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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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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Friday, Aug. 29


Park Pobedy will feature the sights and sounds of the world outside of Russia during the Open Art International Festival today. Taste foreign cuisine, learn how to make tea like the Chinese or relax in a hammock during the free event. Although entrance is free, you must register beforehand if you wish to attend.



Saturday, Aug. 30


Break out the tweed and channel your inner Englishman during the English Hunt Picnic this afternoon organized by the Bagmut stables from Krasny Bor in the Leningrad Oblast. Equestrian stunts, English archery and classic hunting fashion will all be available to visitors hoping to live like the characters in Downton Abbey if only for a day. Tickets for the event cost 7,900 rubles ($219.40).


Bookworms will have their chance to swap out well-read classics for something new for their bookshelves at Knigovorot, a free book exchange that will be held in the Yusupov Garden on Sadovaya Ulitsa today. Come for the chance to get a new book or take the opportunity to discuss the literary merits of your favorite authors with fellow fans.



Sunday, Aug. 31


The Neva Delta International Blues Festival wraps up this afternoon on Vasilevsky Island with a concert featuring not only some of Russias best blues bands but international stars as well. Admission is free for all three days of the festival, which begins on Aug. 29, and the shows starting at 5 p.m. each day.



Monday, Sept. 1


Today marks the beginning of Lermontov-Fest, a fall festival celebrating the life of one of Russias most remarkable poets who, in a fate eerily similar to Pushkins, was killed in a duel at the age of 26. Organized by the Lermontov Library System, the next several months will see art exhibitions, concerts and public lectures focusing on the Lermontovs short yet prolific career. Check the Lermontov Library Systems website for more details.



Tuesday, Sept. 2


Join expats and practice your Russian during the Russian Clubs weekly meetings every Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. The club is free to participate in although you need to be a registered member of Couchsurfing.



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