Soviet Collapse, Chechen Wars, Ethnic Relations. A Discussion With Alexander Verkhovsky

by Cyril Babeev

This is the second part of our interview with Alexander Verkhovsky that explores racial and ethnic relations throughout Soviet and modern Russian history. Verkhovsky is a member of Russia’s Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights and the director of the Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, which is registered as conducting activity of a foreign agent under Russian law. For Part One, which discusses race, ethnicity, and racial policies in the Soviet Union, click here.

A young Chechen stands in the street during the battle for Grozny, January 1995. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, ethnic and racial relations continued to evolve in a new state that became known as the Russian Federation. This period, lasting through the 1990s, was marked by major territorial changes, military conflicts in the North Caucasus—the two Chechen Wars in particular—and a reevaluation of Soviet laws and norms. All of these developments then affected the ever-changing relationships between the ethnicities, races, and cultures that Russia inherited as the Soviet republics became independent. 

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

CB: What changes took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

AV: There were a lot of changes. Even before the Soviet Union collapsed, when it was just weakened and stopped being the good old Soviet Union, the national cadres policy [a Soviet policy designed to manage ethnic and cultural differences by training individuals who came from the so-called “national minorities,” usually of non-Slavic ethnicity, and installing them in positions of power in their respective Soviet republics] just disappeared. It was replaced by the rise to power of local elites, who found it easier to organise themselves based on their national identity and have been able to use it to increase their competitive advantage. As a result, it started happening everywhere around the Soviet Union.

In addition, once forcible control over the republics had been lifted as the USSR collapsed, it turned out that not only did not everyone like each other, but some immediately took up arms and turned on the others. Even in places where they didn’t take up arms, the newly found opportunities to improve one’s life at the expense of their neighbours were easily put into vague ethnic terms.

Some Russian citizens who lost their apartments in Grozny or Tashkent [in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union] lost them not because Chechens or Uzbeks hated Russians, but simply because there were people who thought it was a very good opportunity to seize their apartments.

Chechen fighters, supporters of President Dudayev, warm themselves next to an eternal flame in front of the Presidential Palace in Grozny, December 1994. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev

CB: But was an ethnic or racial justification still employed anyway? 

AV: Of course. It was widely used at the level of discourse, since a person can’t just steal someone’s apartment—that would make him a criminal. But if they seized it for the sake of saving their people, then it’s a totally different thing.

And it happened pretty much all over the country—of course, where the authorities allowed it to happen. If they didn’t allow it, if they still had some control, then it didn’t happen.

At the same time, it’s quite natural that when an empire falls, and different atrocities start to happen—and they always happen when an empire falls—it causes strong discomfort for the population of the metropole in all respects. I don’t think people personally knew a lot of those who were mistreated somewhere in Central Asia, but they were hearing about it a lot.

It was, after all, a very weird feeling for the residents of the metropole, when their country suddenly sharply decreased in size. I think people didn’t even immediately memorise where their new borders were. It was especially noticeable, for example, in relation to Ukraine, even before the beginning of the war in Donbass. People couldn’t believe that it became a different country altogether, because it’s just so close—you can take a bus and go there.

Of course, those were very uncomfortable feelings, and such feelings tend to transform into political phenomena over time. And the rise of Russian nationalism at that time was certainly a response to the collapse of the empire.

Special forces officers detain suspects in Moscow, March 1993. Kommersant Photo/Yury Tutov

There were also nationalists who used to be nationalists even before the fall of the Soviet Union, and they could finally speak up. But the fact that they gained many supporters at the very beginning of the 1990s, during perestroika [a period of restructuring of Soviet political and economic systems under Mikhail Gorbachev] and after it, was certainly due to the shock caused by the collapse of the empire. 

There wasn’t much done about discrimination at the time. For example, in 1993 in Moscow there was a massive hunt for Chechens when they were evicted from everywhere. It was partially due to the political collisions of that period, but I don’t have any doubts that on an emotional level, for those who carried out those evictions, it was a reaction to Chechen criminals who existed in that era and became almost a symbol of the beginning of the 1990s.

I can’t say if there were even that many of them. I suspect that there were all kinds of criminals, and I doubt that Chechens could possibly be predominant, but it’s true that they really became a symbol of criminality in 1992-1993. That’s why it was perceived as a defensive reaction: “We must save our city, so we should evict them all out of here.”

Special forces officers detain suspects in Moscow, March 1993. Kommersant Photo/Yury Tutov

CB: And was this image of a criminal created by mass media, or was it just something people discussed in their daily life?

AV: It was due to mass media. People didn’t really encounter actual banditry that much in their everyday life. It also depended on the environment they lived in, but generally, they didn’t come across criminals much, it didn’t happen that often. So yes, mostly it was due to mass media, and there wasn’t much control in that sphere at the time.

By the 2000s, and especially by the 2010s, the situation improved. Nowadays, even tabloids don’t publish the kind of articles that they used to publish in the 1990s. They just didn’t have a sense that they needed to follow any linguistic norms; everybody was just writing about the Chechen criminals.

And not just Chechen criminals—that would be one thing, but they wrote that all Chechens were criminals, who invaded our cities and spread crime, that it was a nation which could not be reformed because they had been living off crime for ages and still continued doing so. They wrote stuff like that all the time.

CB: And did it have any effect on the policies of that time? Was it used in election campaigns?

