Residents of Russia’s predominantly Muslim province of Chechnya wear traditional costumes as they dance during an official celebration of May Day in the provincial capital Grozny, Friday, May 1, 2009. During the Soviet era, May 1 was a major celebration of worker solidarity, Soviet might and the advent of spring. (AP Photo/Musa Sadulayev)
After a week of reporting on Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev — and subsequently, Chechnya — we know no more about this complex part of the world or its people than we did before the Boston Marathon bombings of April 15th.
As soon as Chechnya was identified as the suspects’ homeland of origin, the entire region became a symbol of age-old conflicts, mass stereotyping, and incomplete, Wikipedia-style reporting. Before the Tsarnaev brothers carried out the Boston Marathon bombings, very little attention was concentrated on the region. Now it’s a “breeding ground of terror,” whose 200-year-old independence struggle against Russia and domestic terrorism issues are now supposed to make Americans shake in their boots.
Such a fear has little basis.
For four years, I lived in the former Soviet Union. More than two of those years were spent in the Caucasus nation of Georgia, mostly as a Peace Corps volunteer and, subsequently, a Georgian language student. I was also in the country when it was engaged in an eight-day war with Russia over several conflict regions, Osetia and Abkhazia. My area of concentration for my Master’s in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies focused on ethnic conflict in the Caucasus.
While much reporting has been done on the issue, I still believe there are some misunderstandings about the region. Below, I address some of them.
1. Are Chechens Ethnically Russian?
No. They’re nationality is Russian, but ethnically they are part of the Nakh peoples of the North Caucasus. The Nakh people are one of many ethnic tribes of the Caucasus region. Russians, on the other hand, are ethnic Slavs.
Short Documentary On Chechnya:
2. Are Chechens “Dark-Skinned”?
Well, I can open my family photo album and point to an uncle who looks like Louis Armstrong and right next to him is an aunt who could pass for a much lighter-skinned version of Jennifer Lopez. Both would tell you that they are Black. All ethnicities have various shades of skintone, including Chechens. Regionally, Chechens and other Caucasus peoples are often referred to as “dark-skinned” because most do not have Slavic facial features like their Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian comrades, although some actually can pass for Slavs.
Point being, Chechens and other people of the Caucasus region can pass for a lot of things other than “dark-skinned.” If we knew nothing about the Tsarnaevs’ roots, one could argue that they could pass for frat boys on any college campus in America.
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3. Is The Caucasus Region “Volatile”?
For the most part, no.
Keep in mind that the region is a huge area nestled between the borders of Europe and Asia and is situated between the Black and Caspian Seas. Its largest ethnic groups are from the countries of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan of the South Caucasus. All of these nations are free of terrorism and tourists mostly from Europe visit them regularly. Some regions in the North Caucasus are volatile, with Dagestan and Chechnya, the regions of the Tsarnaev’s family roots, being the worst case scenarios.
4. Is Chechnya A Country?
No, it is not. Officially, it is an autonomous Republic within the borders of Russia. It has certain political rights to govern itself as a semi-state. For example, the people can vote for their own president, but like most elections in Russia, Chechnya’s elections are mere formalities and highly predictable. Moscow “supports” its own presidential nominee and other political candidates and they almost always win.
Map Of The Caucasus:
5. “Has Radicalization Extended Into The Chechen Community?”– U.S. Representative Peter King (R-NY)
First, this comment is reckless.
Though King admitted that he had not heard of the Chechen community in the United States being radicalized, he still posed a sweeping question that perhaps it was. Moreover, he cited no intelligence to back up his assumption. Second, according to the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington D.C.,-based foundation that focuses on Chechnya and the rest of the region, there are fewer than 200 Chechen refugees in the United States.
Moreover, the United States does not admit that many Chechen immigrants green cards anyway. Of the 80,000 people resettled into the United States in 2011, for example, Chechens got a stab at 2,000 spaces allotted to the entire Europe and Central Asia area, where Chechnya is located. In 2012, only 197 people from all of Russia resettled to the United States.
So, to answer Rep. King’s question, I doubt it.
6. Is Chechnya A “Breeding Ground of Terror”?
It depends on your outlook. As I have written on the subject before:
Chechnya is no more a ‘hotbed’ or ‘breeding ground’ for terrorism than any other nation conquered by a superior enemy left to build itself back up with little help from its oppressor. It has been the victim of a particularly bloody conquest, and has created one of the world’s most brutal separatist groups. But the separatists’ violence has always been aimed at Russia, not at America or other targets of global Jihad.
For more than 200 years, Chechnya, along with every other Caucasus nation, endured one external conquest after another. When they weren’t fighting the Ottoman Empire or the Mongols from the East, they were fighting the Russian Empire. The Caucasian War of 1817-1864 ended with Chechens and roughly a dozen other ethnic groups divided into their own autonomous regions — all forcibly incorporated into southern Russia (or the South Caucasus).
The terror did not stop there. Between 1941-1944, Stalin deported 1.4 million people from western regions of the former USSR — including some 387,000 Chechens — to Central Asia.
Why? With Stalin, you never knew for sure, but he reportedly accused them of collaborating with the Nazis during World War II.
And let’s not forget those two wars Chechnya fought against Russia over the course of 15 years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During that period, human rights groups documented severe human rights abuses carried out by Russian security forces against innocent Chechen civilians.
More than 80,000 Chechen civilians died during the two wars, according to several estimates.
The Chechen response has indeed grown increasingly radical, and brutal. The worst act of Chechen terror was probably the 2004 Beslan Massacre, where Chechen terrorists raided a school in a bloody takeover that left more than 300 children dead. Chechen extremists also took over a Moscow theater in 2002, leaving more than 100 innocent people dead. There are many more.
These horrible attacks were carried out on Russian soil. Chechen extremism has not had a global focus. And most Chechens are not Muslim extremists who wake up with Jihad on their minds.
However, some may argue that, because of Chechnya’s bloody history with Russia and acts of domestic terror against its northern neighbor by Chechen separatists, the republic as a whole deserves to be labeled as a terrorist nation. Then again, some Chechen Mothers who have lost their sons to alleged Russian military abuses may argue that such an outlook would be akin to looking at the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of Bull Connor.
7. Is there a connection between Chechnya and the Tsarnaev’s alleged acts of terror?
Anecdotally speaking, sure.
But we’re not talking about anecdotes. We’re talking about facts. And all we know so far is that Dzhokhar is a naturalized American citizen who seems to have limited knowledge of Chechnya. As for his brother, Tamerlan, it’s being reported that he had traveled to the region for training that prepared him to carry out the Boston Marathon bombings.
Even if that is true, to suggest that Chechnya is America’s new enemy is a stretch. Remember that 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi citizens, yet Saudi Arabia is not considered an enemy of the state.
The truth of the matter is no one knows what motivated these young men to carry out the horrible acts they are accused of committing, even though the narrative floating around is that their motivations stem from their homeland’s complicated, misunderstood history with terrorism and battles with Russia. The connection is most unfair.
As Caucasus expert Sarah Kendzior, keenly points out, “Do not look to a foreign country to explain a domestic crime. Look to the two men who did it – and judge them by what they have done, not from where their ancestors came.”
I couldn’t agree more.