Before the Barbarism
'Finally, it is 1st September, and the first day of studies ... For the past week ... [p]arents and children ... have been crowding the shops for exercise books and satchels. [...] This is a day you cannot fail to notice. The street is crowded with children in school uniform. [...] Each child is preceded and partially obscured by the bunch of flowers that will be given to the teachers.'
This is not the opening of an article on the Beslan massacre, though it could be, in every detail. It's from a 1985 BBC book based on a BBC television series on everyday life in the Soviet Union. That celebration of the first day of the school year was a surviving ceremony of the civilization that thirteen years ago was swept away. That custom tells us, in a sense, all we need to know about the Soviet Union. (And yes, I know the rest.) This was a civilization that with all its callouses, scar tissue and war wounds, with all its congenital deformities, with all its inherited savageries, had Enlightenment inscribed in its genes.
A very interesting discussion has erupted in the comments to this post
, which deserves to be disinterred from Lenin's Tomb
. I've strung together the following from the successive comments of a passionate Chechen nationalist:
As a Chechen nationalist and supporter of [Chechen President] Aslan Maskhadov, with all the passionate support I have given to legitimate (obviously the three atrocities in Russia last week are not legitimate) armed resistance against Federal and pro-Moscow Chechen military and police (the "police" in Russia have their own tank and artillery divisions btw), I'm beginning to think that continuation of the armed struggle, coupled with the global war on terror and the total lack of international support (bar the "Brothers of Jihad") for Chechen independence (and the Jihadis aren't, strictly speaking, fighting for a sovereign, Chechen State), will just lead to, in effect, national suicide for the Chechens as an ethnic group.
If things keep going same old for even 5 more years, we'll have had 15 years of almost continual warfare in Chechnya. 15 years!
That's a whole generation growing up knowing nothing but war. Little kids and teenagers in Chechnya today can tell you all about different types of attack helicopters, armoured personal carriers, tanks, grenades, how to strip an AK...but just don't ask them to write it down on a piece of paper, they'll probably have trouble writing. In 1989, our national literacy rate was 95-98% ... I don't even want to know what it is today.
So, to recap, if the war goes same old for the next five years, add in all of the above also factor in future civilian casualties (based on current figures), a seriously decimated medical sector (tuberculosis now affects something like one in ten Chechens...in 1989 there was zero occurrence of TB), unbelievable environmental degradation (a combined legacy of Soviet era pollution and the war damage done to the oil refineries, pipelines and industrial plants...the incidences of cancer and birth defects are also shocking) and a fragmented resistance (Basaev can't even control all the people who profess allegiance to him)...voila Chechens = Arawaks (aboriginals of the Caribbean...Europeans decimated every last man, woman and child through that old combination of flu, overwork, starvation, shooting and chopping).
Just to add. You know one thing a hell of a lot of Chechens (whether pro-Russian or nationalist like me ... even the odd Wahabbite would you believe!) agree on, is that the Soviet Union from Khrushchev until 1989 was actually the time when Chechens (to quote Macmillan?)..."never had it so good."
Of course, no Chechen would look back to Stalin's rule with any nostalgia...the 1944 Deportations ensure that...but the bit after Stalin was a bit of a "socialist paradise" for us.
"Fuck 2004 give me 1984!" - graffiti written on the side of one of Grozny's few standing walls (I got this from a photograph taken by a Chechen journalist in February of this year).
I'd also argue that like in Yugoslavia, the USSR also produced a genuine sense of Soviet pan-national pride (it wasn't all based on fear). Look, the open racism towards people of Caucasian and Central Asian nationality within present-day Russia was fairly negligible (at least not so open, violent and wide-spread) during Soviet days. Many of the Chechen Rebel leadership had gained their first fighting experience during the Red Army's campaign in Afghanistan...where they served the Soviet State out of genuine loyalty...not coercion.
Now, picture 1984, you're in the Red Army Base at Bagram. What do you see? Chechens, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Ossetians, Ingush, Tajik, Turkmen etc serving side-by-side in Afghanistan (admittedly in an unjust war...though I'm not arguing about the rights and wrongs of that bullshit war), breaking bread together, sharing a glass of vodka, passing round a nice, fat joint of sweet Afghan Gold after taking on the Dushmani (Red Army slang for the Afghan Mujis). That scenario, seen through today's former Soviet Union, is almost unimaginable.
Okay, I'm not trying to make the post-Stalin Soviet Union look like some "Arcadia" but it bloody well was in terms of inter-ethnic relations as compared to the present.
As one grieving relative in Beslan said this weekend, 'Things like this simply did not happen in the Soviet Union.' Nobody could have imagined in 1989 or 1991 that children in what was then the Soviet Union would one day be reduced to eating the flowers they had brought, one bright September morning, to give their teachers.