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I Witnessed this War. Chechnya 1995

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   "I Witnessed this War. Chechnya 1995" by V.N. Mironov
   English translation by R.N. Belousov, translated & published with permission.
   Draft July 8 2011
   Chapter 1
   I am running. My lungs are bursting. The wheeze is killing me. I have to run in zig-zags, or as we call it in our brigade "do the corkscrew".
   Help me god...help me. Help me endure this mad race. This is it - if I make it, I'm quitting smoking. Clang, snap. Please not a sniper. I fall and crawl, crawl out of harm's way.
   I'm laying low. It seems I'm OK after all - it wasn't a sniper, simply a stray.
   I catch my breath a little and reorientate myself, then launch forward - in search of the commanding post of the first battalion of my brigade. Just a few hours ago they reported that they have captured a sniper. From that report is was clear that he is Russian and from his own words even from Novosibirsk. A fucking Siberian! I and some reconnaissance troops departed to fetch the "tongue" on a pair of BMP's. My partner remained at the brigade headquarters.
   On approaching the railway terminal we started encountering burned-out, mutilated vehicles and a lot of corpses. Our corpses, brothers-Slavs. That was all that remained of the Maikop Brigade, the same one that was shot up and burned by the Chechens on New Year's night 1994-95. God help us break out...
   It was said that when the first battalion expelled those fuckers from the terminal building and there was lull in the fighting, one of the soldiers, took a careful look over his surroundings and howled like a wolf. From then on the others avoided him - like he was rabid. He would blunder forward a man possessed and nothing scared him. And there are plenty of these rabid ones in our formation and in that of the enemy. What are you doing to you sons, mother Russia?! They wanted to have him hospitalised, but no, they said "we can't even get the wounded out and this one is still fighting, even though he's cracked it. Back `on the continent' he'll lose it completely".
   After only a few blocks we encountered heavy fire. The hurricane of ammunition came from above, maybe twenty barrels, but it lacked precision. We had to leave the personnel carriers behind and continue towards friendly positions on foot with a pair of soldiers. Luckily, the guys had some experience under fire and were used to it. At first though, you'd howl, like that soldier. A green soldier--you'd have to extract out of the trenches and armoured vehicles with the aid of mat and the boot. Behind me is Baku and Kutaisi `90, Tskhinvali `91, Transnistria `92 and now Chechnya `95. We'll sort it out, if only we can escape this hell. If only in one piece. I keep an RGD-5 grenade in my pocket in case I am crippled. It will be enough. I don't care how the crippled heroes of previous wars live in the world. Those heroes that executed their Motherland's orders, the orders of their party or government and fuck knows who else during the "period of restoration of constitutional order" in the former Soviet territories. Just like we are now pounding our own Russian land according to yet another secret decree.
   All this passed by in my head in just a few seconds. I looked around. My guys have taken cover near-by and are looking around also. Their mugs black with soot, only the eyes and teeth are glistening. I probably look no better. I indicate to one with my hand and the other with my head - forward, forward, zig-zag, corkscrew and roll. These acrobatics are awkward in field uniform. The sweat pours into your eyes, steam rises from the fabric, a taste of blood in the mouth and pounding in the temples. Our bloodstreams full of adrenaline. Short dashes over minced brick, concrete and glass. Carefully avoiding open spaces. Still alive, thank God.
   Swish, swish! Your mother, is it really a sniper after all? We dive into the nearest basement, grenades at the ready, hell knows who's waiting for us there. A pair of bodies. Judging by the uniform they are ours. With a nod I indicate to one fighter to keep watch through the window, whilst taking position near the door. The second fighter leans over one of the fallen and undoes his uniform. He retrieves his papers and tears off the string with the dog-tag. He does the same with the other. The lads won't care any more, but their families should surely be notified. Otherwise the smart guys from government won't pay them pensions and motivate it say by the fact that the soldiers are missing in action, possibly even deserted or have crossed over to the enemy.
   -So, did you get the documents? - I asked.
   -Got them, - answered private Semyonov aka "Semyon". - What's our next move?
