About the Central Asian Link to those Boston Bombers

by Casey_Michel on 4/19/2013 · 7 comments


This might be a bit redundant, seeing as the readership at Registan – unlike, say, those who work in front of the camera at CNN – are among those able to differentiate between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, but I thought it might be worth a quick run-down of how a substantial Chechen population came to land within Central Asia. It’s not as if we’re talking about Ingush in Dagestan, or Balkars in Abkhazia; the haul from Chechnya to Bishkek is a long one, and, per the time frame in which the majority of them moved, not one easily undertaken.

(Disclaimer:  The early reports are of the bombers’ links to both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but everything remains tenuous at the moment. Don’t take anything in here as affirmation of any of the rumors or reports.)

Despite its flaws, one of the better English-language resources detailing the forced relocation of the Chechens actually came from Christopher Robbins’ 2010 Apples are from Kazakhstan. After discussing the ethnic milieu of present-day Kazakhstan, Robbins takes us through how the numerous Caucasian populations, despised by the conspiratorial Stalin, were forced to uproot for a steppe they’d never seen. Beginning with the Pontic Greeks in the late ’30s, Stalin systematically forced nation upon nation into trains and buggies, hauling them and their scant belongings away from the front and toward the great Soviet interior.

But while some Pontic Greeks and Meskhetian Turks and even Koreans of the east were allowed to remain behind, it seems Stalin held an especial aversion for the Chechens (and Ingush) that had been pushing for independence since the first tsarist incursions a century before. I had a chance to compile far too little about the Chechens’ plight a few years back:

… Stalin held a certain vile revulsion for his Chechen comrades. For some reason, in the midst of the Great Patriotic War, Stalin declared that Chechens were “genetically incompatible” with the Soviet model, and decided that every Chechen should be forcibly relocated to Kazakhstan.

Such a notion reeked of totalitarian paranoia, a walls-closing-in suspicion of anyone and anything around you. It was also idiotic: some 4,000 oilmen worked in the vital Grozny oil fields, and 30,000 Chechens served in the armed forces – one of whom raised the Soviet flag on the roof of Hitler’s Reichstag. But the Kremlin, swathed in such mistrust for two decades, didn’t need reason. It only needed bodies.

On the morning of Feb. 23rd, 1944, under the glow of an early-morning flare, 100,000 Soviet troops entered Chechnya and began rounding up every man, woman, and child of Chechen heritage. The mission – costing 150 million rubles and overseen by Stalin’s chief of security, Lavrenty Beria – took a week to complete. Running troop trains out of Grozny, the Soviets moved 80,000 Chechens every day.

Or, rather, they tried to. As Christopher Robbins says in Apples are from Kazakhstan,

[T]he old, sick, and the pregnant were declared ‘non-deportable’ and simply murdered. At one hospital in a provincial town sixty-two people were summarily executed. At the remote mountain village of Khaibakh, 700 people were herded inside a stable block, its windows boarded up, its doors locked, and the building set on fire. In the ensuing panic, people broke down the door, only to be machine-gunned. …

Many thousands of the Chechen deportees died on the three-week journey to Kazakhstan. … A quarter of those who survived the actual deportation died of hunger and cold within five years. The living were obliged to report to the police once a week, and the punishment for leaving their designated area was twenty years’ hard labor. After the disastrous harvests of 1946 and 1947 people were reduced to eating grass.

All told, 475,000 Chechens, most of whom lived peaceably and with little nationalistic agitation, were forced at gunpoint to leave for Kazakhstan. An entire nation, an entire people, uprooted and dumped a thousand miles away. It’s as if the metro population of Portland were given 30 minutes to pack, forced into cattle-cars, and dropped in a reservation in northern Saskatchewan. It’s as if all you’ve ever known about your culture, about your heritage, were wiped out by a monomaniacal, pockmarked Napoleon, a man with a withered arm and a greasy mustache, and forced into the stead of a people you’ve never known. …

Thirteen years after the deportation, Nikita Khrushchev, in the middle of his “thaw,” allowed the Chechens to return. Bones were disinterred, families jumped once more onto trains, and, three weeks later, the people of Chechnya began their slow, crippled climb toward nationhood.

However, not everyone left. There are still about 50,000 Chechens living in Central Asia, a sizable portion located within Kazakhstan. Indeed, this country has allowed a substantial population of Chechens to live their lives, for first time in modern history, in peace and prosperity.

To be clear, it appears more and more likely that the Boston bombers’ link was to Kyrgyzstan, not Kazakhstan, though the latter still houses far more Chechens. But both populations are intimately related: Nationalistic attitudes following the USSR’s fall forced a significant number of Chechens, according to Refugees International, to “hopscotch” to Kyrgyzstan.

Indeed, Kazakh-Chechen relations have become strained in the past few years. The 2007 Kazakh-Chechen riot, in which guns and fire-bombs left three Chechens dead, still hangs. Rumors still swirl of Salafi connections between the 2011 bombings in West Kazakhstan and migrants from the North Caucasus. There’s still plenty of distance between the two populations.

But as many have pointed out, there seems little cause right now to think that any kind of inspiration came from the brothers’ experiences in Central Asia. (Or Chechnya, for that matter.) Until more information comes out – until we find out where they were raised, or if they trained, or whether they had any contacts to any militants in any cells in any nations – everything remains tenuous. And the search goes on for the 19-year-old who’s shut down an entire city, and who helped America find, in one of the worst ways possible, just where Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and Chechnya lie on the map.

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This post was written by...

– author of 29 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Casey Michel is a graduate student at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, focusing on Eurasian political and social development, and he has worked with both International Crisis Group (Bishkek) and as a Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera, The Moscow Times, The Diplomat, and Slate. You can follow him on Twitter at @cjcmichel.

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Alpha Alpha April 19, 2013 at 5:39 pm

Alexander the Great beat back Gog and Magog at Caucasian Dervent and their descendents massacred Custer’s Last Stand but Gibbon glorified them

Ron Pavellas April 22, 2013 at 3:41 am

Thanks for the relevant information and background. One gets so tired of the hysteria in, and promoted by, the press, generally.

John Jennings April 22, 2013 at 8:00 am

Nice work. Thanks for the insight. I didn’t realize there were so many Chechens still living in Central Asia.

Chris Rickleton April 29, 2013 at 12:44 am

Cheers for the brief. CNN could certainly have done with it.

Robbins’ book is a good read but I am highly uncomfortable with the chapters featuring Nazarbayev. I don’t know how key these chapters were to getting the book published but they undermine the book as a whole in my eyes. When I re-read it with the knowledge of the money Astana is pumping into PR firms and Western think tanks those chapters look more and more like an ugly justification for life-long presidencies and all they entail.

Casey Michel April 29, 2013 at 7:26 am

Thanks, Chris. And you’re precisely right about Robbins’ book — that was the “Despite its flaws” allusion from earlier.

Just so happens this was the first book I ever read on the region, painting a far different image of Nazarbayev et al. than actually exists. And unfortunately, I imagine it’s the only book many English-speakers have read on the region, too. Nobody makes “managed democracy” look quite so good as Robbins.

matt May 1, 2013 at 2:27 pm

Any follow-up pieces now that two Kazakh students have been implicated?

Casey_Michel May 2, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Tried to offer a few thoughts here: http://registan.net/2013/05/02/with-two-kazakhs-arrested-after-boston-eyes-now-turn-unfortunately-to-kazakhstan/ Should be fascinating to watch their hearing play out.

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