What is the Chechen conflict about?

Isn't Chechen half of the stoner duo filmed throughout the '70s and '80s driving around in a van trying to stay baked while avoiding Sgt. Stedenko?

No, wait; that was Cheech and Chong.

The Chechen conflict is actually a brutal civil war (as opposed to the gentle civil wars) centered on the Republic of Chechnya, a state in the southern part of Russia. If you're eyeballing a map, Chechnya is landlocked in the Caucasus Mountains, in the relatively small (by Russian standards) wedge of land between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea.

The war that we know and love today, the one whose recent flare-ups include taking down two Russian passenger jets with bombs, a suicide bombing in a Russian subway, and a rebel commando raid on a Russian school, has been going on for about 10 years. However, like many conflicts involving people whose names we can't pronounce fighting in locations that we can't find on maps, the roots of the Chechen war go way, way back. Let's explore a bit, shall we?

When I think of Russia, lots of things come to mind: vodka, communism, the Kremlin, Maria Sharapova, great novelists, Maria Sharapova again, and bitter cold. Russian rulers also thought of the cold. So much so, in fact, that expanding from often-frozen Moscow into warmer southern climates was Russia's primary strategic goal for much of its history. By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Russian empire had swallowed up much of land around the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains.

Of the Caucasians living between Moscow and its warm water ambitions, it was the Chechens and their neighbors in Dagestan who fought the Russians hardest. They struggled for their political independence, but also for their religion. As Muslims, they weren't too keen on being swallowed up by the Orthodox Christian Russian empire.

The most legendary of the Chechen/ Dagestani resisters was a man named Imam Shamil. The big-hatted, big-bearded, bullet-wearing Shamil (of whom a few photos exist) made schlemazels out of Russian forces for years before he was captured by the Russians in 1858 (or 1859 depending on which account you believe). With Shamil's defeat, Chechnya was folded into the Russian Republic.

Though militarily settled, the Chechen-Russian relationship remained tense for the next century-and-a-half. The most significant of the flare-ups between them happened in 1944, when a pioneering Stalinist who went by the name Joe Stalin deported the entire Chechen population to Siberia as collective punishment for occasional Chechen collaboration with the Nazis.

In 1957, four years after Stalin's death, the Chechens were allowed to return. The situation stayed relatively stable (totalitarian states are neat that way) until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and was subsequently unable to get up. Dzhokhar Dudayev became Chechnya's leader and immediately declared Chechen independence from Russia. In 1994, Russian troops moved in to quash the Chechen rebellion. The war that followed left more than 100,000 Chechens dead and laid waste to the republic (which really wasn't all that in the first place).

Shockingly, the huge and murderous Russian invasion didn't really make the Chechens think, "Gosh, Russia's great. Let's stay with them." The rebellion continued despite several attempts at negotiated peace. By the turn of this millennium, the rebellion started to adopt a Muslim fundamentalist tone, with rebels imposing Islamic law where they could. Chechen rebels now have links to al-Qaeda. Legend has it that 9/11 ringleader Mohammed Atta wanted to fight in Chechnya. I'm guessing that he opted against it because Russian forces had already leveled all of the buildings that he might have tried to fly a plane into.

Along with the rebellion's ever-louder religious overtones, Chechens began using suicide attacks as a tactic, both against Russian forces in the Caucasus Mountains and in Moscow itself. According to several reports, Russia is so rife with corruption that Chechen rebels are able to smuggle bombs out of Chechnya and into the rest of Russia by paying $10 bribes to roadside checkpoint guards.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man whose soul President Bush claimed in 2001 to have peered into, has staked much of his reputation on a "get tough" approach against Chechnya that he keeps claiming makes Russia safer. He can claim all he wants, but it simply isn't true.


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