The war which began in early December in Chechnya, the Russian republic in the North Caucasus, was a test of many things, but of Russia’s claim to be an open society in particular. Leaving aside the special case of the assault on the Russian Parliament in Moscow in October 1993, this is the first full-scale military action in which the Russian state has engaged on what it perceives to be its own territory. It justified its intervention – on Sunday, 11 December – by reference to the presence on Chechen territory of large numbers of illegal armed groups apparently loyal to the Chechen President Dzhokar Dudayev, whose election in late 1991 is itself seen by the Russian authorities as illegal: these groups, the Russians said, were threatening the civilian population. Even if one accepts that this constitutes grounds for intervention it is still necessary – and here has lain the difficulty for the Russian administration – for journalists to believe that the questions do not end, but only begin, at that point.
I was in Chechnya and its capital, Grozny, for a few days immediately after the three Russian divisions arrived in the republic, though I left shortly before the final deadline for the effective surrender of the pro-Dudayev forces ran out and attacks on the city began in earnest. It was the second Russian onslaught in two weeks. The first, on 26 November, followed an attack by the Chechen opposition, who had succeeded in driving their ageing tanks to the centre of the city near the Presidential offices but were then beaten back, leaving in their wake a number of prisoners who turned out to be Russian officers recruited by the Federal Intelligence Committee (the former KGB) to serve with the opposition as ‘experts’.
My time there was a time of waiting for something to happen, and of quite extraordinary lying on the part of the Russian authorities. Fighters were bombing Grozny’s civil and military airports – and the Russian Government was denying that they were Russian, while showing no curiosity about the provenance of what could only otherwise be alien planes bombing Russian territory. Russian officers were giving interviews to journalists in Grozny – and the Russian authorities denied their existence. The Russian journalists, an exceptionally caustic group of men and women, were having great fun bouncing around in the gulf between observable fact and official statement. Only when Izvestiya revealed that officers from the Kantemirovsky Division were promised six million roubles (about $2000) to staff the opposition’s attack did the line change – without apology.
Grozny – the name means ‘terrible’ or ‘threatening’ – is a town of some 400,000 people, the only town of size in Chechnya. It is poor even by post-Soviet standards, with a few large administration buildings grouped round Freedom Square, a large oil refinery on the outskirts, some institutes, theatres and hospitals, and central streets of rundown apartment buildings giving way to jumbles of low wooden and brick houses. Most of the men above their teenage years carry automatic rifles. There are a few pieces of ageing artillery and some equally obsolescent tanks, some no longer mobile.