God was born in Chechnya

The Boston bombers have given Chechens a bad name. Yet, philosopher Wittgenstein believed that a Chechen held the key to the secret of life’s riddle. Read Leo Tolstoy’s beautiful Caucasus tale, Hadji Murat, and you might enter into that secret, insh’allah.

The story’s hero, Hadji, is from Chechnya. A tribal chieftain of that proud, warlike people in the Northern Caucasus. Since the middle 18th century the Chechens have resisted Tsarist Russia’s attempts to subjugate them. Thus Tolstoy describes a Russian army raid on a village. It is senseless violence. Houses and trees burnt, children killed, mosque and fountain polluted. Outrages that only strengthen the people’s determination to fight the aggressors. Yet Chechens are far from united. Shamil, a rival chieftain, has imprisoned Hadji’s son and the father is led to collaborate with the Russians. A violent end is the hero’s destiny – maktub, it is written...

Tolstoy is elegiac about the unquenchable life force throbbing through the brave, unfortunate warrior. Hadji stands for something not temporal but, like God, eternal: the unconquerable, unquenchable freedom of the human spirit. Despite miseries, horrors and brutalities, the divine spark in men will not be extinguished.

Post-Soviet Russia has again sought to repress Chechen independence. Russians bombed the country’s capital, Grozny, into a heap of ruins. Islamist militants responded with a savage guerrilla war and indiscriminate terrorism, like the Beslan children massacre. However, the nation’s greatest catastrophe took place in 1944 when Stalin had the entire people, accused of collaboration with the Germans, deported into the steppes of Central Asia. Half million Chechens were forcibly carted off from the Caucasus into far-away Soviet republics. A bitter fate, reminiscent of the ten tribes of Israel deported by the cruel Assyrians from Palestine away into their empire. That was 2700 years ago. Humanity has not much evolved since.

Historical Russian brutalities are sometimes put down to Muscovy’s autocratic regimes, lack of democracy and the like. But the wrongs inflicted on the Chechens find a grim parallel with those suffered by the Irish. An unpalatable truth for liberal, parliamentary Britain but the truth. English invasions of Ireland date from the 12th century, under Norman King Henry II. Initially English rule was restricted to the Pale, around Dublin (the origins of the idiom ‘beyond the pale’). Later the accursed Tudor usurpers invaded the whole island. Imposed English Protestantism further aggravated the alien rule. English and Scottish settlers under King James I then grabbed the best Irish lands from the Irish owners. Cromwell’s massacres at Drogheda and Wexford rivalled Stalin’s and Hitler’s. More revolts followed in 1798. The genocidal results of potato crop famine in the 1840’s is seen by many Irish as another English crime. As late as 1916 the British ferociously suppressed an armed rising in Dublin. The troubles still rumble on...

Religion is a key factor in such struggles, never mind how doggedly the liberal mind stupidly persists in denying it. The Muslim Chechens are neither Arabs nor Turks. They are an Indo-European people, speaking a basically ‘Aryan’ language. The Chechens’ pallid complexion must confuse the race-obsessed on either side, those who keep mixing up religion and ethnicity. Patently, Islam, like Christianity, embraces all sorts of skin hues. These white Chechens have fiercely clung to their Islamic faith, also a way of separating themselves from their Slavic, Christian Orthodox conquerors. Not that a common religion be always an absolute bond – the story of Hadji Murat demonstrates that tribal conflicts, hatred and revenge can override even God.

As to the Irish, they are of course largely Celts and Catholics. The Celts once ruled the whole of ancient Britannia. They were displaced by Germanic invaders from the continent early on. Today a few Celts vegetate in Wales and Cornwall but the race that once ruled most of Europe is the shadow of its former self. Catholicism provided the ideology of resistance to foreign rule, just like Islam does to the Chechens. When your national independence is lost and the oppressor’s boot is planted on your neck, your religion may fuel resistance, as well as foster pride and prejudice. An obscure little monument in South Kensington, the Yalta Memorial, directly opposite the V&A Museum, alludes to the victims of Soviet communism. Set up to commemorate and honour Soviet citizens and their families handed over to Stalin’s tender care by the democratic Yanks and Brits at the end of WWII. But there were many other victims from the Caucasus, not only Chechens but Ingushi, Kalmyks, Karachai Balkars... The priest has said prayers by that monument during official ceremonies in the past. It was very moving, as well as very melancholy.

Why should God be born in Chechnya? Tolstoy’s tale much impressed Ludwig Wittgenstein. His enigmatic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus has no space for values such as religion, ethics and aesthetics. Such values are located, in Ludwig’s words, ‘beyond the world’ and there is nothing beyond the world. The world is all there is. This bleak world contains only facts, not values. Hence to try and speak of what is beyond the world is meaningless, nonsense, ‘unsayable’. Tough. Fortunately Wittgenstein wasn’t quite so reductionist. He believed the unsayable things hinted at in his Tractatus - ‘what cannot be spoken about’, i.e. God, the Good and the Beautiful – were hugely important. Philosophy cannot speak about them but literature, great literature, can. Art can ‘show’ values. So when a student badgered the master about the meaning of life, ‘read Hadji Murat!’ Wittgenstein peremptorily commanded. The answer is there. What did the young man make of it, I wonder?

It would be naive to idealise the Chechens, the Irish or any other indomitable nation like them. Oppression often fosters barbarism and ferocity in the oppressed. Whatever hurt motivates terrorists to kill and maim the innocent can never justify atrocious deeds. But the human spirit will always rise above such crimes.Is that the secret?

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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