A Rebel with Protruding Ears
By Petra Procházková
If he wore civilian clothing and stood somewhere on the edge of a field, I
would say that he was a respectable farmer, a model husband and a kind
father. For Aslan Maskhadov did not in the least bit look like one of the
most famous Chechen rebels who would rather die than be dishonored by
being taken prisoner.
I remember the first time I saw him, which was in the autumn of 1994. He
was a shadowy figure behind the then Chechen President, Dzhokhar Dudayev,
who even back in 1991 named him Deputy Chief of the Chechen General Staff.
Frankly speaking, before my journalist colleagues and I precisely knew the
names or faces of the members of the Chechen leadership, we knew Maskhadov
was "the one with those ears." His standout, protruding ears
gave him a childish expression of bewilderment so as a result he had to
gain respect through actual deeds - and not through appearance as
did the commanders who looked fiercer and tougher.
At the end of 1994, Maskhadov was promoted to Chief of General Staff. And
then all of us remembered him.
He was friendly, but conversations with him were extremely difficult
because he often responded to questions with one word, and sometimes only
just nodded his head, which was especially calamitous for radio
"Aslan Aliyevich" corrected me once when I called him
"Mr. Maskhadov." Perhaps he might have accepted being
addressed as "Comrade Colonel" (though from 1995, General),
but "Mr." he definitely did not like. Later on he got used to
the manners of western journalists, yet in his soul he would always retain
a little of the Soviet officer.
I held many interviews with him and now, when I listen to them again, I
realize that such a closed person, who would never reveal anything
essential, would be hard to find among the other members of the Chechen
armed forces. The most difficult thing was using the microphone because he
spoke very softly. He had a rather high voice, but certainly not as
resonant as one would expect from an artillery man.
During one interview we talked about the Czech Republic. Only after I shut
off my camera and firmly clasped his hand in taking my leave, he
announced, "We obviously have something in common, and not just
because Russians call us 'Chekhi'." He then smiled and I regretted
that my camera was already packed away. "Earlier I didn't understand
how you felt when the Russians occupied your country; it's only now
that I do. I was in Hungary as an occupier also, and I will regret it for
the rest of my life."
Compared with the rest of the Chechen high command, he had no close
friends among the journalists. He was always a little inaccessible. In the
Russian fashion, he invited us to tea, but we only talked about politics
and the war, never about anything personal. He remembered our names, but
rarely addressed us by them.
He hid his feelings, except on special occasions, such as during the
Khasavyurt Peace Agreements in 1996. Then, as he got up from the table,
where together with Russian General Aleksander Lebed he stopped the bloody
war in Chechnya, he began to laugh out loud. Even Lebed began laughing.
Both men were extraordinarily identical; not only because of their
appearance and color of hair, but in their views about the world. They did
not read philosophy books in the evening, but rather the memoirs of
Marshall Zhukov; they liked clear situations that could be worked into war
maps and felt uncomfortable and out of place in the political arena. A
signature on an agreement was less important to them than a handshake. And
today both are dead.
When Maskhadov became president in 1997, he began to make more mistakes
than when he was on the battlefield. He was an artillery man, not an
intriguer, disliked underhanded politics, and as a civilian was confused
so he did things that he later regretted. In answering my question as to
why he introduced Sharia Law and allowed public executions in the center
of Grozny, he frowned and replied, "How can I make any order out of
this chaos in which Russian spies wreak havoc, and in the aftermath of the
war people behave like animals?"
He silently raged when Shamil Basayev, his subordinate and rival, ignored
and slandered him. But he was unable to do anything about it, just like he
could not prevent kidnappings by groups of abductors. "They're
criminals and are insubordinate," he sadly explained. Unfortunately
it is difficult to punish wartime heroes. Therefore Basayev, together with
the Kremlin, drew him into another war in 1999. He was but one of the few
who could have stopped it.
Now a new generation will spring up. They have no use for peace, never
heard of the Geneva Conventions, and regard terrorism as a legitimate way
of fighting. Russians should not be celebrating victory, and instead
should be wringing their hands. They released a genie from the bottle and
killed the person who helped them keep that genie inside. Thus, whoever
replaces General Maskhadov will be more of a fanatic and far more radical.
I last spoke with Aslan Aliyevich in 2000 when he phoned me at my apartment
in Moscow. We knew each other for seven years, yet he had never
telephoned me. In Russia there is a ban on publishing interviews with
people Moscow regards as terrorists. And Maskhadov's name was high
on the list. After asking about my health, he said that it is important
that one has an opportunity to openly express his ideas. And because the
Czech newspaper Lidové noviny had given him this opportunity, I was
interrogated by the Russian secret services.
Maskhadov made many mistakes that caused the deaths of many people. But he
most certainly was never a terrorist. On the contrary, he called loudly
for peace more than anyone else did. Perhaps that is why he had to be
This article originally appeared in the Czech daily Lidové noviny on March 10. English translation by Jeannette Vota, our Prague Watchdog translator.
Petra Procházková is a Czech journalist for the Epicentrum Agency, and routinely contributes to Lidové noviny. She covered, among other things, both wars in Chechnya. The Russian authorities considered her persona non grata and ejected her from Russia in 2000. She was denied an entry visa for five years. Then she got involved in humanitarian activities. Eventually, she resumed her work as a journalist (but still cannot work in Russia). She occasionally also contributes to Prague Watchdog.
E/B,T RELATED ARTICLES: