Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, wrote the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr some 200 years ago. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
About 22 years ago, I got to put that theory to a test. In 1995, 22 years after I left Russia, I went back for the first time, partly to report on the first Chechen War. Rummaging through my archives, I ran across a longish piece I wrote on return for a London magazine.
Reading it now, I realise that, to disprove Karr, some details have changed since then. Yet, vindicating Karr, fundamentally things in Russia have indeed remained the same.
Today I’d probably write the same piece differently. But, in re-publishing it here, I haven’t changed a word. Nostalgia must be free of retrospective embellishment.
A month ago I allowed my friend Tony to lay low one of my few remaining resolutions: never to return to Russia, except on the armour of a Nato tank.
Tony seduced me with serpentine skill, using his not inconsiderable charm and, more telling, a promise of genuine adventure. We’d get the chance to go into Chechnya, he said. Well, perhaps not quite into Chechnya, but to Khasavyurt, an area just across the border in Daghestan where there are lots of freshly atrocitied refugees with oodles of baroque stories to tell. Officially, he explained, we’d be part of a team of British observers at the Byelorussian elections. So we’d fly into Moscow, officially, on the 6th, and the next morning the two of us would go on an unofficial detour south, only to come in from the cold and fly to Minsk, officially, via Moscow three days later.
On the official leg of the journey we’d act under the auspices of the Foreign Office; on the unofficial leg we’d be ‘deniable’, in FCO jargon. Something in Tony’s eyes suggested he was just insane enough to go on this trip with or without me, which is to say with or without any ability to communicate with the gun-toting natives. All he can say in Russian is spasibo, which is a polite but inadequate way to respond to someone who looks like he might quite enjoy firing a warning shot through your head.
Our visas and tickets were organised by the Helsinki Human Rights Group, which in Tony’s case was a wasted gesture since he had left his visa at home, 150 miles north of Heathrow, and made an amusing spectacle of himself going through all his pockets, and some of mine, in front of the Austrian Airlines check-in counter. In an ensuing huddle we agreed that the wisest course of action would be for me to go ahead and for him to join me in Moscow the day after, thus moving our itinerary back one day. That would give me ample time to exchange our airline tickets for Daghestan and extend our hotel bookings in Moscow. It also meant I had to return to my native city, after 22 years on the lam, all alone, unfastened by the emotional umbilical of English friends.
Of course, with a prescience born out of other people’s experience, I had taken care of all the petty details in advance. One such detail was a taxi ride from Sheremetievo Airport to my hotel in the centre of Moscow. You see, the advent of soi disant free enterprise led to the demise of not only the soi disant communist government but also of the taxi cab. Or, rather it has turned every vehicle in the land (hearses, ambulances, police cars, snowploughs, lorries, fire engines, all cars) into a potential cab. The problem, as explained to me by a Russian friend, is that when an obvious foreigner hails just any old car, he might end up not in Tverskaya (central thoroughfare) but in Vagankovsky (central cemetery), his identity papers judiciously removed along with all his valuables.
That’s why, having cleared the customs check in Moscow, I shouldered my way through a crowd of Charlie Manson types intoning ‘Taxi, sarr?’ and went straight towards a scruffy unshaven character who was holding up a piece of cardboard with my name on it.
‘Welcome to Moscow,’ he said and flashed a hospitable, toothless smile. ‘There’s a bit of a walk to the car,’ he apologised. ‘The bitches don’t let us park outside.’
The bit of a walk turned out to be about a mile, and the car at the end of it looked even more disreputable than the others we had passed. It was, as Victor the driver explained, built in the same year in which I left Russia and it wasn’t a Mercedes to begin with. The car was a mystery colour, heavily dented and – in the way of interior decoration – featured springs sticking out of the seats and a ganglion of wires hanging loose under the dashboard. ‘Back in the old days,’ explained Victor, ‘I could slip a couple of half-litres to a mechanic and he’d fix it up. Now…’ he made a chopping gesture with his right hand and spat out of the window.
The drive to central Moscow was just as I remembered it, except for the obviously American hoardings advertising products obviously unaffordable to most Russians. One such product was bullet-proof glass ‘for your home or office’, something one rarely sees advertised on London’s A4.
