In war, as has often been observed, “truth is the first casualty.” But it is also a fact that after any war, truth regarding that conflict is often again sacrificed and new myths arise. Seldom has that been more apparent than in the case of post-Soviet Chechnya, where two diametrically opposed but passionately held myths have displaced an honest appreciation of what actually happened during the Russo-Chechen wars around the turn of the 21st century. On the one hand, according to the version pushed by Russian writers and largely accepted by Western ones who rely on them, Chechnya from the beginning was a land of bandits that threatened Russian lives and even the Russian state, that grew into a dangerous Islamist enclave, and that had to be defeated by force of Russian arms. That view is dominant because it has been put forward in hundreds of books and thousands of articles over the last 20 years.
On the other hand, there is an alternative view, offered by some Chechens in a few dozen volumes and thus typically ignored by the international community although passionately held by Chechens and their supporters. This alternate view presents the Chechens as a heroic and unified people, led always by noble and thoughtful leaders. It further suggests that the Chechen nation was a loser in this struggle, at least for the time being, only because of the enormous power of the Russian state and the perfidy of Western leaders who refused to support the Chechens as having the same rights as the peoples of other former Soviet republics.
While each side is able to find some support for its position in the historical record, both are fundamentally wrong. The Russian myth is patently untrue: There were bandits among the Chechens, but they were a tiny minority, far smaller in size than their Russian counterparts. The Chechens were Muslims but few were Salafis, and most Chechens viewed the fundamentalists—who never were as numerous as the Russians claim and the West accepts—as their enemies rather than allies. And finally, the Russian military lost the first post-Soviet war against the Chechens despite all its advantages because it was divided and lacking in command and control. But the Chechen myth, if one may call it that, is also incorrect. Despite a tragic history with the Russians, the Chechens did not hate that nation, although they felt contempt for the Russian state. Many Chechens acted heroically, but they were seldom united and often undercut one another by their divisions. Moreover, their leaders were often not only divided but incompetent, acting in ways that subverted the Chechen cause of independence. And while it is certainly true that Chechnya was not the West’s finest hour, it is not the case that the United States and Europe did nothing. Rather, the West’s failures were magnified by Chechen leadership failures.
Now, happily, a new book has appeared that dispels each of these myths and lays out the facts, allowing for a far more adequate understanding of that history. As such, it is beyond question the most important book on Chechnya in the 1990s ever published—both for the lessons it contains about how Moscow and the Russians do things, and because of what it says about how those hoping to stand up to the Russian state must act in order to defend their dignity and eventual independence. That book is Mairbek Vatchagaev’s Chechnya: The Inside Story From Independence to War (Open Books, 2019, 255 pp.). And as one would expect, such a book could be written only by someone who was very much part of the Chechen struggle (he served as a close advisor to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov) but who is also a scholar (he gained a doctorate in history from a Moscow institution and has written other pioneering works on Chechnya as an emigrant). As such, he was and is someone who stood and stands enough apart from the various factions and actions throughout the 1990s to be able to describe them equally objectively, whether they are found among the Russians or the Chechens.
What Vatchagaev documents is this: Muscovite perfidy bears primary responsibility for the tragedy that was Chechnya in the 1990s. That perfidy both reflected Russian actions in the past and those in the future by playing on divisions within the Chechens. Moreover, Vatchagaev’s book describes how the federal government took control of the media scene in order to ensure that neither Russians nor the world would understand what it was doing. As one reads his work now, it is difficult not to be struck by how closely Vladimir Putin’s current approach to Ukraine resembles Boris Yeltsin’s policy and attitude toward Chechnya 25 years ago. At the same time, however, Vatchagaev is clear that Chechens and, especially, Chechen leaders were not “beyond reproach.” They misjudged the nature of Russian weakness, they “underestimated Russia’s desire for revenge” as well as the important role their supporters within Russia could play, and they did not handle relations with the West well, often failing to make use of the backing that was in fact given.
Almost every page of Vatchagaev’s book contains the kind of materials any true historian can only dream of. A good example is following excerpt of his recollection of the talks that led to the 1996 Khasavyurt Accord (which marked the end of the First Russo-Chechen War):
The Chechen demand that the negotiations be based on international law became the main point of contention and brought an outcry from the Russians. Vladimir Lukin, a liberal politician and former Russian ambassador to the United States, shouted that there could be no solution to the problem based on international law; in effect that would mean recognition of Chechen independence. As Lebed was signing the document consenting to the Chechens’ request, Lukin, standing next to him, angrily pleaded with him not to sign. After Lebed boldly ratified the document, Lukin, in a fit of rage, shouted at the Chechens: ‘You will not get away with it; we will come back to Chechnya!’ He then ran out of the room, not to be a party to Russia’s defeat. At the time, few people paid attention to his words.
In addition to being a history and memoir, the new book is especially valuable for offering occasional historical asides that help explain the more recent tragedy. It also features a helpful chronology of events, brief biographies of the key players, and a set of the most important documents. What the book does lack is an index, something that can easily be corrected in future editions.