And so, it has finally come to pass. In Moscow this May, Boris Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov, the recently elected President of Chechnya, signed an agreement “On Peace and the Principles of Relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.”

The High Contracting Parties—this is how they refer to themselves—announced their desire to “cease centuries of confrontation,” “to establish equal relations” built on “commonly recognized principles and norms of international law.” The italics are mine and I think they are indispensable. The terms used in the agreement are entirely unambiguous and can only mean that Russia has recognized that 1) Chechnya was never willingly part of Russia; 2) the Chechens have always resisted Russian dominion; and 3) today Moscow officially views Ichkeria as an independent state.

The word “independence,” however, is missing from the agreement. This is probably as it should be: last year, in the Dagestan town of Khasavyurt, Alexander Lebed and Maskhadov signed a document ending the war but postponing a final decision on the status of Chechnya until the year 2001. There’s no reason to rock the boat right away. But it is clear that such a decision (if, of course, nothing extraordinary occurs) will only strengthen de jure what is Moscow’s de facto recognition of the independence of its former province.

It is time to do a preliminary summing up of the Chechen crisis, the most significant event to have occurred so far in the history of the new Russia.

The most important thing, of course, is that the first article of the agreement renounces the use of force or even the threat of force in the resolution of disputes. If we set aside the unpredictability of Russian politics and imagine for a moment that the Kremlin (and the Chechen government in Grozny, for that matter) will keep to the principle that “treaties should be observed,” then we can assume that there is little danger of war breaking out again.

And since the war is over, the time is right to attempt to answer some of the questions that inevitably arise at the end of any war.

Why was the war begun, and how was the need to continue it justified?

What were the goals of the warring sides, and what did they actually achieve?

Who was the victor in this war, and who the vanquished?

What does the future hold for both sides?

I will try here to answer some of these questions.

The Kremlin officially maintained on many occasions that it resorted to the use of force in order to liquidate the illegitimate and undemocratic regime set up by the Chechen leader General Dzhokhar Dudayev; to prevent Chechnya from separating from Russia; to reestablish law and order and put an end to criminal activity in the republic; to protect human rights (in particular, the rights of Chechnya’s Russian-speaking population); and to prevent the creation of a dangerous center of Islamic fundamentalism in the North Caucasus.

In fact, of all these goals, Russia has achieved only one, and even that only in part. The Dudayev regime was not destroyed, but the rebel general himself was killed in a Russian rocket attack in April 1996. In order to accomplish this nearly a hundred thousand other people had to be killed—but who remembers these details today?

It’s true, Dudayev’s legitimacy was far from indisputable—after all, he disbanded the first Supreme Soviet of the Checheno-Ingush Republic by force in 1991, and then the Chechen parliament in early 1993. Coming from Yeltsin such an accusation may sound grotesque, to put it mildly, but that doesn’t change the facts. (And by the end of 1994 Dudayev’s dissolution of the Supreme Soviet was no longer much of an issue.)

Elections were supposed to be held in Chechnya in 1995. By then, as it happened, Dudayev’s popularity in the republic had been severely shaken. A number of factors conspired to substantially reduce his political prospects: economic problems that he did not know how to resolve, conflicts among the ruling elite, the dissatisfaction of a number of Chechen clans with his appointments to his staff, the traditional Chechen distrust of any kind of “state” power (especially if that power is nearby, in Grozny). If Moscow had waited just a bit, it probably would have found a legitimate negotiating partner in Grozny, and that partner probably would not have been the obstinate Dudayev. The only thing that could have prevented his ouster was what in fact happened: direct intervention by Russia. Dudayev immediately became a symbol of national resistance. Since his death he has become a popular hero.

It cannot be said that Moscow ignored the problem of legitimacy during its military campaign. The Chechen people were constantly offered new governors, each one said to be fairer and more legitimate than the previous. The last of them was Doku Zavgayev—the former Communist Party leader of the Soviet Checheno-Ingush Republic. In December 1995, under the protection of the Central Election Committee and the Supreme Court of Russia (and, alas, with the deliberate silence of the Vienna-based Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe), Zavgayev shamelessly scheduled “elections” in the republic. As anyone could have predicted, 95 percent of the population turned out to be Zavgayev supporters. No one expressed the least surprise. Then, in August of 1996, when Maskhadov’s militia stormed Grozny, recapturing the city from the Russian forces, Zavgayev publicly stated that “nothing extraordinary is happening—just occasional shooting.” All of a sudden everyone was shocked—what do you know, the man’s a liar!