   -We'll go through the basement to the neighbouring street and the first battalion is right there. Are you able to radio them? - I enquired from the radio man, private Kharlamov, aka "Glue". His huge, long hands with disproportionately developed wrists, stick-like stuck out of his sleeves - no uniform fit him. When you first see him, you imagine that these hands off were torn of a gorilla and sawn onto a man. Meanwhile, nobody now remembered why he was nick-named "Glue".
   These are our soldiers, compatriots, Siberians. And collectively, we are "makhra", from the word "makhorka". Only in books and in movies about the Great Patriotic War do they praise infantry with the epithet "Queen of the Fields". In real life, we are "makhra", whilst singularly an infantryman is a "makhor". And that's how it is.
   -And radio the "boxes", - that would be our BMP, that remained behind, on the approaches to the train terminal, - find out how they are faring.
   Glue left his post at the window and started mumbling into the radio, summoning the Commanding Post of the first battalion, then our BMP.
   -All good, comrade Captain, - reported the radioman. - "Sopka" is expecting us, the "boxes" were shot at, so they rolled back down one block.
   -Allright, let's go before we cark it, - I rasped, coughing. Finally I caught my breath and spat out yellow-green phlegm - the consequences of a years-long smoking habit. - Mamma always told me: "Learn English".
   -My mamma always told me, "Don't go climbing in wells, sonny", continued Semyon.
   Having glanced through the window on the opposite side of the house and detected no traces of the enemy's presence, we ran, bent over almost quadruple, towards the rail terminal. The aviation is hovering over the city, dropping bombs and strafing someone's positions from an untouchable altitude. There is no single frontline here, the fighting is patchy and the result is a layered cake of our forces and that of the Chechens, our forces again and so forth. In other words - an idiot-house. No coordination of almost any kind. It is especially hard to work with the internal forces. Mainly this is their operation and we are "makhra" - doing all their work for them. Oftentimes we would storm the same target without realising. Sometimes we'd call in artillery or air support against their positions, whilst they do the same to ours. We take each-other prisoner and exchange fire in the dark.
   Just now, we're headed for the rail terminal, where almost the entire Maikop brigade parted with their lives. They disappeared into the night, with no proper reconnaissance of the approaches or the positions and numbers of the enemy. Without artillery preparation. When the Maikopians relaxed after the assault and began to dose off - it's no joke to run on only vodka and adrenaline for more than a week, the Chechens approached and shot them up at point-blank. Just like with Chapaev, who didn't put up patrols. Here the patrols either fell asleep or were knifed out quietly. Everything that could burn and could not burn--burned. The ground, the asphalt, the walls of buildings burned from the spilled fuel. The people dashed about in this fiery hell: some shot back, some helped the wounded, some shot themselves, just to avoid falling into Chechen hands, others ran and those cannot be blamed for it. How would you, the reader, carry yourself in this inferno? You wouldn't know. There you have it and don't you dare judge them.
   Nobody will know how they died. The commander, with shot-up legs, commanded to the end, whilest he could have left for the rear. He remained. God, keep their souls and our lives...
   When our brigade, after heavy fighting broke through to the Maikopians, the tanks had to roll over the piled-up bodies of our brother-Slavs...And when you remember how the tracks of the tanks and the personnel carriers break and crush the flesh, the guts of those just like you winding up on their rollers, how the head bursts open under the caterpillar and with a crackling sound everything around it is spattered with a red-grey mass of brains--the brains of perhaps a future genius, a poet, a scientist or maybe just a good guy, son, friend, who didn't cowardly run, who instead went to this shitty Chechnya and who did not perhaps fully understand what happened; when your boots slide through a bloody mess--it is then that is most important is to think of nothing but the one thing: forward and survive, forward and survive, protect your people, because the fighters you loose will be in your dreams. And you will have to write obituaries and acts of identification of corpses.
