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Abraham BrumbergLieven's panorama of Russian-Chechen relations [is] one of the truly brilliant books of contemporary history.
— Los Angeles Times Book Review
1 A Personal Memoir of Grozny and the Chechen War
The fight was over. All was still.
The bodies made a grisly hill.
Blood trickled from them, steaming, smoking...
'Just tell me, my kunak,
What do they call this little river?'
'They call it Valerik', he said,
'Which means The River of the Dead.
Those who named it are in Heaven...'
Then someone else's voice I heard,
'This day is for the war decisive'.
I caught the Chechen's glance derisive.
He grinned but did not say a word.
Journey to Grozny
'Good luck!' said the Azeri colonel, with a leer. 'And when you see Dudayev, tell him that I drink to him as a hero not just of Chechnya, but for every true Muslim of the Caucasus!' Upon which he downed a large glass of Russian vodka.
The date was January 1992, the place a shabby but well-stocked black-market restaurant in the grim Azerbaijani industrial town of Sumgait, north of Baku on the Caspian Sea. From the distance -- a pretty long distance -- Sumgait, like Baku, can look rather grand, in an archaic kind of way. Especially at sunset, the gold-grey stone of its buildings seems to glow from within, and flows upwards from the golden dust of the surrounding semi-desert, until it meets the azure sea. Close to, the big picture disappears, and what is left is the grimly repetitive boredom of rundown Soviet provincial architecture.
Sumgait is poor, but even in 1992 some of its people were already rich. The restaurant was a curious pseudo-Moorish affair -- 'built in the traditional Azeri style' -- raw with newness, in the middle of a courtyard walled in grey concrete. It was richly stocked with the simple but pleasant food of Azerbaijan: sturgeon kebabs, lamb kebabs, herb salads and so on.
My host, a leading Soviet Azeri intellectual and Communist Party official, was a man of three worlds, all of which he disliked. The Soviet Union he had served not just from opportunism but also from the same motives as many Asian former colonial servants, because it represented 'modernity' and 'progress'; yet he also hated it, because it meant the rule of crude and alien Russians. But Turkey he feared because pan-Turkic nationalism was a threat to the dominance of his own Soviet elite class, and indeed to his Azeri identity. As he put it, 'The love of Turkey you hear so many people expressing is the new religion of the village schoolteacher. He was brought up to be absolutely Communist, and now he is looking for a new identity, something simple and above all given from outside.'
In his disdain for the Turks was something of the attitude of his third world, his ancestors from the old Azeri elites of Baku and Shirvanshir, older by far than the powerful vulgarities of Soviet Moscow or Kemalist Ankara. Though of Turkic blood, they spoke Persian and looked for cultural inspiration to Iran, 'the greatest kingdom of this world'. But Iran's new rulers, the Ayatollahs, would have put him in gaol at once -- and well he knew it. For he was a committed secularist -- albeit one who would also never allow a stranger to meet his womenfolk. Whether because of his tradition or his confusion, he was the most interesting and detached person I met in Azerbaijan. He was even detached and objective about the growing war with the Armenians -- detached enough at least to have no desire to see his relatives fight in it.
As for the colonel who offered the toast, he was made of simpler stuff. He was the police chief of the town, and reportedly deeply implicated in the infamous anti-Armenian pogrom there four years before -- a pogrom which according to him had never occurred, or if it had, was the work of the Armenians themselves, instigated by the KGB.
His law enforcement record aside, the colonel's speech contained a variety of ironies. A 'true Muslim' drinking Russian vodka has become a cliche of the newly independent Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, and hardly needs elaboration. The colonel's admiration for the Chechens was also ambiguous. Moments earlier, he had been warning me that 'they are all bandits, dangerous people,' and advising me strongly not to go to Grozny. Hence the 'Good luck!' -- and the leer.
A further irony was that far from preparing himself to go and help the Chechen cause, the colonel had so far shown no apparent desire to go and fight for his own Muslim country of Azerbaijan, in its own backyard of Karabakh. This behaviour was highly characteristic of most Azeri colonels of my acquaintance; it helps explain the equal unwillingness of most Azeri privates to risk their lives. A single month in Azerbaijan had already been enough to give an impression of a deeply demoralised society; for reasons that appeared to go deeper than Soviet rule alone; or rather, as I noted at the time, 'unlike the Balts or the Georgians, Sovietism is a disease to which the Azeris have proved especially susceptible.'
Although the Chechen victory, and the humiliation of the Russian army, has greatly strengthened the hands of Azeris and Georgians in dealing with Moscow, curiously enough it has been a humiliation for them as well. This is because for years these peoples comforted themselves for their defeats at the hands of the Armenians and the Abkhaz by saying that behind these peoples stood Russia, 'and who can win against Russia?'
Repeated Chechen victories have proved the hollowness of this excuse. The Azeris and Georgians were defeated fair and square -- and still more, they defeated themselves. The Chechens played a leading part in the defeat of the Georgians (see below), and as for the military failure of the Azeris, the Chechens would never have predicted anything else. Their contempt for their Caucasian neighbours, Muslim as well as Christian, is deep and generally unconcealed. In Moscow, a Chechen mafia leader once told me that 'the Azeri groups here are just about up to bullying fruit-sellers in the market; but for real protection, they themselves have to come to us, the Chechens. On their own they're nothing. This kind of attitude, however justified, has not made the Chechens much loved among their neighbours, and it has been partly responsible for the overwhelming absence of real support for them in the region since their struggle against Russia began.
The Azeris in my train compartment during the eighteen-hour journey to Grozny, through northern Azerbaijan and Daghestan, made no attempt to hide their hostility to the Chechens, an attitude of fear mixed with unwilling respect. They had some reason: the next three years saw repeated attacks by armed Chechen criminals on that particular train as it made its laborious way from Baku through Chechnya and north into Russia.
The passengers were by turns tragic, pitiable and disgusting, human flotsam from the wreck of the Soviet Union, which had finally sunk barely a month earlier. There were 'Russians' (some of whom looked Armenian to me, which would explain their flight) leaving their homes in Baku for an uncertain future in Russia, with relatives who, as one old woman, Lyudmilla Alexandrovna, told me, 'probably don't want us at all. I've lived in Baku for thirty years, my husband is buried there, I'll be a foreigner in Russia. But my son and his family are in Rostov, and he said to join them while I still can.' There were engineers fleeing Azerbaijan's collapsing economy for the slightly brighter prospects of Russia; many ordinary Azeris who had taken jobs elsewhere in the Union when it still was a Union, and were trying to rejoin their jobs or their families; some Soviet servicemen unsure of whether they still had a state, an army or even a country -- as one teenage conscript said, 'I am half Russian and half Ukrainian, and one grandfather was a Tatar. I was a Soviet citizen. Now what am I, you tell me?' He had a look I was to find characteristic of many Russian conscripts, a strange mixture of extreme youth and vulnerability overlain with cynicism and coarseness, which in turn barely concealed a deep misery; like so many Soviet-made things, shiny with newness yet already scarred and battered -- perhaps even broken for good.
