The Magazine

Ethnic Cleansing, Russian Style

This isn't the first time Moscow has targeted Chechens

Dec 20, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 14 • By ANNE APPLEBAUM
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FIRST THERE WERE "miserly Jews." Then there were "sneaky Orientals." Now, thanks to the power of the media to transmit ideas across borders, another ethnic stereotype has entered the English language. Translated from the Russian, the hitherto unfamiliar "Chechen terrorist" is slowly becoming part of our political lexicon.

Here is how Boris Yeltsin used it, just before stomping off from the European security summit in Istanbul last month: "We want peace and a political solution to the situation in Chechnya . . . to achieve this, there has to be complete elimination of the gangs, eradication of the terrorists." Here is how one of Russia's generals used it: The war in Chechnya will not be halted, he said recently, until after "the full destruction of terrorists." He went on to claim that the Chechen president had "directly linked up with terrorist formations," that two of the leading Chechen military commanders were "terrorists," and that the entire Chechen government worked closely with "terrorist and bandit formations."

In Moscow, this language is repeated constantly -- except that away from the television cameras, Chechens are referred to as "blacks." On a recent trip there, I was stopped walking into a government building because I didn't have the Moscow residency permit that the security guards, then in a frenzied search for illegally resident "Chechen terrorists," required. Eventually they let me in, however: They would make an exception in my case because, they said, I didn't look like a "black." So powerful is this rhetoric, that Russian politicians are afraid to oppose it. "It is repulsive," writes Yevgenia Albats, one of Moscow's braver journalists, "that even politicians with democratic leanings are keeping silent for fear of slipping in the ratings."

So powerful, in fact, is this rhetoric, that it has filtered its way into popular understanding of the Chechen war -- or rather wars -- in the West. I've lately heard, several times, an argument which goes like this: Terrorism is bad. International terrorism is worse. Aren't the Russians therefore right to be fighting this lawless Islamic republic? Aren't they right to attack them for setting off bombs in Moscow apartment blocks?

In response, I could point out that nobody except the Russian government has linked the Chechens to international terrorism. I could add that nobody has proven their connection to the still mysterious Moscow bombings. But why should I or anyone need to make either argument? Given the history of this part of the world, it is not the Chechens who need to be defended from racist insults, but the Russians who need to explain the hubris that allows them to speak of the Chechens in anything but embarrassed and apologetic tones. For the Russians have reduced the Chechens to the status of "bandit state" before, and for similar reasons. Before one group of people can feel itself justified in destroying another, it is first necessary to remove its humanity. First you say, "they are not like us." Then you say, "they are not like us, and they cannot live among us." From there, it is a very short step to say, "they are not like us; they cannot live among us; therefore, they cannot live."

Over the past century, Russia's leaders have proved expert at thus dehumanizing their enemies. The use of biological designations ("poisonous weeds" or "parasites") and political insults ("enemies of the people") dates back to Lenin himself, who in one infamous essay proposed to "purge the Russian land of all kinds of harmful insects." Stalin refined the technique and pioneered its use against particular ethnic groups, as well as class enemies and political opponents. As early as 1937, Nikolai Yezhov, chief of the Soviet secret police, signed an order: "On the fascist-rebellion, espionage, defeatism, diversion and terrorist activity of Polish spies in the USSR." Although similar to other orders of the time, which demanded the arrests of kulaks or Trotskyites, this one surprised even some of Yezhov's colleagues, who understood it as an order to arrest anyone with Polish blood, a Polish passport, or any Polish connections at all. Over the next few years, 180,000 Poles or alleged "Polish sympathizers" resident in the Soviet Union were duly imprisoned or shot, among them (rather satisfyingly) Nikolai Yezhov.