Monday, February 24, was a day off across Russia in celebration of armed forces day, which this year fell on a Sunday. In a country that has long had compulsory military service for (in theory) all males, February 23 serves as a de facto “Father’s Day.” But Chechens, though more martial in spirit than Russians, remember February 23 with very different feelings. It was on the night of February 22-23, 1944, that the Stalin regime began deporting the entire Chechen nation to Central Asia.
Conditions on the overcrowded, under-supplied trains carrying Chechens to remote Kazakhstan, as well as on the infertile steppes that awaited them, were so harsh that about one-fourth of those deported perished–including tens of thousands of women and children. As a very rough equivalent, Americans might try to imagine what it would be like for the entire population of Delaware to be rounded up at gunpoint and shipped off to Wyoming.
A correspondent for Agence France-Presse, visiting a refugee camp just outside Chechnya, confirmed last weekend that even young Chechens still vividly recall that tragedy. “My grandfather described to me what Chechen people suffered,” one 17-year-old told the French journalist. “The Russian authorities should have decreed this day as a day of mourning. Perhaps then we could forgive the Russians.”