Russia has tried to subdue the North Caucasus for 300 years. Between 1817 and 1864, it fought the Caucasian War that led to definitive colonisation of the region by Cossacks, Russians and Georgians. Hundreds of thousands of Caucasians fled to Turkey. But the region has never been peaceful. Stalin deported five ethnic groups to Central Asia and populated the region with 'friendly peoples'. Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, war and terror ignited the region again. All the major terrorist attacks in Russia have their origin in the North Caucasus. The region is the worst nightmare of the Sochi 2014 organisers: will they be able to keep the attacks at bay?

Peace in exchange for work

One out of many checkpoints along the M29, between Makhachkala and Khazavyurt (Dagestan).

One of Moscow’s primary concerns must be: how do we pacify the North Caucasus The North Caucasus General map ? In the run-up to the Olympics, Moscow has tried to defuse tensions by investing billions in the region. There are plans to build a large ski resort in every republic, in a bid to boost tourism and the economy. Alexander Khloponin, a special deputy prime minister and Putin confidant, has been appointed to achieve this.

The Caucasus is one of the most dangerous places to live on earth.

In the spring of 2013, one of these ski resorts was opened by the Ingush President Yevkurov. However the FSB refused to grant us permission to visit the resort high in the Ingush mountains. It begs the question how such a hermetically sealed area can enhance a country’s economy and thereby decrease the instability and terror. It is a recipe that has yet to be perfected. The Caucasus is one of the most dangerous places to live on earth. In the past decades, hundreds of thousands of people have died here in an on-going war on separatism and terror. Many more have been forced to flee their homes and in many cases have still been unable to return.

The internal border between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. The road behind it leads to the new ski resorts, hotels and renovated sanatorium. Closed territory for foreigners. Critical journalists are few and fear for their lives.

In the fight against separatist and radical groups, hundreds of innocent citizens have been arrested or have disappeared. Dozens of police officers have lost their life in the line of duty and corruption is rife. Critical journalists are few and fear for their lives.

The North Caucasus is tiny. Cross the mountains from Sochi on the Black Sea and you've arrived. You can drive from one side of the region to the other in half a day. A motorway, the Transcaucasian M29, transects the region from west to east, at the foot of the mountains. It takes you through Karachay-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya and finally Dagestan on the Caspian Sea Caspian Sea Russia . They are all dots on a map compared to the enormous land mass of mother Russia that stretches out to the north.

Suicide attacks

The North Caucasus is notorious in Russia. In recent decades, tens of thousands of Russian soldiers have lost their lives in the region. Since June 2000 – when a former prisoner and two Chechen widows in cars loaded with explosives blew up a Russian military convoy – (suicide) attacks have been a recurring phenomenon. Everyone, including those outside Russia, will remember the gruesome scenes of the hostage crisis in Moscow’s Dubrovna Theatre in 2002; or the attack on a Moscow music festival in 2003; the trains and metros that were blown up in Moscow and other cities in 2003, 2004, 2009 and 2010; and the attacks on planes above Volgograd and at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2004 and 2011.

The list of attacks within Russia’s borders is already long, but it would run to pages if it included all the attacks on civilians, police, military and government buildings and personnel in the North Caucasus itself. To this day, attacks take place almost weekly, often in the most troubled republics of Dagestan and Kabardino-Balkaria. The best-known attacks were carried out in North Ossetia, the only republic in the North Caucasus where the majority of the population is Christian. North Ossetia has been known as a Russian ally for centuries. The market in the capital Vladikavkaz (literally 'ruler of the Caucasus') was blown up twice, but an attack followed in 2004 that horrified the world.

A romantic region

The North Caucasus is also the region where most of the great Russian writers had their baptism of fire. Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy travelled here, served in the army and wrote epic stories. In 19th-century Russia, the Caucasus fired imaginations, like the Wild West in the United States.

The Caucasus was the Wild West of Russia.

The Russian writers had an ambivalent relationship with the Caucasians, whom they regarded as noble savages, proud and freedom-loving murderers, who had to be forced to their knees by equally proud and courageous Russians. The Russian game of attack, division and pacification described so beautifully by these great Russian writers can be directly applied to the current situation – although of course with modern political and military means and several profitable oil wells to further complicate matters. Akhmad Kadyrov, father of the current Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, is the contemporary Hadji Murat of Tolstoy’s eponymous book from 1904, the freedom fighter who seeks Russian support to quell domestic unrest.

'Caucasian' in Moscow is almost synonymous with unreliable and criminal.

And still, if you ask a Muscovite for his opinion of the Caucasus, he will talk lovingly about the wine, the food, the rich culture, but also about the hot-headed, indomitable character of its people. In Moscow, 'Caucasian' is almost synonymous with unreliable and criminal.

One of the few pubs in Grozny where beer is served. The men briefly put down their guns and force the waitress to dance with them, while the musician with synthesizer and microphone whips the crowd into a frenzy with his rousing tunes.

Three hundred years of unrest

In Arabic, the Caucasus is known as the mountain of languages.

In Arabic, the Caucasus is known as Jabal Al-Alsun, ‘the mountain of languages’. There are few places on earth where so many different peoples, many of them speaking totally different languages, coexist. Chechen, for example, belongs to a tiny language family, together with Ingush. The Kabardin, Cherkessians and Adygeans speak a language that is only spoken in the north-western Caucasus. The Balkars and Karachays, on the other hand, speak a type of Turkish, while Ossetian is an Indo-Germanic language related to Persian. More than 30 languages exist in the mountains of Dagestan – the most multi-ethnic area in the Caucasus. Pliny reported that the Romans needed 130 interpreters to communicate in the 300 languages that are used here – probably an exaggeration, but it conveys the complexity of the region.

The mountains continue to offer a safe haven for fighters and insurgents. Old postcard of Caucasus Mountains.

