As an officer in the czar’s army more than 150 years ago, Mikhail Lermontov, the Russian poet, learned well the ferocity of the Chechen people, moving him to write:
And savage are those canyons’ tribes,
Their god is freedom, their law is war.
Current Defense Minister Pavel Grachev should have read his Lermontov.
Grachev, who a month ago boasted that a single paratrooper regiment could storm the Chechen capital of Grozny in two hours, might have thought twice had he consulted the poet, who understood that when it comes to valor and violence, the Chechens are no pushovers.
Now, as a few thousand Chechen fighters continue to hold out in Grozny against a savage Russian armored and aerial assault, Grachev is eating his words, the dead are being counted in the hundreds, and Lermontov’s verse is ringing truer than ever.
The Russian military’s poor morale, disorganization and apparent lack of planning are clearly factors in its disastrous performance since it sent troops into Chechnya on Dec. 11. It was never going to be easy for the Russians to capture Grozny, a sprawling, low-rise city that offers its defenders plenty of tactical advantages.
Yet not to be underestimated is the Chechens’ own fighting prowess, honed to a fine edge by their consuming, centuries-old hatred of Russia.
Of all the Caucasus mountain tribes whom the Russian czar struggled to subdue in the last century, none is as fierce or as stubborn as the Chechens. Lermontov lionized them for “fierce battles and amazing deeds.”
“Their bravery is terrible for the Russians,” he added.
Tightly knit by family and Islamic religious traditions, the Chechens held out fiercely against the Russians’ more modern and powerful forces in a show of defiance that has lasted nearly 50 years.
For Russia, the conquest of what is now Chechnya was one of the bloodiest chapters in its imperial expansion. It was a saga that produced such men as Gen. Alexei Yermolov, a top Russian commander who, like Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the U.S. Civil War, killed and burned virtually everything in his path.
The Chechens’ sense of national identity was forged in those years of carnage and trauma, and young Chechens have been steeped in the bloody history of Russian conquest and repression in the Caucasus ever since. In the cribs of Chechen babies, wrote Lermontov, “mothers’ songs frighten babies with the names of Russians.”
The Chechens fared no better under the Soviet regime. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered a “superpurge” in Chechnya in August 1937; in the first phase of the operation, about 14,000 Chechens and their ethnic kin, the Ingushis, were rounded up and executed or deported - about one in every 30 of the republic’s population.
In 1944, a half-million Chechens were herded into cattle cars with no notice and sent to Central Asia. More than 200,000 are estimated to have died in the operation. The stated reason they were displaced was that the Chechens had collaborated with the Nazis, but the Nazis never had occupied their territory.
Hundreds of miles from their native land, the Chechens remained in exile in Kazakhstan until 1957, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to return home. In Grozny these days, virtually the entire leadership was either born in exile or lived through it - a lasting, bitter memory.