- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 8, 2002

MOSCOW On his tough bricklayer's fingers, Chechen Akhmad Arsamakov ticks off the members of his family who suffered under Moscow's rule.
Father deported by Stalin; grandfather joined a hopeless mountain rebellion against the Soviets in the 1940s; great-great grandfather led resistance to Czarist troops in the 1860s, was captured and then disappeared.
"All of us suffered," said Mr. Arsamakov, 51. "But this is the story of every Chechen. Not almost every Chechen every Chechen."
Considering that within living memory the entire population of Chechnya was expelled from its homeland, the lanky construction worker's remark doesn't sound like an exaggeration.
Mr. Arsamakov says his turn came in 1999, when Russian shells destroyed his house in the Chechen town of Sernovodsk. He stays with friends and on construction sites in Moscow, where he works to support his wife and three children living in a decaying village about 100 miles northwest of Moscow.
He condemns the Chechens who seized a Moscow theater this autumn as "dunces." But that doesn't soften his view of Russia.
"Russia spreads lies about us," he said, his steady gaze growing more intent. "They say we were backward people before they conquered us. But we know we lived well and had a better life before the Russians.
"And so we have self-confidence and have always had the desire to free ourselves from them."
Sharply etched folk memories of conflict with Moscow are a big part of being from Chechnya, a Muslim chip in the mosaic of ethnic groups that make up the North Caucasus.
The current conflict, as Mr. Arsamakov's family history suggests, is only the latest chapter. The other North Caucasus groups eventually gave up or were defeated. But the Chechens have been resisting Russian rule since the early 19th century.
It took the Czarist army 42 years to subdue the New Jersey-size territory and attach it to the expanding Russian empire in 1859. Russian troops burned villages, executed resisters and battled fighters under legendary rebel leader Imam Shamil.
The Chechens' will to resist is often attributed to their "mountain democracy." Councils of elders used to make most important decisions and settle disputes according to unwritten law. Courts, written laws and government were Russian imports.
They had no aristocracy, meaning top-down authority played little role. Ties among members of extended clans and religious brotherhoods have been far stronger than allegiance to any central government.
Chechens initially supported Soviet rule in 1918, thinking the Bolsheviks would be better than the czars. When they learned otherwise, they staged uprisings in 1920, 1929 and 1940, with a few fighters holding out in the mountains into the early 1950s.
Even in the 1970s and '80s, people in Grozny, the Chechen capital, kept blowing up a statue of a czarist general, Alexei Yermolov, one of the most brutal of Russian commanders in the campaign to subdue the Chechens.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin deported 600,000 Chechens to the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan in 1944 during World War II. At least 100,000 died from cold and hunger.
Stalin said they supported the invading Germans, though historians consider this an excuse to crush a restless ethnic group. Thousands of Chechens were serving in the Soviet army at the time, and some were decorated for valor.

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