The Caucasus is a natural conflict zone, if you can call it that. It is comparable to the Balkans: a mountainous area that is difficult to access and control. Perhaps this is also why it forms a natural boundary between different superpowers. Empires come and go, but all those that have pitched their tents around the Caucasus have been worn down by these rugged mountains and – by all accounts – their equally rugged inhabitants. The Caucasus offers rich pickings for anyone interested in geopolitics and the extent to which the environment shapes its inhabitants. The higher the mountains, the more horizontal the social structures. Feudalism does not work here: the territories are too small and difficult to control and distances are hard to bridge. Councils made up of the old, wise and battle-scarred governed the tribes. Princes and chiefs only ruled the plains, but with every attack from a larger power, the hierarchy was cruelly disrupted.

Vladikavkaz (1929) The Georgian Military Highway, on the Georgian side of the border.

Even today, the mountains continue to offer a safe haven for fighters and insurgents. The mountain villages are widely considered to be the primeval home of the various clans in every population group. The three passages through and around the mountains clearly reveal the centuries-old struggle for this region. On the west coast, the route is guarded by the forts of Tuapse and Novi Afon. But in the blue waters of the Black Sea, the ruins of ancient Greek fortresses and trading centres are occasionally still visible. From Dioskurias, a restaurant (which was practically destroyed in the war of 1992) in the Abkhazian capital Sukhum, ancient Greek stones and columns can be seen just beneath the water’s surface.

Derbent, drawn by Cornelis Schenk, ca. 1700

In the middle lies the modern passage where the city of Vladikavkaz (literally ‘ruler of the Caucasus’) watches over anyone who travels into the mountains on the Georgian Military Road towards Tbilisi. And in the far east on the Caspian Sea lies Derbent, the oldest city in Russia which existed even before Russia itself. On a low plateau in the easternmost foothills of the Caucasus, a large castle looks out onto the mountains and the passage to the north. To the left and right of the castle, two walls descend steeply before continuing straight through the city to the coast. These walls once marked the city limits. Travellers heading north could not avoid the city or its tolls and markets. Derbent also means 'the gate'. The walls do not stop at the coast, however. Like two arms, they extend another 500 metres into the water, forming a sort of natural harbour and protection against the turbulent Caspian waves. It is a brilliant concept: a monstrous castle with two walls that enclose the city and reach far into the sea.

Architecture of war and control

It is hard to think of Derbent as a Caucasian city. Precisely because it controlled the plains, it was the playground of the Persians and the Turks, the Mongols and the Khans; in other words, the people of the plains. But still, the thick walls, high towers and strategic location of the city’s fortifications express what every old village and monument here expresses: war and control. The same applies to the mountain villages further up, where the family towers of rough-hewn stone, beaten eggs and goat’s milk guard the valleys and provide shelter to the inhabitants.

Market in Derbent

The walls of the fortress go straight from the sea up until the castle.

In the village itself, all the houses were built like small forts.

Caucasians are proud of their history, which is defined by war and violence. Masculinity, too, plays an important role. The British historian John F. Baddeley describes it splendidly in his historiography from 1901, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. The villages were located as remotely as possible, he writes, preferably on a south-facing rock, so that all the warmth of the sun was captured, even during cold winter days. The distance to water sources and farmland did not matter – that was the domain of women. The men lay in the sun, sharpening their sticks when they were not sleeping, eating or fighting. All the chores were left to the women. When a woman was worn out at a young age, the man would take a new wife. Polygamy was not unusual. When there was an attack, the enemy had to risk lives to reach the village. It was impossible to fire at it from a distance. In the village itself, all the houses were built like small forts: surrounded by stone walls and connected to each other via narrow, stifling alleyways. The enemy was faced with the almost impossible task of knocking down a new garrison of men and women in every house.

Mogamedkhan Mogamedkhanov "Boys have to learn to fight at the age of eight and be ready for real life at the age of 14."

Mogamedkhan Mogamedkhanov

Life here is serous

“In our culture, you aren’t a child for long,” says the old Dagestani historian Mogamedkhan Mogamedkhanov, who works at the university in the Dagestani capital Makhachkala. “In the West and Russia, you can play around until the age of 16, or sometimes even 30. Here, a girl of eight is already grown-up and bears full responsibility in the household. Boys have to learn to fight at the age of eight and be ready for real life at the age of 14. Life in the Caucasus is serious and that’s reflected in children’s upbringing. Adolescent behaviour is considered irresponsible here. It doesn’t happen.” In the good old days, when men were not relaxing, sleeping or eating, there was wrestling. As a form of fighting in times of peace, this sport is just as typical of the Caucasus as the high mountains. Even today, wrestlers from the Caucasus are a force to be reckoned with at the Olympic Games and invariably take home the majority of the medals.

Everything changed with the arrival of the Russians. In 1770, Russia’s expansion drive turned southwards. For centuries Russia had been flooded by the hordes from the endless plains to the east of Moscow and Kiev, the Slav homelands. Until 1699, Russia paid large annual bribes to the Crimean Khans – who were also the nominal rulers of some of the Caucasian peoples – to prevent invasion and war. But now the quest for land, raw materials but certainly also stability on the borders, spurred the great push eastward to the Pacific and southward to the Caucasus. The rivalry with the powerful Ottoman Empire on the Black Sea also played an important role.

The Cossacks were instrumental in the Russian push.

