Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 29

A Review of Valery Tishkov’s Society in Armed Conflict: Ethnography of the Chechen War

Prominent Russian ethnologist and anthropologist Valery Aleksandrovich Tishkov published his book, Society in Armed Conflict: Ethnography of the Chechen War, in 2001. The work’s main themes, as the author writes himself, are “modern history, culture and family-clan relationships of Chechens, formation of the ideology of nationalism and separatism, anatomy of hostage taking and human trade, escalation of violence, character of political regime.” The project was sponsored by several American organizations, including the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Written on the basis of over 100 interviews, including conversations with former Communist Party functionaries, representatives of intelligentsia and fighters who took part in the first war in Chechnya, the book is beyond any doubt of scientific and practical value. One cannot but be impressed by the author’s statement that he felt equally for the suffering of citizens regardless of their ethnicity; whether federal servicemen and their relatives, civilians in Chechnya or even fighting Chechens – many of whom fell victim to ideological and political manipulators and became hostages to a political spiral. This moral-psychological attitude of the author through which he views the “ethnography of the Chechen war” is worthy of respect. Knowing the author and his kind human qualities, one can understand the moral imperatives upon which he forms his personal attitude towards the events that subjected the Chechen nation to such a cruel trial.

But the author does not only express his own attitude towards these events, but also allows everyone who came into his sight while he was writing the book to have their say. Individual voices, objective and subjective opinions, utterances that are very often as ambivalent and incompatible as our own lives are all heard. In this cacophony of voices, the voice of Kisriev, which gives the book a special meaning, is especially memorable. Professor Tishkov, who was studying the character, mentality, and ethnography of Chechens, once happened to be in Switzerland with Dagestani sociologist Enver Kisriev, an ethnic Lezghin. Sitting in a hotel in the Swiss capital of Geneva, the ethnographer Tishkov, who had made up his mind to write an ethnography of the Chechen war, asked his friend Kisriev his opinion of Chechens.

Kisriev’s opinion of Chechens as described in Tishkov’s work appears as follows: “I was about ten years old when I first heard the news that ‘Chechens were returning’, but I could not figure out for a long time what it meant, and who the Chechens were. There were no Chechens in Makhachkala. There were no Chechens in our school, and there were none of them among all my friends and acquaintances. I saw Chechens for the first time in my life in 1962 when I went to field and track competition in Grozny (back then I won the first place in high jump among juniors in Dagestan). That is where I saw Chechens. They were rooting for their guys. They looked so energetic and handsome. But that was a view from far away.

“I had my first personal contact only in 1986, when I went on a tourist trip to Bulgaria and we had a Chechen named Surumpasha in our group. He clung to me, and behaved very respectfully, and you could even say that he showed deference to me as to an older person, even though he was only four years my junior. This obtrusive politeness is one of the characteristic traits of Chechens. But that did not mean anything yet.

“There was a postgraduate Chechen student in our institute, a very diligent and modest man. They say that his relatives told him: you are the smartest among us, and we are sending you to study. He later went back to Chechnya and rewrote the whole history to his own liking, claiming that Chechens had since long ago lived across the North Caucasus and that their territory extended all the way to the Black Sea, to the island called ‘Chechen’. In our institute we laughed about it, but at the same time we were indignant. The island was named ‘Chechen’ because Russian fish poachers lived there in the last century, whom Dagestanis named ‘Chechens’. This story is well known.”

(These words are probably new historical humor. Chechen Island has never been situated in the Black Sea, it is located in the Caspian Sea. What Kisriev’s Dagestanis were laughing about is not at all clear.)

Kisriev continues: “But there is an interesting detail: none of our historians want to write a refutation. They are afraid. Chechens may threaten. One of our respected Dagestani historians said: ‘Let he who has no mind think so, it is useless to argue with them’. Recently some of our good Darghin scholars (they do not care about those lands) wrote ‘The Historic Geography of Dagestan’, but they are wary of publishing it. Umar Djavtaev told me: ‘We will catch and kill any historian who writes that Chechens came down into the lowlands of Ichkeria only 150-200 years ago and rented land from Kumik khans.'”

