Musa Shanib in the Caucasus: a political odyssey

Thomas de Waal
11 October 2005

In January 2005, in one of Russia’s most depressed towns, I had dinner with a remarkable man. Musa Shanib (also known by the Russianised name Yuri Shanibov) has a noble look to him, with the carved profile of an eagle and thick charcoal eyebrows.

Shanib’s life story is still more striking. In the early 1990s he briefly became the Garibaldi of the north Caucasus, aiming to unite the disparate small nationalities of Russia’s most diverse (and Islamic) region into a Confederation of Mountain Peoples that would proclaim independence from Moscow. He spent seven months with the Chechen general Dzhokhar Dudayev, helping him in Chechnya’s bid for independence from the Russian Federation in 1991.

In 1992, Shanib led a group of north Caucasian volunteers into the Black Sea autonomous republic of Abkhazia to help the Abkhaz fight and win a war against Georgia. In his own autonomous republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, Shanib stood at the head of a popular movement, which was on the verge of seizing power in 1992, but backed away from direct confrontation with the ex-communist authorities at the last moment.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus Project Manager with the Institute for War & Peace Reporting

Also by Thomas de Waal on openDemocracy, in the aftermath of the Beslan tragedy:

“The north Caucasus: politics or war” (September 2004)

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A minority of one

More than a decade on, sitting with Shanib in the Elita (Elite) Restaurant in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, this springtime of revolutions seemed very far away. He had picked the restaurant because it was one of the few decent places to take a guest in the city for dinner. But its extravagant bad taste – low lighting, gilded chairs, white tablecloths and starched napkins – were symbols of the new era in which the elite lives in a tiny self-satisfied bubble of conspicuous consumption, while most of the population struggles on the breadline.

My host belonged to neither category. He is a nationalist intellectual of a kind of that has now gone out of fashion in much of eastern Europe. He himself admits that he is now a marginal figure and lives quietly, teaching at the local university, while all around him the revolutions he helped inspire have been poisoned, betrayed or overturned. Instead there is Putin’s Russia, a criminalised conflict in Chechnya and Islamic militancy on the rise.

What a subject for a biography! And Georgi Derluguian has written it – and so much more – in his book Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus. Derluguian is a native of the north Caucasus, an Armenian born in the Krasnodar region, and now teaches sociology at Northwestern University in Chicago. He became fascinated by Shanib(ov) when he met him several years ago and his evolution from loyal Komsomol youth leader into 1970s dissident into nationalist demagogue. He realised what an interesting man he had before him when he learned of Shanib’s admiration for the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

Bourdieu’s Secret Admirer in the Caucasus: A World-System Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2005) is an extraordinary book by any standards. My only quarrel with it is the title, which will deter many readers unfamiliar with the name Bourdieu and miss out on the many riches here available to the non-specialist.

What the author has written is no less than a theoretical and empirical explanation of the evolution of late Soviet and early post-Soviet society that spins out a highly sophisticated explanation of how the Soviet Union broke up and why nationalist conflict broke out in the Caucasus. He does this as a sociologist but relying on the kind of detailed on-the-ground research worthy of the best journalists. Shanib’s evolution is the vehicle by which this story is told from the half-century from the end of the Stalin period to the present day.

openDemocracy presents and discusses the work of Pierre Bourdieu:

Pierre Bourdieu, “The politics of globalisation” (February 2002)

Roger Scruton, “Response to Pierre Bourdieu” (March 2002)

Angela McRobbie, “Pierre Bourdieu: from the study to the street” (February 2002)

To summarise the book’s complex arguments is impossible, but its main critical thrust presents a fresh understanding of the decay of the Soviet Union and what came after.

Russia famously produced two social classes of its own: the intelligentsia and the nomenklatura. It was the mistake of most western observers to fix most of their attention on Moscow and on the strivings of the intelligentsia to reform the Soviet Union – and subsequently Russia – into a European democratic state. But in the bulk of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics other social forces were at work and the nomenklatura wrote the rules of the game. In most cases, using various strategies, they survived and managed to keep their hold on political and economic power in their own patch. Derluguian writes: “After 1991 the relations of bureaucratic rent flowed into post-communistic privatisation: in other words, the administrative capital was converted into economic capital.”

Along with the “self-encapsulation of the nomenklatura,” Derluguian identifies two other principal causes for the collapse of the Soviet Union: the geopolitical strains caused by a failed attempt to maintain military competition with the United States and what he calls the “strains of advanced proletarianisation” – in other words, the failure of the Soviet Union to develop an economy that satisfied its citizens’ demands.

