Monument Controversy Raises Doubt over Stability of Moscow-Grozny Relationship

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 171

Memorial to the 19th century women defenders of the Chechen village of Dadi-Yurt (Source: Caucasian Knot)

The problem for Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov appeared out of nowhere, and in a place he least expected. One of the most ardent opponents of war in Chechnya, the coordinator of the Anti-War Club, Anna Karetnikova, wrote in her blog on the website of Ekho Moskvy radio that the same actions are perceived differently in separate time periods (http://echo.msk.ru/blog/may_antiwar/1158720-echo/). She was referring to the monument unveiled in Chechnya dedicated to the heroism of the Chechen women who defended their village of Dadi-Yurt from the invading Russian army in 1819.

The monument was unveiled on September 15, in the Chechen village of Khangish-Yurt (www.ntv.ru/novosti/659799/). More precisely, the monument was restored, given that it was originally unveiled back in 1990. At the time, it only consisted of several tombstones atop a mound. The monument has undergone several alterations since then, the first one having been made in 2009. This past June, the monument was subjected to a thorough restoration process. Moreover, at Kadyrov’s initiative, a Day of Chechen Women was established, to be marked every year on the third Sunday in September (http://chechnya.gov.ru/page.php?r=126&id=13861).

The heroic 19th century defense of Dadi-Yurt by its inhabitants became an example of fortitude and courage that has, since then, been depicted in Chechen folk songs and legends. According to the legendary accounts, that morning began with a signal from the village minaret about the impending Russian attack. Young girls staged dances in the village’s central square to raise the fighting spirit of their men. The sounds of music emanating from Dadi-Yurt outraged the commander or the Russian forces in the Caucasus, General Alexei Yermolov, who ordered that the village be shelled. After all of Dadi-Yurt’s men perished in the ensuing fighting and Russians entered the village, its women and girls took up arms themselves. To avoid being captured, the girls slit their own throats in front of the astonished soldiers. By the evening, the village was razed to the ground, and 46 wounded women and several children were captured. When the captives were carried on a ferry across the Terek River, the women cried “Death to the enemies!” and, holding onto the Russian soldiers, threw themselves into the river. None of Dadi-Yurt’s residents became prisoners (D. Khozhaev, “Tragediya Dadi-Yurta,” Komsomolskoe Plemya, 1989, #42).

In response to the Chechen memorial to the women of Dadi-Yurt, the organization Officers of Russia asked authorities to erect a statue of Gen. Yermolov in Moscow (www.newsru.com/russia/16sep2013/ermolov.html).

The Russian opponents of the Chechen memorial essentially criticize the Chechens for erecting a monument to those who died fighting the Russian army to protect their homeland, honor and pride. The critics of the monument unfairly compare the historical figures being honored to the people who died in suicide bombing attacks in the Chechen wars of the 1990s and 2000s, rhetorically asking whether Kadyrov would also dedicate monuments to the female suicide bombers who died in Chechnya, killing themselves and Russian soldiers.

Most of all, the Russian Internet community is outraged at what it sees as Ramzan Kadyrov showing Chechens an example of Chechen resistance to Russia (http://www.nr2.ru/policy/13/09/20/all/).

State Duma deputy Alexei Zhuravlyov, chairman of the nationalist Rodina party, even asked Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika to determine whether the unveiling of the monument to the 19th century female defenders of Dadi-Yurt violated Russia’s anti-extremism laws (www.rbcdaily.ru/society/562949988962292). The Duma deputy apparently did not consider how people in Chechnya and across the North Caucasus would perceive a government resolution to demolish the monument. Such an act would end any illusions held by North Caucasians about Russian understanding and accepting of their view of history.

According to Vadim Mukhanov of the Center for Caucasian Studies at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), the memorial to the women defenders of Dadi-Yurt “does not help with rapprochement among peoples, but rather the opposite—it deepens the split in society, in particular in the North Caucasus” (www.contrasterra.ru/opinion/12502). The expert said that what is going on is not a war of monuments, but a war of historical memories. The reaction in the country showed that the central government does not know what to do about it.

Russian ideology rests on educating young people using examples from the past (http://www.nr2.ru/policy/461184.html), and this process cannot be selective in such a multi-ethnic country as the Russian Federation. As Russians glorify their heroes, Chechens will also bring up noteworthy examples from their history of the heroic struggle against Russia’s colonization of Chechnya in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The reaction of Chechens to the uproar in Russia was unusual. In response to the insinuations of Russian nationalists, a roundtable was hastily organized in Grozny. The participants tried to prove that they had every right to exalt their heroes (http://chechnyatoday.com/content/view/275135/89?popular=1). The president of the Chechen Academy of Sciences, Shakhrudin Gapurov, even unsuccessfully tried to smooth over the conflict by saying something positive about Yermolov (http://www.pravda.ru/news/society/17-09-2013/1174654-kadirov-0/).

It is fair to ask why it is so important that Chechens erect a monument in Chechnya dedicated to the heroes of the 19th century. To answer this question, it is important to understand that when Russia glorifies the 19th century heroes who conquered the peoples of the North Caucasus with crude force, the region’s indigenous ethnic groups—Chechens, Dagestanis, Circassians and others—are offended. Therefore, when Russian groups erect a monument to Gen. Yermolov in Pyatigorsk—in the heart of the North Caucasians—they should realize that the descendants of those who resisted the conquest have their own heroes (http://ria.ru/society/20100911/274705127.html), who fought against the heroes of Russia. Furthermore, one should not forget that Yermolov is considered a merciless murderer of North Caucasians by many nationalities in the region.

This controversy over the Chechen memorial would probably not have generated much publicity had it not been for the fact that the reaction of the Russian public to the monument’s unveiling showed the real attitude of ethnic Russians toward North Caucasians and, in particular, Chechens. The whole system that has been built in Chechnya could collapse like a house of cards if its two main figures, Vladimir Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, exit the game.