The Cossacks were instrumental in this gradual shift. These multi-ethnic gangs once formed autonomous sectarian groups on the Russian borders. While they also had their own countries and governments, they were gradually incorporated as Russian border guards in the 17th century. After the mountain road to Georgia – a mostly loyal state – was largely secured in 1783, the Russians started building fortresses to the east and west of Vladikavkaz. A line of fortresses manned by Cossacks and Russian army troops was built to the west along the River Kuban and to the east along the River Terek. While they were initially regarded as a line of defence, these fortresses gradually also became a base from which to confront the restless mountain peoples. It is a classic concept reminiscent of Asterix and Obelix: the Cossack soldiers stand guard and the mountain soldiers occasionally attack the strongholds to steal men, women, food and goods. The conquest of the Northern Caucasus largely advanced over these three fronts, which have, strangely, hardly changed since. From the start, the Russians found that the central front, where the Ingush, Ossetians, Kabardin and a number of smaller tribes lived, was easily pacified and not many great battles took place there. In the east where the Chechens and all the Dagestani peoples lived, the Russians continue to struggle, even today. In the west were the Cherkessians and many other smaller ethnic groups. Their casual nation state is shown as Circassia on old maps. These western peoples felt most connected to – and protected by – Turkey. Their wars were a permanent game to win over the Turks, British and French and thus drive out the Russians. Until 1864 all the princes, villages and peoples fought against the Russians in a war that lasted decades. Ultimately the Turks, weakened by the Crimean War, only offered refuge to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Caucasus. The tsar paid for the boats, his armies drove the peoples to the ports. Even today, large Caucasian communities can be found in the former Ottoman Empire from Istanbul to Cairo. These communities do their best to maintain their culture and language and in countries such as Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Israel, Cherkessians have held special hereditary positions in the army since the wars of the 19th century.

'No Sochi 2014' campaign by the Circassian Diaspora. Old family picture of the family of Nesdet Akin from Kayseri, Turkey. His family fled Abkhazia at the end of the 19th century, and ended up in the Ottoman Empire.

Nowhere did the Caucasian War generate a larger stream of refugees than in this western area. Peoples such as the Ubykhs, who previously lived around Sochi, were practically wiped out. The last Ubykh died in 1992 in Turkey and the language only survives on audiotapes and in language archives. In recent years the Circassian diaspora has launched a global campaign to have the genocide against them recognised. The final decisive battle on the western front of the Caucasian War was fought in 1864 in Krasnaya Polyana, the ski resort where the 2014 Olympic Games are due to take place. Today, a memorial plaque proudly commemorates the final conquest of the mountains. Russian supremacy was not self-evident during this period. The mountain peoples formed a majority, but they were poorly armed and badly organised. In his book The Caucasus from 1854, the Russian historian Ivan Golovin gives an apt description: ‘Corruption is without doubt a discipline which Russia handles with uncommon skill. Thanks to corruption, Russia has been able to force its way through the Caucasus.’ The tribes and armies were organised horizontally and often per village or valley. For a long time, they were the Caucasus’ strength. But as enemy armies modernised, the lack of a more vertical power structure proved to be the Caucasians’ Achilles heel. The great leaders of the Caucasian War on the Chechen-Dagestani side leapt into this vacuum. As they looked for a way to transcend local village and family ties, they found it in Islam.

Remnants of the old mountainfortress Fiagdon, North-Ossetia.

Political Islam

Imam Ghazi Muhammad was the first leader of jihad, the holy war against the Russians. In the Caucasus, Islam was not strict or orthodox. It was a mixture of local customs and was not dominated by sharia, Islamic law. This was to change under Ghazi Muhammad. The struggle against the Russians could not be won without adherence to sharia law, according to Ghazi Mullah and his successors, Khamzat-Bek and Shamil. This struggle automatically acquired a religious goal, for as long as the Russians were the occupying or conquering power in the region, sharia could never become dominant. The imams turned against local practices, against wine, drunkenness, blood feuds and the distorted form of Islam being practised. They organised themselves into a local version of monastic orders. The revolt started in Gimry, Dagestan Gimry Dagestan , but within a relatively short time had spread well beyond the city. At his height, Imam Shamil, by far the most successful leader, controlled a huge part of Dagestan, Chechnya and western Cherkessia. No one in the Caucasus had threatened Russian authority as Shamil did between 1834 and 1859.

Imam Shamil (Gunib, Dagestan)

On the mountain cliff in the back. Imam Shamils person is being painted against a black backdrop.

Portrait of Imam Shamil in the building of the journalists union.

Gunib is a small town in the heart of the Dagestani mountains. In Russia it has acquired almost legendary status as the place where Shamil’s Imamate finally came to an end after a 25-year struggle against the much larger Russian empire. Drive up there now and the first thing you see in the mountains above the city is a great fortification, which is still used as a Russian army cadet base. Below, on a mountain wall between the fortress and the city, is a portrait of a bearded man on a green flag. In Shamil’s birthplace, Gimry, the insurrection against the Russians continues to spread, but in Gunib, Shamil has become a veritable tourist attraction. Gunib is strategically situated between steep cliffs that rise up to a high and inaccessible plateau on one side, and a hairpin-bend road that descends into a deep ravine on the other. The small town offers unencumbered views on three sides into the valleys and ravines. No one can approach it unnoticed. “The Russians had learned to take their time,” says Deputy Mayor Mogamed, who shows us around. “They closed off all the valleys and sought out the highest positions in the surroundings. From there they could shell Gunib.” Further along, the plateau is wooded. We pass an old sanatorium for Komsomol pioneers with respiratory diseases and then a small, whitewashed teahouse looms up against a rock face in the forest. “This is where it happened,” says Mogamed with an air of respect. Imam Shamil was surrounded by the Russians. His own army was tiny. Many had abandoned him; only his last faithful followers remained. Shamil decided to capitulate in order to save his wife and children and perhaps himself. On the site of the blindingly white teahouse, endlessly reproduced on biscuit tins, postcards and tea sets, Shamil shook hands with the Russian leader Bariatinsky. After his capture and to his utter astonishment, Shamil was given a hero’s welcome in Russia. For days he travelled the country by carriage and train. He was apparently amazed at its unimaginable size. He had spent his whole life fighting for an area of a few hundred kilometres. Now he travelled for weeks through a seemingly endless country. In St Petersburg he was paraded before the tsar and aristocracy. People at the theatre and opera gaped at him. Photos from the time show a tall, slightly unkempt man in a long habit, looking fiercely into the camera. Shamil was unhappy in St Petersburg. He was eventually given permission to settle in Kaluga and later went on to Kiev, where he lead a luxurious life at the tsar’s expense. In 1869 he was allowed to leave the country. He travelled to Istanbul via Odessa, where the sultan received him with great pomp. He then went on to Mecca and Medina, where he died in 1871.

