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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cossacks Take On Village's Chechens

BOGORODITSKOYE, Southern Russia — It all started at the village disco. Or maybe a bit earlier, when the first goose vanished. Some even say the seeds of discord in Bogoroditskoye were sown 20 years ago, when Sultan, a shepherd, came to work on the collective farm. The trouble, as village people see it, is that Sultan is a Chechen.

"The Chechens have these enormous families — hundreds of cousins and relatives," says the director of the village school, Galina Bondareva. "So they started coming here, first slowly but when the war broke out in 1994 they flooded the village. When it started again [in 1999] even more people came. And they never left."

Now, several hundred Chechen villagers and refugees living in Bogoroditskoye and the neighboring hamlet of Mukhina are being forced out. They are under pressure both from the local administration and a Cossack militia that raided the village this spring.

First there were small thefts — the geese started disappearing. The chickens followed. Sunflower seeds were stolen from fields belonging to the collective farm. A woman's cow vanished.

"Naturally, we suspected Chechens," Bondareva says, sitting calmly on the edge of her couch, her hands crossed in her lap. "They have such large families, and there's no work here. It's logical that they steal."

There were small quarrels at the disco, too — over the girls. Chechen boys would come in their cars and make lots of noise, provoking the local boys. They kept together. They never shunned a fistfight. So life in Bogoroditskoye — a dusty village of 3,000 people in the south of the Rostov region — became increasingly tense.

Outside Bondareva's window one of four village streets lined with small family houses stretches for kilometers. It's strangely quiet for a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. She says it's been this quiet ever since the Cossacks came last month.

The Cossacks came March 10. There were about 80 of them, according to the local administration and the Cossacks themselves. The Chechens say more.

Later villagers discovered the Cossacks had been invited by the collective farm director, who is a Cossack himself, but was conveniently absent on that day.

First they had a krug — a meeting, where they discussed the village's problems. Then they had a charka — literally the bowls Cossacks use for drinking vodka — to warm themselves up. Quite a few rounds later, they set out to solve the "Chechen question" in Bogoroditskoye.

"I was at the park chatting with some girls when they approached me," recalls Adlan Zagayev, a Chechen in his late 20s who has lived in the village since 1986. "They were wearing camouflage uniforms, like OMON; some had batons in their hands, others had whips. They asked who I was. I answered it was none of their business. So they charged."

Zagayev was lucky — he plays soccer regularly and is a fast runner. "They hit me several times with batons, but I managed to escape. There were 30, maybe 40 people running after me, but they got tired quickly."

But not all Chechens chose to run away, and the village exploded quickly.

No one can say precisely what happened. Bondareva says she only heard the noise coming from the square, where a monument to heroes of World War II still stands proudly. The local police officer says he was there, but his superiors have forbidden him from giving interviews. The Chechens who fought have since left the village.

It took two hours before the district police arrived and separated the sides. They took the Cossacks away and opened an investigation.

Six Cossacks ended up in the hospital with cracked skulls and knife wounds. Nineteen Chechens fought and all were wounded, says elder Ramzan Gaisuyev. They refused to go to the hospital.

The next day, Russian villagers gathered in the local dom kultury and decided the Chechens were to blame. And they should all leave. Immediately. And that the head of the village administration, Sergei Greko, who let them come and kept registering them all these years, should resign.

More than a month later, the villagers of Bogoroditskoye still think the same. "They should all be forced to leave," says Zhora, a 46-year-old tractor driver, who is sitting on a bench in front of his house, surrounded by several neighbors.

They should leave not because they're Chechens but because they're thieves and troublemakers, he says. And even those who are not thieves and troublemakers should leave, he says, because they are Chechens, which means that they must have cousins who are thieves and troublemakers and who sooner or later will come to live here, in Bogoroditskoye.

"If there's one Chechen left in the village, tomorrow there will be hundreds again," Zhora says to the accompaniment of his neighbors' synchronized nodding. "Let them go to Chechnya and rebuild their country," adds his neighbor, 57-year-old Olya. "They have no business being here."

Gaisuyev sees it differently. "We were not the ones who destroyed our republic and I don't see why we should be the ones who have to rebuild it," he says.

Gaisuyev, a large, quiet man in his 40s, left Chechnya in 1995 and has made Bogoroditskoye his home. There is a two-week-old calf in his backyard and a potato field that stretches behind it. His two cows and a herd of 30-odd goats graze outside the village. His children have just started school and he has no intention of moving.

"We live off our animals and the vegetables that grow in our gardens," he explains. "When we need money, we sell them. We're poor, but we're not thieves.

"Or at least not all of us," he adds, resignedly. "The thieves are everywhere, among Chechens as well as among Russians and Ukrainians. But when a Russian steals something then it's Petrov or Sidorov who stole it, not 'the Russians.' And when a Chechen steals something, it's 'the Chechens' who've done it."

The school director agrees. "Everybody steals the sunflower seeds," she admits. Zhora's neighbors agree as well. "But when there were no Chechens, there was less stealing," Zhora says. The heads nod in agreement.

The problem that the village now faces is that moving people out of Bogoroditskoye is not really legal. But the district administration has found the answer in the propiska, the old system of registration that is a holdover from Soviet times.

In those days people could live in cities only if they could get permission from the local administration and a stamp in their passports. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the stamp should be given to anyone who comes to register.

Greko, the ousted village administrator, says because the law is the law, he would give Chechens the document they needed to register. That's now changed.

"We have decided to heed the wishes of the villagers and stop registering people of Chechen nationality in Bogoroditskoye," says the deputy head of the Peschanokopsk district administration, Alexander Korovin. "It's a temporary measure, until … well, until things sort themselves out there."

The process of "sorting out" has already started. According to Gaisuyev, about 60 Chechens have already left the village, most of them young men of military age. Those who stay and try to register, as they are supposed to do every six months, are flatly refused.

And those who are not registered, Korovin says, are being advised to consider leaving for Chechnya. "Unfortunately, that's all we can do," he sighs. "Russian law does not foresee measures to relocate them forcefully."

But the neighbors at Zhora's fence believe that where the administration fails them, the Cossacks will again step in. "It's their job," Zhora says. "Maintaining order."