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Behind the Headlines: Jewish Families Stranded in Chechnya As Threat of Russian Civil War Looms

December 14, 1994
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About 50 Jewish families are stranded in Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where the threat of a Russian civil war is looming, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Russian troops and tanks stormed the republic over the weekend but stopped just short of the capital.

Amid fears of a violent military confrontation, Jewish leaders here and abroad are worrying about how to protect and evacuate the few remaining Jews in the highly volatile region.

“All roads are blocked, but at the first opportunity they will leave. The conditions there are very, very bad,” said Alla Levy, a deputy director at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem.

“They didn’t leave already because they had problems with their families or their property, and now they are very sorry about it.”

Levy said that a number of Jewish refugees have escaped to Nalchik, a city in a nearby republic.

“We are taking care of t hem and trying to take them to Israel,” she said.

Located in t he Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia, Chechnya is home to about 1.2 million people, most of them Muslims.

It has an old but small Jewish community, which, according to legend, dates back as early as the sixth century B.C.E.

In 1897, a census reported between 1,000 and 2,000 Jews in Grozny.

In the past few years, however, most of its members, emigrated to Israel or America.

Most of Chechnya’s Jews were “Mountain Jews,” the name given to Jews from the Caucasus who continued to follow their religious traditions even while adapting culturally to local life.

Michael Chlenov, who oversees the Vaad, the federation of Jewish institutions in Russia, recently visited Vladikavkaz, the capital of the neighboring republic of North Ossetia, where other Jewish refugees from Grozny are currently living.

He said the Jewish refugees were reporting that Grozny had become overrun with crime and that they had fled the political instability.

According to Chlenov, Chechnya and other Muslim republics within Russia do not have a tradition of anti-Semitism.

However, Chechnya does have a strong independent streak, and anti-Russian feelings run deep.

The republic broke away from Russia in 1991 and since then has been at odds with Moscow’s leadership, which has covertly backed the republic’s political opposition as part of an attempt to topple the government of President Dzhokhar Dudayev.

Until now, however, the Russian government has a voided direct military involvement in Chechnya.

But this weekend, 40,000 troops were sent in, the biggest Russian military action since the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. As of midweek, Russian casualty reports listed nine servicemen killed and 14 wounded.

Numerous protests against the invasion took place this weekend in Moscow, as many expressed opposition to a renewed reliance of force by Russia.

“I think the situation is terrible for all the people in this country, Jews and Russians,” said Alexander Lieberman, the director of the Moscow office of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews.

“If we have war, it could mean the end of democracy and free speech and the return to the time when we were a great empire, but a strong army with not enough food.”

Taking a more cautious approach, Chlenov from the Vaad said, “The events in general are very important because they symbolize a change in the political situation in Russia.” However, he said it is too early to analyze the implications of this change.

Chlenov noted that the Vaad signed a statement released by the recently formed Congress of National Minorities in Russia expressing disagreement with solving the problems in Chechnya through violence and bloodshed.

Instead, the congress suggested creating a new policy with input from representatives of the different peoples in the region.

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