And everywhere were the petty traders, former black marketeers now enjoying a still precarious legality, and swelling and oozing almost visibly before our eyes. There were fat ones, bulging in odd places like their own sacks of fruit and vegetables; there were leaner, younger ones, all with hard faces, some with heavily scarred ones. When travelling, they were not, I noticed, wearing the heavy gold jewellery which that class already liked to sport on its home turf; but one of them was wearing a suit apparently made entirely from imitation silver thread, which shone faintly in the dim light as he made undulating lunges in my direction, hinting at various things he could sell me, including the mercenary favours of the conductress, a plump, heavily made-up, resilient-looking Russian woman in her mid-thirties.
The train itself was close to being a wreck, icily cold, filthy, enveloped in a fug of cigarette smoke, urine, sweat, alcohol and cheap scent. As evening drew on, it crawled clanking through a hellish landscape -- the oilfields of northern Azerbaijan, perhaps the ugliest post-industrial environment in the world. Hundreds, no thousands of abandoned, stunted, archaic-looking derricks sit amidst pools of oil and fragments of rusted machinery. In summer, the stench can make you physically ill; in winter, grey sky, black oil and brown desert merge into a symphony of gloom.
The whole tragedy of Soviet 'development' was in that scene. There in those countless lakes of oil was the potential wealth of Azerbaijan, pumped out to power the Soviet Union's megalomaniac visions, much of it lost on the spot through leaks and wastage, and as far as the people of Azerbaijan were concerned, almost all of it ultimately thrown away. Scattered among the oilfields are shanty-towns of mud-brick, the roofs covered with corrugated iron and plastic sheeting. Since 1992, these have been swelled by tens of thousands of refugees from the areas of Azerbaijan lost in the war with Armenia, then already gathering pace.
To complete the picture and my mood, all that was lacking was in albatross. Instead I had a whole trainload of ancient mariners. On the subject of their own countries they were bad enough. All expected civil war; the Azeris thought, quite rightly as it turned out, that they would soon be fighting each other as well as the Armenians, and several said with conviction that independence would not last, that Moscow would soon restore its rule. There was only one Azeri optimist, and he was very optimistic indeed. Breathing beer into my face, he began cursing the West for its backing of the Armenians -- 'You always hated us Muslims, and wanted to destroy us! But you wait! You wait! The next century will be Turkish! First we will destroy the Armenians and then we will conquer you, and rule the world!' -- until others in his group pulled him away.
As for the Russians, they seemed numbed and bewildered. Most of all they were afraid of famine -- which in that bleak and chaotic winter of 1992 seemed a real possibility. Food was desperately short in many places, and queues were appalling even by past Soviet standards. 'I lived through the war and the hungry years afterwards,' Lyudmilla Alexandrovna told me. 'Now it looks as if we shall have to bear hunger again. But still, if you are to starve, it is better to starve among your own people.'
If the picture of Russia in the 1990s that I draw in this book is a grim one, it is worth remembering that things could have been a great deal worse. Yegor Gaidar's freeing of prices, which took place a few weeks after this journey, was as much an emergency response to the collapse in the supply of essential goods to the cities as it was the planned basis for free-market reform.
The sheer spiritual confusion and physical misery of that winter of the Soviet Union's death may hold part of the explanation for the central theme of this book: the subsequent apathy of ordinary Russians in the face of loss of empire, military defeat, international humiliation and unparalleled thieving by their own rulers. Psychologically, however, they had already touched bottom. During the presidential election campaign of 1996, the pro-Yeltsin media's harping on the famines and sufferings under Communist rule was so effective partly because in 1991-2 many Russians had felt they were once more facing famine and mass violence between Russians themselves. They recognised that however awful Yeltsin's rule had been, it had at least spared them that.
But the Baku-Grozny train, although it felt like the bottom of the pit, also symbolised something else: the way in which the Soviet infrastructure has continued to function, and so to support the population, partly because of the resilience and residual sense of duty of some of the people serving that infrastructure. This also was part of the explanation why the former Soviet Union did not in fact become like parts of Africa. The train groaned, it stank, it probably left pieces of itself behind on the rails -- but it moved, and carried its passengers with it, even if few of them had any real idea where they were going. E pur si muove.
As this miniature Soviet world approached the borders of Chechnya, the Soviet nations aboard seemed to draw together in the face of a common threat. I can't remember which worried me more -- the drunken Azeri 'businessman' who drew his hand over various parts of his anatomy, laughing uproariously, to indicate which bits of me the Chechens would cut off first; or the motherly Azeri woman, pushing a piece of bread into my hand and imploring me not to get off in Grozny: 'You are so young, You must think of your family!' Their news on Chechnya came exclusively from the former Soviet, now Russian television in Moscow, which painted a picture of Grozny in the grip of chaos, with looting and murder running rife.
The train halted in Grozny, five hours late, shortly before 4 a.m. Everything was dark. From the distance came an occasional shot. It may have been my own feelings which made me think that the train stopped for an unusually short time, and lumbered off again with more than its habitual speed. The handful of other people who had got out disappeared into the night. And I -- as a good member of the British middle classes on unfamiliar ground -- I went to find a policeman; or rather a group of heavily armed Chechen policemen and their friends, who refused as a matter of hospitality even to look at the passport I offered them, shared their meagre breakfast with me, and delivered me, through the curfew, to a sort of hotel, the Kavkaz.
This stood opposite a large white Soviet official building then at the beginning of its confused series of transmogrifications from Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Socialist Autonomous Republic of Checheno-Ingushetia, to the Parliament of the Sovereign Republic of Chechnya-Ichkeria, to the Presidential headquarters, to a shattered wreck and world-famous symbol of Chechen resistance, to an empty space, a clearing in a forest of ruins.
But looking at it from my window that morning I noted the following in my diary 'more like a babbling travel writer at a new resort than a supposedly serious correspondent in the middle of a revolution': 'A delightful first impression. Open, cheerful, friendly without the odious oily familiarity of the Azeris. Also not subservient, either to me or their own officers. Self-respect and personal dignity. And none of the Soviet surliness. What a change from Baku! Chechen contempt for the Azeris -- "all bandits", of course. But also cowards, weaklings, corrupt, Soviet slaves etc. Interesting: the Azeris and Russians dislike the Chechens, but also obviously fear and respect them; the Chechens don't respect anyone else at all. The police captain stresses the unity, pride and egalitarianism of the Chechens: "From millionaire to tractor driver, the important thing is to be a Chechen. We have very strict rules about how we behave to each other. Everyone has a gun here now, but you will see for yourself that we never shoot each other. But against our enemies, we will fight to the end"'.
Parts of the captain's speech were of course an exaggeration -- but an exaggeration of the truth. Visually, the journey from Baku to Grozny had been simply a trip from an interesting Soviet oil town, intermittently hideous and strangely beautiful, on a lovely bay, to a banal and ugly one amidst nondescript rolling hills. Culturally and spiritually, it turned out to be a journey between worlds. And irritating, and sometimes terrifying, as I often subsequently found the Chechens, and terrible as has been the Chechen War, I never wholly lost the sense that to go among the Chechens is to go into a certain kind of morning, cold and stormy, but bright and somehow transcending the normal run of existence.
