Obituary: Dzhokhar Dudayev - People - News - The Independent

Obituary: Dzhokhar Dudayev

Dzhokhar Dudayev, the rebel Chechen leader who was killed last Sunday in a Russian rocket attack, was a hero to his own people but a figure for whom Russia's political and military authorities reserved the deepest hatred and contempt. His drive to create an independent Chechnya caused President Boris Yeltsin to launch what the Russian leader later described as the worst mistake of his presidency: a war in the northern Caucasus that has so far killed more than 30,000 people and badly tarnished Yeltsin's image as the standard-bearer of post-Communist Russian democracy.

Dudayev, whose pin-striped suit, porkpie hat and thin moustache gave him an appearance rather like that of a 1920s silent-movie actor, was born in Chechnya in 1944, perhaps the most tragic year in his nation's history. It was then that Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to Central Asia, falsely accusing them of collaboration with Nazi invaders. Tens of thousands of Chechens died en route and in a subsequent typhus epidemic, and it was not until 1957 that the Soviet state officially rehabilitated the Chechen nation.

As a young man, Dudayev's career flourished. After leaving Kazakhstan at the age of 13, he was educated at the Tambov Aviation School in southern Russia and later at the prestigious Gagarin Aviation Academy outside Moscow. A karate champion in his youth, he joined the Communist Party in 1968 and rose smoothly up the air force's ranks to become the first Soviet general of Chechen origin. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and started the reforms that ultimately led to the Soviet Union's collapse, Dudayev was the commander of a division of nuclear bomber aircraft at the Tartu air base in Estonia.

It was at this time that Dudayev first revealed the strength of his political views. Under Kremlin orders to help suppress Estonia's bid for independence, he refused a command to blockade the television and parliament buildings and was even brave enough to fly the Estonian flag at his base. For this he won lasting popularity with the Estonian people, but was transferred with his unit to Grozny, then the capital of a united Chechen-Ingush republic.

Dudayev retired from the air force, entering politics as an anti-Communist nationalist and leader of the Pan-National Congress of Chechen Peoples. This organisation swept to power in Chechnya after the abortive hardline Communist coup of August 1991, capitalising on the failure of the local leadership of the Chechen-Ingush republic to support Yeltsin and the democratic forces in Moscow.

Ironically, whereas Dudayev was on Yeltsin's side in August 1991, by 1995 he was the Russian president's mortal enemy. In contrast, Doku Zavgayev, the local Chechen leader who failed to support Yeltsin in 1991, was reinstalled by the Russians last year as the head of a pro-Moscow satellite government.

Dudayev's popularity was so great in 1991 that he won a decisive victory in presidential elections in Chechnya, which now considered itself not only separate from Ingushetia but independent from Russia. Yeltsin's response was to declare martial law in Chechnya, but he was forced into a humiliating climbdown after the parliament in Moscow refused to support him. Nevertheless, for the next three years Yeltsin subjected Chechnya to an economic blockade, branded Dudayev the criminal leader of a mafia clique and launched two unsuccessful coup attempts in Grozny.

Finally, in December 1994, came the full-scale onslaught the Chechens had long feared. The Russian army, however, distinguished itself more by its blunders and brutality than by efficiency, and Dudayev - whose secessionist ambitions had not attracted the support of any Western governments - was suddenly transformed in many people's imaginations abroad from a comical and corrupt Ruritanian hothead into a romantic and defiant crusader for the rights of small nations.

Yeltsin insisted he would never negotiate with Dudayev and only last February, when announcing his decision to run for re-election as president, declared that he would have the Chechen leader shot. With typical insouciance, Dudayev retorted earlier this month: "It's all the same who is president in Russia. President Yeltsin no longer controls the real power structures - namely, the army."

By refusing to capitulate in the face of Russia's might, Dudayev (who liked to compare himself to a lone wolf, a Chechen national emblem) won comparison with the Imam Shamil, the 19th-century Caucasian hero who fought the Russians for 25 years. Yet Dudayev was also criticised in the West for countenancing hostage-taking and terrorism by several of the armed units loosely grouped under his leadership.

He was bitter that President Bill Clinton, John Major and others refused to endorse his dream of an independent Chechen state, and by last February his statements, issued from a variety of secret hideouts, were becoming increasingly bizarre. Thus he accused the United States of funding the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, and even made the fantastic allegation that the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had started the war.

Dudayev's detestation of what he portrayed as aggressive Russian imperialism in the Caucasus did not extend to a loathing of Russia's culture or people. He married a Russian, Alevtina, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. One son, Avlar, was reported to have been killed in Grozny in January 1995.

Dudayev's death deprives the Chechen nation of a leader of genuinely inspirational qualities, but one who was at times erratic and reckless. He and Boris Yeltsin both bear responsibility for the failure to negotiate a deal securing broad-ranging autonomy for Chechnya. As it is, Dudayev's homeland will bear the scars of the latest example of Russian repression in the Caucasus for decades to come.

Dzhokhar Dudayev, air force officer and politician: born 1944; married (two sons, one daughter); died 21 #April 1996.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week