Fairy tales of glorious battles in Chechnya
Medals given by Putin for fictional fight

By Yulia Latynina
Op-Ed Contributor
The Moscow Times
A Division of The New York Times

Here is the latest scandal to hit Chechnya: A Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist, while on a visit to Grozny for a football game, took a drive down the street that was renamed just last month for the 84th Paratroopers Squadron.

He discovered that a memorial plaque was missing from one of the buildings on the street. The local authorities removed the plaque — ostensibly for repairs. Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov had even promised to deploy a security detail armed with machine guns next to the plaque.

According to Moscow's version of events, the commandos of the 84th Paratroopers engaged "in a battle with terrorists in the Argun Gorge from Feb. 29 to March 3, 2000. They cut off all escape routes and killed at least 700 of them." I am quoting an Interfax report about President Vladimir Putin awarding 21 paratroopers the Hero of Russia award, while another 63 received the Order of Courage.

When I was in Grozny last week, I visited this street. I even bet my Chechen companions that we would not find any street signs bearing the name of the 84th Paratroopers. I lost that bet because the street signs were still in place, but the memorial plaque was gone, of course. We found only a blank spot with nail holes in the place where the plaque should have been mounted. I knew that a scandal would erupt over this, but I chose not to draw attention to the missing plaque.

It was sordid to force on Chechnya and on Kadyrov the idea of placing a plaque to honor the 84th Paratroopers Squadron. Rather than strengthening the bonds between Chechnya and Russia, it placed the Chechen authorities in a trap.

If Kadyrov allowed the plaque to be installed, it would have been tantamount to letting Russia spit in his face without being able to wipe the saliva off. But if Kadyrov took the plaque down, people would say, "Aha! You are on the side of the insurgents!"

What is most important is that the 84th Paratroopers' supposedly heroic feat of defeating 2,000 insurgents under the command of Khattab, the infamous Chechen rebel leader who was killed in 2002, never took place.

We first heard about this legend on March 4 from a Pskov newspaper. The correspondent who wrote the story apparently did not know that Chechen insurgents do not roam the countryside in groups of 2,000. In guerrilla warfare, groups of insurgents rarely exceed 100 people; otherwise they would draw too much attention to themselves. Even groups of as few as 10 to 15 are common — that is enough to stage a sudden ambush and then withdraw in a flash.

The problem is that, once the myth of a 2,000-member band of insurgents disappears, the other fables vanish as well, including the one that the commandos wiped out 700 insurgents. In reality, quite the opposite happened. Khattab and a small group of insurgents snuck up on an unprotected company and killed all of the soldiers.

Instead of awarding the Russian officers in charge with new honors, they should have been tried for criminal negligence.

The plaque honoring the 84th Squadron had been mounted on the side of an extremely plain-looking one-story building, which is now home to a little store. In 1996, interestingly enough, this building served as a concentration camp of sorts to detain and "filter out" terrorists.

I don't know how necessary it is for Chechnya to be a part of Russia, and I don't know if it ultimately will remain so. But if it does, it will be due to a lot of money being spent in the region and an intelligent political strategy from Moscow.

It will definitely not be accomplished by strong-arming the Chechens into mounting a plaque to honor a nonexistent military feat in a city where federal troops once indiscriminately gunned down Chechens.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.