Only a madman could envy the Chechens who live in Russia now. In years gone by, their situation was unenviable, but since the Nord-Ost siege, the machinery of racially based state retribution has been in overdrive. Racial attacks and purges supervised by the police have become commonplace. In a single moment people’s lives are ruined, they lose their home, their jobs, any sort of social support, and for just one reason: they are Chechens. Their lives in Moscow and many other cities are intolerable: drugs are slipped into their pockets, cartridges are pressed into their hands, and they are promptly sentenced to several years in prison. They have been quite openly made into pariahs and find themselves at a dead end, with no chance of escape. It is a way of life that leaves nobody unscathed, regardless of age.

“When they started speaking in Chechen and interrupted the second act, I realized that things were serious, and that they were going to get worse. I somehow saw that very clearly straight away.” Yakha Neserhaeva is a forty-three-year-old Muscovite, an economist by profession. She is a Chechen born in Grozny, but she moved to the capital long ago. On October 23 she went to see Nord-Ost . Her friend Galya, whom she has known for many years, is from the northern Russian town of Ukhta. She bought tickets for the thirteenth row of the stalls, and, although Yakha was not that keen on musicals, Galya begged her to come along.

“Did you tell them you were a Chechen?”

“No. I was frightened. I did not know whether it was better to tell them or not. They might have shot me for being a Chechen at a musical.”

Yakha did not see the gas, although many of the hostages noticed white clouds of something in the air. From where she was sitting, she just heard people shouting, “They’ve released gas!” and a few seconds later, she blacked out.

She came to in No. 13 Hospital, to which many victims were taken, including Irina Fadeeva, mother of Yaroslav, the boy who was shot. Feeling sick, Yakha didn’t have much idea of what was going on. Soon an investigator appeared.

“He asked my name, surname, where I live, where I was born, and what I was doing at Nord-Ost . Then two women came, took my fingerprints and took my clothing away for forensic examination. The investigator came back in the evening and said, ‘I have bad news for you.’ The first thing I thought was that the friend I had gone to the musical with had died, but he said, ‘You are being arrested as an accomplice of the terrorists.’ It was a shock, but I got up and walked after the investigator in hospital slippers and a dressing gown. I was first taken for two days to No. 20 Hospital [a special-purpose, secure hospital], where nobody asked me anything or gave me any treatment. In fact, I received no treatment at any time. At the end of the second day, the investigator came again. I was photographed, and they recorded a sample of my voice. A few minutes later, they brought me a coat and a pair of men’s half-boots, put me in handcuffs, and said, ‘You need treatment in a different hospital.’ They put me in a police car, took me to the prosecutor’s office for ten minutes or so, and then to the Mariino Prison [a women’s isolation holding facility in Moscow]. So there I was, with boots three sizes too big for me on my bare feet, in a dirty man’s overcoat, unwashed and unkempt for a week. They took me to a cell, and all the woman supervisor said was, ‘Well now, you plague virus…”’

“Did they question you frequently while you were in solitary confinement?”

“I wasn’t questioned at all. I just sat there and asked the wardress for a meeting with the investigator.”

Yakha speaks quietly, slowly, without emotion. She seems barely to be present. Her face is that of a dead person, her eyes dilated, her gaze fixed, her muscles immobile. The photograph in her passport seems to show someone else; the face is that of a proud and beautiful woman.

Yakha does sometimes attempt a smile, but it is as if in the two weeks she spent in prison her muscles forgot how to respond. She thought she was done for and that nothing could save her. The situation was as bad as it could be. The police officers who transferred her from No. 20 Hospital, the only people who had had anything to tell her about her future, had informed her that she would “answer for all of them,” since all the other terrorists had been exterminated and she was the only one left.

As normally happens in musicals, however, Yakha’s story had a happy ending.

Her friends rallied around and swiftly engaged a lawyer who managed by a miracle to break through the seemingly impenetrable wall surrounding Yakha Neserhaeva. After ten days she was released from prison. Surprisingly, in these racist times, the investigators of the prosecutor’s office who were working on the team investigating the Nord-Ost incident, finding nothing that remotely incriminated Yakha, simply did the decent thing. They did not set about trying to frame her, or tailor the charge to the individual, plant evidence, abuse or mock her. They made no attempt to take revenge on a Chechen woman purely because she was Chechen. Nowadays that is quite something.

They went even further. When they advised Yakha that she was free to go, they apologized and had her driven home. For that, she has senior investigator and lawyer first class V. Prikhozhikh to thank. She also has the officials of the Bogorodskoe Department of Internal Affairs to thank. They issued Yakha’s elder sister Malika, who had rushed from Grozny to Moscow to help Yakha get back on her feet, a special permit to remain in the capital because a relative was in need of constant care. They issued the permit in the knowledge that without it, any Chechen in Moscow today cannot go out of the front door without being arrested immediately.


AELITA SHIDAEVA, THIRTY-ONE, is a Chechen, too. Since the beginning of the present war, she has been living with her parents and daughter, Hadizhat, in Moscow. Aelita was arrested where she worked, in a café by the Mariino underground station. She tells me her story in a calm and restrained manner, without tears or hysteria, smiling politely. You might suppose she had experienced nothing out of the ordinary, if you didn’t know that when she was finally released from the Mariino Park police station after seven hours of relentless interrogation, she promptly collapsed.

“It was all pretty weird. First there was this one policeman having his dinner in our café. Nothing unusual, they often eat with us. The police station is one hundred meters from our front door. I’ve never hidden from them that I am a Chechen who fled Grozny to get away from the war. Anyway, this policeman finished his meal and went out, and suddenly the rest of them came rushing in. About fifteen of them, headed by our local policeman, Vasiliev. He knows me very well, too. They stood us all up against the wall, searched us, and took me in.”

“And what questions did they ask you?”

“‘What were my relations with the terrorists?’ I said to them, ‘You all saw me yourselves. I’ve been right in front of you for twelve hours every day, from eleven in the morning until eleven at night.”’

“What did they reply?”

“‘Which of the terrorists did you go to a restaurant with?’ I have never even been to a restaurant in Moscow. It isn’t something I do. They said if I did not confess to links with the terrorists, they would plant drugs or weapons on me. They took turns interrogating me. Some suspicious-looking men in uniform were passing by and staring at me. The investigator said that if I did not confess to links with the terrorists, he would give me to these guys and they would ‘eat me alive.’ He said they were just waiting to get at me because they could make anyone talk.”

