Pervomayskoye: Yeltsin wrote off hostages' lives

Wednesday, January 31, 1996 - 11:00

Pervomayskoye: Yeltsin wrote off hostages' lives

By Renfrey Clarke MOSCOW — In his ghost-written autobiography, Russian President Boris Yeltsin recounts how as a child he lost two fingers from his left hand. Finding a grenade in the forest, he decided to try to open it — using a hammer. Observers have had cause to ponder that story as details have emerged of Yeltsin's attempts to deal with the hostage crisis that began on January 9 in the city of Kizlyar in the Russian Federation's republic of Dagestan, and ended in the nearby village of Pervomayskoye on January 18. The seizure of hostages by guerillas under Chechen commander Salman Raduyev was the apparently unplanned sequel to a sabotage attack on a Russian air base near Kizlyar. The raid met unexpectedly strong resistance, and the fighters found their escape blocked. They then seized a hospital and some 2000 hostages, hoping to bargain their passage back to Chechnya. The chances of this succeeding were slight. As events in Moscow in October 1993 showed, Yeltsin and his associates do not shrink from killing civilians if politics require it. When Chechen fighters under Shamil Basayev seized the hospital in Budyonnovsk in June 1995, the authorities' first response was to launch several determined military assaults that seemed destined to cause the death of hundreds of hostages. Facing a difficult battle for re-election in June, Yeltsin could be expected to welcome a chance to be seen striking a ruthless blow against terrorism. Such a response was made almost obligatory by political shifts the president had carried through since his supporters received a drubbing in parliamentary elections during December. Yeltsin had partially realigned his administration, sacking liberal officials and seeking new backers among extreme Russian nationalists. Meanwhile, Raduyev's decision to seize hostages posed serious risks for relations between the Chechen independence movement and other national groups in the North Caucasus. Most of the hostages were members of Dagestani ethnic groups. Public opinion in Dagestan has been considered broadly sympathetic to the Chechen struggle. If Dagestani hostages were killed, and the Russian authorities succeeded in attaching blame to the Chechens, these sympathies would largely be alienated.

Opportunity lost

Almost incredibly, Yeltsin failed to capitalise on the opportunity which Raduyev had handed him. The cause was a mix of incompetence, muddle, vainglory and a fatal underestimation of opponents. Yeltsin's first error, on January 9, was to appoint Federal Security Service director general Mikhail Barsukov to lead the operation. Barsukov has a reputation as a skilled Kremlin intriguer. But his talents obviously do not extend to the battlefield. By the morning of January 10, the guerillas had negotiated with the Dagestani authorities, who promised them safe passage to the frontier with Chechnya. Loading selected hostages into buses, the fighters headed for the border. Shortly before the buses would have crossed into Chechnya, a military helicopter opened fire on the column, and the buses stopped. Barsukov does not seem to have reflected on what needed to be done next. As a result, the fighters were able to retreat to Pervomayskoye, overrunning a police outpost on the way. There they soon created sophisticated defences, including deep trenches that linked strategic buildings. Over the following days, military units were brought into position around the village. Provisions for feeding the troops, however, were haphazard at best. Paratroopers later told journalists they were given nothing to eat for as long as three days. With Moscow clearly wanting a quick triumph, preparations were made for an all-out assault. Barsukov and his fellow commanders had no reason to think that many of the hostages, numbering more than 100, would survive. In a half-serious effort to deflect criticism, Federal Security Service spokesperson General Alexander Mikhailov announced before the initial attack on January 15 that the Chechens had begun shooting hostages. Journalists had heard "not even a pistol shot" from Pervomayskoye throughout the period when the killings were supposedly occurring.


