As a Bostonian who was watching the race on April 15th 2013 that was marred by the senseless act of terrorism carried out by two Chechen-Dagestani-Americans which killed three people, I had a sickening sense of de ja vu as I watched recent media reports of as many as thirty people killed in twin bombings in Volgograd, Russia on December 29th and 30th, 2013. My heart went out to the Russians whose lives were cut short by the terrorists and the larger number of people who were cruelly maimed. Nothing can legitimize this sort of carnage which was obviously meant to embarrass President Vladimir Putin who has staked his reputation on hosting a smooth Olympics in Sochi.
As a professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth (the very university where Boston bomber Djohar Tsarnaev went to school), who has taught the only class in America on Chechnya I have had several students email me and ask me what the Volgograd bombers’ message or objective was. This article is meant to both answer their question and provide an ingredient that has all too often been lacking in the discussion on Chechen terrorism in Russia, historical context.
While we Americans of the iPhone/Wikipedia era like quick, simple answers (President Bush once famously summed up all the complexity of Al Qaeda’s motives for attacking America on 9/11 by simplistically stating “They hate us for our freedom”), the answer to my students’ question is not so simple and involves a journey back in time to the 19th Century Caucasus Mountains which separated Tsarist Russia from the Dar al Islam (Realm of Islam). The origins of the recent bombings and the terror threat that hangs over the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi lies in this region once known as the “Graveyard of the Russian Empire.” And ironically enough, it does have to do with freedom as Bush stated in his explanation, only in this case the Caucasian mountaineers’ loss of their freedom.
A Blood Soaked History
The Chechen highlanders and neighboring Dagestanis correctly claim that the roots of the violence in southern Russia go back to the 19th century Russians who deprived them of their ancient liberty. In the early 1800s, the expansionist Russians marched into the forested mountains of northern Caucasus and brutally conquered the smaller Muslim nations living in this region since time immemorial. The divided Chechen and Dagestani tribes (there are more than 30 ethnic groups in Dagestan) did not stand a chance against the massive armies of Imperial Russia until they were unified by a Dagestani holy man named Imam Shamil. Shamil convinced the mountaineers to put aside their difference and unify under the banner of defensive jihad. He led them in a 30 year war with the Russian invaders. The Russian Empire ultimately won the meat-grinder war, its most costly conflict until World War I, only by chopping down the primordial forests that gave the Chechens cover, burning their villages, slaughtering their people and ethnically cleansing the lowlands.
As the Russians fought to crush Shamil’s mountain rebels in the northeastern Caucasus Mountains, they moved against another nation in the northwestern Caucasus known as the Circassians. The odds are you have never heard of this people due to the fact that the Russians exterminated most of them, but for centuries they were famous in the Middle East and Russia. Circassian women were said to be the most beautiful in Eurasia and were considered the prize of any Ottoman Turkish sultan’s harem. As for the men, the Circassians were the elite fighters of Mamluk Egypt from the time of the crusades to Napoleon’s destruction of the Circassian-Mamluk dynasty. While considered nominal Muslims, the Circassian highlanders were part pagan animists whose recent conversion to Sufi mystical Islam was only skin deep. For this reason they were not able to unify based on the concept of jihad and were brutally conquered.
To teach all the Caucasian tribes a lesson, the Russians decided to wipe out the ancient Circassians. In his riveting book describing this hidden tragedy titled The Circassian Genocide, Professor Walter Richmond Commins writes:
Circassia was a small independent nation on the northeastern shore of the Black Sea. For no reason other than ethnic hatred, over the course of hundreds of raids the Russians drove the Circassians from their homeland and deported them to the Ottoman Empire. At least 600,000 people lost their lives to massacre, starvation, and the elements while hundreds of thousands more were forced to leave their homeland. By 1864, three-fourths of the population was annihilated, and the Circassians had become one of the first stateless peoples in modern history. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circassia
It was 150 years ago in the winter of 1864 that the Circassians were driven from their burning mountain villages at the point of Russian bayonets to the Ottoman Empire in what is today Turkey and much of the Middle East. Critically, the fleeing Circassians’ final port of departure from their ancient homeland was the Black Sea town of Sochi.