At the police station Aelita was informed that she had been dismissed from her job. The prosecutor said that the café owner had been ordered to fire her if he didn’t want his business to be closed down. The authorities released Aelita only because her mother, Makka, a Russian-language teacher, was a born defender of civil rights. According to the police officers at the Mariino Park station, she “trumpeted the case all over Moscow.” Makka called the Echo of Moscow radio station, mobilized the lawyer Abdullah Hamzaev and many others, and, despite police insistence that Aelita was not at the station, eventually pressured the officers into releasing her.

Aelita is no longer in shock. She fully understands the situation and says she just wants to get out of Moscow.

“Back to Chechnya?”

“No, abroad.”

Makka opposes the idea. She is not against her daughter taking her granddaughter elsewhere: Hadizhat needs to go to school, in spite of what Movsar Baraev and his supporters did at the Dubrovka theater and in spite of the special interest the Moscow police take in young Chechen girls. Makka herself is reluctant to leave. She cannot imagine living anywhere else than Russia, but neither can she imagine what it is that Russia wants from Aelita, from herself, and from Hadizhat. One is an adult who spent the greater part of her life in the Soviet Union. Another is a young woman who has never lived a full life, who has known only the urgency of fleeing from one place to another, from one war to the next. The third is a young girl who is attentively watching and listening to the world around her and saying nothing, for the time being.

Hadizhat’s teacher has just phoned Aelita, painfully embarrassed, to say she must bring in a form confirming her status as a single mother. Who issues such forms? Her other documents are perfectly in order, but if she doesn’t produce this form, then she, the teacher, “just does not know what to do.” They want to expel Hadizhat. After October 26, 2002, there is no place in the fifth grade of No. 931 School, Moscow, for a Chechen girl brought here by her family to study.

“I can’t even work out,” Aelita says, “whether my being a single mother is counted in favor of Hadizhat or against her. Who can you trust?”[12]


ABUBAKAR BAKRIEV ONCE held a modest technical position in one of the big Moscow banks. Now, however, he is free of any such ties. It all happened very simply and undramatically. Abubakar was called in by the company’s deputy chairman for security, who said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but we are going to have problems because of you. Write a voluntary letter of resignation.”

At first, Abubakar could not believe his ears, but then the deputy chairman added that “they” wanted him to backdate the letter—for example, to October 16—so that the resignation would look quite proper and nobody could accuse the bank of sacking him as part of an anti-Chechen cull after the Nord-Ost incident.

So there we have it: the executioners put you to death (and for any Chechen to be sacked today is the end: there is no way he or she is going to find another job), but they do hope you’ll understand their predicament. It is a peculiarity of our times that a murderer approaches the victim and says straight out, “I am going to kill you, not because I am a bad person but because I am being compelled to do so. But I would ask you to make it look as if you haven’t been murdered.”

On that day, a Dagestani employee was “voluntarily fired” from the same bank, his “personal decision,” too, being backdated. He occupied a modest position but was also ethnically cleansed, to avoid any further unwelcome questions regarding people of Caucasian origin working at the bank.

“The bank has been cleansed,” Abubakar says. “The security services can sleep at night. I am fifty-four. I don’t know where to go. The police have to come to my home three times to see how I live with my three children. You are turning us into enemies. You need to understand that we have no alternative now but to demand independence, because we do need a land, somewhere we can live in peace. Give us any place on earth you choose, and we will go and live there.”


ISITA CHIRGIZOVA AND Natasha Umatgarieva are Chechen women who live in a temporary center for refugees in the village of Serebryaniki, in Tver Province. We met in No. 14 Police Station in Moscow. Isita was wiping off the ink after being fingerprinted. Natasha was crying inconsolably. They had just been released, a miracle in today’s climate. The police had taken pity on them.

On the morning of November 13, 2002, the women were subjected to typical treatment. They had come to Moscow on an early train to collect aid from one of the civil-rights organizations. They were arrested at the station, a couple of meters from the organization’s entrance, because Natasha was limping. Because she has an open sore on her leg from diabetes, she was suspected of being a wounded fighter. Isita is in the seventh month of pregnancy; she has an evident bulge under her jacket, just where suicide bombers wear their grenade belts. This, at least, is how Major Lyubeznov, who was on duty at No. 14 Police Station, explained the reason for their arrest. Lynbeznyi means “amiable” in Russian, but the major proved far from amiable. Indeed, to safeguard Russia from the terrorist threat, he felt obliged to personally grope Isita’s Chechen bulge, to ensure that it was caused by pregnancy.

The story of Isita and Natasha ended well. The police officers just gave the women some bluster to the effect of, “If you kill us, we’ll kill you.” Major Lyubeznov didn’t have time to disgrace himself any further, and, in addition, I was able to be of some assistance. First, I managed to intercept the women in the police station before they were carted off to the isolation and interrogation unit. Second, I persuaded Vladimir Mashkin, the superintendent of No. 14 Police Station (and he was perfectly open to persuasion) that people sometimes come to collect humanitarian aid just because they are poor, having no opportunity to get a job and no home of their own.


ZARA WORKED As a vegetable seller by the underground station. The owner of the little market came to her and said, “Don’t come to work here tomorrow, because you are Chechen.” Zara provides the only support for a family consisting of three children and her husband, who has tuberculosis. What need is there for the police to involve themselves in a situation like this one?


ASLAN KURBANOV SPENT the first Chechen war in a tented refugee camp in Ingushetia. In the summer he left to enter a college in Saratov, then moved to Moscow to live with his aunt, Zura Movsarova, a postgraduate student at the Moscow Aviation Technical Institute. He found a job and was officially registered as having the right to live in the capital.

On October 28, 2002, CID officers from No. 172 Police District (Brateevo) came to his home. The day before, Zura had been fingerprinted at the request of the local police, so when the CID authorities said they wanted Aslan to come with them only to have his fingerprints taken, nobody suspected anything. Aslan put on his coat and went off in the police car.

Three hours later, Zura became anxious. Her nephew still had not returned, so she went to the police station herself. There she was informed that Aslan had been arrested for possession of drugs. What sort of story was that? He had gotten up, put his coat on, put some drugs in his pocket, and gone to give himself up to the police? Aslan managed to shout to Zura that he had been taken to a room, some cannabis had been produced from under the table, and he had been told, “This must be yours. We are not going to give Chechens an inch. We’re going to shake all of you up like this.”