As I was trying to come to grips with the emotional implications of treading my native soil again, Victor went into a long tirade whose more or less exact paraphrases I was to hear from everybody I was to meet on that trip: ‘They say I’m free now, read what you want, go where you want. I need those books like I need teeth in my arse. What I need is a living. And order. Back in the old times I lived like a king. And now… ,’ he spat again, this time on the floor.
The tirade was interrupted by a traffic cop, one of about 50 we had passed on the 5-mile drive. This one would not be passed; he raised his hand, Victor staggered to a stop and jumped out with servile haste. The cop led him into his own car, leaving me alone and – I’m man enough to admit this – in a state of panic. Suddenly, all the pieces of the sinister jigsaw fit together. Tony, never mind his seemingly irreproachable moral character, had set me up. That’s why he pretended he had left his visa at home. Why would he do something like that? Never mind why. He must be in cahoots with them, that’s why. Now I’m going to be tortured, my passport will be confiscated, I’ll not be allowed to leave, I’ll never see Penelope again…’
That line of thought was so engrossing I didn’t notice Victor slip back into the driver’s seat. ‘They’re doing me for appearance.’ Dear oh dear, the Russians must take unshaven faces seriously. ‘The car’s appearance. I tell the bitches, who’s got the money to fix it, right? They say it ain’t their problem, right? I offer them 500 [about £7, a princely sum], they say sorry, we would normally, but we ain’t got our quota of busts for the month, right? So follow us to the pound, like a goodun.’
‘Where does that leave me?’ I was curious to know.
‘Nothing to worry about.’ Easy for him to say. ‘We’ll just drive into that pound, I’ll pay my fine, we’ll be on our way in five minutes.’
As we approached the pound, about two miles off the main road, its armoured steel gate opened. Victor drove in. The gate shut with a clanking thud. There were cops everywhere. Victor went into the office. I rendered my soul to God.
A thought crossed my mind that perhaps I should walk out, if they let me, that is, and lug my suitcase into the street where I could catch a ‘cab’. But the sybarite prevailed over the coward in me and I stayed put. A few minutes later Victor emerged. ‘The bitches are impounding the car,’ he spat. ‘C’mon, I’ll get you a cab.’ We walked out; no one stopped us; I apologised to Tony in my mind; Victor raised his hand; the first car coming our way stopped; Victor gave me the cab fare in roubles; I gave him the agreed fee of $50; 10 minutes later I was in the lobby of Intourist hotel – a quarter of a mile from the house in which I grew up.
The hotel was built about 25 years ago to cater to the foreign trade. It is a Western-looking establishment, used to dealing with truculent outlanders. I flashed my most seductive smile at the middle-aged woman sitting at the desk decorated with an American-made ‘Thank you for staying with us’ sign; she didn’t flash any in return. Upon examining my passport, she grudgingly acknowledged I had a room booked, and that the room had been paid for.
It was time to start acting in my new capacity of an advance team. ‘I’d like to make slight changes in the booking.’ The woman winced, which took some wind out of my sails.
‘Er…,’ I explained. ‘My booking is for one night, but I now need it for two. And my friend couldn’t make it today, so please cancel his booking for tonight and give him a room for tomorrow night instead.’
‘I don’t understand.’ She clearly thought this gap in communications to be my fault.
‘Why? Are we not speaking the same language? Anything wrong with my Russian?’
‘No, you speak without an accent.’
‘Good. Now that we’ve established that,’ some of my old confidence was creeping back, ‘what is it you don’t understand?’
‘I don’t understand how you can stay tomorrow night without a booking.’
‘That’s why I am asking for one. Don’t you have rooms for tomorrow?’
‘We have rooms. Do you have a booking?’
‘No. But I’d like one. And also one for my companion.’
‘You can’t stay here if you don’t pay.’
‘I’m not suggesting that at all. I know we’ll have to pay for the extra night.’
‘You’ll pay then?’
‘Cash or credit card?’
‘Okay,’ she relented. ‘That’ll be $310.’
‘Fine,’ I agreed. ‘We’ll pay when we check out.’
