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Emma Gilligan, Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War. Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity

Princeton & Oxford, Princeton University Press, 2010, 271 pages
Laurent Vinatier
Bibliographical reference

Emma Gilligan, Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War. Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity, Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010, 271 pages

Index terms

Countries :

Russia, Chechnya

Research Fields :

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Dedication is grateful to Shaun Luong who edited this book review.

Full text

1Even in academic works, moral positioning is sometimes strongly required. When it comes to the issue of Chechnya, particularly to the two atrocious successive wars occurring respectively from 1994 to 1996 and from 1999 to an unknown end, the expression of a moral judgement can hardly be avoided. To some extent, it cannot be any other way. That is the clear and courageous stance of Emma Gilligan’s Terror in Chechnya. In an unambiguous fashion and with strength, accuracy and application, the author lays out the abominable responsibilities of the Russian state, its military and police forces, as well as of its Chechen auxiliaries, in the mass and horrific crimes which awfully stamp the first, but mainly the second, Chechen wars. She explicitly points out who are the bad guys in those sad stories. It is not about disclosing hidden truths; any informed person would have heard about the horrors and abuses in Chechnya. It is more about the author’s commitment itself. As unscientific as it may appear, it proves in reality to be fair and needed. That’s important.

2No one today really doubts the pains suffered by the Chechen population resulting from the monstrosity of the Russian counterinsurgency tactics. For a decade, thanks to the work of several committed Chechen-Russian human rights organizations, such as Memorial, the Society of Russo-Chechen Friendship or Echo of War, whose daily and constant reports of horrors have been relayed to the outside world by leading Western Non-Governmental Organizations, facts-based, exhaustive and reliable information has spread about the closed Chechen warzone. Gilligan’s book adds visibility and authority to the account of the crimes, going beyond however the temptation of a general description. It is likely anyway that by sticking only to a broad explanation, she would have been short of words. The synonym of “terror” would not have been sufficient to illustrate the random bombings of cities (Chapter 1) or fleeing refugees (Chapter 4), the sweep operations (best known as Zachistka in Russian, Chapter 2), the disappearances and night-time abductions during the first years (Chapter 3). Her narrative approach, focusing upon a few victims’ testimonies, makes the inhumane torments of the Chechen population more real and proves to be quite disturbing for the reader. But, no worries: tragically in Chechnya, those single cases can be generalized.

3Emma Gilligan is fully aware of the abuses committed by the other side, the rebels quite rapidly turning into “terrorists” at some point. She tries to be balanced and to draw attention also to their horrific actions, such as the hostage takings in Buddennovsk and Kizliar (1995), in the Dubrovka Theatre (2002) and at the Beslan School (2004) with threats of suicide bombings. However, her chosen title for Chapter 5 – “Chechen Retaliation” – clearly indicates a biased assessment. For her, those operations are only a response to the Russian behaviours previously detailed. Interestingly, she even quotes a Russian victim, expressing her hate for the Chechens whilst understanding them. To some extent, it does indeed make sense. Who has talked about the 40,000 Chechen children, left as amputees or dead during the years of war? Once again, it also fits very well with the overall committed militant tone of the book.

4She could not then avoid also targeting the international community (Chapter 7) whose cowardice on the Chechen issue has reached extraordinary levels. It is hard to say whether the UN Commission on Human Rights, The Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have neglected the issue only out of fear of Russia or, through simple disinterest in such a small disappearing nation. Let’s put aside the UN Commission on Human Rights that had already shown its extensive weaknesses in other cases, and the OSCE, which at a minimum could be considered a political actor owing to its political strategies. However, as the sole pan-European structure more morally-oriented than politically-determined, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe’s (PACE) dismissive attitude is unforgivable. It could have shown itself to respect its own values by not having restored Russia’s voting rights too quickly in 2001. Symbolically, this would have been a strong gesture. PACE’s further relevance can thus now be questioned. Fortunately, the European Court of Human Rights’ multiplying verdicts on Chechen cases against the Russian state compensate for the European moral humiliation. At least a European institution has expressed and implemented a moral judgement.

5Emma Gilligan should have kept to her moral stance. It is hard to switch from moral commitment to political analysis. That is probably the main weakness of this book. It is quite impossible, for example, to place the Council of Europe’s and USA’s reactions on the same level. It is difficult to charge the latter, which has high and vital political interests, with moral neutrality, unless you consider that politics should be essentially morally-driven (which can prove to be dangerous). There is an underlying confusion in this book between what is moral and what is political, leading to approximations and short-cuts. Regarding the international role that is not really prejudicial. The harm is more serious on Russian and Chechen features. One of the author’s main arguments regards the Russian state’s racist motivation to destroy the Chechen people. She makes Russian racism a decisive factor of its policy and cruelty in the Caucasus, using this ideological concept as a political determinant. But that is too moralistic a simplification. She seems, furthermore, to confuse nationalism and racism or state honour and racism. She does not see the permanent historical Russian oscillation, ongoing until today, between nation and empire. She would have better tackled what role ethnic divisions play in Russia’s political organization and identification. That’s probably why she partly missed the understanding of the “Chechenization” process, which should have caused her to question her racist prism.

6Most likely, Gilligan’s main problem lies with her sources, which are essentially secondary. Chapter 6 is telling in this respect. It reports the mobilisation of several Russian and Chechen journalists and activists: Andrei Babitskii, Anna Politkovskaia, Mainat Abdulaeva, Timur Aliev, Oleg Orlov, Alexander Cherkassov, Ludmilla Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalev. All of them are undoubtedly highly esteemed professionals and individuals, but they are also simply the most widely publicized figures in the West to whom anyone had already talked. Emma Gilligan would have greatly benefited from diversifying her sources. She might have then discovered the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers and its unique experience of the Chechen War from the Russian point of view. She would have understood more accurately that the second war in Chechnya was a blank cheque given to the Russian army to re-impose state authority on Chechnya and to take revenge for 1996. She would then have felt that reason is not the only tool employed in Russian (and Chechen) decision-making processes, as well as in decision-implementations; a sense of honour is as important, if not more so. She is relaying stories, but it would have been perfect if she herself had had the opportunity to have direct experience of Russia and Chechnya.

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Electronic reference

Laurent Vinatier, « Emma Gilligan, Terror in Chechnya: Russia and the Tragedy of Civilians in War. Human Rights and Crimes Against Humanity », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 14/15 | 2013, Online since 25 May 2013, connection on 26 March 2017. URL :

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About the author

Laurent Vinatier

Thomas More Institute, Paris

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