- Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War
"Sometimes I ask myself, why doesn't the whole world stand up! The whole world should be weeping for us." Chechen IDP, IDP camp Ingushetia, 20021
A decade ago, the New York Times published an astonishing pair of photos of Grozny, capital city of the Russian Republic of Chechnya. One photo, "Grozny: December 16, 1999," showed an aerial view of a residential area in the city populated with tall Communist housing blocks in which the buildings cast their shadows on the street. Below it was a second picture, "Grozny: March 16, 2000," of that same street, with all of those buildings completely razed. This was the result of Russia's relentless offensive in the winter of 1999.
The second picture, commissioned by the New York Times, and taken on the eve of elections in Russia that brought Vladimir Putin to power, showed the human and physical cost of Russia's war against Chechnya.2 Unlike other images of destruction in the post-Communist world, the Grozny pictures failed to arouse public sympathy or outrage for the plight of civilians in Chechnya. The two Chechen Wars (1994–1996 and 1999–2009) are some the least-studied conflicts of the post-Cold War era. Russia has been able to avert the intense gaze that has occupied scholars, journalists, and policymakers in places such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The world has certainly not shed enough tears over the tragedy in Chechnya.
Emma Gilligan, a historian at the University of Connecticut, has not overlooked the civilians who once inhabited those Grozny housing blocks. Her brilliant new book, Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War, outlines Russia's strategy of violence that decimated the tiny republic, costing up to 75,000 lives. It provides a "contemporary account of war crimes and crimes against humanity against a civilian population from 1999 to 2005."3 Gilligan argues that the Chechen wars were part of a calculated state strategy in large part motivated by racial prejudice, much more than just a by-product of civil war. Her book provides the first comprehensive scholarly account of the atrocities committed there and clarifies a topic about which there are few comparable texts.4
Gilligan sets out to "enable the specialist and non-specialist reader alike to grasp the dimensions of the human rights [End Page 886] crisis in Chechnya."5 While many factors led to instability inside Chechnya after the first war, she identifies one event that gave the pretext for the second Russian offensive. In August 1999, radical Chechen forces, led by Shamil Basaev, invaded neighboring Dagestan in order to create the "Confederation of the Mountain Peoples of the Caucasus." She explains how the Russian response, framed as an operation to root out "international terrorists" led to years of continued state-sponsored violence.
Chapter 1 outlines how air power was the first tool used to subdue Chechnya as an estimated 4,000 combat sorties were directed against the tiny republic in four months starting in February 2000.6 No differentiation between civilian and military deaths was made. And while Gilligan notes that the bombing was in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and the Rome Statute, the bombardment "served [the] larger political purpose" of consolidating Putin's grasp over the Kremlin.7 In this so-called war on terrorism, diplomacy was not an option. The manner in which the offensive was conducted, Gilligan argues, "underscored how Chechens were not seen as men and women deserving of negotiations but as a danger to Russian territorial integrity."8
The book outlines how the first Chechen war introduced detainment, filtration points, and torture as regular features of life in Chechnya;9 and during the second one these practices proliferated through the zachistka or "cleansing" operations, a term introduced in the Russian press in 1995 that quickly became a part of the lexicon of Russian society. Formally, Gilligan notes, zachistki were "special operations to check...