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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.

The journalists who came and went in the first weeks of December tried to get beds in a hotel called the Fransuski Dom, or French House, which was a comfortless former apartment building which – until the attacks came closer – preserved a functioning restaurant and a few electric fires (the central heating had long since ceased to work). The unlucky found places in the nearby Neftyanik (‘Oil Worker’) or Grozneft (‘Grozny Oil’), where they slept on beds with iron frames and dirty blankets, the toilets were holes in the floors and there was no food. Remarkably, a private restaurant called the Lasania opened every evening: its basement rooms were warm and there was a constant supply of alcohol and quite good soup. It was packed until the small hours with Russian and foreign journalists loudly releasing tensions, floating instant strategies and cursing the Russian Army.

I thought the foreign reporters who covered the war admirable. Everyone had had at least one brush with great danger, some had come very close indeed. A car with Reuters cameramen and reporters had been casually shot up by Russian troops after it had stopped at their command – the only wound was a grazed ear. Didier Lecomte of Libération lay beneath a bridge during a firefight near Grozny while shells landed all about him. David Hearst of the Guardian and David Chater of Sky News, who had gone up to the village of Pervomaisk near Grozny to observe the Russian advance, were nearly killed by a shell and sniped at when they ran for cover. Witold Laskowski of Polish TV saw a bus blown up by a shell a few yards from him. David Ljungren of Reuters watched a Russian helicopter brought down by fire next to him, and his colleague Lawrence Sheets – one of these reporters whom danger attracts as magnets do iron filings – appeared to spend all his time in the firing lines, as did the remarkable Anatole Lieven of the Times. The freelance photographers, the SAS of the press corps, were in constant hazard. Julian Manyon of ITN, Angus Roxburgh of BBC TV and Andrew Harding of BBC World Service routinely drove over the (very fluid) front lines. My own former colleague, Steve LeVine – who covers Central Asia and the Caucasus for the Financial Times – survived a shell burst ten yards away: his driver deserted him. The danger of the day was succeeded in the evening by desperate, sometimes ferocious, competition for the few satellite links and uncertain lines to Moscow bureaux. Many, like me, got out on the weekend of 17-18 December, when either they themselves or their editors decided the risk was too great. But many others stayed.

In these decisions there was much of bravado, of the fearsome competition, especially among freelances, for space and exposure, of false confidence, of the treacherous appearance of safety in numbers. Journalists in these situations can act like hyperactive sheep – charging this way and that in groups, more fearful of losing a story or a picture than of losing a head.

But although it was a residual and never discussed matter, the foreign journalists were serving a benign civic function. They were there. They were the awkward witnesses. They could see that it was impossible to take the town with ‘minimum bloodshed’ (which was the Russian objective) because they had seen the quite extensive bloodshed involved simply in getting part of the Russian Army to within striking distance of Grozny. They had heard one of the divisional commanders, General Ivan Babichev, telling a crowd of mainly elderly Chechens that he did not intend to take his column into Grozny because he thought the order to do so ‘criminal’. They could see – indeed, they experienced – the casual or nervous brutality of the Russian Army recruits. They could see that describing the Chechens as ‘slaves’ to Dudayev, as Nikolai Yegorov, the Russian Presidential plenipotentiary to Chechnya had done, was rubbish – not because Dudayev was popular, but because the idea he embodied, of the independence of his state from Russia, was.

There was, however, a group that was more important than the foreign journalists – not because they functioned better, but because of who they were. That was the Russian journalists. There were relatively few of them. Of the main papers, I believe only Izvestiya, Komsomolskaya Pravda and the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta had reporters in Grozny; the Ostankino and Russian state TV channels and the independent NTV channel all had crews. The Tass wire service had two reporters. In sum, the Russian contingent was smaller than the British – which was probably the biggest.

I spent much of two days there working with the Izvestiya correspondent, Nikolai Gritchin. He is a man of about my age – mid-forties – and he was immediately friendly, in part because that is his nature, in part because it helped to be working with a foreigner, if only because there were fewer occasions when he had to introduce himself as a Russian in a town besieged by Russians. He is what is known in the trade as a district man: based in Stavropol, he covered the Southern Russian and North Caucasian regions and republics, and knew Grozny well.

