Sword or Samovar

The first installment from a monthlong journey through Russia's killing zone.


NALCHIK, Russia — Three years ago, at a time when Russian politics was reduced to the anointing of a new czar and the dead hand of state patriotism lay on everything, I got bored of my life as a journalist in Moscow and decided to go for a walk.

NALCHIK, Russia — Three years ago, at a time when Russian politics was reduced to the anointing of a new czar and the dead hand of state patriotism lay on everything, I got bored of my life as a journalist in Moscow and decided to go for a walk.

It was less of a stroll, more of a trek — a four-month journey from the Black Sea to the Caspian, across the northern flanks of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, which rise in a palisade on Russia’s border with Georgia and Azerbaijan.

In popular Slavic imagination, this 700-mile belt of country below the snowy peaks is a domain of warriors and bandits, a stereotype that owes at least something to fact. I met a murderer on the run, got arrested on suspicion of being a spy, and saw more Kalashnikovs than you could shake a stick at. Violence felt like it was always just around the corner. But I was lucky; my journey coincided with a relative lull in the guerrilla war that has gripped the region since the end of full-scale fighting in Chechnya in 2001.

Sadly, the peace turned out to be illusory, a mere interlude in the battle between Islamist militants and the Russian state that has since roared up with renewed intensity, spreading further and further through the North Caucasus and bringing terror back to the streets of Moscow.

This is why I’ve returned to the region for a monthlong trip (this time, not on foot) through the same territory I walked across three years ago. I plan to visit five republics — regions of the Russian Federation equivalent to U.S. states — where the conflict is most keenly felt: Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. Four are majority Muslim; one (North Ossetia) is Orthodox Christian. Chechnya is now the calmest of the four Muslim republics under its satrap, Ramzan Kadyrov. Ingushetia, a scrap of plain and craggy summits, has gained a capable president, but shootings and bombings remain common. Dagestan, a highland region of at least 30 nationalities, is awash with cruelty, compounded by its delicate ethnic balance, and Kabardino-Balkaria has suffered a spate of senseless murders by the extremists.

I’ve quickly found out that the war has spread faster and farther than I expected. To start, there was the corpse I saw on one of my first nights here. I was walking back to my hotel in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, when I passed an apartment block cordoned off by armed police. In the yard behind it, a detective was leaning over and shining a flashlight on a dead body. According to news reports on Sunday, Feb. 13, the victim had been shot half an hour before I passed by; his name was Ilyas Tramov, 42, a father of four who wore the long beard associated with Muslim radicals. His killers, the media suggested, were most likely vigilantes, taking vengeance for real or perceived involvement in the Islamist militia that has ravaged this republic — once a peaceful backwater.

Yes, war is here in the North Caucasus, though it may not have the international resonance of the hostilities in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is a grinding, incremental war that only troubles Russian TV screens — let alone those in the West — when the odd, devastating attack hits Moscow. But make no mistake: It is a killing zone on the fringe of Europe.

A few days before my arrival in Kabardino-Balkaria, the rebels’ Chechen leader, Doku Umarov, took responsibility for ordering a suicide bombing in Moscow’s Domodedovo airport that ended 36 lives last month. The attack — which left the city’s gleaming international arrivals terminal strewn with bodies — has once again resurrected the debate over the Kremlin’s dilemma in the Caucasus, a dilemma that stretches back to the czarist 1800s when it was framed as a choice between “Sword or Samovar”: Should one slash the enemy to death or invite him for a cup of tea?

Alexei Yermolov, the Russian general who led the fight to conquer the Chechen and Dagestani highlands in the first part of that century, preferred the punitive route, declaring, “I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses … that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death.” Yermolov was true to his promise, sending troops to kill civilians, annihilate villages, and trample crops in revenge for raids by the tribesmen.

Yet it was his successor, Mikhail Vorontsov, the first imperial viceroy in the Caucasus, who brought Russia closer to victory with a hearts-and-minds strategy that had him building roads and hospitals while cultivating highland rebels fed up with their leader, the legendary fighter Imam Shamil.

Since then, however, the sword has often been unsheathed in Russia’s fight to keep control of the North Caucasus. At the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin deported the Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, and several other nations en masse to Central Asia for allegedly supporting the German invaders of the Soviet Union. Those who survived — and tens of thousands did not — were pardoned and returned 13 years later, but the trauma of deracination still remains a crucial one in the Caucasian psyche, especially because Russia has done little to recognize it. The two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya started out as largely secular fights for independence from Russia — and were met with tactics of terror, which peaked in the carpet-bombing of the Chechen capital of Grozny. That, in turn, gave rise to a whole series of spectacular and bloody terrorist acts by the rebels, from the 2002 Moscow theater siege to the 2004 Beslan school massacre that killed hundreds, and beyond. Today, the conflict in the North Caucasus has mutated into a regionwide Islamist insurgency bent on establishing a caliphate to be ruled by sharia law.

And still, as I set out on this latest trip, I can’t help thinking that bloodshed here is not inevitable. I remember the kindness of the shepherds who fed me before, the Dagestani villagers who sheltered me, even the bafflingly polite and unsuspicious FSB (Federal Security Service) border guards I met just a few years ago. Surely the Caucasus is not cursed with the sword, and only the sword?


