Letter to Khodorkovsky

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, I am writing to you from Finland. My name is Polina Zherebtsova. I am a political refugee from Russia. From contemporary Russia, which for many, many years has been ruled by Mr. Putin.

All my life I have kept a diary. And it so happened that I was born in the Caucasus, in the city of Grozny.

When I was nine years old my city was surrounded by a ring of Russian tanks – and houses were turned into ruins and ashes along with their inhabitants. Has your home been shelled by a tank, Mr Khodorkovsky? Mine was. The upper floors of the apartment building were on fire, and children were screaming in unbearable pain: shrapnel tore their bodies.

My grandfather, a veteran of the Second World War, was in the hospital on Pervomayskaya Street, but was killed in the shelling. He was recovering – my mother and I were going to take him home.

We could not bury him for a week. There was fighting.

I know you have been through a lot, have been imprisoned. But tell me – can you imagine how the patients scream when the guns are firing at their hospital or when a jet bomber, invisible and invulnerable to their curses, drops a one-and-a-half ton bomb on them?

We looked for where the snow was cleaner, gathered it up and strained it through cloth so we would drink it. It was not white snow, not at all like the snow I can see just now in Finland. It was dark gray and bitter, because there were burning buildings all around. An oil plant was on fire, and whole neighborhoods of homes were burning. Before they reached living human flesh, the bombs tore up stone and  concrete.

And the houses were full of people, and they had nowhere to run to.

We fell from hunger, lying about in the corners of apartments, half submerged in basements. And the rats huddled against the cold at our feet and squeaked.

The rats slept with me in the hallway on the icy wooden floor, and I didn’t chase them away, realizing that even they were suffering from “Russian democracy” Our cats died, unable to withstand the diet of pickled tomatoes we fed them once every few days.

To get at least some food, you had to walk about in other people’s basements, where the conquerors had left thin silver threads, and if you stepped on one of those threads you would go straight to heaven.

And do you want to hear how I stood near the concrete slabs under which for three days in the centre of Grozny, choking in the wreckage and cement dust, Russian old folk died?

No one was able to raise the slabs and remove the debris! People wept and prayed, but could not do anything. Those who died under the ruins of their houses did not get a grave in “the land we won.” This hell was repeated many times in ten years: as long as the war lasted in the Caucasus, in the Chechen Republic.

In August 1996 rockets from a Russian military post flew into the staircase of our apartment building: our neighbours were blown to pieces. I was eleven years old at the time.

I came out into the front entrance of our building and my feet  sank ankle-deep in blood. Blood dripped from the walls and ceiling, and I could hear the surviving neighbours screaming in terrible agony. Since then, Mr Khodorkovsky, I do not believe Russia’s rulers. I do not think that this is the price of conquering the land and preserving its integrity. This was done by “weaklings” – because a strong man will not assert himself at the expense of the lives of women and children.

Essentially they are traitors of their own people.

In 1999, when the “humanitarian corridors” of refugees were shelled, burning people alive in buses, we could not get out of the city. And on October 21 1999  Grozny market was hit by a rocket.  In the afternoon, when thousands of people were crowded there.

It was later announced that this was a “market of terrorists” with whom the the invaders were fighting.

“Terrorists” was the name they gave to the children, the old folk and women who traded vegetables, sweets, bread, cigarettes, newspapers, etc.  And the market was called the “arms market,” but I never saw weapons there, although sometimes I would spend a whole day going round all the stalls with a box of stuff.

During the holidays or after school I could not rest – I had to work in order to survive.

I traded in that market place. There were no pensions, no salaries. People did their best to survive. For a year my mother received no salary. It was stolen. And we traded in order to survive and buy bread.

They did not have to start “conquering us”, turning our lives into one continuous strip of hell. Our lives were already hard enough without bombs and “Grad” installations. When the rocket hit Grozny market I was three blocks away from the place where it landed. I saw fire from the ground to the sky, and then I heard a deafening explosion.

In my legs there were sixteen fragments of shrapnel.

And what happened to the people who were closer to the rocket? Severed arms, legs, heads, bodies turned to dust.

The children found their mother by her hairpins or the buttons on her jacket…

Did anyone get an apology? Or compensation for this hell? Did anyone?

I got nothing except threats and being told to “shut your mouth”, as I was a true witness to these bloody events. Here is the face of the modern Russian government.

Killing, slandering and grabbing. And this is called “conquest”?

In 2000, On January 19, the surviving neighbours and my mother and I were threatened with execution by firing squad.

We were on the edge of a cliff and the soldiers fired over our heads.

Our old granny neighbour fell to her knees, crying:

“What are you doing? We’re your people! We’re  Russians! Don’t shoot!”

The Caucasus is a peculiar region. In it, cultures and ethnicities, ways of life and cuisines, have been interwoven.

Of the forty-eight apartments in our building ten were Chechen and the rest – Russian, Armenian, Gypsy, Azeri, Ingush, Jewish, Polish…

We lived together amicably until the war began. The war swept everything away: life, friendship, love. It destroyed everything.

