Chechnya: Russia’s shame

Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist renowned and assailed for her work in uncovering the brutalities of the war in Chechnya, was murdered in Moscow on 7 October 2006. In tribute, extracts from the work which earned her the 2003 Ulysses prize for the art of reportage.

by Anna Politkovskaya

(This article was originally published 9 October 2006)


On the table an old-fashioned clock is ticking away. Wind it up and all it counts is the hours to come. The man understands the rules governing the clock and he winds it up every morning so time won’t stop.

But the man is an odd creature. He is much concerned with the hands that tell the time, but very little with time itself.

In Russia in September 1999, after winding the clock up a little and playing “anti-terrorist” skittles with the people, Vladimir Putin unleashed the second Chechen war.

That’s how he put time into reverse. Soon after the second Chechen war, a new – civil – war broke out in Russia.

Now the hands of our clocks run backwards, exclusively. The new civil war was not declared on just one people living on Russian territory, but on all the people. Now everybody is doing his bit for a war that has left its mark on each city, each region, each republic. The war is omnipresent; the entire Russian people is involved and this author is no exception.

What kind of age are we living in? What is this new war all about? What social effects is it having? Who are we, we Russian citizens of the early 21st century?

We? We who are ready to fight tooth and nail over some trifling annoyance. We who are intolerant, intransigent.

We? We, without a moment’s thought, have gone back to brandishing dramatic notions like “enemy of the people”, sticking the label indiscriminately on anyone who doesn’t think like the majority.

We? We have realised that a bullet in the head is the simplest, most natural way of resolving any conflict, however trivial.

We? Hardened by war, we are better at hating than loving. Hate is our prayer. We clench our fists on a moment’s notice, but unclenching them is another matter. And once again, instead of breathing our own good air, we are blithely feeding off the blood of our compatriots.

What is that if not a civil war?

This book brings together the author’s impressions of the world around her, of the war raging in Russia and of what is happening to our society.

Volodia vanishes

The list of journalists murdered, kidnapped and reported missing in Chechnya is a long one. The story of Andrei Babitsky, kidnapped early in 2000 and then miraculously released in response to international pressure, is well known; but there was no pressure, international or otherwise, for my friend Vladimir (Volodia) Yatsina, kidnapped just before the Russian offensive and shot by bandits at the beginning of the second Chechen war.

Volodia was a photographer with the Itar-Tass agency. He had studied journalism at the University of Moscow with three members of my family and taken my sister’s wedding photos. Those photos are now a souvenir of that happy time. The last time we got them out was for my sister’s silver wedding anniversary; it seemed so sad that Volodia should no longer be with us. The next day I had a phone call from his ageing mother, Nadezhda Invanovna, who now craves only one thing in life: to be able to bury his body. The question was still the same: “when?”

What could I say?

March 2002. A cold, junk-littered room in the Russian-run Public Prosecutor’s Office in Grozny. Outside it’s pitch-black because there’s no street lighting, but inside the blinds are down and a bulb lights up the room – not so bad. All I know for the moment is that the military, fed up with being pestered by Volodia’s mother, handed over “his” coffin, urging her not to look inside, as “the experience could be traumatic.” Disregarding their advice, she opened the coffin and found what examination revealed to be the bones of cattle.

At the Public Prosecutor’s Office the investigating officers offer me vodka, black bread, tea and cakes. A good idea, as I’m going to spend all night here, amid the countless criminal files lying around on the floor. Refusing the vodka, I help myself to the rest, striving to shake off a gnawing feeling of anxiety: tonight I have nowhere else to go.

Investigating officer Ignatenko, a strange, perpetually hurried man with evasive eyes, questions me late into the night. His wife has left him, he has no girlfriend, no home, and his official “accommodation” here is a reeking boxcar. He worked in Chechnya during the first war, then came back for the second: so he has every reason in the world to be going crazy. Ignatenko is handling the case of the “Cadet”, the nickname of Serguei Lapine, a militia officer who, after kidnapping and killing a number of people while stationed in Grozny in 2000, had threatened to liquidate me because I had spoken out against his crimes in my paper. The murderer had gone home to Nizhnevartovsk, where he got a job with the crime squad, but was finally arrested on charges that include his threats to me. For the first time in the history of the two Chechen wars, a journalist was receiving recognition as a victim, instead of being denounced as a liar and a slanderer.

