It is hard to think of a more likely pair of candidates for historical enmity than the Russian government and the Chechens. In the nineteenth century, Russia's expansion into the Caucasus was slowed by the opposition of local mountain peoples, of whom the Chechens were among the most fierce. Vicious frontier wars raged for much of the century and ended with the death or forced migration of hundreds of thousands of highlanders. The Chechens were targeted again in 1944, when the Soviet government packed off the entire nation, as many as half a million people, to Central Asia for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis. They were "rehabilitated" only in 1957, when they were allowed to return in diminished numbers to their autonomous republic in the northeastern Caucasus.
It is no surprise, then, that the loosening of Soviet control allowed this history to come to the fore yet again, fueling two new rounds of warfare: from 1994 to 1996 and from 1999 to the present. But as Matthew Evangelista shows in his impressive new book, predicting violence in Chechnya was easy. Explaining why it erupted when it did, and why the conflict now appears intractable, is far trickier.
WHY HERE? WHY NOW?
There are at least three broad ways of thinking about the origins of the Chechen conflict. The first focuses on history and culture. Altitude, as the saying goes, determines attitude, and one cannot observe the history of Chechen resistance to Russian rule without acknowledging the power of highland cultural norms -- codes of honor, a martial tradition that blurs the line between political rebellion and ordinary brigandage, the organization of society around rival clans -- in inspiring and sustaining violence. Political Islam has also played a role, in either its indigenous Sufi varieties or the militant Wahhabi form imported from the Arab world in the 1990s.
A second explanation attributes current problems to the legacy of the Soviet system itself. A standardized Chechen language was developed by Soviet linguists, just as many of the cultural
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