The brief easing of violence that I saw in 2008 is now a distant memory. Then, it appeared that Russia’s military strength might yet bring the guerrillas to their knees. There had been no major terrorist attacks in Moscow for four years, and during that period Russian forces eradicated several key rebel figures: Shamil Basayev, the talismanic field commander and terrorist; Aslan Maskhadov, the former president of Chechnya who headed the rebels’ moderate wing; and Abdul Khalim Sadulayev, an imam who was Maskhadov’s successor.

But in 2009, Umarov announced he was re-forming the Riyadus-Salikhin martyrs’ brigade — a training unit for suicide bombers. A wave of kamikaze attacks ensued, culminating in the two-woman suicide attack on Moscow’s metro last year that took 40 lives and last month’s airport bombing.

Although few in number (less than 1,000 by most estimates) and lacking in popular support, the militant fighters — known in Russian as boyeviki — have shown they can project their threat deep into the Russian heartland. The Domodedovo bomber, a 20-year-old dropout from Ingushetia, had no trouble reaching the capital and traveling to his target with 15 pounds of explosives strapped to his body.

The brunt of the war, however, is borne some 900 miles south. Here, at home in the Caucasus, the boyeviki a loose, multinational coalition of fighting groups called jamaats — carry out almost daily attacks on policemen, government officials, and even traditional healers, whom they consider pagans. The militants control no permanently held territory, but have proved adept at moving between safe houses and forest hideouts from which they launch guerrilla strikes, bombings, and assassinations.

In turn, Russian security forces have used a brutal mix of kidnapping, torture, and extrajudicial killing in an attempt to subdue the rebels, a tactic that only exacerbates the problem. After the Moscow metro bombings, Umarov said he had ordered the attacks in revenge for Russian commandos murdering a group of innocent young Ingush garlic-pickers in a forest.

Although police and FSB operatives have shown signs of curbing some of their worst excesses, they still act with impunity, persecuting relatives of the fighters as well as conservative Muslims who may have nothing to do with the underground militia.  

Overall, the death toll is on the rise. Caucasian Knot, a website that monitors casualties, wrote in a report last month that 754 people were killed in the conflict in 2010, including 178 civilians (the figures exclude victims of attacks outside the region). In Kabardino-Balkaria alone, there was a fivefold increase in terrorist attacks compared with 2009, according to Russia’s Interior Ministry.

And yet the common portrayal of the region as a place hard-wired for savagery and insurrection seems to me deeply unfair. I’m here to interview victims on both sides of the conflict, and I know already part of what I will find: that the huge majority of people here are sick of what’s happening and want only to live in peace, inside a united Russia.

So what drives the hatred — and how do we combat it? I hope to find out, but some broad motivators already suggest themselves: corrupt, incompetent leaders; rapacious business interests; misguided nationalists and fanatics; poor education, poverty and humiliation. I plan to explore how these evils might be combated as well. Bringing peace is an urgent priority, not least because the guerrilla war is creeping west toward the Black Sea coast where Russia will host the Winter Olympics in three years. No one wants to see a repeat of Munich.


These days, belatedly, there seems to be a recognition in Moscow that force alone is not the solution. In January 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev appointed a new envoy to the North Caucasus: Alexander Khloponin, a successful businessman and former governor of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia. Khloponin has promised to stimulate the region’s flagging economy and cut high unemployment rates, in theory reducing the breeding ground of disaffected youth that provides recruits to the militants.

So far, here in Kabardino-Balkaria, a Muslim republic at the center of the North Caucasus, the story of the last few months is of aggression and horror, not rebuilding. Nalchik is famous for a failed raid by scores of militants in 2005, in which 142 people died. Six years on, it is convulsed by a new wave of violence.

In December, the Islamists shot dead the mufti of the republic and a celebrated ethnographer who they claimed was promoting paganism. Last month they struck again, killing five policemen as they sat eating lunch in a cafe and assassinating the head of a town near Nalchik, among other attacks.

Kabardino-Balkaria’s president, Arsen Kanokov, has talked of arming former sportsmen with weapons and creating volunteer forces to defend villages. Relatives of boyeviki should “answer for the monster they gave birth to,” he said on Feb. 1.

A few days later, someone appeared to take his advice. Four Molotov cocktails were tossed into a yard in Volny Aul, on the edge of Nalchik. The home belongs to the family of Astemir Mamishev, a young man who is on the run and is suspected of taking part in the mufti’s murder. A shadowy group calling itself “The Black Hawks” took responsibility in a note posted on the house’s gate.

On Saturday evening, as I stared into the yard where Ilyas Tramov’s corpse lay stretched out, it appeared the Hawks might have gone one step further. Police denied any link to the killing, but said Tramov was suspected of terrorism. An acquaintance of his whom I met on Monday rejected that accusation, saying he was simply a convinced, observant Muslim.

Tramov was, no matter who actually killed him or why, a victim of the sword, of the war that continues to play out in these mountainous republics. Just this week, two suicide bombers — one man and one woman — blew themselves up in a Dagestani village, killing two policemen and injuring 30 other people. Meanwhile, five militants and three police officers just died in a Feb. 15 gun battle in Stavropol region, a few score miles northwest of where I sit in Nalchik.

Over the next month, as I continue my journey through these bloody highlands, I’ll endeavor to understand why this madness continues — and how it might be finally brought to a halt.

Tom Parfitt is a fellow of the London-based Royal Geographical Society and a former public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. His trip is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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