Vienna, February 23 – Today, when Russian officials are celebrating Fatherland Defender Day, most Chechens and Ingush, many other North Caucasians, and a significant share of Muslims elsewhere in the Russian Federation are marking with prayers and other actions the 65th anniversary of the Soviet deportation of the Chechens and Ingush.
Not only has this commemoration called new attention to the brutality of that action and the criminality of the regime that carried it out, but it appears set to deepen existing divisions between the North Caucasians and Russia’s Muslims more generally, on the one hand, and the increasingly repressive Russian government, on the other.
On February 23, 1944, Stalin’s security forces began to deport the entire population of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, roughly half a million people, to Central Asia on the pretext that Chechen and Ingush soldiers had deserted in massive numbers and prepared armed uprisings against Moscow (www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/deportation_vainahi).
Soviet units killed many Chechens and Ingush in the course of this action, including most brutally the burning alive of some 700 men, women and children in the village of Khaybakh. Tens of thousands died on the way to Central Asian exile, and many more died once they arrived.
Estimates of the total number of deaths from the deportation remain a matter of dispute, but most are within a range of one-third to one-half of the pre-1944 population of these two nations.
In a related action, at the time of the deportation, Stalin abolished the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, dividing up its territory among Daghestan, North Ossetia and Stavropol kray and resettling ethnic Russians and others in areas that from time immemorial had been populated by the two Vaynakh peoples.
That move created serious problems when the Chechen, Ingush and other “punished” peoples were allowed to return to the North Caucasus in the late 1950s at the time of Khrushchev’s thaw, and it set the stage for the national movements there in the 1990s, especially when Moscow failed to implement its 1991 law “On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples.”
Indeed, Jokar Dudayev, the first president of Chechnya-Ichkeria, spoke directly to that point in 1994 when he suggested that Chechens should remember this anniversary not as a defeat but as an indication of the ability of the Chechens to survive Moscow’s efforts to destroy them (kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2009/02/22/64139.shtml).
Since that time, the Chechens and Ingush have marked this day with meetings and prayers, but on this “round” anniversary, they are doing more. Last Friday, Nurdi Nukhazhiyev, the Chechen human rights ombudsman, said Grozny was collecting documents about the deportation because its true causes remain “unknown.”
And today, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said that the 1944 deportations showed that Stalin had hoped to deprive the Chechens of their national self-identification but that “the father of the peoples” had miscalculated and Chechen national identity is stronger than ever before (www.mk.ru/blogs/MK/2009/02/23/srochno/396198/).
In Chechnya and Ingushetia, people attended both ceremonies at mosques and public meetings to mark this day, but in contrast to most earlier years, demonstrations commemorating this Stalinist crime occurred throughout the Russian Federation, especially among Muslim groups who are clearly disturbed about the direction Moscow’s policies are now taking.
Last week, the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) asked that all of Russia’s Muslims take part today in religious services to commemorate what it called a day to remember the victims of Stalin’s deportations, actions which the SMR said involved “no less than 6.4 million people” (www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=28945).
And this appeal was seconded by ethnic groups: the Tatars of St. Petersburg for example called for a collective prayer in memory of those who “had been died at the hands of the band formations of the NKVD of the USSR,” a formulation many Russians might not be comfortable with (tatarlar.spb.ru/displayarticle966.html).
But perhaps the clearest indication of the way in which Soviet actions in the North Caucasus of 65 years ago continue to echo and spread across the Russian Federation now came in the TransBaikal city of Ulan-Ude where the militia detained two local activists who wanted to mark this event (kavkazcenter.com/russ/content/2009/02/23/64142.shtml).
Nadezhda Nizovkina and Tatyana Stetsura, members of the Democratic Union, were passing out leaflets headlined “February 23 – a Day of Sorrow!” linking what happened in 1944 to what is happening now, with the Russian government’s moves to repress Muslims and deport Muslim activists to Central Asia.
“Religious repressions are being converted into a system,” the two told passersby, with Russian officials carrying them out with particular force in non-Russian and non-Orthodox Christian republics. “Aren’t the authorities afraid,” they asked rhetorically, “that such actions will provoke solidarity among the non-Russian reservations?”
But before Nizovkina and Stetsura could distribute all of their 200 leaflets, Kavkazcenter.com reports, they were taken off to a militia station where they reportedly are still being “questioned.”