Aslan does not even smoke cigarettes. On October 30 he spent his twenty-second birthday in the Matrosskaya Tishina Prison.


ON THE MORNING of October 25, 2002, police officers burst into the Moscow apartment of the Chechen Gelagoev family. Alihan, the owner of the flat, was handcuffed and taken away. His wife, Marek, rushed for help to the Rostokino police station but was told that no officers had gone out from there. She called Radio Liberty, which reported Alihan Gelagoev’s abduction, and by evening he was released. She had pressed the right buttons.

Alihan told me that in the car the police had put a sack over his head and beaten him for a long time as they were going to Petrovka, the street where the Moscow Central Police Department is located. They shouted, “You hate us and we hate you. You kill us and we will kill you.”

When they arrived at Petrovka, however, they stopped beating him and tried for many hours to persuade him to sign a confession saying that he was the ideological mastermind behind the terrorist attack on Nord-Ost . This is the sort of thing that used to happen in the Stalin years. The confession had even been written in advance, as was the practice in the earlier period. All Alihan had to do was sign at the bottom.

He refused, but to obtain his freedom he had no option but to sign a statement to the effect that he had come voluntarily to the Central Police Department and had no complaints to make against its officers.

Racism? Yes. Appalling behavior? Of course. It is also a travesty of a war against terrorism. I do not believe a single statistic produced by the police authorities on the progress of the antiterrorist “Operation Whirlwind,” telling the world how many “terrorists’ accomplices” they have caught. The figures are bogus. The police are bogus officers churning out bogus reports based on bogus investigations.

In the meantime, where are the terrorists? What are they up to? Who knows? The police have no time to think about that. Putin is presiding over a return to the Soviet methods of bogus activity in place of real work.


THE POLICE INTERROGATORS were very reassuring, thirty-six-year-old Zelimhan Nasaev tells me. “Don’t worry,” they said, “you’ll get three or four years and then you’ll be out. They may give you a suspended sentence. Just sign here. Make it easy on yourself.”

Zelimhan has been living in Moscow for many years. His family, following his elder sister Inna, moved here to escape the second Chechen war.

“Were you beaten at the police station?”

“Of course. They woke me up at three in the morning and said, ‘Time for the pressure.’ They beat me through a hard surface [evidently a technique to leave no external sign of injury] on the kidneys and liver, to make me sign a confession, but I wouldn’t. I said, ‘Pressure me, then. Even if you shoot me, I’m not going to let you pin anything on me.’ They kept saying, ‘What’s a Chechen like you doing here? Your country is Chechnya. Go back there and get on with your war.’ I told them, ‘My country is Russia, and I am in my own capital city.’ They got very angry about that. To make me lose control of myself, one of the policemen said, ‘Well, I’ve just come from fucking your mother.”’

If only that agent in the Nizhegorodsky police station had known whose mother he was claiming to have raped, whom he was beating up and trying to coerce into admitting to a crime he never committed, in order to boost the policeman’s rating in the post-Nord-Ost campaign to “crack down on Chechen criminals in Moscow”! But perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t know.

Roza Nasaeva is the granddaughter, and Zelimhan the great-grandson, of the legendary Russian beauty Maria-Mariam of the Romanov family, a relative of Emperor Nicholas II who fell passionately in love with Vakhu, a Chechen officer of the czarist army. She eloped with him to the Caucasus, converted to Islam, took the name Mariam, bore Vakhu five children, was deported with him to Kazakhstan and, after his death there, returned to Chechnya. She died there in the 1960s, regarded almost as a Chechen saint. This lovely story of Russo-Chechen friendship and love, known throughout the Caucasus, is of little help at the moment, however, because nothing could save Zelimhan from the Moscow police. Even if he had the blood of ten emperors flowing in his veins, they would treat Zelimhan exactly as they treat any other Chechen.

There are parts of Moscow you really do not want to go to, grim places behind factories, within industrial zones, or beneath high-voltage electricity lines, and they are where you will find the Chechens who are still trying to survive in the capital city. Frezer Road is one such location, a dour strip of asphalt leading from Ryazan Prospekt out past barely habitable five-story brick buildings to industrial slums very remote from the life of the metropolis.

Actually, they weren’t ever intended for human habitation. Officially, they are still the workshops of a milling factory that ceased to exist long ago, a victim of perestroika. Its workers departed, and today the factory bosses make a living by renting out the derelict workshops and other premises. In one such dirty, looted, former factory building, the first Chechen refugees appeared, in 1997. They had fled the criminal anarchy that reigned between the first and the second Chechen wars and were mainly members of families opposed to the Chechens Maskhadov and Basaev. The directors of the milling factory allowed the refugees to refurbish the workshops, convert them into living accommodations, and then pay tribute to the bosses.

The Chechens live there to this day, the Nasaevs among them, one of twenty-six families. The local police know them all perfectly well. Nobody is on the run or in hiding because nobody has any wish to do so, or indeed anywhere to run to.

When the Nord-Ost hostage taking occurred, the police from the Nizhegorodsky station headed straight here, explaining that they had orders to arrest a quota of fifteen Chechens “in every precinct.” All the men of the twenty-six families were arrested and taken away in buses for fingerprinting.

It was Zelimhan Nasaev-Romanov’s bad luck that he wasn’t at home at the time. He had gone to deliver a batch of the pens the family assembles at home and to collect the components for the next assignment.

The police soon came back to the industrial shack where the imperial family’s descendant lives. They needed his fingerprints, they said, and Roza let him go without a fuss. The parents began to worry only several hours later, when their son had not returned. Finally his mother and father set off to the police station, where they were told, in typically inane fashion, “Your son had a grenade and a fuse in his pocket. We have arrested him.”

“I shouted, ‘You have no right to do this! You took him away yourselves. He left the house with you and there was nothing in his pockets. There were plenty of witnesses,’” Roza tells me. “The policeman just said, ‘Here Chechens don’t count as witnesses.’ I was so offended. Are we no longer citizens, then?”

When Zelimhan’s mother returned to the police station the next morning, they told her, “Your son is also dealing in marijuana. You can’t help him.”

