Russia's 'Cruel' Soldier Comes Home


There's a word that makes Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov smile. That word is "cruel."

Perhaps Shamanov smiles because he's heard it before, that he was reputed to be "the cruelest general in Chechnya." Perhaps he smiles because he doesn't really mind the reputation.

For whatever reason, he smiles, and then answers the question in a voice that booms like artillery fire.

"I called in tanks to fire on the locations that were firing on us," he says. "And three days later, people began to cry, 'Shamanov is cruel. That's what Shamanov is.'

"Well, I couldn't care less what kind of Shamanov they call me," the general-turned-politician continues. "All I care about are the soldiers under my command, whose lives I answer for. I bear that responsibility. And what names I get called as a result--that worries me much less. The kind of general I am is a Russian general."

Many Chechens and human rights workers believe that Shamanov is a war criminal. They have documented instances in which troops under his command summarily shot and killed Chechen residents and looted homes. They also have documented instances in which Shamanov knowingly ordered his troops to fire on positions where civilians had gathered.

"His subordinates are definitely guilty of war crimes, and I believe a serious investigation would show Shamanov's direct guilt in war crimes as well, that he ordered them," said Oleg Orlov, director of the Moscow office of Memorial, the human rights group founded by the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei D. Sakharov.

But most Russians don't share such views. Like Ratko Mladic, the general who led Bosnian Serb troops during their 1992-95 war, Shamanov is a hero among his own.

That's especially true here in Ulyanovsk, a downtrodden Volga River city and region that was the birthplace of Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin, where Shamanov was elected governor last month. His new job is part of a campaign by a second Vladimir--Russian President Vladimir V. Putin--to bring order to the nation's unruly provinces.

"Cruelty, cruelty," mumbled Rimma Vasilyevna, a red-haired caretaker in this city's grandiose Lenin Museum. "If Shamanov is cruel, it will probably be better for us. What we need is cruelty."

Ulyanovsk is a hard-bitten place, a region about 450 miles east of Moscow with only a handful of large factories to provide jobs for 1.5 million residents. Although state statistics show it ranks about average in income and output, discontent runs deep.

"We've been standing still while everyone else moved forward," said 40-year-old Stanislav Pilipenko, a military officer. "I hope Shamanov will carry us forward."

For the past 14 years, since well before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Ulyanovsk has been run by one man: former Communist boss and subsequent governor Yuri Goryachev. He kept bread cheap--about half a cent a loaf--but did little else, voters say. He was defeated by Shamanov, 56% to 24%, a hefty margin considering that Goryachev controlled all the local media.

Voters acknowledge that they knew little about Shamanov when they cast their ballots except that he's a certifiable war hero: He was decorated twice with the nation's highest honor, the Hero of Russia.

Putin Comes to Aid of Criticized Commander

And they know he has the Kremlin's blessing. When Shamanov came under criticism last winter for his troops' brutality, Putin came to his defense, vowing that Russia "would never abandon" such a general.

Indeed, Putin is relying heavily on generals in his drive to strengthen state control of the provinces. Last summer he appointed seven presidential "viceroys," each charged with keeping an eye on a dozen or so regions. Of the seven, five are generals in the military, police or former KGB who, like Shamanov, are on leave but maintain their rank.

The Ulyanovsk region, it seems, is moving straight from communism to Putinism.

In an interview last week on his first working day as governor, Shamanov in effect acknowledged that the Kremlin asked him to run, calling it "a matter from the sphere of state relations."

And he took umbrage when asked about the incident in Chechnya that has triggered the most criticism: the siege of Alkhan-Yurt, a village seven miles south of Grozny, the separatist republic's capital.

For most of the war, Shamanov--as commander of the 58th Army--was one of the top three Russian generals in the war zone. He directed the western front, which at the time of the siege of Alkhan-Yurt in November and December 1999 was encircling Grozny from the west and south. Shamanov personally directed the attack on Alkhan-Yurt, which he described as a choke point to block the rebels' retreat from the capital.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Shamanov ordered artillery strikes on the village of 9,000 without taking serious precautions to ensure that civilians would not be targeted.

