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The last moments ofpeace
Written by , 1 /Vladimir Yermolin, Captain (Reserves)   
, 10 2004

On 26Nov 1994, tanks with white turrets crept out onto a black field near a Grozniy suburb. Therebels, blowing up one machine after another, mentally thanked the clever Russian staff officer who decided to camouflage the tanks in winter colors. Five days later, when Icame to Grozniy as a journalist in Sergey Yushenkov's group, one of President Dudayev's guards told me: They had orders to wear winter uniforms. Iserved, so Iknow that in the army winter comes when the chain of command says so. Chechens are known for their dry humor.

That evening, in the basement of the capitol building, a tank crewmember with burned hands explained cynically: They gave this order to help identification from the air. Incidentally, Dudayev's forces at that time had almost no tanks, so it was not understood what armor was it that the operational planners were afraid of mistaking for their own tanks. And more important, there was no air support for the tankers that day, and so the reason for the white camouflage is still a mystery to this day. Of 30tank crews taking part in the assault, almost half perished.

This devil-may-care assault on the city, without maps, without communications, without the necessary support, or even a concrete plan of action, can be considered the first act of the Chechen war, whose ten-year anniversary Russia needs to mark. Notsimply because it will be the last such 'round number' anniversary of the present Chechen campaign. The result of that first attempt to solve the whole problem in one crushing blow, of this 'victorious' operation to introduce law and order onto Chechen soil, could clearly be seen in the frames of the burnt-out tanks, the disfigured corpses of the soldiers, the dirty, emaciated Russian prisoners with fatal melancholy in their eyes, the self-indulgence and illiteracy of the Arbat generals and their neglect of this human 'cannon fodder', and in the lies and treachery of our government officials.

When Minister of Defense Pavel Grachev, stared unblinkingly into the camera, he assured us that he did not know which soldiers they were trying to blame on the Russian Federation, these unidentified objects were sitting on television set right alongside us. Theylistened to their minister, as condemned men listen to last news about the refusal of a pardon. Thiswas not a metaphor. The night before, Dudayev had declared: if Moscow did not acknowledge the captured tankers of its own, then they would be publicly executed. He reaffirmed this during his first meeting with Sergey Yushenkov and his associates. Someone asked him: You wouldn't do this, would you? Dudayev pointed out the window, where for the second day since our arrival in Grozniy a crowd numbering in the thousands danced and burned the air with their shouts. If Idon't execute them, they'll execute me with them, said the president of Chechnya with a smile.

Yushenkov and his comrades Ella Pamfilova, Vladimir Lysenko, Mikhail Molostvov, Victor Sheinis, back then were able to do quite a lot in one day. Dudayev, and more importantly, all of Grozniy witnessed representatives of the Russian government, who accepted the guilt, speaking in an understandable language, and who did not suffer the squints of the Kremlin's professional politicians. Dudayev finally agreed to consider the mission a sign of the fact that Moscow, though not officially, was acknowledging its captured soldiers. It was decided to continue dialogue next day. But that night they bombed a suburb of Grozniy. Sergey Dorenko and Iwere billeted with the family of a worker in Dudayev's administration. We stood at the open window and watched a village burning in the distance, felt the bombs exploding, and heard the heavy rumble of the bombers, invisible in the night.

The next morning out discussions had abruptly changed. The Chechens accompanying us were sullen, without a shadow of yesterday's hospitality. Later, we sat a long time in Dudayev's reception room: The president is occupied, and cannot receive you right now. The square outside roared, demanding blood for the blood spilled during the night. They reported that several families had died in the bombing, mainly women and children. The republic's favorite wrestling champion (whose name, unfortunately, Icannot recall) had died trying to save people from the fire. Thecrowd demanded the immediate surrender of the head of the Russian officers. Thesituation grew hotter with each passing minute. WhenDudayev's chief of protection passed by, Yushenkov requested that he be able to visit the prisoners. Dudayev's bodyguard answered darkly: It's not about the prisoners anymore think about yourself. We don't know if we can get you out of the city.

We found out later: while our delegation was wearying itself in Dudayev's 'dressing room', they were deciding on the public execution of two or three officers from the group of prisoners. Then, giving me, the correspondent from Krasnaya Zvezda, fifteen minutes, Dudayev explained: We feared that the situation would get out of control, and we were ready to for the most extreme measure to execute of two or three officers.

Back then, sitting in front of the closed doors of Dudayev's office, Iwas sure that the goal who those who set the bombers on Grozniy had been to wreck our mission. Noneof us had any doubt that the night raid was a move by the Moscow 'war parties', purposely made to ruin the parliamentarians' negotiations with Dudayev and prevent information about Russian prisoners of war from being divulged. Nowadays, it is obvious that by that time it had already been decided to go to war (twenty-four hours before our appearance in Grozniy, Boris Yeltsin had signed an order to send troops to Chechnya). Theorganizers of the operations assumed that the unpleasant truth about army officers the mercenary division recruited by State Security agents for conduct a special operation in one of the southern republics would be buried under the ruins by the pinpoint bombing of Russian aces.

It did not turn out that way. Dudayev that day met with Yushenkov's group, anyway. He met with us, and as a sign of good faith he sent home with us two young boy draftees. By December 6th, after television and newspaper articles about the unidentified Russian prisoners of war, and the parliamentary deputies' inquiries to the minister of defense, Grachev finally recognized the denizens of Dudayev's prison as his soldiers. Thatsame day he also confirmed this during a private meeting with Jokhar Dudayev in the village of Sleptsovskaya Station. The fate of these two-dozen officers and men, the first prisoners in a long line of martyrs of the Chechen war, had been decided. All of them, so far as Iknow, made it home.

Everyone knows what happened afterwards. The generals threw entire regiments into the narrow urban streets, under the grenade launchers and machine guns of the Chechens. Russian aircraft erased villages from face of the earth, together with their inhabitants. Grachev became the best Minister of Defense ever, while Yushenkov the biggest skunk.

I have had many occasions to recall my last meeting with Jokhar Dudayev. Back then Iheard him say, that to go to war with Russia is suicide, and the he as a Soviet general, better than any of them (he pointed toward the window) understand what stupidity is, and that is to conduct a straightforward military campaign against one of the most powerful armies in the world. Later still, other generals would arrive, who were not used to talking with the common soldier, even if they were taken prisoner, using the word 'son'. They war went on in a 'grown up' fashion, without such nostalgic recollections and admiration for the sovereign authorities.

I later asked Dudayev why he would not negotiate with Moscow. Hegrabbed a file folder tied up with string and packed with papers, and began to shake it under my nose: Here, here are hundreds of my appeals and telegrams to Yeltsin, to the government, to the Duma, to the bald devil. Ioffered and Iam still offering: let's meet in any convenient place, let's talk, and negotiate. Asfor an answer either ultimatums, or silence.

He could have added that the answer was war. Forsome reason, however, it seemed to me that back then, exactly one week into the assault, that this highly experienced general had not surmised that everything had already been decided beforehand. His fate, and the fate of thousands and thousands of other Russians ethnic Russian and Chechen, soldier and peaceful civilian, Groznian and Muscovite. The fate of Chechnya, and all of Russia.

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