One evening last October, as 700 people were enjoying the popular Nord-Ost musical in Moscow, masked men and women burst on to the stage. They were Chechens, all with guns and some with explosives strapped to their waists: booby-trapping the entrances with bombs, they declared the actors and the audience to be hostages.
They then let the press in to register their demands - that Russia's military occupation of Chechnya be brought to an end, and that Chechnya get independence; they would kill the hostages one by one, until those demands were met. After three days' stalemate, during which two hostages were shot, a Russian paramilitary unit pumped nerve gas into the building and shot dead all 41 Chechens; 129 hostages were killed by gas-poisoning.
Chechens have perpetrated other bombings since. Newspaper readers may remember the proud aquiline features of the young Chechen woman who died clutching her explosives at a Moscow rock concert this summer; they may also have read about the bomb placed under a train full of Russian students on a holiday outing near the Chechen border.
Killings in Chechnya, usually of Russian military personnel, are often in the news. Killings of Chechens are less frequently reported, but these go on all the time. What are the roots of this conflict?
Chechnya is small: its 500,000 inhabitants occupy a tract of land about half the size of Wales, on the northern slopes of the Caucasus (see box).
But it is rich in oil, and since it straddles Europe and Asia it has always been of strategic importance. The Caucasus mountains form a boundary between West and East, between Europe and Asia, and between the Christian and Islamic worlds. For 200 years, Russia has tried to subdue it, with some temporary success, but Chechnya has proved as great a thorn in Russia's side as Afghanistan was in the 1980s.
During the Soviet period (1917-1989), Chechnya was forcibly merged with neighbouring Ingushetia, but when the Soviet empire broke up, it declared its independence. Three years later, Russia's president Boris Yeltsin sent in troops to restore Moscow's authority, but that first Chechen war ended in 1996 with the Russians' humiliating defeat. The second war began in October 1999, with what Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, termed an "anti-terrorist operation", after a wave of still-unattributed apartment-block bombings had rocked Russian cities.
This war continues and its savagery - on both sides - is horrifying, but the world's leaders have totally failed to stop it. Moscow regards Chechnya as part of the Russian Federation; its constitution does not acknowledge the right of any territory to secede. Russia fears that if Chechnya were to secede, other neighbouring republics would follow suit, thus ending Russian dominance in the region.
Christian missionaries To understand the hatred fuelling this fight, we have to go back in time.
Even the Russians have realised this: a fortnight before Yeltsin's invasion, two generals visited Moscow's Military Historical Archive with a request for information about past conflicts in the Caucasus. But they didn't dig deeply, and went away with stuff they could have gleaned from any pre-Soviet encyclopedia. They knew virtually nothing about the land they were going to invade, and defeat was the price they paid.
If they had dug deeper, they would have found that the relationship between Russia and Chechnya has followed a cycle of genocidal repression and resistance lasting centuries. They would have understood why the Chechens cling so desperately to their history and to the inspirational example of their forbears.
The Chechens are a Muslim ethnic group. The Russian emperor Ivan the Terrible sent missionaries to convert them to Christianity in the 16th century, and Catherine the Great did the same in the 18th, building a broad highway through the mountains to her Christian Georgian friends in the south. That gambit provoked a reaction from which Chechens still draw inspiration: a shepherd named Sheikh Mansur, who led the resistance to Catherine's imperialist push, was pictured prominently on Chechen president Dzhokar Dudayev's office wall as he tangled with Yeltsin in the 1990s. With Mansur's brave stand, the fateful cycle of history began.
Mansur proclaimed himself imam - chief of a Sufi Muslim order - and called for a return to a purified Islam, in particular for a renunciation of the tobacco and alcohol which the Russians had introduced into the region. He opposed the ancient tradition of the vendetta, and called for the imposition of sharia law instead: he wanted an ordered Muslim society, to see off the infidel invaders.
The Russians dismissed Mansur and his destitute followers as "bandits", using language which Yeltsin would later use of his Chechen foes. Yet Mansur won a shock victory: though he was eventually caught and imprisoned, he had taught the Russians not to underestimate what they called "the people of the Mountain".
