Local Russians see Chechnya as distinct place

No fear of retaliation or confusion about nationalities

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



Lex Valishvili remembers too well a previous bombing that was linked to Chechens. It was 2008 and Valishvili was a university student, living in his native Russia — and sleeping late.

There was a sound like a “loud clap,” he said. Minutes later he got up, turned on the TV, and saw that a nearby military base had been bombed. Valishvili’s father had served in the military in Chechnya, but at this point he was teaching at military college, and wasn’t nearby.

The bombing wasn’t unexpected, Valishvili said. “In the city where I lived there were several bomb attacks. I remember those days. I remember the patrols always walking around and I remember the rumors going around.”

Chechnya has been struggling for independence in one way or another since the late 1700s. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, an independence movement emerged that fought a surprisingly effective guerrilla war and developed an Islamic character. Russia responded with brutal assaults; tens of thousands of civilians were killed. Russia re-established firm control over Chechnya in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and things have been quieter for the last few years — despite the occasional spectacular terrorist act, including suicide bombings and hostage takings in Moscow and elsewhere.

Valishvili, 26, was an international exchange student who met his future wife at Bible college in the United States. He emigrated from Russia permanently five years ago, he said, and now lives with his wife in Ridgefield. He is the youth administrator at the Church of Truth, a large Russian congregation that meets in what used to be The Hoop, a recreation center on Northeast 41st Street in the Van Mall neighborhood.

The idea that some Americans might confuse Russians and Chechens, and express retaliatory anger at Russians for something their rivals did, struck Valishvili as absurd.

“Russia is big and a lot of nationalities live there,” said Valishvili. “The Chechens are totally different people. Russia has been struggling with them at the same time. It’s a totally different culture. It doesn’t make sense to combine the two together.”

That’s true, agreed Tina Esch, president of Vancouver’s Am-Ru (American-Russian) International Association — but just the same, Esch is loath to blame a whole ethnic group for anything. Esch grew up in Moscow, Russia’s largest city and a melting pot of regional ethnicities — just the way New York City is a global melting pot, she said — and so she is used to seeing people as individuals, not stereotypes. Some Russians may look down on people from the Caucusus region — Chechnya, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan — but Esch has a more nuanced opinion.

“It’s not so good land,” she said of Chechnya and its complaints. “They struggle for food all the time.”

She said she feels right at home in a multicolored, multi-ethnic Vancouver neighborhood.

“I am happy I live in Vancouver,” she said. “I live in a very nice neighborhood. From the right side of my home are Spanish people, from the left side are American people, also an international marriage, also people from the Philippines.” They watch each other’s children, she said; she was once offered payment for babysitting, but refused.

“I do it for free and I am very glad to do it. We are like (a) big family,” she said.

Joe Asbridge, a special projects coordinator for Lutheran Community Services Northwest, which settles refugees in this area, said he’s unaware of any Chechens or Chechen community in Clark County.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://facebook.com/reporterhewitt; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.

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