The current phase of the conflict between Russia and Chechnya began with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. However the roots of the strife date back centuries. For most of its history, the Russia-Chechnya conflict has been a battle over nationalism, with the Russians controlling Chechnya while Chechen separatists struggle for their republic’s independence from Moscow. In recent years, the struggle has taken on a religious dimension as well, as the government of this mostly Muslim country pays heed to Islamic concerns.

Roots Of the Russia-Chechnya Conflict

Chechens have lived in the North Caucasus mountains since ancient times. Their language is one of the oldest known, as many as 6,000 years old. Mass conversion of Chechens to Islam began in the 16th century as Chechens looked to Turkey’s Ottoman Empire to fend off annexation by Russia. Nonetheless, Russia has ruled Chechnya, except for brief periods of Chechen independence, for about 200 years. The Russian Revolution of 1917 produced one of those short-lived periods, but the newly-formed Soviet Union re-absorbed Chechnya in 1920. After World War II, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had almost 500,000 Chechens deported to Kazakhstan and Siberia. Thousands died, but survivors were allowed to return after Stalin’s death. As the Soviet Union was breaking apart in 1991, Chechnya again declared independence. This time, the declaration led to all-out war with Russia.

The First and Second Russia-Chechen Wars

In 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya, planning a quick strike to retake the breakaway republic. Instead, the war lasted until 1996 when fierce Chechen resistance forced Yeltsin to withdraw forces, having accomplished nothing of what he’d set out to do in what was later called the First Chechen War, but leading to thousands of civilians deaths. The Second Chechen War was sparked in 1999 when Chechen fighters invaded neighboring Dagestan in support of an Islamist movement there. Russia responded by invading Chechnya again. A series of terrorist bombings hit Russian cities, but that only rallied support behind Russia’s Prime Minister (later President) Vladimir Putin, whose forces retook the Chechen capital of Grozny. Again, however, Russian promises of a quick victory proved hollow. The war dragged on until 2006.

Islam And The Chechen People

For 500 years the most prevalent form of Chechen Islam was Sufism. Sufism is Islamic mysticism, in which, rather than strict adherence to the Quran, the spiritual journey of the individual, guided by a teacher, is the central tenet. Sufism’s approach made it adaptable to the mountain culture that Chechens had developed. Chechnya’s turn toward militant fundamentalism has its roots in the First Chechen War, when radical Muslim fighters streamed to the region to fight the Russians, as they had earlier in resisting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many remained in Chechnya after the First War, causing domestic unrest and forcing the Chechen government to take a turn toward Islamic law. At the same time, many younger Chechens, disillusioned with their nationalist leaders, embraced fundamentalist Islam.

Chechen Terrorism, Russian Human Right Abuse

Neither side in the Russia-Chechnya conflict has covered itself in glory. Human rights organizations have documented large-scale abuses by Russians in Chechnya, including the unsolved disappearances of at least 4,000 civilians as well as persecution and murder of dissidents and human rights activists. Chechen militants, for their part, have carried out a campaign of terrorism against civilians inside Russia. Of the many attacks, perhaps the most horrifying took place in September of 2004 when Chechen insurgents took over a school in the Russian city of Beslan. They took more than 1,000 hostages, including schoolchildren. When the siege was over, 330 people were dead. Most of them were children.