Chechen Nationalism:
Roots and Development Under General Dudayev



Peter Engholm

Monash University, October 1999





Since the early 1990s, Chechnya and Russia have been involved in a conflict centered on Chechen independence. Chechen nationalism has its roots deep back in history, and found new strength and expressions after the Chechen revolution in 1991 by General Jokhar Dudayev. This paper examines the roots of Chechen nationalism and why it came to bloom under the leadership of Dudayev. It is a drama in two acts with Dudayev as play-writer and director, but it is a drama that has yet to see an ending.


Chechnya, Russia, independence, Europe, nationalism, Dudayev




New Year’s day 1995 was not an ordinary day of celebration for the Chechen people in Grozny. Instead of waking up to the usual hopes and expectations of what good things a New Year would bring, they woke up to the horrors of being at war with their never-ending enemy of Russia. Facing the 40,000 men strong Russian invasion force was a makeshift army of barely 1,000 Chechen fighters, although many volunteers poured into the city, often arriving from villages in open trucks. When the Russian tanks rolled in and started bombing Chechnya’s capital city, young and inexperienced Chechen fighters took to the streets, armed only with bottles mixed with petrol and fuel oil.  To all appearances the Chechens’ mission was a suicidal one. But as one young fighter explained it: “These are our strongest weapons. We have no aviation, no tanks like the Russians. We will jump under their tanks together with these.” He summoned his ideology, probably shared by many of his fellow compatriots, that “God gives and God takes life - I have no fear of death, it comes only once.”[1]

The battle of Grozny lasted three months and is estimated to have killed as many as 27,000 civilians.[2] Still it was but one small chapter in an on-going conflict about Chechen independence, and has seen thousands more killed and the matter unresolved. The conflict escalated last week with new Russian bombing-raids in Chechnya and over 60,000 Chechens being forced to flee to nearby regions.

The disastrous situation inevitably rises questions such as “Who is to blame?” and “What are the reasons?” The aim of this paper is not to give a detailed account of the conflict, but rather to look at to what extent nationalistic ideas spurred the conflict, and how nationalism was promoted during the reign of Jokhar Dudayev. The paper examines some of the roots of Chechen nationalism and why it should have come as no surprise to the Russians, or to the world, that Chechnya’s bid for independence led to a full-scale war.

It shall be argued that General Jokhar Dudayev’s revolution in 1989 did not create new nationalistic feelings among the Chechens. Rather, the revolution encouraged and triggered the expression of nationalism. The people joined together for a common cause, and the roots to the conflict can be found mainly in the history of the Chechen people and their relationship to Russia, the nature of the people themselves, and the impact of Islam on Chechen culture.

The roots of Chechen Nationalism:

For three centuries, Chechens have been resisting what for them has been an inexorable cycle of persecution by Russians. Thus, as argued by Davis[3], a potent reservoir of historical incentive has served to create an enemy-image between Chechens and Russians that recent events have only justified and reinforced.

The probably most painful Chechen encounter with Russia was the deportations in 1944 that were part of Stalin’s hidden genocide of Soviet nations. According to Kline[4], some 400,000 Chechens and Ingush altogether were deported to Soviet Central Asia, the majority to Kazakhstan, and it is estimated that 30% or more died during their detention and transport from the Caucasus or within the first year of their forcible resettlement. It is argued that the exile left deep wounds and made a new generation of Chechens that much more prepared to go to the edge in conflict with Russia. The historian Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov acknowledges this:

”What is happening now in Chechen-Ingushetia is, in my opinion, a revolt by the children in revenge for the deaths of their fathers and mothers in the hellish conditions of the deportations”. [5]

Hence, the collective anger about the deportations, combined with three centuries of ongoing conflict with the Russian empire, was probably the most emotive element in the rich brew of nationalism that in the early 1990s pushed Chechens into open separatism and saw the conflict turn into a full-scale war.[6]

The Jews are commonly cited as an example of what impact an experience of exile can have on a people or a nation. Undoubtedly, other Soviet republics also suffered from forced deportations and genocide during Stalin’s era, but it has been argued that the Chechen experience left specifically strong scars among the people. This argument is based on the notion that not only have the Chechen people had a long tradition of hostility and conflict with Russia, but also the very nature of the Chechen national character indicates a people that will fight until the last straw for their freedom. Usmanov[7] notes that freedom for the Chechen people “is not only the philosophy of their existence, which is very natural for most nations, but it is exactly this concept that expresses many norms and traditions of the Chechen experience and their way of life”. An extract from the Chechen national anthem also supports this notion:

