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KAMCHATKA: THE STRUGGLE TO SURVIVE
Kamchatka is at the farthest reach of Russia. The flight from Moscow takes more than ten hours. The planes on the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky route are basic and predispose you to muse on the immensity of our complicated motherland and on the fact that only a tiny proportion of our people live in Moscow, playing their political games, setting up their idols and knocking them down, and believing that they control this enormous country.
Kamchatka is a good place to recognize how remote the Russian provinces are from the capital. In fact, distance has nothing to do with it. The provinces live differently, they breathe a different air, and they are where the real Russia is to be found.
There are as many sailors living in Kamchatka as there are fishermen, indeed even more. Despite the massive cutbacks in the armed forces, the power base here remains the same: whoever the Kamchatka Flotilla of the Pacific Fleet votes for wins the elections.
As you might expect in a coastal town, there is a predominance of black and navy blue everywhere: reefer jackets, sailors’ vests, peakless caps. The only thing missing is the fleet’s legendary chic. The jackets you see are worn, the vests much laundered, the caps faded.
Alexey Dikiy is the commander of a nuclear ballistic missile submarine, the Vilioutchinsk . He is the elite of our fleet, and so is his vessel, part of the armament of the Kamchatka Flotilla.
Dikiy received an outstanding education in Leningrad—today’s Saint Petersburg—and then made brilliant progress up the career ladder as a highly talented officer. By the time he was thirty-four, he was a uniquely qualified submariner. In terms of the international military labor market, every month of service raised his value by thousands of dollars. Today, however, Alexey Dikiy, captain first class, is eking out a wretched existence; there is no other way of putting it. His home is a dreadful officers’ hostel with peeling stairwells, derelict and eerie. Everybody who could has left this place for the mainland, throwing military careers to the winds. The windows of many now-uninhabited flats are dark. This is cold, hungry, inhospitable terrain. People have fled mainly from the poverty. Captain Dikiy tells me that in good weather he and other senior naval officers go fishing in order to put a decent meal on the table.
On the table in his kitchen he has placed what our motherland pays in return for irreproachably loyal service. Dikiy has just brought a captain’s monthly rations home from his submarine in one of the fleet’s bedsheets. The rations consist of two packets of shelled peas, two kilograms of buckwheat and rice in paper bags, two cans of the cheapest peas, two cans of Pacific herring, and a bottle of vegetable oil.
“Is that all?”
“Yes. That’s it.” Dikiy is not complaining, just confirming a fact. He is a strong, genuine man. More precisely, he is very Russian. He is used to privation. His loyalty is to the motherland rather than to whoever happens to be her leader at a given time. If he allowed himself to think any other way, he would have been out of here long ago. The captain acknowledges that anything can happen, including famine, which is precisely what his rations evoke.
These cans and paper bags contain the month’s supplies for the three members of Captain Dikiy’s family. He has a wife, Larisa, who qualified as a radiochemist. She has a degree from the prestigious Moscow Institute of Engineering and Physics, whose graduates are headhunted straight from their benches in the lecture room by the computer firms of Silicon Valley in California.
Larisa, living with her husband in a closed military township of the Pacific Fleet, is unemployed, however. This is a detail of no interest to naval headquarters or to the faraway Ministry of Defense. The recruitment policies of staff headquarters mean they stubbornly refuse to see the gold lying at their feet. Larisa cannot even get a teaching job in the school for submariners’ children. All the posts are filled, and there is a waiting list. Unemployment among the nonmilitary personnel here runs to 90 percent.
The third member of Captain Dikiy’s family is his daughter, Alisa, in second grade. Her situation is also unenviable. There is nothing in this military township to bring out the abilities of Alisa or the other children. No sports center, no dance floors, no computers. All the garrison’s children can lay claim to is a dismal, dirty courtyard and a building with a video recorder and a selection of cartoons.
Truly, Kamchatka is at the outer reach of our land and at the extremity of state heartlessness. On the one hand, we find here cutting-edge technology for the taking of human life, and on the other, a troglodytic existence for those who supervise the fancy equipment. Everything relies entirely on personal enthusiasm and patriotism. There is no money, no glory, and no future.
The place where Dikiy lives is called Rybachie. It is an hour’s drive from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the capital of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Rybachie is perhaps the world’s most famous closed military township, with a population of twenty thousand. It is the symbol and the vanguard of the Russian nuclear fleet. The township, packed with the most modern weaponry, is where Russia’s east-facing nuclear shield is situated, and where those who keep it in working order live.
Because Captain Dikiy’s submarine is one of the most important constituents of this nuclear shield, it follows that Dikiy himself is a vital component. His submarine is a technologically perfect piece of weaponry whose equal is to be found nowhere else on the planet. It can destroy entire surface flotillas and the best submarines of the world’s military powers, including the United States. Under Dikiy’s command is a unique weapon armed with nuclear missiles and an impressive array of torpedoes. While we have such a defense capability, Russia is not seriously vulnerable, at least not from the direction of the Pacific Ocean.
Captain Dikiy himself, however, is highly vulnerable, and primarily from the direction of the state he serves. But he rarely thinks along those lines. Like many other officers, he is skilled at surviving without money. His salary is low and paid irregularly; it is often as much as six months late.
When there is no money, Dikiy declines to eat on board his submarine (though officers are entitled to meals there). He takes home his entitlement in the form of a packed meal and shares it with his family. He has no other way of feeding them. As a result, Dikiy is a pale shadow of a man. He is unconscionably thin. His face has an unhealthy pallor, and it is clear why: the captain of the main constituent of Russia’s nuclear shield is undernourished.
Of course, constantly being in a radiation zone also takes its toll. In the past, the job had its compensations, because submariners were highly eligible as bachelors, but circumstances have changed. Nowadays, young women look away when naval officers walk by.
“Actually, the poverty is not the real problem,” Dikiy says. He is an ascetic, a penniless romantic, an officer to the marrow of his bones, almost a saint of our times, when values are assessed in the cynical language of the dollar. “You can live with poverty as long as you have a clear goal and understandable operational tasks. Our real misfortune is the perilous state of the country’s nuclear fleet, the sense of hopelessness. They don’t seem to understand in Moscow that these armaments have to be taken seriously. In ten years’ time, if the present level of financing is maintained, there will either be nothing here in Rybachie, or NATO will be refueling at our piers.”