The first assault was conducted in daylight across open fields, troops running across the snow toward entrenched defenders armed with heavy machine guns. The number of attackers, about 500 troops, was far too few to create the overwhelming superiority needed for storming fortified positions. While the operation was spearheaded by elite special forces units, many of those sent into the attack were Interior Ministry troops — essentially, police — who were completely unprepared for such fighting. Wounded soldiers interviewed by journalists in a military hospital complained bitterly that they had been sent to fight all day with only enough ammunition for 40 minutes of close-quarter combat. Coordination between the various units, and between ground and air forces, was almost non-existent. Casualties among the attackers were numerous. Howitzers, mortars and helicopters poured shells and rockets onto the 300 houses of the village. The Russian commanders plainly had little idea where the hostages were being held, and soldiers interviewed later by journalists reported that the barrage was falling indiscriminately, often on friendly troops. Morale among the attackers finally collapsed. Pavel Felgenhauer, defence editor for the Moscow daily Segodnya, reported: "Based on information from observers and participants of the fighting, it can be concluded that Interior Ministry officers were on the verge of mutiny". Early on January 17, the ground assault was abandoned. In mid-morning Mikhailov announced: "According to our information, the hostages have already been exterminated". A few hours later the federal forces opened fire on Pervomayskoye with Grad rocket launchers. Grad missiles are heavy artillery weapons designed for the carpet bombardment of battlefields. A salvo pulverises an area the size of a soccer pitch. Extraordinarily, most of the guerillas and hostages survived even this barrage, an achievement due solely to the skill and thoroughness with which the Chechens had prepared their entrenchments. But the time had come to attempt a break-out. In the course of the following night, other Chechen fighters staged a diversionary attack on a nearby hamlet. The guerillas in Pervomayskoye, taking many hostages with them and carrying their wounded, then managed to breach the lines of frozen, hungry federal troops.


For journalists and other observers, constructing an accurate picture of what happened during the siege has not been easy. Media workers were kept remote from the fighting, and were denied access both to rank and file troops and to former hostages. Much of the "information" provided by military spokespeople was so absurd that Moscow newspapers finished up alternating derisive comments with protests at the readiness of the government to take its citizens for fools. The authorities had taught Chechen leader Dudayev a tough lesson, Yeltsin declared in a media interview on January 18. "All the bandits have been destroyed, unless there are some still hiding underground." The operation was said to have incurred "minimal losses", and most of the hostages had been "saved". Yeltsin did not explain who had resurrected them. It was soon clear, however, that Raduyev had escaped. In the days after January 18, journalists located at least 66 former Pervomayskoye hostages in Chechnya, lending weight to claims that more than 100 of the fighters had broken out with them and had reached the guerilla base areas. Meanwhile, the hostages who had been "freed" by the Russian forces were being held in degrading conditions in military "filtration points", and were being interrogated on suspicion of being guerillas or their collaborators.

Political fallout

Yeltsin's "victory" has steadily unravelled. Sentiment in Dagestan has moved strongly against Moscow, with large sections of the population incensed by the Russian authorities' decision to "write off" the hostages. In the region near Pervomayskoye, Izvestia reported on January 20, the situation was "incandescent", with villagers mounting armed patrols. The leader of Dagestan's largest political movement demanded that the Russian army get out of the republic. "Now we cannot consider ourselves citizens of Russia", Gadzhi Makhachev, head of the Imam Shamil Popular Front, reportedly stated. In Moscow, Yeltsin's human rights commissioner, Sergei Kovalyov, resigned from all his posts in the presidential apparatus, publishing an open letter spelling out his protest against the "cruel punitive action" in Pervomayskoye. Long-time Yeltsin loyalist and former government leader Yegor Gaidar drafted a letter calling on Yeltsin not to run again in the presidential elections. Liberals who had resigned themselves to voting for Yeltsin in June in order to keep a Communist candidate out of power were now reportedly ruling out a vote for Yeltsin in any circumstances. Among Russians, the main response to the events was of horror and demoralisation. A poll published by the news agency Interfax on January 19 showed 75% of respondents in Moscow and St Petersburg considering that the "power ministers" — those in charge of defence and the interior, and the head of the Federal Security Service — should resign as a result of what occurred in the Dagestan village. Despite the hopes of ultra-nationalists, no evidence has emerged to suggest that the war in Chechnya is more popular now than it was early last year, when large majorities of Russians opposed it and favoured the idea of a negotiated peace.

From GLW issue 217