Rule by Zavgayev was the kind of legitimacy Moscow offered Chechnya. For some reason the Chechens didn’t like it. They preferred instead to consider as legitimate the January 1997 elections in which Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen resistance, won hands down. I served as an official observer of those elections. In my opinion they failed in many ways to live up to democratic principles—above all because the tens if not hundreds of thousands of refugees who were outside the republic were excluded from voting. But where in the world has impeccably correct electoral procedure been observed when a country has been quite literally reduced to ashes by war? In Bosnia, perhaps? In any event, what I saw convinced me that the inhabitants of Chechnya who did take part in the elections believed they were honest, and that the authorities, in turn, tried to do their best. Both sides understood that they were insuring themselves against a new war. And it appears they were right.

The second goal that Kremlin strategists set was keeping Chechnya within the Russian Federation. Well, two and a half years ago that was entirely possible. Even after military conflict had begun, not only simple Chechens but members of the Dudayev cabinet explained to me their view of the republic’s “independence”: they would accept a common currency with Russia, common security forces (including the army and common defense of external borders), common citizenship, joint foreign policy, an integrated economy, etc. The Chechens wanted certain attributes of independence, however, such as the depiction of a wolf in their state emblem….

More seriously, before the war the Chechen leaders in Grozny probably would have agreed to a degree of sovereignty not greatly exceeding that enjoyed by Tatarstan. By the end of the war, Moscow was ready to accept a far greater degree of Chechen autonomy, much more than the Chechen leaders had in mind up until 1995, just as long as Chechnya remained “within the Russian Federation”—i.e., as long as Russia didn’t lose face. It was too late. The unique historical opportunity to legalize democratically the inclusion within Russia of the most intransigent mountain people of the Caucasus disappeared under the thunder of bombs and rockets. And now, I’m afraid, it’s gone for good.

The third reason put forth by official Russian propaganda as a casus belli was the need to destroy the “Chechen mafia” that was purportedly based in Grozny. I can’t assess the accuracy of this assertion; nor can I judge the effectiveness of Russian aircraft, long- distance artillery, and blanket rocket attacks in fighting crime. I only hope that Yeltsin won’t start using these anticrime methods in Russia itself. In Chechnya the results are all too evident: in addition to the traditional types of crime, we now have terrorism and kidnapping for ransom.

As for the rights of the Russian-speaking population (the small part of it that wasn’t killed by Russian bombs or forced to flee to Russia, abandoning its homes), here one can only hope that Maskhadov will have sufficient strength and sense to stop the criminal anarchy from which a handful of elderly and defenseless people suffer inconceivably more today than before the war. However, when we observe how Russia treats its refugees, it is hard to imagine that anyone might be able to surpass the Russian government and its immigration services when it comes to crude and widespread violations of the rights of the Russian-speaking natives of Chechnya. And not only of Chechnya.

Finally, there is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. General Dudayev did talk about introducing the Shariat—Islamic law—even before the war broke out. But Dudayev said a lot of things in his speeches. I would not like to have been in his shoes had he actually tried to introduce Shariat law to Chechnya before the war. Even now, I have serious doubts about whether such innovations will succeed in Chechnya. Even Shamil—the legendary Muslim leader of the Caucasus revolt against Russia in the nineteenth century—was unsuccessful in his time. The Vainakh, or mountain people of the Caucasus, are followers of the form of belief called adat, which is based on tradition. Their version of Islam cannot be called fanatic in any sense, especially if you take into account the many distinctions in religious traditions among the Vainakh themselves, traditions that go back to various religious teachers of the nineteenth or even the eighteenth century.