The longer I knew them, the more the Chechens seemed to me a people who had rejected not just much of the Soviet version of modernisation and the modern state -- with all its works and all its empty promises -- but modernisation in general. In this they reminded me somewhat of the Afghan Mujahidin, but with many times the latter's capacity for self-discipline, organisation and solidarity. This may make them remarkably suited for the postmodern age; but whether for the good or the bane of mankind remains to be seen. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Since December 1994, I have come to look on the Chechen people almost as on the face of Courage herself -- with no necessary relation to justice or morality, but beautiful to see.
From Russian Fortress to Soviet Oil Town
Before its destruction, there was nothing about the city of Grozny to suggest that it was the capital of an extraordinary people -- the reason, of course, being that it was not in fact a Chechen city. It was founded on 10 June 1818 by General Alexei Yermolov as one of the fortresses of the Cossack line, and served as the Russian headquarters in the campaigns first to contain, and then to conquer and suppress the Chechens. It was named Grozny, meaning 'Terrible', or more accurately 'Formidable', though a longstanding pun, which needs no explanation, renders it as 'Gryazny', or 'Dirty'.
Originally Grozny was simply an earthen fort, a, knot of earthen roads and a cluster of wooden or plaster houses, of a kind familiar in the wirtings of nineteenth-century Russian officers who served in the Caucasus. It is set between low hills in the rolling plain between the main Caucasus range and the much lower hills which run a few miles south of the Terek River. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the whole region was covered with thick forests of beech, oak and nut -- until the Russians cut them down as part of their campaign against Shamil and his Chechen followers, who used them as their chief ally. Today, the forests have been pushed back into the foothills of the Caucasus, where they cling to the mountainsides, deeply shaded, spiny, secretive and tenacious. Most of lowland Chechnya has come to be covered with wide, bare fields, glaringly hot in summer, grey and desolate in winter -- and since the population explosion of the past forty years, thickly sprinkled with villages and small towns, endless sprawls of one-storey houses and compounds, with the odd drab Soviet official building; and now, towering over them, the minarets of the new great mosques.
It is no longer a particularly interesting landscape; but to the south, across the plain, are still to be seen the fantastically shaped peaks of the Caucasus, white and blue, hung like a curtain across the sky; and to the north, the bare hills of the Terek range bloom in spring and autumn with a range of wild flowers, gorse and grasses, and as the sky changes above them, the colours shift like a kaleidoscope, the rolling hills seeming to stretch themselves and lift their bodies to the sun. It is hardly surprising that this country had such a romantic and inspiring effect on all those nineteenth-century Russian writers who saw it, and took time off from fighting the Chechens to describe its charms.
Grozny's day really dawned, however, not in the military and romantic, but in the new industrial age of the 1890s with the beginnings of oil extraction. The British historian and traveller John Baddeley, visiting it during that decade, wrote that it was clearly destined to become a major industrial centre, but:
At this time, however, it was chiefly remarkable for streets which without exaggeration might be set down as among the worst in the world. In dry weather they were ankle deep in dust, in wet they were quagmires of mud, with ponds of green filth here and there, in which ducks and geese paddled, pigs wallowed, and frogs swam.
Thanks to the decay of services and repair under Dudayev's rule, coming on top of decades of slow Soviet decrepitude, Grozny by 1994 had once again become rather like this, even before the war smashed it to pieces. There are, however, no longer any pigs -- for Grozny when Baddeley was there was still overwhelmingly Russian, not Muslim.
But in the intervening decades Grozny was a major industrial metropolis first of the Russian and then of the Soviet empire, and already by 1917 was second only to Baku as an oil producing centre of the Russia and indeed the world. Oil brought in both a flood of mainly Russian migrant workers, and a smaller flow of Western entrepreneurs and engineers. An undistinguished, vaguely neo-Gothic brick house on Victory Prospect in Grozny (now in ruins) is often pointed out as having been built for the 'English engineers' who came to work in the oilfields.
The Chechens, however, remained largely peripheral to this development at least until the 1920s, when the rapid development of the oilfields under Soviet rule, together with the Soviet onslaught on the economic and social life of the Chechen villages, began to draw or drive many Chechens into the city. Even so, it was not until the 1970s that Grozny really became a Chechen city; and since this development took place under Soviet rule, there were no architectural signs of it, Not a single mosque was allowed to be built or rebuilt anywhere in Checheno-Ingushetia until 1978. No mosques were allowed in Grozny until 1988, and at first services had to be held in sanctified railway wagons.
When the Chechen national revolution began at the end of the 1980s, the sole formal place of worship in the city, and the only symbol of the old Russian empire, was one ochre-painted Orthodox church -- later wrecked by Russian bombardment. As usual on the ethnic frontiers of Russia, an Orthodox church was left in place by the atheist Soviet regime, when in much of the Russian heartland it would have been demolished or turned into something else.
By the eve of the war, in 1994, the church had been joined by a number of mosques, notably a soaring but unfinished one dedicated to the eighteenth-century religious and military leader Sheikh Mansur (strangely enough, begun with ten tons of bricks donated in 1991 by the Mayor of Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, as a gesture of national reconciliation). After 1991, the Chechens threw themselves into mosque-building, and it became one of the chief ways in which Chechen 'businessmen', whether from Grozny or Moscow, displayed their wealth and their attachment to their communities, and boosted their prestige.
Architecturally, these new mosques are to my eyes often very beautiful, but also rather curious, in a style I have seen nowhere else in the Muslim world, To judge by old pictures, they bear little resemblance to the old, simple whitewashed Chechen mosques which existed before they were all demolished after Stalin's deportation of the Chechen people in 1944. The difference is a sign of a deepening transformation in Chechnya's traditionally extremely egalitarian, clan-based society. The new ones are often enormous, and almost all made of red brick. Rather than traditional minarets, many of these mosques have soaring towers, sometimes equipped with battlements, and sometimes with a clock. The exterior decoration, and the shape of the windows is usually more or less 'Islamic', but the overall effect is more neo-Gothic -- appropriately, perhaps, for mosques built by 'businessmen' whose character and role can to an extent be described as 'bastard feudal'.
It may be in fact that this was also, unconsciously at least, the effect the architects were thinking of. The architecture of the mosques is closely related to that of the castle-like, battlemented and terraced houses, with their great arched loggias, which before the war the 'businessmen' were building in every Chechen town and village. I asked a Chechen friend whether their style was neo-Chechen. 'No, more neo-English,' he replied, quite seriously. 'Isn't that the kind of house English lords live in? At least, that's the impression of England we were always given in Soviet days.'
If so, this would surely be one of the odder footnotes to architectural history: that a style pioneered for nineteenth-century English Christian churches and public monuments, picked up as a cliche of England by Russians before the Bolshevik Revolution, fossilised by Russian Communists cut off from the outside world and intent on showing England as a class-ridden neo-feudalism, should have ended after many transmogrifications as a symbol of the national pride and Islamic loyalty of a small people of the North Caucasus.
