OVER 100 people were killed by the gas which Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered to be pumped into the Moscow theatre siege last weekend. The horror of the siege's end gave a glimpse of the brutal methods used by the Russian state in Chechnya, methods which created the hostage crisis. Putin, along with Tony Blair and most of the British press, describe the Chechens as fanatical terrorists.
In fact they are people who have witnessed the horrors of two bloody wars that Russia's leaders have fought against the tiny republic of Chechnya in the last eight years.
Almost all industry has been destroyed in Chechnya, and two thirds of the population have lost their homes as a result of Russia's colonial war. The Chechen people have suffered waves of the most brutal violence as Russia's rulers have fought to deny them the right to run their own country. Vladimir Putin came to power in Russia by ruthlessly prosecuting a war against Chechnya.
Russian troops have slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians since they invaded the republic, for the second time in the last decade, in October 1999. The Russian military have used 'fuel air' bombs - which suck out people's lungs - nerve gas, and other bloody methods to terrorise the Chechen population. Russian bombs reduced Chechnya's capital, Grozny, to ruins. Hospitals, schools and homes have been flattened across Chechnya. Russian troops have razed whole villages to the ground.
Thousands of people in Chechnya are still forced to live in primitive conditions without food, heat, light or medicines.
And thousands of Chechens still exist in makeshift refugee camps. In 2000 president Putin claimed he had won the war in Chechnya. But 85,000 Russian troops still occupy the republic, and continue to bomb people's homes, destroy villages and round up civilians. Putin stepped up his offensive in Chechnya after 11 September 2001. George Bush and Tony Blair gave Putin the green light to pursue his bloody campaign in return for Russia's support for the 'war on terror'.
The Human Rights Watch organisation says that Russia has increased its violence in Chechnya over the past year. 'Civilians face a daily threat of being arbitrarily detained, tortured, or just 'disappearing',' says Elizabeth Andersen from the organisation.
200 years of colonial rule
CHECHNYA IS in the Caucasus mountain range, which runs between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. This has always been a strategically important area for Russia's rulers. It is near the vast oil and natural gas reserves of the Caspian Sea area. Putin's war is the latest horror that Russia has inflicted on Chechnya in over 200 years of repression.
Chechnya was conquered by Tsarist Russia, which in the 18th and 19th centuries treated the country with the kind of brutality that the British ruling class inflicted on its colonies in India and Africa. That repression continued through the 20th century. The only brief period of freedom from repression came in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution.
Chechnya and other states in the Caucasus gained some degree of independence. That was crushed when Stalin came to power and reversed the gains of the revolution. Stalin used brutal methods to subjugate people in order to consolidate his rule and build up Russia as a world power. In 1944 Stalin deported the entire Chechen population of 500,000. They were forcibly removed thousands of miles to the frozen steppes of Kazakhstan. Over a third of these people perished on the journey.
Stalin launched a campaign to eliminate Chechen culture, burning books, ripping up gravestones and using them to pave roads. Stalin's successor, Khruschev, allowed the Chechens to return home in 1957. But public discussion of the deportations was forbidden until 1989. When the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s, Chechnya separated from Russia and declared independence.
At the end of 1994 Russia invaded Chechnya. Some 80,000 people - the vast majority civilians - were slaughtered in that war. People in Chechnya fought back using guerrilla war tactics and forced Russia to withdraw in 1997. But in 1999 Putin launched another brutal invasion. Chechens continue to fight back today.
Islamic ideas have won wider support in response to Russian aggression and to the resulting breakdown in society. Putin's war against the Chechen people creates violence, poverty and chaos which drives people to fight back, and will create more situations like the Moscow hostage crisis.
But Putin refuses to withdraw from Chechnya, or allow the Chechen people to run and control their own homeland. Putin was even prepared to suffocate and poison Russian civilians rather than make any concession at all to the Chechens' demand for self determination.