#12 - JRL 7003
January 1-7, 2003
Chechnya: Critique of Sloppy Talk
By Sergei Roy
Some of my recent articles on the Dubrovka hostage-taking and its aftermath have generated a flurry of e-mail activity, with friends in the U.S., U.K., Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere raising questions and expressing opinions on what they term "Russian-Chechen relations." Throughout this correspondence I had a nagging sensation about the various snags in communication that were due to the very terms in which my Western colleagues are accustomed, or rather have been trained by their media, to think and debate (the two processes being, regrettably, not always concurrent) on these matters. The trouble with such terms is that they are "slanted" - in the true sense in which this concept was used by Hayakawa and other general semanticists: The very choice of words is not neutral and objective but based on certain presumptions about the state of affairs in question. Use such words, and what do you get? At best, a break in communication instead of meaningful dialogue. At worst, a screaming match in place of the "luxury of human intercourse," if you will pardon the expression.
You take this curious habit of referring to Chechnya as a "breakaway republic" - which, say, BBC World and CNN, to name just two TV channels, invariably do. Personally, I cringe whenever I hear that expression. It is a funny kind of "breakaway republic" in which the entire educated and well-to-do elite up and breaks away from its beloved native land and heads for the land from which their people are supposed to break away, mostly for the capital Moscow, but also elsewhere. I'd say it was the clearest instance of voting with their feet, and if that is a vote for independence, then it is a bit left-handed, to mix a couple of metaphors. Those who so glibly use the phrase "breakaway republic" should visit Moscow's south-west, Yugo-zapad. It is a veritable Chechenland, with Russian kids in the first grades heavily outnumbered by the newcomers. I've had occasion to point out that between 100,000 and 200,000 Chechens, no one knows exactly how many, have settled in Moscow alone - enough to form a breakaway republic of their own. Those who cherish the term "separatist" ought to study closer the question of who chose to be physically separated from what.
These separatists knew very well what they were running away from: the rule of the Kalash, instituted by Dudayev's edict No.1 - the right of every Chechen to bear arms. That's when the educated ones started running, in 1991, long before the federal authorities' ham-fisted attempts to restore constitutional order there. The escapees knew better than to call the territory ruled by Dudayev and his cohorts a "republic." You say "republic," and you have a mental picture of a political organization capable of implementing some set of laws, no matter how harsh or unjust. If that term is used to cover a conglomerate of armed, clan-based bands recognizing no law other than jungle law, and no pursuits other than some form of crime, that's a misnomer to end all misnomers.
Another funny one is "Aslan Maskhadov the popularly elected president of Chechnya." Even if he had been popularly elected (which he wasn't, with just about one tenth of the Chechen population taking part in the voting, I was reliably informed at the time), his term of office expired God knows how long ago. But to call those elections free and fair is in itself a typical bit of propaganda eyewash. What with that Edict No.1, it was arms-bearing Chechens who voted (those who bothered to), not the unarmed non-Chechens who were fleeing for their life - those who could, of course. More than 200,000 of those "Russian speakers" - Russians, Armenians, Jews, Ukrainians, Kurds, Greeks, Ayssors, Ossetians, Dagestanis, you name them (they are all "Russians" in the Western book, which is yet another semantic joke) - settled in Stavropol Territory alone; just ask Stavropol governor Chernogor, who has to feed them, find them jobs, and keep them out of mischief. Many more scattered throughout the vastness of Russia, unnoticed either by the international community or even by their own self-absorbed government. They have tales of Chechen atrocities to tell that no one hears, while "Russian troops' atrocities in Chechnya" is everyday Western media fare.
If that exodus wasn't the result of Nazi-type ethnic cleansing, I wonder what is. You can read Dmitry Pushkar's story in MN's issue No.49 on the subject, and I can tell you that it is a pretty superficial account: Mr. Pushkar was discovering for himself things that had been common knowledge down south for years. My mother still lives in a little house at the foot of Mount Beshtau, and until recently I used to go there every three or four months. I will never forget a trip back to Moscow in about 1992: There was this woman from Grozny in the same compartment, and she kept crying all the 34 hours the train ride takes. Her husband and son had been killed by the Chechens, just for fun and to take away their apartment, herself and her 16-year-old daughter gang-raped, the daughter subsequently died, she had to leave her flat and all her possessions, and flee for her life into the unknown. Who was she to appeal to? That degenerate Yeltsin? Or Lord Judd? But that was quite a few years before his lordship appeared on the scene, and I don't think it would be any use appealing to him now. He seems to me to be the sort of man who can proudly say, with Lord Highcastle in a Bernard Shaw play: "Nothing ever penetrates our heads." I don't think he has read much, not Walter Scott's "Waverley," anyway. Otherwise he would have recognized some of the problems staring him in the face: They are much the same as England had to deal with at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries on the Border.
Actually, I don't think it takes all that much erudition - just a little imagination might help. Remember what a couple of Washington snipers did to America recently? Right now, it is a few hundred, if not thousand, snipers with various grudges that are terrorizing Chechnya - and even Moscow on occasions. Do we invite them to a roundtable discussion of "post-war models of Russo-Chechen coexistence," as various Western do-gooders are pressing us to do? Head of the left-leaning party Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, our most prominent "stop-the-warrior," grumbled in disgust, after his failed negotiations with the Dubrovka hostage-takers: "There's no one there with whom you could talk politics." I guess he said more than he thought he did. You can't discuss politics or anything else with terrorists and hostage-takers, but neither can you discuss anything with those who provide political cover for them: They are just two sides of the same coin. One side has all the muscle, the other some semblance of shabby political respectability - in the eyes of the beholders, those double-standard experts whom it suits to see respectability where there is none.
There is also intermittent talk about a "post-war model of Russo-Chechen coexistence." I, too, was asked to come up with some such model. Well, I could only say that the least of my concerns and aspirations was to create some "model" that would please everyone and that would miraculously lead to a Switzerland-type peace, orderliness, and serenity for all. Actually, the things that rile me, as a human being and journalist, are above all the ignorance and arrogance with which various model-creators both in the West and over here in Moscow approach a problem which, at a serious estimate, will take several generations to resolve. If I were to speak of models, I'd again refer to those tried and found effective in the past - say, the way England tamed the various Highlander Rob Roys by forbidding them to wear arms - and even kilts, if I remember rightly. But, I repeat, that sort of thinking or rather playing God with countries, constitutions, interventions, etc. from a safe distance and from a high moral ground appears to me to be a futile and not very intelligent occupation. If any accommodation is found, it will be found by the people on the ground driven by the need to survive - for what are eternal war and terrorism if not a road toward annihilation? And it must be clear to anyone with a grain of sense in their head that it will not be Russia that will be so annihilated.
To conclude, I can only repeat what I wrote seven years ago, after Basayev's raid on Budyonnovsk: Tragedies have no happy endings, and the Chechen tragedy is no exception. We must be prepared for a very long pull, for advances and reverses, for a lot of enlightenment effort. Talking less balderdash about the whole problem and cleaning up the language in which it is discussed would be some help, however minuscule.