‘Check out from where?’
‘From here, where else?’
‘But how can you stay here if you don’t pay?’
‘The same way you stay in any hotel anywhere in the world,’ I was blowing my cool. ‘You book a room, you check in, then pay when you check out.’
‘I don’t understand…’
This circuitous exchange took about 40 minutes and led nowhere. Reinforcements arrived in the person of a manager, another middle-aged woman, for whose benefit I had to state my case another four times. The difference was that this one understood.
‘You can stay,’ she said graciously. ‘We’ve got your passport anyway, so you’re not likely to do a runner.’
Having assured her that, even in the absence of such valuable collateral, the thought would have never crossed my mind, I made my way up to a passable-looking room that had two twin beds arranged head to toes. There was also a writing desk with a heap of useful information in a manila folder. The top sheet was a leaflet advertising the services of ‘specially equiped [sic] bodyguards’, and thank you for staying here. One of the other sheets had the Aeroflot telephone number, which I promptly dialled.
‘I have this little problem,’ I complained, already knowing that no problem was little in Russia. ‘My friend and I are due to fly to Makhachkala tomorrow morning, but we can’t make the flight. Is it possible to exchange the tickets for the day after?’
‘Of course, it’s possible.’ Things weren’t so bad after all.
‘Shall we do it then?’
‘It’s not something you can do on the phone.’
‘Oh, I see.’ There was a catch after all. ‘Where can I do it then?’
‘At any Aeroflot office.’
‘I’m staying at Intourist. Where’s the nearest Aeroflot office?’
‘There’s one in the lobby of your hotel.’
‘Can I do it there now?’
‘It’s closed already.’
‘Are there any other offices nearby?’
‘There’s one at 15 Petrovka. It’s closed as well.’
‘How about tomorrow morning?’
‘The office in your hotel won’t open tomorrow.’
‘And the other one?’
On this inconclusive note, the conversation ended. I looked out of the window at the Stalinist buildings across Tverskaya, previously known as Gorky Street, previously known as Tverskaya. The statues of muscular workers and collective farmers that adorned their rooftops in my youth had been replaced with a Panasonic logo. On balance, I thought, the statues had looked better – if only because their vulgarity wasn’t illuminated by neon.
The next morning I walked to 15 Petrovka, having already learned that foreigners were charged about three times more than the natives for everything. Reassured the night before that my Russian was still authentic, I decided to turn linguistic prowess into financial gain. At first it worked like a charm. The Aeroflot office was open, and the elegant woman at the desk was good-looking in the earthy, pallid way so typical of Russian women.
‘Do you have tickets for Makhachkala for tomorrow morning?’ I asked, trying to prolong my vowels in a street Moscow accent.
‘Good. I’ll have two return tickets please.’
‘We don’t do return tickets.’
‘How do I get back then?’
She manifestly wanted to say ‘That’s your problem.’ Instead, she said, ‘You buy return tickets when you’re there.’
‘Will they have them?’
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘Two one-way tickets then.’ There was a note of trepidation in my voice. She promptly wrote out two blue-and-white Aeroflot tickets. ‘How much do I owe you?’
‘50,000 roubles.’ About 65 quid, reasonable, I thought, counting out the uncustomary Russian banknotes. She accepted the money but proffered no tickets.
‘Let’s have it,’ she said.
‘Your passport, comrade, that’s what.’ In her anger she used the old-fashioned form of address. The jig was up, and I had to hand out my, alas, very foreign passport.
The woman got cross, indicating that my boyishly disarming smile had failed to work yet again. ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were foreign?’ she demanded.
‘I thought it was self-evident.’
‘I’ll tell you what’s self-evident. What’s self-evident is that I’ll have to write you another ticket. Self-evidently.’
Which she proceeded to do, only this time the tickets were red and in English. ‘That’ll be 150,000 roubles,’ she said.
I knew it would be something like that but decided to remonstrate. ‘That means you charge foreigners three times as much! That’s not fair.’
‘Fairness,’ she said with an exasperated smile. ‘There’s no fairness anywhere in the world.’
