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Chechyna’s Theatre of War

Akhmed Zakayev – actor, politician and former resistance fighter – talks to Vanora Bennett

IT might seem counter-intuitive for a military resistance movement with a reputation for bloodthirstiness to choose a classical actor as its representative in the West. But Akhmed Zakayev, whose current incarnation is as foreign minister of Chechnya’s separatist government-in-exile, sees no incongruity.

What many would call an unusual career arc has taken the urbane, trimly bearded and faultlessly ambassadorial Zakayev from successes as Hamlet and Coriolanus in the Grozny theatre of the 1980s, to victories as a separatist field commander during the Russian-Chechen conflict of the 1990s, to failures as a peace negotiator with Moscow after the war resumed in 1999, and to exile in London after Russia accused him of terrorism (a British court rejected those allegations and granted Zakayev asylum). Today, he counts as friends and colleagues individuals as disparate as Doku Umarov, the heavily bearded Muslim fighter in military fatigues who last month became president of an anti-Russian resistance movement calling itself the separatist government of Ichkeria; Boris Berezovsky, the most prominent Russian billionaire to have fallen out with Vladimir Putin since 2000, and a fellow-exile in London; the British actress and activist Vanessa Redgrave; and the late Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian ex-secret service officer infamously poisoned with polonium last autumn.

Zakayev views these diverse aspects of his life to date as equally valid manifestations of the ideal that shapes Chechen life – the love of freedom. He speaks of “our language, our customs and freedom” as having sustained the million-strong mountain people through repeated rejections of Russian colonisation. Chechens even greet each other, in an ancient mountain language unrelated to any other, with the phrase ‘be free’, a marker of their attitude to attempts at subjugation. Like many Chechens, Zakayev explains the conflict with Russia in terms of basic cultural incompatibility. The Russian state is hierarchical in spirit, a legacy of its history of serfdom and feudal rule. Russian subjects are resigned to living without freedom; Chechens can never be.

“Our love of freedom stops us being assimilated. This is why we have gone on resisting”, he says. Chechnya’s modern rebellion against Moscow turned into war in 1994. But it grew out of a fascination, in the previous, perestroika, decade, with rediscovering Chechen history – a history of bullying and bloodshed at Russian hands – which inflamed a young generation and, according to Zakayev, was stimulated by his theatre in Grozny.

“It was only when I joined the national theatre that I began to learn about Chechen history - because theatre people, unlike most Chechens, were given access to this story. In the Eighties, we were gradually allowed to perform more ethnic shows; we presented ‘Freedom or Death’, ‘Songs of the Chechens’, and ‘Land of our Fathers’ – and the songs from those shows later became the slogans of the first Chechen unrest, which began in 1990 with street protests. The historical memories that our work evoked were so intimately felt by the Chechen people that they became street themes. The theatre was the vanguard of the national liberation movement”.

The current war, which began when Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, sent in troops to crush a separatist government that Moscow had previously recognised, is only one episode in a long history of hostility. Before the 1994-6 war, there had been dozens of insurgencies and repressions stretching back – beyond Imam Shamil’s 30-year battle against the encroaching Russian empire in the 19th century – to a resistance force led by Sheikh Mansur in the 18th.

The episode of history that Zakayev learned in the theatre, and helped transmit back to other Chechens of his age and younger, was that of his parents’ generation. On 23rd February 1942, Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to Central Asia, supposedly as a punishment for collaborating with the Nazis, who were then advancing across southern Russia (but hadn’t yet reached Chechen lands). Thousands of people died as villages were burned in army round-ups, or of starvation on the cattle trucks heading East or in the frozen steppes where they were deposited, without jobs or shelter.

The Chechens who survived were allowed to return home in the 1950s. But parents of children born, like Zakayev, in exile, decided not to speak about the deportation. They were afraid that their children – now being force-fed the Russian language at school, to the extent that if any were overheard speaking Chechen, they were cuffed by Russian immigrants and told to “talk human” – might ask teachers or soldiers about the exile; and were understandbly afraid of further repression or a second expulsion. They even encouraged children of Zakayev’s age to celebrate 23rd February, the day of their collective tragedy, as the Soviet Army Day festival.