To escape from the hopelessness of what is occurring in front of his eyes, Dikiy has decided to continue his studies at the General Headquarters Academy. He wants to write a dissertation about the state of Russia’s national security at the end of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first centuries. He hopes, when he has concluded his research, to give an academically grounded answer to the question that troubles him: In whose interests was it to undermine Russia’s national security?
Although his interim conclusions are not favorable to Moscow, the captain is not antagonistic or offended at what has been going on. He thinks it is appalling that Moscow behaves as it does, but there is nothing to be done about it. Except to tough it out, because we are stronger and more intelligent than our superiors.
In Dikiy’s job, his life is not his own. He cannot live the way most people do. To be on five-minute standby for his submarine, he must always be on call. He can’t just go into the countryside berrying, picking mushrooms, or walking with friends. He has to live at the post he has accepted and cannot pass his duties over to anyone else. He has to be with his officers to make sure they do not become demoralized. He must find time to look in at the barracks to keep a fatherly eye on what the naval enlistees are getting up to. He is a busy man.
Many military officers, although living like a beggar much as Captain Dikiy does, can at least earn a bit on the side after a day’s work, to feed their families and to buy clothes and even their uniforms (a majority of officers have to do this). Captain Dikiy has neither the time nor the opportunity to take a second job. In the few hours that remain after work, he is required to relax, to catch up on sleep, to restore his equanimity. When he boards his submarine, he must be at ease. It is a requirement of the job. The consequences of nervous debility could be catastrophic.
“I have to be as calm and balanced at work,” Dikiy explains, “as if I had just come back from vacation, as if everything was sorted and I didn’t have to worry about how I am going to feed my wife and daughter tomorrow.”
“You say you have to. It seems to me that this is viewing the situation the wrong way around. You are serving the state, and so surely it is up to the state to create the right conditions for you to come to work in a calm frame of mind.”
Dikiy smiles a rather patronizing smile, and I am not sure who this strange, tough, special man is feeling more condescension toward: me for asking such questions, or the state for spurning those who serve it best. It turns out that it is toward me.
“The state is not able to do that at present,” the captain says finally. “It isn’t, and there’s an end to the matter. What point is there in demanding something that isn’t there? I am a realist and not quick to anger. All the sentimentalists and the bad-tempered people left here long ago. They resigned from the navy.”
“I still do not understand, though, why you have not resigned. You are a nuclear specialist with an engineering qualification. I am sure you could find a decent job.”
“I can’t resign because I cannot abandon my ship. I am a commander, not one of the enlistees. There is no one to replace me. If I left, I would feel a traitor.”
“A traitor to whom? The state, surely, has betrayed you?”
“In time, the state will come to its senses. For now, we just have to be patient and preserve our nuclear fleet. That is what I am doing. Even if the Ministry of Defense pursues a policy of betrayal, my duty is to Russia. I am defending the people of Russia, not the state bureaucracy.”
There you have the portrait of a Russian submarine officer in our times. He is stuck out there at the farthest reaches of our land and, true to his military oath, he daily covers the embrasure with his own body because there is nothing else to cover it with.
To fulfill his obligations in the midst of the profound financial malaise that has befallen the armed forces, the commander must have complete dedication. He leaves home at precisely 7:20 in the morning and returns at 10:40 at night every day. He is on board his submarine for ten hours or more. The navy is collapsing before our eyes, and with technology that is not being properly maintained, incidents, including a major disaster, are possible at any moment. The only thing that hasn’t changed at all is the raising of the flag. This ritual is observed every day at 8 A.M., come hurricane, blizzard, accident, or change of government.
Incidentally, Dikiy walks from his home to where the Vilioutchinsk is moored. It takes him precisely forty minutes. He walks not because the exercise is good for him but because, of course, he doesn’t have the money for a car and because no other transportation is provided by the navy. The Second Flotilla, to which the Vilioutchinsk belongs, is in the throes of a fuel crisis, as indeed is the rest of Kamchatka. No cars or buses run to the jetties. The navy does not have enough gasoline in a country selling oil to all and sundry! But that is the least of it. What if the fleet runs out of bread? The garrison is constantly in debt to the local bread factory, which goes on supplying the ships on credit.
Can you believe it? The service personnel who maintain the nuclear shield of an international power are being fed on charity. I wonder how the president feels when he attends the G8 summit meetings.
Well, okay. All the officers in Rybachie walk to work in the mornings. On the road the officers’ corps is usually buzzing like an angry beehive. Its members are discussing the questions on all their minds: How long can they put up with this situation? What kind of an abyss are we rushing toward?
Their heated political debates are fueled by the view in front of the officers. As you walk toward Pier No. 5, for example, where the Vilioutchinsk is moored, you can contemplate Khlebalkin Island, where there is a derelict ship-repair yard. Two or three years ago, fifteen or so submarines would be in the Khlebalkin yard for servicing. Today the surface of the water is calm and mirrorlike, and not a single vessel is to be seen. The officers were informed that even the servicing of submarines was now subject to a rigorous economy.
“It’s an appalling sight,” Dikiy says. “We know exactly what it signifies. Our technology must be properly maintained. You can’t just go on expecting miracles. Submarines are not like spry old men who never need to see a doctor. Accidents are inevitable.”
The disintegration has demoralized some of the Rybachie officers. It has turned others to debauchery. They have seen it all in the garrison of late: bizarre behavior and suicides.
“The present situation makes the officers bitter,” Dikiy tells me. “That is why I am so insistent that everybody should be there for the raising of the flag on the dot of eight. The men should see the eyes of their commander, and read in them that everything is in order, everything is being held steady, we are continuing to fulfill our duty no matter what. In spite of everything.”
“Officers’ bullshit! Fine words for soft heads!” Many reading these lines may dismiss Dikiy’s sentiments in that way. To some extent, they will be right. These really are lofty sentiments, but the situation of the officers who have not yet resigned from the disintegrating Pacific Fleet is that they perform their demanding duties solely because those fine words are their anchor. They are men with ideals and principles. That’s why they are in the navy. They volunteered for the submarines because of the prestige and in the expectation of dazzling careers with high salaries. They have known different times and expect them to continue.
Because real life does not have the consistency of a film or a novel, the sublime coexists happily in Rybachie with the ridiculous and the routine.
