Chechnya: Russia's pain and shame
Last Christmas, I posted a very special card (back at home, in our atheist USSR, we never called them ``Christmas'', but ``New Year cards''). I knew for certain that this card was not going to reach its destination. I was not even sure that the addressee was still alive. Yet I felt deeply that I had to send it - my silent scream. The scream of a person powerless to save her friend or even to find out about her destiny, never mind to stop this bloody madness. The scream of somebody whose own fellow countrymen do not want to hear what she has to say. The card was meant for Layla Asueva from Urus Martan in Chechnya. Urus Martan is one of the main rebel bases in that republic, and as such it has been bombed relentlessly.
Layla and I became friends when we were 15. She was a very bright, talented young girl whose main ambition was to become a journalist. At the age of 15, still in secondary school, she was already published regularly in a local newspaper. In 1983, she wrote to that newspaper about our friendship. The article was titled ``We are internationalists'' and she cut it out and posted to me. I still keep it. After finishing school, we both went to universities: myself in Moscow, Layla in Grozny. I became a historian, she a journalist, as she always wanted. After graduation, she got a job in her local newspaper, the same one she was writing for before, and came back to Urus Martan. And I emigrated.
The last time I heard from Layla was just after the First Chechen War. She wrote me a short note (the post was still working then) telling me that life was hard but they were going to make things better now that the war was over. She didn't say a bad word about Russians, even though it was the Russian government that was fighting the Chechens. She said that she still appreciated our friendship just as much as the day it started. And that was the last time I heard from Layla.
During the First Chechen War, the majority of the Russian people were against it: from the point of view ``if you consider Chechens to be Russian citizens, how can you bomb your own people?'' Not to mention all the Russian boys who lost their lives there for nothing. The Russian Mothers of Soldiers Committee at that time was working very closely with the Committee of Chechen Mothers. Heads of both committees attended an international conference in Rotterdam together even after the war, in 1997. The Chechen situation didn't happen just yesterday.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, thousands of ethnic Russians have been intimidated out of many former Soviet republics. It isn't always fair, but what Russian newspapers usually forget to mention, is the fact that a lot of Russians didn't show much respect for the local culture during the Soviet days when a lot of them were ``planted'' in various regions. Many of them lived in Latvia or in Georgia for 20-30 years without taking the bother to learn the local language. Such behaviour wasn't encouraged by the authorities either. I remember a slight shock after meeting a Russian woman in Lithuania who was saying seriously: ``Our Palanga is such a nice town... It's just a pity that we have too many Lithuanians here!'' My Estonian friend was really and pleasantly surprised when she visited Russia for the first time and discovered that ``not all Russians are arrogant, mean people who consider themselves to be better than the locals - like the Russians back at home do''.
Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Georgia and other republics were not just ``allowed'' to become independent but were even encouraged actively ``to take as much independence as they want'' (quote from Boris Yeltsin).
What is the difference between Chechnya and the other republics? Is it just the fact that a vital oil pipe runs through its territory - a pipeline that attracts the attantion not only of the Russians but of all the major global players.
Pure and strong hatred for Chechens dominates Russia at the moment. Why hate Chechens only and exclusively? The answer seems to be obvious: it is because Russia's leaders decided - just like the Americans and the British leaders a while ago - that popularity lies in finding a new ``common enemy'' to demonize, as the West demonised the Serbs and the Iraqis.
If you look at the Russian newspapers, especially from the beginning of campaign, their tone reminds you very much of the style of the newspapers in 1945 when the Russians were approaching Berlin.
To write anything even slightly critical was impossible. To try to see things from the point of view of the Chechen civilians being bombed suddenly became considered almost as a betrayal of your country. My own newspaper, Pravda Online, answered my few articles on the subject with a deadly silence, and then all my materials about anything else: Ireland, Holland, the Caribbean , were ``boycotted'' for about a week: this way I was given to understand that I ``fallen out of the party line'' as they used to say in the old days.
The problem for Russians lies in the fact that there is a very slim chance that independent Chechnya will really be independent, unlike the former satellite states of the USSR in Eastern Europe,. whose new leaders rushed immediately to look for ``new bosses'', which they found in Western allainces.
That is the reason most Russian journalists and politicians - and of course ordinary Russians - feel so treatned by the prospect of Chechen independence.The Russians have just finally come to terms with the idea that their own country was and maybe still is an empire: they never taught us this at schools before. We were never told about the deportations of Chechens in the 1940s. It was always stressed to us that most of the other peoples joined Russia voluntarily. (Which reminds me of another Russian joke: how to force a cat to eat mustard? The American opens cat's mouth and puts the mustard in there. ``This is violence!'' - insists the Russian. The English puts mustard inside of a sandwich and gives it to the cat. ``This is cheating!'' - says the Russian. After that the Russian smears some mustard under cat's tail. Cat screams and licks it off. ``Take a look at this!''- says Russian proudly. ``Voluntarily, and with a song!'')
There are two jokes circulating in Russia now. One of them goes like this: ``During the recent summit of the Russian and the American leadership the Americans agreed to recognize that Chechnya is an internal Russian matter. The Russians, in their turn, agreed that Iraq is an internal matter of the United States.'' The second one was made last week by a Russian stand-up comedian: ``Why didn't the British Queen ask our government for advice before reinstalling direct British rule in Northern Ireland? After all, we have such experience in dealing with similar situations to the satisfaction of all sides.''
This article I am dedicating to my friend Layla. I hope that she is alive. Forgive me, Layla - that I couldn't stop this madness. Forgive me that my people have become blind. Nobody will ever make me hate the Chechen people. We Russians need urgently to wake up and to liberate ourselves from those who want our children, yours and mine, to hate each other. From those for whom we made up a special, new word in the Russian language: ``dermocrats'' (``shitocrats''). For your sake as well as for our own.