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Kremlin Has Hands Full With Chechens : Caucasus: Russian flag may fly over presidential palace in Grozny, but Moscow faces a bitter challenge.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After almost six weeks of savage fighting, the Russian flag now flies triumphant over the captured presidential palace in Grozny. But if history is any guide, the Kremlin’s problems with the proud, embittered and vengeful Chechen people are far from over.

For at least seven centuries, this tiny, fierce and often persecuted people have defined themselves by the struggle against one foreign invader after another. Today the Chechens share a word that expresses their contempt for the 300-year enemy: “Ivan.”

“If there hadn’t been this war, there would have been great divisions among us,” the Muslim leader of the eastern Chechen city of Gudermes said recently. “But as soon as the Russians invaded, everyone united.”

The 66-year-old imam, Makhmud I. Tsutayev, lost most of the fingers on his left hand during a KGB interrogation in the 1970s, part of the 50-year Soviet campaign to eradicate religion from the Islamic land.

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Now Gudermes has 23 mosques, and some of the pupils whom Tsutayev taught to read the Koran bought guns and went off to defend Grozny.

“Our law is this: Even if my blood enemy is insulted by a person of another nationality, I must defend him,” Tsutayev said. “And this is what happened.”

The Kremlin’s armies could conceivably crush the exhausted and outgunned Chechen rebels within days. Or guerrillas based in the craggy, heavily forested Caucasus Mountains could harass Russian forces with terrorist attacks for months or years.

It is also possible that Chechens whose relatives have been killed by Russian bombs and shells may make good on their threats to exact the traditional blood revenge by targeting President Boris N. Yeltsin, Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev or other architects of the war in Chechnya.

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Moreover, the Muslim holy season of Ramadan begins Feb. 1. During the ensuing month, it is believed that anyone who dies is guaranteed salvation, a factor that may encourage suicide attacks on the occupying Russian forces, anthropologist Sergei A. Arutiunov said.

Whatever its military successes, Moscow faces a bitter challenge: how to coexist with the Republic of Chechnya, an enclave of 1.2 million people inside the Russian Federation that despises Russia more than ever.

“A police state will be imposed,” Arutiunov said. “It will be a situation much worse than Ulster.”

Chechens, who sometimes see centuries of history as one relentless conspiracy to erase them from their land, are trained virtually from birth to fight to preserve their honor, identity and freedom.

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Many believe in their bones that Moscow will exterminate them if it can.

“The Russians want a Chechnya with no Chechens” is a view held nearly universally here. The memory of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s 1944 deportation of all 800,000 Chechens--and of the estimated 200,000 who died on the road to exile--is indelible.

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The Mongol, czarist and Soviet authorities who tried to subdue this mountainous land found the Chechens a frustratingly obstinate people who could be pacified but never made to behave.

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In “The Gulag Archipelago,” Russian writer Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn remarked that even inside the brutal Soviet labor camps, and in exile in barren Kazakhstan, the Chechens could not be broken.

“There was one nation which would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission--and not just individual rebels among them, but the whole nation to a man,” Solzhenitsyn wrote. “These were the Chechens.”

In and out of the gulag, the Chechens were disliked and feared. Solzhenitsyn described them as “rough and arrogant” people who did not conceal their hostility toward Russians and preyed on those people who submitted to the Soviet bosses--but who supported and abetted anyone who displayed courage and independence.

Today, the Chechen fighters’ recycled Soviet army uniforms are virtually indistinguishable from those worn by Russians, except for the arm patches that bear the symbol of Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev’s regime. It is a wolf--an animal generally despised by Russians but revered by Chechens because it cannot be tamed.

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Chechens complain that they have been largely defined in the West by Russian stereotypes: cruel warrior, cunning thief, fearless Caucasus mountain bandit and, most recently, ruthless gangster and Islamic zealot.

“To justify its atrocities in Chechnya, Russia prepared world opinion by creating an image of Chechens as gangsters, robbers and desperadoes,” Grozny University literature professor Khasan V. Turkayev said.

Turkayev, like other Chechen intellectuals who seem never to appear on the world’s television screens, instantly dispels such facile labels.

A tall and dignified man, dressed in an elegant sheepskin coat, fine fur hat, immaculate white shirt and silk tie, Turkayev cut a strange figure as he emerged from a sea of mud and fog along the shell-pocked road to Grozny.

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The scholar was on a mission to save his life’s work from disappearing into rubble and ashes as Russian forces blasted his city to bits.

Braving an artillery barrage that sent shells smashing into the city at a rate of several per minute, Turkayev dashed into his downtown apartment to rescue copies of the 12 books he has published on Chechen language, literature and folklore.

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Then he calmly returned to his native village of Kordon, in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. As he sipped instant coffee and mellow local cognac in the afternoon half-light of a spare and clean room, Turkayev fixed his blue eyes on his audience and began to explain how Chechens view themselves.

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“Every Chechen is interested in who we are and where we came from, and there has never been an answer that can be scientifically proven,” Turkayev said.

Some Chechens believe that they migrated from Egypt through Syria and Iran, noting linguistic similarities such as the Egyptian word for pyramid , a term that means burial place in Chechen.

Though anthropological research on Chechnya is still in its infancy, Turkayev said the Chechens most likely are a fragment of the Urartu civilization, a state that consisted of parts of Armenia, Turkey and the North Caucasus region from about the 12th to the 6th Century BC.

A Chechen bride’s dowry is still called “the treasure of Urartu.”

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Early Chechens were sun worshipers, though some later converted to Christianity. Islam came to the Caucasus in the 7th Century, but penetrated the rugged mountains of Chechnya slowly, and was not deeply rooted there until the 18th Century.

Though Islam today unites the Chechens against the Russian enemy, it is only one strand in an interlocking web of clan relations, regional ties and Sufi religious brotherhoods that bind the sometimes contentious, largely egalitarian society.

Without question, the dominant ideology of Chechnya is not Islam but nationalism.

“From the 13th-Century Mongol yoke until the end of the 19th Century, the Chechen people have always had to defend their land against foreign invaders,” Turkayev said. “These centuries of intense battle have hardened the character of the Chechens.

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“But it is important to remember that the Chechens have never attacked anyone,” he added. “They have always been defending their land.”

Unlike in nearby Azerbaijan, where a Turkic language is spoken, Turkey has had little influence on Chechnya. Educated Chechens once corresponded in Arabic.

After the Russians captured the Chechen national hero, Imam Shamil, in 1859, ending decades of guerrilla warfare, a parallel tradition of art and literature developed in the Russian language.

Still, Arab culture remained dominant. Chechnya’s first newspaper, published in 1920, used the Arabic alphabet to transcribe the Chechen language, Turkayev said.

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In 1927, the alphabet was switched to Roman, and in 1939 the Soviet authorities decreed that Cyrillic letters be used.

In a bid to distance Chechnya from Russia, Dudayev’s regime has attempted since 1991 to reinstate the Roman alphabet, but the idea has not caught on, Turkayev said.

And many Chechens fault Dudayev for baiting the Russians instead of negotiating for political autonomy within Russia and economic independence from Moscow.

But after Russian warplanes have systematically bombed Chechen homes and villages--as Moscow claims Chechnya as part of Russia--many Chechens have concluded that it is not resistance but capitulation to the brutal “Ivan” that will surely prove suicidal.

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“This is a genocide,” said Abdulrazak Tovsultanov, the head pharmacist at Grozny’s now bombed-out central pediatric hospital.

“They just needed a pretext, and now they have one,” Tovsultanov said. “We will fight.”


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