   I would not wish this work upon my worst enemy. It would be better to bulge your eyes and spray right and left out of your trusty AKS, than to sit in a dugout and write out these terrible papers. What are these wars for? Although, honestly, still, none of us understood completely what is and was happening here. There is only one goal - to survive and to fulfil the objective, retaining a maximum of your people. If you do not fulfil it, they'll send others, who perhaps and due to your unprofessionalism, cowardice, the desire to return home will lie under assault-machine gun fire, be torn apart by grenades, mines, would endure capture. Would you feel uneasy bearing such responsibility? So do I.
   Glue spotted a stirring in the window of a five-floor block, that stood adjacent to the square next to the terminal. He managed a yell of "Chechens!" and rolled back. I and Simyon also hid behind a pile of concrete. Glue started to feverishly soak the window out of his gun, whilst we prepared the grenade launchers.
   Oh what a wonderful thing it is this grenade-launcher, that is lovingly called the "underbarreler" with all the diminutiveness the Russian language can offer, although it weighs in a bit at about 500 grams. It is attached to the underside of the assault rifle's barrel. It can fire directly or via a ballistic trajectory. Imagine yourself a small length of pipe with a trigger and a safety bracket. The sight is included, but we got so good-dogged at it in the first days of war that we are now doing without it. Using the under-barrel launcher GP-25, one can lob a grenade into any window and if need be throw it over any building. In a straight line, it shoots to about four hundred meters. The radius of fragment dispersion--fourteen meters. A sheer fairytale. This thing saved countless lives in Grozny. How does one smoke out snipers from the upper floors in a rapid combat environment? One does not. As you wait for the artillery, the aviation, whilst you roll back and summon your "boxes", that can easily get torched by RPG troops...Meanwhile every fighter has his own underbarreller, so he smokes the bastards out himself. Also the grenade ammunition has one major advantage: it explodes on impact. When fighting at close quarters, say in a stairwell of an apartment building, where the enemy is located on the upper floors--imagine, you throw a hand grenade and it has a 3-4 second delay after the pin is removed. So count--you tear off the pin, lob it upstairs, but the cunt bounces off something and is flying back down to you. Only later, approximately January 15-17, they supplied us with "highland" or as we called them "Afghan" grenades, that exploded only when they hit something hard. In the meantime, someone from the local Kulibinskites thought of a method, where you knock the grenade against the heel of your boot, which arms it and then you throw the dear thing as far away from you as you can, where it explodes upon first contact with an obstacle and mows down everything living in the confined space.
   So, me and Simyon started lobbing out of our underbarrelers into the window, where Glue spotted some sort of movement. Semyon got it first go, I--the second. My first hit the wall, exploded sending down a substantial slice of veneer and raising a cloud of dust.
   We exploited this diversion and traversed the open space before us, sometimes running sometimes crawling and after two more buildings finally reached friendly positions.
   Those idiots nearly shot us, thinking we were Chechens.
   They escorted us to the commanding post, where we located the battalion's commander.
   The combat was a character. Not too tall, but he made up for it as a commander and as a person. As it was our brigade had good fortune as far as the quality of its commanders was concerned. I won't get into the nitty-gritty of their flaws and virtues, suffice to say they were real men. Those who served and fought will understand what that means.
   First battalion's command post was quartered in the basement of a railway terminal. When we entered, the combat was vigorously employing the mat at somebody on the other end of the field telephone.
   -You fucking scarecrow, where are you going! They are trying to lure, you simpleton ass out and you and your kindergarten are playing right into it! Execute a mop-up and defend everything around you! Not a single Chechen in your zone of responsibility! - bellowed the combat into the handset. - Drag the boxes back, let the makhra do the work! You sit in that observation post and keep your head in!
   Throwing down the receiver, he saw me.
   -Good health, - he smiled.
   -God's help, - said I, extending my hand.
   -What's new at the headquarters? Lets have dinner, - he offered, looking me over, pleased. To see a familiar face in war is a happy occasion. It means that fortune is not only on your side, but also that of your comrades.
   Having not yet recovered from all the running and gunfire, I knew: that if I was to not drink something now and calm down, I would start shaking rapidly and nervously. Or maybe instead I'd enter a semi-hysterical state where I want to babble on an on. So I gladly accepted this invitation to table.