During the war, however, the leaders of the Chechen resistance took to underscoring their adherence to Islam as a symbol of resistance to Russia. In the beginning this elicited a smile. For instance, I remember the demonstrative reverence the former prosecutor general and minister of justice of Ichkeria, UsmanImaev, displayed regarding his “favorite book”—a collection of speeches and sermons of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The works of the Shi’ite ideological leader were now said to be the favorite reading of a faithful Sunni. How seriously, then, was one to take the Islam of rank and file Chechens?

Today, however, there’s nothing to smile about. Public flogging and stoning became part of the republic’s criminal code last fall. Maskhadov has also recently expressed a desire to introduce “Islamic banks” into the country. The former Komsomol functionary and present field commander Salman Raduyev has issued calls for a jihad. He is tormented by unconcealed jealousy of Shamil Basayev, his braver and more successful rival on the field of terror; and he dreams of surpassing Basayev, at least in piety.1 In Chechnya, and now in neighboring Dagestan, members of the pious sect of the Wahhabites have appeared; they were previously unknown in the region. These are the fruits of war. I have no doubt that Maskhadov wants to build a secular state functioning on democratic principles. He has told me so himself—face to face. But now even he avoids saying this out loud.

So there is a simple relationship between the reasons for the war and its results. Most of the ghosts that haunted the imagination of Kremlin politicians did not in fact exist before the war. The war breathed life into them, and they became a reality. Everything that Moscow was afraid of (or pretended to be afraid of) in 1994 has come to pass: Chechnya’s secession from Russia; an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism; and a wave of criminal violence in the region that has left the remaining Russian-speaking population defenseless. Moscow created this situation all by itself, when it unleashed the war.


In order to answer the question of who won and who lost this war, we will have to dismiss all the demagogic arguments I listed above, arguments that our Russian “hawks” originally put forth to justify their point of view. The longer the military action continued, the less frequently they resorted to these arguments—after all, no one wants to look like a complete idiot. We must examine the true reasons underlying events.

I am by no means an expert on the various theories proposing “economic” reasons for the conflict. Many such hypotheses exist: the desire to cover up the “Moscow connections” of a number of bank scams related to Chechnya; the collision of interests involved in choosing the route by which Caspian oil would be transported to Europe; etc. One version holds that the war was started so that arms illegally sold in Germany by Russian generals when our troops withdrew could be “written off” as military losses in Chechnya. Another version sees the war as an “international Zionist plot.” Most Chechens religiously believe in one or another of these theories; they appear here and there in the pages of the Russian press. Or to be more precise, they used to appear—until the military conflict ended and Russian society set about trying to forget Chechnya as if it had all been a bad dream. Some of these stories seem quite believable; others sound like typical “fairy tales and legends of the peoples of the Caucasus.” But in any event, such reasons can only apply to secondary causes. The main reason is the condition of Russia on the eve of the war.

In 1994 the government and the President sharply changed the course of the country’s development. Economic reform was halted; the clock was turned back on political and legal reforms. Of the two tendencies fighting each other after August 1991—democratic and antidemocratic—the one that represented a sluggish, reactionary state apparatus, what used to be called the nomenklatura, won out. Of course, this was no longer quite the old Party nomenklatura. Marxist-Leninist rhetoric had been scrapped, which allowed a lot of politicians who had made their career on democratic rhetoric to attach themselves to the ruling elite. However, democratic procedures and democratic methods were just as new and alien to them as they had been to the old nomenklatura.

This could be felt almost everywhere, but principally in two ways: in a growing tendency to keep the decision-making process closed and hidden, and in an equally sharp increase in the importance of the “power ministries,” e.g., the ministries of interior anddefense, the special police forces, the presidential security force, and intelligence. The increase in their power was facilitated enormously by Yeltsin’s forcible dissolution of the parliament in September and October 1993, which ironically was undertaken in the name of democracy’s defense.

