Aleksandr Cherkasov: Tales of Alik

8 November 2022

In memory of journalist and human rights’ activist Aleksandr Mnatsakanian

by Aleksandr Cherkasov, exclusive for Novaya Gazeta: Europe

Alik Mnatsakanian. Photo: Facebook

From the Novaya gazeta editor

On 7th November, photographer and human rights activist Aleksandr (Alik) Mnatsakanian passed away in Moscow. In 1992, during the Ossetian-Ingushetian conflict, he took one of the most famous anti-war photographs: it depicted an upturned pram in front of an armoured vehicle. Mnatsakanian saved people during both Chechen wars, and after 2014 he became a vocal critic of the annexation of Crimea and Russian aggression toward Ukraine. Aleksandr Cherkasov, former chair of the now-closed Russian human rights’ centre Memorial remembers his colleague.


“I’m probably one of a kind! Injured people were taken by aeroplane. On stretchers, placed on top of seats that had been lowered down. The plane wasn’t too crowded, but nor were there any spare seats. So I weighed myself on the luggage scales, paid for myself as an item of baggage and flew with a luggage tag as my ticket, with the label reading ‘living being’. Who else could have done something like that?”

Alik Mnatsakanian was one of a kind. “Was”, because he passed away on 7th November. It is hard for those who had known him a long time to believe. Alik and I had been in close contact for the last year – a year which the doctors gave him, but a terrible year. It is difficult to mourn him. There are too many memories, I haven’t managed to turn them into an obituary. Instead, I just have a collection of stories. So, what follows are Alik’s stories.

Returning to Moscow

One sunny autumn day, Mnatsakanian is on his way from a work trip in Abkhazia back home to Moscow. As he approaches his home, he sees a crowd of people running away, followed by another chasing them, and one person firing bullets at the others. One of the pursuers falls, and Alik rushes over to give first aid. He was a medic, after all, and a lifesaver by nature. 

They are surrounded by fellow journalists, who jeer at them, “Look, a Moskovsky komsomolets correspondent is bandaging up a correspondent from the Day newspaper!” And sure enough, the patient is Vlad Shurygin. Alik’s head is bandaged, too – with a bandage wrap named “the pilot’s cap”. The day is 3rd October 1993.

Next, the crowds storm the city hall, Hotel Mir, they move on towards the Ostankino Tower. Meanwhile, Alik takes his footage of Sukhumi on fire and his sense of duty fulfilled he heads home. To a grey house, right behind a white one. And it’s not as if anyone’s waiting for him there: word has already got out that he’s dead, even though he really got away with nothing more than a “pilot’s hat”. He’s met with cries, hugs, one thing and then another from evening until night…and at sunrise he is met by the sound of machinery and gunfire. He gets up, throws on some clothes, grabs his camera case and runs out into the street to start shooting. Now the OMON riot police are on the move – what a surprise! – they want to be the subject, not the object: they want to smash his face into the asphalt, shatter his camera, expose his film to the daylight. So would you believe it, nothing is left of Alik’s trip to Abkhazia.

But wait – there is something left: “I was first struck by his journalistic talent and courage when I read his correspondence from bleeding, besieged Sukhumi. This was the high standard of truthful war journalism that he took with him for the rest of his life…” writes an old friend of mine.

Meeting with Estemirova

This famous photograph was taken in 1992, in the village of Chermen in the Prigorodny District, once the army that had been dispatched there had consolidated their programme of ethnic cleansing: tens of thousands of Ingush people were once again expelled from their region.

It was then that Alik met Natasha Estemirova for the first time. I don’t know if she told this story herself. I don’t know if Alik’s story has been recorded anywhere. So, I will include it in my own retelling.

A simple teacher from Grozny, Natasha arrived in the Prigorodny Disrict – as she would go on to do many more times – without yet knowing what she would do there and how. The situation was horrendous: people were being loaded into buses and taken away as hostages. There was no guarantee that they would ever return or that anyone would find them. And that’s exactly what happened: hundreds of people were killed, and hundreds more reported missing. 

So, Natasha goes up to one of the buses, introduces herself as a Red Cross worker, and starts speaking to the fighters who are guarding the hostage bus. She tells them that they cannot do this, and explains why not. She talks to them like a schoolteacher would her pupils: firmly and clearly. And – miracle of miracles! – she persuades them. She’s got through to the soldiers. They let the hostages go.

Alik’s eyes would light up with a sense of wonder when he told this story. And even after 10 or 15 years, Natasha’s ability to enter situations like this never ceases to amaze me.

“A friend will transport the body…”

During the first Chechen war, both Alik’s core skills as a journalist and his medical knowledge came into play. Alik sanitised hospitals. He got to speak to different people. He learnt Ukrainian fluently, was able to write out Kotliarevsky’s translation of the Aeneid by heart. There is a lot to remember and to recount about this aspect of his work.