   We seated ourselves upon empty shell crates and the combat quietly called out: "Ivan, we have guests, come have dinner". Captain Iliin, chief of staff of the first battalion emerged from the adjacent basement room. Thin, if not to say wiry, the first in the brigade on the subject of a volleyball contests, but pedantic and neat in his work. In peace, always well-ironed, buttoned up and sparkling, but now he little stood out from the rest. Same as all, he was covered in soot, unshaven and sleepless.
   -Hello, Slava, - he said and his eyes glittered slightly. We were almost the same age, but I - an officer of the brigade staff, whilst he, chief of the battalion staff. And we were both in the rank of captain. We have been friends for a long time now, our wives and children - also.
   I did not conceal emotion and we embraced. Quietly, the nerves were kicking in, hysterics were lapping at my composure after that short excursion through death.
   I wasn't worried about my fighters--they were amongst their own kind and will be warm and fed.
   -Did you come for the sniper, Slava?, asked the combat.
   -Yes, who else would I be after?, - I answered. - How did you take that bitch?
   -Yeah, for three days that bastard didn't let us have any peace, - complained Ivan. - holed up next to the terminal, across the square and sprayed us from there. He laid down three fighters and he wounded the first company commander in the leg. Meanwhile we can't evacuate. We summoned the medics here and they operated on the spot.
   -Oh yeah, how is he? - I asked. - I heard the story from the medics, great work, those guys, but how's the company commander - will he live and walk?
   -He will, he will, - the combat confirmed happily, - only I had to relieve him, and as you know company commanders are in deficit, so the two-shitters are in charge now (this pejorative term was applied to tertiary graduates conscripted for two years with an officer's rank) But, this lad seems to be allright. Hot in the head, like Chapaev on his horse, wants to liberate all Chechnya on his own.
   -What did the sniper have on him? - I asked. - Since it could well be that it's some crazy local, there's a lot of them wandering about the city now.
   Combat and COS looked offended. Ivan leapt up, ran to his quarters and brought back our own Russian-made SKS rifle. Only the optical sight was imported, mounted on a non-standard bracket. I spotted it straight away having seen it before--most likely Japanese. Nice toy.
   While we examine the carabin, Pal Palych, - the combat - tells us that in the sniper's pockets they found two packets of bullets whilst in his "lair", meaning in spot where he set up the ambush - a carton of beer and two cartons of cigarettes. Whilst he was telling us this, Palych was setting the table: he cut the bread, opened the condensed milk, spam, mysterious salads, pickled tomatoes and cucumbers. Finally upon this improvised table, he placed a bottle of vodka.
   Meanwhile I counted the notches on the stock. 32 interrupted lives. We all knew how snipers worked from direct experience. When we entered the city using old, almost pre-war maps, they were there to greet us. Whilst we were racing down the highway splitting heads and cracking teeth inside the BMPs, cursing all and everything, the snipers managed to shoot off our radio antennas that were swaying to and fro--and this was in the dark and obscured by clouds of dust. When that resulted in communications disruptions and the commanders would send the fighters to investigate what the hell is going on, the snipers shot them. Also the Chechen shooters have this ploy: they hit the legs, so the fighter can't crawl away, then they wait. The wounded cry out and those coming to them to help are shot up like chickens. In this manner, the brigade lost about thirty. As a result we have a special grudge with these people. It's surprising that the fighters took this bastard alive.
   The other day the second battalion came upon a lair with all signs of a woman occupant. The common elements are: a couch or an armchair, non-alcoholic drinks, in contrast to the men-snipers and some sort of a soft toy. The rifle is hidden nearby. A whole day the fighters laid in wait, not going to the toilet, not even smoking. Then she came. What happened there - no-one knows, but the Checheness flew out like a bird from the roof of the nine-storey house and a grenade blast tore her to shreds on the way down. The fighters insisted that when she caught a whiff of their unwashed bodies, the sniper sprinted up to the top and jumped out with a live grenade. Naturally everyone nodded with mock regret that they had no chance to assist her in her flight. No-one really believed that this last journey with a live grenade was voluntary. As far as I remember the Chechens did not commit suicide. This is our native trait - a fear of capture, dishonour, torture. After this incident the combat said something, that became our division's motto: "Siberians do not surrender, nor do they take prisoners".
   Meanwhile, the com-batt poured the vodka, and I and Ivan sat down. If somebody tells you that we were drunk when fighting this war - spit in their face. In war, men drink as a means of disinfection. They can't always boil water or wash their hands properly. "Red eyes don't go yellow" was the motto of our field medics. Water for cooking, drinking and washing had to be drawn from Sunzha - a small river that runs through all of Chechnya, including Grozny. There were so many corpses of men and animals floating in it that hygiene was not to be thought of. No, nobody would get pissed in war--it's certain death. Besides, your comrades would not let you - who knows what's on the mind of a drunk and armed man?
   We raised our plastic cups of which we obtained a large number at the airport "Severny" and brought them together. The resulting sound was not a clink, but a rustling, "so that the political officer doesn't hear", jested the officers.
   -To good fortune, men, - pronounced the combat and having breathed the air out of his lungs sunk the half-glass of vodka.
   -To her, the cursed, - I picked up and also drank. Immediately I felt the heat in my throat and a warm wave rolled inwards and stopped in my stomach.
   Languor spread through the body. Everyone started shovelling in the food - who knows when we can eat in peace again. The bread, the spam, pickles, all flew down into my stomach. Now it was Ivan, who poured the vodka and we drank silently, having rustled the cups together. I retrieved my cigarettes "Tu-134", that I brought from home, but noticed that the combat and Ivan have Marlboros, I put them back.
   -Yeah, answered the combat.
   -How's the second battalion? - asked Ivan, dragging deeply.
   -They are taking the hotel "Kavkaz", and to their aid we're sending the third battalion with the tanks. The Chechens are dug in hard and holding on. Ulianovites and the marines are storming the Minutka Square and Dudaev's palace, but for now are just loosing lives with little result.
   -That means that we'll be sent to their aid soon, interdicted the combat. - This, unlike smashing bottles over heads requires thinking - how to save lives and how to achieve the objective. I never understood the paratroopers, imagine to leap out of the plane in a sober state of mind--hm? - joked Palych, merrily.
   -As for me, I never understood the border guards, picked up Ivan, - four years in the academy, where they are taught to look into the binoculars and walk next to a dog. I feel it in my heart, we'll be gnawing the asphalt on this fucking square.
   In the back of my mind, I have already decided, that I won't deliver this sniper to the brigade staff. The bitch will die from a stray bullet or during an "attempted escape". Same shit, he has already told us everything he could have said.
   Only in movies do they convince the "tongue" on ideological grounds to cough up the military secrets known to him. In real life, everything is simpler. It all depends on imagination, anger and time. If time and desire are present, one can take the enamel off the prisoner's teeth using a chisel and convince them with the aid of the "field telephone". This is a certain brown box with a crank on the side. You connect a pair of wires to the interlocutor and spin the crank, having first asked a number of questions. But this is done in comfortable conditions and if the subject is to be handed over to the attorney's aides. No traces remain. It is recommended to douse the subject in water and so that the screams are muffled to run big engines nearbly. But that is purely aesthetics.
   In the field, everything is much simpler. The toes are shot off, one by one. There is no man that can endure this. You would tell all you know and all you remember. Does this make the reader ill? You were celebrating new year, visited friends, went down ice-hills with your kiddies, half drunk, instead of protesting in public squares demanding to save our fighters. You did not collect warm clothes or gave money to those Russians that fled Chechnya and did not donate any part of the money that you pissed up the wall towards cigarettes for the soldiers. So don't turn away and listen to the truth of what war is like.
   Allright, lets go for the third and come see your shooter, I said, pouring the remnants of vodka into the glasses.
