A grainy old sepia photograph appeared on the screen. Soviet soldiers stood guard in the background as a line of civilians shuffled diagonally across the frame from right foreground to center left middle ground, where waited a chain of Studebaker trucks. A tangled heap of dead bodies lay in the left foreground.
“This picture captures everything you need to know about Operation Lentil. Soviet troops were sent into Chechnya on phony missions and positioned in key locations. Any Chechnyan men who were organized and could potentially resist the Soviets were diverted to fake work sites, where they were disarmed. On Red Army Day, February 23, 1944, the hammer of Operation Lentil fell. Chechnya was to be liquidated. Over half a million Chechnyans were rounded up, loaded onto trucks supplied by America to Russia for the war effort, dumped into the cars of freight trains, and transported to Central Asia. Tens of thousands were murdered intentionally or died as collateral damage during the transport. Many starved to death in their new homeland. Thirteen years later, in 1957, the Chechnyans were allowed to return, albeit to a shrunken and more tightly defined homeland. Most came back. Many have not been inclined to forgive and forget their exile.”
By Tom Diaz
This brief fictional discussion by a fictional CIA operations officer of real history—Operation Lentil—serves as a fulcrum, a plot device in Cronatos Hybamper. If Bad Old Stalinist Russia could deport an entire nation, what would fictional President Gribov’s New Russia be capable of?
Readers of Cronatos Hybamper find out the answer in the next few pages of the novel.
One doubts that those who will be in charge of American foreign policy on February 23, 2017—the 73d anniversary of Operation Lentil—will give much thought to Operation Lentil or its implications, if, indeed, they have even heard of it at all. One suspects that if the history of this horrible episode is somehow brought to the attention of the plutocratic old boys who will be running the American side show, it will be sent straight down the memory hole. (cf: Orwell, George, 1984.)
Operation Lentil was an axial point in history, when Russia turned from the level of harsh brutality in which all nations fighting real or perceived insurgencies inevitably engage to the impudence of ruthlessly obliterating innocent men, women, and children with the sledge-hammer of the unaccountable state.
The fever has subsided but not gone away.
The Chechen case fits snugly into Max Boot’s observation. “The transition from politically motivated to religiously motivated insurgency—from leftist to Islamist extremism—was the product of decades, even centuries of development.” Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), p. 481.
The violent line marking this transition in Chechnya began early in the 18th century, when Czarist Russia first confronted the fierce mountain people of the North Caucasus. Imperial Russia quieted but never really subdued these people, and the Soviet Empire had only marginally greater success.
The Chechens and other independent-minded “small peoples” of the Northern Caucasus really annoyed Stalin and his thugs. Stalin and his creepy secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria invented the myth of Chechen cooperation with Hitler’s Nazi army to “justify” the wholesale exile of Chechens and others. The stunning brutality of Stalin’s deportations, of which the Chechens were numerically the greatest, was meticulously documented by Robert Conquest in The Nation Killers: The Soviet Deportation of Nationalities (New York, Macmillan, 1970). It is the kind of story in which statistics overwhelm human tragedy.
From the Stalinist cleansing of Operation Lentil the Chechen transformation continued through Russia’s two modern wars (1994-96, 1999-2009), all the way to the Chechens who are fighting in Aleppo today. The Chechen wars followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and began as a political fight over whether or not Chechnya (known by various tongue-twisting names) could withdraw from the New Improved Russia. The Russians thought not. Yeltsin was sick, drunk, and ineffective. Putin was ruthless, sober, and very effective.
There are a number of sources about this whole line of history, some listed below, but there is a fine summary of the two modern wars in Max Boot’s Invisible Armies:
The Russians invaded in 1994 and pulled out in 1996, stymied by Chechen guerrillas who, like their nineteenth-century predecessors, resisted to the death. But the Russian army returned in 1999 to subdue the breakaway province using scorched-earth tactics. An estimated 100,000 Chechens were killed out of a prewar population of just a million…Perhaps 20,000 Russian soldiers also perished.