In April 1996, Alik took the body of murdered Obshchaya gazeta correspondent Nadia Chaikova out of the Chechen village of Gekhi. On 15th March, Nadia had set off towards the village of Samashki which – for the second time – had been taken by federal soldiers. We know that she went into the village. We know that she left the village together with a military platoon. And then, on 30th March, her body was found on the outskirts of Gekhi. She was killed by a shot to the head, and had been kneeling. At the time, the village was under the control of Dokka Makhaev’s platoon. He had been put in charge of the sector by the Ichkeria Department for State Security. Alik Mnatsakanian went looking for Nadia, found her, took her body out of the village and buried her.

He had this to say on the matter: “What’s the difference between a friend and a colleague? A colleague will dig the grave. A friend will take the body there…”

Many were not found, not taken out, not buried.

Alik vs. Rogozin

Alik Mnatskanian worked for a while at the newspaper Russia. Then he left.

…He would jokingly call himself a “non-Russian” and other, worse names, but he could not tolerate racism. At a market in Odesa, he pointed to a Caucasian delicacy and asked, “What’s that?” The stallholder replied in Ukrainian, “animal food”.  Furious, Alik asked “So, does it bother you that I’m Armenian?”, to which she responded in a conciliatory tone, “You’re no Armenian, you’re one of our own Odessan Jews!” This time, it worked out okay.

…But when a new editor-in-chief started at the paper and, in his very first meeting, referred to “n***rs”, Alik punched him in the face and resigned on the spot.  

This editor-in-chief with a fat lip went by the name of Dmitry Olegovich Rogozin.

Survival skills on the Solovetsky Islands

Alik taught survival skills at Moscow’s School No. 192. He led expeditions to the right places: “We’re walking along the coastline on the Solovetsky Islands and who do we meet with her children but Tatiana Mikhailovna Velikanova…” After her release from prison Tatiana Mikhailovna, once Executive Director of A Chronicle of Current Events, had no less important tasks on her plate: she taught children mathematics and other subjects, including the subject of life itself.

Alik also taught children about life. On his missions to Chechnya, when he would stay with Natasha Estemirova, he would teach her daughter Lana. He got on well with children – whether his own or other people’s. It was as if he saw all children as his own. It was simple: he took them seriously and treated them as his equals. They say that that’s one of the hallmarks of a good teacher. Alik was a good teacher.

Lift in Grozny

During the second Chechen war, Alik was already working as a human rights activist. On one occasion in 2006 or thereabouts, he and Tanya Lokshina were asking police officers sent to serve in the “counter-terrorist operation” questions about sociology – those were the times! It had all been going smoothly until some surly Bashkir cops appeared at the intersection of the Kavkaz and Shatoisky highways and arrested our “sociologists”.  They latched on (strange people!) to the fact that Alik didn’t have his travel papers with him. And they turned them into the Grozny rural district police force where they were stationed.

They took the matter seriously, and a rapid response group – like goblins in bulletproof vests – turned up in a police van and accompanied Alik from Tolstoi-Yurt, via his temporary accommodation, and onto Natasha’s flat. It was late at night, the goblins didn’t know the area, and what’s more a division of Kadyrov’s oil regiment was stationed on this part of Olympiiskaya Street, guarding the street like the devil guarding a lost soul. Alik had to navigate.

But quietly they approached their destination, and the Head Goblin, using his dumb goblin sign language, explained: “Three of you with me, the rest – wait here.” The other goblins nodded and surge as one mass to the entrance, crushing against one another and the metal door…there’s cacophony and the Head Goblin shouts: “Idiots, three of you with me, and the rest of you – take up your positions and wait!”

Natasha’s building had what was at the time the only working lift in Grozny. But here’s the rub: Alik wasn’t a small man, and only two goblins – the Head Goblin and one other – could fit into the lift with him. The doors close, the damned thing goes up half a floor and gets stuck. The goblins are in a state of panic: one claws at the doors with the barrel of his gun, while the other gets out a grenade for some reason…the lift, realising the danger, decided to go back down and let our heroes out.

They walk up to the second floor, find the travel documents in the flat, inspect the place, do this, that and the other…and, coming back out onto the landing, they see their team who were supposed to be guarding the entrance from the insidious enemy. They had been riding the lift this whole time! The Head Goblin gives a shout, to which the others respond, “Hang on, boss, don’t yell, gizza chance to explain! We never saw anything like that!” These really were guys who grew up during the war…

On the way back to the police station, everything is much more serious: they threaten to hand Alik and Tanya over to the FSB. They had almost no means of communication – they sent a couple of texts before their phone battery died. Really not a happy story. But their friends worked their “wartime magic” so that by the time the cops were ready to hand our heroes over to the band of FSB officers that had arrived, a bunch of stony-faced Chechen GRU special officers appeared with two cases of cognac. They gave one case to each side of this enterprise and took the sociologists away from them.

