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Soviet & Post-Soviet Wars - Book Reviews (4)

Mairbek Vatchagaev, Chechnya: The Inside Story. From Independence to War

Open Books, 2019, 255 pages
Jean-François Ratelle
Bibliographical reference

Mairbek Vatchagaev, Chechnya: The Inside Story. From Independence to War, Open Books, 2019, 255 p.

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1Chechnya: The inside Story. From Independence to War provides a unique journey into the (un)making of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and its (dis)functioning quest for independence and survival. Through the life stories and the ethnographic narratives provided by Mairbek Vatchagaev, the reader discovers a unique perspective of the Russian-Chechen wars and their intricacies. From the military success of the First Chechen War to the state-building failure of the interwar period, the readers will learn about the hidden face of a complex power struggle inside the Chechen society and its state apparatus. Rather than approaching this topic through a traditional military or political science approach, Vatchagaev provides human, emotional, and a personal account of this brutal military conflict.

2As a general representative of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in Moscow as well as the press secretary and a first adviser to the Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Vatchagaev was involved in almost all major events of Chechnya’s ephemeral quest for independence. Based on this unique personal perspective of the war and its actors, the author provides a historically accurate and academically rigorous account of the main events of the First Chechen War. The author challenges common myths on the historiography of the Chechen war, addressing many controversial topics such as the role and the importance of Salafists in Chechnya, the 1996 Budennovsk attack, or even the 1999 Dagestan invasion. Additionally, Vatchagaev provides a detailed account of the preponderant role played by Sufi orders in every aspect of Chechnya’s social and political life including wartime mobilization, the 1997 elections, and the road to the Second Chechen War. Furthermore, the book represents a unique source of empirical information particularly when Vatchagaev provides a detailed account of his relationship with Aslan Maskhadov, and expands on the decision-making process in the Chechen administration during major political events such as the 1996 Operation Jihad, the 1997 elections, and the political tensions of the interwar period. At the end of the book, one topic appears to be missing from this breathtaking journey into the recent Chechen history; although Akhmad Kadyrov is briefly mentioned in the book, he remains mainly outside of Vatchagaev’s narrative. The reader often ponders the role played by Akhmad Kadyrov in the interwar period, how he managed to rise to power in the chaos of the end of the 1990s, and what was his relationship with Aslan Maskhadov or Vatchagaev himself. Based on the book itself, it remains difficult to answer those questions.

3Vatchagaev’s refreshing approach to Chechen politics will help readers better understand his struggle to preserve the traditional Chechen way of life, its customs, and its traditions while also contributing to the establishment of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. The reader can follow his decisional patterns driven by an adherence to Chechen social customs and etiquette. The reader will discover how the post-Soviet and post-war period has drastically modified the Chechen cultural heritage, tearing apart traditionalists like Vatchagaev with opportunist political actors seeking to profit from the war itself and politics in general. For many, Vatchagaev’s book will become a first encounter with Chechen customs and traditions such as the importance of family and clan, social duty, ethics, and honor in Chechen culture as well as the role of mountaineers’ pride, hospitality, and charitable duties during the war.

  • 1 Ilyas Akhmadov, Miriam Lanskoy, The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost, Palgrave Macmillan (...)

4In conclusion, what makes this book different and unique from the existing literature on the topic is how the reader dives into the authors’ academic and personal trajectory in the catastrophe of the First Chechen War. Along with Ilyas Akhmadov’s book published in 20101, this book will become a classic for anyone seeking to better understand the intricacies of the independence quest in Chechnya, the challenges associated with state-building in a post-conflict context, and the socio-political tensions leading to the Second Chechen War. At the end of the book, the reader craves more of Vatchagaev’s unique story-telling talent and looks for further details on the narrative of his arrest and his experience at the Butyrskaia prison as well as his departure from Russia. One can only look forward to the sequel of this fantastic book.

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1 Ilyas Akhmadov, Miriam Lanskoy, The Chechen Struggle: Independence Won and Lost, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

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Electronic reference

Jean-François Ratelle, “Mairbek Vatchagaev, Chechnya: The Inside Story. From Independence to War”The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 20/21 | 2019, Online since 02 mars 2020, connection on 25 juin 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jean-François Ratelle

University of Ottawa

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