Nearly 370 people have died since gunmen claiming to champion Chechen national rights seized a school in North Ossetia (a territory neighbouring Chechnya) on Wednesday 1 September and took the children hostage.
Nearly 200 people are still officially missing. Many of the dead and missing are children.
Nothing the hostage-takers might say about Chechen rights can blur the horror of what they did. Discussing the need for harsh measures in revolutionary and class struggles, Leon Trotsky wrote:
"The liberating morality of the proletariat of necessity is endowed with a revolutionary character. It irreconcilably counteracts not only religious dogma but every kind of idealistic fetish... It deduces a rule for conduct... primarily from the class struggle...
"Permissible and obligatory are those and only those means... which unite the revolutionary proletariat, fill their hearts with irreconcilable hostility to oppression, teach them contempt for official morality and its democratic echoers, imbue them with consciousness of their own historic mission, raise their courage and spirit of self-sacrifice in the struggle. Precisely from this it flows that not all means are permissible..."
Taking children hostage as a means of pressure on Vladimir Putin and the Russian government is a "tactic" which would condemn itself if it made sense; for it could make sense only on the assumption that Putin's brutal government would care more about the children's lives that the hostage-takers would, and so could be forced into concessions that way.
Trotsky also wrote about the "interdependence of ends and means". Those who use means such as taking hundreds of children hostage and slaughtering many of them are actually serving ends quite different from any liberatory aims they may have started out fighting for. If the hostage-takers are Chechen nationalists, then their struggle has been degraded from their initial aim to one of mere incoherent hatred.
During a spate of individualist-anarchist bomb-throwing in France at the end of the 19th century, George Plekhanov summed up a similar process of political degeneration in these angry words:
"'What matters the death of vague human beings' – continues the Anarchist logician Tailhade – 'if thereby the individual affirms himself!' Here we have the true morality of the Anarchists; it is also that of the crowned heads...
"In the name of the revolution, the Anarchists serve the cause of reaction; in the name of morality they approve the most immoral acts; in the name of individual liberty they trample under foot all the rights of their fellows".
The hostage-takers are responsible for their own actions; but Moscow bears responsibility for the degradation of Chechen society which makes it possible for such pathology to emerge. And London and Washington bear responsibility for their complicity, their willingness to turn a blind eye to Moscow's terror in Chechnya in order to enlist its support for the "war against terror" elsewhere.
The Chechens could and should have been granted their right to self-determination when the USSR first broke up. They still should have that right. Instead, Yeltsin and his successors chose war - a war which has trashed Chechen society.
Not long back, Stan Crooke review Anna Politovskaya's book A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya in Solidarity:
"The war in Chechnya has rotted the material of society not just in Chechnya but in Russia as well. The first Chechen war (1994-1996) provoked a wave of protest in Russia. The second and ongoing war is met with indifference...
"The Russian military wage war primarily on a defenceless Chechen civilian population, not on the Chechen armed factions. There are no ground rules in this war. And the Russian soldiers themselves have been brutalised by the savagery of the conflict: 'Many of them suffer from severe psychological disorders, alcoholism and drug abuse'.
"The Chechens nominally fighting for national liberation or some other noble cause are no less brutal towards the Chechen civilian population than the Russian invaders. And the Chechens fighting on the side of the Russians are the most brutal of all.
"In Chechnya the opposing sides collaborate to murder, rape, rob and ransom the civilian population: 'The Feds (Russian troops) and the Chechen thieves have formed solid criminal gangs'.
"Chechen society is trapped in a spiral of social regression. Odd exceptions apart, people are engaged in a primitive struggle for basic survival which has squeezed out values of human solidarity and sympathy with the sufferings of others".
It is something like the pathology imposed on Cambodia by the USA's attempt to "bomb it back into the Stone Age" from 1970, which led to the Khmer Rouge, originally some sort of national liberation movement, becoming an organisation for mass murder of its own people. Or the pathology imposed on Afghanistan by Russia's war there in the 1980s.
The pamphlet by Plekhanov which I cite above was specifically criticised by Lenin in "State and Revolution". So, why did I think I could cite it without veering towards reformism?
Lenin's main criticism of the pamphlet is what it doesn't say about state and revolution. Fair enough: but that doesn't disqualify what it does say.
Some of what it does say, Lenin writes, is valuable. But some, he says, is "philistine", amounting to a "clumsy" disquisition that an anarchist is indistinguishable from a bandit.
Fair point. Plekhanov's pamphlet, rather bilious in tone (Plekhanov himself was a former Bakuninist), does try to damn all anarchists with the misdeeds of an individualist-anarchist minority.
In 1917, when Lenin was trying - and eventually with some success - to win over the best of the anarchists in the great regroupment of working-class militants generated by World War 1, obviously Lenin would be concerned to distance himself from crude blunderbuss denunciations of all anarchistss.
Lenin does not dispute the idea that some anarchists can mutate into banditry. And I'm certainly sure he would not have disputed that idea after the experience of the Russian Civil War.
So I think it is legitimate to cite Plekhanov's words to cast light on how some nationalists can mutate into banditry.
Not all, of course. And that is an important political point. The bland alibi proposed by some of the left - the school hijacking was horrible, of course, but what can you expect from such an oppressed people - is both condescending and false.
Oppressed peoples can fight back, and have fought back, by methods more suiting to their ends - methods which we may not consider the best to serve their ends, but which nevertheless serve, or might serve, their ends to some extent. A group which mutates into using methods like school hijackings has mutated not only in its methods, but, de facto, in its ends.