“It’s impossible to live the way your husband does. Sometimes at least a man needs time to himself.”
Larisa Dikiy is a chortling beauty born in Zhitomir, in Ukraine, a woman who has sacrificed her own life to live on the verge of starvation so that her husband can fulfill his duty. She laughs mischievously in reply: “Well, actually I rather like things the way they are. At least I always know where my husband is. He has nowhere to hide from me, so I’m saved all those pangs of jealousy.”
Dikiy is standing beside us. He smiles an awkward smile, like a schoolboy who has just received a declaration of love from the prettiest girl in his class. I discover that the captain is a shy man. He blushes. I could almost weep. I see clearly that the enormous burden of responsibility the commander of a nuclear submarine bears is incompatible not just with his standard of living and way of life but also with his age and appearance.
At home, without his uniform, Alexey Dikiy, captain first class, looks just like the boy at the top of the class, thin and melancholy. By Moscow criteria, where young people still mature rather late, that is precisely the situation. Dikiy, remember, is only thirty-four.
“But you have already clocked up thirty-two years of service in the navy. It’s time you retired!” says Larisa.
“Actually, I could,” the captain says, again embarrassed.
“What do you mean? You joined the fleet when you were two? Like the son of a noble family who was registered in a regiment when he was born and by the time he came of age already had a good service record and epaulettes?” I press him for an answer.
The captain smiles. I can see he is looking forward to what he is going to tell me. His father was indeed a naval officer, but is now, of course, retired. Dikiy grew up in Sevastopol, at the Black Sea naval base. “As regards my thirty-two-year service record at thirty-four years of age—” he begins, but is promptly interrupted by his vivacious wife.
“It means that he has spent his entire service life in the most difficult sector of all, the submarine fleet, in the immediate vicinity of reactors and nuclear weapons. One year’s service there is counted as three.”
“You don’t feel that on those grounds alone, the state should long ago have showered you with gold?” I persist. “Are you not insulted that you have to share your dinner among three people as if you were a student?”
“No. I am not insulted,” he replies calmly and confidently. “It would be senseless for us submariners to come out on strike. In our closed city everybody lives the same way I do. We survive because we help each other to survive. We are constantly borrowing and rebor-rowing food and money from each other.”
“If somebody’s relatives send them a food parcel, that family will immediately organize a feast,” Larisa tells me. “We have a visiting circle. We get fattened up. That’s how we live.”
“Do your parents send you parcels from Ukraine?”
“Yes, of course. And then we feed all our equally hungry friends.” She laughs loudly.
As one of our writers put it, you could make nails out of these people.
It is a curious fact that the years are passing—a great deal of time already separates us from the fall of the Communist Party—yet certain habits from the past remain untouched. Foremost among them is a pathological lack of respect for people, especially those who, in spite of everything, work devotedly and selflessly, who love the cause they are serving. The government has never learned how to thank the people who are dedicated to serving our country. You are working hard? Well, great, carry on until you drop dead or we break your heart. The authorities become more brazen by the day, crushing the will of the best of our citizens.
With the single-mindedness of a maniac, they stake their money on the worst. There is no doubt that Communism was a dead loss for Russia, but what we have today is even worse.
I continue my discussion of lofty matters with Captain Dikiy at the central control point of the Vilioutchinsk . Rybachie is closed to outsiders and the inquisitive, and even officers’ wives are not allowed access to the classified piers. For me, however, Military Intelligence has unexpectedly made an exception.
The predatory, combative ethos of the Vilioutchinsk is evident already from the shore. On the bow, on a black background, is a daunting piece of artwork: a grinning killer whale’s head. The naval artist, in his desire to make the monster as intimidating as possible, has given it many more teeth than are likely to be encountered in nature. The whale’s depiction there is not random. From the day it was built, the submarine was called Kasatka , “Killer Whale,” and it was renamed only recently—for what reason is a puzzle to the officers, but they have no problem with the new name.
My introductory tour provides me with a crucial insight, which is probably why I was allowed on the submarine in the first place. I wander past the mouth of a terrifying volcano—God forbid it should ever be stoked up the wrong way. An atomic reactor with nuclear missiles is an explosive mixture. The submarine is packed with nuclear weapons, the economy is in crisis, and the armed forces are in a state of disarray. What could be more scary than that?
As we continue the tour, Dikiy hammers his views home, and on ideological matters he is quite pedantic. There can be no compromises in the armed forces, no matter what changes are taking place in society. He rejects the notion of a right to disobey a “criminal order,” an idea that has been circulating stubbornly through army units since 1991. His view is that allowing a subordinate not to carry out even a single instruction or order because he considers it foolish or inappropriate will cause the whole system to collapse in a domino effect. The army is a pyramidal structure, and you cannot take that risk.
I see that both Captain Dikiy and the others who join in our conversation, all of them officers whose uniforms are decorated with ribbons for heroic submarine campaigns lasting many months, distinguish between two concepts. There is the motherland, which they serve, and there is Moscow, with which they are in a state of conflict. There are, they say, two separate states: Russia and her capital city.
The officers are frank. Viewed from Kamchatka, nothing of what goes on in the bureaucracy of the armed forces makes any sense. Why does the Ministry of Defense obstinately refuse to pay for the maintenance of the nuclear submarine fleet, when the military knows full well that not only is it impossible but indeed forbidden for officers to undertake such work locally, using their own resources? Why does the ministry mercilessly write off ten- to fourteen-year-old vessels that still have many years of life? Why, in fact, is the military systematically turning its nuclear shield, created by the efforts of the entire nation, into a leaky old sieve—and at a time when a real threat exists, primarily in the form of Chinese nuclear submarines lurking adjacent to Russia’s territory?
Also present on my exploration of the Vilioutchinsk is the most important person in the region, Valerii Dorogin, vice admiral of Kamchatka and commander of the Northeast Group of Troops and Forces. In the near future, Dorogin is to end his military career to become a deputy of the state duma. The officers speak frankly in his presence, in no way inhibited by his seniority. One feels none of the hierarchical pressure or barriers of rank that are usual in a military setting.
In large measure, this is because Dorogin is flesh of the flesh of Rybachie. There is nothing the officers and their commander are going to conceal from one another. Dorogin has served here, in this closed naval township, for almost twenty years. For a long time he was, like Dikiy, commander of a nuclear submarine. Now his elder son, Denis Dorogin, is serving in Rybachie. Just like everyone else, the commander walks to the pier in the morning. Like everyone else, he observes the disintegration of the military. Like everyone else he is here without any means of subsistence, waiting for friends to “fatten him up.”
