DO ETHNIC RUSSIANS SUPPORT PUTIN’S WAR IN CHECHNYA?
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 4
Among Americans who do not follow political developments in Russia closely – that is, among the overwhelming majority of Americans – there exists an impression that ethnic Russians (who comprise 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation) strongly support Putin’s war in Chechnya. The reality of the matter, however, as we shall see, is quite different.
Unlike the average American, ethnic Russians are painfully aware of the costs that they as a people have had to incur over the course of seven years of bloody warfare in Chechnya. The Yeltsin and Putin leaderships have not been forthcoming in revealing the number of Russian troops killed or severely wounded during the conflicts of 1994-1996 and 1999-present. One person, however, who has been in a position to obtain accurate information, is former Russian interior minister and deputy premier Anatoly Kulikov, currently the deputy chair of the State Duma’s Security Committee. In 2002, retired general Kulikov announced that “in the course of the two wars in Chechnya, Russia had lost as many men as in the war in Afghanistan in 1979-1989, that is, about 15,000” (see Lilia Shevtsova, Putin’s Russia , p. 252). Let us reflect on that figure: after five years of fighting in Chechnya, Russia had already suffered as many fatalities as the Soviet Union incurred during ten years of combat in Afghanistan.
Two years after General Kulikov made his announcement, in the middle of 2004, Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, told Ekho Moskvy radio that, according to the data collected by her organization, “about 25,000 soldiers, officers and police who were fighting on the side of the Russian armed forces” perished over the course of the two wars in Chechnya. In addition, she emphasized, “no fewer than 50,000 soldiers have received traumas and mutilations, with about half that number having become [legal] invalids.”
Russians have suffered other losses as well. It is not generally appreciated in the West that many of the civilians killed by the Russian forces in Chechnya have been ethnic Russians and not Chechens. Sergei Govorukhin, son of a leading Russian filmmaker and former State Duma deputy, was one scion of the privileged who chose to serve in Chechnya. During the first war he was severely wounded and had to have a leg amputated. He subsequently made a documentary film based on that war. Govorukhin is a sharp critic of the present war but also a strong supporter of the Russian troops ordered to serve there. According to his calculations, which were reported by the Gazeta newspaper’s website, Gzt.ru, last December 14 and seem reasonable, approximately 35,000 ethnic Russian civilians have to date been killed by Russian forces operating in Chechnya. Most of this number perished during the bombardment and heavy destruction of the capital city of Grozny during the course of both wars. Russians were in effect killing their fellow Russians to punish Chechens.
Even those ethnic Russian civilians who managed to flee the cauldron of Chechnya have frequently found themselves abandoned by the Russian state. One such civilian is Taisiya Tolstovaya, an 82-year-old unregistered resident of Moscow whose story was told by Izvestia.ru last December 25. She was denied a Russian pension on the grounds that her personal identification papers had been destroyed during one of the military bombardments of Grozny. She and her invalid son, Volodya – he became an invalid after having been kidnapped in Chechnya – are required to live in a cramped auxiliary storeroom lacking a toilet or running water. She and her son, who is unemployable, take turns sleeping at night on a lumpy couch placed in the storeroom. To justify having access to this rudimentary abode, Tolstovaya is required to do hard physical work washing and swabbing the stairs and floors of a sixteen-story apartment building three times a week as well as cleaning up once a week for the Union of Veterans. On a single occasion, the Russian state offered her a one-time payment of 100 rubles; she had to stand in line at a bank every day for a month in order to receive the money. Such is the unexceptional fate of one former Russian resident of Grozny.
Generally unnoticed in the West, there has been a rising mood of protest in Russia directed against a bloody and costly war. In late December of 2004, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that, beginning on January 1, 2005, no more Russian conscripts would be sent to Chechnya. Following the first of the year, he declared, only kontraktniki (volunteers) would be sent to the republic. This decision, it must be emphasized, was effectively forced upon Ivanov by Russian public opinion and by nascent Russian civil society, in particular by the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, which recently transformed itself into a political party. In early 2005, Ivanov announced that military deferments would not in the future be granted to young Russian men. He was presumably aware that such an announcement could not be made before the sending of conscripts to Chechnya had been ended as a practice.
While Sergei Ivanov and Vladimir Putin doggedly push on with the war in Chechnya, the Russian public has increasingly been siding with the position of the Soldiers’ Mothers. In a recent nation-wide poll conducted by the prestigious Levada Center in Moscow, 64 percent of Russian respondents stated that they supported the position of the Mothers on fostering negotiations with the Chechen separatists while only 27 percent said that they were opposed. Among women, the support has been even more pronounced: 72 percent of women living in large Russian cities polled by the Levada Center held that “the activity of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers serves a beneficial purpose.” Nine percent were neutral toward the Committee’s activities while a mere five percent chose the vituperative response: “The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers carries out the political command of the West to weaken the defense capacity of Russia.”
The distinguished Russian sociologist who heads up the Levada Center, Yuri Levada, views the emergence of such sentiment as a highly positive development. “I think,” Polit.ru quoted him as saying earlier this month, “that people do not support the war [in Chechnya]. And that is good. The fact that people are deprived of blind rapture before the bosses is also good. And when we [the Levada Center] recently asked how people related to those who advocated ending the war in Chechnya, only six percent could be found who said: ‘Such people are enemies and traitors.’ The others did not say that. And there is also the concrete example of the Soldiers’ Mothers, who have received support. I think that these are bright moments.”
While ethnic Russians evince little affection for Chechens, they are also far from enamored of those of their countrymen who run the Russian war machine in Chechnya. In polls taken in late September 2004 by “Public Opinion” Foundation, whose results were reported by Gazeta.ru on October 1, 41 percent of Russian respondents believed that “the special services could but for certain reasons do not want” to find Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basaev. Only seven percent were convinced that the services both wanted to and could find Basaev. Commenting on such views prevalent among the Russian public, Yuri Levada told Polit.ru last November: “If they [the Russian leaders] halted the war, it is not clear what the state, the army, and the generals would occupy themselves with. This is a very important part of life, around which there swirl both military ranks and careers, and enormous money and oil, and funds gained under the pretext of restoration [of housing and infrastructure in Chechnya].” Much of the Russian populace, as Levada notes, is of the opinion that greed and corruption underpin both the regime’s and the Russian power ministries’ commitment to pressing on with an unpopular war.
To sum up, the Russian public does not in the main support Vladimir Putin’s war in Chechnya. Rather they, like the Soldiers’ Mothers, favor a negotiated settlement to the conflict that would spare Russian soldiers further suffering and would also help to bring about the introduction of a much-needed military reform leading to the creation of a Russian professional army.