In Tishkov’s opinion, this is a reference to Timur Aitberov, one of the “leading Kabardinian historians”. But Kisriev again confused things: Timur Aitberov is not a Kabardinian historian, but a famous Avar orientalist, currently teaching at Dagestan State University’s history faculty. No one knows where Kisriev and Tishkov got the information that he was marked by Chechens, but what is known is that Timur Aitberov is a respected scholar who enjoys a great reputation with Chechen academics. The statement that Chechens would kill the Dagestani scholar seems therefore to be a figment of a sick mind.

“Umar is the second Chechen whom I personally knew,” Kisriev’s narrative continues. “He shows respect to me here and abroad is in accord with me. He took offense because I did not support him during the discussion in the working group on conflicts. He took offense, even though he later apologized. He found me in Moscow and even lived for several days with me before departing to Geneva. My wife and I treated him to khinkal (a Caucasian culinary dish), and we drank shots of brandy together. He told me lots of things about the situation in the Khasavyurt district…”

It turns out that in Kisriev’s view, the attitude towards Chechens in Dagestan is as follows: “If Chechens are in the minority, then they are the best guys; if they are in the majority, then that’s it: they will start insulting and putting you down. It is a political nation. It knows what force is. A Chechen always measures up situation and changes his behavior accordingly. For example, we sit in a group at a table in a restaurant; a Chechen gives a toast to each one of us and shows his respect to us. But then a group of Chechens shows up and sits at the next table. This Chechen becomes a different man: haughty, audacious and so on.” The story of Kisriev’s brandy-soaked “friend” and this description of Chechen arrogance seems to be more barroom gossip than scientific analysis.

It turns out that for a Dagaestani, in Kisriev’s view, a Chechen is a thief. He cites a Kumik joke about Chechens (Kumiks have been the longest and closest neighbors of Chechens). “A Kumik invites a Chechen over, serves him khinkal and other food. He does it for a second and for a third time. People ask the Chechen: why don’t you invite him over to your place? ‘And what will I say if he suddenly asks where I got the meat from?’ the Chechen answers.”

Kisriev continues his meager ethnographic observations about Chechens: “Chechen morals differ greatly from those of Dagestanis. They may have shame, but they have no conscience. If a Chechen steals something and does not get caught, then he will be a hero, and no one will tell him anything. A father never reproaches a son for this. But if he gets caught, then he will be taunted about being such a loser.” I am not willing to engage in a comparative analysis of the moral codes of Chechens and Dagestanis. But it seems obvious that the Kisriev and his friend are paragons of outright shamelessness.

Tishkov writes that “Kisriev’s words elicited a strong reaction from my Chechen cross-reviewers.” Having seen “the Kisrievsky image of Chechens”, a Muscovite ethnographer offered Tishkov his assistance in providing commentary on the Chechenophobic statements made by Kisriev. Tishkov declined, and in fact wrote of this author that “Vakhit Akaev became so indignant that he refused to comment.” This is not true. No one provided more comments in this regard than I did, but for some reason he keeps silent about it, ascribing to me that which I did not say.

To be objective, this is what happened. In May 2000, Tishkov asked me to review part of the draft of his book about the war in Chechnya. Thinking that Tishkov is not well acquainted with the culture of the people of the Caucasus, especially Chechens, I agreed to read the text given to me. While reading the book, I wrote a lot of my remarks in the margins, corrected some facts, advised how to better present this or that topic about Chechens. The text that I was presented with was a draft, and Tishkov admitted that. I attentively read all the statements of Kisriev and against each one of his thoughts I made remarks and provided arguments refuting his statements.

