On February 23, 1944, the Soviet Union launched a mass deportation operation of its Chechen and Ingush populations. Although two distinct ethnicities, the Chechens and Ingush have been historically linked due to their linguistic similarity and persecution by the Russian government. The Chechen-Russian rivalry is one the oldest and most drawn-out conflicts in modern history, stretching across three centuries. The struggle came to a head during World War II amid numerous ethnic cleanses being carried out by Joseph Stalin. Although many minority groups were targeted and seen as threats to the Soviet Union, the treatment of Chechen people is largely thought to be the worst among the those beset—resulting in the event being referred to as the Aardakh genocide. To gain more insight into the nature of this “relocation operation,” here are ten facts about the Aardakh genocide.
- The deportation began on a day of celebration. Since 1919, February 23 has been a day for Russia to celebrate the Red Army. In 1944, NKVD officers invited Chechen and Ingush people to participate in the festivities in a gesture of solidarity. When the Chechens arrived, however, they were met with armed soldiers and were told that they must leave the country. Often families were given little more than a half hour to collect their things before being driven out of the country.
- At least a quarter of those who were deported died in transit. Of the 493,000 Chechen and Ingush people that were captured, 123,000 of them perished or were killed during the round-ups and early years in which they were exiled from the country.
- The exile lasted for 13 years. Survivors were not able to return to their homeland until 1957, when the Soviet Union came under new leadership. Nikita Khrushchev, who replaced Stalin, reversed many policies put in place by the former premier, including the exile of the Chechen and Ingush peoples.
- The Chechens lost a significant portion of their population. Between 1944 and 1952, the Chechens lost roughly 54 percent of their people. It was routine for soldiers to eliminate anyone “unfit” for travel. Those who were ill or protested the expulsion were systematically executed on the spot.
- The Chechens were accused of colluding with the Nazis. This false narrative was fueled by the Soviet government and used as propaganda to demonize the Chechen population. Despite this, records from the time prove that many Chechens served in the Red Army and were decorated war heroes.
- February 23 is respected as a day of tragedy. The Chechen and Ingush people have not forgotten their treatment at the hands of Soviet soldiers. February 23 is remembered by many in these cultures as a solemn day to remember the brutal maltreatment.
- The operation was classified as a genocide in 2004. It was not until half a century passed that the European Parliament finally declared the treatment of the Chechen and Ingush as a genocide.
- Aardakh is a Chechen word which roughly translates to “the exodus” or “lead out.” During the time of the operation, the Chechens referred to it as the “aardakh.”
- The Aardakh genocide was a defining moment for the Chechens. Among other socio-political factors following the exile, the Aardakh was a significant force that moved the people to declare their independence in 1991.
- Chechens were forbidden from discussing the deportation. After the exile ended, the Soviet regime placed a ban on discussing the events of the deportation. This did not stop the Chechens from sharing stories and quietly passing along their histories to their children in the years that followed. This oral history laid the groundwork for the surge of Chechen nationalism that followed in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Aardakh genocide permanently marred the legacy of the Chechen people. It is considered by some historians to have been the greatest ethnic trauma of the Soviet Union’s reign. Some Chechens continue to fear deportation to this day, especially as tensions with Russia continue to increase.
– Micaela Fischer