A History Lesson From the Hessians to the Chechens

Those watching news coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will have heard by now of the vaunted Chechen fighters. Chechen leader and close Putin ally Ramzan Kadyrov has sent thousands of his soldiers—many of whom are veterans of Russia’s wars in Georgia and Syria—to suppress the Ukrainian resistance. They have an earned reputation for toughness, brutality, and tenaciousness, fighting under a flag bearing the image of a gray wolf, a traditional symbol of Chechen nationalism.

Putin’s decision to send the Chechen wolves to Ukraine was a warning to Ukrainian resistors, that “what happened in Chechnya will happen in Ukraine—that they’ll rampage the city, loot, rape, and kill.” Pro-Russian accounts on social media shared videos of bearded Chechen fighters marching to war accompanied by primal music and looking appropriately ferocious.

Thus far the Chechen impact on the war has been underwhelming. Ukrainian officials claimed last week to have defeated a Chechen strikeforce sent to assassinate President Volodymyr Zelensky and destroyed a column of Chechen tanks on its way to Kyiv. But for Putin, the propaganda value from sending in the Chechens was as much the point as any battlefield accomplishments. They were meant to scare Ukrainians into submission. The Chechens are coming! The Chechens are coming!

The Chechen soldiers in Ukraine are fulfilling a similar role to that once played by a different group of foreign mercenaries from American history. In Washington Irving’s 1819 tale, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the superstitious schoolmaster Ichabod Crane is confronted by a ghost from America’s revolutionary past. The villain of the piece, a saber-slashing “headless horseman,” could have easily been a British red coat, taking his revenge on those who had defied king and crown. Yet Irving chose differently, making his antagonist “the Galloping Hessian of the Hollow.”

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