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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Chechen President's Turbulent Career

Being Moscow's main bogeyman is a risky business.


But risk is what Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev trained for. He used to fly nuclear bombers for a living.


As the president of a rebel republic, Dudayev has made a second career out of taunting the Russian bear. For three years, he has threatened everything from Islamic holy war to nuclear terrorism, defying demands to lead tiny Chechnya back into the Kremlin's fold.


Now the bear is mad.enough to lash out


The object of its rage is a small, tightly wound man with a pencil-thin mustache and penchant for crisp uniforms and fierce rhetoric.


Dudayev was born in 1944, the year his people were loaded into cattle cars and shipped off to Central Asia by Stalin. His first 13 years were spent in exile. He had every reason to hate the Soviet system, but thrived within it. He was a member of the Communist Party. The system entrusted him with the controls of strategic nuclear bombers. It made him the first Chechen general in the Russian air force.


At the end of his career, he commanded an important air base in Estonia. Like Chechnya, Estonia was small, persecuted and independence-minded. It was here that the rebel inside Dudayev broke free. He refused to take part in the Kremlin's repressions against the little Baltic state.


By the time Dudayev retired and went home in 1990, the Soviet Union was falling apart.Everything seemed up for grabs. And in the fall of 1991, Dudayev seized a piece of Russia for himself. "You have to be a bull," he said.


Dudayev's supporters seized control in Chechnya.and he was elected president in a landslide. He took the oath of office with his hand on the Koran. He declared independence the same day.


Moscow sent in troops. Dudayev gave them six hours to get out. They did. He was a national hero.


When the euphoria of independence wore off, Chechens found themselves with a faltering economy. Daily life grew harder and more uncertain. Only the Chechen gangs, seemed to flourish.


By early 1993, there were anti-Dudayev demonstrations. Critics said he was secretive, arbitrary, surrounded by thugs and political adventurers. Dudayev responded by declaring one-man rule in April 1993.


However he could not snuff dissent out. And the forces he has unleashed in Chechnya -- nationalism, fundamentalism, gangsterism -- are even harder to control.


But then, unleashing uncontrollable forces is what nuclear bomber pilots train for.