A curious feature of the new Chechen mosques is that relatively few were built in Grozny under Dudayev, despite the fact that by the 1991 it was by far the biggest Chechen population centre. The mosque of Sheikh Mansur, like another one planned for the central square but never begun, were initiatives of the Chechen government. The wealthy Chechens who have paid for the great majority of mosques have built them not in the capital, but in the villages and small towns from which their families and clans originated. For that matter, this has also been true of many of the palatial residences. A familiar sight in Chechnya is to enter some small village of straggling one-storey houses, and suddenly to come up against a towering, half-finished three-storey mansion behind high walls, and to be told that it was being built by a businessman in Moscow, whose mother and other relatives had remained in the village.
But above all, this is true of the graves. The overwhelming majority of Chechens who die in Grozny, in peace and war alike, have been buried by their relatives not in the city cemeteries, but in those of their ancestral villages, often near the shrine of an ancestral saint. The bodies in Grozny's cemeteries are usually local Russians, while the mass graves contain unidentified and unrecoverable Chechens who were buried in the ruins and dug out later by the Russian army. This was one of the things which made accurate assessment of the numbers killed in the battle for Grozny so extremely difficult.
In appearance, until it became a surrealist nightmare, central Grozny was entirely Soviet Russian. It had a certain southern cast, but of the kind you see from the Ukraine to Central Asia. The centre was dominated by the usual pompous, ugly official buildings, the same from Minsk to Magadan. These are occasionally relieved by a neo-classical official building from imperial times, equally standardised but far more attractive. Beyond that, and clustered in half a dozen mikro-rayony (micro-districts, or housing estates) in the suburbs, are the dreary 'Khrushchevka', the shoddy high-rises of the 1950s and 1960s, which at first represented liberation and luxury for so many wretched inhabitants of overcrowded communal flats.
But beyond and around them the true North Caucasian town begins: hundreds of streets, roughly asphalted or sometimes still of earth, with one-storey, whitewashed houses. The Russian ones open directly on to the street, and often have carved wooden window-frames with designs from the villages of Great Russia, the former Cossack provinces and the Ukraine. The Chechen houses, as commonly throughout the Muslim world, are generally hidden behind high walls and painted steel gates. These give on to enclosed yards, often inhabited by a mixed population highly characteristic of prewar Chechnya -- children, chickens, ferocious dogs, a tractor, and a luxury Volvo or BMW, sometimes with West German number plates still attached. Since it was mainly the centre of Grozny which was shattered in the bombing of December 1994 and the fighting of January and February 1995 and August 1996, while the suburbs were largely spared, it is this Caucasian Grozny which has endured.
Still, except in its inhabitants, the modern capital of Chechnya was never very Chechen; and I have sometimes wondered -- I ask my Chechen friends to forgive me if this seems insensitive -- if the willingness of the Chechen independence forces to stand and fight in central Grozny, even at the cost of its destruction, was not unconsciously at least partly due to the fact that it had been built and developed not by Chechens, but as the local military outpost of their oppressors, from whom its very name derives -- or did, before it was renamed Djokhar-Ghala in honour of Dudayev. But whatever its name, the Chechen blood shed there in its defence has now made it a Chechen city forever.
Elders, Bandits and Heroes
Shortly before the Russian invasion, I met an elderly Chechen who represented the most positive and powerful face of his national tradition, which explained why it has endured so long and resisted so strongly -- and who was by birth an ethnic German: Wilhelm Weisserth, who was deported from Ukraine to Kazakhstan by Stalin in 1941, met there a deported Chechen girl, fell in love first with her and then with her whole people, converted to Islam, and became first Mahomet and then -- after visiting Mecca when this became possible under Gorbachev -- Haji Mahomet.
He returned to Chechnya with his wife's family in 1957, and eventually became an elder of his village and his teip (clan). At the same time, he did not wholly lose his German characteristics -- as a Chechen friend said of him, 'he's studied Islam so thoroughly he knows much more about it than we do ourselves!' This adoption is not quite so odd or unusual as it may seem. As I shall point out in chapter 10, the Chechens have a tradition of assimilating individuals or groups from outside their own ethnic group, which is one reason why they have remained the largest North Caucasian people.
I talked with Haji Mahomet at his home in the eastern village of Mekekhi. Round him were his wife (a round, smiling, deeply lined old lady in Soviet peasant clothes and a bright headscarf, like a bagful of wrinkled apples wrapped up in a particoloured bag), four sons, four daughters, seventeen grandchildren, eighty sheep, eight cows and a number of turkeys. One of his grandsons was studying at the Muslim university of al-Azhar in Cairo. In Haji Mahomet's words,
When I married my wife in Karaganda, she was like me an orphan. Her father had died in a camp, her mother in a fire. She was already married, but her husband had abandoned her... The rest of her family were in Frunze. They were horrified. Her brother threatened to kill her and me. But when we met, I was already studying Islam, and I was able to convince him that I was a good man. Also by then we had a child... So I accepted Islam, her family became my friends, and we all live together to this day...
They were also impressed because for a non-Muslim to accept Islam in those days in the Soviet Union was very dangerous. I was continually being questioned by the NKVD. One time when I was twenty-five years old, I was questioned by a Tatar NKVD officer. He began to interrogate me about why I had taken Islam. I replied, 'You are a Muslim, why aren't you glad?' He walked twice up and down the room, then he tore up the enquiry form, gave me a pass, told me to get out of there and not come back...
Why did I accept Islam, apart from because of my wife? Islam seemed to me the most rational of religions, the Chechens I knew in exile were very impressive people, and the old ones had a very special tradition. In such a difficult time, when so many people behaved like beasts, they taught the Shariat and their national customs to their children and grandchildren, they stuck together as a community, and they shared everything with each other.
I asked him if he had ever been tempted to move to Germany with the rest of his surviving Ukrainian-German relatives. He replied, 'Why should I go to Germany? Here I am respected, and I play a useful role as an elder, reconciling conflicts and bringing people together. What could I do in Germany that would be useful?' It was difficult not to agree. With his healthy, sunburnt face, white beard, rough working jacket and patched trousers, in his plain, rather bare whitewashed house (bitterly cold in a Caucasian December) he could have been one of his own seventeenth-century ancestors, a Schwabian peasant farmer, tough, hardworking, religious, honoured by his peers. In modern Germany, he would look like a tramp, and as a 'Russian-German returnee' presumably be charitably assigned a pension and a one-room flat, where a social worker would visit him and his wife once a week, until it was time to go into a home.
He described for me the role of an elder in Chechen society; bringing out in the process the tension between Islamic law (the Shariat) and Chechen traditional custom (Adat):
In our village, for example, the elders are responsible for arranging funerals, depending on which vird (Sufi brotherhood] the dead person belonged to. The rules on this are very strict, and the elder has to know them...
Ideally, an elder should be just and impartial, for in the past at least, he regulated the whole structure of society, and looked after justice and order. If a man in the village drinks too much or mistreats his wife, the elder will rebuke him. In the past, you see, the Chechens had no police, and even under Soviet rule, they tried to sort out problems and disputes quietly in their own way whenever possible.