In public opinion, the value of freedom, it seemed, took a back seat to the passionate desire to “establish order in the country.” A new, democratic order had not yet taken root, and for that reason many people associated democracy with disorder and instability. It is hardly surprising that the idea of derzhavnost‘, of a powerful sovereign state, grew more and more popular. Such a state, it was thought, would be capable of reviving Russia’s greatness, which had supposedly been undermined by the “democrats.” The Russian tradition of “great state values” in fact consists of the sacralization of government power—and of “the sacred heritage, the legacy of our forebears” Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Joseph Stalin. In this view, the state is the apotheosis of the Russian national spirit; and therefore the interests of society and the individual must be unconditionally subordinated to state interests. The state itself should, as much as possible, remain beyond social criticism (which by definition is “antipatriotic”), and completely beyond society’s control.

It is clear that such an ideology closely corresponds to the interests of a huge, powerful class of state bureaucrats. (Russian bureaucrats shouldn’t be confused with Western “managers”—who represent a completely different social type). Bureaucracy and the nomenklatura are in fact the primary source of such ideology. The idea of “powerful statehood” also easily finds support among certain pochvenniki, or “back-to-the-land” members of the intelligentsia, as well as among a number of financial barons, who today have quasi-criminal relations with the nomenklatura, and the captains of industry who prefer to remain Priests of State Expediency rather than become independent entrepreneurs. Alas, this idea of the all-powerful state is also fairly popular among so-called “simple people,” who are accustomed to the paternalism of the authorities; it is particularly popular among those who have suffered from economic chaos and disorder.

Initially, the team of reformers put together by Yeltsin in 1991 was able to resist such moods among the apparatchiks and a good part of the population. But by 1994 most of the reformers had been pushed out of the government, under pressure from that very same apparat. Many of those who remained decided that it was simpler to advance one’s career by taking the side of the bureaucracy. Yeltsin himself appears to have hesitated for quite some time before breaking with democracy. On the one hand, he was probably trying to outmaneuver the nationalist-Communist opposition in the parliament and the country by co-opting their slogans. This was in vain: the further he drifted toward this nationalist-Communist opposition, the more radical its slogans became and the more intransigent its criticism of the President and the government. On the other hand, it’s likely that many aspects of the “powerful state” ideologyare far from alien to Yeltsin, who has not fully overcome his own Party-apparatchik past.

In any event, the outcome of this hesitation on Yeltsin’s part was the decision to launch a model military action to establish order in Chechnya, and defend the honor of the Russian state and its national interests, if not on the world stage, then in a single, separate republic. Pavel Grachev, then minister of defense, said it would only take “a couple of hours, and one parachute regiment.”

I am sometimes asked: “Well, all right Mr. Kovalev, you turned out to be correct about the prospects for an armed resolution of the Chechen crisis. But what if you had been wrong? What if they actually had been able to solve the Chechen problem in a short time, with little force and little blood? Would you have approved?” I usually answer that this could not have happened, that the problem simply could not have been solved by force, and that there’s no point in discussing impossible hypotheses. I am usually accused of evading the question. Or worse, it is said that I was secretly on Dudayev’s side and that Istill can’t admit it honestly.

In fact, it seems to me that my answer is to the point. Such is the nature of the clumsy, unintelligent monster called the traditional Russian state. It is inherently incapable of properly evaluating situations because it feeds off myths alone and in some sense is a myth itself. It cannot live without using force, because its essence is deified, impersonal power divorced from the power of society. The Russian state does not know how to resolve problems bloodlessly, for blood is its favorite food. Moreover, it doesn’t really know how to resolve problems at all. It only knows how to create them. The wars in the Caucasus—the first and the second—are not simply testimony to the mediocrity of Russian statehood: they are its inevitable result.

It was this monster that was defeated in Chechnya. It is painful for me to think of the thousands of Russian soldiers and officers who died, or were crippled, or were taken prisoner in this war. It is painful to think of the thousands of young Chechen boys who perished in battle against my country’s army or were destroyed by the OMON—the special police forces—in the so-called filtration camps set up by the Russians. It is particularly painful to think of the tens of thousands of civilian victims of the war, of the hundreds of thousands of refugees wandering through Russia without shelter or aid. But I am glad the monster was defeated.

Who was the victor in this war? The forces of the Chechen resistance won the military victory. In effect, they won in the first three weeks of the war, when the gigantic Russian military machine bloodied its fists trying to take over the smoking remnants of Grozny. This unprecedented humiliation of a great power became the Chechens’ decisive moral victory. And even if they had been crushed after that and the part of the population that was able to fight had been annihilated, history would still have named them the victors, just as for history Biafra remained the victor in the war with Nigeria—no matter what the historians say.