In local museums such as this one in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, local history has been folklorised & glorified. The Caucasus will never be peaceful.

The Romanticism of the 19th century persisted in 20th-century folklore. The fierce guerrilla fighters of the Caucasian War were translated into tableaux of supernaturally healthy, powerful men, noble warriors, rising above the common hustle and bustle, sitting proudly on horseback; or women – firm, proud types with large bosoms – engrossed in a noble craft such as jewellery making, pottery or fruit preservation. During the Chechen wars in the 1990s, a song did the rounds among the anti-Russian fighters about Baysangur, Shamil’s ally who fought the Russians to the bitter end in the besieged town of Gunib. According to the song, when Shamil signed the peace treaty and surrendered, Baysangur called after him: “Turn around, I will shoot you down!” Shamil did not turn around, knowing that a fighter like Baysangur would never shoot someone in the back. The song was the Chechen answer to the romanticised history written by the Russians.

Shamil’s death in 1859 in the east and the battle of Krasnaya Polyana Krasnaya Polyana Sochi region in 1864 in the west marked the official end of the Caucasian War. But the Caucasus would never be peaceful. Immediately after Shamil's arrest, he was succeeded by an imam in the Dagestani city of Sogratl, who also attracted a fairly large following. All 600 men from the district were exiled to Siberia.

Many in the North Caucasus regarded the Soviet Union as a good idea, after the poverty, war and terrorism under the tsar.

The North Caucasus under the Soviet Union

After the poverty, war and terrorism under the tsar, many in the North Caucasus regarded the Soviet Union as a good idea. A Soviet-style republic was appealing, for had the North Caucasians not been governed for centuries by the old and wise in their villages and regions instead of tsars and princes? Yet in those first chaotic years of the revolution, the desire for independence also reared its head again. This was intensified by the growing repression, terror and famine of the 1920s and ’30s. While the remnants of the tsarist wars were still smouldering, the Caucasus cautiously began to rebel against the new regime again. Most of the uprisings did not have national support, but were instigated by smaller gangs, called ‘bandits’ by the Soviets. In the mountains, familiar territory for the Ingush, Chechens, Karachays and Balkars, it was easy to hide and launch guerrilla campaigns. The repercussions became increasingly deadly. According to Soviet troops, the only way to punish the gangs was to cut off their supplies of food and assistance. Entire valleys of villages and hamlets were wiped out in the late ˈ30s and early ˈ40s, with the aim of depriving the guerrilla fighters of their lifelines. Despite this, resistance groups in the mountains continued to fight against the communists until the ’70s.

World War II monument in the village school of Chinar, Dagestan.


The Germans only just reached the Caucasus. At the end of 1942 they ascended Mount Elbrus and proudly planted the Nazi flag at the Elbrus Elbrus Kabardino-Balkaria, Russia . Footage of the event was shown around the world, but it was only the vanguard who would taste this short-lived victory. In the meantime, the war had reached a turning point and the Germans began their unprecedentedly rapid retreat. Less than two and a half years after the Germans had climbed Mount Elbrus, the Russian army had reached the gates of Berlin. But the brief encounter worried the regime in Moscow. In preparation for their advance, the Germans sent spies and propagandists to the Caucasus to pave the way for German 'liberation'. They threw flyers out of aeroplanes that read 'For a free Caucasus'. Under the Germans, the mountain peoples were led to believe, the Caucasus would finally be free.

Under the Germans, the mountain peoples were led to believe, the Caucasus would finally be free.

When war broke out, thousands of Caucasians left for the frontline. Furthermore, the region boasts many veterans, with the Caucasian peoples contributing disproportionately to the war both in terms of soldiers and victims. Upon returning from the front, many soldiers found a deserted country, where Stalin's paranoid regime had reeked considerable havoc among several peoples.


Akhmed Ustarkanov was just 17 when the war broke out. He opens the door of his spacious apartment in Grozny, Chechnya, wearing blue satin pyjamas and a small scull cap. He is tiny. His wife is sent to the kitchen to prepare food and uncork the vodka. He is an old-school Chechen – as Russified as can be – and so we have to drink toasts to life and death, women, guests, friendship and future generations.

Akhmad Ustarkanov “Stalin called on us to take up arms."

The Caucasus is a region of veterans. No other part of the Soviet Union sent so many men to the front, many will say, after which an argument will ensue over exactly which Caucasian people produced the most soldiers. Roman Eloev (88) was born and raised in Gori, Georgia, where the August War in 2008 got close indeed, he now lives in a converted barn in South Ossetia. The third war in his lifetime was too much for him. He is now a refugee in his own country.

Veteran Akhmed Ustarkanov and his wife in Grozny, Chechnya.

Akhmad Ustarkanov "It was only on my return home that I was declared a public enemy.”

“It was 3 July 1941,” Ustarkanov remembers. “Stalin called on us to take up arms. I signed up with seven friends from our village, Urus Martan. We were so desperate to fight that we even lied about our age. We were assigned to the cavalry and were given lessons at the barracks in Grozny. But things quickly started to go wrong.” The diminutive 88-year-old man sits on the edge of his seat. “In 1942, the Soviet Union was caught off guard. Stalingrad was under siege and we had to cut our training short to leave for the front. I was deployed as a mounted scout.” He shows us the evidence of his war: a jacket covered with medals, an endless array commemorating battles, sieges, jubilees and various other tributes. His pride and joy is a photo of him in the Kremlin with Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Ustarkanov left Stalingrad and travelled the country until he was stationed in present-day Kaliningrad to supply the frontline. His war was a long one. After the German troops capitulated, he was immediately sent to the eastern front where the war with Japan still ground on. From there he was sent to Mongolia and then Manchuria. “I was 23 when I was dismissed,” he says. “I came home to an empty Chechnya. I realised later that I’d been lucky. More than 16,000 soldiers from Ingushetia and Chechnya had been captured at the front and sent to camps. It was only on my return home that I was declared a public enemy.” In 1947, Ustarkanov went to Kazakhstan and found his parents in a small kolkhoz close to the Kazakh mountains. He became a gym teacher at a local school. “It was difficult in Kazakhstan,” he says. “There were a lot of riots between us and the Kazakhs and Russians who already lived there. What we saw as deportation, they saw as an invasion.”