This was confirmed for me by a former KGB major, who said that from the 1970s, the KGB in Chechnya, except when Moscow was breathing down their necks, generally tried to cooperate with Chechen society over crimes, rather than enforcing the Soviet law -- 'otherwise, on the occasions when for some reason we really had to get a result, no one would have even talked to us.' Of course, in the process, the police were also progressively taken over by the world of 'business'.
Haji Mahomet continued that:
One problem for the elders is of course the question of revenge. In the Chechen tradition (Adat), if a member of your family is killed or wounded, you have the right of revenge. There was a case in the mountains, resolved this year, where members of a family got drunk and beat another man while stealing his car, and he died. The blood-feud went on for twenty-three years. The Soviet law gave the men ten years in gaol, but when they were released, it began again.
But the Shariat lays down quite different rules, it absolutely forbids revenge against innocent relations -- though many Chechens don't know that, or don't want to... We religious elders appeal to the Koran, tell people that Allah does not allow murder, whatever the reason.
But when trouble has occurred, then our task is to reconcile the parties so that it doesn't spread, and to bring forgiveness. This is our religious duty. Elders may arrange compensation (mekha) -- though strictly speaking this is wrong. If a breadwinner has been killed, then the other side will sometimes buy a car, provide food, support the children until they are aged fifteen...
One reason for the killings and the feuds is that the Chechen people always loved arms. Every man who was a man had to carry arms, and know how to use them. A man without arms would be continually humiliated, challenged to fight... Though as a result men did not hit each other, because the other man would immediately go for his weapon, and in general, quarrelsome men were not respected; the man with respect was the man who did not look for fights but would defend himself bravely if attacked.
Today, there is not such respect for tradition. Youths hit each other more easily, use their weapons more easily, partly because of the spread of alcohol, a great disgrace, and of crime -- thanks to Soviet rule. We are trying to bring them back to a love of tradition, of solidarity and cooperating with their neighbours, not being so ready to use guns, but this will be a long process.'
The previous day, I had interviewed an representative example of the negative aspect of Chechen society, and of the corrupting influences disapproved of by Haji Mahomet: Ruslan Labazanov, originally a martial arts trainer and criminal boss from Krasnodar. The tension between these old and new -- worlds in Chechnya will determine the country's future. Convicted of armed robbery and murder -- allegedly of a Russian KGB officer, which made him a Chechen hero, though this may have been invention on his part -- Labazanov was released by the Chechen government in 1991 and became one of Dudayev's chief bodyguards, before breaking with him in 1994. He then became the chief military supporter of Ruslan Khasbulatov's 'peacemaking' effort, joined the Russian side, and was finally killed in obscure circumstances in May 1996, shortly after Yeltsin's fake 'peace deal' with Yandarbiyev.
One version of his death that I heard from several sources was that by way of a cost-free concession to the separatist side, the Russians had either killed him themselves or allowed the separatists to kill him, because he had been in the habit of taking money from Chechen families to kill individual Russian officers whom they held responsible for the death of relatives. This seems quite possible -- but given how much he was hated, he may well have been assassinated either by the separatists without Russian assistance, or as part of a private feud.
This happened to another notorious criminal, Alauddi 'Abrek', with some of whose followers I travelled briefly in the Chechen mountains in May 1995. Many years before, Alauddi had killed two people in Chechnya (allegedly, a Mullah and a woman he thought had put a spell on him -- for as Haji Mahomet suggested, not all traditional beliefs in Chechnya are Islamic) and fled to Kazan, then the biggest criminal centre of the Soviet world, where he became a criminal boss. He returned to Chechnya with some of his followers under Dudayev, balancing himself between regime and opposition, supporting Dudayev but also giving protection to Labazanov when he was wounded by Dudayev's men in June 1994. Alauddi then fought in January and February against the Russians. After we returned from the mountains in May 1995, our host, Musa Damayev, said that we had had a lucky escape. I asked him whether men like Alauddi and Labazanov represented a danger to Chechnya. He replied,
He is dangerous to anyone who has money and no family at his back. With me, it would be different. If I go up there, in principle I'm at his mercy, but he knows that my family knows where I've gone, and if he does something to me, they'll find out and have their revenge. To someone whose death wouldn't mean the possibility of a blood feud, yes, he could be very dangerous. To you, Alauddi himself wouldn't have done anything. He's a big man after all, and more or less rational. He invests in large-scale crimes, bank fraud and so on. But Asab [Alauddi's sidekick] -- he's different: a little man, greedy. If you had gone up there without my letter, he would have smiled at you in that way he has, but then he might well have attacked you, to see what he could get.
Later that year, Alauddi was indeed killed in a blood-feud -- though it is said that this was also by order of the Chechen leadership, for continuing to rob and kill other Chechens despite the war. After the war, it looks very much as if the little men have come into their own -- encouraged by the promise of high ransoms for kidnapped Westerners.
Labazanov and Alauddi represent exactly the image Russian chauvinists have of the Chechens in general; his type also represented a major threat to the Chechen's own society, to attempts to create an effective Chechen state, and indeed to the Chechen traditions which have brought victory in the latest war (see chapter 10). Following the end of the war, the wave of kidnappings carried out by such men is gravely endangering Chechen hopes of reconstruction and prosperity.
The first time I had met Labazanov was in February 1992, when he was serving as one of Dudayev's bodyguards, and we had a sharp argument over the use of a phone at the presidential headquarters. I didn't at that time know about his previous career, or I'd have offered him the whole telephone exchange -- it wasn't much good anyway. Though for that matter, his general aspect suggested that he wasn't a good man to argue with. 'He is the only chief bodyguard who's not a member of Dudayev's own teip,' one of the presidential staff told me. 'He feels insecure, that's why he throws his weight around so much.'
He was not an especially tall man, but so solidly built that he seemed much larger, with thick forearms and enormous fists. On the rare occasions when his small eyes weren't covered by dark glasses, they had a sort of amusement in them, and a reddish look -- as if he were a large and ferocious animal congratulating itself on the fact that it could eat you whenever it wished, but couldn't be bothered to do so. He wore two enormous stechlin pistols in his gold-studded belt, and a black headband, and by the time we met again, in August 1994, he had added to this a big gold watch set with rubies, a gold and ruby ring (rubies were obviously the thing to wear in Grozny that year), a heavy gold bracelet, and a golden chain around his bull neck.
By this time, he had fortunately forgotten our argument. It was three months after he had broken with Dudayev, and the subsequent fighting ended with Labazanov's men being driven from Grozny and three of them being publicly beheaded, as revenge for killing members of the families of other Dudayev bodyguards. Labazanov himself was badly wounded and reportedly saved by Alauddi. I was told that the basic cause of the split was that Dudayev considered that Labazanov was becoming too powerful and arrogant, but that the precipitant was a dispute between Labazanov and some members of Dudayev's family over the proceeds of a bank fraud in Moscow.