But the Chechens were not crushed. They claimed victory after victory and ended the war with a triumphant attack on Grozny. The military victory is theirs. But were the Chechen people victorious?

I’m afraid that here things are not so simple.

There is nothing more dangerous than a military victory. And Chechnya is no exception to this rule.

A few months ago I addressed the Chechen parliament. Speaking about the fact that corporal punishment was recently introduced into the criminal code of the Republic of Ichkeria, I tried to appeal to the Chechen sense of honor and self-respect. “The wolf, the legendary ancestor of the Vainakh people,” I said, “is the symbol of your staunchness. But a beaten wolf is no longer a wolf. He is a mongrel.” I fully expected to be shot or at least stoned. But nothing of the kind occurred: there were a few embarrassed smiles and complete silence. Most of the people in the hall agreed with me, but they were afraid to say so aloud. A beaten wolf is not a wolf. A frightened Chechen is not a Chechen.

The Chechen leaders are afraid. They are afraid to resist the terror that criminals untested in battle have now unleashed against defenseless Russians—they might be accused of insufficient patriotic spirit and of “pro-Russian attitudes.” They are afraid to speak out against the Islamization of the country—they might be accused of being insufficiently devout and of harboring “pro-Western sympathies.” They are afraid to take decisive measures against the criminals that have been kidnapping journalists for ransom2—they could be accused of lacking solidarity with their fellow Chechens.

The “hero of Budyonnovsk,” Shamil Basayev, a truly courageous man, is afraid of the “hero of the Kizlyar Maternity Ward,” the degenerate coward Salman Raduyev, even though Basayev could easily crush Raduyev. The government of Ichkeria fusses over Raduyev like a baby, first declaring him mentally ill (which, by the way, seems to be the case), then timidly wagging a finger at him. The leaders of the Chechen resistance are afraid of their own people and, it appears, of one another. The people are beginning to be afraid of their leaders. The night following a battle belongs to looters. By appeasing Raduyev and others like him, by humoring them, Maskhadov risks losing the authority he has earned and smoothing the road to power in Ichkeria for all sorts of riffraff.

Chechnya got its independence. But the Chechens were fighting first and foremost for their freedom. Now they could easily lose that freedom.

This may well be the price of military victory.

I feel sorry for the Chechens. I have great affection for the Chechen people, a people of poets, traders, farmers, and knights—trusting, talented, theatrical, childishly cruel and childishly vain. I fear for their unparalleled sense of self-esteem, for their inborn hunger for freedom. There are few peoples on earth who have so carefully preserved these ancient virtues in their culture, their traditions, and their everyday life. Culture is created over millennia, but it can be destroyed in an instant.

I admire the Chechens and I hope that they will be able to overcome the present social and psychological crisis brought on by the war and by victory. But Russia concerns me even more.

Did Russia lose the Second Caucasus War?

If we are talking about the Russia that was “lost” by Mr. Govorukhin,3 or Mr. Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, or Mr. Zhirinovsky, the leader of the largest far-right nationalist party—then yes, of course, that Russia was defeated.

But what about the Russia which, beginning with Gorbachev’s first timid declarations, our reformers have been trying to nurture from the seeds scattered here and there across our history and especially our culture? The Russia of Pushkin, Herzen, Sakharov? The Russia that is part of a great European civilization, the Russia without which a new, global human civilization will never arise? I don’t yet know, but I have the uncertain hope that this Russia was victorious.

Three times in Russian history the loss of a war has brought about liberal political reforms within the country. The Crimean War of the 1850s led to the end of serfdom and to reforms in the legal structure, the army, and local self-government, as well as the weakening of censorship. After the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, considerable limits were placed on the autocracy; civilian freedoms were strengthened and the beginnings of democratic rule were introduced. The Afghan war of the 1980s led to Gorbachev’s perestroika.

Each such reform brought the country nearer to the mainstream of social progress. And in each instance, reform struck a blow against the age-old Russian system of an all-powerful state supported by a large, powerful bureaucratic apparat.