Yermolov's terror The next phase of the cycle came in 1816, when General Aleksei Yermolov was appointed by the Russian emperor Alexander I to turn the Caucasus into an integral part of Russia. Yermolov's opening affirmation was chilling: "I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses, that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death." The Chechens, he said, were "a bold and dangerous people" who required special treatment. As a direct challenge, he founded the fortress of Groznaya (the word means "dreadful", and has now been elided to Grozny) in the middle of Chechen territory, and though Chechen snipers harassed his builders, an imperialist reign of terror began.
In an effort to subdue the rebellious inhabitants, crops and houses were burned, men massacred, and women raped. Yermolov decreed that if a Chechen took part in a raid, he and his family should be surrendered; if a community failed to do this, the whole village was to be razed. No wonder the memory of Yermolov, like that of the hero Sheikh Mansur, has passed down through generations: in 1969, two attempts were made at blowing up his statue in Grozny.
Yermolov had another tactic: deportation. While some of his Chechen victims were sent to Siberia, others were driven up into the Caucasus mountains, and that sowed the seeds of the resistance which Russia is meeting now, because the effect on the deported "mountaineers" was simply to harden their resolve.
Yermolov was sacked in 1827 by the incoming Tsar Nicholas I, but his policies endured, as a memo by a civil servant revealed: "The only way to deal with this ill-intentioned people is to destroy it to the last" - by genocide. Russian soldier-writers such as Lermontov and Tolstoy were shocked at such policies - Tolstoy flayed them in his novel Hadji Murad - but the war of attrition went on. But Yerlomov's biggest achievement was unintended: he provoked the rise of a radicalised Islam, whose leaders forged the Muslim tribes of the Caucasus into an army. The greatest of these leaders was Imam Shamil (1796-1871) who kept the Russian empire at bay for 20 humiliating years.
Though he hailed from neighbouring Dagestan, this tall, athletic, and highly intelligent man became the rallying-point the Chechens needed.
Shamil may have been an imam, but he wasn't a fanatic: in 1835 he tried to do a deal with the Russians whereby he would accept their sovereignty if they would accept the implementation of sharia law in the Caucasus. They refused, and took his 12-year-old son as a hostage, hostage-taking being as common a practice then - by both Russians and Chechens - as it is now. In 1839 the Russians made a cardinal error: they tried to confiscate the Chechens' firearms, and that was an affront no self-respecting mountaineer could tolerate. More followers flocked to Shamil, who set about establishing an Islamic state.
Yermolov may have been sacked, but his policies were thereafter intensified. Fresh Muslim deportations - mostly to Turkey - prompted a Russian minister in 1856 to make the first use of the term "ethnic cleansing". By the time Shamil was finally defeated in 1859 and put under permanent house arrest, the Chechen population had been halved: the Russians replaced the lost souls with Cossacks, Georgians, and Armenians who represented no threat. When deportee Chechens returned to their native land after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, they were branded by the Russians as "savages" and "traitors".
Soviet rule This was how Stalin treated all Chechens once he hit his stride in 1922: his repressions - justified as "pacification" - echoed Yermolov's, but were cleverer. Exemplary executions were backed up by a variety of other ploys: Muslim groups were set against each other; the Russian language was imposed in schools; pilgrimages to the Muslim holy cities were prohibited. And when the Soviet policy of taking land away from rich peasants (the Kulaks) and turning it into collective farms began in 1929, the North Caucasus was where it began - despite the fact that Chechen traditional denial of private land ownership meant there were no "rich peasants".
Resistance to these changes caused the Soviets to back-track briefly, but nothing impeded their increasingly genocidal thrust. In 1937, when Stalin's Great Purges of the intelligentsia began, Chechnya was hit harder than anywhere else in the Soviet Union, with the extermination of its entire leadership. The outbreak of the Second World War brought the Chechens sufferings which were unparalleled even by their shocking standards. On the pretext that they had supported the Nazi invaders against the Soviet government (fewer than 100 had, as opposed to the thousands who had enlisted in the Red Army) the Soviets decreed that they should be deported wholesale to remote regions in Central Asia.
The job was done with breathtaking ruthlessness. In some villages the inhabitants were invited to watch equestrian contests, or come together for street parties: once everyone had assembled, the men were arrested and the women told to go home and pack their bags. A few villages were massacred.
The Jews deported to Auschwitz did not suffer worse, in transit, than the Chechens on the trains which carried them starving across the Steppes.
