Viktor Pelevin is one of Russia's finest comic writers. Prospect, in conjunction with Index on Censorship, publishes his account of some remarkable events at the Kremlinby / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in June 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
When on that memorable August day the Kremlin was stormed by Shamil Basayev, the Chechen leader, news of its fall proved oddly reluctant to cross the boundary of Moscow’s inner ring road. Perhaps talk of its “fall” seemed incongruous when the operation had been accomplished without bloodshed -if we overlook the wasting of the traffic policeman perched in a glass tumbler at the entrance to the Kremlin. (Even there, as was later established, he was shot only because the female Ukrainian sniper in one of the leading vehicles overreacted to the suspiciously large black telephone into which he was talking.)
The lightning success of the operation was due primarily to meticulous planning and to lessons learnt from the Budennovsk raid. But this time there were no trucks and no camouflage. Two hundred men of Basayev’s assault and sabotage battalion travelled up to Moscow in 40 Mercedes 600s requisitioned from inhabitants of the mountainous regions of Chechnya. The successful outcome was due in part to the fact that most of the vehicles were equipped-in accordance with the mountain dwellers’ etiquette-with emergency vehicle flashing lights. The battalion’s fighters were clean shaven and wore cheerful maroon blazers (hastily fashioned from sacks dyed with beetroot juice) and heavy gold-painted toilet chains around their necks. These, as the subsequent commission of enquiry was to establish, had been put through as a rush order by one of the Grozny funeral parlours.
In accordance with the plan, all the Kremlin’s entrances and exits were barricaded. Weapons stockpiled in advance were retrieved from the cellars of the Palace of Congresses, the fighters changed back into their traditional combat jackets and the telescopic sights of Basayev’s snipers were soon glinting from the battlements. The assault had been a complete success, except that not a single member of the government, or even a senior civil servant, had been seized. Basayev’s men had taken 20 hostages, mostly employees of the casino in the Palace of Congresses, along with a few fitters working despite its being Sunday. Basayev was not put out by his modest haul.
“They come by themselves tomorrow, trust me,” he said to his distraught Pakistani adviser. “So many we can’t keep them all in prison.” The terrorist leader’s intuition did not fail him, but of this more anon. Immediately after occupying the Kremlin and organising defensive positions on the axes along which counterattacks were to be expected, Basayev proceeded to implement the second part of his plan. This part- apparently far removed from terrorism-concerned the steep rise in the price of Astrakhan fleeces on the Moscow fur exchange. Picking up the telephone, Basayev dialled a number which he knew by heart, uttered a single codeword and rang off.
Nowadays we all know that behind bloodshed there is always somebody’s money. Basayev’s activities were no exception. It has now been established beyond doubt that Basayev’s principal sponsor and ally in Moscow was the chairman of the Aenea Bank, Kim Polkanov. Two months before the events described he had engaged in intensive speculative buying of Astrakhan fleeces which, in consequence, almost trebled in price. (The Aenea Bank took its name from Polkanov’s method of accumulating start-up capital. He would hang a “Bureau de Change” sign at the entrance to a dark alleyway and when a customer appeared asking for the bank he would reply “In ‘ere” and strike him a sharp blow with a hammer.)
Soon after the telephone call, two trucks left Polkanov’s dacha. They entered the Kremlin unhindered, the gates closed behind them, and a few hours later the red stars on the towers of the Kremlin disappeared beneath giant Astrakhan fur hats.
Ordering the sentries to redouble their vigilance, Basayev said namaz and awaited the appearance of mediators. His wait was a lengthy one. As we have already noted, for a considerable time rumours that the Kremlin had been seized circulated only within the confines of the inner ring road-spread in the main by taxi drivers who refused to carry passengers through the city centre, or demanded improbably high fares to do so. The federal security service (FSS) first heard of the terrorists’ success from one of their employees who had tried to take a taxi to work. They didn’t take it seriously at first, but decided to check it out with the Moscow office of CNN, who advised that nothing had been synchronised with them, from which the FSS concluded that the whole thing was a hoax.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that all the top FSS brass were away accompanying the president, who was inflicting an official visit on Greenland. No credence should be given to the claim that the president’s bodyguards had been tipped off and simply carted their meal ticket as far as possible out of harm’s way. This is manifestly scabrous pre-election rumour-mongering. The same is true of the allegation that the remote location chosen for the presidential visit had anything to do with the terrorists’ having picked up an atomic warhead on the cheap during their progress through the Ukraine.