Mamatai Bostanov “They were the 15 darkest years for our nation.”

Mamatai with pictures from his days in Kazakhstan.

“They were the 15 darkest years for our nation,” agrees 74-year-old Mamatay Bostanov in Karachay-Cherkessia Karachay-Cherkessia Russia . It is a clear day and Mount Elbrus towers above the other peaks. The town is a tranquil paradise on the River Kuban, where apple trees hang with fruit and cows and chickens roam the backstreets. Dozens of crates filled with freshly picked apples and pears are stacked in front of Mamatay’s improvised garden bench. “For 14 long days our world was dark and bleak,” he recalls the journey. “Each day we stopped somewhere and were given food. The only thing I can remember is a sort of fish soup. If someone in the carriage had died that day, we gave the body to passers-by. That’s why many of us are buried in places that nobody can remember any more. But even more people died in Central Asia than in the train – of typhoid, malaria, starvation. We died of everything.” His own, small family of five survived the deportation, but his wife lost six of her nine siblings.

Mamatai Bostanov "Typhoid, malaria, starvation. We died of everything."

Karachaevsk, Karachay-Cherkessia: the earliest pictures in the photo album of Modalif & Sofia Chomaev are from Kazakhstan.

She brings out a pile of old photos. “Some of them died there,” she says pointing, “others still live in Central Asia; some are now our neighbours.” It is disconcerting to realise that every family in this village was affected by Stalin’s insane policies. One inhabitant was born in Kazakhstan, another in Kyrgyzstan, while someone else we speak to at a bus stop was a year old when he was deported and 15 when he returned.

Within a few years the Balkars, Ingush and Chechens had been erased from maps, atlases and reference books.

Few, however, believe that collaboration with the Germans was the real reason for the deportations. “Stalin was Georgian. He wanted to clear this area for Georgians,” says 73-year-old Amir Uzdhanov, also in Karachayevsk. Georgians were living in his home when he came back from Kazakhstan, and in the intervening years his family had been decimated. When his father returned from the war, he found the area deserted. He soon learned that his family and kinsmen were living in Central Asia and followed them there. “He died less than a week after finding us,” says Uzdhanov. “The exhaustion was simply too much for him.”

Monument to the victims of repression and deportation near Nazran, Ingushetia.

While small resistance groups fought on, the disappearance of almost 500,000 inhabitants from the Caucasus was less like removing the sting from the wasp and more like wiping out the wasp itself. The remaining republics were renamed: Karachay-Cherkessia became the Cherkessian Autonomous Oblast, Kabardino-Balkaria became simply Kabardino. Ingushetia was divided between North Ossetia and the new Russian region of Grozny Grozny Chechnya, Russia . Within a few years the Balkars, Ingush and Chechens had been erased from maps, atlases and reference books.

Map from a Russian atlas, 1955 (left). Kabardino-Balkaria is called Kabardin ASSR, the Prigorodny district has been swallowed up by North Ossetia and the Chechen-Ingush ASSR no longer exists. In the next edition from 1966 (right), Kabardino-Balkaria’s old name has been reinstated and the Chechen-Ingush ASSR has reappeared. Only the Prigorodny district has remained Ossetian.

Around 20 per cent of the deportees died during the journey or shortly after their arrival in Central Asia.

Once again the mountain peoples were decimated.

Once again, following the Caucasian War, the civil war around 1920 and The Great Terror of the 1930s, the mountain peoples were decimated. The deportees were subjected to severe restrictions. They were not allowed to leave the villages to which they had been relocated without permission from the police. In the chaos of the journey, some families were separated for years. Anyone caught breaking the rules was brutally arrested and sent to prison camps in Siberia. An NKVD document in the deportation monument shows that of the around 24,000 people who arrived in South Kazakhstan in the spring, 357 were arrested and 1,267 had died by 15 June 1944.

Mamatai Bostanov "Then we received the news that we were allowed to return home...”

Construction of the railway close to Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan) (1959)

Survival in these fragmented communities thus became a matter of creativity. One of the solutions was to take multiple wives – a measure sanctioned by the Koran to compensate for the shortage of men in times of war and repression. The women married young and the Chechens, Ingush and Balkars sought each other out where possible. “Once we were in Central Asia, nobody seemed to care about our fate,” says Mamatay Bostanov, from Karachayevsk. “We wrote endless letters to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, but nothing happened.” The Karachay felt betrayed, but then Stalin died. The shock reverberated through the Soviet Union. It is impossible for outsiders to understand the Orwellian worship of a person who caused so much suffering. For Mamatay and his family, it seemed like the end of the world. “We cried our eyes out,” he says. “We always sang songs in which he was the father figure. He meant everything to us and suddenly he was gone. We had no idea how we or the Soviet Union could go on. Then we received the news that we were allowed to return home...”

Nikita Khrushchev "If Stalin could have found enough space somewhere to deport Ukrainians, he would certainly have done so."

Under the new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin's reign of terror was partly reversed. In his historic 'secret' speech of 25 February 1956, Khrushchev said that the deportations were not dictated by any military considerations. “Thus, at the end of 1943, when there already had been a permanent change of fortune at the front in favour of the Soviet Union, a decision concerning the deportation of all the Karachays from the lands on which they lived was taken and executed.” Khrushchev recited the names of all the other nations and ended the list with the cynical observation that if Stalin could have found enough space somewhere to deport Ukrainians, he would certainly have done so. Moscow was terrified that the hundreds of thousands of deportees would clash with the Georgians, Russians and Ossetians now living in their houses. To prevent this, Moscow offered the Ingush the steppes of South Russia. The Chechens could also be located further north, beyond the River Terek and in North Dagestan.

Monument to those who rebuilt the village after returning from exile. Uchkeken, Karachay-Cherkessia.

