Too Much History II

One often hears that we need to understand situations better, and occasionally one hears mutterings that “outsiders” can never possibly understand. There is some truth to that, but if one took it seriously no one would ever try to understand anyone else. That would pretty much put me, an educator, out of a job and suggests that of us who visited Russia this summer were on a fool’s errand.

The one Russian leader who had actually grown up in the Caucasus probably did more harm than the many who had only a superficial understanding of this complex region. Stalin was Lenin’s specialist in minority problems. His solution was “divide and rule,” making certain that each group looked to the Soviet Union to defend its interests. He selected politicians for their loyalty rather than their ability. Then he tried to “modernize” the region, industrializing wherever he could and making certain that everyone understood some Russian. It was a policy that might have worked had someone other than the communists run the government.

Stalin had learned from Lenin that good ideas alone were insufficient to win public support. With sufficient time, one could use education and the natural development of the economy and society−that is what Marx would have proposed, at least once the proletariat had won total control. The problem was that the proletariat (or the self-proclaimed leaders of the working class, the communist party) had not won complete control. Consequently Stalin used his mentor’s chief weapon−terror.

This made Stalin few friends, and even he believed that his population was ready to join any enemy army that promised to deliver the country from Bolshevism. Consequently, when World War Two came to Russia Stalin uprooted the Moslems of the Crimea and the Caucasus region, the Tatars and Cechens, before they could join Hitler’s oncoming forces, and transported them into the deserts of the east. This was done with all the brutality and inefficiency of his purges, and for many years the Tatars were not allowed to return to their ancestral homes. The Cechens did return, but they were hardly in a forgiving mood. In subsequent decades some Cechens found a valuable niche in Soviet society―organized crime. This was mainly smuggling, an ancient and honored tradition in the Caucasus, but after the collapse of Communism in 1991 they went into extortion, drugs, and kidnaping. Thus, the negative stereotype that most Russians already held was reinforced by true stories of gangsters whose mobs could not be penetrated and who seldom refrained from the most ruthless violence. The Soviet government had tried to overwhelm Cechen society by massive immigration, especially to the capital of Grozny, but this served only to make them more unhappy.

Most Cechens were not gangsters, and only a few were Moslem fanatics, but when the other states of the Caucasus declared independence, that handful took charge. Trained at terrorist camps, often with experience fighting in Afghanistan, the Cechens practically routed the half-trained and demoralized reservists who were sent in against them. The Russian army took Grozny only after house-to-house fighting that destroyed most of the city. The officers looked the other way as soldiers tortured, raped and murdered. Each atrocity provided more recruits to the rebel forces, and as the guerrillas retreated from Cechnya, they tried to establish a new base in Dagestan. Another Russian offensive followed.

Only very recently has the Russian army taken firm control, partly helped by the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, which made all regional governments suddenly aware of how dangerous these people were. But control is a long way from reconciliation.

We don’t have an answer to this problem. We can understand it, but if we were able to go back all the way to the Cossacks, we can’t think of a policy that would stop cattle theft and local warfare. Nor do we have much of an answer to today’s problems.

Our group would probably have loved to visit the Caucasus, but it was out of the question. Nobody goes there. Nor did we really discuss questions like: “did the end of communism change anything?” Or, “did communism really end there?” (Several post-Soviet states are ruled by the same men who were there before, using the same methods.) The evening news carried a story every night, but the heavy rains turned them into coverage of flood relief. Perhaps only the weather can bring an end to the violence. How much rain will be needed? Noah’s ark ended up on a mountain top just south of the Caucasus. But I think it will take more than forty days and forty nights.