Labazanov then cast around for new allies, and by August had aligned himself with Ruslan Khasbulatov and his 'peace mission', for which he provided the armed protection. I saw him riding with his men in Khasbulatov's motorcade, which swept along the bumpy roads with pennants fluttering from the aerials, rifles and machine guns pointing from the windows, horns blaring, men yelling, rows of lights glaring from the roofs of the big Nissan jeeps, the Cherokees and the Pajeros. Lesser vehicles swerved from the road to avoid them. Journalists and camp followers panted along behind them.
As Khasbulatov spoke from the back of a truck about a 'peaceful, civilised solution to Chechnya's problems', Labazanov stood beside him with an AK-74, arms akimbo, the barrel outlined against the pitiless August sky Khasbulatov for his part, with his pasty, rubbery face and blank eyes, looked, as I wrote in my notebook, 'more than ever like something found underneath a stone'. Not everyone was happy with Labazanov's presence. When he spoke of how he had come to protect Khasbulatov's peace mission, because 'Dudayev is a murderer and Chechnya must be cleansed of him', a man yelled from the back, 'Where were you before?' -- and was hustled away.
Khasbulatov himself, and his more respectable supporters, were embarrassed by questions about Labazanov from Russian and Western journalists, as indeed was Dudayev when reminded of his previous role. I was surprised however by how many Chechens -- and not just from the opposition -- were prepared to praise him, at least until he threwin his lot openly with the Russians in 1995. Ordinary Chechens called him an abrek, a 'bandit of honour'; the more educated, speaking to a British journalist, of course called him a 'Robin Khud'. He did indeed seem to have made some effort to buy popularity -- in accordance of course with the whole tradition of figures of his kind. The director of a biscuit and sweets factory in Grozny, who gave me a lift just before the war, said of him that
You should not be too hard on Labazanov. This is a harsh society, you know -- a man who wants to play a part in politics, or even to make money, needs to be able to protect himself, his family and his friends. You shouldn't believe all the stories about him killing babies and so on -- that is just his enemies talking. He may have made some money illegally -- who hasn't? -- but he has also been very generous. He has given money to hospitals, to schools, to widows and orphans, and he has protected them against oppression. You know that under Dudayev state support for all services of this kind has just collapsed. It is only thanks to Labazanov and others like him that there hasn't been real hunger here, and he has been more generous than anyone.
To be fair, it should also be admitted that Khasbulatov did need protection -- the previous day, 13 August 1994, a rally of his in the town of Stary Atagi had been blocked by Dudayev's guards with armoured vehicles, led by 'Colonel' Ilyes Arsanukayev, the commander of Dudayev's presidential guard -- a man who closely resembled his former colleague Labazanov, even down to the dark glasses (his relative, Abu, a former Soviet sergeant, was at that time commander of the secret service, or DGB). When I tried to go through to find Khasbulatov, he threatened my driver with arrest, pointed a gun at us and made a move to confiscate my car. This was the reality behind the words to me the previous day of Mavlen Salamov, Dudayev's chief aide, that 'the people of Stary Atagi have vowed not to let Khasbulatov speak there.'
The next month, Dudayev's guards drove Labazanov from his base in Argun, and he set up in Khasbulatov's home-town of Tolstoy Yurt, where I saw him for the last time in November 1994, in a large but otherwise ordinary house in an ordinary muddy street -- except for the four T-72 tanks, evidently supplied by Russia. His band seemed to come from all over the place -- there were Chechens, but also Russians and Daghestanis. With them were their camp-followers, women who teetered on high heels or plodded in slippers through the mud of the village street, Some seemed to have fairly long-established relationships -- one enormous, savage-looking character emerged from a jeep carrying a gun in one hand and a tiny child in another, illustrating the domestic character of Chechnya's low-intensity civil war before the Russian intervention.
The whole set-up looked like something out of Mad Max. Or rather, this wasn't like Mad Max -- this was Mad Max, or at any rate these men's recreation of themselves in line with all the Hollywood action films they had seen. When we were ushered into the kitchen, where Labazanov was sitting -- he had clearly come down in the world -- he was ostentatiously playing with a new pistol with a laser sight, the red dot of which danced over the walls and our bodies as we talked -- just like The Terminator.
He was sitting underneath a shelf with a big brass or bronze figure of an eagle, like a would-be bandit Napoleon, or maybe the Emperor Bokassa. Intermittently sharing the shelf with the eagle was a small grey cat, which had evidently come to the kitchen to bask in the glow of Labazanov's presence. The great man himself introduced a third animal, referring to Dudayev repeatedly as a 'goat' (kozyol, a Russian insult the exact meaning of which I will not translate) 'who ought to be beheaded', and boasted that he could have defeated him in the previous week before (on 26 November) if he hadn't been 'let down' by the rest of the opposition.
Labazanov certainly could not have seen to aim with his new toy, because as we came in, he deliberately put on his dark glasses, so in the November gloom, and in the dimly lit kitchen, he can hardly have seen anything at all. This was just as well, because I spent most of the interview staring at a most extraordinary vision, a strange steel orchid, which had come in from the bedroom and was standing beside me. His 'wife' looked to be aged about seventeen, and was of a remarkable beauty, with a triangular face, huge eyes and a perfect mouth, but with vampirical white make-up and what looked in the dark like purple eye-shadow and lipstick -- like something out of the Addams family, as I noted at the time. Her legs were also long and beautifully shaped -- I could see a good deal of them, because she was wearing a black leather mini-skirt and boots. She was also wearing both an AK-47 and a machine-pistol, and a bandolier, together with a belt of bullets and bracelets, buttons, necklaces and rings of steel (if all this seems too good -- or bad -- to be true, let me say that Victoria Clarke, of the Observer, also witnessed it). We had come a long way from Haji Mahomet's vision, and it was difficult to see how either the Shariat or the Adat tradition of Chechnya could accommodate Ruslan Labazanov and his wife.
On the other hand, entirely in line with Chechen tradition was Shamil Basayev, the greatest Chechen commander after Maskhadov. His raid on the Russian town of Budennovsk in June 1995 played a major part in bringing the Russians to the negotiating table, and winning a critical few months' breathing space for the Chechens until the war resumed with full force in the winter. The hostage-taking, and the occupation of a hospital in Budennovsk by Basayev and his force, caused understandable outrage in Russia, and even in the West led to him being labelled a 'terrorist'. That his actions in Budennovsk were against the laws of war is certain -- but then again, the Russian side (like the British in Ireland in 1919-21, and the French in Algeria) had repeatedly refused to recognise the Chechen fighters as legitimate combatants, or to treat them accordingly. Six weeks before the Budennovsk raid, a large part of Basayev's family had been wiped out in a Russian air-raid on Vedeno. In Basayev's own words to me in December 1995: 'You talk about terrorism forfeiting our moral superiority before world public opinion. Who cares about our moral position? Who from abroad has helped us, while Russia has brutally ignored every moral rule? If they can use such weapons and threats, then so can we. (In this context, it should be noted that while Basayev repeatedly threatened to plant bombs to kill civilians, there is no proof that he ever actually did so. Nor did the Russians ever use napalm or its equivalent in Chechnya -- they were accused of doing so, but neither I nor any other Western journalist ever saw any evidence of it.)
