What’s a Chechen? It sounds like the start of a joke, but there’s no punchline. I’m supposed to write about the war in Chechnya this issue, but…the war itself is kind of interesting, but something’s missing. Maybe you don’t realize it over in Moscow, but nobody in the US cares about Chechnya. At all. Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time writing about it.
– No, it’s sort of more complicated than that, because not caring should make it easier to be a war fan. I probably wouldn’t even want to write about wars where people I care about were getting killed, so maybe it’s better not to care.
No, that’s crap. In the first place, when I wrote that bit about “people I care about” it hit me, I don’t care about anybody. Not since my dog died. Especially not on weekdays, or when the commute’s bad, or when it’s as hot as it’s been around here lately.
Fuck’em. I’d love to write about the place I live going up in flames. Those fires in Arizona and Colorado — you hear about these fires over there in Russia? That’s when it hit me, sitting there in front of the TV — I was cheering the fires. Go flames! Roast those Arizonans in their shorts and T-shirts! I hope it all burns. It’s not war exactly but it’s kind of close in a way. Lots of smoking ruins anyway, and lots of good godfearing assholes having to wake up for once and get their noses shoved in the fact that the world doesn’t like them.
So why is it so hard to get interested in Chechnya? Maybe it’s because there haven’t been any good pictures out of there in a while. You read about the war there sometimes, but there’s never any interesting combat shots. Just the charity bullshit, with a closeup of some little Muslim kid acting devastated and then this sobby voice going, “Please send money.” But nobody does, or at least I don’t think so. I think it’s because the Christians only go after war orphans they think they can convert, and it’s no use trying to get Muslims. (I had this friend in high school, his parents went all churchy when they got old, and they signed up to be missionaries in Pakistan. I laughed for a week. Pakistan. I haven’t talked to him lately — I haven’t talked to anybody lately — so I don’t know if they lived. But it’s so cool to think about these Bakersfield Okies heading up the driveways in Peshawar holding their little Bibles. I hope they roast the fuckers alive.)
The other problem is the geography. Chechnya’s hard to find. It’s landlocked, and that never helps — landlocked countries are fucked. Ask the Kurds. Ask the Dinka. And the alliances are very complex, too complex for Fresno TV, that’s for sure.
But when I started looking into it, I found the war, just as war, does have some interesting aspects. It’s one of those classic combats between two crippled countries. Russia would never have had a problem with Chechnya if it hadn’t fallen apart; and the Chechens wouldn’t've had a problem expelling the severely weakened Russian army if they hadn’t had built-in flaws like a tiny population, lack of ground cover, and a macho war code that kept them from fighting an effective guerrilla campaign.
The first Chechen war started in 1994. but that’s not really the beginning of the war. None of these slow postcolonial wars ever really start or end. That’s one of the things that makes them so depressing and un-fun. Un-cinematic…hey, maybe that’s why the whole thing’s so hard to get interested in: no movies about it! Although actually, I hear there is a Russian film about Chechnya, called Outpost or Blockhouse (or Outhouse) and I saw a clip about another called “War” on CNN, but they’re not subtitled so I never saw them. Any of you Russians know about them? Are they any good? Write me at eXile and I’ll pass the word on to all the other war fans.
But like I said, that wasn’t the start. You have to be a professor of Asian history to find the start. The Russians were expanding south all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, of course. That’s what led to all the Russo-Turkish wars, and the European entanglements, like the Crimean. But the Chechens were apparently one of the last peoples to accept the Russians. The Chechens, and this does seem to be one consistently clear thing about the war, were the real warriors, the stone crazies, of the region. I’ve come across some amazing stories about them in trying to research this column. The neighbors, the Daghestanis for example, are terrified of them. And the Chechens apparently used to rule the Moscow crime world in the early Yeltsin era even though there were only about a thousand Chechens in Moscow. There’s a great story about the Chechens going to a meeting with the slow old Russian crime bosses. The Russians were eating and drinking, feeling safe, when the Chechens just grabbed the steak knives and started stabbing. Half the Russian bosses were dead before they had time to finish the first course.
They seem like one of those tribes that are either going to rule the world or go extinct but nothing in between. They messed with Stalin. I mean, that’s serious stuff. You look back at the 20th c. now and all that Hitler noise seems like kiddie stuff. It’s Stalin who looks like the really big scary figure now. And the Chechens told Stalin to fuck off. Pretty impressive. So they got themselves officially labeled a “Criminal nationality” and shipped off in cattle cars to somewhere in the steppes. It was like training camp for them. All the old and weak and peaceful types just died. The ones that were left — I read this in a Chechen guy’s account of growing up on in the steppes — the kids that survived used to pass the time by fighting. That’s all they did. All day, every day. One kid would go to another kid’s tent and call his name. The kid would come out swinging and they’d fight till it was time to go in and have their gruel or whatever. Broken bones, damaged organs — all part of the fun. You weren’t even supposed to mention them or you weren’t a real man.
After that, war or crime must’ve seemed easy. So when the Russians finally let the Chechens go home, they were ready for some action. But the Soviet Army was not something to be lightly fucked with, not even in the last days of the Empire. There were a lot of Russians who itched for some action, who were sick of hearing their grandfathers strutting around on their Eastern Front stories and wanted some trophies of their own. So the Chechens let the Russian Federation, the weak successor state, tell them they were still part of Russia. Everybody else got to leave, but not the Chechens: there were pipelines at stake, and states get REAL serious when oil pipelines are involved. Just ask the caribou up in Alaska. Anyway, the Chechens waited till Yeltsin was in power and the Red Army was turning to rust. Then they made their move, declared independence, waited for the pain.
