Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Chechen in Kyrgyzstan is not Kyrgyz


By Kelly Raftery

First off, let me say I mourn deeply for the victims of the Boston tragedy. One of the three fatalities was a little boy exactly the same age as my son. His sister, who has been gravely wounded, danced the same steps as my child. That family could have been mine standing on the street, any one of the victims could have been you or me.

Listening to the media coverage today, I can’t help but cringe at the errors that are being presented as fact about the former Soviet Union, its peoples and cultures. Let’s start with geography. From 1917-1991 there was the Soviet Union, or USSR. The USSR was made up of fifteen Republics, which included the Kyrgyz Republic, the Kazakh Republic, and the Russian Republic among others.  The Soviet Union was one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, home to over 100 distinct peoples, who were “encouraged” to adopt Russian over their native tongues, renounce their religions in favor of official atheism and live an appropriately Soviet life. 

A map below outlines the various countries that make up the former Soviet Union today. As you can see, fifteen countries emerged from the Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. 



The fifteen Republics operated somewhat independently and when things began to fall apart in the early 90s, it was easy to divide up the Soviet Union into its constituent parts, despite the fact that there were many other ethnicities that also wanted their own sovereign states. In fact, an initial treaty drafted under Gorbachev allowed for eighty separate states to be formed out of the Soviet Union, but this document was set aside during Yeltsin’s August Coup. Among those embryonic nation states never to be formed was the Chechen-Ingush Republic. But, dreams of an independent Chechnya would not die easily and a separatist movement was formed with the goal of an independent state for Chechens. 

Now, let’s look at the map below – of southern Russia and the Caucasus and talk about some of the geopolitical and economic aspects of this area.  First off is a geographic map of the region, showing the three nations that emerged in 1991, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The map also shows southern Russia, including Sochi, host of the 2014 Winter Olympics and Chechnya, right next door. The second (color) map I am attaching shows oil and gas pipelines that run between the rich oil and gas deposits of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan and the markets of Europe. Please note that one major pipeline runs right through Southern Russia, jogging around to avoid most of Chechnya. The Russians were not and are not willing to let that extremely important piece of land between the two seas be anything other than part of Russia. The fierce and bloody war over this land has dragged on for decades between the Chechens and the Russians and President Putin was elected the first time on the promise that he would never, ever allow the Chechens to gain independence.



The other area of the world that has been much talked about is Central Asia. I have heard today the accused bombers being described as “Chechen” and “from Kyrgyzstan.”  I have seen people on social media claiming that these men are, therefore, Kyrgyz, having been born in Kyrgyzstan. Please look at the map at the top of this post again and note the distance between the two countries. It is 2,500 miles between Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and Grozny, Chechnya, about as far as Boston to Salt Lake City, with an inland sea or two and some mountain ranges thrown in for good measure. Chechens have a completely different ethnic heritage than the Kyrgyz. Quite simply, Chechens are to Kyrgyz like Brits are to Greeks.  Different languages, different beliefs, different cultures and perspectives on life.  And yes, Kyrgyz and Chechens all practice Islam, but the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are all Christians, right?

Which brings us to our history point – why were these Chechens in Kyrgyzstan?   Our story starts with Stalin who ruled the USSR from 1924-1953, and was one of the people who actually drew lines on the map creating the borders for the Soviet Republics. The story goes that Stalin saw ethnic identity as a possible rallying point in Central Asia – as well he should, the Basmachi resistance movement in the area did not die until almost a decade after the Socialist Revolution – and so, when drafting the borders of the Central Asian Republics, Stalin was careful to include considerable ethnic minorities in the various Republics. What this means in real terms is that there is a sizable ethnic minority of Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan, a Tajik community in Uzbekistan, etc. The theory was that if any one group got organized to resist Soviet power, the leadership could take advantage of traditional ethnic tensions and create local unrest, thus taking the focus away from a revolt against Moscow. 