He was immediately distinguishable from a foreign correspondent: instead of high-tech boots, jeans, parka, bullet-proof jacket and shoulder bag he had a fur hat, a carefully belted overcoat, solid Russian street shoes, a shirt and a tie, an attaché case and an umbrella. We spent one day, together with Pilar Bonet of El Pais, going out on the western highway towards the army of the mutinous General Babichev, stopping on the way to talk to groups of Chechen fighters. We spent part of the next day together interviewing Chechen cabinet ministers as they sat at their desks in their freezing offices, in full war gear with grenades at their belts and ammunition clips in their breast pockets.

Given that Gritchin was already in a foolhardy situation, he was not foolhardy. When shelling started a little ahead of us on the western highway and Pilar insisted on going back, while making it clear we should continue if we wished, Gritchin and I looked at each other – two men no longer young but wanting to get older, with families and fears – and judiciously decided to stay with Pilar, to the derision of our demented Chechen driver. Surrounded by Chechen fighters with automatics, pistols and knives, sworn to war to the death with the Russians, Gritchin would let Pilar and me introduce ourselves as ‘foreign correspondents’ first. He was unfailingly courteous to everyone, responding to the explicit or implicit questioning of his government’s conduct with full agreement as to its irrationality. Like any district man, he needed to nurse his contacts; like almost no other, he ran a risk of his contacts killing him.

Yet Gritchin was one of the most important reporters there – if not the most important. Since 1991, under its chief editor Igor Golembiovsky, Izvestiya, once the paper of the Soviet Government, has been more faithful to liberal ideals and open practices than any other publication. Still rather Soviet in its layout, and struggling with a circulation of 600,000 and the infrastructure for one of six million, it is the paper for the intelligent reader. For long a steady supporter of Yeltsin, it defected some months ago to assume a stance of sceptical independence. Izvestiya is Le Monde, the New York Times, El Pais, the Frankfurter Allgemeine (and what the Times used to be): it is the paper which others can outshine, outscoop and outsell, but not topple.

Thus Gritchin’s reports were crucial. I read them when I returned to Moscow. One was an account of the day we had travelled together, of a kind no foreign reporter could have filed. It began when we found a car and driver, and ended when we got back to Grozny. He wrote about the man who drove us out, and how he had offered his services to Dudayev’s guards as a communications expert but been refused. It mentioned the driver’s pay, and the difficulty of getting supplies. It gave some space to our second driver (the first refused to go past a certain point), a man of forty (he looked sixty) who had five children, and a house emptied of furniture and carpets because he had sold them. His total worldly possessions amounted to twenty thousand roubles (£5). Gritchin quoted him as saying that his eldest son was at the front. When Gritchin asked him if this worried him, the man – who had been shouting his hatred of Russia – suddenly cried. The article gave excerpts from an interview we had with a man who claimed to be a volunteer from the neighbouring republic of Daghestan, and who said that while there may not be many volunteers at the moment (there certainly were not, as far as we could tell), a continuing Russian operation would inflame the North Caucasus and make terrorists of the unemployed youth for decades. All of this went into Gritchin’s rambling story, which Izvestiya splashed on its front page.

The piece had what no Western report would allow itself to have – the banality of the events mixed in with their terror. A man talking of his pay; another complaining that his pension had not been paid; the courtesy shown to Gritchin, a Russian correspondent. No Russian reading it could see the war in Chechnya as a conflict between good and evil.

This was one of my last trips out of Moscow in four years here as a foreign correspondent: it caused a depression which lasted for days after the relief of departure had faded. On the Chechen side was a complete enslavement, not by Dudayev, but by the notion that national independence was a goal worth provoking a war to the death for, even while a kind of rackety federalism was already on offer from an enfeebled Russia. On the Russian side, there was a return to brazen lies and propaganda, a creeping authoritarianism which has not yet completely enveloped the civil institutions but which may do so. The example of Gritchin and his fellow Russian journalists was a lamp in a dark place.

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