The point of this long digression is that, by the purest chance, my interrogation led me to information on the whereabouts of Volodia’s body. The questions kept coming, endlessly, and Ignatenko – exhausted and starting to hate the sight of me – had not given any thought to where I might spend the night. In the meantime the curfew had sounded, so he had to keep me there.

Unfortunately, dossing down among the files was out of the question. Forbidden. So the night shift officers kept me company: bored stupid in “bloody Chechnya”, they were more than happy to chat and hear the news from Moscow, and when the conversation began to flag one of them showed me some photos in a fold-out wallet.

“These are the people who killed Yatsina the journalist. Was he a friend of yours?”

I almost spilt my tea. It was as if, in this filthy setting, I was being asked to tell the story of my life.

More photos came out.

“These are the ones who buried him. Witnesses to his murder.”

“So you know where his body is?”

“Yes, we know.”

“Has it been exhumed, then?” But I had given myself away with the urgency of my question, and the officers’ faces darkened.

“It’s not as simple as that. There are problems…”

I began to regret not having shared their vodka with them. The Russian way is that you can trust someone who drinks with you, and had I done so they might have opened up a little more.

Even so, tongues loosened little by little. It turned out that Volodia had been buried by other hostages, who had only told their story recently, after their release.

“Why don’t you dig up the body? His mother has been waiting for so long…”

“There’s no one to go and dig it up.”

“What do you mean, ‘no one’? That’s absolutely crazy.”

“It’s a long way away. Over towards Malyie Varandy, a village in the mountains. The guys from the spetznaz (special-operations unit) are scared: why be parachuted in just to recover a body? The real problem, though, is that they won’t do it without being paid.”

I felt utterly drained, crushed yet again by the vulgar banality of a war that improves nobody and turns the weak into absolute bastards. I’d like to just shut up and vomit the war out of me, but I have to keep the conversation going. The officers explain that from an objective point of view (they don’t say where that point is), you obviously have to worry more about the living. They’re right, of course: looking at things from the point of view of the wives and children of the spetznaz guys, it would be plain stupid to get killed by a stray bullet for the sake of a total stranger and his mother.

“But if that’s the way it is…” Ignatenko’s sentences often trail off this way.

“Then what? Come on, out with it!”

“Then the guilty party has to pay!” he blurts out, staring down at the floor scattered with files.

He’s a little ashamed – so he hasn’t sold his soul completely.

There’s a certain logic in what he says. Ignatenko is perfectly up to date on Volodia’s kidnapping and death. And like him, I know that the spetznaz guys, as disgustingly mercenary as they are, are not to blame.

Press photographer Volodia Yatsina left for Chechnya via Ingushetia late in June 1999, just before the Basayev-Khattab incursion into Dagestan, which was followed by a kind of war hysteria. A Canadian photographer named Heidi Hollinger asked him to go to Chechnya and bring back photos of one of the war resistance leaders. Hollinger was a well-known figure in Moscow, where she was part of Boris Yeltsin’s “court”. Her speciality was highly distinctive shots of the Russian elite. When a hitch in her plans meant she could not go to Chechnya, she asked Volodia to take her place and he agreed.

Now Ignatenko is getting worked up. “But why the hell did he go? What for?”

Could it be he doesn’t know that Itar-Tass, the country’s top press agency, pays its staff starvation wages, even when they’re skilled professionals with international prizes to their credit?

Anyway, Volodia took off for Chechnya to earn some money, the aim being to take the photos for Hollinger, get back to Moscow fast and work on under the watchful eyes of his bosses, whose permission he hadn’t asked…

When word got out that he had been kidnapped and that it was up to the Russian and international press to stir things up and get him released – as later happened in the case of Babitsky – or at least get his captors to lower the ransom, Itar-Tass started playing the outraged virgin: they could not forgive him for leaving without permission.

The first to refuse to help was Itar-Tass chief Vitali Ignatenko – by an irony of fate he has the same name as my investigating officer – a journalist with strong Kremlin connections, and an unashamed former communist with a weakness for public speechifying about the honour of his profession. He was the first of the guilty, but as members of a supposed community of journalists we’re all guilty. Ignatenko has a lot of clout in our circles, so things dragged on while people muttered to each other in corridors.

