NAURSKAYA, Russia — Legend has it that in 1774 the women and children ofNaurskaya fought off an attack by the Turks, armed only with pitchforks and pots of hot soup.
As Cossacks, Russian warrior-farmers, it was their duty under the Tsars to defend Christian Russia’s expanding southern borders against Moslem Tatars and Turks.
Today, the Cossack women of this village are once again ready to take up pitchforks.
“I’m capable of anything,” said Larisa Brazhnenko, a middle-aged woman.
Like other Russians in Naurskaya, she is upset that the villages north of the river Terek, traditional Cossack territory, are now part of separatist Chechnya.
She said that Russians were suffering severely because of growing anti-Russian feeling in the self-proclaimed “independent” Chechen Republic.
“If they gave me a gun, I would start shooting without worrying if he was guilty or not, just as long as he was a Chechen,” Brazhnenko said.
Villagers say the Chechens, the most fiercely independent of all the peoples of the northern Caucasus, are trying to drive off the 30,000 or so Russians still left on the north bank, using violence and intimidation.
Now, tensions are starting to reach breaking point.
In late February, Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev told a news conference that Chechnya would never forgive Russia for the mass deportation of his people to Central Asia 50 years ago.
“Everyone always forgives Russia because they are afraid of her,” he said. “But we will not forgive. We will not forgive.”
He accused Russia of persecuting Chechens living on Russian territory, with more than two dozen killed since the beginning of the year alone. “Chechen boys are coming back as corpses,” he said.
The Chechens – former Russian parliament chairman Ruslan Khasbulatov is the best-known internationally – are a proud mountain people with a violent reputation and a powerful sense of clan loyalty and honour
Chechen officials do not even bother to deny that anti-Russian violence is increasing in the republic.
“What about the Chechens killed in Russia? No one ever asks about those,” said Aslambek Dadayev, deputy director of the government’s information office.
According to Dadayev, the attacks in Naurskaya were either “temporary excesses” or “provocations aimed at raising the fury of Russians who live in Russia against Chechnya.” The people who feel the brunt of the Chechen resentment against Russia are the Cossacks.
Around 180,000 Cossacks and other Russian-speakers have fled the region, according to the Terek Cossack leadership. The rest are under pressure to do the same.
According to the Cossacks, if the tension gets much worse they will take up arms to defend themselves and other Cossacks from across Russia will come to help.
“If it goes here, then the entire North Caucasus will blow up, the Cossacks will come, and all of Russia will be involved in the war,” said Cossack leader Vladimir Kashlyunov.
Aksana Tarasova, a 17-year-old law student, said she and her grandmother would leave the minute they sold their house. She did not want to explain why but then revealed that her mother was killed by Chechens two years ago.
“The case is closed. They know who did it, but he’s free because his relatives won’t give him up.” Since then, she said, their house has been robbed five times and she herself was once abducted.
“They wanted gold, money, valuables,” she said. ‘They didn’t do anything to me. Just burned me with an iron, that’s not much. I’m grateful they didn’t do more.” In the neighbouring village of Mekenskaya, Alexander Grozin was recovering from an attack the previous night. His 46-year-old wife lay in bed with stab wounds and bruises.
She said they had been tied up with a television cable, beaten, and robbed of all the money they had in the house – 40,000 roubles ($24).
Before, the couple had no plans to move out of the village. Since the attack, that has changed.
“We won’t be able to stay now,” she said.
Around the comer, local administration official losif Nisanov cleaned up broken glass and grenade fragments in front of his house.
A line of bullet holes crossed the front of the building and the wooden blinds in the window were shattered.
The attack left him shaken, but did not weaken his determination.
“I will fight to the end,” he insisted. “I grew up here, gave 30 years to this district, and I’m not planning to go anywhere.”