‘That may be. But if you went to London, you’d pay exactly the same fare to Glasgow as an Englishman would. Or even a Scot.’ The woman chose to ignore the remark, and by unspoken consent we decided not to pursue the matter any further.
‘How about a refund for the tickets I have?’ Back to business now.
‘Go to the Refunds window’, she said, and I walked across the floor to another window.
The woman walked a parallel route on the other side of the counter. ‘How can I help you?’ The slate was clean, as if nothing had passed between us. Different windows, different mores.
‘I have two unused tickets for today. I’d like a refund, please.’
‘Where did you purchase the tickets?’
‘Then you’ll have to get your refund in London.’
‘But they are Aeroflot tickets. It doesn’t matter where they were bought.’
‘Oh yes, it does.’ She triumphed again.
The next morning Tony, who had managed to negotiate his way through Terminal 2 this time, and I boarded a Vnukovo Air plane at the eponymous airport. There were a lot of quasi-cabbies at the terminal, bitching about the deleterious effect of Clinton’s visit on their trade. Apparently, not to inconvenience the visiting dignitary, whose name they maliciously pronounced as Klitor (I’ll let you guess what that means in Russian), half the streets in central Moscow were to be closed to traffic for the next few days.
I should have their troubles, I thought when we boarded. The airline is one of the more unfortunate results of the Aeroflot break-up. The planes it inherited, most emphatically including the one we were in, would have been written off by Air Ghana 20 years ago. Everything on the plane creaked, stuffing was coming out of every cushion, and when I tried to recline, the back of my chair went back all the way down onto the lap of the man behind me and wouldn’t resume the upright position for the rest of the flight.
Acting in the capacity of a charming air hostess was a burly Spetsnaz sergeant with a sub-machine gun. ‘How different, how very different from our own dear BA,’ I whispered into Tony’s ear.
‘We’re flying into the war zone,’ explained Tony who seemed to be impervious to fear.
The sergeant’s principal function, as we found out, was to make sure the passengers drank only the vodka they bought from him, rather than the vodka they all had in the pockets of their shell suits, the garment of preference for everybody aboard but us. Coupled with the absence of gold teeth (which adorned the mouths of everybody else on the plane), this made us look like paupers in the eyes of our fellow passengers.
I’m not a great flier under the best of circumstances, which these weren’t. The plane felt and sounded moribund, the pilot was indulging his frustrated ambitions as an aerobatics performer, and in the next three hours I died a thousand deaths, while Tony coolly wrote down about as many words for his review of a book on sexual pathology. Or rather he attempted to write, but the bucking plane prevented his pen from making intelligible contact with the notepad consistently enough for this Augean effort to be meaningful.
Finally, we landed in Makhachkala, the capital of Daghestan. Welcoming us at the stairs were two more heavily armed NCOs, one in Spetsnaz, the other in frontier guards. They examined our visas, where the stated itinerary didn’t include anywhere near to where we had just arrived.
‘What shall we do with them?’ asked the Spetsnaz man who thought foreigners wouldn’t understand either his words or the longing behind them. ‘Ah, let’em go,’ yawned the frontier guard and waved us on with the business end of his Kalashnikov.
As we were walking across the airfield, Tony asked how we’d get to town. Out of interest. The tone of his voice suggested mild curiosity rather than more appropriate concern. We had been warned that while hailing a car in Moscow was mildly dangerous, doing so in Makhachkala was positively suicidal.
‘We’ll go by bus,’ I said hopefully, which hope was dispelled by an airport official who explained that the bus stop was two miles down the road and there was no guarantee there would be a bus coming any time that day. That delivered us straight into the hands of the crowd of serial murderers and homosexual rapists outside. They were all yelling ‘Taxi, Sarr’ in throaty accents and flashing seductive smiles decorated with the entire gold reserves of the Daghestan Republic.
We had to choose one; I told Tony not to betray our true identity by opening his mouth and looked for the least ferocious rapist. There wasn’t much to choose among them in that department, so we chose the smallest one. ‘What’s the best hotel in town?’ I asked.
‘Where d’you come from?’ asked the rapist who discerned something suspicious in the question.
‘Moscow.’ It was only a half-lie.