The Chechen crisis has demonstrated the utter impracticality of a system of governance based on the all-powerful state. Under the conditions of an open society, a market economy, and political freedom and partnership with the West, such a system could not possibly work. Therefore…? Therefore, there are two options. One can change—but that means new, and this time decisive, systematic reform in all spheres of government, and an end to the absolute power of the old bureaucratic apparat (which is, according to Milovan Djilas, a “new class”). The other option is to sever ties with surrounding reality and as far as possible restore the “Iron Curtain,” thereby returning to autarchy and a closed society, i.e., to a form of state schizophrenia.

At present I have the timid hope that the country will somehow choose the first path. The very signing of the agreement with Ichkeria suggests the victory of sobriety over schizophrenia. But there are other signs of change, which may, given certain conditions, become decisive.

The President’s administration and cabinet of ministers have been almost completely changed. Almost none of the people directly responsible for the Caucasian slaughter are left (except for the minister of the interior, Anatoly Kulikov, and, of course, the President himself). There are almost no representatives of the old Soviet nomenklatura and the so-called “Sverdlovsk mafia”4—people like Oleg Lobov, Oleg Soskovets, and Viktor Iliushin, who owed their high positions to a single virtue: personal devotion to the head of state. Perhaps after the behavior of Alexander Korzhakov, his friend and the head of the presidential security forces—who according to rumors tried to stop last year’s elections—Yeltsin finally understood that there is nothing more unreliable in politics than personal devotion. Let’s hope so.

Once again, people with a reputation as reformers are in the government: Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, Yakov Urinson. They’ve started talking about the second stage of reforms. It is encouraging that this time around reforms are being discussed publicly and openly, that Russian society has the opportunity to learn the truth about the country’s condition and about proposed solutions to the crisis. True, the reformers are few; moreover, they are divided and weak. Most of the talk centers around economic reform rather than serious legal reform, or, even more important—reform of the system of government.

Still there appears to be less nationalistic and anti-Western blather about “great statehood” in the speeches of the state’s top leaders recently. Anti-NATO hysteria seems to be subsiding; Yeltsin signed the agreement with the North Atlantic Alliance at the end of May. (Regarding NATO expansion, I by no means think that the West’s behavior is entirely correct or sensible—but this article is about Russia.)

The subject of human rights has also been remembered, though in the usual Soviet manner: the President declared a “year of human rights” in Russia, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the UN Declaration. But even an anniversary “affair” is a good thing coming from these people. Next thing you know, they might even remember judicial reform, which was abandoned some time ago.


Of course, this is all far from being the victory of democracy.

Supporters of the nomenklatura and traditional, Soviet-style bureaucratic rule still have a strong presence in the government, and, alas, in the population at large. These social forces dragged the country down in the dirt and blood of the Chechen war, and will never accept their defeat, for defeat means that they must disappear from Russian history. That they still have a fair amount of power in both the opposition and the government itself can be seen, for example, in the recent attempt to bring about unification with Belarus, when we almost woke up in a single country. True, at the last moment the entire agreement was confined to symbols rather than substance. But I’m not talking about the pluses and minuses of integration with Belarus in general, and the antidemocratic and antiliberal character of Lukashenko’s regime in particular; what is disturbing is the covert, closed, secretive way in which the decision in favor of unification was taken. That is the way we began the war with Dudayev.

It can’t be forgotten that our nationalists and “great state” adherents have powerful allies in the West as well. Some Western statesmen feel that Russia has no business insinuating itself into Europe and that it should”stay in Asia.” One can only speculate about the motives of such a geopolitical doctrine. But there is no doubt that the policies of leading Western countries, to the degree that they are determined by this and similar remarks by proponents of the thesis that Russia is an “extra country,” contributed to the unfortunate development of events in Russia that led to the Chechen war. Geopolitical racism, whether it comes from Mr. Zhirinovsky or from like-minded Americans, can only bear one fruit—a Russia transformed into an enormous and extremely dangerous source of instability for the entire world.