The Northeast Group, the agglomeration to which Kamchatka belongs, along with Chukotka and Magadan Provinces, has been set up again as a result of the severe cutbacks. A similar grouping existed before the 1917 revolution and under the Bolsheviks in the 1930s.
In any grouping, one category of troops inevitably dominates. In Kamchatka, home of part of the nuclear shield, it is predictably the submariners, and, accordingly, a vice admiral is in command; he has under him infantry and coastal troops, aviation and antiaircraft forces. At first there was a certain amount of contention and dissent, but then everything settled down, due, to a large extent, to Dorogin’s influence. He is a legend on Kamchatka.
The vice admiral has spent thirty-three years in the navy; his total service record comes to another fifteen years because of his time in submarines. Dorogin’s legend is based not on his military past but on the present, however. He lives in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. Until recently his monthly salary as the officer responsible for an enormous territory and second in rank only to the governors of three major Russian provinces was 3,600 rubles, or just over $100.
In reality, because of his pension, which he paid up long ago, he receives just under 5,000 rubles a month. By way of comparison, a city bus driver in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky earns 6,000 rubles a month.
Dorogin lives in a military apartment on Morskaya Street, in exactly the same conditions as the other officers. There is no hot water, and it is cold, drafty, and uncomfortable.
“Why don’t you just buy a basic boiler?”
“We don’t have the money. If we get some, we’ll buy one.”
The thing Dorogin values most is his reputation. His life is ascetic. The apartment is not bare, but there is no way it befits an admiral. His most precious possessions, concentrated in his study, are nautical knickknacks from decommissioned ships that once served in the Russian Far East. His great love is naval history.
“What about your house in the country? You must have a dacha. Every admiral in Russia has one.”
“I do, certainly,” Dorogin replies. “And what a dacha. Oh, dear! We’ll go and take a look at it tomorrow. Otherwise you won’t believe it.”
Tomorrow arrives, and I see a patch of land planted with potatoes and cucumbers on the outskirts of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. These vegetables will feed the vice admiral’s family over the winter. A decommissioned iron railway carriage stands on bricks in the midst of the vegetable garden: a place to work. Compared with Moscow expectations about the living standards of a military commander, it is a disgrace.
Kamchatka, as we have seen, is not Moscow. People here are more straightforward and generous. Some fishermen present me with a sack of red fish they have just caught, silversides. I give the fish to Galina, the vice admiral’s wife, feeling a bit awkward because I am sure the wife of the commander in chief of Kamchatka must have tons of such fish brought to her door, but I simply have no way of cooking them myself.
To my great surprise, Galina thanks me effusively and bursts into tears. In her poverty she sees these fish as good fortune. She cooks dinner and is able to invite guests, even to pickle fish for the future. To crown it all, some of the fish, by luck, have gold inside them: red caviar.
Galina Dorogina tells me that although the wives of the senior officers have lived all their married lives on the peninsula, they have seen little of exotic Kamchatka. “Our lives have passed in training courses and campaigns, brief reunions and long partings,” she says.
For all that, Galina has no regret, not even for what have, in effect, been wasted years. “The truth of the matter is that nothing has changed much for the officers’ wives. If twenty years ago we were cold and hungry and I had to stand in line all day for a dozen eggs and they wrote my number in line on my hand, the only difference now is that we have absolutely no money. There are eggs in the shops, but the officers have no money to buy them with.”
Vice Admiral Dorogin’s thinking is an ideological mishmash, an amalgam of Communist and capitalist notions. This probably is to be expected from a man who spent almost all his life under the Soviet regime, was a member of the Young Communist League and the Communist Party, and now has to live with the realities of the free market. From my point of view, his ideas are outmoded; they are the stale ideology that lost its validity with the demise of the Soviet Union. At the same time, the vice admiral fully understands democratic aspirations and why they are needed.
Toward which of these ideological poles is his heart really drawn, and in which of these dimensions does he feel at home? It is not easy to tell, but I decide to try.
Dorogin is answerable for everything in Kamchatka, from the submarines to the state of the military museum. Here is just one episode from his life.
Among the units of the Northeast Group is the Twenty-second Chapaev Motorized Division. It bears that name because it is the same division as was formed in the Volga region in 1918 by Vasily Chapaev, a legendary hero of the civil war. It was here that his girlfriend, Bolshevik Anka, who figures in hundreds of questionable Soviet jokes, was a fighter.
After the Second World War, the Chapaev Division was redeployed to the Far East, and today it is famous in Kamchatka for the fact that its first company retains a soldier’s bed for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, leader of the world proletariat. In 1922, Lenin was made an honorary Red Army soldier in the division and the bed was accordingly allocated. Since 1922, wherever the division has been sent, it has been a tradition to transport Lenin’s bed along with the other equipment. Even today the bed enjoys a prominent position in the barracks. It is neatly made up, and the walls around constitute a Lenin Corner, with drawings on the topic “Volodya was a good student!” All these items are registered in a logbook kept in a secret location in the division.
In the view of the head of the First Lenin Memorial, Captain Igor Shapoval, twenty-six, the spirit of Lenin keeps his soldiers up to scratch.
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. They see this neatly made bed and try to emulate it.”
I find this idea laughable, but then I find that Vice Admiral Dorogin believes no less than Captain Shapoval in the lofty ideological role of Lenin’s bed.
“New recruits find it a bit odd at first, but they come to respect it,” Dorogin says. “When democracy triumphed in Moscow, there were attempts to get rid of Lenin’s bed in Kamchatka, but we managed to save it. It’s hardly in the same category as your monument to Dzerzhinsky at the Lubyanka.”
Dorogin does not believe in change for its own sake. History is what it is, and you didn’t need to be all that clever to demolish a monument to the founder of the Bolsheviks’ secret police. He also considers that since the Lenin Corner was established in the Chapaev Division by a special resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars, at the very least it would require a directive from the government of Russia, signed by the prime minister, for the bed to be dispatched to the scrap heap.
We talk about which example soldiers in Kamchatka should now be invited to follow. The present commander of the division, Lieutenant Colonel Valerii Oleynikov, says unambiguously, “The example of those who fought in Chechnya and Afghanistan.”
The previous head of the First Lenin Memorial had indeed fought in Chechnya. Lieutenant Yury Buchnev received the award of Hero of Russia for fighting in Grozny. We continue this conversation, and I suggest that encouraging soldiers to emulate the military’s experience in Chechnya can hardly be a good idea. Dorogin keeps out of the discussion, which, as a senior officer, he should. He is serving his country, and as a matter of principle his political views should be of no concern to anyone. But about the future he is willing to speculate. Ideology is one thing; the army cutbacks are quite another. The officers feel they are sitting on a powder keg.
“We are half expecting that at any moment the state will give a raw deal to those who have served it loyally,” comments Alexander Shevchenko, the division’s chief of staff. The other officers, including Dorogin, agree. None of those likely to be retired have civilian qualifications commensurate with their rank and status in the service, and of course they will have nowhere to live. If they have to leave the armed forces, they will lose their homes, because, at present, all of them are living in military flats. Igor Shapoval, an engineer who maintains military vehicles, is skilled in the cold working of metals, so when he ceases to be an officer, he can look forward to a career repairing tractors, or serving the civilian population in a key-cutting kiosk. Shevchenko already has experience of civilian employment. For two of the three years he studied in Moscow at the Artillery Academy, he earned money on the side as a watchman in a florist’s basement, covering the twenty-four hours jointly with three other student officers.
The view in Kamchatka is that the Ministry of Defense does not agree that, in principle, an officer should dedicate himself to his military duties and not fritter away his time by working on the side.
“With things the way they are, it is only too easy to draw a man into illegal activity,” says the vice admiral. “I myself have been offered $2,000 in an envelope. This was by someone who was directed to me by a friend. He offered the bribe in a very respectable way: ‘You need money for medical treatment for your wife.’ At that moment he was absolutely right. The condition was that I should approve a contract for the sale of scrap brass on terms unfavorable to the army, not at $700 a ton but at $450. Actually, my signature was the last in a series of signatures of senior military figures. I could simply have thrown the man with the envelope out, but I called in the prosecutor. I thought it might be an example to others.”
Of course, Dorogin is in many ways a saintly man. Like many other officers, he is serving his country not for money but from a sense of duty. Only here, at the farthest reach of our land, are such spiritually healthy people to be found.
How long the patience of Dikiy, Dorogin, and others like them will hold out nobody knows, not even they themselves. Today’s navy is dependent on the older and middle generations of naval officers. There are almost no young ones. They don’t come out here. The few who do are not willing to resign themselves to the idea that they should devote all their strength to the navy and receive nothing in return. What kind of officers will the navy have left in a few more years?
“Patriotism?” A young captain second class from Rybachie smiles wryly. He is an officer on the submarine Omsk . “Patriotism is something you have to pay for. It is time to put an end to this nonsense, this playing at being paupers. We need to get back on our feet, not limp through life like Dikiy. He is a commander, yet he always has cheap sneakers on his feet and drinks cheap brandy. The way the fleet is being treated is out of order, and the only way to respond is by making up your own rules.”
“What do you mean by that?”
By “making up your own rules” the young officer means making a living by fair means or foul. He says that all the officers of his age are quietly trading whatever they can get their hands on under the counter.
“I get fish and caviar brought to my home now,” he says proudly. “Two years ago I was bartering spirits I’d stolen from the ship, and people had no respect for me then.”
“For the young officers a good standard of living is beginning to be the main reason for being in the navy,” mourns Vice Admiral Dorogin. In his opinion, any thought of responding to state neglect by “making up your own rules” is just as fatal for anybody in the service as questioning a commanding officer’s orders.
OLD LADIES AND NEW RUSSIANS
Two old ladies, Maria Savina, a former champion milkmaid, and Zinaida Fenoshina, a former champion cowherd, stand in the middle of the forest, angrily shaking upraised sticks in the direction of a bulldozer. The machine is roaring away at full throttle, and they are shouting as loudly as they can for all to hear: “Be off! Away with you! How much longer must we put up with this sort of thing?”
From behind ancient trees, surly security guards appear and surround them as if to say, “Leave now while you still can, or we shoot.”
Nikolai Abramov——a retired veteran, the village elder, and the organizer of the demonstration—spreads his arms. “They want to drive us off our own land. We shall defend it to the death. What else is left?”
The theater of operations is on the outskirts of the village of Pervomaiskoe, in the Narofominsk District of Moscow Province. The epicenter is the grounds of an old estate formerly owned by the Berg family. It dates from 1904 and is today protected by the state as a natural and cultural heritage site.
When they have calmed down a little, the old people shake their heads sadly. “There, in our old age, we’ve joined the Greens. What else can we do? There’s only us to defend our park from this scum. Nobody else is going to.”
The scum are New Russians who have hired soulless developers to erect thirty-four houses right in the middle of the century-old Berg Park. Maria and Zinaida are members of a special ecological group created by the village assembly of Pervomaiskoe to organize direct action against the despoilers of the environment.
Paying little attention to the Green activists, the trucks continue to drive and the bulldozer to roar among the precious ancient trees. After an hour’s work, they have cut a swath through the woodlands. It is to be the central avenue of the future cottage settlement. Pipes, reinforcement wire, and concrete slabs lie all over the place. The building work, in full swing, is being carried out as if to maximize damage to the natural environment. Already 130 cubic meters of timber have been taken as rare tree species were felled. Wherever you look, there are notches on cedars and firs, marking them for slaughter. The machinery brazenly wrecks the environment, churning up layers of clay from the depths and pitilessly burying, deep beneath it, the ecosystem of the forest floor that has formed over the years.
“Have you heard of the Weymouth pine?” Tatyana Dudenis asks. She is head of the ecological group and a research associate at one of the region’s medical institutes. “We had five specimens growing in the grounds of our heritage park. They were the only ones in the whole of Moscow Province. The Bergs made a hobby of propagating rare tree species. Three of these Weymouth pines have now been sawn down for no better reason than that the developers wanted to run a street for their new estate just where the trees were growing. Other precious species are under threat: the Siberian silver fir and larch, the white poplar, a white cedar, Thuja occidentalis, the only specimen in Moscow Province. In just the last three days we have lost more than sixty trees. It wouldn’t be so bad if they were destroying the less outstanding or sickly specimens, but they have quite a different approach. They decide where they want to construct a road and cut down anything that’s in the way. They decide where they want to put up a cottage and clear the site, taking no account of the rarity of the trees they are destroying. The forest here is legally classified as Grade One, which means it is against the law to touch these trees. To obtain permission to fell them, you have to demonstrate ‘exceptional circumstances’ and support your application with a recommendation from the State Ecological Inspectorate. For every such hectare—about two and a half acres—you need the express permission of the federal government.”
