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Moscow Bombing: Literature Sheds Light On Problems In Russia

Russia Subway Blast

First Posted: 05/31/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 05:00 PM ET

As Moscow recovers from and responds to Monday's suicide bombings, we can turn to writing and literature from the past few decades to help us understand the history behind the attacks and the increasingly long story of tensions between Russia and Chechnya. From the New York Review of Books archive:

"Death In Moscow: The Aftermath" (December 19, 2002)
Christian Caryl

It is likely that the most enduring consequence of the hostage crisis and its grim outcome will be a highly emotional climate, in which war against Chechen rebels and their Muslim supporters will have wide support. The terrorists[4] may have died without seeing their demands fulfilled, and yet on one count they succeeded dramatically. Before October 23, when they took over the theater, the war in Chechnya was an oddly nebulous affair--a war that was never officially declared, and then was declared over, but went on. For years now Putin and his generals have been claiming that the "military phase" of the conflict ended long ago, even though Russian soldiers have been dying in the republic at the steady rate of two or three per day. But strict government censorship of war coverage has helped to sustain the myth of a low-intensity police action on the distant margins of national awareness.


Now the hostage-takers have shattered that fiction. They picked as their target a theater in the center of Moscow that had been showing a hugely popular "home-grown" Russian musical, a naive recycling of a Soviet children's book about Arctic explorers that has long been beloved for its patriotism. During the siege they transformed the theater, rhetorically and physically, into the same sort of urban battleground they knew so well from home--complete with boobytraps and Islamist kamikaze slogans. When negotiators begged the hostage-takers, who included about ten women, to release some of the teenage children in the theater, the Chechens responded that they considered anyone over the age of twelve an adult--not least because male teenagers in Chechnya are sometime victims of the brutal security sweeps, conducted by Russian troops, that often end in the disappearance or death of those detained and that have done so much to stimulate implacable hatred of the Russians among the Chechen population. The imagery of the siege has left a lasting impact. Again and again, during the crisis, I heard Russians wondering aloud what sort of atrocities their troops must have committed to drive the young women among the hostage-takers to take such a desperate action.

In a less polarized atmosphere, such thoughts might lead to a critical reappraisal of policy. The reality, unfortunately, is that the hostage-taking has sharply intensified the traditional hatred between Russians and Chechens--measured most dramatically, perhaps, by the despair of Anna Politkovskaya, the remarkable Russian journalist who has received countless inter- national awards for her brave coverage of the war, mainly for the Russian biweekly Novaya Gazeta, and who negotiated with the hostage-takers in the final hours before the storming of the theater. In the days after the crisis she published an essay criticizing members of the Chechen diaspora in Moscow and elsewhere for their conspicuous failure to condemn the hostage-takers. Read More


"Mysteries of the Caucasus" (March 11, 2004)
Christian Caryl

"Stories I Stole"
by Wendell Steavenson

"The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire"
by Khassan Baiev, with Ruth and Nicholas Daniloff

"Caucasus: Mountain Men and Holy Wars"
by Nicholas Griffin

"Black Garden: Armenia and Azerbaijan through Peace and War"
by Thomas de Waal

"Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory"
by Yo'av Karny

Why should we care? One might argue that the Ruritanian ways of characters in far-off Georgia have little bearing on the lives of ordinary Americans or Europeans. Yet this is not entirely true. For one thing, over the past decade, in particular, the Caucasus has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for provoking instability. Wars in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the Russian republic of Chechnya have killed hundreds of thousands of people and created millions of refugees. As Thomas de Waal reminds us in "Black Garden," the "frozen conflict" between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the enclave of Nagorny Karabakh remains "a tiny knot at the center of a big international security tangle" nearly fifteen years after it began.


The looming specter, as de Waal points out, is that Russia could intervene militarily on the side of Christian Armenia, one of its traditional allies in the region, while Turkey, a powerful member of the NATO alliance but now with an Islamist government, has contemplated doing the same for Muslim Azerbaijan, whose citizens are ethnically almost identical to the Turks. Meanwhile, a series of suicide bombings by Chechen rebels raise the possibility of the "Palestinization" of the war there--as suggested by the recent bloody terrorist bombing in a Moscow subway. As Russian forces in Chechnya struggle to consolidate their hold over the republic, Chechen guerrillas are resorting increasingly to terrorist tactics as a way of drawing attention to their cause. During last year's hostage crisis in a Moscow theater--in which Russian special forces killed 129 hostages in their attack on the terrorists--they also demonstrated an ominous will- ingness to use the presence of foreign citizens among their victims as a way of getting international publicity, a tactic that could well presage much worse to come.