I first met Basayev in Abkhazia in October 1993, sitting on the pavement in the temporary Abkhaz capital of Gudauta with other leaders of the volunteers from the 'Confederation of Mountain Peoples' who had played a major part in the Abkhaz victory against the Georgians. Although only 28 years old, he himself had commanded the Chechen batallion. He grinned cheerfully -- not bothering to deny it -- when we asked him about Russian help for the Abkhaz, and congratulated us on not having run into his men when we had been on the Georgian side.
In this he was dead right. Three months earlier, in July 1993, I might have met Basayev and his men while I was reporting from the Georgian side in Sukhumi. Most foolishly, I had joined a Georgian column headed up into the wooded hills around Mount Zegan, above the Georgian-held front-line village of Shroma. Supposedly the column was to look for the enemy, and drive back their advanced posts. In this sector, the 'enemy', as I later discovered, were indeed the Chechens.
I'm thankful we didn't meet them; for in terms of military preparedness, the Georgians and I just about deserved each other. Not having expected to be taken along, I was dressed in a blue and white striped shirt and thin cotton trousers, which in the course of the afternoon were gleefully fastened upon by a series of thorn bushes. My water flask was already half empty, the rest of the column had none either, and after several hours climbing in the blazing heat we ended by frantically drinking water from the radiator of a lorry
The Georgian column consisted of about two hundred men, of whom no fewer than a dozen were 'senior officers', including two generals. Most were in civilian dress with bits and bobs of military uniform. Only a few had proper boots. They came from three different groups: the embryonic Georgian national army; the Mkhedrioni, a paramilitary force loyal to Djaba Yosseliani, a former bank robber and criminal boss who had played a leading part in the December 1991 coup against Gamsakhurdia; and local volunteers from the Georgian population of Sukhumi, who made up the majority.
The Mkhedrioni looked like what they were -- unemployed youths from the grim industrial slums of Tbilisi and Rustavi, hard-faced but soft-bodied, and in many cases clearly addicted to alcohol or something stronger. They had already gained an odious reputation for looting, rape, vandalism and general mayhem, not just against the Abkhaz, but also in Georgian areas which supported Zviad Gamsakhurdia. By contrast, the local Georgian troops from Sukhumi were much more attractive, and their morale seemed higher, but they were very far from being natural fighters. I offered my flask to a plump middle-aged dentist called Gia, an intelligent, humorous-looking man with a balding head who was suffering badly from the steep climb in the stifling heat of the forest. 'Please don't think we want to fight and kill people,' he gasped, leaning against a tree. 'I wouldn't be here if it wasn't to defend my family.' He admitted he was himself pro-Gamsakhurdia, and in private made no secret of his loathing for his Mkhedrioni comrades.
Particularly striking was the absence of many volunteers from elsewhere in Georgia. It was just the same on the Azeri side in the Karabakh War -- most of the fighters, at least up to 1994, were Azeris from Karabakh and the surrounding regions, whose homes were directly threatened. Throughout, Baku and its people felt very distant from the war raging less than 150 miles away. In this sense, Chechnya's small size may have worked to its advantage: there was no area that did not feel threatened by the invader, and few areas that were not occupied at one point or another; and so volunteers for the resistance came in from all over the country
This was also a factor which was very visible in the high morale, discipline and endurance of the Abkhaz forces I met, compared to their Georgian enemies, and of the Karabakh Armenians compared to the Georgians. All were fighting with their backs to the wall. Several former Soviet soldiers among the Armenians in Stepanakert quoted to me the words of the Soviet battle order to the troops defending Moscow in December 1941: 'We have nowhere to retreat. Behind us lies Moscow.' Or in the words of my colleague Alexis Rowell about Armenian Karabakh, which could have been repeated for Abkhazia and Chechnya but emphatically not for Georgia, Azerbaijan or Russia: 'This is a completely military society. The men are all fighting and the women are all cooking for them, nursing their wounds and bringing up their children.'
I encountered Basayev again in August 1994, at a tea-party. A friend of his -- whom I had met with him in Abkhazia -- was serving as the chief guard at my hotel, incongruously named the Frantsuski Dom, or 'French House', and invited both Basayev and myself to drink tea with the manager and his wife in their flat on the first floor of the hotel. The 'hotel' was simply a converted block of flats, and the 'rooms' were the flats themselves, with their ordinary Soviet furniture and wallpaper. In principle, therefore, they were very roomy -- except that by the autumn of 1994 there were half-a-dozen journalists to every room. But after the restaurant ceased to function and we were reduced to buying and cooking our own breakfasts, it still had a curiously domestic feel about it.
The tea-party was an unusual experience. Basayev's comrade, Vaqa, was one of the largest and most formidable-looking men I've ever met (he was killed during the war, fighting on the separatist side); some six foot seven in height, and with an enormous craggy face and huge nose, with the obligatory pistol in his belt. For the tea-party, he had produced a chocolate cake, with little flowers of pink and white icing on top. This he cut with a tremendous flourish, like a salute, using for the purpose an enormous locally produced saw-edged bayonet, with runnels down the side for blood -- a scene beyond the imagination of a Fellini.
During my conversation with Basayev, he reminisced about the fighting in the hills above Shroma, and described one incident in a way that struck a chord with my memories: 'It took us more than an hour to climb the hill. Every few minutes we'd stop and howl in chorus like wolves, and shout, "The Chechens are coming! The Chechens are coming!" And when we got to the top, the Georgians had all gone.'
When asked about Dudayev, he seemed to feel little personal enthusiasm for him. He only said, as so many fighters were to do, that he was for an independent Chechnya, and that Dudayev was the President. Speaking about Islam in Chechnya -- at least to a Western journalist -- he said nothing about the need for an Islamic state. His later support for this project seems therefore to have come out of the war, He recalled his time in the Soviet army, stressing that he'd only been a fireman, and his real military experience was all in Abkhazia, 'but we don't really need the Soviet army to teach a Chechen how to fight'. In those days, Basayev was a pleasant man to meet and talk with -- obviously a leader of men, but with a humorous and open face. He told me -- in part mistakenly as it turned out -- that 'if the Russians invade, of course we won't be able to carry out frontal war, but we will be able to rely on the crudity of Russian tactics. We will inflict huge casualties on them. We will also carry the war to Russia, not with terrorism but with diversionary actions.'
He also talked about his time as a building worker and computer salesman in Russia:
Officially, there used to be 200,000 unemployed Chechens before 1990. In fact, all of us were working, but none of us was registered with the authorities. We never lived from the state. We always lived on the side, unofficially. We made money, and we also always helped each other in time of need. That is why other peoples hate us so much, but that is why we are a strong people, and why so far we have been able to beat this Russian blockade, for example.
Not surprisingly, his face changed as the war continued. I met him again on 18 January 1995, at a former Soviet military base in southern Grozny, which was being used by the Chechens as a headquarters. He had been wounded in the hand, nose and scalp by shrapnel, and to this day bears a deep scar above his forehead. His eyes had sunk deeper into his head, and over the next years were to sink further and further; meanwhile his beard, which had been short and piratical, grew longer and bushier, until by the end of the year he really did resemble a Mujahid of old.