When the fate of Berg Park was being decided, no such applications were submitted. The Pervomaiskoe Greens lodged writs with the Narofominsk court to bring the nouveaux riches into line. They petitioned Judge Yelena Golubeva, who had been assigned the case, for an injunction to halt the building work until the hearing, since otherwise, after the trees had been felled, a verdict in their favor would be of little use.
However, as we have seen, this is the age of the oligarchs in Russia. Every branch of government clearly understands the language of rustling banknotes. Judge Golubeva did not even consider granting an injunction to halt the construction and, when the work was already in progress, deliberately failed to conduct a hearing.
Nearly all those unique trees were felled.
Valerii Kulakovsky emerges from the posse of guards. He is the deputy director of the Promzhilstroy Company, which calls itself a cooperative of home builders. Kulakovsky advises me to stay out of this dispute. He says that some highly influential people in Moscow have an interest in the estate; they are going to live here. The information is soon confirmed. I discover that the “cooperative” has managed to acquire property rights over the Berg hectares, which, according to the law, are the property of the nation. The takeover is illegal.
Kulakovsky just shrugs and tries to explain his position. “We are very tired of these endless demonstrations by the villagers. What do you expect me to do now, when I have put so much money into this, bought the land, started building? Who do you think is going to give it all back to me?”
He also says that the developers have no plans to back down.
They did not back down. Berg Park ceased to exist. The felling of our most precious forests in the interests of the oligarchs and their companies goes on throughout the land.
Not long before the Green old ladies of Pervomaiskoe mounted the desperate defense of their ancient park, the Supreme Court of Russia considered the same matter of principle as it applied to Russia as a whole. The case was known as the Forest Issue.
“Bear in mind the interests of the property owners. They have acquired the land, built the houses, and now you want to turn everything back.” The lawyer in the Supreme Court case repeated, almost word for word, what Kulakovsky had said.
The ecologist lawyers Olga Alexeeva and Vera Mishchenko, who were defending the interests of society against the caprices of the New Russians, had a different take on the matter: “Every citizen of this country has the right to life and enjoyment of the national heritage. If we are truly citizens of Russia, then it is our duty to ensure that future generations receive no less a national heritage than today’s generations enjoy. In any case, how can we take seriously property rights that have been acquired illegally?”
The essence of the Forest Issue was that Russian ecologists, under the leadership of the Moscow Institute of Ecological Legal Issues, or Eco-Juris, which brought the case, demanded the repeal of twenty-two orders of the Cabinet of Ministers transferring Grade One forests to the category of nonafforested land. These orders permitted the felling of more than 34,000 hectares of prime forest in Russia.
Russia’s forests are divided into three categories. Grade One relates to those deemed particularly important either for society or for the natural environment. These are forests containing highly valued species, habitats of rare birds and animals, reservations and parks, and urban and suburban green belts. The Forestry Code of the Russian Federation, accordingly, recognizes Grade One forests as part of the national heritage. Berg Park was in this category.
The formal applicant for the change in categories and subsequent right to fell trees was, oddly enough, the Forestry Commission of the Russian Federation, or Rosleskhoz. It is the body that has the right to submit documents relating to the legal status of forests for signature by the prime minister. The twenty-two orders disputed by the ecologists had been made without the statutory state ecological inspection, with the result that the national heritage became the prey of short-term interests. Where forests were cut down, they were replaced by gas stations, garages, industrial parks, local wholesale markets, domestic waste dumps, and, of course, housing developments.
The ecologists consider this last option to be the least objectionable, but only providing that the new homeowners behave responsibly toward the magnificent forests surrounding their houses and do not destroy the roots in the course of laying drainage systems.
While the Forest Issue was being considered and the judges were taking their time, almost 950 hectares of top-quality forests were condemned to destruction under new orders signed by the prime minister. The greatest damage was done in the Khanty-Mansiisk and Yamalo-Nenetsk Autonomous Regions, where trees were destroyed for the benefit of oil and gas companies. Moscow Province also suffered: what happened to Berg Park was the result of deliberate judicial procrastination.
While the paperwork was being taken care of and nobody had the courage to dot the legal i’s or cross the legal t’s, the struggle for the forest in Pervomaiskoe became violent. When, at the request of the prosecutor’s office, the ecological group went to record the results of the developers’ activities with a videocamera, police reinforcements were brought in. A fight broke out, the camera was broken, and the ecologists, all of them elderly, were beaten up.
“Of course, we do not want to wage a war, but we have been left with no option,” Nikolai Abramov, the village elder, says by way of explanation. “The estate was the last place in the village where we could go to walk. There were usually old people and mothers with strollers there. There is a school for three hundred pupils and a kindergarten on the grounds. All the rest has been turned into cottages for the New Russians.”
The veteran ecologists are aware that they are at war primarily with the super-rich, people whose wealth vastly eclipses anything they themselves have ever seen. They have heard the money talk, however. At a village assembly, Alexander Zakharov, chairman of the Pervomaiskoe Rural District Council, openly declared that the sums of money involved were too great for there to be any possibility of reversing the situation. Here is what Igor Kulikov, chairman of the Ecological Union of Moscow Province, wrote to the provincial prosecutor, Mikhail Avdyukov: “The chairman of the council publicly stated to members of the ecological group elected by the assembly that he had given their names and addresses to the Mafia, which would deal with them if they did not stop their protests.”
Zakharov is undoubtedly one of the central characters in this unseemly tale. If he had stood firm, not one dacha would have encroached on the grounds of Berg Park. At the foot of the documents that ultimately permitted the felling of the Pervomaiskoe trees, in contravention of the law and against the resolution of the village assembly, is Zakharov’s signature.
