Lone soldier defends Tolstoy in Chechnya

For 10 years, a man with a love of literature and a shotgun kept Chechnya's Leo Tolstoy Museum alive, defending it from looting, war, and neglect.

Hussein Zagibov, the director of the museum, put his life on the line, sleeping on the threshold and working without pay to protect this shrine to the author of such epics as "War and Peace" and "Anna Karenina."

He hid valuable items at his home to save them from burglars, was shot at by thieves, and argued with Chechen separatists opposed to what they saw as a symbol of Russian nationalism.

Now, Mr. Zagibov says, he can finally relax. Russian troops secured this part of Chechnya five months ago at the start of their military campaign against Muslim separatist rebels. And with the uneasy peace comes the promise of funds from Moscow: Some 1.2 million rubles ($40,000) this year for the museum.

For Zagibov, this is the happiest moment since he took charge in 1985. "It's been cold. It's been tough. My wife yells at me, why are you doing this without pay?" he says. "But the people trusted me to run this place, and so I did."

The museum, a yellow ramshackle building, has deteriorated into sorry neglect since 1997, when the then-Chechen government cut off funding, telling Zagibov the village didn't need a museum dedicated to the Russian writer.

The transformer blew out ages ago, so visitors must squint in the dark to look at exhibits. Guests are cautioned to walk with care, so their feet don't catch in the sunken floorboards. In the overgrown garden, a worn, worried-looking statue of Tolstoy - who wrote his first book, "Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth" during the two years he spent here - needs a deep cleaning.

Zagibov plans not only to do repairs, but to build a two-story hotel and cafe to get the town on the nation's cultural tourist map. His almost fanatical devotion is not surprising in a country where writers are venerated heroes. Flowers are left at the statues of great authors. The 200th anniversary of the birth of poet Pushkin last June was a national day of celebration for millions of Russians. Every school child reads him and Tolstoy.

Pilgrims besiege the museum every Sept. 9, Tolstoy's birthday, according to Israpil Salgiriyev, the Chechen deputy head of culture for the Starogladovsky region. "Even bombs don't keep the people away," he says.

Russia has six other museums devoted to the author. The deputy director of the main one in Moscow, Berta Shumova, was delighted to hear that the Starogladovskaya museum was reopening. "I thought that it had been burned, robbed, or destroyed. Oh, I'm so happy!" she bubbled.

The museum building, which once housed the first school in Russia named after Tolstoy, was officially converted into an exhibition space in 1980. It had a dozen calm years, but problems began in 1992 when lootings swept the town.

Zagibov mounted nighttime vigils to protect the artifacts within - photographs of Tolstoy, antique sabers, jewelry, and costumes of local Cossack people. "I said I'd shoot anyone who came near here," he recalls.

Insecurity intensified during Russia's military campaign to reassert control of the breakaway region in 1994-96, which ended with Chechnya's de facto independence. The situation worsened during the chaos that followed, and then this latest war.

Zagibov's bravura did not stop armed men from breaking in on several occasions. In January 1995, intruders made off with two swords and a 19th-century rifle worth $11,000 - a princely sum in these parts.

Zagibov took the remaining valuables - silver women's belts, sabers, a samovar, and several icons - and hid them in his house. He only brought them back when the Russian Army "liberated" the town in October.

Asked whether it is appropriate to maintain a museum celebrating a man whom many Chechens view as a Russian imperialist, Zagibov argues that the author should not be viewed in such a politically fractious light.

"Tolstoy is not just a Russian writer, he belongs to all of humanity." he says. "Tolstoy was a pacifist. He would have opposed this war too."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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