We were devoted to our Mothers, to people and the Native land

And if they will need us - we’ll respond courageously

We grew up free, together with the mountain eagles,

Difficulties and obstacles we overcame with dignity


Never will we appear submissive before anyone,

Death or Freedom - we can choose only one way

Our sisters cure our wounds by their songs,

The eyes of the beloved arouse us to the feat of arms.[8]

Apty Bisultanov, a Chechen poet and philosopher, writes that “the tragedy of the Chechens is that the world simply does not know us”. With the Chechen notion of freedom in mind, he continues to explain the current conflict between Chechnya and Russia:

It is hard for the modern world to comprehend the logics of the Chechens when they again plunge into a war which they cannot win. But after many years of complete incapacity to resist, after facing a choice of surrender or death, the Chechens this time viewed the freedom to fight and die as the freedom itself.[9]

Usmanov writes that “in order to really understand a nation, it is necessary to look into its soul, its dreams, to know the aims of its everyday life, and to acknowledge its ideal”.[10] Hence, it is necessary to do some kind of an ethical evaluation of the Chechen people if one is to understand the rise of nationalism and the reasons for the conflict:

The traditional Chechen culture is based on the principal of equality for all people on the basis that nobody should use or underline his superiority. That is why a horse rider is the first to greet a person on foot, why a person descending a hill greets the one climbing up the hill, and so on.[11] This explains why it is impossible for the Chechens to justify a ‘higher’ authority, that is, being ruled by someone else, and also partly explains their concept of ‘freedom’ and why they justify taking to arms to defend it. Bisultanov states that “only a truly free man is capable of respecting freedom and dying for it”.[12] One must also realise that violence itself may be justified to ensure the equality and the upholding of Chechen norms and rules. Rather than applying to courts, many Chechens traditionally settled their scores by violence. This created a system of ‘blood feud’, and in Soviet times it was quite common for a Chechen to serve a long prison sentence for murder in a Russian jail, only to be murdered in a revenge killing on his release.[13]

Hence two main pictures of a Chechen person emerge. The first is that of a humble, generous person with supreme values, rejecting authority, lies and slavery. However, the Chechen is prepared to take to violence to defend these values, if it so means going to prison or die for the cause. Had Russia understood these fundamental characteristics of the Chechen people, it would not have been taken by surprise by the resistance it faced when Chechnya was invaded in 1994. The two pictures also indicate that the current conflict is not just a conflict between Russia and Chechnya, but a conflict between Chechnya and the whole modern world - between a people that demand independence and prefer being left alone to deal with their own internal affairs, and a world that just does not understand them.

The third ‘root’ to Chechen nationalism is the impact of Islam. Although Islam itself hardly can be said to create nationalistic feelings, it undoubtedly served as a justifier and motivator to the Chechen people in their fight for independence, and is probably also the main reason for current terrorist actions that has resulted in new bombing raids and invasion by Russia.

Islam provided an effective ideology of resistance for the Chechens: It taught ‘holy’ war’, that those who gave their lives for the cause were martyrs who would go straight to heaven.[14] Although both Damrel[15] and Walker[16] agree that the use of Islam was purely an instrumental move by Dudayev for a specific political purpose during the revolution in 1991, it became an important theme for the Chechen fighters. They wore green headbands, some inscribed with Arabic scripts, to mark their commitment to Islam as well as independence.[17]

These are the roots to the Chechen nationalism that started to bloom in the early 1990s, but did not themselves trigger the wars to come. However, combined with degrading economic conditions in Chechnya (Chechnya-Ingushetia was one of the poorest regions in Russia at that time with an unemployment figure near 200,000 out of a population of just over a million[18]), and the fall of Communism with the entailing rising demand for independence among Soviet republics, the stage had been set for a suspense-filled drama. But there can be no drama without a play-writer and director, and these roles were assumed by a certain General Jokhar Dudayev.