The scenario is a familiar one. First, application is made to the upper echelons in Moscow for the “transfer of Grade One forests to the category of nonafforested land.” A short time later, an order is drafted for signature by the prime minister. The felling of the forest ensues when, implementing the prime minister’s order, the local forestry officials and the head of the district council give the go-ahead.
There is not much wrong with our laws in Russia. It is just that not many people want to obey them.
NORD-OST : THE LATEST TALE OF DESTRUCTION
M oscow, February 8, 2003. No. 1 Dubrovskaya Street, now known to the whole world as Dubrovka. In a packed theater whose image—just three months ago—was flashed to all the world’s newspapers, magazines, and television stations, there is an exuberant atmosphere. Black tie, evening dress, the whole of the political beau monde has assembled here. Sighs and gasps, kisses and hugs, members of the government, members of the Duma, leaders of the parliamentary factions and parties, a sumptuous buffet…
They are celebrating a victory over international terrorism in our capital city. The pro-Putin politicians assure us that the revival of the musical Nord -Ost on the ruins of terrorism is nothing less than that. Today will see the first performance since October 23, 2002, when the unguarded theater, its actors, and its audience were seized during the evening performance and held hostage for fifty-seven hours by several dozen terrorists from Chechnya, who hoped to force President Putin to end the second Chechen war and withdraw his troops from their republic.
They didn’t succeed. Nobody withdrew from anywhere. The war continues as before, with no time for doubts about the legitimacy of its methods. The only thing that changed was that in the early morning of October 26, a gas attack was mounted against all those in the building, some eight hundred people, both terrorists and hostages. The secret military gas was chosen by the president personally. The gas attack was followed by a storming of the building by special antiterrorist units in the course of which all the hostage takers was killed, along with almost two hundred hostages. Many people died for lack of medical attention, and the identity of the gas was not even revealed to the doctors charged with saving lives. Already on that evening, the president was announcing, without a qualm, that this was a triumph for Russia over “the forces of international terror.”
The victims of this murderous rescue operation were barely remembered at the gala performance on February 8. It was a typical fashionable Moscow get-together at which many seemed to forget what it was they were raising their glasses to. They sang, they danced, they ate, a lot of people got drunk, and everyone talked a lot of nonsense, which seemed all the more cynical because the event was taking place at the scene of a massacre, even if the theater had been refurbished in record time. The family members of those who had died in the Nord-Ost tragedy refused categorically to come to the celebration, considering it a sacrilege. The president was also unable to attend but sent a message of congratulation.
Why did he send congratulations? Because nobody could break us. His message was couched in typically Soviet rhetoric and proceeded from typically Stalinist values: it was a shame about the people who died, of course, but the interests of society must come first. The producers warmly thanked the president for his understanding of their commercial problems and said that audiences would be in for a treat if they came back. The musical had received a “new creative impetus.”
But now: the reverse side of the medal, the individuals at the cost of whose lives the president consolidated his membership in the international antiterrorist coalition. Let us look at those whose lives were crushed by the events at the Nord-Ost . Let us look at the victims about whom today’s state machine is trying to forget as quickly as possible, and to induce the rest of us to do the same by every means at its disposal. Let us look at the ethnic purging that followed the act of terrorism, and at the new state ideology Putin has enunciated: “We shall not count the cost. Let nobody doubt that. Even if the cost is very high.”
THE FIFTH ONE
Yaroslav Fadeev, a boy from Moscow, is now the first named in the official master list of those killed during the Nord -Ost assault. According to the official version of events, the four hostages who died from bullet wounds were shot by terrorists; the special unit of the FSB, Putin’s own service, does not make mistakes and hence did not shoot any of the hostages.
There is, however, no escaping the fact that a bullet passed through Yaroslav’s head, although his name is not on the list of the “four shot by the terrorists.” Yaroslav was the fifth to die from a bullet wound. In the “Cause of Death” column on the official form that was issued to his mother, Irina, for the funeral, there is a dash.
On November 18, 2002, Yaroslav, who was in the tenth grade of a Moscow school, would have been sixteen. There was to have been a big family celebration, but standing over the coffin of the now eternally fifteen-year-old boy, his grandfather, a Moscow doctor, remarked, “There now, we didn’t get to shave together even once.”
Four of them had gone to the musical: two sisters, Irina Fadeeva and Victoria Kruglikova, and their children, Yaroslav and Nastya. Vicetoria was the mother of nineteen-year-old Nastya. Irina, Victoria, and Nastya survived, but Yaroslav died in circumstances that have never been officially investigated.
After the assault and the gas attack, Irina, Victoria, and Nastya were carried out of the theater unconscious and taken to the hospital. Yaroslav completely disappeared. He was not on any of the interim lists. There was a total absence of precise official information. The telephone hotline announced by the authorities on radio and television was not functioning. Relatives of the hostages were rushing all over Moscow, and among them were friends of this family. They combed the city, dividing its mortuaries and hospitals into sectors to be checked.
Finally, in the Kholzunov Lane Mortuary they found Body No. 5714, which fitted Yaroslav’s description, but they could not confirm it was him. In his pocket they found a passport in the name of his mother, Irina Vladimirovna Fadeeva, but the page for “Children” contained this entry: “Male. Yaroslav Olegovich Fadeev, 18.11.1988.” The real Yaroslav, however, had been born in 1986.
As Irina explained later, “I put my passport into my son’s trouser pocket. He did not have any identification documents on him. Since he was very tall, looking to be about eighteen, I was so afraid that if the Chechens suddenly started releasing children and adolescents, Yaroslav might not be included because of his height. So, right there in the hall, I crouched under the seats and wrote Yaroslav’s data into my own passport, changing the year of his birth to make him seem younger.”
Sergey, Irina’s friend, came to see her in the hospital on October 27 and told her that Body No. 5714 had been found. He told her about the passport in the trousers and about the resemblance to Yaroslav. In spite of the frost, Irina ran out of the hospital, straight through a gap in the fence, just in what she was wearing.
The hostages who had survived and been taken to hospitals were still being held hostage there. By order of the intelligence services, they were forbidden to return home. They were not allowed to telephone or be visited by their families. Sergey had gotten into the hospital by bribing everyone he encountered: the nurses, the guards, the orderlies, the police. The total corruption of our system prizes open even the most firmly battened-down hatches.