“We got there and they took me to an office,” Zelimhan tells me. “They said, ‘You are dealing in heroin.’ The more senior officer was holding a small packet in his hand and announced, ‘This is yours now.’ I was handcuffed. They put the packet into my pocket. I began to protest. Then they said, ‘All right, then, we’ll add a fuse from a”lemon.“’ I saw the senior policeman was already wiping a fuse with a rag to remove other people’s fingerprints. He shoved it in my hand and made a note. I again shouted, ‘You have no right to do this!’ And they told me, ‘We have our orders. We have every right, and if you aren’t a good boy and don’t agree to help us by admitting to the crime, your relatives will follow you. We are going back to your house now to search, and we’re going to find another part of the same grenade. Sign the confession.”’

Zelimhan refused to sign anything. The officers beat him and said they would continue to beat him until he couldn’t be seen by any lawyer. They released him only because journalists and Aslambek Aslahanov, a deputy of the Duma, interceded. Now Zelimhan sits at home in his shack in a deep depression. He is afraid of every knock at the door. Depression is the characteristic mood of all the Chechens living among us. Not a single optimist is to be found among the young or the old. At least, I haven’t found any. Everybody dreams of emigrating so as to have a chance to merge into the cosmopolitan background somewhere and never have to reveal one’s nationality.

“There is an orgy of systematic police harassment of Chechens in Russia,” claims Svetlana Gannushkina, director of the Citizens’ Aid Committee for Assistance to Refugees and Displaced Persons. This is the organization to which people turn in their distress: Chechens whose relatives have been arrested, fingerprinted, and had drugs or cartridges planted on them; Chechens who have been fired from their jobs or threatened with deportation. (For heaven’s sake, where do you deport Russian citizens to from the capital of Russia?) They come to Svetlana Gannushkina because there is nowhere else for them to go.

“The signal for this new wave of frenzied state racism, officially called Antiterrorist Operation Whirlwind,” Svetlana continues, “was given immediately after the storming of the Dubrovka theater complex. Chechens are being expelled everywhere. The main problem is when they are fired from their jobs or driven out of their flats. This is a settling of scores with an entire group in retaliation for the acts of particular individuals. The main method used to discredit them as a nation is the false creation of criminal cases by planting drugs or cartridges. The policemen think they look cool when they mockingly ask their victims, ‘Which would you like: drugs or a cartridge?’ The only ones who get rescued are those with mothers like Makka Shidaeva. But what about all the others?”

And what sort of a nation are we, the Russian people?

One Chechen family has three daughters. One has passed the entrance exam and gotten into music school while the other two haven’t. The parents have asked their successful daughter’s teacher to give private piano lessons to her sisters. The teacher has refused. The head of the music school—where, of course, everyone knows everybody else’s business—will not allow the teacher to continue, saying she has received orders to that effect from the Department of Culture. If the teacher continues to teach the Chechens, the security services will start taking an interest in her.

Playing fast and loose with people’s livelihoods—and sometimes even their lives—is something that we, the Russian people, must own up to. The majority of us go along with the state’s xenophobia and feel no need to protest. Why not? Official propaganda is highly effective, and the majority share Putin’s belief that an entire people must shoulder collective responsibility for the crimes committed by a few.

The upshot, nevertheless, is that nobody yet knows, despite a war that has been going on for years, despite acts of terrorism, catastrophes, and torrents of refugees, what the authorities actually want from the Chechens. Do they want them to live within the Russian Federation or not?


IN CONCLUSION, HERE’S a straightforward story of ordinary people living in Russia and suffering from state-induced hysteria.

“Do you often get told off at school?”

“Yes.” Sirazhdi sighs.

“And is there a good reason?”

“Yes.” He sighs again.

“What do you do that is naughty?”

“I’m running down the corridor and somebody bashes into me and I always give them something back so they don’t think they can hurt me, and then the teachers ask me, ‘Did you hit them?’ and I always tell the truth and say, ‘Yes,’ but the others don’t and I get told off.”

“Perhaps you shouldn’t tell the truth either? You might not get into trouble.”

“I can’t.” He sighs heavily. “I’m not a girl. If I did it, I say, ‘I did it.”’

“You know, he tries to trip our children up so the little ones will hit their heads and die….”

Great heavens above! This is not Sirazhdi talking about himself now; grown-ups are talking about him. Not about a special operations agent trained to destroy terrorists but about a seven-year-old Chechen boy named Sirazhdi Digaev. The words represent the publicly expressed view of a certain woman member of the parents’ committee of Class 2b of No. 155 School, Moscow, which Sirazhdi attends.

“Well, do you know, my child complains, ‘Sirazhdi never has anything, and I have and I have to lend it to him.”’ This from another mother on the committee.

Why is this child complaining? Surely if the person next to you hasn’t got something and you do, you should bloody well lend it to him.

“He’s a nuisance to everyone. You have to understand that. My son told me he didn’t write down his homework in the class because Sirazhdi was making so much noise that he couldn’t hear the teacher. Sirazhdi is uncontrollable. Like all Chechens. You have to understand that,” opines another mother.

The conversation continues as we sit in an empty classroom. The second-grade children have gone home, and now the parents’ committee is discussing how to purge the school of a small Chechen so that “our children don’t learn bad things from a possible future terrorist.”

You think I must be making this up. Unfortunately I’m not.

“Don’t get us wrong. Even though he is a Chechen, we don’t discriminate between nationalities. No. We just want to protect our children….”

From what? In November the parents’ committee of Class 2b convened a meeting to warn Sirazhdi’s mother and father that, if they did not take him in hand by the New Year, and unless, “in spite of being a Chechen,” he started acting in accordance with the parents’ committee’s understanding of good behavior, they would demand that the head of No. 155 School expel him.

“Well, just tell me, why are they all piling into Moscow?” The real reason emerges when, one or two weeks later, a member of the parents’ committee tries to explain why they adopted the resolution.

Well, why should “they” not come to Moscow? Are the inhabitants of the capital so special that being brought into proximity with other citizens of Russia might have a negative effect on their sensibilities?

“Why is it you say they are having a hard time?” another parent almost shrieks. “Who asks if we are having a hard time? What makes you think our children are having it any easier than he is?”

Why? Well, Sirazhdi was born in Chechnya in 1995. When his mother, Zulai, was pregnant, there was shelling and bombing all around her. She fled because when the first Chechen war started, she had no option. Today Zulai has complicated feelings when she sees that, even though they moved to Moscow in 1996 and her youngest son has been a Muscovite for most of his life, he is still terrified by fireworks and thunderstorms. He hides and cries but doesn’t know why.

