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Chechnya, Ukraine & Propaganda: "People in the West know so little about Chechens"

Ayman Eckford speaks to two Chechen refugee activists about Western misconceptions and parallels with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, ahead of an event and exhibition as part of Migration Matters Festival.

A small group of people stand in public with protest signs supporting Ukraine and Chechen independence, while one person speaks on a microphone.

Chechen Independence Day event, 6 September 2023, Sheffield Peace Gardens.

On 21 July, the Chechen and Ukrainian community in Sheffield will come together as a part of Migration Matters Festival at a Chechnya, Ukraine and Propaganda storytelling event, to speak about one of the most pressing and silenced topics of our time.

There is a lot of misinformation about Eastern Europe in the West. Constant new stories about Ukraine and Chechnya can be confusing, and as people with origins in these nations we want to help you separate facts from propaganda.

In this storytelling event, a group of Chechen and Ukrainian activists will bring you into the most important part of our common history of genocide and survival in Josef Stalin’s time, the horrendous Russian-Chechen wars, the Russian-Ukranian conflict, and finally into Europe, where you can see how Chechen and Ukrainian communities are surviving away from their homelands.

They will also present you an exhibition dedicated to the 80th anniversary of Joseph Stalin's genocide of the Chechen people, to raise awareness about one of the most silenced genocides in the modern history.

As a Ukrainian refugee who has been living in Sheffield since 2018, I’m honored to organise this event. I wrote about the Chechen-Ukranian relationship for the Ukrainian think tank Solid Info. I have been involved with the local Chechen community a lot and most of my closest friends are Chechens. I couldn’t express how many lies about Chechen people and the Russian-Chechen war exist in the West, and how harmful they are for the community. Unfortunately, most books and podcasts about Chechnya are made by people who don't even know the Chechen language, and don’t have any access to primary sources.

Chechnya is currently under the occupation and control of Ramzan Kadyrov, a puppet of Putin who is deeply hated by Chechen society. In occupied Chechnya, people could be kidnapped and tortured for anything: for reading prohibited books, having 'improper' clothes, making jokes on the internet. Some of the relatives of my Chechen-British friends were kidnapped back home, in Chechnya, just because those friends spoke up against the War in Ukraine whilst here in the UK.

This is why it's very difficult for Chechen refugees to speak up for their rights. And it's also why I now let our Chechen speakers, who will present the Chechen part in our Migration Matters event, Ali Bakaev and Fatima Sulemanova, tell you more about their activism. They also each offer a family story about the 1944 deportation and forced settlement of Chechen people by the Soviets.

Portrait photo of Chechen activist Ali Bakaev, standing in front of a statue of a lion.

Ali Bakaev

Ali Bakaev is a Chechen political activist and the author of pro-Ichkerian YouTube and TikTok channels, who now lives in the UK as a refugee.

What is the main misconception about Chechnya and Chechens?

Many people just don’t understand that Chechnya has never chosen to be part of Russia, or the Soviet Union, or the Russian empire.

We have a completely different culture, language and religion than Russians. When the Soviet Union collapsed, and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria became independent, the first Chechen President, Djohar Dudaev, spoke about freedom and human rights. He was against any dictatorship and discrimination, he promoted international laws, he wanted to be friendly with the West. But Western politicians let Russia attack and occupy Chechnya, and let president Djohar Dudaev and other legally elected Chechen presidents be killed.

Have you ever experienced anti-Chechen biases in the UK?

Unfortunately, even some other Muslim immigrants believe in Russian propaganda. My Arab neighbor once told me that Russia was right and that all Chechens are terrorists. It’s absolutely unacceptable to give any such labels for any nations, and so untrue for Chechens.

The Russian military bombed to the ground the Chechen capital Grozny and nearly 98% of Chechen territories were under attack. The Russian military kidnapped and tortured Chechen civilians en masse and wiped out whole villages. We lost nearly 43,000 children in a nation of just one and a half million.

I lost both of my parents in this war. Russian authorities threatened my life and the lives of my little sisters in order to push my granny to vote, when Russia was providing a fake election for Kadyrov.

In such an atmosphere, when the whole world abandoned Chechen people and guys like President Dudaev were killed, some Chechen youth radicalised and became more religious. They used an Islamic, not just national-liberation, justification for the war. But even they have never harmed Russian civilians in a way the Russian military harmed Chechens.

You lived in Ukraine when the war started in 2022. Have you seen any similarity between what is going on in Chechnya and in Ukraine?

Yes, definitely. The Russian army used the same tactic of targeting civilians. Also, there is very similar propaganda. The Russians blamed Chechens, [calling them] the nation of 'bandits' and 'terrorists', just like they now name all Ukrainians to be 'Nazis'.

Why are events like the one we are hosting for Migration Matters Festival important?

Because people in the UK and in the West know so little about Chechens!

I like the UK. For me, it's a centre of civilisation. But ignorance led to a situation where some refugees could be denied asylum just because the Russian security service made fake accusations against them.

What is your favorite thing about the UK?

