Moscow police lived through a tough 72 hours until the funeral of former Colonel Yury Budanov was over. Rioting by Russian nationalist groups was anticipated and security forces were on alert. And then … nothing happened. We might still see some targeted violence by Russia’s nationalist fringe, but it seems that the Budanov story as such has reached a tragic end. Still acute and troubling questions about the state of the Russian mind linger on.
An unidentified gunman killed Budanov on June 10th in Moscow in what was clearly a well-planned assassination plot. Budanov came to notoriety in 2000-2001, during the second Chechen war. The regimental commander and decorated combat officer was arrested and tried for the murder of 18-year old Chechen girl Elsa Kungayeva, who he kidnapped from a family home in the village of Tangi-Chu, where Budanov’s regiment was deployed.
Budanov confessed to the killing but claimed he did it because he suspected the girl was a sniper who had targeted his men, and said that he suffered from temporary dementia when he strangled Elsa to death. There was strong evidence that Budanov raped Kungayeva, but this charge was later dropped. The Colonel was sentenced to 10 years, having been stripped of his rank and decorations. In 2009 he was released early “for good behaviour” and lived a very quiet and unremarkable life – until he was gunned down in a Moscow courtyard.
Budanov’s case became a cause celebre in its day, pitching Russian nationalists against Russian liberals and human rights activists. The former claimed that an honest Russian officer had been unjustly condemned in order to please the Chechens. The latter said Budanov was a war criminal who symbolized everything that was wrong with the war in Chechnya, the Russian army and the Russian state. Both accused the authorities of wrong-doing – for different reasons. When Budanov walked free, Chehnya’s warlord-turned-president Ramzan Kadyrov publicly stated that the Chechens would never forgive him and never forget his crime.
The murder of the former colonel has sparked a frenzy of conspiracy theories regarding the killers’ motives. Many point the finger at the Chechens, claiming they have finally got their man. Others claim it was a nationalist provocation aimed at destabilising Russia.
The most striking feature of Budanov’s sad demise is the wave of sympathy that it evoked. A poll by the traditionally liberal Ekho Moskvy radio station showed nearly 50 percent of the audience was convinced of Budanov’s innocence. “Hero”, “martyr”, “innocent victim” – this about a man who confessed to strangling an unarmed, tame 18-year old in a fit of alcohol-induced rage.
Even if Kungayeva was a sniper, she should have been delivered to the military counterintelligence, rather than murdered in cold blood. Her alleged sniper career was never proved, although the colonel’s defenders would have used such evidence if it existed. One of the journalists, who covered the war in Chechnya, cried out in a column on the opposition Daily Journal website: “Why do we have to choose a convicted war criminal as our symbol?! Why not the hundreds of honest officers and men, who did not rape and murder civilians, but fought in Chechnya with honour and courage?”
Budanov’s killing has shown with stark vividness that Russia is still a divided society with a dysfunctional moral focus. It turns out that the debates of nearly a decade ago, when Budanov was on trial, have not gone away. There are several conclusions that can be drawn from this story.
First, a large chunk of Russian society considers violence to be normal, and even a solution to Russia’s problems. “Wipe out the Chechens, wipe out the immigrants, wipe out the intelligentsia – and the world will be perfect,” is the underlying meaning behind the support for Budanov.
Second, society does not accept the Chechens as their co-citizens. In this respect the pacification policy of the last decade has failed. Chechens will be blamed for the killing even if investigators eventually find out that Budanov was shot for not repaying a business debt. Mr Kadyrov’s extravagant “in your face” behaviour and Chechnya’s semi-independent position inside Russia, bought at a significant cost to the Russian budget, are bound to continue breeding resentment in the population at large. The North Caucasus is drifting away from Russia. The tribal, essentially pre-feudal nature of society there is in sharp conflict with Russia’s atomized, uncertain and highly individualistic identity.
Third, the Russian ruling class is torn between riding a nationalist wave and controlling it. Anti-Western isolationism is the default position for many politicians and civil servants. But at the same time, they are afraid of the raw energy of the nationalists, for whom the current leaders are traitors to the Russian cause, as much as Yeltsin and Gorbachev.
Fourth, the situation is for now tempered by what Russian commentator Andrei Kolesnikov called “empathy without participation”. This means that the average Russian’s positive view of nationalist slogans is rendered impotent by his marked reluctance to take any action in support of the nationalists. Lack of charismatic godheads also heavily hampers the radical nationalist cause. The Kremlin will certainly continue to see to the best of its abilities that this remains the case in the future.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is an independent Russian journalist and political analyst. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.