Europe Remembers

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 9

The sixtieth anniversary of the deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people on February 23 was widely commemorated and discussed in Europe. Thousands of people in Warsaw, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen, in Italy and France, and in Riga expressed their support for the Chechens. They tried to understand what deportation and exile meant to the Chechens and expressed their hope that the recognition of the 1944 genocide would help to stop the bloodshed of today. The anniversary brought with it an unprecedented number of informational and cultural events, such as film showings, performances and panel discussions. These involved members of the Chechen diaspora in many mid-size and larger cities. Italy’s Radical MEP Olivier Dupuis inspired and spearheaded a campaign that ultimately involved several thousand people in public actions in dozens of European cities on the days from February 20-23 (fasting, candle-light vigils, demonstrations), and himself undertook a thirty-six-day hunger strike. The most significant news is that the European parliament, in a debate on February 26, adopted two amendments proposed by Dupuis. One recognizes the 1944 deportation of Chechens as an act of genocide, the other officially asks the European Commission to study the plan for the establishment of an interim United Nations administration in Chechnya.

By contrast, in Russia, the silence around February 23 was deafening. A small, explicitly outlawed commemorative demonstration in front of the FSB’s headquarters in Moscow was followed by its dispersal and the brief detentions of Lev Ponomarev, head of the For Human Rights movement, and Nikolai Khramov, leader of the Russian Radical party. A gathering of human rights activists near the Solovetsky Stone on Troitskaya Ploshchad in St. Petersburg was marred by provocations from skinhead youth, while a somber commemoration in Saratov’s central mosque, organized by Chechen and Ingush religious and cultural leaders and attended by Russian community leaders and activists, went without incident. Chechen NGOs in Nazran issued a statement in support of Olivier Dupuis’ hunger strike, but on the whole the public in Russia was completely unaware of the commemoration in Europe. Not a single highly placed official mentioned the deportation.

The anniversary has resulted in almost no new information about the deportation. Few Chechen historians have been able to do any work; archives that were open in the mid-90s have been closed since 2001, and serious materials on Chechen history are not in demand. One significant exception is a long article by Iavus Akhmadov that discusses the conditions in exile based on documents from the Russian state archive’s former spetsfondy and contains many new details about Chechen cultural and political survival in exile (“Sud’ba narodov Checheno-Ingushetii: Deportatsiia i vozvrashchenie,”

Comments and articles on Chechen websites focus on violence and death during the deportation, blame enmity between Russians and Chechens far more frequently than the Stalinist system, and tend not to notice that the Chechens were resettled together with the Ingush and that the Caucasians were not alone in exile. This is especially regrettable as more and more Russians are receptive to apologias that justify the deportation as having been in the interests of Russian national security.

An example of this attitude is Anton Utkin’s recent publication “Operation ‘Chechevitsa,'” in which he repeats allegations that a “significant” number of Chechens and Ingush fought on the side of the Germans, that anti-soviet Chechen authorities organized an uprising together with German parachutists, and that the Chechens “did not shrink from violence” against people who opposed the reintroduction of their ways upon their return to the Caucasus (see Utkin’s article is a good example of how this type of argumentation reproduces and uses the NKVD documentation’s logic for its own ends. To support the argument that exile was not as deadly as the Chechens allege he repeats a long passage about how the Chechens were “met” in Kazakhstan by a republic “prepared” with shipments of flour, allotments of cattle and housing loans for the “resettlers.” It is easy to recognize this as a purely formal assertion from the first days of the operation. To cite it as evidence about the conditions instead of the flood of reports about famine and disease that soon followed is a gross distortion of the facts.

The anniversary in Russia brought little new information, little reflection, and even less readiness to ask for forgiveness, while Europeans have raised a loud noise by engaging in many quiet actions, including fasting, talking and vigils. It is significant and particularly appropriate that hundreds of people worldwide were fasting on this anniversary. Hunger was the first feeling of which the uprooted people became conscious, and it stayed with them for long months and years thereafter. It is even more significant that the commemoration actions were explicitly connected to the call for international involvement in Chechnya, since that is what the deported people called for sixty years ago.

Few know about the organized resistance to the Soviet state that the Chechens put up in exile. The deported Chechens, still in a state of total physical depletion under the conditions of a harsh “special regime,” began to engage in mass political action in exile as soon as the election campaign to the Supreme Soviet in January 1946 gave them a chance to disrupt it by not participating. They seized that opportunity immediately. Stalin received reports that the most “reactionary among the Muslim spiritual leaders” were openly hostile to the elections, and that they were calling on believers to boycott the elections all over Kazakhstan. The NKVD arrested at least forty individuals in the republic for actively organizing resistance to the elections. The Chechens deliberately sought to disrupt these elections to give a sign to the outside world that Soviet democracy was a sham.

In calling for the boycott, many expressed the expectation that the restoration of their autonomy would ultimately be aided by the Western powers. This belief, repeated by many in the exile settlements, was extremely alarming to the party leadership. A Chechen man in Alma-Ata made the following statement in 1946: “After the elections we will return to the Caucasus, because England and America will help us restore our state. That is why we will not vote for Soviet candidates, we are going to vote in the Caucasus, for our candidates.” The Chechens fought against the elections with the greatest determination and coordination, and when the Supreme Soviet dissolved the Chechen-Ingush ASSR later that year, they said: “England, America, and France got involved in this question, and demanded from the USSR lists of all these nationalities and at the session of the international conference they will propose the return of the special settlers” (GARF [Gosudarstvenny arkhiv rossiskoi federatsii], f. 9479, op. 1, d. 248, ll. 265-266; ibid., d. 265, l. 83).

Did anyone in “England and America” know that the Chechens held these beliefs, and if so, who? Why did no one respond? Why did no one respond to Salavdi Gugaev, standing in front of the UN in the 1950s, why not to Abdurakhman Avturkhanov, after he published his book? Foreign intervention did, some years later, lead to significant reforms for the Germans in exile, when, in connection with the visit of Konrad Adenauer to the USSR in 1955, the Germans were taken off the “special settler status” (although they had to remain in the places of exile).

England and America have been silent on the deportation anniversary, but by recognizing the deportation as an act of genocide, Europe has shown that it has a “conscience for the Chechens.” The editor of Chechen Times sees cause for celebration: “Today Europe has said what it [should] have said long ago. Many Chechens deeply appreciate that Europe remembered them, and argue that “the main thing is that the recognition of the 1944 genocide helps to stop today’s genocide, which is as bloody.” (“Hope for Justice,” Chechen Times, 26 February 2004).