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Inside Putin’s mind: the lessons of Chechnya

The lessons of Chechnya

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

As far as Vladimir Putin is concerned, ‘we are nobody, while he who chance has enabled to clamber to the top of the pile is today Tsar and God’. So said Anna Politkovskaya, the eminent Russian journalist, in her book Putin’s Russia. She continued: ‘In Russia we have had leaders with this outlook before. It led to tragedy, to bloodshed on a huge scale, to civil wars. I want no more of that.’ She wrote those prophetic words almost two decades ago.

A reporter for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Politkovskaya came to prominence during the second Chechen war. Her accounts of that conflict, which officially lasted from 1999 to 2000, revealed Putin’s war against separatist rebels in the Caucasus as a hideous, corrupt sham. She reported in 40°C temperatures from the flyblown refugee camps, destroyed villages and flattened towns of Chechnya and Ingushetia. Traumatised people starved in the ruins and yet Moscow, which claimed to be liberating the Chechens, provided no aid.

As for the Russian soldiers: ‘Forget all you have been told about the war,’ Politkov-skaya wrote in her 2001 book A Dirty War. ‘The army you were shown… does not exist. Instead you see exhausted men with unbalanced minds. Then there’s the cold, the filth, scabies, rotting feet, drunkenness. After the soldiers have sat for weeks in a dugout that is more like a swamp, then the war ceases to appear a sacred feat of liberation.’

Tinned rations turned rancid in the heat. Officers treated their men like slaves, in some cases even hiring them out to locals as cheap labour. Recruits were savagely beaten by their superiors, at times with entrenching tools and often for no reason. Many were killed in this way – but in line with Russian military tradition, officers were not punished. Soldiers injured in combat were often not sent to field hospitals, as the officials running the war wanted to keep casualty numbers down. The reason was that, in a direct parallel with current events in Ukraine, the Kremlin refused to call the Chechen conflict a war, and instead referred to it as an ‘anti-terrorist operation’. ‘There is no war,’ Politkovskaya wrote with dark irony, ‘how can there be invalids?’

Putin built his strongman image on the back of this brutal conflict. Yeltsin had made a mess of the first war in Chechnya and it was time for revenge. The Russians shelled Grozny, the Chechen capital, reducing it to rubble, just as they are now doing to the cities of Ukraine. When the main assault phase was over, Russian soldiers murdered, tortured and raped Chechen civilians. That torture was ‘co-ordinated and managed by the FSB’, said Politkovskaya. The FSB, which Putin had run under Yeltsin, was the successor organisation to the KGB. ‘These are Putin’s people,’ she wrote. ‘They enjoy Putin’s support and they carry on Putin’s policies.’ Chechens were picked up arbitrarily and subjected to ‘beatings, injections, more beatings, more injections’.


Re-reading Politkovskaya, it is hard not to feel that some people have over-thought Putin. The Russian President has played to domestic and international admirers who have seen him as a sort of post-liberal icon, an antidote to a flimsy transatlantic order long past its prime. In this view, Putin exists in a political space of his own making, beyond the grasp of the liberal western mind, which doesn’t understand his mystical attachment to the idea of the nation – the people.

Politkovskaya’s appraisal of Putin was far more straightforward: ‘I dislike him because he does not like people,’ she wrote. ‘He despises us. He sees us as a means to his own ends, a means for the achievement and retention of personal power, no more than that.’

In this view, Putin does not represent a shift in political thought. Instead, he is a power-hoarder of a familiar despotic kind. The evidence supports this idea. Politkov-skaya estimates that when Putin came to power, he put more than 6,000 of his former KGB colleagues into the highest offices of state. That’s quite a power base. These individuals, finding themselves in positions of great influence but with tiny salaries, set about fiddling the system to get rich. This seam of new Russian officials, entirely dependent on Putin for their career prospects and their wealth, ‘has taken corruption to heights undreamt of under the Communists or Yeltsin’.

Not only are Putin and his people corrupt, but they also share an instinctive Soviet–era intolerance of dissent. This means that Putin ‘is quite incapable of understanding the concept of discussion, especially in politics’, wrote Politkovskaya. ‘There should be no answering back from someone Putin considers his inferior, and if an inferior does allow himself to answer back he is an enemy.’ Officials or business-people who fall out with Putin find themselves the subject of mysterious legal proceedings that lead inevitably to bankruptcy or jail. A shocking number of opposition politicians and inquisitive journalists have been beaten, poisoned or killed.

The consequences of this servile allegiance to one man can be disastrous. Polit-kovskaya was present at Beslan in 2004, when terrorists seized a school with 1,500 hostages. Her verdict: ‘All the Russian government representatives in Beslan at that time were more concerned to work out what Putin wanted than to work out a way of resolving the monstrous situation in the school.’

Special forces eventually attacked the school using, among other things, flame-throwers and thermobaric weapons. Several terrorists escaped. More than 100 hostages were never found. ‘The officials in the operational nerve centre all succeeded in saving their careers,’ wrote Politkovskaya, ‘but failed to save the children.’

Politkovskaya’s piercing analysis broke Putin down into his shameful constituent parts, revealing an amoral, mid-ranking Soviet functionary who got lucky, and ran the country as an extension of the KGB. In order to do this, she said, he devised a ‘vertical system of authority, founded on fear of and total subservience to one individual, himself’. That system, in her view, was a catastrophe.

Her insightfulness won not only awards, but enemies. On 7 October 2006, she was shot four times, at point-blank range, in the lift of her Moscow apartment block. The person who ordered her murder has never been identified. Not formally, at least.

‘He persists in crushing liberty,’ Politkovskaya wrote of Putin. ‘We cannot sit back and let another political winter close in on Russia for another several decades. We want to go on living in freedom.’ The people of Ukraine would agree.

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