No such solution was proposed for the Karachays and Balkars, who were to be reintegrated into their home countries. As soon as Khrushchev gave the go-ahead in 1956, however, the floodgates opened. The majority of people moved back as soon as they could, to the homelands they had been forced to leave ten years earlier. From 1944, the Russians, Georgians, Cossacks, Ossetians and others cultivated the fields and inhabited the abandoned houses where the deportees had once lived. To a large extent they were also part of the complicated political manoeuvres aimed at keeping the Caucasus peaceful and loyal. To this end, tens of thousands of South Ossetians from Georgia were brought to the North Caucasus, primarily to repopulate the Prigorodny district. And now the mountain peoples, whom the Russians had so feared for 150 years that they had erased them from the history books, had come back – and had received reparation and compensation to boot. Stories circulated throughout the North Caucasus about the dreaded returnees who entered homes at night to claim their former property. It led to a spontaneous exodus of new settlers from the North Caucasus. It must have been an incredibly confusing time for everyone.

In Kantishevo, an extensive Ingush farming village on the border with North Ossetia, lives Gamat-Khan Katzoyev, born in Petropavlovsk, Kazakhstan. “When we came back from Kazakhstan, Ossetians were living in my house,” he recalls. “They saw us coming and fell silent. They left the house without saying a word. The strange thing was that they hadn’t bought anything and nothing in the house had really changed. We returned to exactly the same house that my parents had left in 1944. The Ossetians sensed that we would come back.”

Anonymous "The Russians are terrified."

Gamat-Khan Katzoyev, 65, lost both legs during the Prigorodny conflict in 1992, that stemmed directly from the deportation and return of Ingush to and from Kazakhastan.

Rioting broke out in cities such as Grozny in 1958. Thousands of Russians protested against the arrival of the Chechens and Ingush and the privileges they had received, including housing, land and financial compensation. They also stormed police stations, Communist Party offices, the train station and other public buildings. One of their primary demands was to change the name of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic to the Multinational Soviet Socialist Republic. In addition, they wanted no more than ten per cent of Grozny’s population to be made up of Chechens and Ingush. After several days of destruction and occupation, the demonstrators were dispersed by the army.

Map in the deportation monument in Ingushetia. The checked and striped areas, according to the map, were taken from the Ingush between 1944 and 1956. When this map was made, however, Ingushetia did not exist – it was still part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. As a result, the name of the new republic has been stuck on the map with yellow tape.

The KGB archives from the time include wild claims in letters from Russians writing: "the Chechens have come and have appointed a mullah as their leader and they pray to God / They want to appropriate the republic and restore mountain laws / They want to reinstate private ownership / They say that the Russians do not belong here / The Russians are terrified. Women and children are afraid to make eye contact, because new incidents occur every day." One letter contains an offensive but accurate generalisation about the returning Chechens: Kazakhstan has taught them nothing, only embittered them towards the Russians and the Soviet state. The Ingush staged their first protests in the ʼ70s, principally demanding that the Prigorodny-district Prigorodny-district North-Ossetia, Russia become part of the Chechen-Ingush Republic again, restoring the borders of the republic before the deportations. However, a new reality was emerging in the villages. The centres were now occupied by Ossetians and the new inhabitants, while the Ingush were building their homes in the foothills of the mountains.

The flowering of the Soviet Union

After World War II, the Soviet Union became the only superpower to rival the United States. The farming industry produced fairly well while consumables and schooling were available to everyone. The photos shown to us by eyewitnesses depict the classic image of sun-drenched Soviet propaganda: large combine harvesters in cornfields, cheerful Komsomol camps, multicultural classes at school.

At the end of the '70's, Ingush Khava Gaisanova, born in exile in Kazakhstan, returns to Chermen in the North-Ossetian Prigorodny district. During one of her summer holidays, she's portrayed at the beach of Sochi.

Faster than they had perhaps ever thought possible, the Caucasians in Central Asia were embedded in the Soviet system that had previously brought them little more than war, terror and misery. The bitter agony of the impoverished and oppressed years prior to their deportation to the unforgiving climate of Kazakhstan and Kirgizia would not be quickly forgotten. However they embraced the new, relative prosperity.

Faster than they had perhaps ever thought possible, the Caucasians in Central Asia were embedded in the Soviet system.

The North Caucasus was also developed. Remote villages were connected to water, gas and electricity, and every year millions of Russian tourists visited the spas in South Russia and the Caucasus Mountains. Factories were built in villages and everyone had work, however specious this was in the Soviet system where unemployment ostensibly did not exist.

Kolkhoz 'Gagarin' in de mountains of Dagestan.

Many people long for the relative peace and prosperity of the Soviet Union.

A veteran in Chechnya, who worked for the police in Urus Martan, told us that in the past – during the good years – when a murder was committed in the republic, a team of ten men from Moscow was flown in to investigate. “How about that,” he laughed scornfully and looked at us knowingly. It was precisely the bloody conflict of the early ʼ90s and the anarchy and violence of the years that followed that make many people long for the relative peace and prosperity of the Soviet Union.

The fall of the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union’s dramatic collapse in 1991 took almost everyone by surprise. In the Caucasus, the collapse heralded a period of violence and conflict which can rightly be called the Second Caucasian War, and which continues to this day. It is not a war of conquest, as was the case in the 19th century, but a struggle for influence. In an interview, a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow referred to the former Soviet states as Moscow’s children.

The Caucasus is deeply embedded in the Russian psyche.

He extended the metaphor, saying that children reach puberty and start acting up, but they will always be your children. The imbalance of power inherent in his words is perhaps still most evident in the Caucasus, a region deeply embedded in the Russian psyche. The Caucasus is comparable to the Wild West in the United States: romantic, full of pioneering spirit and laden with the heroism of the advancing frontier. A southern dream. The best restaurants in Moscow were Georgian and films often depicted the emotional, half-savage, hairy men from the Caucasus. The soldiers who fought in the Caucasus are still immortalised in statues across the country, however gruesome the results of their military adventures were in practice. Perhaps this is why Russia seeks to maintain more power and influence in the Caucasus than in Central Asia and the western countries of the Soviet Union. Russia has fought for the Caucasus for 200 years – a fight it is unwilling to relinquish easily

Russia has fought for the Caucasus for 200 years. You don't relinquish that easily.