‘The best hotel is Planeta,’ informed the rapist. ‘But it’s strictly for foreigners.’
‘That’s fine,’ I reassured him. ‘Just take us there. We’ll talk to them.’
The best hotel was a naked concrete prefab halfway to the city. It sat in the middle of what looked like Hiroshima after that unfortunate incident. I walked up the steps into a rather bare lobby and, anticipating an easy victory, flashed my passport at the woman at the desk. ‘That’s all fine and well,’ she commiserated, ‘but you need more than just a foreign passport to stay here. You need a written authorisation from the Prime Minister.’
Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory, I climbed back into the car, where Tony was writing his review in the back seat. ‘I’ve heard of back seat activities, but this is ridiculous,’ I wanted to say, but didn’t, not wishing to blow our flimsy cover by speaking in English. ‘Right,’ I said to the rapist who had a sly I-told-you-so grin on his emaciated swarthy face. ‘What’s the second-best hotel?’
‘That would be Leningrad.’
‘To Leningrad then, and don’t spare the horses.’
Karim, which turned out to be the rapist’s name, drove the way mere mortals drive in Russia: observing every road sign and just under the speed limit. Since the Soviets are the opposite of law-abiding, this extra care betokens a law enforcement system that is rather more ruthless than ours. In this instance, the slower rate of progress was also justified by numerous potholes, whose size evoked bombs, albeit of a smaller yield than the one used in Hiroshima. Karim, along with other local drivers, would almost come to a stop before yet another crater, drive onto the sandy shoulder to get around it, then pull back into the road and accelerate to a hair-raising 25 miles an hour over the next 200 yards, only to repeat the procedure.
‘We have no order no more,’ he said. ‘People are starving; those who still have jobs in factories make 50,000 roubles a month. Can you live on that? We lived like kings in the old days. And now…’ He spat, exactly emulating the gesture of Victor, his Russian colleague.
‘What did you do? In the old days?’
‘I drove, man. I drove the manager of a vegetable distributorship. It was a good job.’
‘What happened to that job?’
‘He got shot, man.’
‘Who shot him?’
‘How would I know? A killer.’
‘So you lived better under Brezhnev?’
‘We lived like kings, man.’ He obviously had only a general idea of the lives of European royalty. ‘Until the bloody Chechens acted up.’
‘What are you?’
‘I’m a Lezghin, man. We hate the bloody Chechens.’
‘But you’re all Muslims?’
‘Yeah, I suppose so.’
‘What kind of Muslims?’
‘What d’you mean? Muslims are Muslims.’
‘Sunni or Shiite?’
‘We’re Muslims, man,’ answered the rapist cum theologian. He then volunteered the information that, if by some magic he could be transferred to the West, he’d be happy to do any lowly job, including driving. On the surface of it, that didn’t sound like too much of a sacrifice considering his present occupation.
The second-best hotel was another prefab box of disintegrating concrete, the dominant architectural style in Makhachkala, which bears no visible signs of being a Muslim city. The lobby featured a naked cement floor, a check-in counter shielded by bullet-proof glass, and two women behind the glass who looked as if that measure had been introduced to protect not them but the guests.
Still, we managed to obtain rooms on the 13th floor without much trouble and went up in the lift which brought back the memories of Vnukovo Air. A cursory inspection of the room revealed insects of about six different species but no soap, towels or loo paper. I knew that might be the case and had brought all the missing items with me. Tony also knew it, but had forgotten to prepare himself and asked if he could borrow some of my roll. He looked indifferent to the meagre furnishings and informed me that the taxonomy of cockroaches used to be a hobby of his.
The absence of telephones was more uncomfortable, as we had to ring the contact Tony had obtained from the BBC: Ali Aliev, a leader of the Daghestany nationalist movement. ‘We can make the call in the lobby,’ I said, demonstrating how out of touch one could get in 22 years. Down we went, and indeed there was a telephone sitting on a small desk next to the lift shaft. A gold-teethed woman sat behind the desk.
‘May I use the phone?’
‘That’s what it’s here for.’ Bliss. ‘Where do you wish to phone?’ Ah-ah.
‘It’s just local.’ Yet another feeble attempt at a conquering smile. Yet another failure.
