Controversy Emerges Insides Russia Over Chechen Film Depicting 1944 Deportations
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 15 Issue: 12
The Russian government refuses to understand that the history of the groups they conquered and the history of the conquerors cannot be combined into one narrative. When the conquerors start reciting their heroic history, they come into conflict with those whom they conquered, who have different heroes. The hero of the conqueror is the enemy of the conquered and vice versa, so Chechen heroes are enemies to the average Russian.
In September 2013, a monument celebrating the women heroes who defended their village in Chechnya from the Russian general, Alexei Yermolov, was unveiled. On September 5, 1819, Yermolov ordered that the village of Dadi Yurt be burned down. The village is located where the Sunzha River flows into Terek River (Chechnya Today, September 16, 2013). Dadi Yurt became famous in the history of the Chechen people as an example of heroic Chechen resistance in the long and exhausting Russian-Caucasian war. When all the men were killed in the village, women took up arms and Dadi Yurt became a symbol of resistance against Russian rule. When the Russian army overran the village, the remaining 46 wounded women threw themselves into the Terek River, taking Russian soldiers with them. The unveiling of the monument has caused a wave of indignation in the Russian press and across the Russian Internet. The headlines included “Chechnya has celebrated the death of Russian soldiers,” (bigcaucasus.com, September 17, 2013), “Monument for the Chechen women who killed Russians,” (teh-nomad.livejournal.com, September 16, 2013), “Kadyrov has unveiled a monument for the murderers of Russian soldiers” (pikabu.ru, October 23, 2013), and “Day of the female shahid,” (Kommersant, September 19, 2013). The monument led to a rise in anti-Chechen rhetoric and resentment over the fact that someone had dared to erect a monument to those who fought the Russians at the time of Russia’s colonization of the Caucasus.
Against the backdrop of this scandal, the organizers of a competition to choose Russia’s national symbol were forced to recognize two winners of the competition, because the Heart of Chechnya mosque in Grozny became the obvious frontrunner. In order to dampen anti-Chechen and anti-Muslim sentiment among Russians, the organizers declared the little known Kolomensky Kremlin as an additional winner (mk.ru, September 9, 2013).
At the same time, a movie on the 1944 mass deportation of Chechens was filmed in Chechnya. The movie focused on what happened in the Chechen village of Khaibakh on February 27, 1944, when the Soviet authorities ordered that several hundred sick, old and female Chechens that they could not put on the railway cars be shot. To conceal the crime, the bodies of the slain people were burned in the village stables (Chechnya Today, February 19, 2013). The movie depicting the killing of several hundred Chechens has deeply upset the Russian Ministry of Culture. Indeed, the country that, for decades, refused to admit the shooting of Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk (katyn-books.ru) could not afford to admit yet another World War II–era mass killing had taken place, this one targeting its own citizens.
The movie, titled Prikazano Zabyt (Ordered to Forget), is the first full-length feature film about the deportation of the Chechens—actually, not so much about the deportation itself, but about how it was carried out and what steps were taken to exile the largest ethnic group in the North Caucasus. Hussein Erkenov, an ethnic Karachay, was the movie’s director and Ruslan Kokanaev was the film’s producer.
For the first time the movie raises difficult questions, such as why the Chechens were deported and how the Chechens could have collaborated with Adolf Hitler’s Germany if the Soviet-German front never reached Chechnya’s borders. Mass collaboration of the Chechens with the Germans was simply not possible because Chechnya did not see even a single German soldier; the frontline ended at the Ossetian city of Mozdok (e-reading.ws).
Russia’s Culture Ministry could not allow such a movie to be seen. Having watched the movie at the experts’ council level, the ministry decided to refuse to issue a rental ID for the movie, thereby preventing the movie from being screened either in Russia or abroad. The ministry said the movie was “too harsh” and “incited international discord” (echo.msk.ru, May 20). However, the Russian media refused to talk about the main reason for the ban, which was revealed when Russian culture ministry official Vyacheslav Telnov said the NKVD (early Soviet-era secret police) archives contained no information about the mass burning of people in the mountain village of Khaibakh in the then Checheno-Ingushetia. Telnov, therefore, concluded that the events in Khaibakh depicted in the movie were a “historical fake” (nazaccent.ru, May 23). However, one of the individuals who took part in the mass shooting of people in Khaibakh confirmed that it had happened (kinosoyuz.com, May 31).
Documents also exist from 1956. For example, Nikita Khrushchev dispatched an official from the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, V. Tikunov and State Prosecution official, G. Dorofeev to investigate the Khaibakh tragedy in October 1956. They concluded: “Sixteen citizens that we questioned have confirmed the shooting and burning of part of the population; seven of them stated that they witnessed the events. After visiting Khaibakh, we ascertained the high likelihood of the place where those events took place. On the outskirts of the village there are remnants of a large shed. Its walls are made of stone and have holes resembling bullet holes” (graniru.info, June 13). Later, all the people who were still alive in 1989–1990 were questioned (Chechnya Today, February 19, 2013). Moreover, while the USSR was still intact, the Soviet authorities launched a criminal investigation, and the prosecutor general’s office investigated the mass burning of Chechens in Khaibakh (svoboda.org, February 24, 2004).
Naturally, the authorities will not permit the declassification of all the documents related to this case, just as they did not want to release all the documents related to the shooting of Polish prisoners in Katyn. Contemporary Russia today tries to portray itself as a country that Crimea and the former Soviet republics would like to join, and the Khaibakh events would mar this picture of Russia, showing the true face of the Soviet Union and its successor—Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The fact that no one was punished for the 1944 mass deportation of Chechens eventually resulted in more wars in Chechnya. There is no time limit for egregious crimes like mass burnings of people. Russia is fighting a war against separatism, but its war with history only strengthens separatist sentiments.