As the author wittily puts it: “The notoriously shoddy quality of Soviet-made goods was in fact the perverted triumph of class struggle under state socialism. Denied the institutional means to increase their wages through collective bargaining, the workers tacitly sought ways to decrease their labour inputs.”

Derluguian argues persuasively that we should also factor in another social class, whom he calls the “sub-proletarians”, the de-ruralised, semi-employed folk who belong neither to town nor country and whose menfolk have been the raw material for most of the conflicts in the Caucasus (One former professor from Grozny University told me how she saw a group of Chechen fighters at the beginning of the first war in 1994 and exclaimed: “They are all my worst students!”). Any visitor to the Caucasus today is struck about how the country has come to the city and people are forced to eke a living from a mixture of backyard farming and petty trade.

If this was the context, then national disputes lit the flame. In another setting Shanib would most likely have pursued another career, but in the Caucasus the logic of events led him to nationalism. His conversion into a national leader was virtually accidental. In the late Stalin period he was a rising Komsomol official and youth leader, then during Nikita Khrushchev’s thaw he became a keen reformist intellectual.

After 1968 a thesis on “self-government” made him suspicious, and he was forced into dissidence. Under Mikhail Gorbachev he became a focal point for new oppositionists but although he admired Andrei Sakharov he admitted that from the perspective of provincial Kabardino-Balkaria the great scientist “looked no nearer than the moon.” Nationalist mobilisation was a far more productive strategy and in 1989 he was elected the head of the new anti-communist Assembly of Mountain Peoples. His slogans of a “common Caucasian home” echoed Gorbachev’s proclamation of a “common European home.”

A different battlefield

Early success was intoxicating but from 1993 onwards the story is pretty much one of disaster. Of course the forces Shanib and his comrades had unleashed were far greater than they realised, as can been seen in the revolutions and on the battlefields of Abkhazia (1992-3), Nagorny Karabakh (1991-4) and Chechnya (1994-6 and 1999 to the present), as well as the places where fighting did not ignite.

When Shanib looks around at the revolutions he helped to start, he cannot help but be depressed. In Chechnya, Dudayev’s romantic nationalism led his people into a confrontation with the Russian government and the barbarities of the Russian armed forces that have destroyed Chechnya for generations. Abkhazia won de facto independence from Georgia but still lives in a semi-devastated condition as an unrecognised state. Having broken free from Georgia, it is now being swallowed up by Russia, its economy being slowly absorbed into that of its northern neighbour – not what the Abkhaz envisaged at all.

Where is this all leading? In the scramble for post-Soviet spoils (to adopt a phrase of Derluguian’s), the nomenklatura has proved exceptionally resourceful. With the exception of Chechnya, former Communist Party officials still hold positions of power across the north Caucasus, own factories and luxury villas and stand at the peak of vast patronage networks.

Also on openDemocracy, a debate on political strains in the Caucasus, including:

Jeremy Putley, “Crime without punishment: Russian policy in Chechnya” (July 2003)

George Hewitt, “Sakartvelo, roots of turmoil” (November 2003)

Neal Ascherson, “Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution’s rocky road” (July 2005)

Andrew Mueller, “Abkhazian futures” (August 2005)

The cost is frighteningly high. The members of the marginalised sub-proletariat, despised and deprived of almost all the benefits that they might reasonably expect from a modern state, are disillusioned with nationalism. Shanib admitted to me that he cannot raise any interest in a Kabardinian nationalist movement any more. Besides, the message offered by intellectuals like Shanib is too subtle for people who are facing hunger.

Few outsiders currently pay any attention to the north Caucasus, just occasionally registering with alarm events like the massacre of children in Beslan. That is worrying, because while Chechnya itself is relatively quieter, its repercussions are spreading to the rest of this benighted region with an embittered majority-Muslim population.

Shanib’s home republic of Kabardino-Balkaria is seeing a steady rise in violence between Islamic militants and the police. The most notorious Chechen militant leader, Shamil Basayev, has visited a territory where he has many supporters.

The elite is too wealthy, self-absorbed and fattened on bribes to pay any attention and focuses its efforts on harassing a handful of opposition journalists and free thinkers. The leader Valery Kokov is distant and sick. The parallels with Uzbekistan before the Andijan massacre are disturbing; the only question is when some kind of explosion will occur there.

Other parts of the north Caucasus share most of the same combustible elements – even though Derluguian’s admirable attention to the particularities of each society is a healthy caution against easy generalisations. The conflict in Chechnya, in other words, is no longer confined to Chechnya. And as the violence and insecurity continues to spread, Musa Shanib will be just a spectator on the sidelines.

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