Of course it was neither Vitali Ignatenko nor the union of journalists who introduced Volodia to Magomed Uspayev: it was Heidi Hollinger, on whose recommendation this 22-year-old graduate of the Moscow Academy of Economics was to escort him on his assignment. Ouspayev’s escorting, however, was restricted to a hundred metres or so at the airport at Nazran, capital of neighbouring Ingushetia, where he handed his charge over to a group of bandits. That’s how Volodia was kidnapped. Panic-stricken, Hollinger got out of the country in a hurry; Russia half-heartedly called for her extradition as an accomplice, but she needn’t lose any sleep: the Public Prosecutor only presses hard for extradition when there’s some political profit in it. And with just one old-age pensioner demanding the body of her son and punishment for the guilty, why get excited?

Volodia was held prisoner in the most appalling conditions by the Akhmadov brothers’ detachment from Urus-Martan. In biting cold he was thrown into a deep hole where he could only squat. Rheumatism set in, his legs swelled and he began to suffer cardiac pains.

As the federal troops advanced, the Akhmadovs moved the hostages from one place to another in the mountains. But Volodia, whose bad legs made walking difficult, held them back; so the bandits decided to get rid of him and he was shot.

We now know the date and place of the execution and subsequent burial, near the village of Malyie Varandy. We know who the witnesses were. The spot is an hour by car from Grozny and all that’s needed is for someone to go there and exhume his remains.

However, this isn’t the United States, where the president gives an order and planes or boats head out to recover the body of an American citizen. Russia’s top political figure doesn’t give a damn and the military at Khankara, with their special squad of gravediggers, aren’t going to lift a finger without orders. In addition, they say it ups the risk, so they want a bonus. And anyway, how do you appeal to the decent instincts of the military, for which the corpse business has become routine over the last three years in Chechnya?

“Then the guilty party has to pay!” Back in Moscow, I was haunted by Ignatenko’s words, so I decided to appeal to the journalistic community for funds.

This idea was an absolute lead balloon. Saving kidnapped journalists in Chechnya and showing concern for their mortal remains has gone right out of fashion in the so-called brotherhood. What’s more, the savage Soviet past is on the comeback trail and once again we’re practically at the stage where “captive” is equated with “traitor”.

All the journalists’ organisations acted as if the question of Volodia’s corpse was none of their business. The word went out that Itar-Tass chief Vitali Ignatenko would take it very badly if anybody got involved and that he was applying political pressure. Even my own fairly radical paper refused my article on the issue. And so the Yatsina affair quietly bogged down in a Moscow where careers come first and people have no idea of what it is to suffer.

Nadezhda Invanovna keeps phoning me, but there is nothing I can do for her – without money you can’t get much done in Russia these days. And meanwhile Volodia’s story lacks an ending: the body of my friend and colleague still lies where it was buried after his execution.

Infernal energy

The journalist’s job is to produce articles, commentary, interviews. The tears you sometimes shed are basically irrelevant: you describe what you see, get the facts together and analyse them. Full stop.

Yet there are all sorts of things – including our day-to-day lives in Chechnya – that don’t get talked about, and which could help the reader understand the journalist’s approach to what he has seen and tried to describe. Most often, for example, that journalist is short of sleep, starved, dirty and scared to death – like any other inhabitant of the country.

Month after month and year after year for almost ten years now, hundreds of thousands of people have been enduring inhuman conditions in this luckless land. But like all of us they continue to live, love and hope. We and they are one. And when our politicians start rattling their swords, each and every one of us is a potential victim of their personal ambition, like the civilian population in Chechnya.

One more thing: in Chechnya thousands of people have learnt that violence is the only way to settle any dispute, resolve any contradiction. Those who strike earn apparent deference from those who are struck, but at the same time they are generating a store of hatred and anger that insidiously infects them too.

I know from personal experience that ridding ourselves of this concentration of infernal energy is a long and difficult business. At the beginning you trust nobody, you’re suspicious, you avoid people – and then, in the crowd, you pick out one person you hope will understand you. If it’s the right person, you’re in luck: the thaw, provided it’s still possible, will come that much faster.

Sometimes I worry that for me the thaw isn’t going to happen. The Russian proverb has it that the well-fed and the starving can’t get along. Like those who have been beaten up and those who haven’t. It’s quite possible, in my opinion, that one day my chief editor, the person who sent me to cover this war, will no longer know what to do with me – like an unusable article you can only throw out.

Translated from the French by John Tittensor

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