Remembering the Lone Wolf of Ichkeria

Twenty years after Dzhokhar Dudayev’s death, Chechnya’s first president remains a powerful symbol of a time when long-suppressed national cultures burst into the open from the ashes of the Soviet Union.

TBILISI – After nearly two decades spent in various parts of the old Soviet Union one of the most enduring lessons that I, as an outsider, quickly learned is that recent memory is relative in this region of the world.

During the last week of April, two significant anniversaries passed. Both observed with wildly different degrees of fanfare as April 26 marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Most of the international community took the time to commemorate the event and honor the tens of thousands of courageous souls who braved the horrors of a thermonuclear fire to combat the world’s worst environmental disaster.

Five days before the Chernobyl commemoration, the 20th anniversary of the death of Chechnya’s first president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, passed with little notice.

Though no less important in the recent history of the region, Dudayev’s death and the subsequent failed attempt to carve out a functioning Chechen state, signalled the end of the post-Soviet period when wildly ambitious and often equally chaotic national liberation movements sought to find their place in the world.

Twenty years on, most of the individuals who were key contributors to the early 1990s independence movements have all but been forgotten. And their romantic notions of independence for the small nations that languished under Moscow’s rule have either died out or degenerated into intractable frozen conflicts and self-serving proxy wars.

The Chechens’ inability to build the vital institutions that would have legitimized their drive to form a proper state doomed their cause and their attempts to gain international recognition after Dudayev death in April 1996.

Dudayev’s emergence as a symbol of national liberation was unexpected. He was a charismatic and flamboyant leader with his Clark Gable pencil-thin moustache, perfectly pressed suits and long soliloquies on his nation’s historical destiny. Dudayev was the first Chechen in the Soviet Union’s history to become a general, commanding a strategic bomber wing at the young age of 36.

The Chechens and other Muslim populations of the North Caucasus were historically mistrusted and discriminated against by their Russian masters. Dudayev’s ability to shatter the ethnic stereotype of Chechens was, in itself, no small feat.

His rise to the top of the Soviet military hierarchy and eventually to the presidency of a tiny unrecognized Caucasus state was a meteoritic rise for a man who had been deported with the rest of the Chechen population in 1944, the year of his birth, to the barren steppes of Kazakhstan.

Accused by Joseph Stalin of having collaborated with Nazi Germany, the deportation killed a quarter of the Chechen population and added a particularly dark chapter in the 300 years of enmity between the Chechens and their Russian colonizers.

Dudayev’s boyhood experience as an exile - like many of those who would later join the Chechen independence movement - left an indelible mark. For most of his life, however, he was a thoroughly Soviet man who professed his love for Russian culture and language.

Amused journalists who reported from Grozny at the start of the 1994-1996 First Chechen War noted his fondness for quoting literary giants Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Pushkin while the Russian air force carpet-bombed his besieged capital city outside.

Dudayev graduated from one of the Soviet Union's most prestigious military schools - the Yuri Gagarin Air Force Academy near Moscow - and later married a beautiful Russian poetess named Alla.

He played scrupulously by the rules throughout his air force career and won admiration from senior commanders for his bombing tactics in Afghanistan. But his allegiance to the Soviet state began to waiver in the late 1980s while commanding a strategic nuclear bomber unit in Tartu, Estonia.

General Dudayev had learned Estonian and showed remarkable tolerance for the small Baltic State’s growing nationalism. Defying direct orders from Moscow, he allowed pro-independence Estonians to demonstrate near his base and refused to shut down Estonian television stations and the new national parliament comprised of democratically elected anti-Communist deputies.

This overt expression of nationalism triggered the nationalist in Dudayev’s character. As Moscow lost control of the Baltic States, Dudayev retired and went home to Chechnya and became the leader of the pro-independence National Congress of the Chechen People.

Shortly after the abortive August 1991 coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Dudayev deposed the Communist leadership in Chechnya and was elected as president of the republic in November of that year.

He quickly declared Chechnya independent from Russia and set the fledgling country on a collision course with Moscow.

Dudayev proved to be a controversial leader in the three years between 1991-1994 when Chechnya enjoyed de facto independence from Moscow. Backed by a robust security service and heavily armed militias, Dudayev was able to suppress dissent and unrest in the republic and thwart Russia’s many attempts to overthrow him.

He struggled to gain international recognition from the start. No other foreign leader, except Georgia’s controversial first post-Soviet president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, recognized Dudayev’s newly named Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

Georgia and Chechnya often had a contentious and strained relationship in their early days of independence. With the outbreak of war in Georgia’s Abkhazia region, Dudayev sent his most able field commander, Shamil Basayev, to fight against Georgian government forces. Basayev’s troops played a key role in helping the Russians and Abkhaz rebel forces capture the region’s capital Sukhumi in 1993.

Dudayev, however, honored Gamsakhurdia’s recognition by allowing the disgraced ex-poet to take refuge in Grozny after he was ousted from power in a coup in early 1992. After Gamsakhurdia had been killed following his return to Georgia in December 1993, Dudayev had his body interred in Grozny, where it was later buried in rubble from constant Russian bombardments. Gamsakhurdia’s remains were then returned to Georgia in 2007 and given a state funeral by former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

By December 1994, Russia’s patience with Dudayev’s rebel republic had come to a head. Chechnya’s crime-ridden economy was in ruins and its open borders with neighboring Georgia and Azerbaijan threatened Russia’s fragile financial stability.

Moscow’s decision to invade Chechnya and militarily oust Dudayev from power was a fiasco that cost the lives of tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians. Their genocidal campaign to extinguish Chechnya’s independence movement reduced Grozny to a gruesome vision of hell on Earth.

Holed up in Grozny’s presidential palace, Dudayev’s single-minded stubbornness kept the Chechen resistance alive as it was continuously pounded by waves of Russian armor and air force attacks, but all the while inflicting massive casualties on Moscow’s beleaguered forces.

After two years of fighting and with his troops driven into the same isolated mountain passages that their forefathers had used as cover against the tsar’s armies a century before, Dudayev was killed by a missile strike in April 1996 when Russia’s FSB security services honed in on his mobile phone signal.

Though his army would regroup and recapture Grozny later that summer, Dudayev’s death was the end of an era when the Soviet Union’s smaller nationalities dared openly to defy their former imperial masters in the Kremlin.

Inspired by the era’s mantra of perestroika and glasnost, Dudayev’s rise to prominence came at a time when a whole host of charismatic and highly controversial national leaders emerged from behind the crowd of grey bureaucrats that made up most of the Soviet elite.

That time has passed into the annals of history, largely forgotten in the West and erased from the consciousness of the people who were intended to be the beneficiaries of Dudayev’s and his contemporaries’ efforts.

Chechnya’s independence movement has died out or pushed to the fringes after many of its combatants resorted to desperate acts of cruel terrorism.

Dudayev’s legacy as a tenacious, and at times ruthless, defender of his people’s struggle has found a new audience in Ukraine after Moscow invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula and militarily intervened in the country’s eastern Donbass region.

Veteran Chechen fighters serve in a Ukrainian Army battalion bearing Dudayev’s name and led by British-educated Grozny native, Adam Osmayev.

The group continues to use Dudayev’s green Ichkerian flag, emblazoned with a lone wolf - a symbol that Dudayev himself chose - as the battalion’s colors. It is the same banner that flew over the presidential palace during the horrific Battle of Grozny in 1995.

Osmayev and the dozens of other Chechens who fight on Kiev’s side in their on going war against Russia, hope to one day return to their homeland and resurrect Dudayev’s dream of an independent Chechnya.

By Nicholas Waller

05 May 2016 09:21