When, however, the authorities were finally persuaded that Basayev had indeed seized the Kremlin, the analysts of the FSS were instructed to propose appropriate counter-measures. As a first priority, it was deemed essential to give the inhabitants of the capital an explanation for the appearance of the enormous Astrakhan fur hats on the towers of the Kremlin (although, if we are to be entirely honest, very few people had actually noticed them). To this end disinformation was spread through the city and over a number of subordinate television channels to the effect that a concert would be taking place in Red Square at which Makhmud Esembayev would be accompanied by a group of Sufi musicians who were flying in from Pakistan. It was even claimed that the event was being sponsored by Peter Gabriel and that Nushrat Fatekh Ali-Khan would be singing with Esembayev. Immediately after this announcement a huge quantity of undated tickets were printed and sold in Moscow by persons unknown.
The Kremlin was cordoned off and closed to visitors, but this evoked no surprise. The Russian people continued, as it had since Pushkin penned the last scene of Boris Godunov, to keep its counsel. Negotiations were conducted with Basayev over police frequencies. He had settled into the bunker under the Palace of Congresses and his demands which, according to confidential information, related to the granting of vast loans to revive farming in Chechnya, had virtually been conceded already. It might have been possible to conceal the seizure of the Kremlin entirely, had not a number of Basayev’s men started trading grenade launchers and ammunition in Alexander park right next to the Kremlin walls. When rival arms traders from a certain location on Kotelnicheskaya embankment heard of this and sent round their heavies to sort them out, Basayev’s men simply locked themselves in the Kremlin. The incident came to the attention of journalists and ended the possibility of concealing the occupation.
The FSS now decided to resort to force, but the Alpha special forces group’s reaction to the suggestion that they should storm the Kremlin while taking care not to cause any damage was extremely rude; it was decided instead to pressure the terrorists indirectly by cutting off their water, light and sanitation. However, after several grenades were launched from behind the walls and a caustic remark was made in a newspaper controlled by Polkanov’s bank that only the present Russian government was capable of treating unknown bandits in the same way as it treated legitimately elected members of parliament, mains water and sanitation were restored.
Press reaction was varied. Some of the more intellectual newspapers remarked coyly on a certain resemblance of the Astrakhan caps to condoms and wrote about the inevitability in the post-imperial era of a demasculinisation of the Kremlin, an Oedipus complex among the former Soviet republics towards their former mother country, and much else besides. Indeed, the level of insight in these articles was of such a high order that one could scarcely imagine how an event like the seizing of the Kremlin was possible in a country inhabited by such clever people. The ultra-patriotic press achieved a rare degree of unanimity. They contended that because it is indisputable that the Kremlin is controlled by Jews, and because Basayev had occupied the Kremlin and consequently controlled it, no further doubt could remain as to his racial origins. Basayev was simply a run-of-the-mill agent of international Zionism and was acting on the orders of its world government. A number of intriguing facts about his biography were made public, including a dozen or so variants of his real surname, which ranged from Basaiman to Gorgonzoller. The ultra-right journalists were, however, all agreed that his real first name was Schlemihl.
Meanwhile Basayev’s prediction about volunteer hostages began to be realised. The Borovitsky gate was opened to admit them. In the first two days the influx was so large that the terrorists guarding the entrance had to arrange a small vetting station by the gate, allowing in only television reporters and celebrities of one kind or another: society gurus, variety artistes, members of parliament, television presenters and anyone else who might add to the publicity value of Basayev’s performance.
The opening of the Borovitsky gate for the admission of hostages and television crews was, however, the moment when the first crack, as yet invisible, opened in the ground beneath Basayev’s feet. This, in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, was the beginning of the end.
It would be unfair to say that Basayev had committed an error which was to wreck the entire operation. It was later claimed in numerous interviews that he had been defeated by Operation Trojan Horse, but in fact at the moment when the mass inflow of hostages to the Kremlin began, the FSS was in a state of total para-lysis. Virtually the entire beau monde of the capital had presented itself. A demonstration on Man?ge Square by several dozen patriots waving banners reading “Arrest the Gorgonzoller Gang” had to be dispersed because it was interfering with the televising of the arrival of more and more celebrity hostages. Many came with a variety of home comforts, sandwiches and thermos flasks to regale the ravenous fighters, so that the Kremlin events began to resemble an enormous family picnic.
But then, taking advantage of the attentive television lenses glinting from every corner, the hostages assembled in the Kremlin gradually proceeded to what it was they had actually come for. It all started with the well known vocalist Polyp Pigdick. Disporting himself in front of the cameras in his saffron cloak and green turban, he suddenly pointed skywards in amazement and collapsed in what appeared to be a fainting fit. When those around him looked up, they saw that a trapeze had been suspended at a dizzying height between the towers on which his celebrated friend Stepanida Razina was flying back and forth illuminated by spotlights. A microphone materialised in Pigdick’s hands and, with much expressive play of the eyebrows, he began to sing: “Do not believe them when they say/The Kremlin path is one of ease!”