“Oh, so it’s because they don’t feel at home here yet,” floats up the ratty voice of another member of the parents’ committee. “They think they can impose their ways on us? No, thank you very much!”

The irritation has arisen because Alvi, Sirazhdi’s father, came to the meeting, listening to everything the parents had to say to him, and then took the floor himself and dared to explain his problems—that in front of his children he had been cursed at by a policeman who marched into their room in his jackboots, and that he, a father, had been unable to do anything about it. The children had seen it all.

Alvi also told them that the main reason his family was in Moscow and not in Chechnya, in spite of how uncomfortable things were for them here, was to enable their children to go to school without a war taking place around them. Zulai was a math teacher, but she had to work at a market stall in Moscow, not something she was good at. They spent their evenings rolling chicken cutlets to sell in the morning. Everything he and Zulai did was for the sake of their children.

“Well, how about that! They’re worming their way right into the center of Moscow! And they expect to be given a $500 apartment!” This was the reaction of the parents’ committee to Alvi’s appeal.

“I do not want my son or my daughter to be taught in the same class as someone like that.” Such was the verdict Alvi and Zulai were given at that meeting.

“Who says we’re wrong?” the members of the parents’ committee demand.

Well, nobody, of course.

It is worth remembering an incident that began in a similar way in the twentieth century but had a different ending. When the Fascists entered Denmark, the Jews were ordered to sew yellow stars on their clothing so they could be easily recognized. The Danes promptly sewed on yellow stars, both to save the Jews and to save themselves from turning into Fascists. Their king joined with them.

In Moscow today, the situation is quite the opposite. When the authorities struck at the Chechens who are our neighbors, we did not sew on yellow stars in solidarity with them. Instead, we are making sure that Sirazhdi never loses the sense of being a pariah.

At my request, he shows me his exercise book for the Russian language. His marks range from poor 2’s to average 3’s. Sirazhdi’s handwriting is untidy, as Yelena Dmitrievna reminds him on almost every page. She is his class mistress and writes out her words of admonition in a trained calligraphic hand. She has been a teacher for thirty-five years, all of them in a primary school.

Yelena Dmitrievna did not support the parents’ committee in its campaign to get rid of the Chechen boy, but neither did she take a stand. She did not categorically refuse to be part of the group’s efforts to oust the youngster, although she could have done so, thereby halting in its tracks the Digaev family’s persecution by the notorious Russian public opinion assault being waged by the committee.

Sirazhdi is spinning like a top. He really has no wish to show me his Russian exercise book. He does his best to divert my attention to his math book, where the situation is much happier. Sirazhdi is an ordinary boy who can’t sit still. The main thing is that he very much wants to look good. Why should he be any different, a modest little boy keeping his head down as the parents’ committee would like him to, to make him less of a Chechen?

Even his math book soon bores him. Promising to draw a “sword and a man,” he goes off in a great rush. He does everything in a great rush. Soon he returns, bearing a pad with the outline of a strongman with powerful muscles from The Lord of the Rings , and a light saber represented by a smudge of yellow crayon.

“You know, we only wanted what was best for him,” the parents of Class 2b now say, realizing that the story of their campaign against a small Chechen boy in the wake of the Nord-Ost hysteria has been taken up by journalists. “Only what was best…”

Is Sirazhdi going to believe in what they think is best for him? He does fight at playtime. In art lessons he throws paint at the wall. He trips up his classmates, too, and the more often he misbehaves, the more it is made clear to him that he is the odd one out in Class 2b.


THIS IS LIFE in Russia after Nord-Ost . The months have passed, and many Russians have gradually begun to understand that this appalling tragedy has its uses. In fact, it has come in handy for lots of people, for a lot of reasons.

First in line has been the president, with his folksy cynicism. He has taken to reaping international dividends from this horror and its deadly outcome. Nor has he balked at allowing other people’s blood to be spilled for his PR purposes inside Russia.

At the bottom of the heap are the petty squabbles in a small school and the rank-and-file police officers who were only too glad to beef up their antiterrorist scores before the New Year in order to qualify for bonuses. The frantic anti-Chechen chauvinism of the days immediately following Nord-Ost have mellowed to a pragmatic, steady racism.

“Do we take up arms, then?” some of the Chechen men ask. You can hear them grinding their teeth in impotence. “I can’t take this anymore,” groan others. Their impatience and anger are a sign of weakness, of course, which does not suit them at all, especially since their children are watching. What should they do?[13]





I have wondered a great deal about why I am so intolerant of Putin. What is it that makes me dislike him so much as to feel moved to write a book about him? I am not one of his political opponents or rivals, just a woman living in Russia. Quite simply, I am a forty-five-year-old Muscovite who observed the Soviet Union at its most disgraceful in the 1970s and 1980s. I really don’t want to find myself back there again.

I am making a point of finishing the writing of this book on May 6, 2004. There has been no miraculous challenging of the results of the March 14 presidential election. The opposition has acquiesced. Accordingly, tomorrow sees the start of Putin II, the president reelected by an unbelievable majority of more than 70 percent. Even if we knock off 20 percent as window dressing (i.e., ballot rigging), he still received enough votes to secure the presidency.

In a few hours Putin, a typical lieutenant colonel of the Soviet KGB, a soul brother of Akaky Akakievich, downtrodden hero of Gogol’s story “The Greatcoat,” will ascend to the throne of Russia once again. His outlook is the narrow, provincial one his rank would suggest; he has the unprepossessing personality of a lieutenant colonel who never made it to colonel, the manner of a Soviet secret policeman who habitually snoops on his colleagues. And he is vindictive: not a single political opponent has been invited to the inauguration ceremony, nor a single political party that is in any way out of step.

Leonid Brezhnev was a distasteful figure; Yury Andropov was bloody, although at least he had a democratic veneer. Konstantin Chernenko was dumb, and Russians disliked Mikhail Gorbachev. At times, Boris Yeltsin had us crossing ourselves at the thought of where his doings might be leading us.

Here is their apotheosis. Tomorrow their bodyguard from Unit 25—the man in the security cordon when VIP motorcades drove by—Akaky Akakievich Putin will strut down the red carpet of the Kremlin throne room as if he really were the boss there. Around him the polished czarist gold will gleam, the servants will smile submissively, his comrades in arms, a choice selection from the lower ranks of the KGB who could have risen to important posts only under Putin, will swell with self-importance.

