Bear Hungry For Revenge Why There Is Growing Support Among Russians For The Invasion Of Chechenia

Sergei Kovalev, Russia’s ombudsman, who bravely spent a month in Grozny under Boris Yeltsin’s bombs trying to arouse the conscience of his fellow Russians at the height of the Chechen campaign, was in a deeper gloom than usual. Parliament had just sacked him as chair of its human rights committee. ‘Perhaps I should return to being a dissident,’ he said at a conference in Genoa when the news reached him.

The blow was not his dismissal as such. It was that parliament, rather than the president, had turned against him first. The sad message seemed to be that, in spite of a volley of criticism of Yeltsin by Russian MPs when the Chechen war started, a broadly pro-war consensus had subsequently emerged. Kovalev’s line, that the sovereignty of Chechenia should be set aside for future discussion while ceasefire talks and human rights monitoring took precedence, was just too radical.

When the war started before Christmas, there was much talk that it would become a Russian version of America’s Vietnam. Domestic protests would gradually mount and Russia’s parliamentary majority would split so clearly from the administration that in the end withdrawal would become the only option. So far, alas, the trend has been the other way. Three months into the war, opposition has slackened.

‘The official propaganda about Chechen cruelty is having an effect, and indeed there is an increase in brutality,’ Kovalev argues. ‘The Chechens say they won’t take prisoners. Now some Russians want revenge.’

Vitaly Tretyakov, the editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, and another strong critic of the government, shares the analysis that popular support for the war is growing. Russians are rallying round the flag now that it is flying over Grozny for fear that all their sacrifices will otherwise seem in vain. ‘People hear about the coffins coming back, and the losses mounting, and they feel they can’t go on criticising the government,’ says Tretyakov.

But Chechenia will not be another Vietnam or Afghanistan for a deeper reason. The vast majority of Russians consider Chechenia part of Russia. Chechens have not forgotten their forcible incorporation into the Tsarist empire a century and a half ago, but to Russians it is ancient history. They feel that letting Chechenia go could unravel the whole of the Russian Federation. In fact, Chechenia is an exception. Along with Chuvashia and Tuva, it is the only one of the three dozen republics where the titular group forms a majority. This creates centrifugal tendencies not present elsewhere.

Yet the only senior figure calling for Russia to abandon the Caucasus is the writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. He took this line five years ago as part of his case for a Slavic union of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and northern Kazakhstan. It is a maverick view.

By contrast, even those MPs who count as committed democrats sound shockingly virulent when it comes to Chechenia. ‘I agree with Yeltsin that Chechenia is part of Russia and that the Dudayev regime is illegal and criminal,’ Vladimir Lukin, chair of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, comments. A former Russian ambassador to Washington, Mr Lukin is a leading figure in the pro-reform Yabloko faction, led by Grigory Yavlinsky.

Lukin is scathing about Yeltsin’s tactics. ‘Only one task has been completed. Grozny has been destroyed,’ he says. But now is not the time to withdraw the troops. ‘The principle of the endless creation of new ethnically-based states will lead to a catastrophe for Russia and everyone else. Until the international community accepts this, nothing can be done.’ General Sherman had destroyed the city of Atlanta in the name of defeating secession in the American civil war, Lukin also pointed out.

Oleg Rumyantsev, a leading political reformer from the last Parliament who works as a consultant to the constitutional committee, also uses the American analogy. ‘Chechenia is the same as the war between the Northern and Southern states. We must defeat the Confederation. I say this as a constitutionalist. It sounds very cruel, but what can I do? There must be no other precedent of questioning the Federation.’

Perhaps the worst aspect of the Chechen crisis is that it has revived the old Russian split between politicians and intellectuals, between cynicism and impotence.

I talked to Kovalev and Tretyakov in Italy at a conference dedicated to the tenth anniversary of perestroika. With the exception of the star guest, Mikhail Gorbachev, who managed to keep up a front of relative optimism, insisting that his legacy of democracy must not be reversed, it turned into a profoundly pessimistic Russian session.

People who had not been in the same room for at least five years were bound by a common thread. Yegor Ligachev, once Gorbachev’s biggest conservative critic and an unreconstructed Soviet loyalist, sat alongside Gennady Burbulis, once of Yeltsin’s main advisers and the chief architect of Russia’s independence. Sergei Glaziev and Alexander Shokhin, two former Yeltsin ministers, flanked Gorbachev on the platform. Their prognosis for Russia was bleak.

They listened spellbound as Andrei Sinyavsky, an emigre writer who left for exile in Paris in the 1970s, accused the intelligentsia of being as blind to today’s new poverty as an earlier generation was to the man-made famine of the 1930s. ‘Before perestroika, I lived well. The Soviet regime looked unshakeable. You could confront it and land in prison, or become a puppet in its pocket as many intellectuals did. But then came perestroika . . . and some dissidents even felt upset that Gorbachev had beaten them to it and become the first dissident in the Politburo.’

With the collapse of the 1991 coup and the end of Communist Party rule, intellectuals rushed to Yeltsin’s side in the corridors of power. They ignored the catastrophic social effect of the ending of price subsidies in 1992. They justified Yeltsin’s dissolution of parliament, and the use of tanks against it in 1993.

At this point Sinyavsky fixed his eye on Kovalev. The human rights commissioner was one of those who had strongly defended the closing of parliament at the time. (Indeed, some observers suggest his recent sacking was the Communists’ revenge.) ‘I’m glad that Kovalev has gone back to being a dissident. I hope he is more comfortable in his new role than in Yeltsin’s team,’ Sinyavsky twinkled.

It was brilliant, but in its own way deeply depressing. Sniping from the sidelines or becoming a tame regime hack – there seems to be no middle ground in Russia. It is the power of the pen or the power of the sword. Any chance of a civic politics of consultation, compromise or dialogue is a long way off. Chechenia has only pushed it further into the mist.