At this point, the chief goblin was ready to let them go. But the head of the Grozny rural district police force decided to lecture them on “Why human rights activists are bad”, telling them to get the hell out of Chechnya…at this point Alik starts to yell back at him!…

…Later, Alik would say that he now knows his worth: a case of cognac.

A relative in Gori

…In the summer of 2008, Alik travelled through the Caucasus with Varia Pakhomenko. In South Ossetia, things went slightly awry: shelling of Tskhinvali was intensifying and the checkpoints were closed. But surely they weren’t going to let that stop them? Passing through the village of Avnevi, they got on a bus for Gori. Their fellow travellers covered for them in every way imaginable on their journey. But our heroes’ trip to Gori was interrupted by the security forces: arrest, interrogation. Then – par for the course in Gori – during the interrogation it emerged that Alik, a Tbilisi Armenian, was related to his interrogator. A second or third cousin, or something like that. What followed was a long and thorough display of Georgian hospitality, after which Alik and Varia were duly sent back to the breakaway territory. 

That said, this is nothing surprising: I have no relatives in Gori, but my interactions with the police, even during periods of heightened vigilance, have always ended much the same way…

Wine without bread

A few weeks later, Alik has landed back in the same place, but this time for a different reason: war. He and his colleagues are heading down from the north towards Tskhinvali. They are travelling with a military column – or rather, they are standing with the column, as it is impossible to get around it. To the right and to the left, enclave villages – Kurta, Kekhvi, Tamarasheni – are burning, abandoned by their Georgian residents. All that’s left is to record this crime. Older people, burnt out of their homes, are huddling by the roadside, forgotten. The heat is blazing, unbearable. The villages are being looted and burnt down by marauders moving in from the north, ‘militia,’ fighters from the second line.’ War alone wasn’t enough for them, they also had to show off…members of the newly formed Investigative Committee stand by the side of the road, waiting. And the marauders are still there, setting houses ablaze. Alik starts to shout at the investigator: ‘Do something! React! At least pretend to do something!’ To which the lazy investigator responds, ‘First the homeowners need to file reports…’

The trip was further livened up by the onset of a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’: there was no flour, no bread. But there was an abundance of wine and meat. And the locals, having lived through several days of war in August, would only speak to their guests over a meal. They stubbornly ignored the ‘humanitarian catastrophe.’ Alik had to ‘put his liver through its paces’ in order to enable the others to remain sufficiently sober to ask questions and do interviews. Communications systems were severely disrupted, but on one night-time phone-call: ‘So, where are you?’ Alik’s voice responds, ‘We have a humanitarian catastrophe here…’ That became a meme.

However, the situation soon calmed down, and the local KGB set to work (it hadn’t changed its name over there) and a whole new set of adventures began.

“Scum! What use are our papers to you?”

I can’t keep writing like this: times have probably changed, ‘demanding more than merely readings from the actors.’ Alik took part in Maidan as a human rights activist, as a journalist and as a medic. He was extremely blunt when speaking about Ukrainian topics. He was entitled to: unlike the hundreds of ‘armchair activists,’ he walked the walk.

Crimea. Our mutual friend Kostia is on the frontline, but wrote on Facebook (our translation): “One cold March night in 2014, Alik, I and two other friends were following a Russian military column which had surrounded some Ukrainian military units in Crimea. The Russians didn’t like that, they blockaded our car, aimed their machine guns at us and forced us to get out of the car and lie down on the bonnet. Alik alone stayed in the car. He said that f*** knows who they even were, and that he had no intention of following their orders. With his hands and feet, he pushed out a soldier who had got into the car. When the soldier took his bayonet and started waving it in front of Alik’s face, Alik expressively told this fear-monger how many wars he had been through and what he thought of his threats. On this, the attack abruptly ended: they hung about in a state of confusion for a minute, trying to figure out what to do next. They decided to drop the bullying. They used the bayonet to slash our tyres and drove off into the night.

Sadly, Russia has very few people like Alik left.”

Kostia has not told you what Alik actually said to these ‘impudent people’: ‘Scum! You’re illiterate, what use are our travel papers to you?’ You could have a whole conversation with Alik using only quotes from the Strugatsky brothers…

Until the end of March 2014, he continued to help evacuate Ukrainian soldiers from Crimea to Kherson Oblast.

Farewell, my brave brother. You spent thirty years treading this varied road, adorned by a fascist’s skeleton attached to a machine gun, and a blown-up bridge. We will continue the journey for you.

Translated by Judith Fagelson

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