Surviving in inhuman conditions, people from the Chechen Republic n the other regions of Russia  faced and still face the most vile discrimination, persecution and threats.

The authorities have no time for their stories of mass executions and extrajudicial kilings. All, regardless of ethnicity, are classed as “Chechens.”

I have come up against this, too.

For about a year I was refused a passport. But you got one in a single day, and were even kindly driven to the gangway of a private jet. Double standards – those are precisely what distinguish despotism from democracy…

I was very sympathetic to you when you were in prison. I considered the sentences you were given unjust, political. Even now I think that you may have been subjected to pressure. But you in your interview you said: “Putin is no weakling. I am ready to fight in order to keep the North Caucasus as part of our country. This is our land, we conquered and won it!”  Consider: now you will have to share responsibility for those war crimes, which in  the Caucasus are not the costs of “conquest”, but its essence.

Read my diary.

Read how we were conquered.

How we buried our murdered neighbours under fire, having first covered the graves with branches so that the hungry dogs would not tear the bodies apart.

How thousands of women and children were murdered in the Chechen Republic.

Do you still want integration with such a Russia?

I do not.

And I do not need her citizenship. I am embarrassed by it, like the shameful brand-mark on a slave.

Strangers Abroad

In the The Atlantic, Michael Weiss examines the journey of Steven Seagal and a U.S. Congressional delegation to what they call  the land of the “Chechnyans”:

It is unclear as yet as to whether or not they went on to Chechnya, much less under the auspices of the unlikely cultural statesman Seagal, who apparently reached out directly to Rohrabacher. Politico has described an internal wrangle within the delegation about the wisdom of traveling alongside the star of Above the Law to the Kremlin’s Caucasian suzerainty, which is run by a warlord who is nothing if not above the law himself.

U.S. – Russia Relations After Boston – 2

North Caucasus analyst Alexander Cherkasov, interviewed by Vladimir Kara-Murza on Radio Svoboda’s Grani vremeni programme:

Of course, the fact that the main issue in Russian-American relations might be a topic that isn’t Syria at all  … but rather the Boston attack – has somehow, in my opinion, made the subject of the situation of NGOs in Russia even more relevant. Above all, the organizations that undertake independent expert studies – either the monitoring of civil rights, in particular, civil rights in the zones where counter-terrorism operations are underway, or the work with refugees like that done by Svetlana Gannushkina. The Boston terrorist attack is an event that everyone is trying to duck responsibility for. The Chechen authorities say it’s nothing to do with them, the bombers lived mostly in Central Asia and then in the States, and the one who did come to Russia went to Dagestan. The Russian authorities are washing their hands of the whole affair. I would point out that this is the second time in the last half-century when there has been a need for close cooperation between the two countries. The last occasion was the Kennedy assassination, when the Soviet Union had to provide information about the presence of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Soviet Union… At a time when the powers that be on all sides have interests of their own, only independent expert organizations like Human Rights Watch or Memorial can say how far this terrorist attack may be linked to the North Caucasus underground, or the Chechen sector of the North Caucasus underground. Right now we are seeing that those organizations that are working in the region more intensively are either being called “foreign agents” or are having every square inch of their activities minutely examined.

U.S.-Russia Relations After Boston

Inside Out

In EDM, Mairbek Vatchagaev writes that “locating Tamerlan’s ideological trajectory in the North Caucasus may prove to be little more than a distraction.” He points out that, with impaired links to Chechen culture, Tsarnaev appears to have been relatively isolated from the Chechen world, and probably picked up his Islamist views in Boston, from local Salafists. This would account for his hostility to U.S. Middle East policy, and his choice of the U.S., rather than Russia, as the target for a terrorist attack.

The article also draws attention to the fact that it was only some time after the Boston attack that the potential North Caucasus link began to be mentioned, giving the Moscow authorities an opportunity to become involved in the investigation:

In all this tragedy, Moscow seems to consider itself a winner. President Vladimir Putin said at a press conference that Russia had long sought cooperation from the US in the field of international terrorism ( There was more of a reprimand of the US in Putin’s words than an admission of Russia’s own guilt for the attack in Boston. Moscow interprets terrorism in quite broad terms and includes everyone who is dissatisfied with the Russian political system and seeks to secede from Russia.

It has been observed that one point not addressed in the piece – though raised obliquely in one passage – is the question of whether Tsarnaev might have been a Russian agent.

Meanwhile, an RFE/RL report considers the role social media may have played in interactions between Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his Kazakh college friends Dias Kadyrbaev and Azamat Tazhayakov:

The vKontakte post by Kadyrbaev is striking mostly because of its timing. When it was posted there had already been reports of a shoot-out that had left one suspect dead and another on the run, but at the time, most of the world — perhaps including police — would still not have been able to connect a name to the grainy image of suspect no. 2 being shown on television screens. Kadyrbaev though, had allegedly already known for up to nine hours.