One can imagine Lenin strutting around like a nabob when he arrived in the vanquished Kremlin in 1918 after the revolution. The official Communist histories—we have no others—assure us that, in fact, his strutting was modest, but his modesty, you can just bet, was insolent. Look at humble little me! You thought I was a nobody, but now I’ve made it. I’ve broken Russia just as I intended to. I’ve forced her to vow allegiance to me.

Tomorrow a KGB snoop, who even in that capacity did not make much of an impression, will strut through the Kremlin just as Lenin did. He will have had his revenge.

Let us, however, run the reel backward a little.

Putin’s victory had been widely predicted both in Russia and throughout the world, especially after the humiliation of such democratic, liberal opposition parties as the country possessed in the parliamentary elections of December 7, 2003. Accordingly, the March 14 result surprised few. We had international observers in, but everything was low key. Voting day itself was a contemporary remake of the authoritarian, bureaucratic, Soviet-style pantomime of “the people expressing its will,” which many still remember only too well, myself included. In those days the procedure was that you went to the polling station and dropped your slip in the ballot box without caring whose names were on it because the result was a foregone conclusion.

How did people react this time? Did the Soviet parallel rouse anybody from inertia on March 14, 2004? No. Voters went obediently to the polling stations, dropped their papers into the ballot boxes, and shrugged: “What can we do about it?” Everyone is convinced that the Soviet Union has returned, and that it no longer matters what we think.

On March 14, I stood outside the polling station on my own Dolgoruky Street in Moscow. With the advent of Yeltsin, its name had been changed from Kalyaev Street. Kalyaev, a terrorist in czarist times, was later regarded as a revolutionary. It became Dolgoruky Street in honor of the prince who had his estate there in Kalyaev’s time, before the Bolsheviks came.

I talked to people going in to vote and coming quickly out again after participating in the charade. They were apathetic, indifferent to the process of electing Putin for a second term. “It’s what ‘they’ want us to do? Well, then. Big deal.” That was the majority sentiment. A minority joked, “Perhaps now they’ll name it Kalyaev Street again.”

The return of the Soviet system with the consolidation of Putin’s power is obvious.

It has to be said that this outcome has been made possible not only by our negligence, apathy, and weariness after too much revolutionary change. It has happened to choruses of encouragement from the West, primarily from Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian leader, who appears to have fallen in love with Putin. He is Putin’s main European champion, but Putin also enjoys the support of Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder, and Jacques Chirac, and receives no discouragement from the junior Bush across the Atlantic.

So nothing stood in the way of our KGB man’s return to the Kremlin, neither the West nor any serious opposition within Russia. Throughout the so-called election campaign, from December 7, 2003, until March 14, 2004, Putin openly derided the electorate.

The main feature of his contempt was his refusal to debate anything with anyone. He declined to expand on a single point of his own policies in the last four years. His contempt extended not only to representatives of the opposition parties but to the very concept of an opposition. He made no promises about future policy and disdained campaigning of any kind. Instead, as under the Soviet regime, he was shown on television every day, receiving top-ranking officials in his Kremlin office and dispensing his highly competent advice on how to conduct whichever ministry or department they came from.

There was, of course, a certain amount of tittering among members of the public: he was behaving just like Stalin. Putin, too, was simultaneously “the friend of all children” and “the nation’s first pig farmer,” “the best miner,” the “comrade of all athletes,” and the “leading filmmaker.”

None of it went further than tittering, however. Any real emotion drained away into the sand. There was no serious protest over the rejection of debates.

Meeting no resistance, Putin naturally became bolder. It is a mistake to suppose he takes no notice of anything, never reacts and only, as we’re encouraged to believe, forges ahead in pursuit of power.

He pays a lot of attention and takes account of what he sees. He keeps a close eye on us, this nation he controls.

In this way he is behaving exactly like a member of Lenin’s Cheka, or secret police. The approach is entirely that of a KGB officer. First there is the trial balloon of information released through a narrow circle of individuals. In today’s Russia, that is the political elite of the capital. The aim is to probe likely reaction to policies. If there is none, or if it has the dynamism of a jellyfish, all is well. Putin can push his policy forward, spread his ideas or act as he sees fit without having to look over his shoulder.

A brief digression is in order here, less about Putin than about us, the Russian public. Putin has backers and helpers, people with a vested interest in his second ascent of the throne, people now concentrated in the president’s office. This is the institution that today rules the country, not the government that implements the president’s decisions, not the parliament that rubber-stamps whichever laws he wants passed. His people follow society’s responses very attentively. It is wrong to imagine they aren’t bothered. It is we who are responsible for Putin’s policies, we first and foremost, not Putin. The fact that our reactions to him and his cynical manipulation of Russia have been confined to gossiping in the kitchen has enabled him to do all the things he had done in the past four years. Society has shown limitless apathy, and this is what has given Putin the indulgence he requires. We have responded to his actions and speeches not just lethargically but fearfully. As the Chekists have become entrenched in power, we have let them see our fear, and thereby have only intensified their urge to treat us like cattle. The KGB respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.

Let us now go back to late February 2004. At some moment the Kremlin techniques for sounding out opinion warned that the public was beginning to tire of Putin’s insolent refusal either to debate or to campaign and of the absence of any recognizable preelection campaign.

To reinvigorate the languishing electorate, the Kremlin announced that Putin had decided to take firm measures. These proved to be a Cabinet reshuffle three weeks before election day.

At first, everyone was taken aback by what appeared to be an act of lunacy. In accordance with the constitution, the entire Cabinet does, in any case, resign after an election. The newly elected president announces his choice of prime minister, who, in turn, proposes ministers for the president to confirm. What sense could it possibly make to appoint all the Cabinet members now, only to have to reappoint them after the inauguration? What was the point of a senseless activity that could only further paralyze the functioning of a government riddled with corruption, which already spent a good proportion of its working days taking care of personal, commercial interests?

However, although replacing the Cabinet a month before the constitution required was entirely daft, it did indeed serve to reinvigorate the election process. The political elite was stirred, the guessing game about whom Putin would appoint occupied the television channels, the political pundits were provided with news to pontificate about, and the press finally got something it could cover during the election campaign.

