A Hopeless War

Date: January 2002
Source: New Times
By Nairi Hovsepyan

When the battle between the wolf and snake ends


Little Bulat is not yet 3. The boy is ill. His whole family is crowded in two rooms of a stranger's house. The family realizes that the kid cannot be treated in Nazran. "Can you take him to Moscow?" I asked. "Probably", was the answer.

Afterwards Bulat's mother Markha and myself were sitting on the front porch, and she said: "Last summer we lived in Moscow. It was harder there than here. I felt like shaking all people by the shoulders, one by one, I couldn't stand their tranquillity any longer".

Twice Markha left Grozny with her children when the city had been being bombed. Her daughter Danya had been born right on the eve of the first Chechen war. Little Bulat came into the world at the start of the second one. Friends see it as an omen: If Markha is going to have another baby, war will break out again.


In one of his works, the Greek historian Strabo called the Chechens "troglodytes". The author of antiquity had in mind the primitive tribe inhabiting the Caucasus Mountains, nothing more. All the figurative connotations of the word came later.

Most certainly the majority of those whose shoulders Markha wanted to shake had never heard of Strabo. But just as certainly they all accept Strabo's description and go even further: the Chechens are troglodytes, terrorists and kidnappers. Markha does not know yet that all these people are not indifferent. She had had to live through yet another year of war, to celebrate little Bulat's third birthday and to get away from the place where people cannot accept others' tranquillity before it became clear to her that for the average Russian the war in Chechnya was over.

Interest in that war tapered off even before the World Trade Center ruins buried all our former concepts of the scale and possibilities of terrorism. Lord Judd's last visit to Chechnya got little publicity. Our delegations in the European parliament are coexisting peacefully with the civilized Europe. The scandal launched by Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya gazeta over the inhuman conditions of POWs in the compound of an army unit in Chechnya rapidly died down. Advance units of the army propaganda machine were quietly disbanded. Where is General Manilov now? He is serving in the Federation Council. And where is the reserve officer Yastrzhembsky? The last news of him came from the Kursk submarine salvage area in the Barents Sea. He was in the company of Prosecutor General Ustinov. And where is the latter now, by the way? Ustinov is in Makhachkala at the trial of Raduyev, the Number 2 terrorist of the last war.

All this flashed through my mind like a frame on a roll of film. Maybe it is due to this effect that one recalls nothing of that war but the passing symbols. Though one can easily trace the degeneration of the "anti-terrorist operation" even by war time standards. Who would remember today that it all commenced with the struggle to "preserve statehood"? Last winter's calm seemed to promise another Khasavyurt. Soon there even came talk of withdrawing the troops. All talks were abandoned when a video message of Basayev's appeared. In it he asked his friend Gelayev to leave his Pankisi Gorge lair and come back to Chechnya to resume the guerrilla war. It came to light a couple of days later that the message had not been translated into Russian properly and that it had been concocted together from Basayev's earlier TV addresses. But it became evident to all that withdrawing the troops would be like the Sheriff of Nottingham leasing Sherwood to its inhabitants.

The villages of Assinovskaya and Sernovodskaya were leased to the federal forces, not to the rebels. The summer "mop-ups" in them surpassed in cruelty all that had ever taken place during the war. In those days the long-brewing conflict between the generals and the civilians, who didn't approve their actions, broke out into the open through the thick veil of propaganda. And the word "peace" was sounded more or less clearly.

Afterwards came reports of Barayev's death again, of crazy Budanov, of shootouts in daylight and ambushes on patrolled roads. In a word, of a guerrilla war. On September 11, airplanes hit the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon.

Nails and conspirology

It seemed in those days that Russia had its best chance to ax off the Chechen head off the hydra of terrorism. Things turned out differently.

The president offered his freed hands to his US colleague. Two months later Kazantsev met with Zakayev, who had flown back from Turkey. At subsequent press conferences each asked journalists not to see more in the meeting than there really was. They forgot the preceding conspirologic tricks with substitutions of airports, arrival times and even the agenda. These manipulations to divert the public attention from the heart of the matter had the ultimate goal of summing up the third year of the war, namely, that today it is impossible to arrange another Khasavyurt. The war has lost all its usual formalities, including the prospects of putting out a white flag one day.

...A report came from Chechnya: Rizvan Lorsanov had been murdered. He was a man of no particular renown either in the first Chechen campaign or in this one. He did not fight, he was trying to achieve peace: it was in his house in New Atagi late in August of 1996 that an end was put to the first war. It was said of late about the peacemaker that he had been going around Chechnya seeking contacts on both sides. It is not known whether Rizvan Lorsanov was killed by the Federals or by Chechens. The truth will probably never be known. One thing follows from the fact that both versions are equally possible: the adversaries are becoming more and more alike. Their actions have less and less to do with achieving an end goal. Villains of the Basayev and Khattab brand are fading into the realm of myths. Evil is becoming de-personified.

