Chechnya - What is it worth to Russia?

(paging Eva Luna)…

Bearing in mind this is in GQ, not elsewhere:
Disregarding all ideas about sovereignty of nations and the obvious wish to remain a united and complete country…

In terms of ACTUAL resources / political expedience / population demographics etc… what is the over-riding reason why Russia feels compelled to retain sovereignty over the region of Chechnya? Are there resource-rich areas which benefit Russia, strategic benefits due to increased access to the Black sea or other places, or other tangential benefits that are less obvious to the casual viewer?

Also, if Chechnya has been fighting for independence long prior to the formation of the Soviet Union and still well past the collapse of the same, why was it never given the opportunity, like so many other states, to gain independence in 1991, or after? What was the overwhelming driving force or reason that made Yeltsin react so strongly against Dudaev’s (and Chechnya’s) claim for independence (at this time) when so many other autonomous states were (effectively) left alone to gain their independence from the former union?

Thanks for any insight.

This BBC article might help. It doesn’t specifically answer your question, but reading between the lines the original decision seems likely to have been based on the oil pipeline and a worry about a domino effect in the region.

I’m not sure you can disregard those ideas. I suspect a big part of it is a fear of Russia losing “territorial integrity”–it’s not that the loss of this one small region would be a big deal of itself, but the fear that it might open a “Pandora’s box” of other republics and regions seceding from the Russian Federation. (I suppose an analogy could be made with the “domino theory” of American foreign policy.)

When the Soviet Union broke up, each of the 15 union republics (the S.S.R.'s, Soviet Socialist Republics) gained independence, but there has been resistance to allowing various units below the level of union republic to follow suit. The U.S.S.R. had a fiendishly complicated system of internal divisions; there were 15 ethnically-based union republics, most of which were the Something-or-other Soviet Socialist Republic, with Russia being the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. All but the smallest of the S.S.R.'s were divided into regions, but some of the S.S.R.'s also contained “Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republics”, which were officially conceived of as homelands for ethnic groups not large enough to rate a full-scale S.S.R. Then there were “autonomous regions”–also ethnically based–and in Russia “nationality districts”, which were officially a step below the autonomous regions in terms of the level of self-governance they enjoyed (all such claims of local autonomy being of course somewhat of a fiction during the Soviet era).

Anyway, when the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union became independent, the largest of them, Russia, was itself a “federation” of regions and republics (the latter being theoretically the homelands for various non-Russian ethnic minorities). After the Soviet collapse there was a period when a number of these areas of Russia (both ethnic minority groups and ethnically Russian provinces) were seeking greater self-government, if not outright independence, from the central government. (Similar things happened in some of the other former union republics, notably Georgia, which inherited several A.S.S.R.'s and autonomous regions as part of its territory, and which has had secessionist movements in at least two or three different areas.) And again, I think the fear that if Chechnya goes the whole thing, or at least large parts of the country, could start to unravel in a major way is probably a major motivator in Russia’s stubborness about hanging on to Chechnya.

Roughly speaking, it’s as if the U.S.A. divided into 50 independent states. Even with that precedent in mind, you would probably expect resistance if various counties in turn sought independence from the newly disunited states. (Or if that analogy doesn’t mean much to you, if the U.K. dissolved into independent states of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, there might still be resistance to independence movements in Cornwall, the Outer Hebrides, or Omagh.)

Thank you for that very informative post, MEBuckner. Do you have any reccomendations for books, etc. where one can learn more about the Soviet organizational system? I have a perverse interest in bureaucracies.

As far as Soviet administrative divisions go, I cut my teeth on a National Geographic map of the U.S.S.R., from about 1979 or so. (I’ve always liked maps.) I’m afraid I don’t know of any books on the subject.

Chechyna itself was part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR. ASSRs did have at least some autonmy, for example the Chechen-Ingush ASSR had it’s own parliament.

The main reasons have already been stated i.e. the oil pipeline and the possible further fragmentation of the CIS, but also there is alot of nationalist ‘imperialist’ (as is quite common in imperial powers that are now on the wane) feelings among the Russians that Chechenya ‘belongs’ to Russia (of course this goes hand in hand with the fears of fragmentation).

Well, the main points have already been addressed, but I’d like to add that there is some question (actually, a big question) whether Chechnya would be a halfway viable independent state. Even before the past 10 years worth of conflicts and mass refugee movements, there were only a million-ish inhabitants of Chechnya, not all of whom were Chechen. Some further sources:

Allen, W.E.D., and Muratoff, Paul. Caucasian Battlefields: A History of the Wars on the Turco-Caucasian Border, 1828-1921. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, England, 1953.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Wimbush, S. Enders. Muslim National Communism in the Soviet Union: A Revolutionary Strategy for the Colonial World. University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 1979.

Broxup, Marie Bennigsen (ed.) The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World. Hurst & Company: London, 1992.

Gammer, Moshe. Muslim Resistance to the Tsar: Shamil and the Conquest of Chechnia and Dagestan. Frank Cass c/o International Specialized Book Services, Inc.: Portland, Oregon, 1994.

Geiger, Bernhard; Halasi-Kun, Tibor; Kuipers, Aert N.; Menges, Karl H. Peoples and Languages of the Caucasus. Mouton & Co.: Gravenhage, 1959.

Karklins, Rasma. Ethnic Relations in the USSR: The Perspective from Below. Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1986.

Kirkwood, Michael. “Glasnost’, `The National Question,’ and Soviet Language Policy.” Soviet Studies, vol. 43, no. 1, 1991, pp. 61-81.

“Russian Federation: Ethnic Discrimination in Southern Russia,” Human Rights Watch, August 1998. Retrieved from on 11/2/99.

Simon, Gerhard. Nationalism and Policy Toward the Nationalities in the Soviet Union: From Totalitarian Dictatorship to Post-Stalinist Society. Westview Press: Boulder, San Francisco, and Oxford, 1991.

Weinreich, Uriel. “The Russification of Soviet Minority Languages.” Problems of Communism vol. 2, no. 6, 1953, pp. 46-57.

Wixman, Ronald. Language Aspects of Ethnic Patterns and Processes in the North Caucasus. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980.

-----. The Peoples of the USSR: An Ethnographic Handbook. M.E. Sharpe: Armonk, NY, 1984.

And some links:

Ethnolinguistic map of the North Caucasus (somewhat outdated now, but still cool):

Chechnya maps:

Lots more maps at UT/Austin:

Russian Federation population statistics:

The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire (sort of the endangered species list of ethnicities):

The Russian Constitution (in English - check out Chapter 3, whch explains the administrative structure a bit):

What specifically are you interested in?