AV: As far as I remember, yes. I can’t remember any exact examples of election campaigns, but it certainly did happen. The fact that Khasbulatov [Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic/Russian Federation between 1991 and 1993] was Chechen played a big role in the confrontation between the President and the Supreme Soviet in 1993. But the question of whether the ethnicity angle had an effect on the beginning of the first Chechen War is more complicated. I don’t know to what extent the factor of ethnicity played a role in this question. After all, this decision was made by quite a narrow circle of people who didn’t start their day by reading newspapers.

Residents protesting outside Pervomayskoye village in Dagestan, where Chechen terrorist leader Salman Raduyev took hostages. The poster reads: “Russia is the Empire of Evil.” January 12, 1996. Kommersant Photo/Eddie Opp

CB: Did that media coverage lead people to support military activity?

AV: Yes, of course. The way it was explained to the public—why we were conducting these Chechen military operations at all—was not that it was in order to regain sovereignty and territorial integrity. Plainly, that was the official explanation, and it corresponded to the legislative and judicial aspects of this affair, but it was clear that it wasn’t something people really cared about at that time.

The main argument for them was that we had to destroy this den of banditism once and for all—that it was a criminal regime which was spreading crime all over the country, and we just didn’t have any other choice—we simply had to eradicate it.

CB: But was it proportionate to what was actually happening at the time? How close to reality was this image that was propagated by mass media?

AV: By all means, some things were close to reality. There’s no doubt that Dudaev’s [President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria] regime had links to organised crime. But it depends on  what you mean by “proportionate.” Was it proportionate to launch a full-scale war in order to stop some criminal activity? Most people would say “no.”

But it was more complicated than that, because from a legal perspective Dudaev’s regime was a continuous revolt, just due to the fact that it existed, and it didn’t obey the central government—it seized arms, and so on. So, the centre had the right to carry out this operation. But another question is whether they should have done it. And if they shouldn’t have, then what should they have done instead?

The first president of the Chechen Republic, Djokhar Dudaev interviewed in his office, January 1995. Kommersant Photo/Gennady Hamelianin

The government was afraid to seriously discuss the alternatives. I suspect that society at large was afraid to consider the alternatives as well, because of the fear that the country would continue to collapse, and the collapse of the empire wouldn’t stop at the borders of the newly formed Russian Federation. But I think such fear was exaggerated at that time. Maybe it was reasonable in 1992, but by the end of 1994, it wasn’t reasonable anymore. But it still existed. It can’t be denied. That’s why people were afraid to seriously discuss it. 

You can’t really talk about these separatist ideas now [Russian Criminal Code article 280.1 prohibits public calls to action aimed at the violation of the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation], but at that time, politicians could give a speech and say, “Let’s just separate it [Chechnya].” But it was said by people who were on the so-called political backbenches. And those who were in the front row could not afford discussing such an option. Even though Russian statehood at the time was overall relatively weak.

It was also weak in a military sense, as was established de facto, but at least it believed that it was strong. But it was surely weak as a police state, because it was clear that the obvious solution—to isolate the enclave using police forces—if we believe that the criminals are travelling back and forth, then let’s send the police there and solve this issue. But it wasn’t an option, because it was clear that even if you sent the police there, nothing would happen.

Russian police check residence permits of migrants and foreigners, September 1999. Kommersant Photo/Sergey Mikheev

CB: And what effect did this attitude towards the Chechen nation have on the people from Central Asia and other breakaway republics?

AV: Actually, Central Asia wasn’t mentioned much in the 1990s. The majority of people saw Chechens as the criminal evil. And I mean Chechens specifically—not just men of Caucasian origin in general. But this image of a criminal and dangerous Chechen quickly spread to other Caucasian natives as well.

But it’s interesting that it took organised groups of Russian nationalists a few years to notice this change and finally stop fighting the “universal Judeo-Masonic conspiracy” and switch to the Caucasus. And it was met with some internal resistance among their ranks. 

But they were gradually able to overcome it, and this topic became the main issue for them. It was already the main issue at the beginning of the 2000s—this idea that not just Chechens, but all Caucasian natives were criminals who had a different way of life, and so we couldn’t live in the same country with them—they were aggressive, they were invaders, and we didn’t discriminate or, God forbid, hurt them in any way, but they discriminated against and hurt us. The main complaint about them was not them taking our jobs, but their criminal or semi-criminal aggressive behaviour.

RNE (Russian National Unity) ultra-nationalist party members during a March 2001 street protest in the Rostov region in defence of colonel Yuri Budanov, commander of 160th tank regiment of the Siberian military district, in front of the building of the Kirov regional court. Budanov kidnapped, raped, and murdered 18-year-old Chechen girl Elza Kungayeva during the Second Chechen War. Kommersant Photo/Sergey Veniavsky

And I guess the response to it had to be aggressive too. And that’s what it eventually came to—there came a wave of assaults and fights. And only by the second half of the 2000s, the street fighters for the white race switched from the Caucasian natives to Central Asians.

The third excerpt from our interview with Alexander Verkhovsky will explore the development of racial and ethnic relations in contemporary Russia during the early 21st century that some might call “Putin’s Russia.” It will address the Russian government’s attempts to resolve the ethnic and cultural tensions that arose as Russia stabilized its statehood. The fourth part will then outline Verkhovsky’s informal proposals to improve racial and ethnic relations in Russia.

Cyril Babeev is the founder of the Gallery of Contemporary Illustration and the communications officer at John Wesley’s New Room. He is interested in how people remember others and the world around them.

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