Russia used divide and rule politics as well as military violence to subdue the Caucasus. These same tactics are being employed in the Second Caucasian War.

Local nationalism

The various uprisings and demonstrations in the ʼ80s all served a local goal. None of the conflicts from that period has been resolved and smoulder on as small, regional wars or frozen ceasefires.

Honey Falls, Karachay Cherkessia. A favorite tourist destination.

Cemetery in Tskhinval, the capital of South-Ossetia.

The conflicts in the ʼ90s can be seen as local attempts to reinstate the national borders that Moscow had redrawn in the ʼ20s and ʼ40s. South Ossetia and Adjara attempted to use their autonomous Soviet status to gain independence. Protesters in Abkhazia demanded a return to the independence they had enjoyed between 1921 and 1931. The Armenians and Azeris in Nagorno-Karabakh were only too aware that these years would determine the country in which their children would be born: no longer in the multi-ethnic Soviet Union, but in a country dominated by either Azeris or Armenians.

Alexander Tsjibirov “Whenever someone wants an ethnically pure country, another group is always in the way. That’s how small the Caucasus is."

“Nationalism plays tricks on the Caucasians,” says Alexander Chibirov, a historian from South Ossetia. “Whenever someone wants an ethnically pure country, another group is always in the way. That’s how small the Caucasus is. But you mustn’t get big ideas here. For that, you would have to be God. Communism didn’t work for a reason.”

Alexander Chibirov

Pictures of people missing during and after the Prigorodny-conflict. They're on display in the museum for repression and deportation, Nazran, Ingushetia.

War in the North Caucasus

In the North Caucasus, the first conflict was a direct result of Stalin’s divide and rule politics. Until the deportations, more than 90 per cent of the Prigorodny district was Ingush – and it was still part of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic for a reason. In the years following the deportations in 1944, some 60,000 South Ossetians from Georgia were settled in the Prigorodny district to populate the empty farms and villages. This migration continued after the first Ingush returned from Central Asia, until 1959. Despite this, the Ossetians continued to fear the returning Ingush. The murder of an Ossetian driver in 1981 sparked days of rioting in Vladikavkaz. Army units were deployed to quell the demonstrations. The Ossetians demanded a halt to the large number of Ingush returning to the city and the Prigorodny district. The government partially gave in to the demand and stopped issuing residence permits for Ingush, who continued to return anyway while building their houses illegally. By 1990, 40 per cent of the population was officially Ingush. Unofficially, that figure was likely higher.

Magomed Agikov “In retrospect, it was clear the war was coming."

“In retrospect,” says 74-year-old survivor Magomed Agilkov, “it was clear the war was coming. There had been so many murders and incidents. The police in North Ossetia subjected us to an increasing number of checks and put roadblocks everywhere. I think that the Ossetians planned everything. They already had experience fighting in Georgia and wanted to remove us from their country definitively.” In early November 1992, President Yeltsin determined that Prigorodny would definitively remain part of North Ossetia. Meanwhile, the conflict in the small province had already claimed the lives of 600 Ingush. More than 1,000 were injured and 60,000 fled the area. Nine thousand Ossetians also fled and 52 were killed. It was not until 1995 that an agreement was signed between North Ossetia and Ingushetia concerning the return of refugees. To this day, however, more than half of Eastern Prigorodny remains off limits to returning refugees. Thousands of Ingush still live as refugees in Ingushetia and elsewhere.

Chechen wars

Eset Oemarov "I came back to Chechnya, proud that we had gained independence. Then war broke out here too."

Eset Umarova

In terms of numbers, the Prigorodny conflict was a mere trifle compared to what was to follow. The two wars in Chechnya, which were fought between 1994-1996 and 1999-2006, cost an estimated 150,000 lives. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country, first the Russians and other nationalities living in Chechnya, then the Chechens themselves. During the first war, the population of Ingushetia doubled as a result of the influx of Chechen refugees. The wars in Chechnya were characterised by indescribable cruelty. Anyone who reads the stories by journalists such as the Russian Politkovskaya, the Polish Jagielski or the Russian soldier Babchenko, but in particular the endless testimonies in the reports by Amnesty, Memorial and Human Rights Watch can reconstruct the never-ending tableau of human rights violations, attacks on both sides and utter destruction. In the North Chechen village Isjeskaya Ishchersky, Chechnya Chechnya, Russia , Eset Umarov saw the Russian armies approaching. “We were chased out of Kazakhstan,” she remembers. “When Kazakhstan became independent, there were uprisings against the Chechens in some areas. I came back to Chechnya, proud that we had gained independence. Then war broke out here too.” Eset runs a shop on the main road from Mozdok, a garrison town in North Ossetia, to Grozny. “Thousands of soldiers and tanks passed by,” she says. “They were utterly unpredictable. Most of them were drunk and aggressive.” She was able to keep her family together through the war, although her house was destroyed. Six years later, they are still repairing it. “It was a frightening, chaotic time,” she says. But now it is over and she does not want to talk about it any more. With her daughter she picks strawberries from the garden and puts them on the table for her guests, with a foaming glass of fresh milk from her cow.


It all began so euphorically. In 1991, a monument to the deportations was erected in the middle of Grozny. It showed a Koran with two hands on either side reaching to the heavens. For the first time in centuries, Chechnya was in control of its own fate. I find reports of the accompanying celebrations: mourning marches interspersed with expressions of great joy that the country’s grief could finally be commemorated. Two wars later, little remains of the monument except a pile of stones.

Ailing Russia was no match for the ebullient Chechens.