Once they had gone the map was redrawn again, with the Chechen-Ingush republic replaced by "Grozny District". Those who managed to filter back home after hard labour in their Asian settlements found strangers occupying their homes; from that point on, they were systematically treated as second-class citizens, and remained so until the Soviet empire's demise.
Warlordism In present-day Russia, Chechens are derogatorily nicknamed chyornie - which means "blacks". They suffer social harassment and official discrimination: if their internal passports are not in order - which often means they haven't paid enough in bribes - they can be summarily deported back to Chechnya. Meanwhile the situation there - with towns and villages lacking gas, electricity, running water, and basic medical facilities - is only patchily reported: the fate of the British telecoms engineers who were abducted and decapitated in 1999 demonstrated the dangers which all outsiders run now the rule of law has broken down.
The war raging between the occupying Russians and the Chechen rebel forces is an intensified echo of past conflicts. Chechnya's first president, General Dudayev, was killed in a rocket attack in 1996; his successor, Aslan Maskhadov, tried to tame the local tigers by incorporating the most prominent guerrilla commander, Shamil Basayev, into his government. But Basayev, who proudly traces his martial lineage back to Imam Shamil, could not adapt to politics, and soon reverted to his guerrilla activities.
Warlordism, financed by extortion and profits from black-market oil, is now rampant; atrocities are routinely perpetrated by both sides. The Russians claim to be hunting bandits, but evidence suggests that this is their cover for torture, murder, and many kinds of ransom. In Chechnya now, where custom lays great importance on proper burial, the ransoming of corpses is as big a business as the ransoming of live people. Meanwhile the landmine fatality-count is spiralling, with 5,695 deaths in 2002, as opposed to 2,140 the year before; mines are still being laid by both sides.
Human Rights Watch, which has catalogued instances of arbitrary detention, extortion, torture, and extrajudicial execution, is calling for the Russian government to make its troops accountable for violations of international humanitarian law.
The Russian authorities have blocked access to international monitors, but one reporter who has made extended visits over the past few years is Anna Politkovskaya of the liberal Moscow newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and her book A Small Corner of Hell is published this month. Her concern is less with the fighters than with the fate of the ordinary Chechens, and she delineates a horrifying dance of death between terrified locals, power-crazed guerrillas, and young Russian conscripts brutalised by drugs and drink.
"This is state versus group terrorism," she concludes.
The Caucasus divides Europe and Asia, comprising three post-Soviet states - Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia - and six autonomous Russian republics on the mountainous isthmus joining Russia and Turkey between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (see map). The region includes more than 100 distinct groups, speaking dozens of languages and practising several different religions.
FARMERS AND FIGHTERS
Chechens traditionally lived in auls - villages of single-storied, flat-roofed houses built of sun-baked mud. Each house had its garden or orchard, with the nearby fields - which were communally owned - being used to grow oats or barley. In times of danger the women and children would gather all their belongings and flee to the forests which were, until the Russians cut them down, their perennial refuge. "They are all but born on horseback," said a 19th-century Russian general admiringly, of his martial foes. The Chechens were ferocious fighters: weapons were their most prized possessions. Their religion was Muslim, but retaining elements of pagan animism (the belief that even trees and rocks possess souls).
Their religious leaders repeatedly tried to induce them to practice Islamic sharia law, following all the precepts of the Koran. But clan loyalties - bolstered by the transmission of heroic tribal legends - always ran deeper.
One of their customs sanctioned an elaborate system of vendetta, or blood-feud. Important decisions were traditionally taken by a general assembly of all the males.
Russia Confronts Chechnya: Roots of a separatist conflict by John B Dunlop offers an admirably clear and succinct historical analysis. Cambridge University Press pound;13.95 Crying Wolf: The return of war to Chechnya by Vanora Bennett is a vivid first-person account of the Chechen conflicts of the late 1990s, which also reports on the Chechen diaspora in Russia and the Middle East. Pan pound;8.99 A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya by Anna Politkovskaya is a scarifying but scrupulously fair account of Chechen life today, based on extensive research. University of Chicago Press pound;17.50 Into Harm's Way: Forced return of Displaced People to Chechnya from Human Rights Watch gives case-studies documented in forensic detail: www.hrw.org