A few days ago Francesco Benedetti met Inna Kurochkina in Florence. The interview that emerged takes up the speeches addressed in another chat, which took place more or less a year ago, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine. In the course of this year many things have changed, Francis’ work has moved forward and with it his awareness of how important the history of Chechnya is for the West.
We reproduce the video of the interview, attaching the transcript in English.
First of all I would like to congratulate you from all visitors, subscribers who have already read your first volume. From today it is possible to have this second volume. How is it possible to have it?
First of all thanks to you, and thanks to all those who appreciated the first volume, and who gave me this consideration. The book is currently available in Italian, on Amazon, but will soon be available in English, thanks to the collaboration of Orts Akhmadov, son of Ilyas Akhmadov, who is working with me on the English version, and will soon also be available in Russian and Chechen, as for the first volume.
The other time we met and talked about your book was December 2021 and perhaps we were expecting war, this tragedy. Then we met in Brussels on the first day of the war, when both we and you met Akhmed Zakayev for the first time. With your help we attended some Radicali Italiani events, these very good people who organized Akhmed Zakayev’s visit to Italy, so somehow you are involved in our activities and in Ichkeria’s. How has your life changed during this year?
I have certainly had more real experiences with respect to this theme. I was a simple student of the history of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, but my experience was purely theoretical, abstract, not concrete, material. Since that day I have had the opportunity to speak with many people, and this second book is also written thanks to the memoirs of about a hundred people with whom I have spoken. Thus, my knowledge of that historical experience and of the human experience of the Chechens has grown enormously. From February to today I have given faces, names and lives to an experience that for me until then had only been theoretical.
You and I are working on the history of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, because I am also doing a cycle of chronicles. Do you understand the expression “in your skin”? How did you feel firsthand how the war was coming to Chechnya?
One of the questions I ask myself while studying the history of Chechnya, and in particular when studying this period, was “how would I have felt if I had found myself in that situation?” And I ask myself this question almost every day, because my study is based on the memories of the people I interview, and my interviews focus precisely on this aspect of every historical event: naturally I ask for information, names, dates, etc., but the first question I asked in almost every interview was “how did you feel at that moment?” “How did you spend the period between 26 November and 11 December (the time between the storming of Grozny by the pro-Russian opposition and the invasion). Personally, I try every day to imagine what the feelings of the people waiting for the war were, what they were thinking: their children, their families, how to save their families, how to save their things, their money, their cars, their homes. An event like this can completely destroy life, change people’s lives forever. I think I’m quite an empathic person, and I assure you that writing this book I suffered a lot. Like any author, I often re-read the book I’ve read, and every time I have the same feeling of tragedy on the one hand, and admiration on the other for those people who survived the war, in this case managing to win it, against their invaders .
I would like to understand how you frame the nature of the Chechen people. I was born in Georgia, I’m Ukrainian. I would like to work for the Georgian people, or for the Chechen people, but my whole heart now belongs to the Chechen people, I don’t know why. How could you describe your feeling towards the Chechen people? Because if you fell in love with this people, you did it because you have a passion in you.
I understand what you think because, when I think about it, what happened to me is really strange. I live in Tuscany, and I have no family, economic or any other connection with Chechnya. Yet ever since I was a child, something happened the first time I heard the name “Chechnya”. I don’t know exactly what, an elective affinity that has grown inside me, and I don’t know exactly why.
What I love about the Chechen people about this story is their ability to show happiness in tragedy. In them I have seen people who don’t want to be considered victims, but people who manage to find the beauty of life in everything. They have shown the world how to laugh in the face of death, and how to preserve humanity even in a situation which, if I imagine myself in their place, would strip humanity away from me as well. If a war destroyed my life maybe I’d go crazy. I have spoken to many people who have fought a war and have not gone mad, but rather have kept their kindness, their being good people. I don’t know if I would be able to keep these qualities in myself, fighting a war. I think this character trait of the Chechens is beautiful: the fact that they have managed to keep their happiness and will to live despite going through such bitter experiences.
Knowing this special character trait of this people, let’s think about how much Russia has gone to destroy them. It’s a biblical story for me. What do you think about it?
When a bully tries to hit a victim, and the victim smiles at him, the bully will become even more angry, but will ultimately be defeated by his victim’s resilience. In this sense I loved the struggle of the Chechens who showed the Russians that their spirit would never break.
In this last year we realized that the Ukrainians didn’t understand what the war in Chechnya was, just like the Russians they didn’t care about it. Now they have understood, and the Ukrainian parliament has recognized the independence, the state of occupation and the genocide of the Chechen people. What needs to happen for even Russian liberals to understand this tragedy? In their view of life there is no Chechen war and no Chechen tragedy, and of course there is no Ichkeria. What do you think?
I think Russian liberals are also part of the Russian empire. Maybe they want a “liberal empire”? Maybe it’s nonsense. I don’t think that in this sense there is much difference between the radical parties and the moderate or liberal ones. Everyone wants the same thing: to strengthen the empire, in one form or another. Maybe Russian liberals don’t want to fight the war in Ukraine, but they also don’t want to lose the integrity of their empire. I don’t see anything strange in this. I’m more used to studying and reading the news of another empire, the American one, and the liberals of the American empire are no less angry and aggressive than the nationalists. Citizens of an empire grow up thinking the only way to preserve the country is to stick together and squash any dissonant voices.
