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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Lament for Chechnya

Beyond the mountains lie more mountains, shrouded in mists and bathed in blood ..." So wrote Taras Shevchenko, the national bard of Ukraine some 150 years ago, the last time that Chechnya was making headlines around the world.

In his epic poem, "The Caucasus," the "minstrel poet" was honoring the desperately fierce resistance of the people of the Caucasus to Russian colonialism while mocking the high-flown and transparently cynical justifications that Russia was using to rationalize its imperialistic expansion. He also lamented the ironic tragedy that so much of the price for "liberating" the Caucasus was being paid with the blood of totally subjugated, abjectly militarized and forcibly uprooted regiments of Ukraine's own Cossack and serf soldiers.

Then, over the course of almost half a century, as the world watched in wonder and admiration, the small, proud, fierce nations of the North Caucasus fought Russia to a stand-still, and hundreds of thousands of the Russian empire's uniformed slaves hurled themselves at the steep peaks and deep canyons of the mountain barrier. Generations of expendable imperial cannon-fodder succeeded each other in the ranks over decades of war -- with sons taking the places of fathers and grandfathers in the servile legions of those driven to fight, bleed, kill and die amid the stark beauty of the mountains, to smother its "squalid freedom" beneath their own bodies and to turn the raped, slaughtered and devastated Caucasus into yet another jewel in Russia's crown.

Russian poets and writers churned out reams of heroic verse and prose about the gore and slaughter, while Cossack mothers, then and ever since, sang plaintive lullabies about "the fierce Chechen and his sharp dagger" to soon-to-be-bloodied sons. I know because I have read and heard many of these stories and because my own mother once sang these strange, melodiously haunting songs to me, as I now sing them to my own children.

These melancholy songs seemed to me as exotic and remote as the history that had engendered them until my work brought me back to the southern steppes, from which my own parents hailed, when Russia launched its Chechen invasion. Meanwhile, as names like Kizlyar, Pervomaiskoye and Sovietskaya increasingly send correspondents scurrying to their maps, and provide them with ever new headlines and stories on very old themes, my own growing fear is that Russia stands on the brink of plunging headlong back into the mire of its 19th century Caucasian Wars, and that events there may well spawn new variations of old lullabies and dirges for new mothers to sing over children now living and maybe even yet unborn.

Throughout southern Russia, the initial reaction to the invasion of Chechnya was a mixture of anger and incredulity. A Krasnodar academic could not believe that anyone in power in Moscow could be stupid and arrogant enough to actually put a match to the Caucasian tinderbox or to believe that Chechnya in particular could be quickly brought back into Mother Russia's smothering embrace by force. "Chechnya is not Czechoslovakia [in 1968]," he said, "where people would come out to face invading tanks with flowers." The twisted bulks of Russian tanks and the charred remains of their crews in Grozny and throughout Chechnya have borne out his words.

The public pretext that Russia was simply handling an "internal matter" was dismissed by a local driver who said "Chechnya is no more Russia than India is English, or Algeria or Vietnam French." He was quite surprised that anyone in the West would truly believe that Chechnya was really somehow part of Russia when "the Chechens know that Chechnya isn't Russia, the Russians know that Chechnya isn't Russia and even those in the Kremlin who started this know that Chechnya isn't Russia."

Even a Russian military "victory," without a negotiated, mutually-acceptable political accommodation to sustain it, would only fuel the endemic hatred of Russian colonialism in the region and ensure that the embers of conflict would inevitably flare up again. As a Krasnodar historian put it, Russia's choices in Chechnya boiled down to "total destruction" or some mutual accommodation ranging from "autonomy to independence." At the same time, the longer the conflict with Chechnya lasts, the more likely the Russian and Ukrainian Cossack communities of the regions bordering the Caucasus will become defensive and militant. As one Kuban teacher told me: "We have many people with so little that they live in the fantasy of a romantic Cossack past. We can become like Yugoslavia, except that instead of four or five nationalities, we have nearly a hundred to fight among themselves."

Underlying the incredulity, anger and fear of a year ago there was also a deep and pervasive hope that the Chechen conflict would end somehow quickly and equitably, so that history, forgotten or ignored, would not be repeated. Much of that hope has been literally blasted aside as the Russians have pushed for the illusion of a military "victory," and the Chechens have responded as they always have.

As I watch, read and listen to reports from the ever-lengthening front along the armed border of the "Old Caucasian Line," I am struck by the fact that except for the weapons used and the newness of some place names, so much of what is "news" from there today is so very, very, familiar and so very old. And remembering the soft, sad melodies and fierce words of my mother's Cossack lullabies from long ago and far away, I cannot but hope that reason and wisdom will prevail and stem the flow of blood in the mountains, and that the mists of the Caucasus will not continue to be the burial shroud for even more people.

Igor Bobrowsky is Project Director of Russian American Media Partnerships. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.