are in the history of every state and every people! And we had a lot fewer than some others. …In any case, we did not use atomic bombs against a civilian population. We did not pour chemicals on thousands of kilometers, and did not drop onto a little country seven times more bombs than were used in all the Second World War, as occurred in Vietnam for example. We did not have other black pages, like Nazism for example,’ Putin said, in a rant of his own.

‘And it must not be allowed that we are forced to feel a sense of guilt.’

When I reached Samashki last winter, I sat down for tea and candy in a large farmhouse that was still under construction. Its owner, a heavy-lidded Chechen man, was building it in place of his old home, which had been destroyed in the war. My host was born in 1952 in the steppes of Kazakhstan, where his family had been exiled during Stalin’s mass deportation of Chechens in 1944. We talked about his father, a Chechen rebel fighter in the 1930s and 1940s, who had spent much of his life in prison.

I asked him, this man with a severe face, whether there could be reconciliation between Russia and Chechnya. His eyes bored through me. “Every fifty years,” he said, “the Russians try to exterminate the entire Chechen people. How can reconciliation be possible with such history? No. Not until they ask forgiveness.”

Anna Badkhen’s book about war and food, Peace Meals, will be published in October. Her trip to Chechnya this year was made possible by a grant from the Center for Investigative Reporting.