Russia’s success in Chechnya…showed that even in the twenty-first century a brutal approach could work as long as the counterinsurgents did not care about world opinion and were operating on their home soil, where they enjoyed a de facto level of legitimacy… (p. 514)
Two clear consequences.
One, Chechen fighters are today waging jihad. There is even a blog, the bona fides of which I do not know or care to endorse, but yet exists and “tracks North Caucasian militants in Syria and Iraq and the impact of their participation in the Syrian battlefield on the insurgency in the North Caucasus.”
Two, the brutal methods Putin’s various military forces learned and applied in Chechnya are being repeated today in Syria. See these articles, for example:
“Putin Is Playing by Grozny Rules in Aleppo,” by Mark Galeotti, Foreign Policy, September 29, 2016
A city blasted into rubble, its civilians fleeing, hiding, or simply dying in the ruins while a world looks on in horror. Bombs spilling from Russian warplanes and shells and rockets thundering from Russian guns and launchers. Today this is a portrait of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Not long ago, it was Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.
Anyone trying to understand Russia’s military strategy in Syria would be wise to examine the heavy-handed methods Vladimir Putin used during his first war as Russia’s commander in chief, the bloody Second Chechen War, which lasted from 1999 to 2000 (even if sporadic small-scale violence never really stopped). These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.
“Putin in Syria: Chechnya All Over Again,” by Oliver Bullough, The New York Times, Oct. 11, 2016
If moderate Syrians, the kind of people the West might seek to build a movement around, remain in the country, the Russian government can help Mr. Assad destroy them.
This is what Mr. Putin did in Chechnya, where his security services picked off anyone worth negotiating with. The rebel leaders who lived longest were the fanatics, driven by rage and perverted Islam. They sent traumatized women to blow themselves up on the streets of Moscow, or attacked soft targets — a school, a theater, a concert. Every atrocity blackened their cause, conferred greater legitimacy on Mr. Putin’s allies and ensured less sympathy for his victims.
In addition to the Robert Conquest and Max Boot books noted above, here are some other sources I referred to in whole or in part in researching this and related passages of Cronatos Hybamper (and the prequel which I am writing now):
The classic history (in the public domain and thus available in a reprint version) is John Frederick Badderley, The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1908).
Leo Tolstoy fought in the Caucasus and, among other things, wrote the wonderful novel Hadji Murad. (I read Hadji Murad as the best kind of satire—just recounting the things that important people actually think and do.)
The Recent Wars
Mark Galeotti, Russia’s Wars in Chechnya 1994-2009 (New York: Osprey Publishing, 2014). An excellent package of the historical roots and military aspects of these two wars.
Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2001). As the title indicates, this monograph ends before the second war did. Based to a large extent on Russian press clippings.
People Who Were There
Arkady Babchenko, One Soldier’s War (New York: Grove Press, 2007). Babchenko fought in both wars and this kaleidoscopic book makes sense best if one has an overall grasp of the period he writes about.
Andrew Meier, Chechnya—To the Heart of a Conflict (New York: Norton, 2005). Classic and admirable journalism, going in harm’s way to report the beast.
Anna Politkovskaya, A Small Corner of Hell—Dispatches from Chechnya (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). One of the searing truth-tellings that ultimately cost this brave, brave woman her life. Grim to despair in its details of the impact on little people of the Putin way of war in Chechnya.
Masha Gessen, The Man Without a Face—The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012). Another brave woman, eventually driven out of Russia, recounts the rise of Putin, including his exploitation of war in Chechnya.
Masha Gessen, The Brothers—The Road to an American Tragedy (New York: Riverhead Bo0oks, 2015). The story of the Boston Marathon bombers. Useful background on the pinball world of refugees, but in my opinion, Gessen wades into over her head in her discussion of the prosecution’s case and appears apologetic in her naïve discussion about the supposed difficulties of constructing a pressure cooker bomb and the government’s damning evidence.
Paul J. Murphy, Allah’s Angels—Chechen Women in War (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2010). Snipers, bombers, and other fighters who were women.