Ailing Russia was no match for the ebullient Chechens. While the Russians occupied the large, ruined cities, the Chechens maintained control of the mountains and the countryside. The Russians appointed loyal Chechens to government positions in the hope of currying favour with the local population. In 1996, however, after more than two years of war, a combined Chechen attack in Grozny proved to be a defining moment. Support troops were destroyed and several days of fighting later, it was over. The Russian army signed a ceasefire. In 2001, as stated in the Khazavyurt agreement, Russia and Chechnya would again discuss mutual relations. President Mashkadov (Dudayev’s successor, allegedly killed by a satellite-guided missile in 1996) was officially invited to Moscow. The war appeared to have been a political success, but Chechnya degenerated into an anarchic state where local militias held sway.

New Stalingrad

Arkady Babchenko fought in both Chechen wars. He witnessed how Chechen soldiers slit the throats of Russian soldiers and how Russian women wandered through Chechnya like apparitions in search of their missing sons. Some of these women were raped, murdered and burned. There is little heroic to say about the Chechen wars.

There is little heroic to say about the Chechen wars.

His book, One Soldier’s War, is beautiful but brutal. It could be placed in the tradition of Pushkin and others who were seduced by the Caucasus. Like so many writers before him, Babchenko muses on the green grass, the fragrant apricots and how this existence as a soldier in the Caucasus must be real life. At the same time, he cannot comprehend how war could break out here. War, he writes, should happen in the Arctic Circle, where it is dark and cold. Not here, where the days are so beautiful but where dead Russian soldiers return to the motherland in silver body bags. He describes Grozny as the Stalingrad he knows from Soviet propaganda: a lifeless, destroyed city; a city terrorised by frightened convoys, ripping to pieces corpses which no one dares to remove for fear of being hit by a lurking sniper.

The arms trade with the Chechen rebels was lively and profitable.

Mikro-Raion 3 in Grozny, 2011. The whole city has been rebuilt.

Babchenko’s literary account paints a shocking picture of the Russian army. The prevailing view at the time was that Russia was in complete chaos. More than the chaos, however, Babchenko describes an institution that was morally bankrupt. An army in which rank and seniority were used for the most heinous hazing, during which young soldiers frequently died, committed suicide or deserted. The arms trade with the Chechen rebels was lively and profitable. As described in books about the First Caucasian War in the 19th century, captured soldiers were employed by the Chechen militias. That was a fate reserved for conscripts, however; mercenaries were killed immediately.

The terror begins

The Chechen militant Shamil Basayev thrived in this chaos. Named after the legendary Imam Shamil, Basayev fought in Nagorno-Karabakh and Abkhazia before the war came to his own country. He was a daredevil, the man who took extreme action while his political leaders negotiated with Moscow over ceasefires and political solutions to the war. He bribed Russian army units and in 1995 travelled with a group of fighters to the South Russian town of Budyonnovsk, taking a hospital and hundreds of people hostage. The hostage crisis came as a shock to Russia. For three days, Russian troops stormed the hospital, killing more than 100 civilians in the process. Basayev eventually negotiated a Russian escort and went back to Chechnya with several hostages as a human shield. His return was treated as a victory parade. He had achieved definitive hero status.

Basayev had grander plans for jihad and independence.

Prime Minister Putin

As in the Caucasian War, Chechnya was not enough. Basayev had grander plans for jihad and independence. In mid-1999, Yeltsin appointed FSB leader Vladimir Putin as prime minister. Putin was due to succeed Yeltsin as president at the end of the year. Basayev would provide him with the opportunity to establish his power definitively. Less than a week after Putin’s appointment, Basayev and a modest military force invaded neighbouring Dagestan. Simultaneously, apartment buildings in Moscow collapsed. The truth about the collapse would remain a mystery for a long time. According to the government, Chechen terrorists were to blame; according to eyewitnesses and a number of journalists, the security forces were behind the disaster. The attacks killed nearly 300 people and wounded over 600. It was more than enough reason for Putin to attack Chechnya. Basayev was the self-proclaimed brains behind the most spectacular attacks. In 1999, at the start of the Second Chechen War, he declared that the conflict should be extended beyond the Chechen borders using ‘kamikaze attacks’ into Russia. He claimed responsibility for the Dubrovka Theatre siege, for Beslan and almost all large-scale terrorist attacks in Russia until his death in 2006. When he claimed responsibility for Beslan, he offered President Putin “security in Russia in exchange for independence in Chechnya”.

When he claimed responsibility for Beslan, he offered President Putin “security in Russia in exchange for independence in Chechnya”

After the failed invasion of Dagestan in 1999, Basayev demonstrated his military force and bluffing skills on two further occasions: first in 2004 when he attacked Nazran, the largest city in Ingushetia, followed a year later by a raid in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria Kabardino-Balkaria Russia . The operation in Nazran was perhaps the boldest. Using a large group of militants he occupied the city for a night, broke into several arsenals and attacked government buildings. Just before the Russian army arrived, the rebels fled with hundreds of looted weapons, many of which were later recovered in Beslan. A year later, the rebels occupied Nalchik using similar tactics. Basayev died inspecting a truckload of weapons close to the Ingush village of Ali-Yurt. A landmine exploded, blowing up the man who had been a fugitive for so many years. The FSB claimed responsibility for the attack. With the invasion in Dagestan in 1999 and subsequent daring kidnappings and terrorist attacks, Basayev paved the way for the current, pan-Caucasian insurgency, which increasingly opposes the firm hand of Chechnya’s pro-Russian leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria have now overtaken Chechnya as the region’s trouble spots.

Chapter VII explores the impact of the violence in the North Caucasus. Chapter III explains more about the economic situation in the North Caucasus. Read about the North Caucasus, a history of conflict and violence, in The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova on ISSUU. The Secret History of Khava Gaisanova is also for sale in our webshop and in all bookshops. Two of The Sochi Project’s Sketchbooks cover the North Caucasus. Life Here is Serious, about wrestling (issuu + webshoplink) and Safety First, about Chechnya.

The secret history of Khava Gaisanova / De geheime geschiedenis van Khava Gaisanova Life Here is Serious Safety First