“When, years later, we started to discover such things, all the buried hatreds emerged – into the political process initated by Gorbachev himself”. Gorbachev raised the possibility of redesignating the mountain area, administered as an ethnic enclave within Russia, as a full Soviet republic that would be legally equal to Russia – but that possibility vanished with the Soviet Union in 1991. As the CIS republics, including Russia, took independence, Chechens were so disappointed at seeing their speratist hopes thwarted that they took to the streets. Chechnya was left with its people’s simmering fury; a constitution designed for independence; and a new president, the ex-Soviet general Dzhokhar Dudayev, who refused when Russia insisted that the state abandon its demand for independence.

Dudayev – a sharp-featured man with a moustache, wicked smile, trilby and gun-toting posse of bodyguards – was easily caricatured by the Russian media as a maverick leading a criminal state. Zakayev, who became his culture minister in 1994 and was later a field commander in Dudayev’s military forces, recalls Chechnya’s first president more sympathetically. “I remember him talking until three in the morning about our history, and about his family – he was from a mountain village that was burned down during the deportations, and 700 people were killed, hundreds of his relatives – and I remember how moved I was. Dzhokhar was an remarkable man – the youngest colonel in the Soviet army and the first Chechen to be allowed to become a general. But, like every protester out in the squares, he was full of suppressed pain”.

The Chechens’ rediscovery of their cultural distinctiveness certainly did strengthen the desire for independence. But, more than a decade later, a pro-Moscow Chechen government is in office in the capital, Grozny, while Zakayev’s resistance colleagues have been beaten back to the remote fastnesses of the Chechen mountains. Most of the Russians who, in 1991, made up half the population of Chechnya, have been driven out by the war. Could Moscow’s current policy of ‘Chechenising’ the region’s leadership – of putting locals, instead of Russians, in charge of government, and hunting down the separatists – be a way of allowing Chechens a measure of independence, and of fostering reconstruction? No, says Zakayev, whose resistance movement believes ‘Chechenisation’ is Russia’s only way of avoiding genuine peace talks; he believes that no real cooperation between Chechens and Russia is possible “unless Russia becomes truly democratic and begins to offer all citizens genuinely equal rights. This looks unlikely as Russia is now run by the secret police, and in a very different spirit to Gorbachev”.

Zakayev has been pleading the Chechen cause in the West since being wounded soon after the second war started in 1999. It has been an uphill struggle, as all that most people knew about the Chechens when he arrived were the atrocities committed in the separatists’ name: six Red Cross workers butchered in their beds at a hospital in Chechnya in 1996; four telecoms engineers working for a British company beheaded in 1998, their headless corpses left by the roadside; the capture of a Moscow theatre in 2002 by Chechen separatists, including women wired as suicide bombs; and a massacre of innocents in September 2004 at a school in Beslan, near Chechnya.

Zakayev has responded by arguing that this has always been a conflict in which reality is kept backstage and illusion presented for public view. It is common knowledge that Russia, which doesn’t like to let journalists and aid agencies near Chechnya, has been economical with the truth about what its troops are up to in the region. Moscow is shy of calling its Chechen operations ‘wars’ – the Kremlin’s line is that its troops are simply stopping a crimewave emanating out of Chechnya, and it always refers to separatists as “criminals” and “armed bandits”. Since 9/11, Russia has also tried to present what Zakayev defines as essentially a nationalist conflict in religious terms, trying to win Western approval for what it presents as an attempt to contain Islamist fundamentalism in its own Muslim territory.

Zakayev goes further by saying that Russia’s secret services – the FSB, which Putin himself used to head – has actually financed, planned or manipulated many of the attacks popularly blamed on Chechen terrorists. This belief is shared by the coterie of London friends he has been closest to since moving to the capital in 2002 – among them Berezovsky, Russia’s negotiator between the wars when Zakayev was Chechnya’s, and Anna Politkovskaya, who until her assassination in Moscow last autumn was Russia’s only investigative journalist to visit Chechnya regularly and follow up the stories behind the rumours. It has become harder to brush aside these eye-popping tales since the unsolved murder last November of Litvinenko, the ex-FSB man who became Zakayev’s London neighbour after escaping Russia, and wrote extensively detailing what he said was insider knowledge of the Russian secret services’ hidden role in several attacks blamed on Chechen separatists. Despite suggestions from Moscow that Berezovsky poisoned Litvinenko, British opinion has coalesced behind the police view that two ex-FSB colleagues are the likeliest suspects.

Yet Zakayev denies that he is afraid, now that his closest associates have been murdered and his own North London address, which he preferred not to give out, is known to cameramen and reporters. He also refuses to take British police protection in case his own life is in danger. “I have no claim on police protection”, he says lightly. “The British police can’t provide escorts for all the thousands of people who receive asylum here. The protection I demand from my political asylum is political – the British authorities need to make it impossible for people to carry out this sort of act in this country. This is absolutely achievable, and no one in this country should need bodyguards or police protection, neither you nor I”.

