The city of Grozny, founded as a Russian fortress nearly two centuries ago, now has only a tiny minority of ethnic Russian civilians. Unlike their Chechen neighbors, most of these Russians have no extended family networks and no ancestral villages to take refuge in; nearly all of them are elderly and have effectively lost contact with their children and other relatives. That is why they have not fled the shattered city as most of Grozny’s other ethnic Russians did long ago.
Anna Politkovskaya provided a typically poignant glimpse into this tiny community in the October 27 issue of Novaya gazeta. She found that “the Russians of Grozny…are forced non-migrants, sentenced to remain here for life. Living among people who have no rights, it is they who are most completely without rights. Among the utterly humiliated, it is they who are the very most downtrodden….The federal authorities…who used their pre-war tragedy to justify the so-called antiterrorist operation, have now renounced them.” (The “pre-war tragedy” which Politkovskaya mentions is the quasi-anarchic attacks by Chechen militants and hoodlums on the republic’s ethnic Russians in the early 1990s, sometimes including forcible expulsion from their apartments.)
Politkovskaya visited what remains of the Russian Orthodox parish of St. Michael the Archangel, the church building of which now lies in ruins and is little more than a foundation surrounded by barbed wire. The parishioners have no clergymen, which for Orthodox Christians means a huge void in parish life. This is especially serious for the Grozny parish because it is not only a place of worship but also the city’s only surviving social institution for ethnic Russians. What seems most painful to the aging community is that for the time being it has no cleric to perform funerals.
In a shattering blow, the parish’s Deacon Aleksandr was arrested in June for robbing and murdering three elderly Russian women in the village of Naurskaya in northwestern Chechnya. The deacon is half-Chechen, and he converted to Orthodox Christianity against his father’s wishes at a time–in 1996–when nobody could accuse him of doing so out of opportunism. The parishioners believe that he is being framed by both the Putin administration and federal authorities. The parish’s priest, Fr. Nazary, is also being sought by the police, for reasons that are not entirely clear. He has left Chechnya and has apparently found refuge in a monastery in the Odessa area.
Politkovskaya visited a 90-year-old Russian widower, who together with his daughter is taking care of an 81-year-old Russian widow whose husband died in an air raid three years ago. That story is typical; ethnic Russians were concentrated in downtown Grozny and suffered especially heavily under the carpet bombing of the Russian air force in both the first and the second wars.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin has done virtually nothing to create a reliable system of humanitarian aid for these increasingly helpless people, many of whom are handicapped. Organizations such as the Red Cross, according to Politkovskaya, are severely restricted by the Russian bureaucracy: Any false step could mean loss of what limited rights they still have to operate in Chechnya. In Politkovskaya’s words, that leaves Grozny’s increasingly desperate ethnic Russians as “people who not only sense that they are people without a motherland–but feel certain that their motherland has betrayed them.”