Stalin threw a few more ingredients into this cauldron of potential ethnic strife when, during World War II, he began to deport entire nationalities to Central Asia. The Chechen and Ingush peoples were accused of collaborating with the Nazis and deported to Siberia and Central Asia en masse. In February, 1944, villages were sealed off and people sorted into categories. The infants, very old or sick were deemed “unsuitable for relocation” and massacred immediately, the rest were forced into trains and sent to Siberia, the Kazakh Republic or the Kyrgyz Republic. Between thirty and fifty percent of the Chechen and Ingush populations perished in the first years of the deportation. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Khrushchev “rehabilitated” the Chechen and Ingush and they were allowed to return to their home region, but they had been disenfranchised to such a degree that it was not a terribly attractive proposal for many. Additionally, people had already built new lives in Central Asia and chose to stay in their adopted homelands, which is why Tokmok, a small village outside of Bishkek, still has a  Chechen population today. It was this village in which the Boston Marathon accused bombers were born and spent part of their childhoods. Perhaps their family just stayed after Stalin’s deportation, perhaps when the war in Chechnya between the Separatists and Russia’s forces in the 1990s became intolerable the family went to other relatives or friends still living there, perhaps they made a conscious choice to relocate to Kyrgyzstan after it became an independent nation.  I don’t know.* 


When I lived in Kyrgyzstan I always posed the same question to the locals if they were not ethnically Kyrgyz, “So, who sent your family here, Tsars or Soviets?”  Never did I get the answer that an ancestor had just decided to relocate to Kyrgyzstan on a personal whim; it was always exile of some sort.

So, the Kyrgyz have played host to any number of peoples who did not want to be there, but who were sent there:  Russians, Dungans, Chinese, Volga Germans, Tatars, Uighers, and others. It is not unusual for an ethnic Uzbek or Korean to have a passport from Kyrgyzstan in modern times, but that does not make him Kyrgyz, either. So, while these young men were “from Kyrgyzstan” they were likely born there because Stalin committed atrocities against their people almost seventy years ago.  What complicated webs history weaves for us; her strands connecting the sins of long ago to the tragedies of today.

*  According to this article, the Tsarnaevs were in Kyrgyzstan as a result of Stalin's deportations, left after the 1991 Collapse of the Soviet Union, then sought refuge from the war in Chechnya and returned to Kyrgyzstan in 1994.

31 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for posting this, Kelly. Now more than ever, we need to try to understand the complexities of these regions. I often look back through my own experiences living in Pakistan and travelling through Afghanistan & going through bloody coups, etc., how much the past is playing itself out in the present. You ended this post on a poignant note, and I loved it.

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    1. Jenni,

      Don't even get me started about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan..that is another fascinating bit of history that plays itself out in today's tragedies.

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  2. Great post about a little known part of the world. And people think history is unimportant. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by and reading it. History is all too important in this area of the world where one's ethnicity (and all the baggage of history and stereotype) is stamped in one's passport for everyone to evaluate.

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  3. Thanks so much for clearing up what is a very complicated region of the world in terms of history and borders. This goes to show just how important it is for the media to get their facts straight.

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    1. Alli,

      I am still somewhat aghast that the Czech Embassy felt the need to make a statement clarifying that they were in Central Europe, Chechnya is part of Russia and they are not the same, nor related in any way.

      Kelly

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    2. Ha ha! I lived in the Czech Republic for three years, and several times during that period friends and relatives in the States asked me why on earth I would be living in Chechnya with all the problems...

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    3. So I loved the comment I saw denying any connection, "We are Czechs, we drink beer!"

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  4. Very interesting, informative post. Thanks Kelly!

    Danita Cahill

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    1. Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it!

      Best,
      Kelly

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  5. Thank you dear Kelly for this!

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  6. thank you people can know now about it i will share it!

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  7. Kelly,

    Thank you very much for your this detailed blog post!

    I, as Kyrgyz person, truly appreciate the work you've done here! I hope some people will stop bullying us (Kyrgyz people in U.S.), after reading your blog post.

    Thank you again,
    Tologon

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  8. Tologon,

    Thanks for reading, I had not heard that any Kyrgyz in the U.S. have been bullied or harassed in the U.S. over the events of last week. Take care and I hope that it helps promote understanding all the way around.

    Best,
    Kelly

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  9. Great Post, Kelly. So much information no an important topic. I will recommend it to my friends. :-D

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  10. What an informative piece, Kelly. Thank you for the history lesson. It boggles my mind to think how the world evolves due to hate, prejudice, religion, and cultural differences. That these things are going on today in different geographic areas makes one realize that world peace will always be that elusive brass ring. What happened in Boston--I was raised 12 miles to the north--still begs answers. Why did two young men hate this country so much that they'd resort to such horror? Their radicalization is nothing less than chilling.