Realizing full well that Kisriev as well as many Muscovite scholars are programmed to be Chechenophobic, I advised Tishkov to remove some extremely subjective statements which were insulting to the Chechen nation. I laid out the ideas in a written review of Tishkov’s text. Moreover, I expressed them orally, and I was really indignant about Kisriev’s claptrap recorded by Tishkov. The latter promised not to publish Kisriev’s utterances, and he asked me not to divulge the “Chechenophobic statements of Kisriev.” I believed him and did not discuss the topic even with my colleagues.

I also want to point out that the Muscovite ethnologist who had been trying to get to know “the Chechens” by means of the opinion of their neighbors quoted only the “voice” of Kisriev. And I have strong doubts that one can find out the truth by means of such a tactic, but surely one can earn political dividends, and the author has successfully done just that.

Kisriev started to air his views about Chechens in 1999. Once at the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, while talking about the social order of Chechens, he stated that “Chechens have clans and Dagestanis have jamaats.” According to him, the existence of clans meant social backwardness, whereas the existence of jamaats meant social progress. I responded to this scientifically incorrect thesis by remarking that I did not see any difference between the Dagestani jamaats and Chechen clans. Kisriev had no argument against this statement.

In 2002, I met Kisriev in Makhachkala in the office of the director of one of the Dagestani academic institutes. I asked him if he had really not met any Chechens other than those two whom he described to Tishkov so tactlessly?

Upset about meeting me and the question I asked him, Kisriev replied that Tishkov set him up by dishonestly publishing the story he told him on a trip abroad. (I think that Kisriev was talking and Tishkov was recording on a recorder while sitting in a hotel and sipping vodka. Perhaps this way of extracting information about Chechens is a new scientific achievement in the field of ethnology made by Muscovite researchers.)

Kisriev told me that he sent me a message via email in which he apologized and blamed Tishkov. I had not received such a message. Furthermore, Kisriev informed me that [Chechen historian Dzhabrail] Gakaev was too discontent with the Tishkov’s book in which Gakaev’s family tragedy was unethically presented. In Kisriev’s words, Gakaev admitted to him that Tishkov had also “set him up.” The story that touches upon Gakaev is described this way: Tishkov decided to express condolences on the death of Gakaev’s son, who died in a traffic accident. He visited him in his Moscow apartment. He says that at Gakaev’s place they had a drink to the memory of the deceased. It was this episode, not corresponding to Islamic tradition, which aroused a negative reaction in Gakaev. This aspect is a clear example of the unacceptable “new methods” used by Tishkov in The Ethnography of the Chechen War.

Tishkov further writes in his book that the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology of the Russian Academy of Sciences held a national session of ethnographers and anthropologists in Grozny in the summer of 1992. Here again Tishkov is mistaken – the session was held in fall, and not in the summer of that year. It was organized by me as a director of the Chechen Republic’s Science and Research Institute (SRI) of Humanities, and by Segei Arutyunov, a correspondent member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who headed the country’s association of ethnologists and anthropologists. Tishkov did not come to the session because Ruslan Khasbulatov, who was Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Russia, did not allow him. Given that the fact of holding this conference reflected on my scientific career, I consider it to be necessary to express my opinion about the topic in greater detail.

Tishkov either forgot or he does not want to remember that [Chechen President Djokhar] Dudaev’s entourage was strongly against holding that session in Grozny. After allowing the conference to take place, Dudaev, under the influence of his advisors, changed his opinion. I was informed that he was against holding it in Grozny because employees of the Institute headed by Tishkov were “characterized by clearly expressed chauvinism.” I exerted quite significant efforts to have the session held in Grozny, as it had been planned prior to the 1991 events. Over 30 Russian scientists, including famous ethnographers from Armenia and Azerbaijan, attended the session. On the whole, the staff of the SRI of Humanities, which had not been receiving salaries, did its best to have the session take place. All the guests were provided with board and accommodation, and when the session was over, the participants traveled to the village of Serzhen-Yurt to take a rest. Some Chechen scholars invited their Muscovite guests to their places, and extended them the best possible hospitality. Meanwhile, Tishkov writes that his colleague expressed the following opinion about Chechens: “The Chechens are carousing, the Russians are sitting quietly and having no arguments; there is paranoia with checks, Chechens are demonstrating their physical force, their hats have grown bigger, but on the whole they remain being complete philistines.” Of course, Chechens are the same philistines as all other nationalities of the country. There is nothing surprising about that.

