It was late 1994, one of the first battles of the Chechen war had just ended, and on a hill outside Grozny, the Chechen capital, a handful of pro-independence troops were celebrating their victory over an opposition faction armed by the Russians.

The skirmish had been minor in comparison with the cataclysm that was to come, and many Chechens already feared a full-scale Russian invasion, which would soon follow. Yet the exhausted victors were euphoric. One of them, an unlikely warrior in his late forties or early fifties, stepped forward, turned to me, and announced he was going to introduce the "foreign visitor" to the Chechen people. He then raised his fist and recited in effortless Russian:

Wild are the tribes that in those gorges dwell;

Freedom their god is, war their law . . .

To strike a foeman there, is never ill,

Friendship is true--revenge is truer still;

There good for good is paid, and blood for blood,

And hate, like love, is boundless as the flood.

If the introduction was more poetic than might have been expected under the circumstances, it is because the author was Mikhail Lermontov, the great poet of Russian romanticism. Some 160 years earlier, while serving in the czar's army, Lermontov had fought in a war against the Chechens. Ever since, his poems and prose have played an important role in defining the Chechen national character--all the more so whenever Chechens are displaying their wild streak, their uncompromising definition of freedom and their audacious readiness to engage a vastly superior army, as they have done time and again.

It is those characteristics that have set the Chechens apart from other ethnic groups dominated by Russia, and they are the ones that account for the astounding victory the Chechens scored over the Russians in 1996. They also account, however, for the current hostilities. Many of the Chechen leaders seem to thrive on war, which has become not a means to an end, but an end in itself. That is the only explanation for the cavalier way in which they have now provoked Russia into invading their land.

The warriors I met on the hill in 1994 wore Lermontov's words like a badge of honor. Thoroughly Russified, graduates of an education system that repressed Chechen language and culture, their self-image was to some extent a result of their romanticization at the hands of Russian literary masters.

As soon as the recitation was complete, the Chechens emitted a long allahu akbar, Arabic for "God is great," as if to lend a more indigenous flavor to the Russian verses. But that was as far as their piety went. None of the fighters I saw there five years ago wore a beard, a hallmark of the believer (and the longer the better); at least one empty bottle of cheap Russian vodka lay on the ground (there are few teetotalers among the Chechens, or among North Caucasian Muslims in general); their expressions lacked the grim intensity of holy Muslim warriors elsewhere; no one I met at that time spoke of an Islamic state as an ultimate goal, least of all the senior religious clerics ("Religion does not belong in politics," said the rector of Grozny's Islamic University, Meirbek Haji Nasukhanov). At best a few centuries old, Chechen Islam was laid-back, steeped in mysticism and rooted in local customs. Fundamentalists elsewhere would have frowned on its eclectic practices.

Five years have passed since that poetic morning on the hill--and much has changed. Chechen fighters now wear beards, some of them extremely long; they swear allegiance to a strict codex of Islamic laws and entertain missionaries from the Arabian peninsula who tell them to turn their backs on the heretical "innovations" their ancestors held so dear. The Chechen struggle, originally waged in the name of self-determination, has been expropriated by an alien ideology, at once meddlesome, arrogant, intolerant and ignorant of local realities. A struggle that had once earned the Chechens the sympathy of many the world over has been transfigured with calamitous results. Russian troops are again on the march in Chechnya; Chechens are again dying by the hundreds; at least a tenth of the population is again on the road, seeking shelter from Russia's notoriously imprecise precision bombing.

What has turned a famous victory, accomplished against the longest odds, into a major tragedy? One explanation lies in Russia's supreme clumsiness. Beginning with Afghanistan in the early 1980s, the Russians have developed something of an expertise in radicalizing Muslim societies. It is to the Russian intervention in Afghanistan that the world owes the Osama bin Ladens of our time, the terrorist bombings in New York, the senseless massacres in Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, not to mention the continuous tragedy in Afghanistan itself.

As if Afghanistan were not enough, Russia opened a black hole in its Northeast Caucasus, just a two-hour flight from Moscow. I recall a Chechen leader, a pious Muslim himself, who warned the world just before Russia's invasion in December 1994: The holy warriors of Afghanistan "will come here if Russia goes to war, there is no doubt of that. We do not need them, they will give us a lot of trouble--but we won't be able to stop them." Indeed.

Russia's influence, however, is not the only culprit in the unmaking of Chechnya's finest hour. The Chechens offer a classic example of a triumphant army unwilling--or unable--to adjust to peace. The promise was enormous when, in September 1996, a humiliated Russia finally resolved to cut its losses and run. It was, in fact, the first time in the long history of the country's relations with its ethnic minorities that a Russian government conceded a military defeat and let the challengers of its rule stay where they were--in power.