He was sitting on the edge of a filthy camp bed, on which sprawled an exhausted Chechen fighter. The latter was so exhausted that he barely stirred during the repeated hammerings of a heavy machine gun, just outside the window, firing at the Russian SU-25 fighter bombers ('Frogfeet' in NATO parlance) circling and swooping around the hill on which the base was situated. Again and again came the roar of the planes and the beating of the gun, while Basayev and Information Minister Mauvladi Udugov sat there unmoving, and my colleague and I sat there with idiotic expressions on our faces, pretending to be as unmoved as they were.
But Basayev and Udugov already had the measure of the Russian air force, In his words, 'They're frightened of our gun. Admittedly, it's not easy for them -- because of the low cloud and the hill, they have to come in low, and that gives us a chance. But all the same -- so many planes, and only one gun, and they still won't manage to hit us, I promise you.'
My next meeting with Basayev was in the mountain town of Vedeno -- a headquarters of his namesake Shamil during the wars of the nineteenth century -- in May 1995, after the Russians had temporarily cleared the Chechen fighters from the plains. This was the lowest ebb of Chechen fortunes during the entire war: ammunition was running very low, the men were exhausted, and it was the only time that I saw Chechen fighters show signs of panic -- we had met a carload of them fleeing from the front, declaring wrongly that the Russians had broken through (they were actually to do so barely a week later).
Basayev came into the office being used by General Maskhadov in a former school situated within the old fort, once a stronghold of Shamil. The two great commanders of the Chechen War were interesting both in their differences and their similarities. Physically, they were very unalike. While Basayev was looking more and more like a Mujahid, Maskhadov was still very much the Soviet officer, clean-shaven and in faded and dirty battledress -- and not even a very imposing one, with his long, sallow, yellowish face, his big nose, receding chin and jug ears, like a Chechen Mickey Mouse. He was sitting in the room of the school janitor, and looked indeed as if he might have been an elderly lieutenant minding the door of some distant, isolated, boring military outpost at a time of peace.
The difference in appearance between them reflected political differences that appeared later when they ran for President against each other in January 1997, with Basayev coming out more strongly for Islam and Chechen tradition, and Maskhadov standing for independence, but also for compromise with Russia, Maskhadov's Soviet military background was also, of course, a great help in his negotiations with those Russian commanders who were sincere about talks: first General Anatoly Romanov, then General Alexander Lebed.
What they had in common was an essential modesty of style; neither of them dressed, or even behaved except in the line of command, in any way that would have distinguished them from their followers. They didn't 'give themselves airs'. There could hardly have been a greater contrast with Dudayev, or his nephew and acolyte Salman Raduyev -- let alone with Labazanov. It is worth noting that in this clash of styles, by far the most brilliant and dedicated leaders were the ones who did not try visibly to elevate themselves above their followers.
The next day, we met Basayev again while we were visiting a Chechen armoured unit behind the front at Serzhen Yurt, a viliage at the mouth of the valley which winds up towards Vedeno. We had trekked over the hills for fear of air attack on the roads. He drove up in a bright red Niva, an excellent target; and he was not at all pleased to see us. This was because the state of the unit made the general Chechen position all too clear. Most of the handful of vehicles were immobilised, and there seemed very little ammunition. He tore a strip off the Chechen commander -- without raising his voice, but with a severe effect on the poor man. To us however he was as always perfectly polite, and despite his obvious irritation at our presence, he gave no orders to stop us proceeding towards the front. This intelligent and generous recognition that we did not represent a threat to his cause marked Basayev out both from the bureaucratic and paranoid Azeris and from many other Chechen fighters, who became more and more hostile to Western journalists as the war went on.
I benefited once again from Basayev's hospitality in December 1995, when together with other Western correspondents I stayed in his aunt's house in Vedeno while waiting to interview him. (His uncle, or cousin -- exact Chechen relationships are hard to fathom -- turned out also to be related to both Labazanov and Alauddi: 'We don't agree with each other, but because we are relatives, we don't trouble each other.') The house was a large one by Soviet standards, as Chechen houses often are, because they frequently contain several elements of an extended family.
Despite the war, we were fed well on shashlik and dumplings with fiery sauce, and courteously entertained, with the host producing a chess set. There was of course no alcohol, but otherwise -- though there was no doubting the commitment to Islam -- the atmosphere was far from being rigidly 'Islamic' in the sense that it is usually understood in the West. At the start of the evening the women of the family entertained Andrew Harding (BBC) and myself to tea, chatted with us, practised their English, talked about the elections, and even flirted a little, in a decorous sort of way. Thanks to Soviet rule, and in part their own pre-Islamic traditions, even religious Chechens are often a great deal less strictly Islamic than they think they are. The next day, when we interviewed him, Basayev sat there on the sofa, heavily armed, a natural leader of men, and one of the great guerrilla commanders of his age -- but also a man drinking tea at the home of his relatives; a figure greatly respected by his community and completely rooted in it and its traditions.
The following day, we watched Basayev address a meeting of local notables in the town of Vedeno, persuading them not to allow the Russian-backed Zavgayev government to hold elections in the area. This incident showed Basayev's own astuteness and self-restraint, but also the effects of the various cultural barriers against Chechen killing Chechen. For several of the men on the platform were former Soviet figures who were secretly trying to sit on the fence between the separatists and the Russian-backed authorities. They sat there in their shabby, baggy suits and astrakhan hats, shifting uneasily, like elderly schoolboys waiting to be punished. But rather than criticise or threaten them directly, Basayev only singled out one of them, the newly appointed police chief, a stranger to the area. With him, too, Basayev did not use threats but rather the weapon of public shame:
Aren't you ashamed to sit here before us when the Russians whom you serve are committing such crimes? Are you a Chechen? Are you a man? You were born a Muslim, but tell me, can you now say 'La illaha il'Allah', when you serve the Russian murderers? What would it cost you just to leave here and go back to your family? Would they shoot you for it? We could get the Russian army out of here peacefully if it were not for people like you helping them. We are not asking you to fight, just to stand aside and not harm your own nation.
After reducing the policeman to a quivering, almost tearful wreck, Basayev addressed the other notables present. But as his -- completely empty -- words about getting the army out peacefully indicated, rather than uttering fiery nationalist rhetoric he stressed that his men in Vedeno were not looking for trouble with the Russians. He said that they had not taken part in a recent capture of three Russian soldiers on the contrary, that had provoked the Russians to fire some shells into the town. He claimed, in fact that he had been on his way to the Russian commander to explain what had happened when the Russians opened fire.
I have no idea whether any of this was true; but the real point was not the truth or otherwise of what Basayev said to these men, but the fact that he bothered to say it at all. In other wars, his equivalents would simply have killed all the ex-Soviet officials in their beds, and then murdered their families. Not, of course, that the implicit threat of force was absent, and it would certainly have been used -- in moderation -- if anyone had in fact been crazy enough to hold the elections.
Excerpted from Chechnya by Anatol Lieven Copyright © 1999 by Anatol Lieven. Excerpted by permission.
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