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 Viktor Pelevin / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
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,…