Once the town was seized, his troops went on a rampage, killing at least 17 and perhaps as many as 40 civilians, pillaging their homes and raping several women, according to the report. Some of the looting was videotaped by a Russian television crew and witnessed by a deputy prime minister. There was enough furor that Shamanov was called to Moscow to give an account.

But just days before former President Boris N. Yeltsin resigned a year ago and Putin became president, the uproar suddenly abated. Shamanov was awarded his second Hero of Russia. The military prosecutor announced that he could find no evidence of a crime having been committed in Alkhan-Yurt.

In the interview, Shamanov insisted that he gave civilians ample time to leave before calling in the artillery.

"When you're being fired at and your soldiers are dying . . . what are we supposed to do, just stand there and let them fire at us?" Shamanov asked. "We said, peaceful civilians, please leave this place, since you haven't been able to throw the bandits out by yourselves. . . . So the civilians leave, and afterward we begin to deal [with those left] with the language of firepower."

And he asserted that his troops had never looted, calling the allegation "absolute nonsense."

From friends and foes alike, Shamanov gets credit for fiercely defending his troops. Unfortunately, his critics say, this often came at the expense of Chechen civilians, who hold the same citizenship as his soldiers.

"He has a serious xenophobic streak," said Orlov of Memorial. "He's cruel, but it comes from his sense of duty. He's honest about it, but that doesn't make it less frightening."

Shamanov said four commissions, naming one from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, had reviewed the events in Alkhan-Yurt and found no wrongdoing. But Mans Nyberg, spokesman for the OSCE in Vienna, said the group has not investigated Alkhan-Yurt or any other allegations of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

Alkhan-Yurt is not the only instance where questions have been raised about Shamanov's actions. Human rights workers can rattle off the names of other towns and villages where Shamanov's forces are believed to have looted and pillaged and killed: Katyr-Yurt, Shami-Yurt, Gekhi-Chu. Even now, while Shamanov is on leave, unidentified groups of Russian troops arrive in villages and sow terror by calling themselves shamanovtsy: Shamanov's men.

A 'One-Man Curse on the Chechen People'

Aslambek Aslakhanov, a retired police general who is Chechnya's pro-Kremlin representative in the Russian parliament, calls Shamanov a "butcher" and a "one-man curse on the Chechen people."

"Chechens talk about Shamanov like a plague that has descended on their heads, a disease like AIDS," Aslakhanov said. "He is drowning in blood. He cynically believes that all Chechens--men and women, even children--are bandits."

Diederik Lohman, director of Human Rights Watch's Moscow office, said, "The forces under Shamanov's command are most often named as perpetrators of torture and other human rights abuses in Chechnya."

At an Orthodox Christmas festival in Ulyanovsk's town square, Venera Sokolova, 52, was charging 40 cents for a horse-and-sleigh ride. She has high hopes for Shamanov and said she had never heard about Alkhan-Yurt.

"How can you avoid being cruel in a war?" she said, her iridescent pink lipstick glistening. "I'm sure he had to do what he did. I'm sure he had his reasons. And besides, we don't know the real facts."

"War is war. Cruelty is part of it, isn't it?" said Farit Avbazov, a 36-year-old construction worker at a nuclear power plant. "We need more people like Shamanov. Under him, people will do their work. A lot of the banditry we have here comes from Chechnya. First we have to solve the problem there, and then we can deal with the problem here."

Indeed, that is the overriding sentiment here and around Russia: that there has been too much disorder for too long. And that, said Semyon Zasmanovsky, a 70-year-old retired engineer, triggers an age-old Russian reflex.

"We have no democrats and no democracy," he said. "All we know how to do is vote for someone who will be a voshd [a strong leader]."

"Slowly but surely," Shamanov said, "[Putin] is uniting a new formation of people around him. What we are witnessing is an unmistakable changing of the guard of the Russian elite.

"And your humble servant, it would seem, is one of that new Russian elite."

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