North Caucasus situation – 2

In EDM, Valery Dzutsev has commentary on Kavkazskii Uzel’s interview with Emil Pain: 

As instability in the North Caucasus persists, experts are increasingly coming to the realization that Moscow’s present policies in the region can hardly address the pressing issues of the area. Even though Russian authorities appeared to be satisfied with a containment strategy in the North Caucasus for limiting violence to the region, this approach does not seem to work. A territorial dispute between Chechnya and Ingushetia, a revolt by ethnic Russians in Stavropol region, and the expanding conflict in Dagestan and elsewhere in the region indicate that instability is not simply simmering at a certain level, but is proliferating and emerging in unexpected forms and in new territories. Given the current dynamics of the security situation unfolding in the North Caucasus, chances are slim that the Olympics in Sochi in 2014 will not be affected in some adverse way by regional developments and blowback from the ongoing insurgencies in the North Caucasus.

The Location of Terror

Yulia Latynina (, on the Boston bombers:

Как сказал в одной из своих проповедей Саид Бурятский, который до того как стать исламистом-моджахедом, был простым русским парнем Александром Тихомировым из Улан-Удэ, «прошли те времена, когда мы сражались за свободу Чечни, за это языческое понятие. Теперь мы сражаемся за Аллаха. Прошли те времена, когда каждый чеченец был нам брат. Теперь русский, если он моджахед, нам брат, а чеченец, если он кяфир, наш злейший враг».

То есть то, что Царнаевы чеченцы – это не удивительно, но это совершенно неважно, так же, как неважно, что Троцкий – еврей. В Бостоне они сражались не за свободу Чечни. Они сражались за всемирный Халифат.

Они вели оборонительный джихад.

As Said Buryatsky, who before becoming an Islamist mujahid was an ordinary Russian guy, Alexander Tikhomirov from Ulan-Ude, said in one of his sermons: “Gone are the days when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for that pagan  idea. Now we are fighting for Allah. Gone are the days when every Chechen was our brother. Now the Russian, if he’s a muhajid, is our brother, and the Chechen, if  he’s a kafir, our worst enemy.”

So the fact that the Tsarnaevs are Chechens is not surprising. but it is totally unimportant, just as unimportant as the fact that Trotsky was Jewish. What they were fighting for in Boston was not the freedom of Chechnya. They were fighting for a worldwide Caliphate.

They were waging defensive jihad


Boston – 2

Andrei Babitsky, in Ekho Kavkaza:

“Вы сказали, что они выходцы из Чечни. Нет, они выходцы из Кыргызстана, насколько я могу судить по информации, опубликованной в СМИ, несколько лет они прожили в Дагестане, а потом переехали в Америку. Я не думаю, что это как-то повлияет на активность северокавказского подполья, поскольку все-таки на Северном Кавказе эта активность заметно снижается, но то, что в такой своеобразной конкурентной борьбе с арабами за право считаться передовым отрядом глобального джихада чеченцы сегодня одерживают убедительную победу, – это очевидно.”

“You said that they come from Chechnya. No. They come from Kyrgyzstan, as far as I can tell from the information published in the media. They lived for a few years in Dagestan, and then moved to America. I don’t think it will somehow affect the activity of the North Caucasus underground, because in the North Caucasus that activity is markedly diminishing. But that in this strange competition with the Arabs for the right to be the vanguard of global jihad the Chechens today are winning a landslide victory – that’s obvious.”


Igor Rotar, writing in

…очень многие в США не верят, что теракт готовился за рубежом. “Mне кажется, что это просто двое разочаровавшихся американских детей, которые, к сожалению, направили свой гнев против своих же собратьев. Увы, подобные случаи были и раньше”, — говорит “Росбалту” профессор политологии университета Джорджа Мейсона в штате Вирджиния Эрик Макглинчи. Отметим также, что эта версия не только не выглядит совершенно нелепой, но и чрезвычайно выгодна администрации президента Обамы, так как в этом случае можно избежать обвинений в непрофессионализме спецслужб.

…a great many people in the U.S. do not believe that the attack was prepared abroad. “I think it’s just two disaffected American kids who unfortunately directed their anger against their fellow humans. Alas, there have been such cases before,” Eric McGlinchey, political science professor at George Mason University, tells Rosbalt. Let’s just observe that this version not only looks completely absurd, but is also extremely helpful to the Obama administration, as in that case one can avoid accusations of incompetence by the special services.

Prague Watchdog closing

Prague Watchdog, the Prague-based North Caucasus human rights NGO and monitoring service, is closing down after 10 years of operation. In May this year, for reasons that are unknown to the site’s co-ordinator, the delivery of new Russian-language material stopped and has not been resumed. Andrei Babitsky, who was fulfilling the role of chief commissioning editor, appears no longer to be in charge of PW’s publishing, though he continues to be active as an editor and commentator at other Russian-language media outlets, including Radio Liberty’s Russian service.  

According to PW’s present coordinating editor, the site will continue to be accessible even though it is not updated, and its considerable volume of North-Caucasus-related information and resources will continue to be available to the general public.