Oleg Orlov on Budennovsk: A History of Remembering

22 June 2020  

By Oleg Orlov

Source: Facebook

History. With a capital letter – History. As they say, humanity creates it before our very eyes. The events that it consists of are reported in newspapers and other media. The events leave traces in business and personal correspondence, and now also in social networks. Later, the events are analyzed and summarized by journalists, political scientists, analysts, and are again presented to us in a form that has already been considered and explained by them. Then books and memoirs of the participants of these or those events make their appearance in print. 

Politicians and public figures make speeches at rallies marking anniversaries. Then historians study all of this, researching documents – those that remained and to which access has not been denied. So academic articles appear, followed by monographs. 

And finally, events become History, cast in the ‘bronze’ of textbooks.

Thermopylae, the Battle of Borodino, the destruction of Novgorod by Ivan the Terrible, the construction of St. Petersburg, World War II, the collapse of the USSR, August 91 in Moscow and then the autumn of 1993, the Chechen wars. Everything is described, researched and depicted in varying degrees of detail for History.

But with me and my comrades an interesting and instructive story happened. And this story once again clearly demonstrates that this whole ‘cast-in-bronze’ History is just a construct which may have a very distant relation to the real events of the past. 

Exactly 25 years ago, a terrible terrorist attack took place in Budennovsk. It was preceded by the even more bloody events of the first months of the First Chechen War. In Budennovsk, more than 1,500 people were taken hostage, the vast majority of them civilians, including 150 children. 

After the unsuccessful storming of the hospital, which resulted in the death of more than 20 hostages, negotiations began, leading to the release of all those seized by the terrorists who remained alive and the departure of the terrorists to the part of Chechnya not controlled by the federal forces. All this is more or less remembered, although you can hear diametrically opposed assessments of what happened. Everyone remembers the words pronounced by Chernomyrdin on the phone: ‘Shamil Basayev, speak louder!’

I was a participant in these events, a member of the so-called ‘Kovalev group’, i.e. the group of State Duma deputies (I was not a deputy myself, but was there as an assistant to Sergei Adamovich Kavalev, human rights activist, Duma deputy, and at that time chair of the Presidential Human Rights Commission).

It was Sergei Adamovich who, after the attempt to storm the hospital failed, with the help of other members of our group managed to get information from the doctors at the hospital under siege about what happened during the assault. It was he who managed to persuade Basayev to back down from his impossible condition demanding the immediate withdrawal of troops from the southern regions of Chechnya. He was able to convey this information to Chernomyrdin and received authority from him to form a negotiating group. Then, during negotiations at the hospital, he agreed the main terms of the agreement, which was announced on television by Chernomyrdin a few hours later.

I was present at the conversation between Chernomyrdin and Kovalev; I saw how Basayev and Kovalev (the latter on behalf of the Russian government) signed the text of the agreement on the conditions for the release of hostages and the other elements of it. My signature is there among those of the others.

And then I, along with other members of Kovalev’s team travelled in buses, alongside those who were acting as a human shield. Later, I accompanied the released hostages home.

I write all this to highlight that there are documents to show that a group of 25 individuals played an important role in an event that came to be of great significance for society. 

This event decided the fate of thousands of people. Not only the hostages but their loved ones, the security services, who might have had to take part in another assault, the residents of Chechnya and residents of surrounding areas too, all of whom fought there on different sides. 

After all, the consequence of these events was, among other things, a six-month truce. I repeat, the role we played can be evaluated in different ways. But fact is fact, is it not?

From the bulk of materials about the Budennovsk tragedy published over the past 25 years and which are being republished to mark the current anniversary of those tragic events, it’s clear that the Kovalev group had nothing to do with the events in Budennovsk. If Kovalev was had nonetheless still been spotted there, it had no effect on how things played out.

The seizure of the hospital happened. The attempted storming took place. Chernomyrdin’s call to the hospital happened. But what happened between these events is not clear. Well, and then the terrorists departed.  

The role of Sergei Adamovich Kovalev has been erased. People just don’t recall it, they don’t know about it, they don’t remember it. There is a yawning black hole in history.

However, someone is trying to fix this : it seems that Kashpirovsky, a Duma deputy and psychotherapist, who treated millions of people via television, came to the hospital and somehow helped the hostages, and came to an agreement about something with Basayev. How he helped, and to what he agreed remains unclear.  So far they haven’t had a lot of success in fixing it. But this is a job for the future.

But there are memories of these events written by Kovalev and Viktor Kurochkin, a member of his group and a deputy. However, memories can be untrustworthy.

There are contemporaneous accounts written immediately afterwards by those, including journalists, who were travelling as a human shield from Budennovsk on buses with Basayev’s detachment.

However, even then there were many more articles written by those who witnessed little themselves and mainly received their information from officials. And, from the very beginning, these people ran a campaign of silence. Why say something about the role of a man who had formerly been an ally of Yeltsin, but now dared to stand in opposition to the new ‘elite.’

Well, under Putin, most of them would rather forget the whole episode. Against the background of the victims of Nord-Ost and Beslan, the current Commander-in-Chief might not approve of the rescue of hostages in Budennovsk. Of course, a human rights defender can be cast as an ‘enemy of the state’ and an accomplice of Basayev, but then the role of Chernomyrdin becomes incomprehensible. It’s better just to keep quiet about the whole thing.

In Memorial’s archives are the originals of the texts of the agreements signed in the hospital, with the signatures of Kovalev and Basayev. They were published. For the time being, theyt can should be simply ignored. Better still, remove the whole archive. There are photos of Kovalev entering the hospital and of Kovalev and Basayev at the time of the signing of the agreement. They have been posted online. You can either ignore them, or tag them ‘an unknown negotiator enters the hospital.’

In Budennovsk itself they don’t remember the person who saved the lives of more than 1,500 residents of the city. They don’t thank, they don’t curse, they simply don’t remember and they don’t want to know.

And there are some journalists, who at that time wrote about Kovalev’s role in resolving the crisis, now choose not to remember it either.

This ‘conspiracy of silence’ orchestrated from above proves quite effective. You read, you look and you think, ‘Maybe I wasn’t there, maybe I dreamt it?’

Reading about the historical events of past centuries, I’ve inevitably come to wonder how many of the actual participants of events have been air-brushed from History in the interests of the powers that be, while the role of others has been distorted, unjustifiably belittled or exaggerated. It’s funny to think about this using events in which I participated as an example.  

Translated by Simon Cosgrove, Matthew Quigley and Graham Jones

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