   We stood up, took the glasses, kept a few seconds' silence and drank without clinking. The third toast is the most important for us soldiers. Whilst this toast for civilians is usually for "love", for the students is for something else, for soldiers it is "for the fallen". It is drunk upright, silently and without touching the glasses, with all partaking letting the images of those they have lost pass before their inner sight. Its a terrible toast, but from another perspective, you know that if you were to perish, in five and in twenty-five years some snotty lieutenant in some far-east garrison forgotten by God, or some portly colonel in the staff of a prestigious base would raise the third toast and drink to you.
   We drank and I threw down a chunk of spam and a piece of "officer's lemon" - an onion. There are no vitamins on the front, the body needs them, and so the onion was nicknamed the officer's lemon. It is eaten in war everywhere and always, the smell is indeed terrible, but you get used to it, especially as it, at least a little, covers up the omnipresent, vomit inducing and inside-out-turning smell of decaying human flesh. Having consumed the chaser and washed it down with condensed milk, straight from the can, I took a cigarette from the com-batt's pack that was on the table and headed straight for the exit.
   Com-batt and Ivan Iliin followed. About thirty meters from the entrance to the basement, a tight circle of fighters surrounded a tank. They were debating something loudly. I noticed the barrel of the tank's gun somehow unnaturally pointed upwards. When we came closer, we noticed the rope hanging down from the gun-barrel.
   Having seen us, the fighters parted. The picture before us was colourful, but at the same time frightening: at the end of this rope hung a man. His face was swollen from beatings, his eyes semi-closed, the tongue stuck out of his mouth, his hands were tied behind him. I have seen plenty of corpses in the past, but I do not like them, I do not like them.
   The com-batt started shouting at the fighters:
   -Who did this?! Which bitches, guts uncut? (I won't quote the other epithets used, just ask any army man who served ten years or more to swear a bit, you'll enrich your lexicon with new and exciting turns of speech).
   The combat continued to rage and demand explanations, however looking at the sly expression on his mug, I knew that he was not mad at all. Of course he regretted not having the opportunity to string the sniper up himself, but appearances have to be kept up in front of an officer of the staff. And everyone present understood this completely. Also it was understood that nobody will report this incident to the military tribunal. All of this crossed my mind as I was smoking the com-batt's Marlboro. To think of it; that just a few short hours ago, these cigarettes belonged to this man, whose feet are dangling in the air in front of my face, then they passed onto the com-batt, who is now busy shouting and finally I am smoking them as I watch this spectacle.
   This circus started to bore me, so I asked the soldiers surrounding me, amongst whom I also spotted Semyon and Glue:
   - What did he say before kicking the bucket?
   The soldiers burst out, interrupting one another that "that bitch" (which is the kindest epithet they used) shouted that he regretted felling only thirty of "your men".
   The fighters emphasised the word "your" and I could see that they were telling the truth. Had he not said this, he might have lived a while longer.
   At this point, one of the soldiers said something that amused everyone:
   -Comrade Captain, he hung himself.
   -He tied the noose on a raised barrel with bound hands and then leapt from the armour? - I asked, holding back laughter.
   I then turned to the com-batt:
   -Oh well, take your corpse down and we'll report that he suicided, having not being able to live with a guilty conscience, - I spat out the butt and crushed it with my heel, - And I'll take his rifle with me.
   -Nikolaich, - he addressed me for the first time in the patronymic, - Leave the rifle with me, my guts churn when I see it.
   Having looked into his eyes, his expression begging, I knew that I could not take the gun with me.
   -You will owe me, and you, - I directed to Ivan, - will be the witness.
   -Thank you, Nikolaich, - Palych vigorously shook my hand.
   -Because of this idiot, I had to leg it here, under fire and now go back the same way.
   -So take him with you, and say that he died during an exchange of fire, Ivan joked.
   -Go to hell, - I replied, un-maliciously. You can grab and cart this stiff yourself. And if in the future, you'll allow yourself the misjudgement of taking someone prisoner, either you bring him to the brigade staff yourself or finish him quietly and on the spot. Make sure to somehow commend the fighters that took him. That's all, we're leaving. Issue the order to have us escorted for a few blocks.
   We shook hands and the com-batt, snorting, reached into his inner pocket and produced a sealed Marlboro pack. I thanked him and called out to my fighters:
   -Semyon, Glue, we're leaving.
