Passport magazine: Russian lifestyle
Home Archive March 2011

About Us

From the Publisher

Contact Us

Current IssueArchive
Restaurant GuideRestaurant ReviewsInternational Food BlogsWine TastingsTravelMoscow EmbassiesAirlines to RussiaMoscow AirportsCustoms and VisasResidence permitMoscow Phone DirectoryMuseums and GalleriesWi-Fi Hot Spots in MoscowClubs!Community ListingsMoscow Downtown MapMoscow Metro MapRussian LinksInternational Links
Advertise with Us
Our Readers - a profileAdvertising RatesDistribution List
Click for Moscow, Russia Forecast
Our Partners
Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

1994, The Ugly Truth
John Harrison

Yeltsin had a short time to bathe in glory after his tumultuous victory in 1993. 1994 was the year that all hell broke out in the shape of war with the break-away Russian republic of Chechnya. The way in which Moscow dealt with this crisis spoke loud and clear about the way the Kremlin was to handle internal conflicts for the next decade or so.

The setting for the first war in Chechnya was a country coming to terms with itself. Extremist forces which forced their way onto stage centre in 1993, appeared to be in retreat. Although nobody actually said it, the motto of the year was: ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ It was not unduly difficult for the previous Soviet nomenklatura to make the transition to positions of power in the new privatised industries and in the government. The general public finally realised that capitalism brings stratification of wealth, and the majority, the poorer members of society saw real wages fall in terms of purchasing power, even as they watched a small elite which included some government officials becoming fabulously rich. Foreign limousines, clothing and holidays, children in private schools in England suddenly became almost normal amongst the well-to-do. Left wing leaders weren’t so active now as the chance to make real money had come to them too. The only organised resistance came from the directors of collective farms who obstructed the government’s desire to break up the Kolhozes into small, privately-owned farms. Yet this was not because of any socialist altruism but because the government could not supply credits to purchase badly needed agricultural equipment.

But it wasn’t only the fact that some people were getting very rich, suspiciously fast, that frustrated most Russians, it was the criminalisation of society. Racketeers had taken over some of the basic functions of the state immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gradually these functions were reconcentrated in the hands of the government, in part because the racketeers were turning their interest to other types of business and their interests were now being better served by a strong government than a weak one. The government and the criminal underworld, to an extent we shall never know, merged in 1994.

By this time, there was no way back to communism. Over half of the state enterprises were by now privatised, and vast numbers of tenants were being given the deeds to the flats they previously leased from the government under the privatisation programme. Loyal Prime Minister Chernomyrdin maintained state subsidies on fuel, lighting, telephones and transport, whilst Yeltsin strived for greater market reforms, but came up against a new form of opposition: vested interests in the form of groups of non-communist parliamentarians who formed lobbies and blocked initiatives.

Using such obstacles as a pretext, Yeltsin started to impose his will without consulting representative bodies which he himself had been instrumental in setting up: the State Duma and the Federation Council. The great leader resorted to the bottle more and more frequently in public. In September in Berlin he snatched a conductor’s baton and drunkenly led an orchestra through a rendition of ‘Kalinka.’ His drinking led to chronic heart problems, and later in the year he was ‘too ill’ to meet the Irish prime minister at Dublin airport. Most Russians didn’t care too much about their president drinking, they were even a little amused. Westerners thought it was rather sweet, and naively thought that capitalism brought democracy and that Russia would soon take its rightful place amongst the league of (Western) European nations. They were wrong, as events later in the year showed.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow had moved fast to restore its influence over the outer edges of the previous Soviet empire in places like Moldova (Transnistria war in 1992), Georgia (the South Ossetia War (1991–1992) and the· Georgian Civil War (1991-1993) and Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh 1992-1994) by, putting it dangerously simply, picking fights and winning them. This was a useful tactic because it enabled the Russians to destroy many of the armaments that forces based in those territories had acquired or bought on the cheap from Russian army units.

Chechnya, whose leader Dzhokar Dudaev, an ex-Soviet air force general, had declared independence in 1991, was different. Dudaev resided over the criminality of the Chechen economy, and allegedly provided a haven for protection racketeers operating in Russia’s cities. He allowed the operation of Sharia law, and frequently referred to the truism that Chechnya had remained within Russia only because the tsars and commissars had more guns. As the interests of the Russian state and the Russian mafia became almost the same thing, the challenge posed by Chechnya – the only part of the Russian Federation where Moscow’s writ meant precisely nothing, became more acute. Moscow’s criminalised leadership didn’t like the idea of Chechnya ‘brothers’ being out of its control. Grozny airport was the only place where anything, guns, money, drugs, plutonium and people could be exported. The location of reasonably sized oil fields and an important refinery in Grozny ensured that Dudayev had enough cash to bribe functionaries all over Russia, and also ensured that he could secure enough ex-Soviet weapons for a military struggle.

Attempts had been made to replace Dudaev in June, when a so-called ‘Congress of Chechen People’s Deputies’ was established at Moscow’s behest and announced that it was transferring ‘absolute power’ to a new body known as the Interim Council. This council failed to overthrow Dudayev in a carefully staged ‘internal conflict’ in September. Russian soldiers were among the ‘opposition’ forces who were taken prisoner by Dudayev, and they were duely paraded before the Russian media and described how the FSB (previous KGB) had recruited them. The FSB in Moscow was pretty keen to stop such allegations being made. The FSB also saw a war as an opportunity to re-establish their importance as an anti-terrorist organisation and achieve increased funding.

Left to right: happy oligarchs in 1994:
A. Smolensky, M. Khodorovsky, B. Berezovsky, V. Gusinsky.

A week before the war started, an extraordinary event took place which showed the true nature of the new civil accord a la new Russia. The main offices of the Most Group, a banking, publishing and property empire run by the flamboyant former theatre director Vladimir Gusinsky, was surrounded by security forces from the presidential security service. When Gusinsky’s security guards were beaten up, he exited to England. Gusinsky had established a working relationship with the Moscow mayor, Yury Luzhkov whereby the mayor would provide legal backing for Gusinsky’s sometimes dubious real estate projects, while Gusinsky part-financed the mayor’s budget. But this was not really a problem in 1994. The problem was that Gusinsky had shown how Moscow had bungled its Chechnya operation on his TV station NTV and in his newspaper Sevodnya. This was the start of the Kremlin’s long attack on the electronic media, although at that time the media was still mostly liberal.

In December, the Minister of Defence lost no time in explaining to Yeltsin that the Russian army could easily crush the Chechnya rebels. His motivation was not clear, although it might have had something to do with wishing to take the spotlight off accusations of his mismanagement of military finances. The next day, tanks trundled into Grozny and the Chechnya nightmare began. As Grozny was bombed to rubble, the rest of the world looked on and begun to wonder what kind of a country they had helped to create. After all, Mikhail Gorbachev had talked of ‘all-human-values’. After Grozny’s fall, Dudaev and his commanders organised resistance in the mountains.

Meanwhile, Moscow TV stations reported on the Russian army’s incompetence, and alleged atrocities. Several units, many of them scrawny, terrified conscripts were reported to have been fighting each other until they realised they were on the same side. Thousands of civilians were killed by waves of apparently indiscriminate bombing. Yeltsin, mysteriously taken out of action by a ‘nose operation’ on the day the conflict began, officially issued several orders for the bombing to stop, but it went on, and on, until Grozny was little more than putrid wasteland.

 Copyright 2004-2012 +7 (495) 640 0508,,
website development – Telemark
OnLine M&A Russia Deal Book
Follow Us