Chechnya to Honor Khrushchev

ReutersChechens praying at a Grozny monument on the annual February memorial for victims of Stalin's repressions.
GROZNY -- Former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is little loved in Russia, but in one corner of the Caucasus mountains he holds the status of a national hero.

The Chechen government plans to build a statue in its capital to honor Khrushchev, 37 years after he died in obscurity after being ousted and shunned by the Communist Party leadership.

Khrushchev, known in the West for his eccentric behavior and blunt style, has a special place in Chechen consciousness: Chechens were among the beneficiaries of Khrushchev's rehabilitation of those purged by Josef Stalin.

In 1956, Khrushchev invited back Chechens that Stalin had banished to the steppes of Central Asia as punishment for an armed uprising against Soviet rule during World War II. About 500,000 people -- almost the entire population -- were exiled.

"He's the main reason we're in Chechnya today," said Said-Ali Dovtayev, an economics professor at the Chechen State University in Grozny. "Our parents thanked him for returning us to our homeland."

Dovtayev grew up in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, after his family was exiled by Stalin in 1944.

Chechnya has a long history of rebelling against Moscow. As German forces advanced toward the Caucasus region, the Chechens fought skirmishes with Soviet troops, and some collaborated with the German military.

But the idea of erecting a statue to Khrushchev came from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter now loyal to the Kremlin.

"For Chechens he is a hero," Kadyrov said last year after announcing the tributes to Khrushchev.

Kadyrov has also renamed a scruffy square on the outskirts of newly rebuilt Grozny in Khrushchev's honor.

"Without him, nobody knows where we would be," Dovtayev, the economics professor, said of Khrushchev.

Khrushchev emerged as the leader of the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953, and three years later he denounced the "cult of personality" that had surrounded his predecessor.

But he was to make his own mark, in a way that sometimes alarmed his own countrymen. He took the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war with the United States during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Leonid Brezhnev deposed Khrushchev in 1964 while he was out of Moscow on vacation, and the KGB closely watched him until his death in 1971, aged 77.

While the Soviet Union honored its other leaders in death, Khrushchev's legacy has been largely ignored, and he was denied a burial place alongside other Soviet leaders in Red Square.

At the road junction where Kadyrov plans to build the statue to Khrushchev, a pair of traffic policemen flagged down cars to check documents -- a routine procedure in a region that still sees occasional attacks by insurgents.

On one side stand new apartments partly paid for by the large Chechen diaspora in Kazakhstan, and the other, eerie rows of tall Chechen gravestones are a monument to those who died during Stalin's purge of the Chechens.

But back along Grozny's repaved roads, past reconstructed apartment blocks and the rebuilt stadium, a 22-year-old student, Isa Makhmudov, said his generation's view of history was still dominated by the two wars in the last 15 years that have scarred the republic.

"For my parents and grandparents [Khrushchev] is a very important person," Makhmudov said. "But in the last 15 years we've seen more terrible things and haven't had the time to consider that Khrushchev allowed us back into Chechnya."