As he sang, he gazed in an agony of plaintive languor at the corpulent Stepanida cleaving the night sky above and stretched out his hand to her, making it clear that he was singing for her alone. Almost immediately, in another corner of the Kremlin, dazzling arc lights came on; a twisted figure with a red beard and close-set beady eyes who had been one of the first to volunteer himself as a hostage began filming an advertising video for Adidas trainers, with the help of a number of Chechens hired for very large fees. The concept was unsophisticated: gunfire in the night, tracer bullets, a glimpse of masked faces, soft cat-like leaping in the dark. Somebody stumbles and does not rise; the last shot shows feet in Adidas trainers, lit by a flare, the bearded face of a vanquished foe and the smoking barrel of a rifle. There followed a niftily edited sequence: three rifle muzzles bound with insulating tape, the three stripes on the trainers, three flares in the sky. This was the first video to use the slogan, specially devised for the CIS countries: “Adidas. The bitter joy of victory!”
At the same time, another film crew was rolling the first trials for a change of image for the smoker of Winston high tar cigarettes to determine whether the whiskered outdoor hero should be replaced by a bearded figure in combat kit, and the ember from the campfire by a lit Molotov cocktail.
In short order Basayev found himself and his thugs sidelined; when he tried to put a stop to what he called debauchery and immorality-giving orders that all filming was to stop and that the hostages and television crews were to be locked up in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses-he was unexpectedly detached from the handful of fighters not yet employed by film crews and politely advised that he wasn’t in Budennovsk now and he’d better cool it if he didn’t want to find himself wearing concrete boots at the bottom of the Moscow river.
Shocked by such unprecedented disrespect, Basayev turned to his Pakistani advisers, who contacted their Moscow residency using the secure Kremlin telephone system. Basayev was horrified to discover that advertising slots between reports from the Kremlin were running at a full $250,000 a minute. An hour long news programme titled Astrakhan on the Kremlin Towers was broadcast every evening and had been written into the Ostankino broadcasting schedules for a month ahead. Thirty minutes of the hour were allocated to advertising.
Basayev soon recognised that while his assault and sabotage battalion might successfully resist a couple of armoured tank divisions of the Russian army, it was certainly no match for that kind of money. The moral fibre of his fighters was being undermined. Many had succumbed and begun drinking and consorting with women, a great many of whom were now gathered in the Kremlin in anti-cipation of the “Legs and Smoke” beauty contest. When Basayev tried to find out how all these people had got in, he discovered that control of admissions through the Borovitsky gate had gradually and in a wholly opaque manner passed from Khodzhi Akhundov, his deputy for religious matters, to an Armenian called Eddie Simonyan, and that quite apart from group bookings like the beauty contest, anybody with $5,000 to spare was free to enter.
Working out that the admission price for an assault on the Kremlin would be beyond the means of the Russian army, Basayev was reassured. The following morning, however, he was approached by a major television producer who glanced anxiously at the two grenade launchers hung about his person (he was in a bad mood that day), and said: “Mr er-em Basayev, forgive my troubling you, I know you are a busy man, but you will understand, we have put big, very big money in here, and there are some very odd characters sloping around. Could you tighten up admissions procedures? We have the elite of Russian culture here. Imagine what might happen if a group of terrorists were to get in…”
This was the moment when Basayev had to concede that the situation was out of control. It was not only the nightly Astrakhan special report. Advertising rates for all news programmes had doubled. He decided to withdraw in total secrecy. He contacted the FSS and demanded two trucks and $5m, calculating this would be enough to bribe the traffic police all the way back to the northern Caucasus.
The forces loyal to Basayev were by now down to eight or nine diehards. One night he and his remaining fighters piled into two Mercedes and, under the pretext of inspecting his guards, slipped out of the Kremlin. The terrorists’ last victim was that well known avant-gardist Shura Brenny who, in the presence of a large crowd, was masturbating with the aid of a grenade launcher directly in the path of the fighters. The female Ukrainian sniper who shot him had overreacted to the suspiciously large black telephone on which Shura was about to ejaculate in the cause of art. Ignoring this minor setback, the eva-cuation took place without incident. Basayev was silent the whole way; but when his vehicle stopped at the ring road to transfer to the trucks, he turned to face Moscow, raised his fist to the firmament (which was turning pink in the first rays of dawn), shook it and shouted: “Woe to thee, Babylon, that great city!”
They say tears started to his eyes. Need we add that in Basayev’s last words, which very soon became public knowledge, the patriotic press found final, incontrovertible proof of his Jewish origins.
So, are we really to say that Moscow was saved by Polyp Pigdick? To the unbiased eye, that would seem to have been the case. The events now taking place in Russia seem explicable only in terms of Lobachevskian logic and their meaning, if there is one, only discoverable from a great distance in time. To put it another way: Russia’s history is a kind of fourth dimension of its chronology; only when you look out from this dimension do all the inexplicable shifts and zigzags and shudders of her day-to-day existence merge into a clear, distinct line-straight as an arrow.