As the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge between Chechens and Russians continues to spiral downward, it is worthwhile to pause for a longer view. The greatest Russian nationalist of the 20th century, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, provided some occasional glimpses of the Chechens in his classic of three decades ago, “The Gulag Archipelago.” In Part V he described a 1949 escape by two Slav prisoners from a labor camp in Kazakhstan. Desperate for food, they stole a cow from a village but were caught.
In Solzhenitsyn’s words, “They were taken to the village and locked up. The people shouted that they should be shot out of hand and no mercy shown to them. But an investigating officer arrived from the district center with the picture sent around to assist the nationwide search, and addressed the villagers. ‘Well done!’ he said. ‘These aren’t thieves you’ve caught, but dangerous political criminals.’ Suddenly there was a complete change of attitude. The owner of the cow, a Chechen as it turned out, brought the prisoners bread, mutton, and even some money, collected by the Chechens. ‘What a pity,’ he said. ‘You should have come and told me who you were and I’d have given you everything you wanted!’ (There is no reason to doubt it; that’s how the Chechens are.) Kudla burst into tears. After so many years of savagery, he couldn’t stand sympathy.”
In his detailed account of the 1954 revolt at the Kengir labor camp in Kazakhstan, Solzhenitsyn observed that “there is more than one side to the Chechens. People among whom they live–I speak from my experience in Kazakhstan–find them hard to get along with; they are rough and arrogant, and they do not conceal their dislike of Russians. But the men of Kengir only had to display independence and courage–and they immediately won the good will of the Chechens! When we feel that we are not sufficiently respected, we should ask ourselves whether we are living as we should.”
Comparing the various ethnic groups exiled to the most remote corners of the Soviet Union, Solzhenitsyn concluded that “there was one nation which would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission–and not just individual rebels among them, but the whole nation to a man. These were the Chechens….They had been treacherously snatched from their home, and from that day they believed in nothing….The years went by–and they owned just as little as they had to begin with. The Chechens never sought to please, to ingratiate themselves with the bosses; their attitude was always haughty and indeed openly hostile. They treated the laws on universal education and the state curriculum with contempt, and to save them from corruption would not send their little girls to school, nor indeed all of their boys….They were capable of rustling cattle, robbing a house, or sometimes simply taking what they wanted by force. As far as they were concerned, the local inhabitants, and those exiles who submitted so readily, belonged more or less to the same breed as the bosses. They respected only rebels.”