All the symptoms of awakening democratic tendencies I have mentioned above are still very, very weak. It wouldn’t be difficult to crush them—at present they are not much more than declarations. In essence, the peace agreement between Russia and Ichkeria itself is no more than a declaration of intentions. Both sides still have to work out the concrete procedures of the final settlement. I am hardly an optimist and I have no illusions that these procedures will be based on the principles of law and democracy, on the priority of human rights, as they should be. And if a solution depended on the Russian government taking reasonable steps, I would be utterly pessimistic. At present the government is behaving sensibly, but tomorrow it could easily go mad and crave meat. For that matter, what prevented it from devouring more parts of Russia than it did? Did conscience play a role? Or was it just that the bullets ran out? Neither. I allow myself a certain measured optimism based on the fact that the Russian government did not stop the war voluntarily. It was forced to stop fighting.

The people who prevented this war from continuing until the last Chechen and the last Russian soldier were dead are the ones who won the war.

So who did in fact win the war?

In Izvestia, Otto Latsis expressed an opinion that was extremely flattering to me: “The party of peace won, and the first to join it were Sergei Kovalev and other democratic politicians.” So it seems that Kovalev won the war. This isn’t the case, of course. For instance, I cannot consider Chechnya’s attaining state independence to be my victory, because it was never my goal. Contrary to widespread opinion, I never argued for or against Chechnya becoming an independent state. Quite frankly, I don’t much care whether Chechnya is part of Russia, or Canada, or whether it exists as independent Ichkeria. Just as long as there’s no shooting. I would even say that all things being equal, I would like Chechnya to remain part of Russia. But with one obligatory condition: it should be a free, democratic Chechnya as part of a free, democratic Russia. Or—not part of Russia; as long as this condition is met, sovereignty seems of secondary importance to me.

Needless to say, it wasn’t Kovalev and “other democratic politicians” who won this war. At least, not alone. The war was won by those few dozen, and only a few dozen, nongovernment organizations all across the country—the Soldiers’ Mothers and Memorial, among others—which from the first day raised their voices against the meat grinder. They were seen and heard by only a small percentage of citizens. But among these citizens were several hundred or so—just a few hundred—who demonstrated and picketed day after day, month after month. Their conviction made an impression on our “silent majority.”

This is our arithmetic.

The war was won by freedom of speech. By the several dozen honest journalists—just a few dozen—who continued to describe the truth about Chechnya to hundreds of thousands of readers and tens of millions of television viewers, despite pressure from the government. They were forced to broadcast official lies as well as the truth. But we are adults and know how to distinguish lies from the truth.

We turned out to be too exhausted, too broken and disillusioned, to shake Moscow with a 500,000-strong demonstration in the first days of the Chechen adventure—as we did in January 1991 after events in Vilnius. The price of our civilian passivity was 100,000 corpses in the North Caucasus. But we turned out to be sufficiently sober not to let ourselves be deceived by the government.

In 1996, the more perceptive politicians seeking office understood that the country would not support anyone who didn’t promise to stop the bloodshed. The “hawks” had no future. It was at this moment that Yeltsin made several highly public moves toward peaceful settlement of the conflict. It was exactly then that Lebed, a man not entirely devoid of political instinct, it seems, beckoned to the voters with the promise of immediate peace. Those voters who didn’t believe Yeltsin believed Lebed.

We are still very naive, of course. No one who knows the Russian political elite could guarantee that pre-election promises would be kept even in part. Maskhadov’s military victory in August of last year could have been a prelude to a new, unprecedented round of bloodshed rather than to the agreements that ended the fighting. But during the election campaign there turned out to be a fair number of people who, like Lebed, tried to calculate their political career several steps ahead. These were the ones who dotted the i’s on the agreements.

This, in fact, is democracy at work: society has mechanisms with which it can force the authorities to do what it demands, and not what the authorities themselves would like to do.

The Chechen crisis was the first serious battle for democracy in Russia. It would be going too far to say that our newborn, weak, sickly, uncertain civil society won this battle. But at least it didn’t lose. Peace in the North Caucasus is probably all we are capable of today. And this is of course much less than is needed in order to win the future for Russia.

May 18-June 9, 1997
Translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

This Issue

July 17, 1997