‘This is for long distance only.’
‘But we need to make a local call.’
‘Not from this phone, you can’t. It’s for long distance only.’
‘Tell you what.’ Over to you, Solomon. ‘We’ll make a local call but pay you as if it was long-distance.’
‘It’s for long distance only.’
‘Fine. Where’s the nearest public phone then?’
‘There are no public phones in Makhachkala.’
In desperation we crossed the lobby to talk to the Gorgon seated behind the bullet-proof glass. ‘Please.’ It was grovelling time. ‘I have this friend I haven’t seen in 20 years. He lives here, that’s why we came. Can we please use your phone? Please?’ There was a human side to the Gorgon – she dialled the number and pushed the receiver through the aperture in the shield.
The man on the other end of the wire instantly agreed to meet us in our hotel the next morning. ‘You’ll have no problem recognising me,’ he reassured us. ‘I’ll be wearing my uniform.’
‘He’ll be wearing his @£$%^& KGB uniform!’ The way I told Tony about this new development must have communicated a certain lack of faith in the quality of his contacts, and for once Tony looked as if he shared my apprehension.
The next morning the crisis of faith was, yet again, shown up to be misplaced, as Ali Aliev, a pleasant man in his 50s, appeared resplendent in his uniform of captain in the Soviet navy. He had retired a few years ago, thanks be to Allah, he told us, to command the Abhasian navy against Russia’s Georgian stooges.
‘We had one purpose-built ship and three converted barges with anti-tank guns screwed to the deck,’ he recalled cheerfully as he led us to a café near the beach. ‘They had 12 purpose-built ships. So they blew us out of the water. I survived, thanks be to Allah, and now the Russians are trying me for being a mercenary. As if fighting on the side of my Muslim brothers qualifies as such.’
Ali may be a Muslim, but he isn’t a fundamentalist Muslim, thanks be to Allah, as he went on to prove at the café. We sat down at a table outside, and a waitress materialised before we had a chance to look around. Captain Aliev clearly commanded a lot of respect. His order was delivered in an all-hands-on-deck tone and instantly brought to the table three cups of coffee, a bar of milk chocolate and a bottle of treacly Daghestany brandy which, for Ali Aliev’s money, was easily superior to the much-touted Armenian competition. In spite of that superiority, Tony’s face reflected slight dismay over that choice of beverage at 9 o’clock in the morning.
‘You’re not going to wimp out on me?’ I whispered into his ear. Tony assured me he wouldn’t leave me having to consume half a bottle at such an ungodly hour, and proceeded to match us shot for shot.
Ali Aliev turned out to be a fascinating man. Until he was 16, he had lived in a mountain village and had never seen a locomotive, never mind a ship. Then he went to study at a naval cadet school, later at the naval academy and never looked forward. A man of broad interests, he satisfied our curiosity about the type of Islam practised in North Caucasus and the languages spoken there. More important, he offered to drive us to Khasavyurt the next morning – and to introduce us to the local Chechens who try to look after the refugees.
As we drove through the roadblocks the next day, we talked about the Chechen fighters who were setting up their last stand in the mountains, preparing to die with dignity. Their families down below, said Ali, who this time was clad in the ubiquitous shell suit, don’t have that option.
Times have changed since 1859 when, after a 40 years’ struggle against Russian colonisers, the third Imam of Chechnya and Daghestan Shamil was captured by Russian troops. By the Czar’s order he was – shot? quartered? No, exiled for a few years. And then released.
A century and a half later Ali’s ancient Lada took us to Khasavyurt, the centre of a region on the south-eastern border of Chechnya. The dusty 3-hour journey, punctuated by Spetsnaz roadblocks, ended after a slalom course around the potholes in the market, where armed Russian soldiers were exchanging their meat rations for vodka. Most of their ravaged faces had never needed a shave. Lord of the Flies re-enacted: it was children’s time, and there were no rules.
Ali dropped us off at a tiny house across the drying river from the market. It was the headquarters of the Salvation Fund set up by the local Chechens to shelter refugees from devastated villages across the border.
