Mar 18, 2007

Book Review: The Permanent Crisis: Essays on Russo-Chechen Relations

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Fowkes, Ben (ed.)

London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998, 188 pages


Fowkes was most recently a senior lecturer at the University of North London, and he previously taught at the University of Sheffield. The author has written extensively on communist and Soviet history, and is perhaps best known for his English language translations of the writings of Karl Marx, including an acclaimed version of Das Capital. This particular text – subtitled The Permanent Crisis – is a collection of essays that use the First Chechen War as a backdrop for analyses of the turbulent history between the Russians and the Chechens.

Fowkes himself contributed a length introductory essay that serves to quickly bring non-specialists into the historical discussion of Russo-Chechen relations. Fowkes argued that the historic absence of feudal nobility among the Chechens – who pride themselves on being an egalitarian people – is an important reason for their “unusual steadfastness in resisting Russian occupation,” as there did not exist a class of indigenous leaders with whom the Russians might make alliances. Fowkes also argued that Islam arrived late to Chechnya, and the Chechens embraced the Sufi mysticism espoused by the likes of Sheikh Mansur, whose brand of religious rebellion against the Russians found receptive ears in the Chechen people. The author sketched out an evolving pattern of Russian control of the lowlands and Chechen rebel dominance in the mountainous regions that remains a strategic feature even today.

Eighteenth century Chechen leader Sheikh MansurEighteenth century Chechen leader Sheikh Mansur

Fowkes argued that the Bolsheviks, whose strengths could be found in the peasants of the Chechen plains and in the emerging cities, continued to operate in this highland-lowland dichotomy, albeit with the exception of a brief alliance with the Sufi militants in a campaign against Denikin and the White Army. The Bolsheviks then engaged in an openly anti-Islamic campaign to close mosques, religious schools, and murids, and encouraged the influx of a Russian industrial proletariat to the oil city of Grozny, continuing the pattern of political fragmentation begun by Alexander II in the 1860s.

Using a pretext of alleged collaboration between the Chechens and the Germans during World War II, Stalin ordered in 1944 the deportation of nearly 400,000 Chechens from their homelands to the Kazakh SSR and portions of Siberia; Fowkes estimated that 132,000 people died in the period of exodus and resettlement. Although Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to return home in 1956, the memory of the forced deportations remains strong in Chechnya, and Fowkes argued that this period continues to be a source of friction between the Russians and the Chechens. During the fall of the Soviet Union, Chechen separatists used the horrors of deportation to stir up support for secession from the Russian Federation.

Fowkes maintained that the Russian forces during the First Chechen War were ill-prepared to fight, citing inadequate war preparations, poor troop morale, and a lack of quality units. He also argued that the switch from a conventional war to guerilla tactics by the Dudayev forces prolonged the war, and that the mountainous regions provided the ideal terrain for resistance actions. Fowkes also argued that rampant corruption among anti-Dudayev factions was well known among the Chechen population, and that the lack of a non-criminal opposition to Dudayev helped prolong his hold on power.

Nineteenth century Chechen leader Imam Shamil in an undated photoNineteenth century Chechen leader Imam Shamil in an undated photo

Bülent Gökay provided a historiographical essay on the legacy of Imam Shamil, leader of the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War and the third Imam of Dagestan and Chechnya. Shamil’s nineteenth-century movement was so successful in curbing Russian advances into the Caucasus that a de facto state, the Imamate of Shamil, existed for nearly 30 years. Gorkay argued that the Imamate might have survived Russian imperialism had not the Crimean War ended in such rapid fashion, as Shamil envisioned a coordinated alliance with the Ottomans and the Western powers.

Gökay argued that Marx set the parameters for the historical legacy of Shamil, portraying the Imam in 1853 letters to the New York Tribune as an anti-imperialist and as a democratic nationalist. The early Bolsheviks continued to depict Shamil in a favorable light, holding up the example of the Imam as an ideal of “progressive national liberation movements fighting against the oppression of tsarist imperialism.” The Stalin era, argued Gökay, brought a new approach to examining the nationalist movements of the Caucasus peoples: tsarist imperialism became seen as a “lesser evil” to annexations by the Turks and Persians, and was thus a necessary component of historical development. Shamil’s legacy took a subtle shift away from being a hero of resistance toward a “historical necessity.”

Gökay argued that the rise of “Great Russian patriotism” during the Second World War set the stage for the historiographical minimization of national struggles by Soviet historians, and postwar historians began to depict Shamil as a tool of “Ottoman imperialism and reactionary Persia.” Gökay noted that, by the 1950s, Soviet historians viewed Shamil as an enemy of socialism:
The Ottoman Empire, Great Britain, and France were named as the major imperial powers that initiated a number of intrigues to separate the peoples of the Causcasus from Russia. Shamil was portrayed as noting more than a ‘deputy’ of the Turkish commander-in-chief, Ömer Pasha, and at the XIXth Party Congress Shamil was denounced simply as an agent provocateur paid by foreign imperialists.

This view of Shamil as the leader of a “reactionary feudal-clerical resistance movement,” argued Gökay, continued until the short-lived glasnost movement in the mid-1980s.

William Flemming contributed an essay that critically reexamined the Chechen deportation, arguing that the Soviet deportations “stand out because of the brutality of the operations” and the fact that “hundreds of thousands of ‘special settlers’ perished in the process of deportation.” Flemming noted that there exist a number of discrepancies between official reports of the deportations and those of Chechen and Ingush eyewitnesses especially in the areas of NKVD atrocities, conditions during transportation of the deportees to Central Asia, and casualties that resulted from the deportations. Despite the optimistic reports to Stalin provided by Lavrentiy Beria – who headed up the deportation operations – survivors painted a grim picture; typical of the accounts cited by Flemming was this excerpt of a testimony by a Kh. Arapiev, an Ingush man who was a former Communist Party official:
In the ‘cattle’ wagons, which were full to the limit, and without light or water, we travelled for almost a month to the unknown destination assigned to us … Typhus stalked the wagons … During short stops at dark, uninhabited railway halts they buried the dead in the snow next to the train (to go more than five metres away from the wagon was punishable by death on the spot)…


Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994Russian helicopter downed by Chechen forces near Grozny in 1994

Pontus Sirén provided a detailed political and military history of the First Chechen War, focusing on the one of the key periods of the conflict, the Battle for Grozny. Sirén argued that a failed covert military action in November 1994 – formulated and initiated by war hawks in his Cabinet - put Yeltsin in a precarious position, as he had long denied that Russia planned to invade the Chechen Republic. When it became obvious that the “official secrecy and blatant lies” could no longer hide the fact that Federal Counter Intelligence Service and Minstery of the Interior forces had been operating in Chechnya to topple Dudayev, argued Sirén, Yeltsin was forced to escalate the conflict as a means to save face.

Each of the articles contain extensive footnotes of the primary and secondary sources used in the essays, and several of the authors provided tables and charts for concise condensation of statistics. Fowkes and Sirén also added a lengthy chronology of the Russo-Chechen conflict, helping readers keep track of the activity before, during, and after the First Chechen War. The Permanent Crisis: provides some unique persectives to the outbreak of hostilities in 1994 between the Russians and the Chechens, and one that peels away some of the simplistic explanations offered by the mainstream media for the First Chechen War.

2 comments:

Dariush said...

Excellent stuff, Mike.

I realize that your book review posts don't get as many hits as some of your other stuff, but they are appreciated.

historymike said...

Thanks, Dariush.

The book reviews draw an odd mix of readers. They don't often leave comments, but I get a fair amount of traffic on some of them, like this review of Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-1570, which alone brings 4 or 5 people a day to my site.