It happened because the Chechens are unlike any other minority dominated by Russia. They have resisted Russia since the first major campaign in the Northern Caucusus in the 1780s. They were instinctive freedom fighters, whose egalitarian social structure and elevated landscape made them a latter-day version of the medieval Scottish clans rising against an English king. It was no accident that "Braveheart," Hollywood's 1995 rendering of a 13th-century Scottish rebellion, distributed on pirated videocassettes, became one of the most popular movies in the North Caucasus. Shamil Basayev, the Chechen military commander whom the Russians love to hate, openly compared himself not with a holy Islamic warrior but with William Wallace (made famous by actor Mel Gibson).

Having accomplished the improbable in 1996, the Chechens had their first real opportunity in more than two centuries to take the next step toward independence, through reconstruction and reconciliation. Instead, too many Chechens indulged themselves in what might be called the politics of rupture.

The ultimate practitioner of rupture was Dzhokhar Dudayev, the narcissistic general who had assumed command of Chechnya in 1991. He was a man of considerable personal courage who thought nothing of sacrificing hundreds of thousands in pursuit of his agenda. For Dudayev, the only way forward was by perpetual apocalypse, preferably here and now.

"Dzhokhar never made a secret of his intentions," Mariam Vakhidova, Dudayev's onetime press secretary, told me. "From 1990 on, he always said, 'Freedom's price is high.' I once asked him how high, and he replied, 'Even if one-third of the population has to die.' "

"I told him, 'Dzhokhar, this is too heavy a price to pay. Let the bad guys die. But why the innocent? I am not going to associate myself with this.' He responded: 'Mariam, you have weak nerves. You are not fit for big politics.' "

In late 1995, a few months before his assassination (orchestrated, in all probability, by the Russians), Dudayev minced no words in a BBC television interview: "What would I do if the Russians suddenly pulled out? I've got 300,000 men, aged 17 to 50, homeless, jobless, embittered and with nothing to do. All they can do is fight. I need a little war and an enemy against whom to send them to battle. I have a program, not to separate from Russia but to enter it and destroy it from within."

If the latter words smacked of bravado, the events of the last two months suggest they were the core of a grand design Dudayev bequeathed to his lieutenants--people such as Basayev, or Dudayev's own son-in-law, Salman Raduyev. Both have drawn tremendous personal pleasure from spiting the Russians in daring raids and outrageous terrorist acts.

Such showmanship in the service of a cause is an old Chechen habit, going back to the early days of Russia's presence. At the time, the abrek, or "bandit of honor," lived on the periphery of society and the law. A Robin Hood of sorts, he would engage in highly theatrical gestures of defiance--and became the stuff of legends. A famous Chechen abrek of the early 20th century was Zelimkhan Kharachoyevski, a bank robber and a Russian raider. Tales of Kharachoyevski's gallantry in the service of his nation live on in a Chechen lullaby, which beseeches the child-listener to "grow up fast so you may serve your homeland . . . be dauntless and selfless just like Zelimkhan."

Basayev and Raduyev--and perhaps also the Chechens suspected of bombing apartment buildings in Moscow last month--seem to have taken the lullaby literally. The theater of defiance, no longer serving a well-defined purpose, cannot substitute for serious politics. There is a point at which a patriot has to know when to stop.

That the Basayevs and the Raduyevs of Chechnya would not stop became abundantly clear soon after the Russian pullout in 1996. Both refused to accept the authority of Aslan Maskhadov, the president the overwhelming majority of the Chechens elected in early 1997. Raduyev threatened to blow Russia off the map, while Basayev opted for a revival of an Islamic state that united Chechnya and the neighboring province of Dagestan in the mid-19th century. He invaded Dagestan twice over the summer in pursuit of his dream, inflicted misery on fellow Muslims, and announced he would fight for another generation if necessary. He openly invited a Russian response, and got it.

The Russians are patently wrong if they assume that their invasion of Chechnya punishes the likes of Basayev any more than their previous invasion in 1994 punished Dudayev. Then and now, the Russians have been delivering the apocalypse so indispensable for the politics of rupture. Then and now, the only ones punished are the Chechen people.

It is certainly too early to foretell the results of this round of the war. The Russians may yet again run into a Chechen rock. But the time may have come for friends of the Chechens--including this author--to ask their leaders whether this is worth it. A nation whose physical extermination has been planned repeatedly by czarist and Soviet governments, has earned the right to ask its valiant abreks to give it a break.

Yo'av Karny, a Washington-based journalist, is the author of "Highlanders: A Journey to the Caucasus in Quest of Memory," to be published soon by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.