But this reinvigoration of politics lasted one week at best. Putin’s spin doctors daily intoned on television that the president had made the appointments because he wanted to be “absolutely honest with you”; he did not want to “enter the election with a pig in a poke” (by which evidently was meant following the constitutional procedure for replacing the Cabinet). He wanted to present his future course before March 14.

It has to be said, alas, that people believed him: probably just over half the electorate. The half that fell for and hailed this dishonest, absurd line of argument has an important distinguishing feature. They are people who love and trust Putin without reservation, irrationally, uncritically; fanatically. They believe in Putin. End of story.

In the week preceding the appointment of a new prime minister, the media images were all of the now-familiar love for Putin. Those with faith in the genuineness of his proclaimed reasons for changing the Cabinet ignored the obvious non sequiturs.

You really do have to believe unreservedly, as if you have fallen in love for the first time, if you are not immediately to be struck by the obvious question: Why didn’t Putin choose a less dramatic way of presenting his future course than firing the entire government? He had plenty of other ways to provide a glimpse of his second term. He could, for example, have taken part in televised debates. But no. The week after the dismissal of the Cabinet saw unprecedented levels of cynicism. The people of Russia watching their televisions were told that actually it didn’t matter what happened on March 14. Everything had been decided. Putin would be czar. The spin doctors were all but saying, “He wants to show you his course in advance because it’s the only choice you’ve got.”

The day when the name of the new prime minister was to be announced was arranged with all the ceremony traditionally preceding the emergence of the hero of an opera to sing his first aria. The president will tell us tomorrow morning. In two hours’ time. In one hour’s time. Ten minutes to go. Moreover, the one whose name would be revealed might, we were assured over the air waves, possibly be the president’s successor in 2008.

In Russia it is important not to look ridiculous. People make up jokes, and you turn into a Brezhnev. When Putin announced his new government, even his die-hard supporters fell to laughing. No one could fail to see that the Kremlin had been staging a bad farce. It was no more than a petty settling of scores—subjected, of course, to endless spin and veiled behind all manner of claptrap and rhetorical flourishes that invoked the greatness of Russia.

But the mountains truly had brought forth a mouse. Virtually all the old ministers stayed where they had been. Only the prime minister, Mikhail Kasianov, was let go. He had been getting up Putin’s nose for many months in a big way, and in many small ways, too. He was a legacy of the Yeltsin era. When raising the second president to the throne, the first president of Russia had asked Putin not to remove Kasianov.

Prime Minister Kasianov, alone among the main actors in Russian politics, categorically opposed the arrest of the liberal oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the gradual destruction of his Yukos oil company. Yukos was the most transparent company in our corrupt country, the first to function in accordance with internationally accepted financial practice. It operated “in the white,” as people say in Russia, and, what is more, it donated over 5 percent of its gross annual profit to financing a large university, children’s homes, and an extensive program of charitable work.

But Kasianov was speaking out in defense of a man whom Putin had, for some time, counted among his personal enemies, on the grounds that Khodorkovsky was making major financial contributions to the country’s democratic opposition, primarily to the Yabloko Party and the Union of Right Forces.

In Putin’s understanding of political life, Khodorkovsky’s donations represented a grave personal insult. The president has publicly shown, on many occasions, that he is incapable of grasping the concept of discussion, especially in politics. There should be no backtalk from someone Putin considers his inferior, and an underling who allows himself to demonstrate any independence is an enemy. Putin does not choose to behave this way. He is not a born tyrant and despot; rather, he has been accustomed to think along the lines inculcated in him by the KGB, an organization he considers a model, as he has stated more than once. Thus, as soon as anyone disagrees with him, Putin demands that the “hysterics” be dropped. This is the reason behind his refusal to take part in preelection debates. Debate is not his element. He doesn’t know how to conduct a dialogue. His genre is the military-style monologue. While you are a subordinate, you keep your mouth shut. When you become the chief, you talk in monologues, and it is the duty of your inferiors to pretend they agree that the choreography is a political version of the misrule of officers in the army that occasionally, as with Khodorkovsky, leads to all-out war.

But to return to the government reshuffle. Kasianov was out. The ministers returned to their original portfolios and Putin ceremoniously parachuted in Mikhail Fradkov as the new prime minister. In recent times, Fradkov had been quietly enjoying a place in our bureaucratic hierarchy as the Russian Federation’s representative to the European institutions in Brussels. He is a nondescript, amiable, forgettable gentleman with narrow shoulders and a big bum. Most Russians learned that our country had a federal minister named Fradkov only when his appointment as prime minister was announced, which, in accordance with Russian lore, tells us that Fradkov is a low-profile representative of that same service to which Putin has dedicated the greater part of his working life.

The nation laughed out loud when it heard of Fradkov’s elevation, but Putin insisted, and even started explaining his “principled” choice to the effect that he wanted to be open with the electorate and to enter the election with people knowing whom he would be working with in his fight against Russia’s main evils, corruption and poverty.

The Russian people, both the half that supports Putin and the half that doesn’t, didn’t stop laughing. The Kremlin farce continued. If the country as a whole did not know Fradkov, the business community remembered him only too well. He is a typical member of the Soviet nomenklatura who, throughout his career, from the Communist period onward, has been shifted hither and thither to miscellaneous bureaucratic posts, independent of his professional background and expertise. He is a typical boss for whom it is not too important what he is driving, just as long as he is in the driver’s seat. While he was director of the Federal Tax Inspectorate Service, it had a reputation as the most corrupt ministry in the Russian civil service. Its bureaucrats took bribes for just about everything—for every form they issued and every consultation. The service was consequently shut down, and Fradkov, in line with the undying traditions of the Soviet nomenklatura , was “looked after.” He was transferred once again, this time to Brussels.

Prime Minister Fradkov hastily flew back to Moscow from Brussels, only to provoke further merriment. At the airport, in his first interview in his new capacity, he confessed he didn’t actually know how to be a prime minister. No, he had no plans; it had all come like a bolt from the blue. He was waiting to see what arrangements had been made and what his instructions would be.

Russia is a country where much goes on behind the scenes and most people have short memories. Despite his ignorance of the arrangements and the lack of instructions from Putin, which never have been made public, the Duma confirmed Fradkov’s appointment by a convincing majority, making reference to its duty to “fulfill the will of our electors who trust President Putin in all matters.” This Duma, its composition the result of the elections of December 7, 2003, contains practically no opposition to Putin and is firmly under the control of the Kremlin.

