Stalin’s Caucasus crimes Putin wants you to forget

The Chechen deportation - by Eka Gadelia

The Chechen deportation - by Eka Gadelia 

2015/02/26 • Featured, History

Article by: James Oliver

On February 23, the Chechen and Ingush peoples commemorated a tragedy in their history, the start of the Soviet deportation in 1944. Initiated by Stalin and supervised by Beria personally, it was done by a team of approximately 120,000 NKVD led by Beria officers that would round up out and expel 478,479 people. And he had American Studebaker trucks to help him. “Because no Chechens or Ingush were to be left behind, people who could not be moved were shot. Villages were burned to the ground everywhere; in some places, barns full of people were burned as well.” Here we take a look into these crimes of Stalin against humanity.

Exploring the Caucasus is akin to exploring a mini-continent with its many diverse ethnic groups and cultures all contained within a small geographic region. Here the historical forces of East, North and South collide. To the Northeast we have Kalmykia, the only majority Buddhist region in the whole of Europe. Like the Tatars, the Kalmyks were swept along from their far-east homeland to their present-day location by the might of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire. To the Northwest we have the Kuban. Formerly a majority Ukrainian area, the Kuban region has since been thoroughly Russified, its Ukrainian identity practically all but stamped out. Much of this is the result of the Holodomor as well as the policies of the Kremlin since. To the South we have Georgia, the birthplace of Stalin himself. According to one survey in 2013, half of all Georgians still possess “a positive attitude towards Stalin.” However, if you believe this BBC report, younger generations of Georgians are not as enthusiastic about the tyrant as their parents and grandparents. Surveys also show that the vast majority of Georgians want to join NATO and the EU, not surprising given what Putin did to Georgia in 2008.

North of Georgia we have the Russian controlled Caucasus, home to many ethnic groups, including the Chechens, the Ingush, the Balkars, the Circassians. It is here that the legacy of Stalin’s policies loom large still today.

The Caucasus were one of the main focal points of the clashes between the Russian Empire and its great imperial rival, the Ottoman Empire. The result was a cultural legacy of Islam among the aforementioned ethnic groups as well a continuing cultural sense of unease. Token resistance to the Russian annexations of the North Caucasus areas previously controlled by the Ottomans resulted in the disproportionate Circassian genocide of 1854-56. General Nikolai Evdokimov who led the Russian forces that conducted the genocide described his actions as “ochishchenie.” This was perhaps the first instance where the term “cleansing” is used as a euphemism for genocide.  In this genocide, an estimated 600,000 people succumbed to shooting, starvation and forced emigration – three quarters of the Circassian population. Under Stalin, things would not be any better for the peoples of the North Caucasus.

“The Call – A Short Circassian Film”

Between 1942-44 the North Caucasus once again played host to a clash of two empires, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. What attracted the Germans to this part of the world was the allure of oil. 90% of the oil supply for the Soviet Union came from the Caucasus, including Azerbaijan, whose capture would severely choke the Soviet war effort. Hitler considered the Caucasus to be of such high priority that he told his generals on June 1, 1942, “If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny, then I must end this war.”  Although in the end he failed to capture Grozny, he continued the war. The reason for his failure is often attributed to Hitler splitting his forces in the name of capturing a city on a map he had noticed by chance. That city was called “Stalingrad.”

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Map showing the German thrust towards Grozny in 1942

Other than the distraction of Stalingrad, the plans for capturing the Caucasus entailed a deep thrust to Grozny which needed local collaborators. To this end, the Nazis printed numerous propaganda posters for a hearts-and-minds campaign waged to try and convince locals to join.

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A German propaganda poster. It says “Caucasian peoples! We bring you freedom from Bolshevik occupation!”

Simultaneously but unrelated to the German advance into Russia, an anticommunist insurgency erupted across the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. To be sure the Germans would come to learn about it, and try to convince the Chechen rebels to join their side, but to little effect. But as we have learned before, to Stalin the details matter little, bogus pretexts for targeting entire ethnic groups however do. And to Beria, the man who would oversee personally the punishing of the Chechen and Ingush peoples, they were tantamount to “German saboteurs.” This together with their “Anticommunism” formed the pretextual basis for their deportation which began on February 23, 1944. Beria and his NKVD officers rounded up and expelled 478,479 people from their homes and sent them to Kazakhstan and the Asiatic steppes. “Because no Chechens or Ingush were to be left behind, people who could not be moved were shot. Villages were burned to the ground everywhere; in some places, barns full of people were burned as well.” This pretext was a recurring theme in Stalin’s deportations. On December 28, 1943 Mikhail Kalinin signed a Decree ordering wholesale deportation of the Kalmyks based on the assumption that “many Kalmyks [had] betrayed their Motherland” by assisting the Germans. Between 1943 and 1944 more than 120,000 Kalmyks were to be forced out of their homes. When the Soviets came to deport the Crimean Tatars in May 1944, they again used the same pretext, and expelled 200,000 Tatars.

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1944 stamp commemorating Khanpasha Nuradilov. This Chechen soldier died fighting for the Soviet Union at Stalingrad in 1942. His kill tally of over 920 Germans made him a hero of the Soviet Union. Despite his actions and others like him, Stalin still saw fit to indict his entire ethnic group based on the pretext of aiding the enemy.

