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Chechnya: Rewriting History

Sixty years on, there will be little public commemoration of the Stalinist deportations of the Chechen people.
By Timur Aliev

The memorial in Grozny to Stalin’s deportation of the Chechens on February 23, 1944 is now virtually abandoned. The rows of vertical tombstones are still standing there, but the fence is broken and several memorial tablets bearing the names of the exiled and the dead lie shattered on the ground. The bronze sculpture of a fist clutching a dagger is damaged.


The memorial was built in 1993 in what was then a bustling square in a heavily populated city, but now it stands alone, as all the houses around are in ruins.


The poor state of the deportations monument, commemorating the wholesale exile of the entire Chechen population and the death of 100,000 of them, reflects a changed attitude to this tragedy in Russia as a whole large.


To the alarm of historians and ordinary Chechens, archives that were open in the mid-Nineties are closed, and newspaper and historical articles speak with justification of Stalin’s actions. The pro-Moscow authorities in Chechnya have decided not to officially to mark the 60th anniversary of the deportations.


The memorial was opened in February 1993 by then Chechen president Jokhar Dudayev. The tombstones used had been uprooted after the Chechens were deported and then used to underlay the pavements of Grozny. Only in 1991 were they taken up again.


In the last week of February 1944, 387,000 Chechens and 91,000 Ingush were sent in cattle trucks to the steppes of Kazakhstan. Every last person – including children, soldiers fighting at the front against Nazi Germany and Communist Party officials – was deported. Tens of thousands died of disease, hunger and typhus on the journey and the total death toll reached about 100,000.


Chechnya and Ingushetia were wiped off the map and all references to them were expunged from official records and encyclopaedias.


The two nations – along with a dozen other Soviet “punished peoples” were only reprieved and allowed to return by Nikita Khrushchev in 1957.


After their return, the deportations were a taboo theme until the perestroika era. A demand for justice for its victims became one of the leitmotifs of Dudayev’s revolution. Opening the memorial, Dudayev proudly said, “From now on, February 23 will not be a day of grief. I call on my people to stop mourning. We will not cry to please the empire.”


The 1994-96 conflict in which Dudayev was killed saw the memorial almost entirely destroyed. It was then restored, but is now damaged and falling into disrepair.


The new Chechen administration of Akhmad Kadyrov has said it does not plan any special events to mark the 60th anniversary of the tragedy. Abbas Osmayev, a history teacher at Chechnya’s state university said he had made enquiries about commemoration but was told that nothing was scheduled. “This topic is not raised much, so as not to annoy the authorities,” he said.


Osmayev said that by contrast he had recently attended a conference in Elista, Kalmykia, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the deportation of the Kalmyk people, where everything had been arranged “at the highest level” and a book had been published.


Chechen historians say that their history is being rewritten. Edilbek Khasmagomadov, former director of Chechnya’s National Library, said that in 2001 access to archives of the security police force that carried out the deportations, the NKVD, which had been open in the early Nineties began to be restricted. The archives of the NKVD’s successor, the KGB, have never been open.


Khasmagomadov said he had tried to look at the archives of two NKVD departments which had earlier been open, but found that they were now closed to him. “Even earlier on, they used to give them out selectively,” he said. “And several pages have remained closed.”


Magomed Muzayev, who has been Chechnya’s chief archivist for more than 10 years under various administrations, is worried by these developments. “An era of totalitarianism is beginning in Russia, and the first signs of it are the persecution of the independent media and the closure of archives,” he said. “But if everyone notices the first sign, then it is only historians and archivists who are beginning to see the second.”


Tamara Chagayev, a journalist who studied the most notorious massacre of February 1944, when 700 women, children and old people were declared “untransportable” and burned alive in the mountain village of Khaibakh, contrasts this attitude with the official Russian position ten years ago. At that time, she said, Sergei Shakhrai, a senior aide to President Boris Yeltsin, wrote an article about the deportations in the Izvestia newspaper and wrote, “The moral duty of Russia is not to hide the truth.”


Muzayev said, “At a recent meeting of archivists in Moscow, I was told, ‘Don’t bring up Khaibakh, don’t cause trouble.’ I objected and said that extremists exploit fear. The people know who are to blame. Whoever speaks out against the victims is on the side of the killers. We won’t save our state that way.”


Muzayev explained that there were two kinds of archival documentation about the deportations.


“NKVD documents from the 1940s were designed for two different objectives,” he said. “The first group contains documents which were produced in the NKVD’s fight against the enemies of Soviet power – the “bandits” in the mountains of Chechen-Ingushetia in 1941-43. For obvious reasons NKVD officers had to assess as accurately as they could the strength of the enemy, his capacities and tactics. It was not possible to deceive yourself, so these documents more or less reflected reality.”


The second category of documents was produced with the aim of preparing and justifying the mass deportation of the Chechens and Ingush. This propaganda work was begun by Stalin’s notorious henchman Lavrenty Beria in 1942, a full two years before Beria himself took charge of the deportations. In these, Muzayev says, all “negative attributes” of the Chechens and Ingush are played up and all “positive attributes” downplayed. This eventually led to a report entitled “On the Situation in the Regions of Chechen-Ingushetia” written in November 1943 for Beria, which he used to prepare the deportation operation three months later.


This report, historians say, has been used to justify the deportations after the fact. A series of publications in the Russian press has picked up on “negative facts,” Khasmagomadov said and suggested the Chechens collaborated with the Nazis, although German forces never reached Chechnya and there was no evidence that the Chechens went over to the other side more than any other Soviet ethnic group did.


Muzayev noted that a number of Russian parliamentary deputies such as the nationalists Alexei Mitrofanov and Dmitry Rogozin have recently increased their anti-Chechen rhetoric.


“In this sad anniversary year, Mitrofanov has openly proclaimed that the best method of solving the Chechen problem was Stalin’s one – deportation,” said Muzayev. “Even before the war, he advised using chemical weapons or nuclear bombs against the Chechens – and now he is recalling Stalin.”


The forgotten aspect of February 1944, the archivist said, was there was actually fierce resistance to it and “whole cargoes of soldiers’ corpses came down from the mountains.” Many rebels stayed on in the mountains and one of them, Khasukha Magomadov, was captured only in the 1970s.


For Chechen historians, the new tone adopted about the 1944 tragedy is a disturbing omen.


“I don’t think this topic is being raised in Russia just for the sake of it,” said Khasmagomadov. “In Russia a wave does not just go through the media for no reason. I think public opinion is being prepared for something.”


Timur Aliev is editor of Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper and coordinates IWPR’s coverage of Chechnya.


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