March 14 arrived. Everything went off as the Kremlin had intended. Life went on as before. The bureaucrats returned to their tireless thieving. Mass murder continued in Chechnya, having quieted down briefly during the elections, to give hope to those who for five years had been hoping for peace. The second Chechen war had begun in mid-1999, in the run-up to Putin’s first presidential election. In accordance with Asian traditions, just before his second presidential election, two Chechen field commanders laid down their weapons at the feet of the great ruler. Their relatives had been seized and were held in captivity until the commanders stated that they now supported Putin and had given up all thought of independence. Oligarch Khodorkovsky took to writing penitential letters to Putin from prison. Yukos was rapidly becoming poorer. Berlusconi came to visit us, and his first question to his pal Vladimir was how he, too, could get 70 percent of the vote in an election. Putin gave no clear advice, and indeed his friend Silvio would not have understood if he had. Berlusconi is, after all, a European.

The two world leaders went off on a trip to provincial Lipetsk, where they opened a production line for washing machines and watched a military air show. Putin continued to give dressing-downs to high-level bureaucrats on television. That is usually how we see him, either receiving reports from officials in his Kremlin office or tearing one of these bureaucrats apart in monologues. The filming is methodically thought through in PR terms. There is no ad-libbing; nothing is left to chance.

Instead of the risen Christ, it was Putin who was revealed to the people at Easter. A service was held at the Church of Christ the Redeemer, Moscow’s cathedral re-erected in concrete on the site of an open-air Soviet-era swimming pool. Almost a month had passed since his second election. At the beginning of the Great Matins service there stood, shoulder to shoulder with Putin as if at a military parade, Prime Minister Fradkov and Dmitry Medvedev, the Kremlin’s new eminence grise, head of the president’s office, a man of diminutive stature with a large head. The three men clumsily and clownishly crossed themselves, Medvedev making his crosses by touching his hands to his forehead and then to his genitals. It was risible. Medvedev followed Putin in shaking the patriarch’s hand as if he were one of their comrades, rather than kissing it as prescribed by church ritual. The patriarch overlooked the error. The spin doctors in the Kremlin are effective but, of course, pretty illiterate in these matters and had not told the politicians what to do. Alongside Putin there stood the mayor of Moscow, Yury Luzhkov, who had been behind the rebuilding of the cathedral and who alone knew how to invoke the protection of the Cross in a competent manner. The patriarch addressed Putin as “Your Most High Excellency,” which made even those not directly involved wince. Given the numerous ex-KGB officers occupying top government positions, the Easter Vigil has now taken over from the May Day parade as the major obligatory national ritual.

The beginning of the Great Matins service was even more comical than the handshakes with the patriarch. Both state television channels did a live broadcast of the procession around the cathedral that precedes the service. The patriarch participated in this, despite being ill. The television commentator, who was a believer and theologically knowledgeable, explained to viewers that in the Orthodox tradition, the doors of the church should be shut before midnight because they symbolize the entrance to the cave where Christ’s body was placed. After midnight the Orthodox faithful taking part in the procession await the opening of the church doors. The patriarch stands on the steps at their head and is the first to enter the empty temple where the Resurrection of Christ has already occurred.

When the patriarch had recited the first prayer after midnight at the doors of the temple, they were thrown open to reveal Putin, our modest president, shoulder to shoulder with Fradkov, Medvedev, and Luzhkov.

You didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. An evening of comic entertainment on Holy Night. What is there to like about this individual? He profanes everything he touches.

At about this time, on April 8, nine-month-old twin girls were declared shaheeds —martyrs for the faith—in Chechnya. They came from the tiny Chechen farmstead of Rigakh and were killed before they had learned to walk. It was the usual story. After the March 14 election, relentless military operations were resumed in Chechnya. The army, in the form of the Regional Operational Staff Headquarters for Coordinating the Counterterrorist Operation, announced that it was attempting to catch Basaev: “A large-scale military operation is under way to destroy the participants of armed formations.” They failed to catch Basaev, but on April 8 at around two in the afternoon, as part of the military operation, the Rigakh farmstead was subjected to a missile bombardment. It killed everyone there: a mother and her five children. The scene that confronted Imar-Ali Damaev, the father of the family, would have turned the most hardheaded militant into a pacifist for life, or into a suicide bomber. His twenty-nine-year-old wife, Maidat, lay dead, holding close four-year-old Djanati, three-year-old Jara-dat, two-year-old Umar-Haji, and the tiny nine-month-old Zara. Their mother’s embrace saved none of them. To one side lay the little body of Zura, Zara’s twin sister. Maidat had had no room and evidently no time to think of a way of covering her fifth child with her own body, and Zura herself had had no time to crawl the two meters. Imar-Ali gathered up the antipersonnel fragments and established the number of the killer missile: 350 F 8-90. It was not difficult; the number was easy to read. Family members and friends started burying the bodies, and the mullah, a Muslim scholar from the neighboring village, declared all those who had been slain to be martyrs. They were interred the same evening, their bodies unwashed, without burial clothes, in what they were wearing when death claimed them.


WHY DO I SO dislike Putin? Because the years are passing. The second Chechen war, instigated in 1999, shows no sign of ending. In 1999 the babies who were to be declared shaheeds were yet unborn, but all the murders of children since that time, in bombardments and purges, remain unsolved, uninvestigated by the institutions of law and order. The infanticides have never had to stand where they belong, in the dock; Putin, that great friend of all children, has never demanded that they should. The army continues to rampage in Chechnya as it was allowed to at the beginning of the war, as if its operations were being conducted on a training ground empty of people.

This massacre of the innocents did not raise a storm in Russia. Not one television station broadcast images of the five little Chechens who had been slaughtered. The minister of defense did not resign. He is a personal friend of Putin and is even seen as a possible successor in 2008. Nor was the head of the air force fired. The commander in chief himself made no speech of condolence. Around us, indeed, it was business as usual in the rest of the world. Hostages were killed in Iraq. Nations and peoples demanded that their governments and international organizations withdraw troops, to save the lives of people carrying out their duties. But in Russia all was quiet.

Why do I so dislike Putin? This is precisely why. I dislike him for a matter-of-factness worse than felony, for his cynicism, for his racism, for his lies, for the gas he used in the Nord-Ost siege, for the massacre of the innocents that went on throughout his first term as president.

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