Much of Chechnya’s history is based on its location. It is located in the Caucasus region, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.
This region is mostly mountainous and has been difficult to pass for centuries. Like most mountainous areas, this isolation led to lots of different ethnic groups.
The Caucasus region can be divided into a north and southern area.
The northern area, closer to Russia, is very fragmented with various cultural, religious pockets. The northern region includes Chechnya, Ossetia, and Dagestan and is mostly Muslim.
The southern region, closer to Persia, is much more stable and has been easier for large outside forces to control. Southern region includes, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, and is mostly Christian, but with large Muslim populations.
Azerbaijan is an exception and is mostly Shiite Muslim.
Even though they have a history of conflict going back almost 300 years, Chechens and Russians are ethnically different. They share a culture and language similar to Dagestan, Armenia, and Ingushetia, which are closer to Persian than Russian.
Russian Political Aims Leads to Invasion
In the early 1700’s the Russian Empire began to expand its political military influence. It started by conquering land from the Persian Safavid Empire.
The did conquer the area but would do so at the cost of lots of lives both military and civilian. These mountain people would just keep fighting.
There are really three Caucasian ethnic groups in this story: Chechen, Ingush, and Dagestan.
Islam Comes to Chechnya
Islam began to enter these areas when the Muslims conquered the southern Caucasus region during Uthman’s Caliphate. Over the next 200 years, Islam spread slowly through the different mountainous areas in the north.
For the most part, these regions remained primarily Christian and pagan with small Muslim communities. Islam did not become the majority religion in the northern regions until the Russians started invading.
Islam was attractive as it was seen by the local people as a tool to resist Russian occupation. Mostly Sufi Muslim sheikhs used Islam to unite the various tribes and regions in their fight against Russia.
There wasn’t homogeneous form of Islam over the entire region, but for the most part, it was Sunni Islam, and mostly Sufism.
Salafis and Sufis
Sufism is a mystical interpretation of Islam. This means that almost anything in Islam has a deeper, sometimes hidden meaning. This mystical interpretation can vary and has many different levels.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Salafism, which is more of a literal interpretation. A derogatory term for Salafism is Wahhabism.
When taken to the extreme, both have their faults.
Sufism to the extreme doesn’t really resemble Islam and everything is up for interpretation.
Salafism to the extreme is very inflexible and turns Islam into something very unattractive and primitive.
This culminated in a Caucasian Imamate in the mid 1800’s that fought against the Russian Empire until 1859 when it finally surrendered.
This shows that:
- Islam was not brought to this region by force; in fact, the southern regions that were conquered by Muslims remain mostly Christian to this day
- Islam spread in the northern Caucasus mostly through preaching and against a Christian nation that was trying to forcefully conquer them.
- Contrary to popular opinion, the Chechens did not just begin fighting against the Russians recently; they’ve been fighting for centuries.
Before the Russian invasions into the Caucasus, there wasn’t any unified Chechen nation. But the different Caucasus peoples did unite in their struggle against the Russians.
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty
The Russians maintained nominal control over this region until 1917. Russia fared badly in World War I and the Czar was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. Czar comes from the word Caesar and basically means Emperor.
The ruling Russian dynasty was replaced by a Communist government and for a while there was a civil war and confusion in Russia.
The Russian Caucasus states of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan used this conflict to break away from Russia and declared its independence. They formed an independent federation called the Mountainous Republic of the Northern Caucasus.
Three years later, the conflict in Russia ended, the communist Soviet state was established, and they attacked the Caucasus Republic. The independent state was defeated and forced back under Moscow’s authority.
But the people of the Caucasus continued resisting Soviet rule. They waged an insurgency, mostly fighting from the mountains, for another twenty years. The fighting didn’t cease until after World War II and Joseph Stalin was the leader of Russia.
Joseph Stalin and Chechnya
In 1944 Stalin had 60% of the Chechen population deported and moved to the cold, barren steppes of Kazakhstan. At that time, Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union also.
Hundreds of thousands of people were loaded into train cars, with only the possessions they could carry, and shipped over a thousand miles. From that point on, the Chechens had an innate hatred for the Russians.
The Chechens remained in exile for over ten years. During this period, Stalin moved ethnic Russian settlers into these empty Chechen regions.
After Stalin died, the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev ended the exile and allowed the Chechens to return to their homes. But of course, now they found their farms and houses and businesses occupied by Russians and there was mostly no way to get them back.
In addition to having to start over, the Chechens also faced institutionalized discrimination as they were now a minority in their own lands. Chechens were not allowed to speak their language in public and had to conform to Russian culture and norms.
The Chechen population did not become a majority again until the 1980’s.