Dudayev’s revolution:

In June 1989, Doku Zavgayev became the first Chechen to be put in charge of the region, but failed to live up to expectations. Political liberalisation took hold in Chechnya, and in the summer of 1990 a group of Chechens, led by Lechi Umkhayev, organised the Chechen National Congress which aimed to pull together different nationalist groups in Chechnya to put pressure on Moscow for gaining more autonomy for the Chechyan republic. In November 1990, the Congress gathered more than 1,000 delegates in Grozny, including a guest from Estonia named Jokhar Dudayev.[19]

Dudayev was born in a Chechen village in January 1944 but was deported with his family to Kazakhstan a few weeks later. When he returned to Chechnya with his parents in 1957, he pursued a successful military career. He joined the Communist Party in 1966, and became a Major General in the Soviet airforce. From 1987 he commanded the strategic bomber group based in Tartu, Estonia, and from 1989 he commanded the garrison in that city. Dudayev has been described as being a charismatic, intelligent, energetic, authoritarian, erratic, hotheaded, single-mindedly person, dedicated to the independence of both Estonia and Chechnya. He is still considered a hero in Estonia because of his sympathetic attitude towards the Estonian national movement.[20] Overall, Dudayev was much more a product of a Soviet system than a budding Chechen Nationalist, but his experience with the Estonian national movement made him rediscover his Chechen roots and he became a symbol for Chechnya’s separatist struggle for independence and opposition to Russia[21].

The Congress in Grozny dispersed, passing a dramatic-sounding ‘declaration of sovereignty’, and Dudayev returned to Estonia. However, the unfolding drama now had its dedicated play-writer and director who planned his radical entrance to the scene. This came in 1991, when Dudayev returned to Chechnya and managed to turn the Congress into a radical political movement. In the ongoing collapse of Communism, a volcano had been awakened and the Chechen ‘revolution’ had begun. Dudayev and his allies had the support of the most mobilised part of the Chechen population, including an armed nationalistic wing. In a coup in August, Doku Zavgayev was removed from his post, and Dudayev was elected president in a hastily arranged and rather suspect election in late October 1991, at which point he promptly declared independence of Chechnya.[22]

It was only after the radical character of Dudayev’s program, which provided for the independence of Chechnya from Russia, that Yeltsin and his ‘team’ began to express concern about what was happening in the republic. Previously they had though of Dudayev as a good ally, but the increasingly separatist and radical direction of Dudayev’s leadership became a worry for Moscow. Khajiev, a Soviet minister at that time, recalls:

It seemed to me that he was a (…) serious and heavyweight figure. The only thing I didn’t like was that around him there were already a lot of armed men in military uniforms. But back then I just put that down to the mentality of a general that he liked people to be well turned out and spruce. But in the back of my mind I had the feeling that this had happened before in history when the Germans created their SS.[23]

Nationalism and War

When Russian television in November announced the declaration of a state emergency in Chechnya, it was to be the hand that rocked the cradle. Although Dudayev gradually came to lose support among the Chechen people - mainly because he failed to make the idea of independence work in practice and instead became increasingly eccentric and dictatorial - the Chechen people feared that the Russians again would threaten their freedom. The old nationalistic roots were brought up to the surface and began to bloom. When the Russian invasion began in late 1994, people fought back - not primarily for the support of Dudayev, but for the rescue of their homeland. [24]

The war that lasted between 1994 and 1996 became a political disaster for Russia. As described by Gall and de Waal[25], the occupation of Grozny turned into a “horrible orgy of violence against the civilian population” and was one of the worst humiliations in Russian military history. Crimes, many too horrible to mention, were committed from both sides and one might escape the problem with accusing one particular side for violating human rights by taking the middle-path and condemn all such acts - no matter what side was responsible. In Nikolaev’s account of the war, telegram messages sent from the fighters are blood-chilling evidence of this, such as: “Junior Sergeant F. Vedenev. A knife slit on the neck. The right ear cut off” and: “Unidentified soldier. Left eye put out. Raped and killed”[26]

Nikolaev accuses Dudayev for in every way possible trying to involve the peaceful civilians in the conflict and instill fear and hatred of the federal troops in them. He cites an incident were a baby was burnt in one of the streets of Grozny. The murderers were wearing Russian uniforms, and the crime was videotaped. All, according to Nikolaev, planned by Dudayev to gain support against Russia.[27]

One must realise, of course, that war is not a morality contest, and that no side is innocent in regards to human rights. In the end though, the Chechen people triumphed over the Russian army. An explanation for the final defeat lies most likely in the Russian leaderships’ whole attitude to a people that they had never really understood. They had ignored Chechnya’s history of resistance to Russian rule and its ancient traditions. As noted by Blandy[28], Yeltsin had in Dudayev created a national leader overnight to provide a focal point from which Chechen resistance to Russian armed intervention would stem. Although Dudayev were killed in 1996 by a guided rocket in on the beam of his satellite telephone and replaced by Aslan Maskhadov as the leader of the Chechens, the resistance did not change much, nor did the demand for independence. Maskhadov confirmed this determination of the Chechen people in a statement in 1995:

