View all newsletters
Sign up to our newsletters

Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
10 April 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 12:07pm

After Boston, the Chechens will be known for one thing alone

In Russia, the Chechens already have an often-undeserved reputation for violence. In the wake of the Boston bombing, that reputation will be even harder to escape.

By Oliver Bullough

The manhunt in Boston last week gave me a strange sense of deja vu. It was familiar because I had seen it play out in this same way many times before – just on a different continent. It just felt like I was watching the news from Russia, where Chechens are the usual suspects. Whether it’s a suicide bombing or a mafia assassination, you always expect a Chechen to be arrested.

Chechens have a peculiar status in Russia. Where other minorities tend to be regarded with amused condescension, they inspire a mixture of fear and resentment. This nation – apparently independent-minded, noble, warlike – has been an irresistible target for orientalising in novels, poems and films alike.

For Mikhail Lermontov, the chronicler of tsarist colonialism in the 1830s, they were the most terrifying of all foes, creeping along the riverbank, knife in hand. When Alexander Solzhenitsyn chronicled the crimes of the Soviet Union 130 years later, they had lost none of that mystique. “There was one nation which completely refused to resign itself to its fate – not as individuals, not as rebels, but the whole nation as one. This was the Chechens,” he wrote in The Gulag Archipelago.

Who in the west has heard of the Avars, the Dargins, the Tuvans, the Chukchi, the Bashkirs? These are just some of the dozens of ethnic groups that share Russia, yet none have the Chechens’ reputation.

This fame is, at least in part, self-reinforcing. When the first rumours about the identity of Guantanamo inmates emerged, we heard that there was a group of Chechens inside. They were in fact Balkars, Tatars and other Russian Muslims, but the Chechen brand is a powerful one, so that was what they became.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU

A former colleague of mine trained as a photographer in Moscow in the 1980s. One of his jobs was to develop films, including for policemen who documented the grisly crime scenes left after mafia hits. The “Chechen mafia”, he said with relish, rearranged their victims in obscene poses, deliberately to inspire fear in other gangsters.

The history of Russian-Chechen violence is a long one. They have fought each other since the late 18th century, when the Russian Empire advanced southwards towards the warm lands of Georgia and Azerbaijan. Russia finally won with the surrender of Imam Shamil, leader of the peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan, in 1859. The Chechens were not cowed, however, and the communist government was no more successful in winning their friendship.

In 1944, Stalin exiled the whole Chechen people to Central Asia for perceived disloyalty, killing more than a third of them in the process, and they were not allowed home again for more than a decade. The Chechens, aggrieved, took the first opportunity to rise up once more, declaring independence as the Soviet Union collapsed, then defending it against Russian tanks, confirming their reputation as fierce fighters.

But of course there is another reason for the Chechens’ reputation, and that is the series of hideous atrocities committed in their name over the last two decades. The targets since 2000 have been so grotesque – a school in the town of Beslan, a theatre in Moscow, planes, a rock concert, buses, trains – that most commentators do not even remember that they took a hospital hostage in 1995.

Did the Chechens’ reputation as monsters help some Chechens become monsters? And did that reputation help shape the Russian response, which has been almost equally cruel? The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that, in 115 separate cases, Moscow has violated Chechens’ “right to life” – i.e. murdered them.

Considering the difficulty of extracting evidence from the Russian state, that is just the visible peak of an unexplored mountain. Untold thousands have died in Chechnya since Boris Yeltsin sent in the tanks in 1994.

All that is why I was unsurprised by the news that Chechens had been accused of the Boston bombing. Even though bombing the United States made no sense, it appeared natural.

And that is a great shame, because it misrepresents the overwhelming majority of Chechens. I have been to Chechnya many times, have revelled in hospitality and generosity, in a place that is beautiful and intriguing and fun. And yet, after Boston, the Chechens will be known for one thing alone.

The next time a Chechen madman commits an atrocity against civilians, people worldwide will shrug and think it makes sense. And that has made their reputation even harder to escape. 

Oliver Bullough’s “The Last Man in Russia: and the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation” is newly published by Allen Lane (£20)

Content from our partners
Inside the UK's enduring love for chocolate
Unlocking the potential of a national asset, St Pancras International
Time for Labour to turn the tide on children’s health

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via saturdayread.substack.com The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via morningcall.substack.com Our Thursday ideas newsletter, delving into philosophy, criticism, and intellectual history. The best way to sign up for The Salvo is via thesalvo.substack.com Stay up to date with NS events, subscription offers & updates. Weekly analysis of the shift to a new economy from the New Statesman's Spotlight on Policy team. The best way to sign up for The Green Transition is via spotlightonpolicy.substack.com
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
THANK YOU