As sons return in caskets, town grimly backs Putin

Families stand silent while Chechnya dead come home to Russia

March 15, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PSKOV, Russia -- Thousands of Russians stood silently against the thick whitewashed walls of this city's 10th-century fortress yesterday, unmoved by the freezing rain in their faces, the icy slush numbing their feet, waiting for a glimpse of eight military caskets newly arrived from Chechnya.

Under cover of heavy fog late on the night of Feb. 29, Chechen fighters assaulted a company of paratroopers from the Pskov Airborne Division in a remote mountain gorge. In four bloody hours, the Chechens destroyed the company, killing 85 paratroopers. Only six survived what was apparently the costliest engagement of the deadly war between Russia and Islamic separatists in Chechnya.

A week earlier, 25 soldiers from another Pskov detachment had been wiped out in another mountain battle. Pskov, a city of 204,000 in northwestern Russia, had suffered 110 dead in one week. In all of the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, 120 men from Pskov had been killed.

"We don't even know who to blame," said Larissa Yegorova, 28, shivering in a doorway of the 18th-century Cathedral of the Trinity, as funeral services for eight of the dead proceeded inside. She held eight red tulips in green paper against the cold.

These are shocking losses in a country where leaders have assured their people that victory would be easily won and that casualties would be minimal. In the earlier Chechen war, public opinion turned against the fighting as more and more coffins began to return from the front. That has not happened in the conflict that flared late last year.

This time, information has been more carefully presented. While politicians and human rights groups in the West have grown more and more alarmed over heavy civilian casualties, indiscriminate bombing and allegations of war crimes in Chechnya, Russians have been told that the military is doing only what it must to stop the threat of terrorism from Chechnya.

Even on the day of the heaviest losses, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev was informing acting President Vladimir V. Putin that a military victory had been won. Russian military officials reported a week later that 31 paratroopers had been killed. Last week, they admitted that 85 had been lost.

Sergeyev has said repeatedly, despite evidence to the contrary, that the conflict has not and will not turn into guerrilla warfare. A Russian writer on military affairs observed last week that the generals understand they cannot win a guerrilla war, so they refuse to acknowledge its existence.

Russians have accepted the deaths and the explanations with the stoicism that people showed here yesterday, waiting patiently on the cold, gray lanes that wind through the medieval-looking fortress known as the Pskov Kremlin.

"They will tell you it was necessary because of terrorism and so forth," said Yulia Kalinina. "But it sounds so unreal."

Kalinina, who turned 25 Friday, sat in her one-room apartment, dressed in black. She is a new widow. Her husband, Alexander, a 25-year-old captain with a reconnaissance detachment, was killed Feb. 21 with 24 other Pskov men.

"He was supposed to return home February 22," Kalinina said. "The doorbell rang just after 9 a.m. I thought it was him. I opened the door and saw two officers. I didn't need to hear their words. I knew what had happened."

She received an official letter from the military, typed on a plain sheet of white paper: "Your husband fulfilled his military duty with courage and honor and died a hero on the battlefield."

Kalinina has gotten no official account of how her husband died. He suffered a bad head wound. Apparently when he saw that he was being overrun, he called in Russian artillery fire on his own position to stop the Chechens at any cost.

He, like the men buried yesterday, will be awarded a Hero of Russia medal. Medals and words of praise and gratitude offer his widow little comfort.

"Of course he deserves it," she said. "On the other hand, how can it help? I don't know what he died for."

Every day, she goes to the cemetery. Every day, she asks what he died for. "As for the war in Chechnya, I don't even understand what they're fighting for," she said. "For what?"

Despite her grief and misgivings, Kalinina plans to vote for Putin in the presidential election March 26. "I don't even know why," she said. "Maybe he's doing something wrong in Chechnya, but he gives me hope."

Standing next to the church within the Pskov Kremlin, Larissa Yegorova said she expected to find herself there again as more of the 85 bodies are returned and more funerals are held.

"This is a military town," she said. "Half the town is connected to someone in the military."

The deaths and slow, misleading explanations apparently have not damaged Putin. Yegorova and her friends blame the war not on Putin but on former President Boris N. Yeltsin, who resigned abruptly New Year's Eve and hasn't been seen much since.

"I support [Putin's] policy in Chechnya," said Alexander Ivanov, 21, a friend of Yegorova's, "and I will vote for Putin."

Then they fell silent. The church bells tolled a dirge-like cadence. The bells tolled again and again through the cold, wet afternoon. The people of Pskov stood there, waiting.

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