The Chechen people didn’t choose the modern name of their capital. That came from the Russians, a name that encodes much of Chechnya’s identity: Grozny — The Fearsome.
Although physically diminutive — smaller than New Jersey or Slovenia — Chechnya has an enormous warrior reputation. Resistance is a consistent thread running through its complicated history: against Mongol hordes, against Turkic fighters, against Russian troops.
Chechens are variously seen as valorous defenders of their beleaguered homeland and as vile terrorists. The Chechen roots of the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects — one now dead — has drawn new attention to Chechen identity.
Chechens are one of a bewildering array of ethnic groups originating in the steep and inhospitable Caucasus Mountains. Of the estimated 1.7 million Chechens worldwide, about 1.4 million live in Russia, mostly in Chechnya proper. Their Chechen language is unrelated to Russian or other major tongues, adding to a sense of ethnic unity.
BEFORE THE 20th CENTURY
Beginning with resistance to Mongol invasions in the 13th century, Chechens became known as formidable warriors. As part of their obdurate determination, Chechens developed their characteristic fortress towers — tall, thin spires used as residences as well as defensive positions. As czarist Russian forces began offensives to take control of the Caucasus in the 19th century, Chechnya’s warlords earned a reputation for being wily, bold and venal. The young Leo Tolstoy, serving in the army in Chechnya, drew on his experiences for his noted story “The Caucasus Prisoner.”
Russian forces gained control of Chechnya in 1859 after some four decades of fighting. The Russian fortress that was a key element of the conquest eventually gave its name to what became Chechnya’s capital.
During World War II, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin saw Chechens as likely allies of the Nazis, so deported them en masse to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944. They were allowed to return only in 1957 and the suffering of the deportation remains a potent touchstone for Chechens.
As the Soviet Union began to collapse in the late 1980s, air force general Dzhokhar Dudayev, a Chechen, became sympathetic to the independence movement in Estonia where he commanded a division. Dudayev refused orders to mobilize his forces to take control of Estonia’s parliament and broadcast facilities, then resigned from the military in 1990 and returned to Chechnya to lead the separatist movement there. A full-scale war with Russian forces began in late 1994. Although Russian forces inflicted enormous damage, the rebels fought them to a standstill. In the fall of 1996, several months after Dudayev was killed in a rocket strike, the army withdrew.
Chechnya then fell into appalling lawlessness, plagued by widespread ransom kidnappings; some abductees were beheaded. Dudayev’s successor Aslan Maskhadov unsuccessfully tried to rein in a rising strain of Wahhabi Islamic violence led by his rival, warlord Shamil Basayev. After Basayev initiated an invasion of neighboring Dagestan in 1999 to try to form an Islamic caliphate, Chechnya’s days of de-facto independence were numbered. Russian forces pulverized Grozny again and rebels fled the capital, but tormented Russian soldiers with hit-and-run attacks for years afterward before fading from view.
YEARS OF TERROR
Before the insurgents were quelled, they mounted several grisly terror attacks outside Chechnya. In 2002, Chechens seized a Moscow theater and some 850 hostages, a siege that ended with 129 hostages and all 41 hostage-takers dead when Russian forces filled the auditorium with a narcotic gas. In 2004, the insurgents seized a school in the town of Beslan; more than 330 people, about half of them children, died in the siege’s end. A suicide bomber killed 37 people at Moscow’s busiest airport in 2011.
Under Kremlin-backed leader Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya has quietened. A huge infusion of federal funds has turned parts of ruined Grozny into a shiny display of new buildings. But Kadyrov is widely denounced for human rights abuses, including allegations of killing opponents. He has also imposed some Islamic restrictions on the region, including mandatory public headscarves for women.