He gives equally short thrift to reports – which come not just from Russian government spokesmen, but from journalists, Chechens, and aid agencies dealing in the region – that many Chechen militants have genuinely been radicalised; that the austere Wahhabi strain of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia has been implanted by rent-a-mob imported fighters; and that Chechnya’s own folksy religious tradition – a form of Sufism that doesn’t lend itself to fanaticism – is being supplanted.

“Wahhabism was artificially introduced into Chechnya”, he says. “But it hasn’t taken root. People have begun to realise that Russia is behind this, and all that’s left now is an imitation on one [separatist] website, Kavkaz Tsentr. But this ideology will never thrive in Chechnya; it is fundamentally authoritarian, and the Chechens have never taken kindly to dictatorship of any sort. These rumours have all been fed by Moscow and its Arab friends”.

Zakayev concedes that radical young men in Wahhabi black were part of the Chechen conflict even at the end of the first war and during the 2002 theatre siege in Moscow. He admits too that Basayev’s forces helped would-be suicide bombers equip themselves with grenades for suicide attacks on Rusisan soldiers. “If there are people willing to sacrifice themselves, there’ll always be a Basayev to show them how”, he says. “But we’ve been explaining for a long time that these actions are grist to Russia’s mill – that they only help the Russians kill more people. And we’ve come through the worst; I can’t say for sure that there will be no more episodes, but it hasn’t developed into a system, like in Palestine, where it is endemic. It hasn’t become organised, as it is in Palestine – because that would be alien to us”.

His comments reflect a split among the surviving Chechen separatists over religion. Last year, Zakayev and ex-Information Minister Movladi Udugov, the man behind the website, had an Internet duel over whether religious or national feeling should be the engine of the Chechen resistance. The more radical Udugov rejects an independent state in favour of an Islamic one encompassing the entire north Caucasus; he argues that resistance fighters should not be constrained by international law. But Zakayev, who was promoted to foreign minister after remarking that the main aim of the separatists’ struggle must remain the creation of a Chechen nation, represents a more moderate strand in separatist thinking. This appears to be in the ascendant now that Udugov’s most powerful ally, Shamil Basayev – the radical separatist who took responsibility for the Beslan school siege - has been killed. Doku Umarov, the fifth separatist president in a decade, whose predecessors have all been hunted down by Russian forces, is a Sufi, not a Wahhabi, and has publicly rejected terrorism as a tactic. Zakayev talks warmly of him as “belonging to the ranks of thinking people, thinking politicians and thinking statesmen”.

For a representative of a resistance forced into hiding, Zakayev is optimistic about the state of Chechnya today. He sees merit in the ‘decolonisation’ brought about by the war; “now that the Russian colonisers have left, and the only fact on the ground is not colonisation but a military occupation”. He finds merit, too, in the newly announced presidency of Russia’s choice of Chechen leader – Ramzan Kadyrov, the brutal head of a band of armed men known as the Kadyrovites, 30-year-old son of an earlier pro-Moscow president assassinated in 2004, and object of many torture allegations by human rights groups. For all Kadyrov’s shortcomings, Zakayev says, the strongman’s toughness frightens even his protectors in Moscow, and “that makes him just what we need right now”. Kadyrov has stopped Moscow’s worst abuses of the past: the army ‘filtration camps’ into which young Chechen men disappeared; the random purges. And he has organised a Chechen militia made up of thousands of amnestied former separatists, armed and funded by Moscow – thereby reversing a centuries-long Russian policy of disarming the warrior Chechens.

“It is better to have Kadyrov control the situation in Chechnya than the Russians, and Kadyrov has stopped Russia controlling it by legalising the Chechen militia. Kadyrov is the one in charge, and Putin his hostage. Putin can’t destroy the system he has created. He has to give them money and weapons. The Russians are arming the Chechens for the first time in their history”.

And a smile comes slowly over Zakayev’s face as he goes on: “As long as there’s a Russian occupation, there will continue to be a Chechen resistance. And as long as there’s a Chechen militia, with access to arms, there will always be arms and money and information leaking out to the Chechen resistance”. We might add, too, that as long as there is a Chechen resistance in his lifetime, the journeyman actor Zakayev will play a leading role.

Vanora Bennett’s Crying Wolf: The Return to War in Chechnya is published by Pan.

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