BURNING BUILDINGS ILLUMINATED the way in the gathering darkness as our column of three armored personnel carriers rolled down the empty central boulevard of Grozny. Our mission: to break through to the Samara motorized rifle regiment pinned down in front of the presidential palace during the Russian assault on the Chechen capital. We never made it. The way ahead was blocked by the wreckage of gutted Russian tanks. An ambush? I closed my eyes as I had often done as a child at the dentist's office, hoping that if my time was up, death would come quickly. We managed to break out of the trap, but the Samara regiment was lost.
I had come under fire often during the two years I served in Afghanistan as a lieutenant in the 103rd Airborne Division, commanded by General Pavel Grachev, who is now our Defense Minister. But the harrowing situation on the streets of Grozny was like nothing I had ever experienced in Afghanistan. The commander of my vehicle had no map of the city and no idea where he was going. He was not even able to make radio contact with the other two APCS and admitted that he had simply been thrown together with soldiers and vehicles from different units and told to advance into the city.
When I was discharged from military service in 1992, I knew the Russian army was a faded copy of the Soviet army, but somehow I hoped I was wrong. Despite the defeat in Afghanistan, we had gained considerable fighting experience during nine years of war. By the time the campaign ended in 1989, there was a sufficient number of officers- perhaps as many as 1 in 5-who had served in Afghanistan and learned how to fight a guerrilla war. Surely these veterans, the so-called Afghantsy, many now commanding the Grozny operation, had not forgotten every thing they learned? After spending two weeks with the units sent to quell Chechnya, however, I no longer have any illusions.
The war in Chechnya began almost on the same day in December as the conflict in Afghanistan had begun 15 years earlier. But that is all the two campaigns have in common. In Afghanistan a small group of special forces from the KGB and the GRU, the military intelligence service, assisted by several para-troop battalions, managed to take Kabul, the capital, in one day with minimal losses. In the Chechnya war, our commanders seemed to be totally oblivious of this lesson when they went after Chechen leader Jokhar Dudayev. They should have used elite troops; instead, they went in with raw recruits.
In Afghanistan conscripts were never sent directly to the front: they had to undergo two months of preparation at special training camps located in regions of the Soviet Union where climate and terrain closely resembled the conditions they would encounter once they went into action. In Chechnya I met young boys sent off to war almost immediately after they were drafted. One brigade, which arrived directly from Siberia, was dispatched into Grozny at night, knowing nothing of the city, in a fog so thick you could barely see 10 steps ahead. The commander of a tank battalion told me that he had to train his soldiers at the front, since they had been assigned to him only days before the unit was deployed in Chechnya. "You wouldn't believe it," he told me. "There were noncommissioned officers who had studied for six months and didn't know anything about tanks. I had to teach them how to turn a turret." According to the plans of the military command, this battalion was supposed to be among the first to go into Grozny. It was. After 10 hours of fighting, only three of its 20 tanks managed to get out of the city intact.
The conditions of life for the soldiers in Chechnya were dreadful. In Afghanistan we were issued special rations of canned meat, condensed milk, juice, crackers, tea and a Sterno can, so you could heat up kasha or rice with the canned meat. All I saw our soldiers eating in Chechnya was pearl barley with a bare hint of meat. Looking at this meager fare, I had the impression that we must have eaten up all the army's stores of dried rations in Afghanistan and that no one had bothered to produce any since then.
I did not see a single soldier in Chechnya with a sleeping bag, gloves or other proper kit. In fact, you would have thought the Russian army had just crawled out of a cave, where they still cook over a fire and sleep on the ground instead of in tents. The soldiers had no change of underwear and had not been able to wash for weeks. It seemed, in fact, as if this war was being waged 200 or 300 years ago. The only difference was that what our soldiers were carrying in their dirty hands were not old-fashioned muskets but state-of-the-art weapons.
It was a major event in Afghanistan when a soldier was taken prisoner, KGB and GRU agents tried to locate POWS; then field commanders began negotiations to free them. At first they tried to deal from strength, bombing and firing missiles at villages. If the mujahedin still refused to turn over prisoners, efforts were made to buy our people back. They were ransomed with flour, kerosene, uniforms, sometimes money, even, though rarely, with weapons. In the Chechen war, the military command will not even talk about the fate of captured officers and soldiers. Distraught mothers have had to go to Chechnya to free their sons.
In Afghanistan we were certain that if killed we would be buried in our native soil: bodies were always carried off the battlefield. If the mujahedin refused to turn over Soviet dead, a battalion, regiment, brigade, even a division would be committed to claim them. Sometimes more people died in such operations, but they were carried out so every soldier would know that even the dead would be taken home. It pains me to describe how dead Russian soldiers were left to be eaten by dogs on the streets of Grozny, lying crushed by the treads of their own armored vehicles or covered with the rubble of buildings.
Two things in particular disturbed me in Chechnya. I saw companies and whole battalions come under fire just 2 km or 3 km from other Russian units that did not lift a finger to help them because they had carried out their day's mission and were not supposed to go any further. I can say with absolute certainty that this would never have happened in Afghanistan. I was also amazed by the river of medals flooding to officers and soldiers in Chechnya. I know of one officer who was decorated "for bravery" simply because he left Mozdok [located in the nearby republic of North Ossetia], the headquarters of the Russian army staff, and went into Chechnya for several days without taking part in any military operation. To be awarded the same medal, I had to fight in Afghanistan for over a year.
I came away from Chechnya with absense of horror. Afghanistan was nothing, a mere stroll in the park, compared with this war. According to a Russian saying, "A wise man learns from the mistakes of others, but a fool learns from his own." After visiting the front in Chechnya, I have come to the conclusion that we Russians have not only failed to learn from the mistakes of others, but have also forgotten our own and have now been forced to repeat them.