A people who would rather burn than give in

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS, if it is not too late, Boris Yeltsin and his generals should study Tsarist archives of a century-and-a-half ago before they plunge into another bloody entanglement with the Chechen people of the Caucasus.

That was the last time that Russian troops took on the Chechens, and they found themselves embroiled in a vicious guerrilla war which lasted 30 years, left thousands dead and created a legacy of hatred towards the Russians which survives to this day.

Accounts from the time suggest that the Muslim Chechens could be even more fanatically brave than the Afghans, the invasion of whose lands in 1979 proved so catastrophic.

As a Russian general reported in 1832, the Chechen warriors were crack shots and brilliant strategists. He added: "They are quick to take advantage of local conditions, seize upon every mistake we make, and with incredible swiftness use it for our own destruction."

Russia's advance southwards into the Caucasus - a region of remote mountain ranges and thick forests - started in the 18th century as she began her expansion towards the crumbling Turkish and Persian empires. Eventually this would lead to the beginning of the "Great Game", played out between the Russians and the British in India, but the Russian motive was initially as much to do with self-defence as with empire-building. After three centuries of Mongol oppression, they lived in fear of another such invasion by Muslim hordes, whether Caucasians, Turks or Persians.

When the Russians began their campaign of conquest in the early 19th century, the Chechens and other neighbouring tribes defended their homelands with the utmost ferocity - just as they appear to be doing today. The Russians hit back by destroying their crops and animals, burning down entire villages and massacring the inhabitants. But the Chechens refused to be cowed.

They were greatly helped by their wild terrain, which was so thickly forested as to be almost impenetrable. The Russians were thus forced to advance in a greatly extended line formation, leaving them perilously exposed at the flanks. "The Chechens would rise as if it were out of the ground," reported a Russian commander, "rush at our sharp-shooters and cut them to pieces before their comrades could come to the rescue." The Chechens also became skilled at luring the Cossack patrols into the forests and then slaughtering them in ambushes.

Even when they were hopelessly cornered, the Chechens refused to surrender, or to accept quarter, preferring to be burnt alive in their villages and singing songs of defiance as they died. If a man could no longer stand the agony of the flames, he would burst out of his hut and hurl himself on the bayonets of the Cossacks, hacking as many of them to death as possible first.

During the years 1839 to 1842, the Russians suffered more than 8,000 dead and wounded, without making any appreciable progress south, despite burning down more than 60 Chechen auls, or fortified villages. But if the Chechens never gave up, nor did the Russians. They began to chop down the beech forests which were their enemy's chief asset; it has been truly said that the Chechens were beaten not by the sword but by the axe.

As the Russians began to bring in artillery, more and more of the Caucasus was conquered. Last to fall was Chechnya's eastern neighbour Daghestan, whose fanatical leader, Imam Shamyl, was a genius at guerrilla tactics, but who was finally captured in August 1859. Every bit as ruthless as his Cossack foes, the legendary Shamyl had dreamed of creating an independent Greater Caucasus incorporating all its many Muslim tribes. But this dream was fatally flawed. For in addition to the Russians, there wa s the"enemy within" - bitter inter-tribal rivalries and jealousies. Today little seems to have changed in this region which Gibbon called "a theatre of perpetual war".

But as history has shown, faced by an outside aggressor, the rival clans are apt to close ranks. The next few days or weeks may show whether they have lost their ferocious capacity to resist - or whether their threats to attack Russian nuclear installations, and commit other atrocities, are simply bombast.

The writer is author of `A Traveller's Companion to Central Asia' (John Murray, 1993).