As might have been expected, the latest suicide attacks in Volgograd have brought Russia back into the headlines just weeks before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
The attacks that claimed at least 60 lives and left many more injured were carried out by two young women acting as suicide-bombers. The two attackers are among an estimated 10,000 young to middle-aged Muslim widows whose husbands have died in the two decades of war that Vladimir Putin has waged against insurgents in parts of the Caucasus.
The Volgograd attacks have received attention because of the impending show in Sochi. But the deadly conflict that has already claimed more than 200,000 lives has been going on since Putin scrapped an accord reached between the Chechen rebels and former president Boris Yeltsin’s emissary Gen. Alexander Lebed. A war that many had assumed to have been forgotten has shown that it is anything but that.
Just days before the Volgograd attacks, Haj Makhachev, the Moscow appointed Deputy Premier of Dagestan, the mainly Muslim republic whence the two women reportedly came, was killed in Moscow. In the republic itself political assassinations have become part of ordinary life. A similar pattern obtains in the neighboring republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia and Charkess-Qarachai.
The women are known as “Black Widows” or Qara-Dulkadin in the many varieties of Turkish spoken in the insurgent areas. Their struggle against Putin’s Russia has morphed into a toxic cocktail of ethnic hatred, tribal vendetta and religious zeal for martyrdom. What Russia is facing today is the continuation of a conflict that dates back to the very beginning of Russians as a distinct people in search of a state of their own.
In a sense, Russia defined and built its nationhood with more than two centuries of wars against the Altaic peoples of the Caucasus, Central Asia and Siberia. Throughout the nineteenth century the Tsarist Empire expanded an average rate of 10 square kilometers (6 miles) each day, at the expense of Muslim Turkic peoples in a vast region between the Urals and the Pacific Ocean.
The first crucial step towards Russian nationhood came when Tsar Ivan the Awe-inspiring, or “Terrible,” defeated and destroyed the Tatar kingdom based in Kazan. Not surprisingly, Muslims in general and Turkic peoples in particular were transmuted into the “other” and “the enemy” in Russian folklore and literature. Even Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet “Swan Lake” (1876) is supposed to narrate that conflict.
The choice of Volgograd as the latest arena in what is a centuries’ old conflict is not accidental. The locality was a Tatar stronghold known as Yellow Water, in Turkish, Sary-Su, at a strategic point when the majestic River Volga receives one of its tributaries known as Tsaritsa. It was and remains the gateway to the Caucasus. Russians captured the Muslim Tatar city in the 1580s and developed it as a base for three centuries of expansion to the south in the hope of eventually reaching the Indian Ocean through Iran.
The jewel in the crown of Tsarist conquests, the city, renamed Tsaritsyno, attained an almost mythological status under its new name: Stalingrad (The City of Stalin), when it resisted the Nazi invasion and broke the back of Hitler’s war machine in 1943.
Although Putin certainly did not start the current round of the historic bloody struggle between Russia and its Muslim communities, his jingoistic approach to politics is partly responsible for its heating up. Putin is unable to liberate himself from the Soviet political culture that shaped him. All he has done is to replace the old class-based discourse with one themed on Russia as a Christian nation. In other words he has based his strategy on the worst aspects of Tsarist and Stalinist policies vis-à-vis the Muslim minorities.
However, we have witnessed brief moments in this checkered history in which Russian Muslims started to feel as if they were part of a greater reality marked by diversity. That was the case under Tsar Alexander I, in the last phase of Tsar Nicholas II’s reign, and after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), in which Nikita Khrushchev exposed and denounced Stalin’s crimes. The blood that Muslims invested in beating back the Nazi invader made them feel they had earned their title to first-class citizenship. President Boris Yeltsin seemed to understand that, and went a long way to bring Russia’s centuries’ old “Muslim problem” closer to a peaceful solution.
In contrast, Putin has decided to pretend that no such problem exists. The problems, he tells us, is with “Muslim terrorists” who are to be “wiped out like vermin” everywhere, whether in Russia or in Syria. The reality is less dramatic and more complicated. Jihadists such as Doku Umarov do maintain a small support base in Dagestan and Chechnya. But they do not represent more than a small minority of Russian citizens.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries ethnic Russians had the upper hand in demographic terms. This is no longer the case. While ethnic Russians are losing numbers to the tune of 700,000 a year, the federation’s various Muslim communities are gaining thanks to higher birth-rates. At the start of the last century, Muslims accounted for less than four per cent of the empire’s population. Today, they account for 25 per cent in the rump of empire that is the Russian Federation.
A security officer by training and temperament, Putin tries to deal with the problem as a police officer. While the mosquitoes of terror must be crushed, the real task is to drain the swamps of resentment and socio-political injustice where they breed. Sadly, the “Black Widows” are likely to strike again and again.