‘120,000 people have been settled in Khasavyurt,’ said Chairman of the Fund Umar Jartayev. ‘The first 50,000 went to private houses because the Daghestany government wouldn’t accept them. Those who put them up have now run out of space. So we’ve put the rest up in schools, abandoned factories, barns.’
Western humanitarian aid? ‘Mostly, it doesn’t get through, and the Russians have only supplied 30 tons of flour in five months. Divide it by 120,000 – it’s nothing. But we’re grateful to the World Council of Churches. They gave us money, which saved a lot of lives last winter.’
How much money? ‘$10,000.’ By then we’d learned how to divide by 120,000.
‘A shipment of 10 tons of medicine from Jordan was impounded at the Azerbaijan border. I went there to take possession and was detained for two days by order of General Bolkhovitin, Deputy Commander of Russian Frontier Troops, who’d decided to keep the medicines. When released, I sought recourse in the Military Procurator’s office – only to find that Bolkhovitin held that office as well.’
We went to School No. 11, a dilapidated building whose facade was decorated with pictures of goose-stepping soldiers. The school housed 160 people; first we went into a classroom, 12 by 10 feet, in which 20 people lived on blankets with some rags strewn about. Most were from Binoi, a village where many women and children had been shot. Everyone immediately surrounded us, except an old woman lying in the corner with her eyes wide-open. According to our guides she had been refusing food after what had happened in her village – she just wanted to die.
Zupa Salmanova, who was showing us around, had escaped from her burning house in a nightdress. Her husband had been shot on the spot and her son buried alive. ‘The Russians kill us, then they loot and steal. And they dare celebrate their victory over the Nazis’, she spat. ‘They themselves are worse than the Nazis.’
Another woman cut in: ‘Three soldiers were dragging this young girl off. When her mother screamed and tried to stop them, they fired a sub-machine gun burst across her legs.’
‘They do it all the time – and worse,’ sobbed another woman, Larissa Apakova. ‘They dropped needle bombs on our village; many died. And my granddaughter, just three, stopped speaking after what she saw.’ Larissa herself had partly lost her sight after a flash injury.
On to another room, 25 by 30 feet, in which 30 people lived. When we mentioned we were from the British Helsinki Human Rights Group, they laughed. ‘Human rights? What’s that?’ cried Fatima Suleimanova. ‘I’m from Semashki; my daughter and mother burnt to death. All the men over 12 were led away, and tanks were driven over those who stumbled and fell. They took some people up in a helicopter and dropped them down.’
In the adjacent classroom baby Lenin was smiling from the wall at the 52 people living there. Unlike other refugees in the school, these were malnourished, and all the children, most of them barefoot, had festering scabies. Galia Urmanova of Sajayurt lost her elder daughter when the bombardment started. Hugging her 6-month-old baby, she walked all the way to Khasavyurt. ‘But my breast milk dried up… she was starving… wasting away.’ Finally, they reached the school, where Galia poured a little milk into a spoon and gave it to her baby. The baby reached for the spoon and died.
We then went to a village whose 2,000 inhabitants had taken in 4,000 refugees, and visited several bungalows, each divided into rooms for 50 and broom cupboards for 4. There we met Abu Bakarov, a defiant man in his fifties.
‘The Russians had helicopters hovering over our village, saying that unless all the fighters surrendered, they would bombard us. We had no fighters, they’re all in the mountains, so we ran away, knowing what was to come. The helicopters blew up the village and then strafed us. When we wanted to bury our dead, they demanded 10 million roubles [a good yearly wage] per body, otherwise they wouldn’t release them – and they’d already stolen all our money. What have we done? Why are they doing this to us?’
As we walked towards the car, he asked me if I was a Muscovite. ‘Not for 22 years. I live in London now.’
‘Good,’ he smiled. ‘Because, you know, they sometimes send their agents, in the guise of journalists. I’ll give you my poem then.’ He handed me a yellowing slip of paper, with only some of the lines of the unevenly typed text discernible. ‘A city’s burning at scarlet dawn…; Women’s hysterics; children’s sobbing… Tanks are roaring and planes are screaming…’ We shook hands. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Tell them the truth.’
I’m trying, Abu, I’m trying.