Polina Ibrayeva is now a frail old lady with sparkling brown eyes. Seventy-three years ago, she was a three-month-old infant suddenly uprooted from the Chechen mountain village where she was born and deported thousands of kilometers east to the steppes of northern Kazakhstan.
Ibrayeva was one of over half a million souls — the entire population of the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic — who were bundled into cattle cars, and endured a 2,500-kilometer journey into Central Asian exile. Chechens and Ingush are marking the anniversary of the deportation this week.
“They called us enemies of the people,” Ibrayeva said plainly in a quavering voice, sitting dressed in a tulip-patterned headscarf and polka-dot dress in her neat wooden cottage in the village of Krasnaya Polyana, a plump gray cat snoozing contentedly beside her.
February 23, 1944, is etched into the memory of the Vainakh people — the collective name for Chechens and Ingush — as the traumatic start of the Aardakh: the Exodus. The mass deportation to Central Asia was the collective punishment devised by Josef Stalin and his secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria for perceived treachery to the Motherland.
The expulsion happened during the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet name for World War II), two years after Nazi troops had invaded the Caucasus in a doomed bid to gain control of oilfields there. “They supposedly deported us to save the Caucasus,” explained Ansar Ibrayev, Polina Ibrayeva’s son, who currently serves as the mayor of Krasnaya Polyana, where many deportees were settled and their descendants live on 70 years later.
“The policy was that Chechens could go over to the side of the Germans in the Caucasus, although the Germans didn’t reach Grozny and didn’t reach the [River] Terek. But Russian policy labeled them traitors and enemies of the people,” Ibrayev said.
Chechen communities in Kazakhstan have clung faithfully to their native customs and retain strong ties to the homeland. Sitting in the town hall, dressed in a traditional blue velvet Chechen skullcap, Ibrayev displayed photos on his computer of his visits to Chechnya.
The insults against Chechen pride sting even after seven decades. “We were not traitors!” said Ibrayev, a historian by training. “There were 50,000 [Chechens] fighting on the front, heroes, yet their wives and mothers were deported!”
Having struggled to quell a Chechen insurgency that began in 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Hitler under a non-aggression pact, the Kremlin perceived the Chechens a fifth column that might side with the Nazis — although the tide in the Battle of the Caucasus had turned in the Red Army’s favor a year before the Aardakh was set into motion.
Ibrayeva was too young to have first-hand recollections of Operation Lentil, as the Soviets codenamed the deportation. The Russian for lentil is chechevitsa, making the codename a cruel piece of wordplay.
But Ibrayeva lucidly recounted memories passed down by her mother, who traveled from Chechnya to Kazakhstan alone with five children, her husband having disappeared in Stalin’s purges, presumed shot. They were dumped in a village in Kazakhstan’s Kostanay Region. But for the Kazakhs that fed and clothed them, the family might well have perished. “My mother always tells me: Ansar, you’re alive because the Kazakh people didn’t let us die,” said the mayor, who recounted the hardships experienced by his paternal relatives amid the deportation.
His father “would always remember how … they arrived [in Kazakhstan] in March, him aged 14, and his sister and mother died of starvation, on the same day. He took them to the cemetery, buried them, came home, and his second sister was lying there dead. They’re buried here, at our cemetery.”
Krasnaya Polyana is 300 kilometers northwest of Astana in Kazakhstan’s agricultural heartlands, where fields of wheat — plump and golden in the late fall — seem to stretch to the horizon.
The road from the nearest town, Atbasar, turns into a muddy track that passes through villages where old German ladies in headscarves tend their hay bales — another legacy of Stalin’s deportations, for the Chechens were neither the first nor last to suffer deportation from their homeland.
Ethnic Germans from Russia and Ukraine, Koreans from the Far East, Kurds from the Caucasus, Tatars from Crimea were all among those deported in the 1930s and 1940s to Central Asia, which became a dumping ground for peoples singled out for collective punishment.
Many died during the arduous journey. The survivors toiled in factories and on collective farms, serving as cogs that powered Stalin’s agricultural and industrial revolutions.
The deportations left a demographic imprint that reverberates to this day on Kazakhstan, where President Nursultan Nazarbayev has made a virtue of the legacy of diversity inherited from the Soviet Union. Minorities accounted for around 60 percent of the population when the country gained independence in 1991, but the emigration of ethnic Slavs, Germans and others, combined with the inflow of ethnic Kazakhs from other countries, including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, China and Mongolia, has lowered the ratio to around one-third.
Astana preaches ethnic harmony and tolerance as national values — and certainly in Krasnaya Polyana, Chechen culture is thriving. The village’s school is the only one in Kazakhstan offering the Chechen language on the curriculum. Vibrant cultural traditions, such as dancing the zikr — the Chechen version of a Whirling Dervish dance — are faithfully preserved. “We shouldn’t lose our culture,” said the mayor, who says Kazakhstan will always be home for him and his children. “That’s our rich asset.”
The Chechens of northern Kazakhstan have also fashioned new traditions: they are known as the beloshapochniki, the White Hats, after the shaggy sheepskin papakha headgear they wear.
The village has another distinguishing feature: it is dry. Drinking alcohol is not prohibited, but it is not sold. Prohibition is not motivated by religious beliefs (Chechens are Muslim), but to discourage alcoholism — often a blight in rural Kazakhstan.
Krasnaya Polyana was founded by Slavic settlers in 1863, but after the great migratory shifts of the 1990s, the village is these days almost entirely Chechen. In addition to just over one thousand Chechens, the village has 14 Russian, three German and three Kazakh residents.
Polina Ibrayeva also has a namesake. She was named after a Russian nurse billeted on her family with a Soviet captain in their Chechen village in 1943. Later, her mother realized they were part of an advance party to prepare for the Aardakh.
In 1957, four years after Stalin’s death, Chechens were allowed to return home. Ibrayeva returned with her family to Chechnya, although not to their home village, Lyunki, which was by then occupied by “other people.”
She lived her teenage years in Chechnya and expected to spend the rest of her life there, but fate intervened. In 1962, her family came to Krasnaya Polyana to visit relatives and betrothed her to a local Chechen. Tradition dictates that the bride join the husband’s family, so she stayed behind when the rest of her family returned to Chechnya.
The old lady says she loves Kazakhstan (and its president too), but her eyes glitter with longing when she talks of Chechnya. “I’ve been living here for 54 years, but I still miss it. It’s my place, where my people are,” she said.
“Sometimes I sit up at night and cry and I think: why are those [siblings] in a different place and I’m here? That’s not something you forget. We were cast adrift.”
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.