Head against the Kremlin Wall

Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich
Head against the Kremlin Wall
  • W.A.B.
    Warszawa 2007
    496 pages
    ISBN 978-83-7414-323-3

This in-depth book speaks of today’s Russia, and three of its spheres: society, power and war. All of these spheres are penetrated by the trend indicated in the title: imperial politics is being revived in Russia, and its symbol and centre-point is the Kremlin.
The first section is full of images that we know all too well from the media: poverty, bureaucratic arrogance, alcoholism and crime. If this tale is believable, however, it’s because it was witnessed by the author herself, it’s based on examples taken from daily life, and supported by reference to serious studies and statistics. All of this makes this book one of the fullest presentations of everyday life in Russian society. The picture that emerges is of a society that is powerless.
It is powerless in the face of oligarchic capitalism created through a tight alliance between businessmen, the underworld, and politicians. This kind of capital supports the corruption of the authorities, stirs up violence, and above all prevents wealth from getting into the hands of the ordinary people, which turns out to largest class of people pushed to the outskirts. It is powerless in the face of the undemocratic authorities, because the society has no traditions upon which to build a civic community. Kurczab-Redlich reveals the void that lurks under the surface of social life. Russians have neither a strong pro-civic tradition, nor strong support in their families. They did not forge strong civic ties in the 20th century, while the family has gone into a state of collapse. The high divorce rate, contempt for women, alcoholism, and low wages are the factors that put the individual in a lone confrontation with the state. As in feudalism, the citizen has no representation of his own, and so there is no party standing between him and the state to defend his interests.  
The two remaining parts are in fact a confirmation of Clausewitz’s famous thesis that war (and gaining power) are an extension of politics carried out by other means. Putin did not have to gain the presidency through democratic means, because neither his cohorts nor society believed in democracy or its significance. The Chechen thread, in turn, is an example of how Putin learned new methods of managing a conflict less in the arena of war than in the symbolic theatre: by presenting the Chechens as terrorists, Russia received carte blanche from world opinion to fight his war with any means at his disposal.
The weakest aspect of today’s Russia, in the author’s conviction, is its society. A weak society is the Kremlin’s greatest weapon in rebuilding the Empire.

- Przemysław Czapliński

Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich is a long-standing correspondent in Russia; she has made documentary films about Chechnya and has won many awards for her journalism. In 2005 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. 


September, 2003. An Eastern European capital city. Evening. A thin young man gets into the car. He doesn’t smell so good: the bathrooms are in bad shape in the refugee camps, and he doesn’t even have enough money for toothpaste. He doesn’t want to give his last name. He talks in monosyllables. He’s scared. Running from the Russkies. He’s the brother of one of those women.
They showed her on television day after day when the crisis in “Dubrovka" was happening. Oval face, big eyes, long-arching eyebrows, and a brave stare – straight into the camera.
Her name was Asha. Twenty-eight years old. She was a teacher. She graduated from Grozny University.
 And she had four brothers. The eldest lost his kidneys and lungs during torture. The middle one was made a cripple for life, also through torture. The youngest was shot during the night. The remaining one, Ahmed, was talking to me now.
She had also had two husbands. Both had fought. The first was killed in 1996. The second at the beginning of 2002. One day, she vanished. She told her mother she was going to Rostov for a check-up. She had breast cancer treatment. She left behind a three-year-old daughter.
My interlocutor has difficulty speaking about his sister. She has already gone. On earth there remains an eighteen-person family, which is being systematically annihilated: home burnt down, parents killed, and the rest of the relatives persecuted.    
“Did Asia do the right thing?” I ask my interlocutor. “Sure,” he says. “Everyone had forgotten about us. And they showed that we were still alive. And that we didn’t want the war.”
I find posthumous photographs of the terrorists in a magazine. Asha – or Ashet Gishlurkayeva – is smiling calmly. And mockingly.
The strangest part is that some of the women who participated in the terrorist attack on the Dubovka Culture Centre were carrying return tickets. And wearing jeans under their black robes.
Ruslan M. has known me a long time. He’s a television cameraman. We got to know each other back to front during some times we shared in Chechnya. He knows that I’m looking for information on the Shakhids. In today’s Chechnya this is very dangerous subject matter, and Ruslan has five children. He was silent. One gloomy January morning, when a few girls were raped during another cleansing operation in his native village of Alkhazurovo, from out of nowhere he started telling me this story while we sat in a cold automobile. It turns out he was Luiza’s husband’s best friend. After he died, Ruslan took care of Luiza and her child.
“She was no princess,” he said. “she wasn’t young, she was twenty-nine when they got married. That was an unusual Chechen marriage: her husband loved her so much that he wasn’t ashamed to talk about it. It wasn’t how Chechens do things. Like explaining yourself to your wife or asking for her advice in front of others. But he was proud of her intelligence. They had a small daughter. Three years old. An only child. Luiza was incapable of having more children.
That day a cleansing operation took place. Seventeen drunken soldiers descended upon her home. There was a cauldron of boiling water on the stove because she was about to do the laundry. The child was thrown into the boiling water. The soldiers laughed as they held Luiza back, not letting her make the slightest move. And then they raped her. All of them. With a bottle, too. They stubbed out their cigarettes on her forehead. They carved crosses into her with their knives.
She didn’t go grey, she didn’t go mad.
One day she vanished, and the next time she was spotted, it was on stage during an interrupted performance of Nord-Ost.
Her name was Luiza Bakuyeva. She was thirty-two years old when she died.
The affair of the crisis at Dubrovka heated up a year later, principally in the pages of a few low-circulation journals read by the intelligentsia. The state television news programmes gave it two minutes.
Russians are reluctant to speak of those days. People didn’t go to see Nord-Ost, re-staged at the cost of millions of rubles, and so the authorities were forced to remove the musical from the repertoire. This was perhaps the only expression of their civic position.
Russian society, far from the model of a civic society, is like an ocean over which – way up high – loom the cliffs of authority. In this ocean live millions of separate individuals who can find no path to one another. Nor do they come near the cliffs. They are indifferent.
On October 23rd 2003, a father who had lost his son appealed to the listeners of radio Echo Moscow (the majority of whom are democratically disposed intelligentsia): “The terrorists defended themselves from five o’clock till six forty. During that time they could have blown up the building and killed their hostages. They didn’t touch a single one. So who took their lives more into account – the terrorists, or those who planned the storm? I appeal to you all: Our misfortune demands that we stand up to the authorities. Don’t wait any longer, fight them, while there’s still time.” To which the journalist responded: “I hope you understand that in today’s Russia, this point of view does not get across to our people?” “I understand.”
On the anniversary of the tragedy Moscow was just the same as it always is. Concerts, clubs, fun. Nobody went out to squares to demand the truth about the crisis at the Dubrovka Culture Centre. Let alone to demand the Russian Federation’s eighty-thousand-strong army be withdrawn from Chechnya. May Nord-Ost never be repeated.
Who was held responsible for the tragedy at the Dubrovka Culture Centre? Who was held responsible for the crisis that entered the Russian bloodstream under the name Nord-Ost? People who blundered into it by accident, or those who were “inserted” into the incident with utter premeditation, like the totally innocent Zaurbiek Talkhigov, who was sentenced to eight and a half years of hard penal colony.

Translated by Soren Gauger