The descendants of modern Europe’s first genocide (this distinction has erroneously been attributed to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire) can still be found scattered across Turkey and the Middle East. I found a village of Circassians living in the Galilee region of Israel and among the Turks where they are noticeable by their blond features, blue eyes and tall stature.
During my visit to Sochi in 1992, however, I found only Russians. There was no trace of the Circassians who had lived in this town for eons. Their name had been effectively erased from the history books and the Russians have kept the horrors they inflicted on this people hidden for a century and a half.
The same fate eventually befell the Chechens. In February of 1944, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen people in cattle train cars called “crematoria on wheels” to the depths of Siberia and deserts of Central Asia. There, one third of this people died in another case of hidden genocide. The survivors fought their way back to their beloved homeland in 1957 after the death of the feared Stalin and remained distrusted “citizens” of the USSR until it collapsed in 1991.
Not surprisingly, considering their brutal history under the Russians/Soviets, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the Chechens, like the Estonians, Ukrainians, Armenians, Georgians, Uzbekistanis etc. opted for freedom (the key operative word here) and voted for independence from post-Soviet Russia. Russian leader Boris Yeltsin responded by declaring total war on the Chechen secessionists who were led by Sovietized, secular leaders like Dzhokhar Dudayev (killed in 1995 while negotiating peace with the Russians) and Aslan Mashkadov, a moderate who similarly tried negotiating with the Russians before his death in 2005.
In the end, the Chechens won the war of 1994-96 and regained their long lost freedom. In 1999, however, the new Russian leader, ex-KGB head Vladimir Putin, directed a much larger army to reinvade Chechnya and crush the independent state. Tens of thousands of Chechens died in the bloodshed and their capital Grozny was leveled and many towns burnt to the ground. One could actually see Chechnya burning from google.earth at the time.
This time the Russians were successful in crushing the subsequent guerilla rebellion and by 2009 had declared the war in Chechnya over. The Chechens responded to these events with terrorism, such as the Nord Ost theater hostage incident in Moscow in 2002 and the Beslan school seizure in 2004. In both cases the Russian security forces attacked the Chechen hostage takers who were demanding an end to the war and occupation of their homeland, and killed the hostages. In the Nord Ost theater incident the Russians pumped lethal gas into the theater killing over 130 hostages (including one American tourist) as well as the hostage takers, and in the Beslan school incident the Russians fired tank shells and incendiary devices onto the school setting it on fire killing hundreds of children.
The Chechen terrorists’ leader, Shamil Basayev, was, however, killed by the Russians in 2006. But the rebellion metastasized soon thereafter and spread to neighboring Dagestan. There the terrorists created a new pan-Caucasian organization known as the Caucasian Emirate that aims to liberate all of the northern Caucasus and rebuild the state of the 19th century jihad leader, Imam Shamil. The Caucasian Emirate had declared a moratorium on terror attacks against Russian civilians last year in response to anti-Putin protests in Moscow. But in the fall of 2013, the Caucasian Emirate issued a proclamation that few outsiders noticed at the time. It read:
We know that on the bones of our ancestors, on the bones of many, many Muslims who died and are buried on our territory along the Black Sea, today they plan to stage the Olympic Games. We, as the Mujahedeen, must not allow this to happen by any means possible.
The twin bombings in Volgograd in late December 2013 and an earlier one in October are clearly meant to show the Russians that the Chechen-Dagestani terrorists have reignited their terror jihad. They are also meant to remind the world of the tragedy that befell the Circassians of the Caucasus’s Black Sea shore exactly 150 years ago this winter. This is the dark secret that Russia’s authoritarian leader, Putin, does not want the world to know. Putin has thus far been very successful in conflating Russia’s neo-colonial war against Chechen separatists with America’s war on nihilist Al Qaeda Arab terrorists. Any attempt to remind the world of Imperial Russia/Post-Soviet Russia’s war crimes in the Caucasus is a threat to Putin’s pet project, the whitewashed Sochi Olympics. This of course not to excuse the brutal terroristic acts of the Caucasian Emirate or the Chechen rebels, but it certainly provides the one thing that Putin does not want the world to see as he constructs his “Potemkin village” in Sochi, and that is an honest account of the events that have made this the most terrorist-fraught Olympic games since the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.