Chechnya, Dagestan, and the North Caucasus: A Very Brief History

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hails from Dagestan, a war-torn Russian region in the North Caucasus.

Library of Congress

On Monday afternoon, four hours after the annual Boston marathon began, two bombs exploded in the area just around the finish line, killing three and injuring nearly 200 people. Four days later, one suspect in the bombing attack is dead, and, as of this writing, the city of Boston is in lockdown mode as a manhunt is underway for a second. Authorities have identified the bombing suspects as Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, two brothers who moved to the area roughly a decade ago from Makhachkala, Dagestan, a region that is part of the North Caucasus that forms southwestern Russia.

The area has been a hotbed for conflict in recent decades, including terrorist bombings carried out elsewhere in Russia. Starting in 1994, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the First Chechen War broke out. It was during this time that the Tsarnaevs would have grown up. The Council on Foreign Relations:

In the early 1990s, following the Soviet collapse, separatists in the newly formed Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya started an independence movement called the Chechen All-National Congress. Russian President Boris Yeltsin opposed Chechen independence, arguing that Chechnya was an integral part of Russia. From 1994 to 1996, Russia fought Chechen guerillas in a conflict that became known as the First Chechen War. Tens of thousands of civilians died, but Russia failed to win control of Chechnya’s mountainous terrain, giving Chechnya de facto independence. In May 1996, Yeltsin signed a ceasefire with the separatists, and they agreed on a peace treaty the following year.

But violence flared again three years later. In August 1999, Chechen militants invaded the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan to support a local separatist movement. The following month, five bombs exploded in Russia over a ten-day period, killing almost three hundred civilians. Moscow blamed Chechen rebels for the explosions, which comprised the largest coordinated terrorist attack in Russian history. The Dagestan invasion and the Russian bombings prompted Russian forces to launch the Second Chechen War, also known as the War in the North Caucasus. In February 2000, Russia recaptured the Chechen capital of Grozny, destroying a good part of the city center in the process, reasserting direct control over Chechnya. Tens of thousands of Chechens and Russians were killed or wounded in the two wars, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced.

The First Chechen War (so-called, though not actually the first) broke out in 1994, causing more than 300,000 people to flee the region as refugees. The Second Chechen War added to this emigration.

The Chechen’s (or Nokhchi in their own tongue) bid for independence, however, has stretched back hundreds of years. “The Chechens have evidently been in or near their present territory for some 6000 years and perhaps much longer,” says University of Berkeley professor Johanna Nichols. “There is fairly seamless archaeological continuity for the last 8,000 years or more in central Daghestan.”

PBS has a detailed look at the history of the region, tracing the lands change of hands from the 1400s onward, from the Mongols to the Ottoman Empire to the Russians under Ivan the Terrible in 1559.

In 1722, says PBS, “Peter the Great, ever eager for trade and military routes to Persia, invaded Chechnya’s neighbor Daghestan.”

Repulsed by the Daghestanis and Chechen mountain warriors, Russia fell back again, but would press on for the next 50 years with sporadic raids on Chechen and Daghestani territory. In 1783, Russia finally gained a strategic toehold in the Caucasus with the recognition of Georgia, Chechnya’s Christian neighbor to the south, as a Russian protectorate.

In 1784, led by Muslim leader Imam Sheik Mansur, the Chechens took back their land. This struggle went back and forth through the 19th and 20th centuries. Starting in the late 17th century, says Berkeley professor Nichols, the Chechens largely converted to the Sunni branch of Islam. “Islam is now, as it has been since the conversion, moderate but strongly held and a central component of the culture and the ethnic identity,” according to Nichols. Muslim beliefs are common throughout the region, as well as in nearby Turkey.

In 1944, in the midst of World War II, “Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the Chechens and their Ingush neighbors — some 400,000 people — to be deported to Central Asia and Siberia for “mass collaboration” with invading Nazis.” Evidence to support Stalin’s charges,” however, “remains limited.”

Over the centuries, the motivations for war have varied, from invaders wanting a trading path through the mountains to religious holy wars to pure political oppression.

*This post has been updated for clarity.*

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