For Russians, Each Death in Chechnya Raises Contempt
Women in Chuvashia, a normally placid republic in Russia’s Volga River heartland, fume publicly that President Boris N. Yeltsin should be shot for sending boys to perish in Chechnya. The republic’s chief spokesman calls Yeltsin “a mangy dog.”
Chuvashia’s president warns that the separatists here are gaining ground with every soldier’s corpse sent home for burial.
And Pyotr Putyakov, the bereaved father of a 19-year-old karate champion killed last week in Chechnya, leaks tears day and night from inflamed green eyes, the weighted silence respecting his grief broken only when one of the relatives surrounding him heaves another sigh or breathes, “God.”
“My soul aches,” Putyakov muttered, eyes on his hands resting helplessly in his lap. “Nothing can bring him back.”
The damage is done. The worst of Russia’s six-week incursion into Chechnya may be over now that Chechen rebels have ceded the presidential palace in Grozny.
But its effects on the Russian home front are only beginning to be felt.
Coffins and that most dreaded of telegrams, the pokhoronka , or burial notice, are trickling in to Chuvashia, with the republic’s count of dead or missing now at 13 but growing at a rate of one per day. It is likely to rise much faster as the army sorts out its losses.
If the Kremlin originally had the support of about half the Russian population for “imposing order” in breakaway Chechnya, according to some surveys, now it is virtually impossible--at least in this Volga River town built around a massive hydropower station--to find anyone who backs the war.
“Everyone is against it,” said pensioner Viktor Yelkhov, 66. “I don’t think it’s that we in Chuvashia are especially against it. Everyone is. It’s forced on us from above. Who wants war?”
Political passions traditionally run low during the Russian winter. Anti-war rallies even in Moscow have drawn only a few hundred people, and it is mainly soldiers’ parents who call loudly for the conflict’s end.
But just observing two Novocheboksarsk friends, marriage registrar Lidia Yeremeyeva and town administrator Silva Shmanova, as they watch the evening news provides a hint of the new depths of alienation from Yeltsin’s government and disappointment in democracy prevalent among many Russians.
“I can’t stand to look at Yeltsin anymore,” said Shmanova, whose older son is a soldier still serving in the Far East, as far as she knows.
“In words, we say that we’re entering the civilized world--then this happens,” Yeremeyeva said. “I feel shame, endless shame.”
Most of Chuvashia’s 1.4 million residents remain passive in their opposition to Yeltsin and his war, but Chuvash President Nikolai V. Fyodorov is taking action--to the Kremlin’s deep irritation.
Fyodorov, formerly Russia’s justice minister, issued a decree this week providing the legal basis for soldiers from Chuvashia to refuse to fight in Chechnya.
The federal government “is attempting to force soldiers into either death or crude violations of human rights,” he said. “I must defend them against the commanders and ministers and generals who are trying to push them into war crimes.”
Yeltsin immediately canceled Fyodorov’s decree, but the Chuvash president refused to acknowledge that Yeltsin had that right.
In what promises to become a Kremlin nightmare, Fyodorov’s idea seems to be catching on. The president of neighboring Bashkortostan was reported Friday to be considering a similar decree, and other Volga River region leaders tend to follow Fyodorov’s lead.
This may be only the beginning, Fyodorov said in an interview on the plane from Moscow to the Chuvash capital of Cheboksary.
“The saddest and most tragic thing is that there was no threat to the (Russian) Federation and now there is a threat to the federation,” he said. “The actions of the federal government have sharply excited the separatists after a long period of peace.”
Secessionists in Chuvashia are increasing pressure on Fyodorov to annul the Russian army’s military draft on his territory, rewrite the Chuvash constitution to make the republic a sovereign state and remove all Russian Federation symbols from Chuvash government buildings. He could never agree with them, he said, but he understands their point of view better now.
So does Lyudmila Kozyreva, a retailer who has a 17-year-old son. She and her largely female colleagues have a new ritual: asking each other each day how their sons are.
The war in Chechnya makes them want to keep a warier distance from Moscow than ever, she said.
“If we have a problem in Chuvashia, will they throw tanks at us?” she asked.
Fyodorov sees an even graver side of the Chechnya conflict for Russia’s nearly 90 republics and regions.
The military’s performance has been so underwhelming, he said, that it has revealed the destabilizing truth that the Kremlin lacks the ability to control the country by force if the need arises.
The fact that Pacific Fleet sailors were thrown into Chechnya shows that the army is so drastically understaffed that Moscow could never stop the flow if several other republics rose up against it, he said.
“Three or four points of resistance demanding a return to law and the constitution, and they wouldn’t be able to deal with it,” he said.
Fyodorov worries for his largely agricultural republic that the millions of dollars spent on the war will set reforms so far back that the fragile economic stability attained at the end of last year will be shattered for years to come. He expects the Russian troop presence to last a long time and cost millions more.
“It’s absolutely clear the taking of Grozny isn’t the end of anything,” he said.
Fyodorov also foresees a generation of Chuvash youths ruined by their experiences in Chechnya, much like the Afghan veterans who came 15 years before them.
But most of all, he is sick of receiving the coffins of Chuvash recruits. He cannot bear comforting any more parents like Pyotr Putyakov, whose husky son Sergei is buried alongside two other fresh mounds in the Novocheboksarsk cemetery.
Sergei Putyakov was a senior scout in a Special Forces unit of 16 men who helped try to take Grozny. His comrades-in-arms said only eight in the unit survived, and most of them were wounded, according to his uncle, Slava Skvortsov, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Sergei Putyakov’s body was returned home blackened and lacking a right arm and leg.
The pokhoronka received by Pyotr Putyakov said his son died heroically in an “unequal battle” with “Chechen armed formations.”
Pyotr Putyakov, a truck driver who helped clean up the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster and is now an invalid because of it, cannot begin to understand why his son died. “They themselves don’t know why,” he said of the soldiers fighting in Chechnya. “How can you say he died for the fatherland when no one attacked us?”
What many Russians see as the undiluted cynicism of the leaders who launched the Chechnya offensive brings even official spokesmen such as Alexander Drozdov, Fyodorov’s press secretary, to the brink of profanity.
“Yeltsin is a mangy dog,” he said. He stopped himself in a moment of self-censorship, then decided to let the statement stand.
Yeltsin’s condolences to victims of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, issued before the Russian president ever declared his sympathy for those who suffered in Chechnya, especially rankled Drozdov.
“He sends condolences to the Japanese but not to us,” he said. “We’re nothing but cattle to him.”
Already battered by nearly a decade of painful reforms, many Russians meet the war in Chechnya with hostile incomprehension as the latest blow from a government that never fails to disappoint.
“What can they be thinking about?” pensioner Yelkhov asked. “Life is not exactly sugar as it is.”
* CHECHENS REGROUP
Rebels vow to fight on despite palace rout by Russians. A8