Heroes of Vainakh folklore often say to their adversaries: "Should I be the victor it will mean that God's sun is on my side". It is as hard to guess on whose side the sun will be as to unravel the mysterious legal machinery in the Trial of Josef K. The only reason why Franz Kafka feared the absurd and doomed world was that he did not yet know that there could be a hopeless war, without a purpose. The Chechen campaign lost it when the last nail was driven into the foundation of the president's authority to get it consolidated at last, - and left no chance for peace. The war has outplayed those who started it. Neither side is strong enough to resist its momentum.

To hell with the Vakhhabists!

However, sooner or later resistance will have to be put up. The operation in Afghanistan that Russia has joined so energetically will come to an end some day. Chechnya will figure on that day's agenda much more critically than it did before September 11. But there will be no chance to deal with the problem as dashingly as three years ago. For the simple reason that after these three years the war and the authority find themselves alone and face to face.

...The pride of city K. in Tver are the market on Sundays and Thursdays, a shoemakers' cooperative, a cafe and the Krasny Oktyabr factory that has been making felt boots for the last eighty years. It is pitch dark by 5 p.m, not even a stray dog can be seen in the empty streets. At the factory there is stench and felt shoes for 140 roubles a pair. On seeing a new pair in my hands, the old woman who makes them in that stench every day, sighed: "Wish I had such ones!" October was the last month she had been paid her 250 rouble wage.

If asked who the Chechens are, the residents of the city would most likely reply: "Terrorists, of course, Vakhhabists". And would hurry on: to hell with them all! The locals do not care a hoot about the terrorists or the soldiers who are fighting them, or about Markha. They have a Chechnya of their own. So why would they care about someone else's sick kids or killed sons, or about someone turning savage from the suffering and blood all around him, grabbing a Kalashnikov and joining the war?. They are no more indifferent than Muscovites or residents of St.Petersburg, Kostroma, or Smolensk. It is just that for them the two years without explosions in peaceful Moscow and in even more peaceful Volgodonsk pushed Chechnya as far out of their minds as the NMD system, the anti-globalists' manifestations or the peace process in Israel. It turns out that one can live in a country at war without feeling discomfort. The war is still going on. There is no tragedy. In the days when Markha was still carrying Bulat in her womb, the public was all for the war. Today the war has no public.

Three worlds

Now when videocameras are as common on the battlefield as grenade launcher sights, the warring parties in Chechnya have found themselves losing out to television. There was nothing and, more importantly nobody to focus on. The war had many faces: refugees given three days to leave Grozny, Babitsky given over to the troglodytes, the whole platoon of the OMON men from Perm wiped out, Manilov and Yastrzhembsky.

Today's war is faceless. Budanov and Raduyev, a rapist killer and a madman, are the last living anti-heroes of the war. The moment the gavel of the Supreme Jury announces the end of the trials, nameless and thus, probably, non-terrible villains will step forward. The war will discard its last and biggest trappings, the trappings of the image of the enemy.

...In the Vainakh fairy tales, the hero must kill an enemy so as to be able to go back home and start a family. The most ancient motif of Vainakh tales is fighting with a serpent. The most poetic beast for Chechens is the wolf (now it is banished from their state symbols). The hero, like a wolf, "grapples with a stronger enemy" and "does not look back". The wolf's battle with the serpent only ends after the hero passes through three worlds, each full of trials, deadly dangers, heroics and killing. The three worlds are purification. The road to "God's sun" opens before the hero only after his purification.

There have been many heroic deeds and much killing enough to fill a new volume of Chechen folklore. But purification is missing. There was Argun quite recently after the airport meeting and the press conferences. On December 16 the Federal authorities reported they had completed the "special operation" and mopping-up of that Chechen city.

Losses: 20 army personnel and an unknown number of the "mopped-up". Peace is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile Yastrzhembsky has again disappeared from TV screens, Chechnya news comes third or fourth, and it is becoming evident that we have long stopped being a "society" whose backing must be secured before a war is unleashed. Ordinary TV viewers find a more interesting item to watch than a war.

...I have learned recently that little Bulat is getting well. Markha took him from Nazran to the capital - not to Moscow but the capital of a neighbouring country.


February 23. Columnist Anna Politkovskaya of the Novaya gazeta reports that there is a filtration camp for Chechens in the 45th Regiment's compound in the village of Khatuni, Vedeno District.

February 28. The trial of Col. Yury Budanov opens in Rostov-on-the Don.

March 14. The Headquarters of Russia's Airborne Troops commence the withdrawal of its units from Chechnya.

May 23. Interception of Basayev's letter to Gelayev who is in Pankis Gorge.

June 25. A report from Alkhankala says once again that Arbi Basayev is dead.

July 10. Sergei Yastrzhembsky confirms reports of violations by the Federal Forces during special operations in Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk.

September 24. Vladimir Putin's ultimatum to Chechen fighters to disarm and contact representatives of the Federal Authorities.

November 14. The trial of Salman Raduyev opens in Dagestan.

November 18. Akhmed Zakayev and Viktor Kazantsev meet at Sheremetyevo-2 Airport.

December. It is reported from Chechnya that Rizvan Lorsanov has been killed. He is the man in whose house the Khasavyurt agreement was signed.

According to official reports, the Federal Forces lost 3,438 people in the course of the counter- terrorist operation in Chechnya between October 1, 1999 and October 10, 2001


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