Some people are wannabe Chechens. In actual fact, they could be Kurds, Azeris, Tajiks, Sandžak Turks, or members of almost any other group with a small or still-nascent homeland, a big diaspora, and maybe an historic chip on its shoulder. According to Robert Schaefer, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and author of The Insurgency in Chechnya and the North Caucasus: From Gazavat to Jihad, none of those labels enjoys the same cachet in the asymmetrical warfare community. There, Chechens are considered the ne plus ultra of toughness. The others are Yavapais to their Apaches; White Fence to their MS-13; Ma Barker to their Griselda Blanco.
Schaefer tells Salon’s Laura Miller: “Just as it’s ‘cool’ here to be Special Forces, or to be a Navy SEAL, it is cool in [the Causasus and Central Asia] to be a Chechen.”
I won’t swear to it, but I think I started that trend. Throughout the spring and summer of 1997, when I was living in Moscow and studying at MGLU, I picked up on that coolness. Or rather, I had a sense of that coolness thrust upon me. One day, after I’d been there maybe two weeks, I celebrated the end of classes by taking a long walk. Before I’d gone a mile, a militsionner, or paramilitary policemen, stepped into my path. With the gravity of a man handing a folded flag to a war widow, he saluted me.
I knew better than to feel flattered. The gesture was a Soviet holdover, an expression of the socialist conceit that the police were servants of the people. But the deference ended there. From saluting you, a militsionner could switch gears and start clubbing you. The salute was only the first step in a law-enforcement process whose conclusion could, in theory, find you in Siberia, carving chessmen from frozen stool. In that moment, scared as I was, I almost produced enough raw material to keep Kasparov in black pieces for the rest of his career.
Before I left the States, one of my Russian professors warned me: “If you get stopped by the Militsiya, do not speak a word of Russian.” This was no strain. When the militsionner asked for dokumenty, I babbled in English, and would probably have started singing “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” if he hadn’t caught on and demanded, “passport.”
I handed it to him. His eyes flicked from the photo to me and back again. He checked the visa tucked behind the first page. Finally, with a grunt, he handed it back, and I was free.
As I began exploring the city in earnest, the scene repeated itself — twice in the following week alone. I was just becoming blasé about the whole thing, framing it as a story with which to impress backpackers who’d braved the minefields around Phnom Penh or partied with the pirates of Batam, when official surveillance turned unofficial. One afternoon, I squired two fellow Americans to the movies. (I think we saw Val Kilmer in The Saint.) Halfway through, or just when the the Muscovites were really hooting at Hollywood’s depiction of post-Soviet Moscow,I looked up to see an usher looming over me. He told me to follow him; by then already half-conditioned, I did.
He led me into a small office where two other men were waiting. Tall, fit and grim-faced, they had a faintly goonish air. Without being asked, I produced my passport and visa, and even raised my hands above my head. Perhaps emboldened by their civilian status, I meant the gesture sarcastically — Would you vigilant gentlemen care to deliver electric shocks to my scrotum, Battle of Algiers-style, now? Or would you prefer to wait? The usher seemed to take the point. He spoke to me in placating tones, addressed me, respectfully, as molodoi chelovek, and let me go after giving my papers a glance.
Later, Dima, a Russian friend, explained. “The government is worried about illegal immigration to Moscow,” he said. “You look like you could be from somewhere in the Caucasus. Maybe Chechnya.” I asked how. Hesitating, he said, “You’re kind of dark. And you dress…” His eyes begged: Please don’t make me go on.
I saw Dima’s point. With the laundry service claiming a percentage of every load I sent out, I was reduced to playing mix-and-match with colors and fabrics. In a black mesh button-up shirt from Urban Outfitters and gray wool herringbone trousers from Bloomingdale’s, I must have looked like I’d fallen off a turnip truck from somewhere. But in those years before the Nord-Ost siege, the Beslan massacre, and the Moscow Metro bombings, the Chechens seemed like fine, stout fellows. In the war that had just ended, their militiamen had gone on resisting Russian invaders despite a gap in technology and manpower that cost them tens of thousands in civilian casualties. If that legacy were responsible, however indirectly, for the suspicion I aroused, I was pleased to share in it.
As inspections began wearing my documents to tatters, I began noticing Chechens. I saw them on the street, at clubs, and most memorably at a rave in Gorky Park, where a trio of them stood beneath the stage, mesmerized by a dancing girl in hot pants she’d apparently fashioned from a Glad bag. To my eye, they didn’t look a bit like me. They looked much meaner. Russians, I’d already noticed, seemed worn-out, bored and finally resigned, as though they had plenty of reason be pissed off but no energy for it. The Chechens, on the other hand, wore scowls that seemed to emanate from the very marrow of their being. I didn’t know whether autonomous regions had their own crests, but I supposed Chechnya’s, if it existed, would have to feature a wolf passant above the motto “THE ___ YOU LOOKING AT?”
Russians spoke of them with contempt. But behind that contempt, it seemed, lurked genuine fear. They called them chernozhopye, or “black-asses” (although somewhat furtively, since the name was considered too rude for polite company). It was also an exaggeration. But the Chechen complexion did have an olive tint, and this was the real point of identification. Nowadays, thanks to the likes of Salma Hayek and Zach Galifinakis, being dark or ethnic-looking is positively hip. But in Moscow, surrounded by — and having to drink at the pace of — the descendants of Varangian princes, it didn’t seem so. It was nice to have role models besides the great Pushkin, who had lived most of his life in St. Petersburg, and who, in any case, had been shot dead by a blond.
Well, as often happens, love did not survive first contact. In a squalid little episode not worth a detailed recounting, a Chechen named Zakir took it into his head that I’d stolen a woman he’d been after. He was wrong, but our affair of honor — in which Zakir, to give him his credit, would surely have pounded my head in — was forestalled by a group of Russians, who reminded him that this was no way to treat a foreign visitor. Shouting threats from behind the wall of bodies, Zakir seemed blustery, hysterical — in a word, uncool. With that, the spell was broken, and I became a Russophile again. Guess I’m fickle.
In conducting background research for this piece, I ran across a page on the Virtual Tourist where visitors to Moscow compare notes on the Militsiya. A couple of them mention “spot checks,” like the kind that became routine for me. Maybe Dima was wrong — maybe nobody mistook me for anything but a dorky American. But what made the militsionnery stop me is less important than what made the Chechens so attractive as objects of affinity. In the Salon interview, Schaefer spells it out: Chechens have “always had the idea that any one of their fighters was worth 10 of anybody else.” Chechen ethnic mythology worked on me for the same reason it works on many Chechens: what young, hormone-happy maniac wouldn’t want a rep like that?
Bellicosity as a national virtue and radical religion make up a poison brew. Despite having a brain and a future, Dzhkokhar Tsarnaev, the cherubic little twerp, had to go ahead and drink it. He’ll richly deserve whatever fate the justice system hands him, but still, what a waste.
In The Prague Orgy, Philip Roth has a communist-era Czech bureaucrat rant that his nation’s real hero shouldn’t be a warrior or a rebel, but someone like his own father, who was a doormat. That’s taking it a little far in the opposite direction. But if I ever have a son, I’m going to name him — Bill! Or George! Any damn thing but Tamerlan! I doubt my family tree could bear the weight of a conquering khan.