I was very surprised by your “hobby”. I’m going to show snippets from one of your band’s videos, which is called “Inner Code”. Tell me about this song about empire. I’m so surprised because you’re from Florence, we can’t relate the concept of “empire” with the city of Rome, which is so beautiful.
Rome in this song is the archetype of the empire. When we think of the Roman Empire we think of the empire by definition. The Russian Empire itself is inspired by the Roman Empire. The word “Tsar” is the translation of the Latin “Caesar”, the Kaiser of the German Empire is the Germanic translation of “Caesar”, and so on. “He will burn Rome” speaks of the fall of Rome, but by extension it speaks of the fall of all empires. No matter how big and strong, every empire will fall sooner or later. When I listen to this song I find a connection with the story we are talking about, being a story that can work with any empire, even the Russian one. However, I recommend listening to the song at a low volume!
Basically, everything we are talking about revolves around the word “Freedom”. You are a free person in all respects, as I see. Do you see the freedom of Ichkeria under attack? Do you think the imperial forces, the FSB , want to cancel this goal of freedom? We perceive these attacks, for example those that are being carried out against Akhmed Zakayev, a person who is a symbol of freedom of Ichkeria. Do you perceive these attacks from Italy?
I guess this behavior is consistent with the situation. I have an indirect perception of this, because unfortunately Italian newspapers don’t report much on what is happening in Chechnya or in the Chechen diaspora. However, having some contact with members of the Chechen diaspora due to my studies, I imagine that these people are talking about present and future plans to achieve independence and freedom for Chechnya and sometimes they do it in heated discussions, or getting angry. I speak as an Italian, I don’t think I have the right to tell the Chechens what they have to do. Only, seeing what is happening in the Chechen diaspora from the outside, I notice that there are “unresolved issues” and it is possible that the FSB , or anyone who does not want an independent Chechnya, could emphasize these divisions on the pro-independence front to weaken it. I hope people don’t fall into this trap. I don’t know if Chechnya’s independence is far or near, but it is important that at every step we find ourselves in the best condition to gather all our strength together to win freedom.
In recent months, also thanks to you and to the Italian Radicals (I am thinking of the meeting in Rome between Zakayev and Benedetto della Vedova, the speech to the Italian parliament, the recognition of Ichkeria by the Ukrainian parliament, the just finished speech by Zakayev at the European Parliament etc.) we have seen an evolution in the proposal of the government of Ichkeria. In Brussels, Zakayev presented a project for the reconstitution of the Republic of the Mountain, established in 1918 and dissolved by the Bolsheviks, and which Zviad Gamsakhurdia and Dzhokhar Dudaev at the time wanted to reconstitute in the 1990s. Now Zakayev is carrying out this idea, this project, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Inal Sharip has gone to Washington DC and is presenting it there. As a historian, do you think this project of the Mountain Republic is safer, more feasible than independent Chechnya? Do you think Chechnya alone could survive its monstrous neighbors?
I think creating a confederation is very difficult, but if it is led by a strong center, it can multiply the strength of every single member. If the confederation is a simple sum of subjects I don’t think it will last long. An example can be that of the European Union: a sum of countries, but its strength is not equivalent to the sum of the forces that compose it. Because each country defends its interests, and this is a problem because a state built like this cannot resist the forces of countries like the United States, Russia, China. The problem with our confederation is that we don’t have a center, a nation that holds all the others together. And every time one of the European nations takes supremacy, the others fight against it. So our European confederation is politically weak. If the Chechens want to lead a confederation they don’t have to do it like the Europeans did. If they are credible enough to attract other nations into a confederation of which they are the centre, not as an imperial centre, but as the place of those who believe most of all in this project, and who are ready to sacrifice themselves for it more than the others to keep everyone together, then I think this is a political project that can last. Like, for example, the United States, which is a confederacy that, after some major problems, has become the most powerful nation on earth. A confederation, therefore, can last, but you need a center that has the credibility and strength to hold all the others together, not by force but by setting an example. I think the Chechens have shown the world great examples more than once.
In 1997 Russia and Chechnya signed a peace treaty which was later betrayed. What do you think about the desire of the world community to persuade Ukraine to sign a similar treaty with Russia?
Looking at history, it is perfectly understood that the real value of documents depends on whether or not they reflect the real situation. In 1997 Russia signed a peace treaty, but while it was signing it was preparing its second invasion. In my opinion, if he now accepts a compromise with Russia, this compromise will in no case fix any situation, because I don’t think the Russians would be satisfied, and neither would the Ukrainians. I believe that a compromise now would only be a way of moving the war forward by three or four years. I believe that this is a moment in which it is necessary to solve a problem that was born in Chechnya. In a wonderful review by Adriano Sofri, an Italian who knows Chechnya well, and who wrote a wonderful article on this book, he says that what happened in Ukraine is a remake of what happened in Chechnya and Georgia, and that Ukraine is the end of a line that starts in Chechnya. It is time to break this line once and for all, otherwise we will have to add another point to this line in four or five years. As a European I reflect on the fact that this line does not go away from Europe, but from Chechnya towards Europe. The next point will be even closer to our home, not further away. I think Europe should think about this. If they don’t stop this process now, they will face it again even closer to home.