I like that the UK is a country of opportunities for me and my children. Because of all the wars and turmoil, I have never had a proper job and education. I didn’t even learn to drive a car. Even when I wanted to participate in a sports competition back in Russian-controlled Chechnya, I had to pay a bribe. I was tortured by pro-Russian police when I was a schoolboy because of [having] the 'wrong' pictures on my phone.

Here in the UK that kind of treatment is impossible. Here my kids could be raised in safety. They have rights. They could be whatever they wanted to be.

A story from Ali's family:

When, in February 1944, the Soviet government decided to deport the entire Chechen population from their land, Soviet soldiers kicked my granny’s family out of her house.

Granny was just a preschool girl. She told me that the Soviets lied about some kind of 'training' where all villagers had to participate, and that the soldiers didn’t give them time to pick up food or clothes. Villagers were herded into boxcars like cattle.

The winter was extremely cold and my grandmother's parents hid her and her siblings in a haystack in the corner of the carriage. Four of her siblings died there, in that haystack. Children just froze to death. My grandmother lay next to the corpses of her brothers and sisters. Their parents weren’t even allowed to bury them. Soviet soldiers simply threw the bodies out of the carriage like garbage.

Portrait photo of Chechen activist Fatima Suleimanova, standing at a speakers podium at a Council of Europe event.

Fatima Suleimanova

Fatima Suleimanova is one of the most prominent female Chechen activists of her generation. She has spoken about Chechen rights in the Council of Europe, and worked with the Ukrainian Parliament as part of the Chechen United Force movement. She now lives in France, where she is attends Sorbonne University.

Tell us a little about your activism and how it all began?

It all started with my father’s cultural-political organisation, Bart Marcho. It was created in 2017, when I was 21 years old.

I have been helping with administrative issues and interpreting work right from the beginning, but in 2021 I decided to take a more active part in promoting the liberation of my homeland, the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

Today I am a member of the Chechen national liberation movement United Force, which is officially collaborating with the Parliament of Ukraine.

My role is to give to the European community advice and analytical information about Chechen issues. I think it's essential not just for Chechen refugees, but also for security reasons, because it could help Western countries to create a new approach against Kremlin militarism.

What are the main problems of Chechen refugees in Europe?

Chechens are one the most vulnerable and invisible ethnic minorities in Europe. Many European countries continue to deport Chechen refugees, where they face mortal danger from the pro-Russian occupation regime of Ramzan Kadyrov.

Chechens in Europe also face a lot of stereotypes that were created and promoted by Russian state propaganda and biased 'experts' of 'Russian Studies', who are completely ignoring Chechen experiences.

Why do other Europeans know so little about discrimination against Chechens?

Because the international community is looking at Chechnya through the Russian clichés prism, this terrorism myth promoted by the Kremlin, because Russian abused the War on Terror rhetoric to invade Chechnya, just like [how] now Russia is using this idea of 'fighting Nazis' for the invasion of Ukraine.

Both are pure propaganda – but at least in the West people know enough about Ukraine not to believe in it.

What do you want to tell Western people about modern day situations in Chechnya?

I want the West to stop seeing Ramzan Kadyrov as a Chechen politician, and not confuse Russian Kadyrov’s military with ordinary Chechens.

Vladimir Putin came to power on Chechen blood, by gaining his popularity through the war in Chechnya, and he put Kadyrov to power by force, creating a puppet regime. Even now, during the Russian-Ukrainian war, a lot of Russian military troops are staying in Chechnya to stop any possible actions against Kadyrov.

Everything you are hearing about Kadyrov’s crimes is not the will of Chechen people, who couldn’t speak for themselves without putting their families in mortal danger.

On 18 October 2022, Verkhovna Rada (the Parliament of Ukraine) recognized Chechnya as an occupied country. If the West wants to end Putin’s and Kadyrov’s regime, they need to take an example from Ukraine and recognize Chechen independence. It’s time to move from talking to doing.

Fatima's 1944 family story:

My maternal great-grandfather was called to fight Nazi Germany in 1942. While he was on the frontlines, his wife and two children were killed by Stalin’s exile.

When my great-grandpa was allowed to leave the Soviet army in 1947, two years after WWII ended, he was told that all Chechen people were chased from their lands, and so he had to move to Kazakhstan.

In Kazakhstan, he was searching for another Chechen. He managed to find a Chechen family that lived in a dugout and were dying from starvation. He asked local Kazakhs for a goat to make soup and feed this family. He was looking after this Chechen family for several months until they became better.

Then he met my great-grandmother. My grandpa was born in 1949. Great-grandpa named him after his half-brother, who died during the deportation.

Learn more

Find out more and have an opportunity to ask questions to Ali and Fatima at the Migration Matters event 'Chechnya, Ukraine and Propaganda' – Friday 21 June, 5-7pm at Soft Ground, 37-41 The Moor, Sheffield.

Accessibility info

Soft Ground is located on the first floor of a building on The Moor, which is pedestrianised. It has lift access and a disabled all gender toilet. More info, including transport and parking.

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