The Russians…it was like the whole state was drunk on whatever Yeltsin was having. They came in like drunken cowboys. I mean literally: the method was to send lightly-armored APCs, BMPs, charging into central Grozny. We’re talking a Soviet-style city, which means endless blocks of 9-story apartments. And these are the Chechens — born killers. OK, so Russian generals, Tsarist or Soviet, are not exactly known for worrying over casualties or coddling their men…but even for them, it was pretty damn stupid. Once again, it was the good old RPG-7 that did the job: Chechens let the huge armored convoy come right into the crowded center of town, sitting up there on the highrise roofs with a perfect view. Then they blasted the first and last vehicles in classic ambush strategy and took their time killing all the ones jammed up in the instant armored traffic jam. By all accounts it was a massacre. Once you’ve seen what happens to an APC when an RPG round hits it, you don’t want to stay inside…but the Russian troops had been trained to stay in there, and they obeyed, as Russian troops do. So they were firing out of the ports, totally uselessly, blasting the windows of the groundfloor shops, while waiting to be targeted by the rooftop RPGs. It must’ve been the easiest mass kill of armored vehicles since our ex-drug czar, Gen. Barry McCaffrey, decided to get himself another star by ordering the obliteration of a retreating Iraqi armored column at the end of the Gulf War.
The Russian brass watched from a safe distance and took notes on the position of the RPG positions, then blasted the city. Really blasted it, by the accounts I read: 4000 detonations per hour at one point in the bombardment. Nobody ever denied the effectiveness of Russian artillery, not since the Wehrmacht learned it the hard way; and the tubes were glowing by the time they were finished dosing Grozny. ( I hear “Grozny” means something like “Terrible.” I kind of like that. Seems like a good name for the place.) They weren’t doing any of this pinpoint/smartbomb crap; they were going to kill every RPG gunner by the simple method of killing EVERYBODY in town, on the theory that the gunners would be included in the tally…and the rest were probably sympathizers, so too bad for them. The Air Force was in on it too, and Russian air has always seen close air support as its primary mission, so you can bet those Sukhois were screaming in close, lighting up everything that moved.
But one of the things the last century taught us is that it’s real hard to kill everybody in a city. Berlin in ’45 looked unlivable for anything bigger than a rat. The USAF was hosing it down like cropdusters over a tobacco field every day, and the RAF — and those fuckers were the real thing, meaner than the USAF any day — came through every night with their incendiaries, burning whatever the Yanks hadn’t blown up…but there were millions living under the rubble. There were factories going full speed right to the last minute. People are hard to kill, it’s weird. And people were still living in Grozny. I saw some of the interviews they gave, back when the Western press was trying to be interested. It was very much like Berlin, the streetscenes: ghost walls, a few trashpiles still burning, and old ladies appearing from nowhere to moan to the news crews about their missing grandkids and how hard it was to get decent coffee. It was…I don’t know how to say this…it was kind of nostalgic, you know? It was a very 20th c. style of war. I guess you have to admit that the Russian Army is a very 20th c. Army. You can tell it’s not really designed for the new sort of war. So it was kind of nice to get all this footage of them having one last fling.
And the Chechens could take it. Fuck, admit it: they probably enjoy that stuff. Not everybody’s a college-boy Quaker, you know. The Russians and the Chechens fought one of those slow, bloody street-by-street wars for the rest of the winter. The Russians finally “liberated” Grozny a block at a time — only by the time they’d finished, there weren’t any blocks. Just brickpiles. The Chechens did what any idiot could’ve predicted they’d do: they fled to the countryside and started ambushing convoys.
And that’s where I start to lose the thread, to tell you the truth. Weird, weird stuff started happening after that. Like this amazing raid some Chechens made deep into Russia, taking hostages and actually getting big ransom. Supposedly the only reason they didn’t get to Moscow is they didn’t have quite enough cash to pay off any more soldiers; they’d paid off about a hundred Russian checkpoints and gotten deep into Russia before the petty cash ran out. Pretty hilarious, if true! They occupied some provincial hospital and the SpetzNaz killed a bunch of hostages while “rescuing” them, in approved Munich style. Then the Chechens and their surviving hostages just went back to Chechnya: “OK, everybody on the bus! Field trip’s over!”
After that it just gets too weird for me to follow. Like: was this all about Berezovskii? One thing I read said he was in with the Chechen gangsters and the war was a way for Yeltsin to punish him for that — is that true? You guys would know better than me. Somebody blew up those apartment buildings in Moscow — either the Chechens or the FSB trying to get support for Putin. Which was it? You tell me. Then the “Second Chechen War”…which as far as I can tell is a bad sequel, hardly worth watching. Eventually the Russians will run out of troops — they’ve got no birthrate — or the Chechens will run out of people — there are only about half a million of ‘em left.
But nobody’s watching any more. Too far off, too inland, too much of the same thing over and over. I mean, I’m sorry, I guess I’m not doing my war-specialist job here…but fuck it, I’d rather watch those assholes in Arizona burn to the ground. That’s a war I can understand.
The eXile Issue #144.
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