Historical context helps us to better understand the world behind today’s headlines.
The ethnicity of the Tsarnaev brothers, accused of the bombing of the Boston Marathon in April, 2013, has generated commentary about Chechnya and the Russian wars since the 1990’s to subjugate this mountainous region.
The historical context of this news reporting has been shallow.
An experiment in teaching anthropology through literature entailed the exposure of students to the 19th century cultures of imperial Russia and Chechen warriors.
Leo Tolstoy served as an officer in the Tsar’s army during the 1850’s as part of the two-century long Russian campaign to bring the Caucasus under control. Tolstoy’s final short novel, the masterpiece Hadji Murád, depicts the effects of the strategy of Tsar Nicholas I: deforestation, pollution of wells, destruction of livestock, and elimination of means of subsistence of the Chechens, who mixed farming and sheep herding.
Drawing upon his military experience in the Caucasus, Tolstoy reconstructs an incident in the conflict.
After the Russians had laid waste the region, Sado, an ally of the fierce warrior Hadji Murad, returns to his village to find his young son stabbed in the back with a bayonet.
The two stacks of hay there had been burnt, the apricot and cherry trees he had planted and reared were broken and scorched, and worse still all the beehives and bees had been burnt. The wailing of the women and the little children, who cried with their mothers, mingled with the lowing of the hungry cattle for whom there was no food. The bigger children, instead of playing, followed their elders with frightened eyes. The fountain was polluted, evidently on purpose, so that the water could not be used. The mosque was polluted in the same way, and the Mullah and his assistants were cleaning it out. No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate. It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings, but it was such repulsion, disgust, and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures, that the desire to exterminate them–like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves—was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation.*
In the 19th century, the Russians depicted the Chechens, whose land they were appropriating, as bandits and rapists. In 1944, fifteen years of selective exile and imprisonment of Chechen leaders culminated in a brutal wholesale deportation and dispersal of the Chechen population to other areas of the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990’s and early 21st century, the Chechens resumed their battle for independence, and in reprisal for insensate brutality by Russian military forces carried out savage terrorist reprisals.
The past and the present are one.
*“Hadji Murád,” in Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy (New York: Harper and Row: 1967), p. 629.
Dr. Robert Bourgeois is the Associate Professor of Anthropology, Humanities, and Global Studies, and the Director of Global Studies at Albertus Magnus College. He received his B.A. from Yale University, and M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He joined the Albertus faculty in 2005.