Later, when the SRI of Humanities was disbanded, one of the accusations put forward against me was the fact that I held this session. I was accused of having a pro-Russian stand and later discharged from the office of the director of the SRI. The institution was disbanded. Tishkov knew about it, but did not find it necessary to mention it in his book. But he did remember how Ruslan Khasbulatov threatened and forbade him to go to Chechnya to attend the conference.

On page 25 of his book, Tishkov writes that I submitted a research project to him called “National liberation movements in Chechnya in the 19th century,” with a goal of participating in a competition to receive a grant announced by the Russian Foundation for the Humanities. That did happen. Hinting at what he saw as the research project’s unsuccessful theme, he writes: “Something is clearly happening to politics and science in societies plunged into conflicts. Both of them start to look stupid and immoral in a number of aspects.” He expressed something similar to this in one of his scientific works on anthropology published abroad in English. The Russian foundation did not support the project that I submitted in 1995; nor did it support another project put together in 1999 by a group of Chechen scholars that touched upon modern economic and socio-political processes underway in Chechnya.

Five years after our first project was presented to the Russian foundation, a group of Dagestani scientists from the Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography of Dagestani Science Center won the grant. I was surprised when I saw the theme of the project. It was the very theme the group of Chechen scientists had presented to receive the grant. Yes, there is something strange and immoral happening in Russian historical science. Science cannot be immoral in and of itself; this ethical characteristic is true only of the people who “make” it and speculate on it.

Tishkov in his book also mentions the working staff of the SRI of Humanities. He writes that he submitted a request to the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Scientists to render assistance to the scholars who, due to various circumstances, happened to be in Moscow. Yes, that did happen, but it needs to be added that in 1999-2000, in my speeches, I always drew attention to the fact that the potential of Chechen scholars who happened to be in Moscow was not utilized. I, as director of the SRI of Humanities, and Dzhabrail Gakaev, as an academician in the Academy of Sciences of the Chechen Republic, along with Tishkov, appealed to the Presidium of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

One of the excerpts of the 15th chapter of Tishkov’s book is called “Chechen anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory.” Tishkov ascribes anti-Semitism to the whole nation. It is well known that Chechens did not have any idea of anti-Semitism even during the tsarist period when Black Hundreds pogroms were rampant in Russia. In everyday life in the Soviet and post-Soviet period, anti-Semitism was rife in Moscow. But on the basis of that can one ascribe anti-Semitism to the whole nation, including to Tishkov as a representative of that nation?

Tishkov’s book is big and touches upon many issues. There is little science in it, but there is a lot of politics and dubious facts. But any prolific scholar – and I without question consider Tishkov to be prolific – commits that sin. That is not the most important point. The point is: what will happen to ethnology if a scholar writes the ethnography of Russians or Lezghins while taking shots of vodka on a trip abroad? The answer is quite simple: nothing good will come of it. That method will not lead to the truth, but rather to enmity.

This book, sponsored by foreign foundations and the Russian government, despite having many merits, is not devoid of serious shortcomings, upon which we have focused in this review. We believe that the political character of Tishkov’s book does not help to achieve scientific truth, especially in such a subtle science as anthropology. In studying an ethnic group, its history, economics, culture, customs, traditions and religious beliefs, it is of primary importance to adhere to the principles of objectivity, impartiality and tolerance. If that is the case, then one has more chances to find ways to attain truth.