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A History Written in Chechen Blood

Published: February 27, 2004 (Issue # 947)


Monday was Defender of the Fatherland Day in Russia, so, of course, there were observances in Moscow. But it also was the 60th anniversary of a Soviet crime perpetrated against the Chechen people - and, of course, there was no official observance in Moscow. In fact, a proposed ceremony was banned, and the small number of people who nevertheless gathered to solemnize the event were dispersed by the police. But the past will not be so easily dispersed - it must be dealt with if there is to be a political settlement of the cruel Chechen conflict.

The crime was Josef Stalin's deportation of the Chechens on Feb. 23, 1944. This event is to Chechens what the Holocaust is to the Jews or the genocide is to the Armenians. That day, when Stalin packed the Chechen population of 1 million into cattle cars and shipped them to Siberia and Central Asia, lies in our collective memory. One-third of the population died on the journey. Many others perished under the harsh conditions of exile.

During Soviet times, the deportation was a taboo subject, talked about behind closed doors. As a small boy, most of what I learned was from old women gathered in our kitchen. Once, when they thought I wasn't listening, I heard my mother tell my sisters how women were so ashamed to relieve themselves in the railroad cars in front of men that they held on until their bladders burst. Only when I was 14 years old did I understand the true horror of what had happened. That summer my father showed my twin brother and me the cliff near our ancestral village of Makazhoi, over which troops of the NKVD (the secret police of the time) pushed resisters, including some of our relatives.

Stalin claimed that the Chechens were Nazi sympathizers. This was an insult to most Chechens, including my father, who fought on the northeastern front and was wounded during World War II. In spite of his wounds, my father was deported. He returned to Chechnya from Kazakhstan in 1959 after Nikita Khrushchev allowed the Chechens to go home. Only after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power were my father and other Chechens who fought in the war recognized as veterans and given pensions. He wore his medals with pride.

Chechnya has been struggling for independence for 400 years. The 1944 deportation is not the only one we have suffered. Chechens were pressured to leave for Turkey, Jordan and Syria in the 19th century. In view of our history and what is going on in Chechnya today, it is not surprising that we believe Russia wants to liquidate us.

About one-quarter of our population has been killed since 1994. Fifty percent of the Chechen nation now lives outside Chechnya. Ethnographers say that when this happens, a nation ceases to exist. Estimates claim that 75 percent of the Chechen environment is contaminated. I recall a physician from Doctors Without Borders telling me, "The Russians don't need to bomb you, the environment will kill you." I didn't believe it at the time. But now as a doctor I can testify that Chechnya is a medical disaster area. Pediatricians report that one-third of children are born with birth defects. Drug-resistant tuberculosis is rampant. The population is suffering from post-traumatic stress. Depression and insomnia are widespread. Young men are having heart attacks.

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