March 30, 2010


Women Who Blow Themselves Up: After two female suicide bombers struck the Moscow subway, the hunt is now on for a 21-strong "Black Widow" terror cell. (David Satter, 3/30/10, Daily Beast)

The two Chechen wars, fought in 1994-96 and 1999-2000, were almost unparalleled in their barbarity in the postwar era. The women of Chechnya regularly witnessed the abduction of their husbands, fathers, and brothers, whom Chechen tradition treats as their protectors. In some cases, they were involved in trying to ransom them from Russian custody, an exercise that usually ended with them having to pay to receive a mutilated corpse.

The result was a desire for revenge and a break with the Chechen tradition that men do not send women into war. The Black Widows have participated in two-thirds of the almost 40 rebel attacks that have killed about 900 people in Russia in the last 10 years. In the words of the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, they “are trying to force Russians to feel the same pain that they have felt.” [...]

After the 2004 terrorist acts, the security situation in Chechnya underwent a change. The republic was handed over to Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel, who with the support of two of Chechnya’s most influential clans and Russian military and financial aid, established his own reign of terror, overseeing thousands of abductions and summary executions. The result, however, was a hiatus in terrorist attacks outside the North Caucasus region, and the residents of Moscow and other major Russian cities gave President Vladimir Putin and Kadyrov credit as the terrorist threat seemed to recede.

The solution, however, now appears to have been short-lived. Russian support for corrupt and brutal leaders like Kadyrov in the republics of the North Caucasus breathed new life into the Islamic terrorist movements that were supplied by a growing pool of female volunteers.

Chechnya and Tolstoy's Hadji Murad (Joe Palmer, nth position)
During World War II, in 1943 and 1944, German troops occupied Chechnya (oil!), whose leaders were collaborating with the Nazis. Consequently, Stalin dissolved the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic, and deported by boxcar the half-million Chechens to Kazakhstan, where 100,000 perished. Survivors were allowed to return in 1957.

Who are these disagreeable Chechens? They are a relic people living in a linguistically and culturally complex area, the Caucasus, the mountainous region between Europe and Asia and between the Black and Caspian Seas, location of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and part of Russia, each country in the Caucasus comprised of numerous ethnic groups. The language of the Chechens is similar to that of their neighbors, the Ingush, and the Avars who live in Dagestan, also a Russian republic.

Before 1500 AD the Chechens were nominally Christians, but they were converted to Islam by missionaries from Baghdad in the 1500s. In 1559 the Russian Tsar Ivan IV (The Terrible) stationed Cossack troops nearby. Ivan was in the process of pacifying the Tatars, Turkic-speaking descendants of the Mongols, the "Golden Horde", who had invaded and dominated much of Russia and Siberia in the 13th Century.

Cossacks were Russian mercenaries of a sort, soldiers from peasant communities who paid for their independence with military service, and who continued to fight for the Czar against the Bolsheviks even after the revolution of 1918. Cossacks and Armenians in large numbers immigrated to Chechnya when it was finally made part of the Russian Empire in 1859. Chechnya and its neighbor Ingushetia were made an Autonomous Soviet Republic in 1936.

Moreover, Chechnya was earlier a part of the Khanate of Crimea, ruled by the Ottoman Turks until its annexation by Russia in 1783. Then the Russian colonization of Chechnya began. Violent resistance to Russian occupation followed, led by the Chechen Muslim leader Sheikh Mansur, who was captured in 1791. After the Treaty of Adrianople 1829 further resistance to Russian domination was led by the Imam Shamil, whose policies were opposed by the brave Avar "Tartar" Hadji Murad. His valiant attempts to free his family from Shamil's captivity are the subject of a formerly little-known masterpiece written by Count Leo Tolstoy.

In 1851 Tolstoy joined the Tsar's army and went to the Caucasus where he learned the true story of Hadji Murad, a hero of the new democratic age.

Tolstoy's military service (much akin to that of Hemingway, his assiduous student) consisted mostly of talking, writing, hunting, seducing Cossack girls, and being treated for his venereal infections at a rest home.

Hadji Murad, caught between his Russian oppressors (Tsar Nicholas) and Muslim religious fanatics (Imam Shamil), has only the freedom to die heroically. Shamil is attended by an executioner carrying a big axe; Hadji Murad dies in battle, defiantly and with grace.

Tolstoy's War and Peace (1865-69), about the Napoleonic wars, and Anna Karenina (1875-77), a social tragedy, were followed by his founding a cult of Christian love, anarchism, non-violence, and the simple life. He wanted to live as an ascetic, so he gave away his considerable property, dying penniless in public. One would certainly expect his final work to reflect the Gospel, but it does not. Hadji Murad is the simple, vivid story of the selfless courage of a Muslim Tatar who is completely wrapped up in himself, full of daring and purpose.

The world would little note nor long remember the book Hadji Murad were it not for Harold Bloom, who in his 1994 treatise The Western Canon praises Tolstoy's novella as "my personal touchstone for the sublime of prose fiction, to me the best story in the world, or at least the best I have ever read." Left unpublished when Tolstoy died in 1910, the book is an artfully simple, intense, obvious, clear, pure and direct presentation of the paradox: violence is the chief evil; we must resist evil even by using violence.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 30, 2010 11:58 AM
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