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Who are the Chechens? Behind the scary headlines

Ruslan tsarni blog
Ruslan Tsarni, uncle of the suspected Boston Marathon bombing suspects, in front of his home in Montgomery Village, Maryland, asked his nephew, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, to turn himself in. (Photo by Allison Shelley/Getty Images)

The Boston marathon suspects “put shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity,” said their shocked uncle Ruslan Tsarni, as a massive manhunt for his surviving nephew continued on Friday.

It’s true that “Chechen” and “terrorist” are all too often linked in the headlines, giving the impression of a people hell bent on destruction. That may be because the vast majority of the small diaspora -- now spread over many continents after fleeing wars, repression and economic collapse -- lives quietly, blends in and attracts no media attention.

Few Canadians have met a Chechen, and those who have may not know it.

Q: Where is Chechnya?

A: It’s a tiny territory in southern Russia, flanked by the spiking Caucasus mountains. On the plains, you could drive from one side to the other in less than two hours.

Q: What’s the population?

A: About 1.2 million.

Q: Who’s in charge?

A: Officially, Russia. But it’s ruled by a regional president, Ramzan Kadyrov, backed by billions of dollars from Moscow to rebuild the decimated republic after two wars. The price: total submission to Moscow and Kadyrov. His brutal rule has sparked rebellions that have spread throughout the Caucasus.

Q:  Was Chechnya always part of Russia?

A: No, but Russia saw it as a strategic gateway to the Black and Caspian seas. From the early 18th century to 1860 it fought an expansionist war against fierce resistance from Chechen warriors. It staked a claim on Chechnya and neighboring Muslim republics. But the battle was never over.

Q: And earlier?

A: Chechens lived in autonomous clans, or taips. Noone is sure where they originated and they left no written history to explain it. Some trace their ancestry back to the fair-skinned Celts, pointing to the red hair of some families as “pure Chechen.” Others believe they were linked with ancient Armenia or the Fertile Crescent.

Q: What language do they speak?

A: Chechen is part of the Vainakh group of Caucasian languages. Chechens have used Arabic, Latin and Russian alphabets over the centuries.

Q: Are they Muslims?

A: They’re traditionally Sufis, a mystical strain of Islam. After the first Russian-Chechen war of the 1990s, Arab-backed extremists poured in money and weapons to convert them to radical Wahhabism. Kadyrov has tried to revitalize Sufism, but also imposed a stricter attitude to religion, including a ”virtue campaign” for women’s dress.

Q: Why did Chechnya fight two recent wars against Russia?

A: Chechens were subjected to massive, and murderous deportations during World War II, and even when they returned felt like second class citizens. Poverty and unemployment soared in the mountain areas.

When the Soviet Union crumbled, Nationalist Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev seized the chance to declare sovereignty, flaunted his independence and Russia invaded. A Chechen guerrilla leader's incursion into neighboring Daghestan, and accusations of a terrorist bombing, sparked a second war in 1999.  

Q: Are Chechens better off now?

A: Grozny looks like a glossy modern capital. But unemployment is massive and the oil industry hasn’t recovered from the wars. Russia keeps Chechnya on a tight financial leash and Kadyrov is in a power struggle with Moscow for more profits from its oil. Meanwhile ordinary Chechens battle poverty, corruption and repression.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Chechens have a famous code of hospitality to strangers. But if you aren’t offered a meal within 45 minutes of visiting a home, you know it’s time to leave.

Olivia Ward covered the first and second Russian-Chechen wars as the Star’s bureau chief for the former Soviet Union. She won a national newspaper award for her  reporting, and a film based on it, A Child’s Century of War, was listed for an Academy Award.


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