Prof examines Chechen conflict

By Art Kimball-Stanley

Georgi Derluguian teaches sociology at Northwestern, and, when he’s dressed in his tweed jacket and tie, he wouldn’t be mistaken as someone who spends a good deal of time traveling the war-torn Caucusus mountains, fraternizing with terrorists and timing just how fast he can assemble a Kalashnikov rifle. But as the title character—and U of C professor—from the Indiana Jones movies taught the world, not all research is done in the library and not all professors are nerds.

Derluguian gave a lecture entitled “The Making of Chechen Terrorists: The Clash of Forces and Discourses” on Tuesday at International House. The event was part of the Beyond the Headlines series, a project organized to bring scholars and journalists together to discuss important world issues.

During his lecture, attended by roughly 50 students and members of the community, Derluguian detailed several reasons why Chechnya and Russia are currently at war, placing these reasons in the context of world history and current world events.

Derluguian’s lecture was moderated by Ronald G. Suny, professor of political science and history at the University. According to Suny, Derluguian’s approach to sociology is different than that of most. “He looks at big theories, big subjects, and long periods of time,” Suny said. “I would call him a sociological ethnographer.”

Derluguian travels to places including the northern Caucusus region, pays attention to the current political and social climate, and attempts to build a picture of the situation—rather than imposing complex academic theories. This synthetic, rather than analytic, approach presents a different picture of the tragic recent history in Chechnya.

Derluguian has interviewed the men who take out Russian tanks with rocket-propelled grenades on the streets of Grozny. He has spent evenings dining with professors whose universities have been blown into rubble. His research attempts to show exactly how a society reverts back to its old ways after experiencing modernity.

Derluguian used the following analogy to explain his work: “What I try to do is figure out, when the lights go out, how people go into the barn and use their battered old oil lamps. There are high-rise buildings in the Caucusus, where people still live, that have gone years without electricity. What I try to do is figure out what happens to people’s heads when they live like this.”

According to Derluguian, the modernity that Soviet Russia brought and imposed for 80 years on Chechnya—high-rise buildings, plumbing, heating, education—no longer exists. As the facilities that allow for modern society disappear, old social codes and methods of interaction begin to emerge.

Derluguian argues that the extreme poverty now seen in the Caucusus is leading to the radicalization of many of the region’s inhabitants. This radicalization is having effects throughout the rest of the world. As Derluguian pointed out early in his talk, many of the Chechen fighters he had contact with had ties with Al Qaeda.

The only way to stop this process of radicalization, according to Derluguian, would be massive economic aid. But in a world where free and private trade is the maxim, it’s almost impossible for a region like the Caucusus to find investors, Derluguian said.

Derluguian finished on a somber note. “If this region disappeared it would be good riddance for the world economy. Unfortunately it does exist and there are people there,” he said.

Beyond the Headlines is a collaborative project of the Center for International Studies, International House Global Voices Program, and the Chicago Society. They will be sponsoring a talk by Bruce Cummings on his new book, Inventing the Axis of Evil: the Truth about North Korea, Iran, and Syria, on February 10.