Vienna, January 19 – In the wake of the Manezh Square violence, many Moscow commentators have talked about what a future Russian “bunt” (revolt) might be, but a careful recounting of what happened in Grozny 64 years ago may provide the best example of what it might look like and why the use of force alone against it won’t solve the problems.
In an article on Newsland.ru, Oleg Matveyev describes what happened in Grozny in 1957. After the 20th Congress of the CPSU, he recalls, “the rehabilitation of both individual citizens and whole peoples who had suffered in the years of lawlessness began,” often leading to unforeseen and uncontrolled developments (news.babr.ru/?IDE=91108).
On January 6, 1957, Moscow issued a decree “on the restoration of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR within the RSFSR,” a measure that anticipated the gradual return from Central Asian exile of the peoples sent there but not the “more than 200,000” who flooded back over the course of 1957 alone.
The problems this created were not limited to numbers alone, Matveyev says. There was “the mass acquisition of arms,” blood feud murders, rapes, other violent crimes and “attacks on the residents of the republic who represented other nationalities.” And the Chechen leaders, he continues, sought to promote both the practice of Sufism and the establishment of Shariat law.
By the end of the year, “anti-Russian leaflets were being distributed in Grozny,” and Chechen young people attacked both teachers and even “officers of the Soviet Army.” According to one Russian there at the time, “the situation is so bad” that “the people are in a panic. Many have left,” she said; “and the rest are meeting” to decide what steps they should take.
According to official statistics, during 1957, some 113,000 ethnic Russians, Osetins, Avars, Ukrainians “and citizens of other nationalities” left the newly re-established Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. But those who did not leave participated on August 26-27 in an even which is “a classical example” of a “Russky bunt.”
Matveyev provides enormous detail on what occurred, but even the broad outline of events is suggestive of what can happen. On August 23, a Chechen got into a fight with an ethnic Russian and killed him. Russians around the city demanded that the Chechen be severely punished, and on August 25-26, they called for the public execution of the Chechen.
On the 26th, more than 3,000 people marched on the center of Grozny and staged a demonstration in front of CPSU headquarters. “But,” Matveyev notes, “neither in the oblast committee nor in the city committee of the party did anyone consider it necessary to enter into a discussion with the city residents or give it any explanations.
Instead, the party officials simply remained behind “a militia cordon” and assumed the crowd would disperse. But the crowd didn’t go away. Instead, a group of its younger members “broke into the offices of the obkom and attempted by force to bring into the square” senior government and party officials.
The young Russians succeeded in getting the officials to come out, but instead of entering into a serious discussion, these officials limited themselves to “a call to stop the disorders,” even as voices from the crowd shouted “’Chechens out of Grozny!’ “Let N.S. Khrushchev come to Us, We will Talk to Him;’” and “’Long live Grozny oblast!’”
More and more people came into the square even after officials sent into Soviet soldiers. And rumors that there would be another meeting early the next day which would include representatives from the Soviet government and the CPSU Central Committee caused even more Russians to arrive and make their feelings known.
But no one came from Moscow, and new leaflets appeared, denouncing the failure of the local officials to do anything and pointing out that the powers that be seemed more interested in protecting the Chechen murderer than in listening to the relatives and friends of the ethnic Russian victim.
By noon on the 26th, there were “approximately 10,000” people in the square. The leaders of the demonstrators demanded that the authorities release the young people who had been arrested for breaking into the obkom and “send the Chechens out of Grozny.” Stimulated by their words, “another group tried to break into the offices of the KGB.”
As this was going on, some in the crowd “turned their anger on any individuals of Chechen nationality who appeared on the square,” beating several of them so severely that one of the Chechens died. Then the crowd marched on the CPSU city committee headquarters and broke in, carrying out what Matveyev describes as “a pogrom.”
And the crowd adopted a resolution demanding that Moscow reverse course on restoring the Chechen-Ingush ASSR, limit the number of Chechen and Ingush returnees to “no more than 10 percent” of the total population, “and resettled advanced progressive Komsomol youth of various nationalities from other republics” in Grozny.
The demonstrators demanded that officials appear before them, threatening them with bodily harm if they did not, and repeated their demands that the Chechens be expelled from the republic. As the crowd was adopting that resolution, 500 Russians broke into the post office and then into the inter-city telephone office.
Russian demonstrators put up signs saying that “in Grozny, the Chechens are killing ethnic Russians and the local authorities are not taking any measures.” Finally, just before midnight, Soviet military forces arrived to disperse the crowd, but “participants in the meeting threw stones at them.”
The next day, the militia and KGB “began intensive searches for the active participants of the disorders,” with wave after wave of arrests. Ninety-one of those arrested were charged with “mass disorders” and promptly convicted. But these repressive steps did not have “the expected” result, Matveyev says.
Those arrested were not cowed, and one of them declared “the working class of the city correctly rose up, the counterrevolutionaries were not in the square; the counterrevolutionaries were sitting in the oblast committee of the CPSU.” But because of Communist ideology, “neither the central nor the local authorities were able to objectively assess” what had happened.
Instead, “the powers that be were agitated by only one thing: who wrote, who hit, who ordered … The Communist leaders in this way froze the resolution of the problems of inter-ethnic relations in Checheno-Ingushetia,” problems that nearly a half century later were to break out in “a bloody drama.”
Given how much greater Soviet control was then than Russian control is now, this portrait of ethnic Russians enraged by non-Russian actions and official non-action is likely to be especially worrying to the current rulers. If Russians were prepared to defy the CPSU over these issues, how much easier it is likely to be for them to defy the current powers that be.