So far the Caucasus has not chosen to export much of the violence that it has been producing in such enormous quantities. But the West cannot count on these ripples of turmoil to remain confined to the region. If anything, its strategic importance is growing. As the European Union and NATO expand toward the east, the Caucasus is increasingly being drawn into Western security arrangements--to the growing alarm of both Moscow and Tehran. Both Georgia and Azerbaijan have flirted with the idea of NATO membership, while the promise of EU membership for Bulgaria and Romania means that the Black Sea is increasingly becoming a European lake, with obvious consequences for the nations of the Caucasus--most of which, incidentally, consider themselves heirs, if not sources, of European civilization. (If Christianity is considered one of the qualifying criteria, then both Armenia and Georgia can legitimately claim to have accepted Christianity earlier than many of the present regions that now make up the European Union.) This seriously increases the potential for future friction between Europe and Russia, which views the Caucasus as just possibly its most sensitive and crucial frontier. (The North Caucasus, a shaky group of ethnically diverse republics that includes Chechnya, is part of the Russian Federation.) Read More


"Islam: The Russian Solution" (December 21, 2006)
Orlando Figes

"For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia"
by Robert D. Crews

"Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security"
by Shireen T. Hunter with Jeffrey L. Thomas and Alexander Melikishvili, and with a foreword by Ambassador James F. Collins

As the Russian empire extended south and east by conquest, trade, and the collaboration of indigenous elites, its Muslim population steadily increased. The Muslims of the Crimea and the steppelands north of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea were incorporated into the empire by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century; the Caucasus itself was conquered in the early nineteenth century, although the Russians never really quelled the Muslim hill tribes of Daghestan and Chechnya; and beginning in the 1860s the Russian army pushed the empire's frontier deep into the Kazakh steppe and Central Asia, subjugating rich and ancient centers of Islamic piety and scholarship in Tashkent, Kokand, Bukhara, and Samarkand. By the end of the nineteenth century there were more Muslims governed by the tsar than by the Ottoman sultan.


The encounter between Russia and the Muslim world has been perceived by most observers as a simple tale of imperial conquest and confrontation epitomized by Russia's long and often brutal war with the Muslim rebels in Chechnya and Daghestan. (This is a conflict that goes back to the nineteenth century, when the Daghestani warlord Imam Shamil led the Muslim hill tribes of the northern Caucasus in a fierce campaign against the army of Tsar Nicholas I, who ruled between 1825 and 1855.) In this saga of resistance and suppression, Russia's southern border represents a crucial front in the "clash of civilizations" between Islam and Christianity; the recent war in Chechnya is a return to the "natural state of conflict" between these religious traditions after the collapse of the artificial peace imposed by the Soviet regime.

But as Robert Crews reminds us in his scholarly and timely book "For Prophet and Tsar," the conflict in Chechnya and other parts of the northern Caucasus was in fact unusual in a history of peaceful coexistence and collaboration between Russia and the Muslim world before 1917. The reign of Catherine the Great, which began in 1762, marked the first major expansion of the Russian empire into the Caucasus region. The Russian armies conquered Muslim territories and suppressed resistance; but imperial officials also managed to win the allegiance of Muslim subjects by making Islam and its attendant hierarchies (with clerics and legal scholars at the top) a central institution of imperial rule. As a result of tsarist policies, Crews maintains, "Muslim men and women came to imagine the imperial state as a potential instrument of God's will," and engaged with it to renegotiate their own relationship with Islam as loyal subjects of the tsar. Read More


"Forever Putin?" (February 11, 2010)
Amy Knight

"Bez Putina: Politicheskie Dialogi s Yevgeniem Kiselevym" ("Without Putin: Political Dialogues with Yevgeny Kiselev")
by Mikhail Kasyanov

"Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War"
by Stephen F. Cohen

[I]t is unlikely that Yeltsin considered Putin, a former career KGB officer, to be a democrat when he designated him as his heir apparent. As Stephen Cohen points out in his provocative and insightful book "Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives," Yeltsin's main goal was to ensure that he and his family would not face criminal investigations for corruption after leaving office, and Putin promised him immunity from prosecution. Cohen has little use for the idea that Yeltsin brought democracy to Russia. In his view, Gorbachev deserves the main credit, particularly for the policies of glasnost and perestroika he introduced in the late 1980s. When Gorbachev was forced out of power in 1991, he writes, Russia lost a golden opportunity to modernize, and "Gorbachev's model of evolutionary democratization was deleted from history and thus from politics."


As Cohen stresses, the emergence of Putin was the result of Yeltsin's "de-democratization." The US contributed to this trend by insistent demands that Russia implement economic "shock therapy"--a policy of large-scale privatization and removal of state subsidies and price and currency controls--while it gave uncritical support to Yeltsin. Once Putin came to power, US policy continued to be misguided and counterproductive. By "praising the despised Yeltsin and his shock-therapy 'democrats' while condemning the popular Putin," Cohen writes, the US "further associated democracy with Russia's social pain and humiliations of the 1990s."


Cohen observes correctly that many Russians are deeply suspicious of the West and its notions of democracy, even those in the younger generation. A recent poll of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds by Moscow's Levada Center showed that 40 percent view the US in a negative light because they think it is trying to undermine Russia's stability. But Cohen goes too far in putting the blame for such views primarily on American "crusaders" for democracy. Xenophobic tendencies in Russia, which have increased dramatically since Putin became president, are also the result of the Kremlin's extensive anti-Western propaganda efforts through the state-controlled press, radio, and television. Read More

Read more at the New York Review of Books website.

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Filed by Jessie Kunhardt  |