The Chechen nation will continue fight for their independence until Russians are off the soil of our country. We have been resisting them for 250-300 years and at no time have we ever accepted Russian domination. We know that we are on our own and that no-one can help us.[29]

Chechen independence has been the main objective for most Chechen nationalists since the start of the conflict although the road towards it mainly has been marked by cruel violence. Nikolaev[30] accuses Dudayev for leading his people to sacrifice themselves for Dudayev’s personal lust of power, but from the discussion above it is more reasonable to assume that the willingness to sacrifice was not for Dudayev, but for the country - a willingness embedded deep inside the very spirit of the Chechen people.

Concluding remarks:

The nationalism that developed in Chechnya was a hidden type that had its roots in Checnya’s history of conflict with Russia and in the Chechen tradition and culture. It was justified by Islam and its concept of ‘holy war’, and was triggered by specific events in the late 1980s and early 1990s such as the fall of communism, deteriorating economic conditions in Chechnya, and the rise of a leader, Jokhar Dudayev, who got the Chechen people fighting for a common cause: their own freedom.

The aim of this paper has not been to give a detailed account of the war itself or Chechnya’s current situation. Much can be said about Dudayev’s connection with the Chechen ‘Mafia’, or the current acts of terrorism that are assumed being carried out by Islamic fundamentalists. The purpose has been to bring some understanding to Chechen nationalism and how it was promoted through Dudayev’s revolution and throughout the conflict. The drama has only just entered the second act and has yet to see its final climax. Whether it will be a happy ending for the Chechen people remains to be seen.


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Bisultanov, A. “Born to be free”,

Blandy, C. “Chechnya after Dudayev”,

Damrel, D. “The Religious Roots of Conflict: Russia and Chechnya”, Originally published in: Religious Studies News,  Sep. 1995, Vol 10, No. 3.

Davis, M. “Chechens in Russia”, April 1996.

Eismont, M. “Djohar Dudaev: Dean or alive? Was he killed intentionally?”,

Gall, C. & De Waal, T. Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, Pan books, London, 1997.

Kline, E. “Chechnya Brief”, June 1998.

Nikolaev, Y. V. The Chechen Tragedy: Who is to blame?, Nova Science Publishers Inc., New York, 1996.

Usmanov, L. “The Chechen nation: A Portrait of Ethnical Features”, January 1999.

Walker, E. W. “Islam in Chechnya”, March 1998.

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[1] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, Pan books, London, 1997, pp.188-190.

[2] Ibid., p.227.

[3] M. Davis, “Chechens in Russia”,, April 1996.

[4] E. Kline, Chechnya Brief,, June 1998.

[5] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, p.77.

[6] Ibid., pp.73-74.

[7] L. Usmanov, “The Chechen nation: A Portrait of Ethnical Features”,, January 1999.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A. Bisultanov, “Born to be free”,

[10] L. Usmanov, “The Chechen nation: A Portrait of Ethnical Features”,, January 1999.

[11] Ibid.

[12] A. Bisultanov, “Born to be free”.

[13] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, p.27.

[14] E. W. Walker, “Islam in Chechnya”,, March 1998, cf. C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, p.222.

[15] D. Damrel, “The Religious Roots of Conflict: Russia and Chechnya”, Originally published in: Religious Studies News,  Sep. 1995, Vol 10, No. 3, p.10.

[16] E. W. Walker, “Islam in Chechnya”.

[17] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, p.190.

[18] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, p.78.

[19] Ibid., pp.76-82.

[20] E. Kline, “Chechnya Brief,”, June 1998.

[21] M. Eismont, “Djohar Dudaev: Dean or alive? Was he killed intentionally?”,

[22] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, pp.91-95.

[23] C. Gall & T. De Waal, Chechnya: A Small Victorious War, pp.94-95.

[24] Ibid., pp.106-109.

[25] Ibid., p.234.

[26] Y. V. Nikolaev, The Chechen Tragedy: Who is to blame?, Nova Science Publishers Inc., New York, 1996, p.102.

[27] Y. V. Nikolaev, The Chechen Tragedy: Who is to blame?, p.103.

[28] C. Blandy, “Chechnya after Dudayev”,

[29] Ibid.

[30] Y. V. Nikolaev, The Chechen Tragedy: Who is to blame?, p.116.