A soldier and a peacemaker

SUN JOURNAL

Lebed: The man who died Sunday at 52 was a warrior who once seemed likely to become president of Russia.

April 30, 2002|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN STAFF

Russia's Alexander I. Lebed always wore the politician's uniform somewhat uneasily, looking as if he was about to squirm under the shoulders of his suit.

He was born to the soldier's life -- assuming authority, barking orders, protecting his men -- and moved comfortably in army green.

When he died Sunday in a helicopter crash, he was 52 years old and the governor of Krasnoyarsk, a region about a fourth the size of the United States, in the heart of Siberia.

His ambitions had no doubt contracted by that time, as had the hopes of his nation.

Once, he was considered a likely president, a savior of the nation. When he died, he was deep in Siberia, wrestling with intensely local problems, 2,500 miles away from the center of power in Moscow.

Lebed was leading a group of local officials and journalists to the opening of a downhill ski slope, built in an effort to attract tourists to the economically foundering region.

Their helicopter, flying in fog, hit a power line in the snowy mountains. Lebed, badly injured, was flown to a hospital in Abakan, the capital of the nearby republic of Khakassia, where his brother Alexei is governor. He died on the way. Seven other people died as a result of the crash and 12 survived.

Lebed was regarded -- and revered -- as a true Russian man. He was that rare soldier known for his common sense. He was born a Cossack, descendant of the peasant-warriors who once lived on Russia's southern borders, rough horsemen guarding the land for czar and empire.

His language was coarse. His name meant swan, and he had a voice like a tuba. He was considered a true patriot.

He attended a military academy and joined the Soviet army as a paratrooper. By the 1980s he was in Afghanistan as a battalion commander. There, he earned glory in a distinctly inglorious war, leading his men courageously, saving lives instead of spending them.

Then, in August 1991, the major general became a national hero. Lebed refused to acknowledge the putschists who had arrested President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, seizing power in an attempt to prevent the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Instead, he rallied to the side of Boris N. Yeltsin, who was holding out inside the Russian White House, then the home of the parliament. Yeltsin prevailed. Lebed was credited with preventing bloodshed.

In later years, Lebed would say he was not a democrat. His rhetoric was nationalistic. And like many Russians, he spoke fondly of Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

He had a way of capturing the Russian mood.

"Anyone who doesn't regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart," he said a few years after the superpower's demise. "Anyone who thinks it can be put back together has no brain."

Yeltsin put Lebed in command of the 14th Army, an army left behind in Moldova when the Soviet Union fell apart. Russian-speaking separatists there were challenging the newly independent government of Moldova.

Lebed fired on advancing Moldovans, prevented civil war and enforced a reluctant peace.

A reporter visiting him at his base there in 1995 found a sense of order remarkable for the former Soviet Union. Every tree was whitewashed to exactly the same height. Every soldier was in an identical uniform.

By then, Lebed was considering a run for president, and he was extremely popular. He spoke his mind. He was a harsh critic of the first war in Chechnya, which began in late 1994.

"Trying to preserve its territorial integrity with Chechnya," he said, "Russia might in the end lose the whole Caucasus -- and only after having spilled so much blood, having thrown the country back for decades, having completely destroyed its already half-dead economy. Yes, so much can be achieved by war."

He was one of the few Russian military leaders who understood the lesson of the failed war in Afghanistan. He knew that sending tanks into Chechnya would have the same effect as invading Afghanistan: Ordinary people would be radicalized and fight back to the death.

"From my experience in Afghanistan, I know," he said. "The most fearless and daring soldiers grow out of peaceful farmers."

A shell or bomb destroys a farmer's house, he said, and kills the man's family.

"He takes up a submachine gun and goes to war. What is the hallmark of such a fighting man? He does not care a bit for his own life. Fighting out of vengeance, he will tear and slash at the enemy as long as he is alive."

In 1996, Lebed ran for president and placed third. The victorious Yeltsin, apparently trying to neutralize him, made him national security chief. Lebed pulled off an amazing feat. He negotiated peace with Chechnya, which lasted until Russia invaded again in 1999.

In 1998, he was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk.

"I will never again be appointed to any office," he said in the fall of that year, when rumors began to circulate that Yeltsin would summon him back to Moscow as prime minister. "I am sick of the idiots who have commanded me."

He had plans to straighten out Krasnoyarsk -- end the corruption, bring pensions up to date, make sure workers got paid, invigorate the economy.

In that way, speculation went, he would prove himself capable of running the country and attract votes for the presidency.

He battled the local aluminum company, which wanted to keep power in its hands. Before long, the head of the company found himself a wanted man.

Four years into his governorship, Krasnoyarsk still had its problems -- they are not so easily solved in Russia. But Lebed was soldiering on, flying off to open the ski slope.

"We must always remember," he had told his countrymen, "that we are the most intelligent and the most wealthy nation, and we have the willpower and the common sense to make a real life for ourselves instead of a shameful, pitiful existence."

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