Russia on the edge

With bombs exploding from Moscow to Chechnya, nerves are tense everywhere. Is it all a power-saving ploy by Yeltsin? Or is the country on the verge of collapse?

Published October 2, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

One night last week in Ryazan, a medium-sized city about 130 miles southeast of Moscow, an off-duty bus driver noticed two men unloading suspicious-looking sacks from a car and hauling them into the basement of his building. He thought of explosives -- sophisticated military explosives camouflaged in sugar had been used to blow up two apartment blocks in Moscow and one in the southern town of Volgadonsk during the preceding 10 days. He called the militia. The militia discovered what appeared to be a bomb and evacuated the residents of the building, and sappers were called in to investigate. Within minutes, fearful residents of surrounding buildings had abandoned their apartments as well, and the lot of them spent a long night pacing the sidewalks in the frosty autumn air.

The sappers eventually determined that the suspicious object was not a bomb -- the sugar was sugar, and no more -- but the timing device was real. The joke, in the end, was on them, and on the panicked residents of Ryazan -- for this turned out to be a drill conducted by the FSB (the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB). Just testing.

By any measure this was an astonishingly ill-considered FSB initiative -- and one that only added smoke to the murky and increasingly unstable climate of fear and rumor that had developed in Russia since the beginning of August, when Chechen guerrillas seized villages in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, a thousand miles south of Moscow, and declared an "Islamic State." Maybe the next time residents notice something unusual, they won't bother to call in. After all, it might be just a drill.

But the danger is real: Hundreds have died in three bomb blasts, to say nothing of the casualties in Dagestan and Chechnya. A few days ago I returned to Moscow, where I have lived for the past seven years, from a trip around the Russian far east, unsure of what I would find. The Russian media spoke of and showed a crackdown of unprecedented proportions, with militia rounding up criminals and "suspects" of Caucasian ethnic background ("Caucasian" here refers to Chechens, Ingushetians and others from the embattled mountainous region of the Caucasus) and city authorities forcing all people visiting Moscow from other Russian cities and from former Soviet republics to re-register themselves. Interior Ministry and army troops were shown on television patrolling the streets with the militia. My Russian friends with whom I had talked on the phone were nervous -- excesses, brutality and arbitrary violence are the rule any time the security forces take mass action in Russia, and no one is safe.

What I found upon my return, apart from newly vigilant grandmas patrolling my courtyard and Interior Ministry troops aggressively cadging cigarettes from passersby, was business that, at first, looked pretty much as usual. From residents in my building I heard that the GAI, or State Traffic Police, were stopping trucks on our corner and extorting bribes of 200 or 300 rubles (about $4 to $6) from drivers, rather than inspecting their holds for bombs. A neighbor alerted militiamen to a package that was standing alone on a street corner; rather than investigate, they went to buy cigarettes from a kiosk and never bothered to check the package. The "crackdown" -- so far -- is largely a matter of graft and aggrandizement for the authorities, and an annoyance for the citizens.

But again, the bombings were real, and the atmosphere in the capital is in fact more tense than it was before. Though it has presented no evidence, the government has blamed the bombings on Chechen and international "Islamic terrorists" and "bandits" operating from bases in southern Russia. The prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who is Yeltsin's chosen successor, has watched his political approval ratings -- at least according the polls the Russian media says it is conducting -- rise and rise as he takes action to "restore order."

At the same time, rumors are circulating that President Yeltsin is about to fire him and appoint retired Gen. Alexander Lebed to the post. Other rumors, meanwhile, posit that the Yeltsin regime rekindled the war in the Caucasus and blew up the apartment buildings to incite panic and justify the declaration of a state of emergency -- which would preclude the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for the winter and summer. The rumor is based on what is doubtless true: that government officials and the ruling elite, Yeltsin included, fear prosecution for corruption, embezzlement, abuse of power and even genocide against the Russian people (such are the charges that have been bandied about by the communist opposition) if they leave office. Indeed, they fear for their lives. While many leaders in the West, most notably President Clinton and his foreign policy team, have repeatedly voiced their support for Yeltsin and faith in his "reforms," objective indicators show that the Russian president has presided over the most rapid and dramatic decline of a major power in modern times.

In any case, the state media have done much to drive home the gravity of the danger Russia now supposedly faces, and has made it clear that force is the way to restore order -- and order is to be restored by killing "Chechen bandits." To anneal Russian resolve, the media have launched a propaganda campaign. Last weekend Russian television's Channel 2 showed grisly video footage purportedly shot by Chechen rebels: A bearded and swarthy Chechen guerrilla is kneeling on the back of a blond, tied-up and panicked Russian soldier of 18 or 19. The rebel takes a foot-long knife and, smiling at the camera, methodically saws through the squirming boy's throat and neck, bloodily working the knife back and forth, until his head comes off. The guerrilla holds the severed head up for the camera and laughs. The instinctive reaction of the viewer can only be: Exterminate the bastards! Lay waste to the monsters! If this means canceling elections, then so be it!

It is important to grasp one thing about presidential elections here: They are an anomaly. If they take place in the year 2000, they will, in point of fact, be the first here in which the outcome is not largely preordained. Yeltsin was first elected president of Russia under the less-than-transparent Soviet system; later, in 1993, his popularity, which was still high, was confirmed by a victory in a national referendum on his rule. When, in 1996, the last polls were conducted, Yeltsin wielded enormous power and great financial resources as the incumbent leader -- and he was compos mentis and relatively healthy.

