CHECHNYA AND DAGESTAN, Russia — Russia likes to present itself as a solid monolith, a country crafted into stability by the strong hand of Vladimir Putin.
The easiest way to shatter that myth is to tell a Russian that you have just returned from a trip to Chechnya and Dagestan. They’ll ask if you were scared. They’ll ask if you got hurt. One Moscow taxi driver said, “I know they’re strategically important, but at this point I wonder why we don’t just let them go.”
The north Caucasus — the mountainous region that includes Chechnya and Dagestan, and a half-dozen other republics — has long fascinated, and terrified, the Russian consciousness. Nestled between the Black and Caspian seas, the region provides Russia key maritime access. But as the home since the mid-1990s to a persistent Islamic insurgency, as well as dozens of ethnic groups, many governed by intense clan interests, these republics have proved difficult to govern.