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    1. Polly,

      You are correct that what happened in Boston begs answers, but I must disagree with your last statement - I don't think that we KNOW that they were radicalized, nor do we KNOW that they hated the United States. I think that at this juncture the media and public are jumping to conclusions.

      To be quite blunt, I can think of probably a half a dozen other motivations for this horrible act beyond the simple straight line of Islamic radicalization. I am a writer, so it is kind of my M.O. to do that...particularly when right now facts are somewhat wanting.

      For all we know this was two unhappy young men who decided to leave this world playing real time Grand Theft Auto, or perhaps their parents are correct in saying that their sons "were framed" or perhaps...there are many potential motivations and right now we simply do not know the answer to "why?"

      Kelly

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    2. I'm sure we'll find out soon, Kelly. The suspect is apparently writing some answers. I agree it's all speculation as to motive, but I doubt the bombing was some kind of game--I know you were playing devil's advocate.

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    3. Polly,

      I am just saying there is so much we don't know at this point. I know it is easy to put a nice, neat bow on this now..."look, Muslim terrorist" but the truth may not be so simple or straightforward.

      Kelly

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  11. Thanks Kelly for for posting this and Pat Winton for sending it along to me...a good history lesson and very accurate...I know a bit about this part of the world and a bit about Stalin...but each time I revisit one of his "measures" in consolidating Soviet power I cringe at the unspeakable evils he committed. David

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    1. Thanks for reading David. I have written elsewhere in this blog about Stalin and his crimes, a topic many Americans know nothing about.

      Best,
      Kelly

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  12. A very insightful article! Thank you for this. It gives me a richer perspective of a matter which I admittedly understand little of (until now). Oh what a complex world we live in.

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  13. A history professor once told me that he works on the assumption that any given incident is more complex than it initially appears, not a bad way to look at the world. Thanks for stopping by and leaving me a comment!

    Kelly

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  14. This is an absolutely fascinating overview of the Russian melting pot, Kelly, and so useful for all of us trying to understand history, the backgrounds of these 2 boys , and, as you point out, making sense of all the stuff we've been hearing about on the news lately.

    But even after reading your post, I’m still puzzled as far as why these kids would/did not identify more with Kyrgyz culture, even despite the complicated geo-political history in that region. They were born and raised there (at least one of them), presumably went to school there, learned the language, mingled with the locals, etc. And it wasn’t the brutality of the Kyrgyz that forced Chechens to relocate there but that of the Soviets, right? Seems like there are plenty of governments that wronged various countries (the British in India, for example) but now there is cross-immigration between the people of both cultures and the past is the past, the subsequent generations are less bothered by what came before. Why is it so different in Kyrgyzstan, do you think?

    Also, side note: that one of these boys/men bought a Chechen phrase book on Amazon, sort of reminded me of something I would to do to learn more about the country my parents hail from because I too grew up outside that country, in a different culture that is now mine. Do you figure even after several generations in Kyrgyzstan, the descendants of Chechnya would still speak Chechen and consider themselves Chechen? It seems like the older brother felt as separate from his Chechen background as he did a part of it, no?

    And okay, I may as well ask it: what can you tell us about Dagestan? 

    It's so good to have our own resident expert on this topic... sorry for battering you w/ so many questions though!

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    1. Supriya,

      See this link for a longer discussion of ethnicity and identity in the Soviet Union and post-soviet union space http://www.noveladventurers.blogspot.com/2013/04/one-of-my-fellow-bloggers-posed.html

      To answer your other questions - yes, even after several generations in Kyrgyzstan, Chechens still consider themselves Chechen, speak Chechen and yes, I do believe the brothers felt part of, yet separate from their Chechen heritage.

      Dagestan is also in the South Caucasus region, neighboring Chechnya. I do not know enough about the cultures in this area of the world to give you a "Chechen and Dagestanis and their differences" lecture, I leave that to someone with far more knowledge in the area.

      I don't mind questions, it is just that many times the answers are extremely complicated and span history, geography, ethnicity, religion and can be complex to explain to an American audience. That said, if I don't at least try, I have failed as a cultural bridge, so here is hoping that I gave you answers to your questions.

      Kelly

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  15. Thanks for this article. You may be interested in this brief introduction to the region on the BBC. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22255533

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  16. Thanks for the link - I am aware that Islamic fundamentalism has taken root in Chechnya and the Caucasus region, I was living in Moscow and Russia at the time those wars were being waged there. Thanks for reading!

    Best,
    Kelly

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