But now things are different. It looks as though Yeltsin is physically incapable of leading, and every successor he has named he has ruined by doing so. I have never met the president or seen him in person, yet I have vivid television memories of the man as he once was -- standing atop a tank in defiance of the coup plotters of 1991, speaking to the nation in his gruff baritone, announcing the dissolution of the Supreme Soviet in 1993. His appearance and manners have been those of a working-class czar: slow-paced orations filled with pauses demonstrating power, the stiff bearing, the towering build. But after the second apartment building bombing he addressed the nation, slurring his words and apparently having trouble making out his speech on the teleprompter. This, of course, is Yeltsin as he is known to be now, but with buildings being blown to bits and heads being cut off, his apparent dementia strikes home in a way it never did before.

So the electoral field is wide open, and the stakes are high: power over the (territorially) largest country on earth. Russia has a nuclear arsenal second only to that of the United States; it's a country that despite the theft and corruption of the past decade can suffer capital flight of $2 billion a month and still remain basically solvent; whose timber, mineral and energy resources, to say nothing of its trained manpower and scientific prowess (remember, the Soviets put a man in space before the United States) accord Russia a status only the United States can surpass. Awareness of these facts figures prominently in the national psyche of Russians. If in the West it is now commonplace to regard Russia as the sick man of Europe, in the eyes of most Russians the post-1991 setbacks are temporary and can be reversed. They are probably right. Remember Churchill's observation after the death of dictator Joseph Stalin: When Stalin assumed power in 1924, Russia had the plow; when he died in 1953, it had nuclear weapons.

Dual notions of coming chaos and potential national regeneration ballast every rumor now circulating in Moscow. But let us return to facts on the ground. The Russian air force is bombing Chechnya and civilian casualties are heavy, and preparations are being made for a ground invasion. Although Russian politicians talk of NATO-like surgical strikes against "bandits" and "terrorist bases," no one can doubt that the motive is revenge, and that the Russian military will leave not a blade of grass standing in Chechnya, if it invades.

How are Muscovites taking all this? I look in the eyes of my Russian friends and see fatigue. Even young people seem emotionally older. More cynical than their Western counterparts, they disbelieve talk of democracy and fair play. In Russia there has been no Renaissance or Reformation. Centuries of illiteracy and autocracy and seven decades of Bolshevism have made Russia fundamentally different from the West as well as from the advanced East. Stalin killed more people than Hitler, and Russians learned their lesson from that. Apart from the first few days of 1991, there has never been well-founded hope for prosperity in Russia. There is no social cohesion, no common good in a land where neighbors were taught to inform on neighbors. There is now, in short, little reason to do anything but steal -- steal IMF money, steal food aid, steal the assets of the state through rigged auctions, steal the elections by rigging them. Russians, young and old, know this, and cynicism prevails. Real reform has never taken place, and there is now no realistic hope that it will. If in the United States, the present is new and fresh, in Russia it is weary and shot through with the spirit of the gulags. Russians are used to adversity, and are able in dealing with it. They will find their way forward, but their history has no end, no plot and no climax. Forward doesn't necessarily mean better.

With the elections at hand or nearly so, Russians speak apocalyptically -- but the restaurants and nightclubs are full, and they are making the best of things. The store shelves are stocked. The war, as horrific as it is, is taking place a thousand miles to the south, and no one in the capital is on a war footing, though the television now speaks almost exclusively of battles, explosives, "bandits" and so on. Russians have seen it all before -- in this century, they have suffered World War I, revolution and civil war, an artificial famine that killed 7 million, political purges that killed perhaps 10 million, World War II (which took 27 million lives), war in Afghanistan, the collapse of their empire and the impoverishment of the country. Perusal of previous centuries reveals similar cataclysms and death tolls. Understandably, it takes an awful lot to rally Russians around a cause.

All of these misfortunes have been the deeds of men, yet they have overtaken Russians like natural disasters. There might be talk in the West of influencing Russia, of offering aid, of correct policies and erroneous ones, but certain things are clear: Russia is too big to be controlled from without, its power for destruction too great to be managed with alliances and air campaigns, its economy too off-the-books and unregistered to be fully understood, much less predicted, and its politics too secretive to be second-guessed with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Many in the West make a living by "analyzing" Russia, but it is instructive to remember that not one historian or Sovietologist predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those foreigners who live here learn a lesson of modesty, learn to appreciate all that cannot be known in Russia and that should not be supposed.

So now in Moscow, amid the swirling rumors and the talk of doom, aware of the historical precedents for mayhem and the current tragedy in the Caucasus, we ready ourselves for the future as if for a hurricane: We make the best of it. The aim is to weather the storm if it comes, to somehow keep ourselves and our loved ones safe -- and that is the best I can hope to do. In Russia, one learns to keep in mind a truth often ignored elsewhere -- we are all, regardless of our country of birth, treading on the edge, one step from the abyss.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His seventh book, "Topless Jihadis -- Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group," is out now as an Atlantic ebook. Follow @JeffreyTayler1 on Twitter.

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