Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 3

By Andrei Piontkovsky

Of all my fellow journalists, the one I least want to take issue with is the brilliant Yulia Kalinina, who publishes her thoughts in “Moskovsky komsomolets” every Saturday. Kalinina is intelligent and talented, with a nice sense of irony and impeccable moral taste.

Her reaction to the brutal murder in Chechnya of three Britons and one New Zealander was the natural response of any decent Russian shocked by the crime. “I do not want to live in the same country as people who consider it acceptable to cut off heads. Let them get on with that if they want to, but not in the same place as us; they should live in a reservation for barbarians. I do not want the world to think about my country: Russia–that’s the place where they cut off foreigners’ heads.”

I agree absolutely. And yet I cannot forget that I live in the same Russia which for two years bombed and shelled Chechen villages and towns. Tens of thousands citizens of Russia were killed–Russians and Chechens, men and women, old people and children. The death of children–blown apart by an aerial bomb in the market place in Shali, or by a grenade in a basement during the punitive raid on Samashki–is no less terrible than that of three Britons and a New Zealander.

I do not reproach Kalinina. During the war she was an extremely courageous journalist who battled against the shameful and bloody venture. I reproach myself and all of us. We are trying to purge our collective memory of an unpleasant sense of guilt. The reason we are so eager to demonize a whole people is so that we can forget about the great evil that we brought to their land 100 years ago, fifty-four years ago and four years ago.

“Klavdia Maksimovna is 69. In January 1995 her daughter was killed by shrapnel, and was buried without a coffin in the garden of a high-rise apartment block in Grozny. A few days later her son-in-law was killed. Witnesses described how soldiers divided those they came across in the street into two groups–Chechens to the left, Russians to the right. The son-in-law, who was Russian, stood with the Chechens: ‘I’ve worked at the same factory as them all my life–why are you separating us like fascists?’ He has not been seen since” (Moskovsky komsomolets, October 22, 1996).

The butchery in Chechnya went on for two years and claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people–both Russians and Chechens. They died not as a result of a natural disaster, but as a consequence of the willful acts of those who unleashed the war, gave the orders to bomb towns and villages, killed and tortured prisoners in filtration camps, stirred up hatred in people’s hearts and profited from the war.

To continue killing with impunity for so long, it was necessary to dehumanize the enemy. “Chechens are either murderers, brigands or thieves!” one grandee of the state–and a close friend of the president–declared publicly.

A throng of servile intellectuals fell over themselves to develop and elaborate upon a thesis which would justify genocide ideologically. Of course, education and sophistication prevent highbrows from borrowing the practices of the FSB chief directly. Intellectuals implant the same criminal idea into society’s consciousness in a much more sophisticated manner. They write about “hordes of barbarians on the outskirts of the Third Rome,” about “Russia’s eternal battle with the steppe,” about “an ethnic group hostile to Russia from the outset,” of a “small, devious group” of Caucasian nationality and so on. The editor of an influential newspaper noted sagely: “There can be no doubting the criminal element in the Chechen regime.” You would have thought that somebody, particularly an editor employed by one of the oligarchs, still doubted the criminal element in the Russian regime.

The intense activity of the Russian intellectuals bore fruit. Never before had Russian soldiers returned from their campaigns with ears severed from their enemies’ heads. At the end of the 20th century a group of academicians and professors–the television executives Boris Berezovsky, Sergei Blagovolin and Konstantin Ernst–took it upon themselves to fill this lacuna. Proudly showing film footage of severed Chechen ears on Channel 1, the channel’s directors taught Russian soldiers new modes of “patriotic” behavior. For some reason intelligent people sucking up to their bosses always stoop to greater abominations than those actually in power.

I have always held Andrei Kozyrev the most to blame for the Chechen war. Not because he was more bloodthirsty than anyone else or because he had more influence on the course of events. This was not the case. But among all the members of the Security Council which took the fateful decision–among all the semi-literate former Soviet party secretaries and generals–he was the only one with an intelligentsia background. He was the only one who as a child had read Tolstoy’s “Hadji Murat,” with its 17th chapter, which is so unbearably painful for the Russian reader, and which we must all now reread alone with our conscience.

More than 100 years ago, a young Russian officer involved in what has been a seemingly eternal Chechen war wrote after one of the regular punitive raids on a hill settlement: “The village elders gathered in the square and squatted on their heels to discuss the situation. Nobody spoke a word of hatred for the Russians. The emotion felt by every Chechen, old and young alike, was stronger than hatred. It was not hatred, it was a refusal to recognize these Russian dogs as men at all, and a feeling of such disgust, revulsion and bewilderment at the senseless cruelty of these creatures that the urge to destroy them–like the urge to destroy rats, venomous spiders or wolves–was an instinct as natural as that of self-preservation” (Leo Tolstoy, “Hadji Murat,” chapter 17, translated by Paul Foote, 1977).

Andrei Kozyrev should have stood up with this book in his hand, given his ignorant colleagues a blow-by-blow account of what would happen over the next two years, and told them that the decision they had taken would lead Russia to moral disaster. But he wanted to retain his already shaky position as minister. He said nothing. He soon lost his job anyway: The government, too, sensed that he was a different breed.

However, the “new Russian intelligentsia” seem to have new motives for their behavior, apart from the traditional sycophancy and desire to keep their jobs at any price. I am no supporter of General Lebed, but am inclined to believe what he said at a recent press conference: “Boris Berezovsky–that well-known businessman and public figure, the owner of ORT, Sibneft and LogoVAZ–came to see me and said, ‘Oh Aleksandr Ivanovich [Lebed], Aleksandr Ivanovich, you have destroyed such a good little business, everything was going so well; okay, there may have been a bit of killing, but there is always killing going on somewhere–and there will always be.'”

A city with such leaders and such spiritual shepherds is a doomed city. Can it be saved by one righteous man? In Jerusalem, a wandering prophet taught that there is no “Greek” and no “Jew.” Twenty centuries later, this truth still needs to be demonstrated. What is more, it still needs people to die for it.

A Russian worker in Grozny said that there is no “Russian” and no “Chechen” and crossed the road to join his fellow factory workers, just as Janusz Korczak went to the ovens in Treblinka together with his pupils. The Russian worker did not do it for the Chechens. He could not help them. In any case they did not need his help. He did it for himself, for the Russians and for the human race.

At that moment he was the freest man in the world. Unlike the enlightened intellectual statesmen in Moscow, it is unlikely he had read Sartre or Camus. But they wrote about him.

The Chechen son-in-law made an existentialist choice in the face of death. With his action he saved the concept of human dignity, and–particularly importantly for us–the concept of the dignity of Russians. Maybe it will weigh in our favor one day in the balance of fate.

Chadaev was probably right when he wrote that “we have lived and continue to live in order to serve as an example–or a warning–to other peoples.” But sometimes we reveal to the world the greatness of the spirit of the Russian people, which in our times of triumph leads us to a humbled fascist Berlin, and in our times of shame leads the best of us to the right side of the street of Grozny.

We are eternally tied to Chechnya by what we have done there. We will always be partly to blame for whatever happens there. We–all of us–live in the Chechnya and in the Russia where they cut off foreigners’ heads.

Andrei Piontkovsky heads the Center for Strategic Studies, a Moscow-based think-tank.