Nearly a century ago, Civil War veteran and satirist Ambrose Biece wrote, "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography." Even with the advent of Tomtom's, iPhones, and -- finally! -- a GoogleMap view of North Korea, the sentiment remains true. As such, it seems a proper time to run through the ins and outs of Chechnya, a small, mountainous hideout of which you've likely heard plenty over the past few days.
At the risk of trivializing the matter, here's a list of eight things you should know about Chechnya, Dagestan, the North Caucasus -- and why Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, despite Secretary of State John Kerry's best efforts, remain different nations:
1) What is Chechnya?
Chechnya is a small republic in the northern hills of the Caucasus Mountains in Southern Russia. (You'll likely be hearing far more about the Caucasus next February when the 2014 Winter Olympics get going in Sochi, Russia, a littoral town not far from Chechnya.) It has a population of approximately 1.3 million, and comprises a series of forests and hillocks about the combined size of Rhode Island and Connecticut. It is here.
2) Wait, but these guys aren't Russian, right? I mean, they don't look like Maria Sharapova or Anna Kournikova -- what gives?
A fair point. Tsarist expansion first began some two centuries ago, pushing the Russian frontier past Tatarstan and into the Northern Caucasus. Since the Mongolian expansion had smothered the Russian protectorate into a handful of city states surrounding Moscow and Kiev, the imperial throne had been pushing forward for centuries on end, and looked to fortify the front between both the Persian and Ottoman Empires. However, due to the geographical features of the Caucasian outcroppings, the tsars could never quite squelch the guerrilla tactics of those flitting through the valleys. While the area remained part of the Russian Socialist Republic during the USSR era, it never gained the permanent autonomous status of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, a Chechen independence movement provoked a bungled invasion from then-President Boris Yeltsin, whose Russian forces failed to eradicate the separatist sentiment. Vladimir Putin, who led the Second Chechen War in the late '90s, has effectively leveled -- and reconstructed in his own image -- Grozny, Chechnya's capital. As it currently stands, according to famous Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov's wife, "Chechnya is one great concentration camp." (For all those false-flaggers out there, it's nice to know that, every once in a while, you're actually correct.)
3) But this is a republic? I thought it was still part of Russia?
Right on both counts. Russia is comprised of 83 "federal units," 21 of which are republics. Everything from Tatarstan and Chechnya to Karelia, along the Finnish border, and Tuva, home of the famed throat-singers, constitutes autonomous republics, with elected representatives reporting solely to the Kremlin. While Moscow retains ultimate governmental and fiscal control, each republic exists within its own cultural space. The largest, Yakutia, is approximately double the size of Alaska. (An ex-girlfriend's father once told me that America offers its indigenous populations the most freedom of any nation in the world. I nearly snorted my milk on him.) As it is, and as Putin's wont to do, Chechnya's president, Ramzan Kadyrov, was hand-picked as the republic's president in 2007, and has been effective enough that 99.82 percent of the populace voted for his re-election last year.
4) Kadyrov, huh. Sounds like a good enough guy.
Yeah...no. Though he's helped tamp violence within the republic following his ascension -- there have been no great terrorist attacks, à la Beslan and the theater hostage crisis, under his watch -- that is only because he's utilized death squads and torture techniques that not even the Bush Administration would touch. Recent muftis have broken ranks, claiming that Kadyrov's bosom-buddy friendship with Putin nullifies his Islamic credentials, but such voices of dissidence are as rare as...well, those within Russia.
5) And Dagestan? That's another one of those republics?
Correct. Just to the east of Chechnya, Dagestan has actually seen a relative uptick in separatist sentiments and violence recently. Kadyrov, for what it's worth, seems bent on consolidating the greater North Caucasus area under his control, but the Dagestani president still has enough of Putin's ear to keep the status quo as is.
6) Should we be concerned about any potential continuation of a Chechen War in America?
Uh, no. While the Caucasus Emirate has enjoyed a healthy media presence for some time, there's little remaining threat they would seem to pose within Russia, let alone America. Furthermore, there are no logical, logistical goals met with the brothers' bombings within Boston; unlike al-Qaeda, Caucasian Islamist sentiments are confined to establishing an emirate within their traditional homeland, rather than some grand schema of caliphates and worldwide domination. Thus, when you see people claiming that the "Chechen War Has Come To America," tell them to go away. (Note: This doesn't preclude these brothers from tying their attacks to some Chechen separatist sentiment. It's simply that their actions will play no role in furthering that movement, and will likely only encourage Putin and Kadyrov to further their crackdowns.)
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7) Anything good I should read on the region?
In addition to this -- and this! -- there's always Leo Tolstoy's seminal The Cossacks, which details the mid-19th-century incursions of the Cossacks, imperialist Russia's front forces, into the northern Caucasus. (Tolstoy also had some nice run-downs in the book of the Crimean War, which saw the first forms of war reporting.)
8) What's the difference between Chechnya and the Czech Republic?