Despite claims that USSR embraced Internationalism, in reality nationality and ethnicity always mattered. It didn’t matter that many Kalmyks, Tatars or Chechens had fought in the Red Army too, in the words of Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Stalin “certainly carried all the traditional Georgian prejudices against the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus whom he was to deport.” And that’s not only true for the peoples of the Caucasus. Throughout his reign as ruler of the USSR, Stalin absorbed Russian nationalism and by doing so absorbed all the traditional hatreds and prejudices against other peoples that went along with it.

The deportation of the Chechen and Ingush peoples was part of Stalin’s great deportation plan of ethnic minorities in the USSR:

900,000 Soviet Germans, 89,000 Finns deported in 1941 & 1942
69,267 Karachais deported to Central Asia 19 Nov 1943
91,919 Kalmyks deported to Siberia 28–29 Dec 1943
478,479 Chechen and Ingush peoples deported to Siberia on 23 Feb 1944
37,107 Balkars deported to Kazakstan on 8–9 Mar 1944
180,014 Crimean Tatars deported to Uzbekistan on 18–20 Mar 1944
91,095 Meshketian Turks deported from Soviet Georgia later in 1944 (figure via Tymothy Snyder).

map

These crimes against humanity form yet another stain against the former USSR and its predecessor, the Tsarist Russian Empire, both of whom today’s Russian leader Vladimir Putin expressly admires. Against this background, it is unsurprising, then, that Putin has continued the legacy of repressive measures regarding any attempt at commemorating these historic events. This was evident last year when Crimean Tatars were not allowed to mark the 70th Anniversary of the 1944 deportations. It was also evident when Putin banned a motion picture about the Chechen deportations on the grounds it was “historically false.” It is precisely for these reasons, that the stories of Russia’s ethnic deportations are worth telling.

Edited by: Paula Chertok

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  • Rods

    It is good to see you researching and bringing to the world’s attention the many tragedies of the numerous ethnic groups that formed the USSR. Their persecution under Stalin and the continued barbarity of the Russian, Soviet and post-Soviet leaders, that continues today, is a tragic blot on humanity and all basic, decent, human values.

    • LES1

      It is not a surprise that the Russian authorities keep the history of Circassians under a thick cover of censorship: what happened to this people 145 years ago could be described as the first full-scale ethnic cleansing in modern history.

      History by Herodotus tells us that Circassians’ ancestors populated the vast Northwestern Caucasus area from the times immemorial. In mid-19th century, they were unlucky enough to be caught in the geopolitical struggles between Russia, Britain, France and Turkey. The Russian imperial government, in an attempt to drive the Turks out of the Caucasus and Black Sea and trying to prevent Britain and France from gaining control over the region, waged a long and violent war against the Caucasian indigenous populations. The Circassians resisted longer than anyone else: the conquest of Circassia took 101 years all in all ending only in 1864 when their last stronghold was defeated in what is today known as Krasnaya Polyana ski resort popular with the Russian leadership.

      The Circassians’ warlike culture, independence and antagonism towards outside authority have long prevented the Russians from securing the Northwestern Caucasus, despite the large use of scorched earth tactics when entire Circassian villages were burnt down together with all their residents of all ages, including women and children. Immense military casualties and tremendous war costs put the Russian imperial policy makers in a dilemma as to what to do with the Circassians: either gain their loyalty by engaging them through economic and cultural inclusion or exterminate them en masse and deport those remaining to the plains or to the Ottoman Turkey. The latter viewpoint prevailed. The result was up to 1.5 million of Circassians killed or deported.

      the degree of cruelty towards the already defeated and powerless population cannot be either explained or justified”.

      http://circassianworld.blogspot.com/2009/07/circassians-holocaust-in-paradise.html

  • LES1

    Having conquered the Shapsegh and Abadzekh, recounts the Circassian historian Shauket, the column of General Babich followed the seashore southwards, destroying villages as it went:

    There remained only the small coastal tribes: the Pskhu, the Akhtsipsou, the Aibgo and the Jigit. In the course of May 1864 these tribes were annihilated almost to the last man, woman and child.

    ‘‘the bodies of the dead swam in a sea of blood’’. Nevertheless, the Russians were not content with what they had done, but sought to satisfy their instincts by making the surviving children targets for their cannon shells.[12]

    the already stiff corpse of a young Circassian woman lying in rags on the damp ground under the open sky with two infants, one struggling in his death-throes while the other sought to assuage his hunger at his dead mother’s breast? And I saw not a few such scenes. [13]

    deliberate genocide of a people, or was it ‘only’ a case of ethnic cleansing carried out with brutal disregard to human suffering?

    Yakuts and the Tungusic-speaking tribes along the River Lena in 1642. The Russians responded with a reign of terror: native settlements were torched and hundreds of people were tortured and killed. The Yakut population alone is estimated to have fallen as a result by 70 percent between 1642 and 1682.

    Moscow again intervened after the most cruel episode of all, the 1697-9 invasion of the Kamchatka peninsula by the commander Vladimir Atlasov. His force of one hundred men killed twelve thousand Chukchi, and eight thousand Koryaks and Kamchadals respectively.
    http://stephenshenfield.net/places/caucasus/12-the-circassians-a-forgotten-genocide