War Winds Down, But Russians Wind Up Dread of 'Evil Chechens'
MOSCOW — FIVE-YEAR-OLD Kolya, fresh from watching too much TV, acted out a recent national drama in a tree-lined park this weekend as he pretended to avenge his family against the bloodthirsty enemy.
But this time his make-believe game was not Cowboys vs. Indians, or even the old-time Communist favorite of Soviets vs. Fascists. Instead it was a relatively new sport that is becoming more popular in Moscow: Russians vs. Chechens.
"We're gonna get you Chechens! Pow! Pow!" yelled blond, blue-eyed Kolya, handing his Mickey Mouse umbrella to his mother to get a better grip on his green plastic sword. "Yeltsin's gonna get you bad guys! Pow!"
Tensions between Russians and Chechens, rivals for centuries, are reaching a breaking point after the hostage saga in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk, where Chechen gunmen on June 14 took roughly 1,500 people captive, holding them for almost a week. At least 127 people were killed in the hostage-taking.
While a tentative cease-fire has been met in Chechnya, an end to the almost seven-month-old war there can hardly change the hostile relationship between the Caucasian mountain people and their Russian neighbors.
Last week, Chechen representatives in Moscow accused the Russian authorities of launching a witch hunt against them in the aftermath of Budennovsk. They say that the police have detained thousands of Chechens in Moscow on suspicion of being "potential terrorists," simply because of their dark skin and Caucasian features.
"Russia has a demonstrated pattern of carrying out collective punishment and biased attacks against people from the Caucasus," says Rachel Denber of the international watchdog group Human Rights Watch/Helskini, formerly Helsinki Watch. "They have used them as scapegoats for social problems, and now every dark-skinned person in their eyes is a suspected terrorist."
Many Russians, fed on government propaganda, see all Chechens as little more than seedy thugs and assume they have links with organized crime, along with other Caucasians.
"I feel the police are looking at me differently than they used to," says Dzhabar, a house painter who moved to Moscow recently from Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, a Caucasian nation south of the Russian border. "It used to be that if your documents and temporary residence permit were in order, everything was fine. Now they start scrutinizing all the details," he says.
Police and interior ministry officials deny that any special instructions have been given recently concerning Chechens. But Olga Kurbanova, whose husband Khamad was recently arrested in Moscow, says a new wave of arrests against Chechens is imminent.
Mr. Kurbanov, who is Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev's representative in Moscow, was pulled from his house by 20 masked armed policemen last week and taken to a city jail. No charges officially have been leveled against him.
"If a person doesn't have a Slavic face, the Russian authorities now think he's a potential terrorist," says Mrs. Kurbanova. She says that 10,000 Chechens are being held in Moscow for petty visa and passport violations.
For most Russians, a dislike of Caucasians runs deep. In the popular classified-ad weekly, Iz Ruk v Ruki (From Hand to Hand), at least one of every five apartments for rent stipulates: "No Caucasians," or "Russian Family Only."
The animosity appears almost instinctual. Office manager Nelly Vinogradova says her initial distrust of Chechens began in school. She read the 19th-century writer Mikhail Lermontov's famous line about the "evil Chechen, crawling up the river bank, sharpening his knife," and she never forgot it.
"Chechens used to raid Russian villages and towns, they used to steal cattle and kill people who tried to oppose them," she says, recalling her grandmother's stories about people from that lawless land known as Chechnya. "Today, most of my friends think Chechens are responsible for the war and for the very high crime in Moscow, and nobody wants to deal with them," she says.
Malika, a well-dressed Chechen with striking dark hair, feels such criticism deeply. Last week, she sought the advice of a plastic surgeon to remold her nose into what she considers a smaller and more "Russified" one.
"I've always been pleased with my appearance, but for a Caucasian, a nose like mine is always problematic," she said at the Estetika salon, where most clients hail from the Caucasus. "No matter how I look, I'll always be Chechen," she added, declining to give her last name.
But for little Kolya, who can hardly distinguish a Chechen from a Russian, such matters are of little importance.
"Yeltsin's a good guy," he explains matter-of-factly in the park, "because he's in politics."