Irina ran from the hospital straight to the mortuary. There she was shown a photograph on a computer monitor and identified Yaroslav. She asked to see his body, felt carefully all over it and discovered two bullet wounds in the head, an entry and an exit hole. Both had been filled up with wax. Sergey, who was with her, was surprised at how calm she seemed. She didn’t sob or become hysterical. She was logical and unemotional.
“I really was very glad that I had found him at last,” Irina tells me. “Lying in the hospital, I had already thought everything through and considered my options. I had decided how I would behave if my son was dead. In the mortuary when I saw that this really was Yaroslav and that my life was therefore at an end, I simply did what I had decided on earlier. I calmly asked everyone to leave the hall to which his body had been brought from the refrigerator. I said I wanted to be alone with my son. I had decided I would say that. You see, before he died, I had made him a promise. When we were stuck there, he said to me at the end of the last day, during the night, a few hours before the gas, ‘Mom, I probably won’t make it. I can’t take much more. Mom, if something happens, what will it be like?’ I told him, ‘Don’t be afraid of anything. We have always been together here, and we will always be together there.’ He said, ‘Mom, how will I know you there?’ I told him, ‘Your hand is always in mine, so we’ll find ourselves there together, holding hands. We won’t lose each other. Just don’t let go of my hand, hold on tight.’ But see how it turned out. I felt I had deceived him. We were never far from each other while he was alive. Never. That is why I was so calm: we were together in life, and over there, in death, we would still be together. Anyway, when I was alone with him in the mortuary, I told him, ‘There now, don’t worry. I have found you and I’m coming to be with you.’… I had never deceived him…. That is why I was so calm. I went through the side door in order not to see the friends who were waiting for me and asked the assistants to let me out through the service entrance. When I got outside, I flagged down a passing car, went to the nearest bridge over the Moscow River, and jumped off it. I did not drown, though. There were ice floes in the river, and I fell among them. I can’t swim, but I didn’t sink. I could see I wasn’t sinking and thought, ‘Well, I may at least get a cramp in my leg,’ but that didn’t happen either. As ill luck would have it, some people pulled me out. They asked, ‘Where are you from? What are you doing swimming?’ I told them, ‘I’ve just come from the mortuary, but please don’t report me.’ I gave them a telephone number to call, and Sergey came to collect me. Of course, I’m doing my best to cope, but I am dead. I don’t know how he is getting on there without me.”
When she had regained consciousness in the hospital on October 26, Irina found she was naked under the blanket. The other women hostages around her all had their clothes, but she had only a small icon clutched in her hand. When she could talk, she asked the nurses to give her back at least some of her clothing, but they explained that everything she had been wearing when she was brought in from the theater had been destroyed on orders from officers of the intelligence services, because it was soaked in blood.
But why? And whose blood was it? Irina had passed out in the theater clasping her son in her arms. The person whose blood it was must have been shot in a way that caused it to gush over her. It could only have been Yaroslav’s.
“That last night got off to a very tense start,” Irina recalls. “The terrorists were nervous, but then ‘Mozart,’ as we called him, Movsar Baraev, the ringleader, announced that we could take it easy until 11 A.M. A ray of hope had appeared. The Chechens began throwing juice out to us. They did not allow us to get out of our seats. If you needed anything, you had to put up your hand and then they would throw you some juice or water. When the government assault began and we saw the terrorists running up on to the stage, I said to my sister, ‘Cover Nastya with your jacket,’ and I put my arms tightly around Yaroslav. I didn’t realize they had released gas, I just saw the terrorists becoming agitated. Yaroslav was taller than I, so that really he was shielding me when I held him. Then I passed out. In the mortuary I saw that the entry wound was on the side away from me. I had been shielded by him…. He saved me, although my one wish in those fifty-seven hours as a hostage had been to keep him safe.”
But whose bullet was it? Was a ballistics test conducted? Was a blood sample taken from the clothing to establish whose it was?
Nobody in the family knows the answers to these questions. All information relating to the case is strictly classified, kept secret even from a mother. In the mortuary register, the cause of death was given as “bullet wound,” but the entry had been made in pencil. This document, too, was later classified: “They’ll have rubbed it out, of course,” the family says with certainty.
“At first I thought it had been done by one of the Chechen women,” Irina relates. “While we were stuck in there, she was nearby all the time. She saw that whenever there was any danger, any noise or shouting, I would grab my son and hold him tight. It was my own fault that I attracted her attention…. It seemed to me she was watching us all the time. At one point she said, staring at Yaroslav, ‘My son is back there’—in Chechnya, that is. Nothing bad happened to us after that, but I felt she was watching us all the time wherever she was. So perhaps she had shot Yaroslav. I still can’t sleep. I see her eyes in front of me, the narrow strip of her face.”
Irina’s friends later explained to her that the size of the entry wound on Yaroslav’s body indicated the bullet was not from a pistol, and the Chechen women had only pistols.
So the question remains: Whose bullet was it?
“It must have been our people,” Irina says. “Of course, we were sitting in a very unfortunate position, right by the doors. Anyone who came in was right there at row 11. When the terrorists burst into the auditorium, we were the first people they saw, so of course when our soldiers came in, we would have been directly in front of them, too.”
Irina can analyze what happened, and how, as much as she likes. What she thinks or imagines is of no concern to the authorities. The state’s line is that four people were shot, and no one else. Yaroslav, the fifth person, falls outside the official version of events. Indeed, Yaroslav is not even officially included among the victims in Criminal Case No. 229133, being investigated by a team from the Moscow city prosecutor’s office.
“It really hurts me that… the authorities are pretending there never was any such person,” Irina muses.
Worse, however, is that as soon as Irina shared her questions and conclusions with journalists, she was summoned to the prosecutor’s office. The investigator was angry. “What are you kicking up all this fuss about? Do you not understand it is impossible that he had a bullet wound?” He went on to do his best to scare the wits out of the unhappy mother, who was already in a perilous state: “Either you immediately write a statement to the effect that you told those journalists nothing and that they thought everything up themselves, whereupon we shall bring criminal charges against them for slandering the intelligence services, or we dig up your son’s grave without your consent and carry out a postmortem examination!”
Irina did not give in to this wretched attempt at blackmail. Instead, she took her leave after a four-hour grilling in the prosecutor’s office and went straight to the cemetery to guard her son’s grave. It was late November, which in Moscow is the depths of winter. Again she was saved from death by friends who looked all over the city when she did not return home that night.
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