   They approached, adjusting their guns.
   -Ready? Did you at least get fed?
   -They fed us and poured us a hundred grams, - answered Semyon. - They also replenished our ammo and provisions.
   -OK men, let's go, we have to reach our positions while it's still light, - I muttered, buttoning up as I walked and attaching a new magazine.
   I had a superb magazine, taken from the RPK. Their capacity is fifteen rounds greater than the standard assault rifle magazines, - each one holds 45 rounds. I laid them together like "The Jack" and taped them up with isolation tape. So I always have 90 rounds at my disposal. Unfortunately the calibre is only 5.45 instead of the old 7.62. The 5.45 has a large ricochet and the bullet "wonders", whilst 7.62 once you lay it down, you lay it down. There is a story around, that during the Vietnam war, the Americans complained to their gun-makers that the M-16 wounds more than it kills (same as with the AK-47 and the AKM by the way). So the gun-makers went to visit their troops in the field. They looked about a bit and began experimenting on the spot--they drilled a hole in the top of the bullet and welded in a needle. This operation resulted in a shift in the centre of gravity, the bullet began to ricochet more and upon contact wound up almost all of the man's guts onto itself. The enemy experienced a decrease in woundings and an increase in lethal outcomes.
   Our guys thought of nothing more original than to follow the American example and in Afghanistan replaced the 7.62-caliber Kalashnikovs with the forty fives. Maybe some like it, but not me.
   Having buttoned up and taken up our guns, we hopped up and down a bit and looked each-other over.
   -Lord's help, - I pronounced and having turned around saw the five fighters that were preparing in the same manner, to escort us.
   One more time I glanced over at the hanged sniper. The tank's gun returned to its normal angle and the rope with the dead man was gone.
   -That's it, let's go, - I commanded and with a nod indicated that the first battalion fighters go first.
   Being more familiar with their surroundings, they, unlike we, who got here over the topside, dove into a basement and lead us through pile-ups and fissures. In one spot we descended into the sewer, somewhere else we emerged again on top. I completely lost my sense of direction and could only determine the route using the hand compass. It indicated that we were going the right way. After about thirty minutes, the sergeant that led us, stopped and started searching for his cigarettes. We all lit up. Then he said: -That's it - there are about five to seven blocks remaining to your boxes, no more than that. But you'll have to continue on your own over the top-side.
   Having finished my smoke, I extended my arm to the sergeant and farewelled each of the escorting soldiers. And I said:
   -Good luck! We all need good luck.
   -Why don't you go ahead and we'll remain here and listen for ten minutes or so.
   -This way, - I directed to Semyon and Glue indicating the direction with my hand. I leapt out first, fell down and tolled and looked around, pointing with my gun. Having noticed nothing suspicious, I waved tot he others. Semyon emerged first, then Glue with the radio.
   In this manner we continued for another forty minutes until we came up our "boxes". As soon as we set off, we came under a hurricane of fire from the top levels.
   The leading vehicle, which I was riding, veered to the left, then hit a corner. Its speed dropped and then it stopped completely. We were sitting on the armour and swore as we opened fire.
   -Mechanic! You're fucked over the head, what are you doing, your mother, quickly get out of here! I hummed into the hatch. Then addressing the fighters sitting next to me:
   -Deploy a smoke screen!
   -The caterpillar is torn off! - shouted the mechanic, getting out of the BMP.
   -Your mother, everyone off the armour. Four of you stretch the caterpillar back on, the rest of you take up defence. Ready two underbarrelers - the rest use the assault rifles, the second vehicle - use the gun. That's it lads, lets roll!
   The heat of battle seized me once again. Fear-- is the first thing one feels, but you know that when fear is defeated, you'll taste a hint of blood in your mouth, you feel calm and powerful, your senses are sharpened. You notice all, your brain like a good computer instantaneously delivers the correct solutions and a heap of combinations. Immediately having rolled off the armour, rolled on the ground and I'm behind a fragment of concrete wall. I feverishly search for the target, but cannot yet see whence from they are shooting us up. Hold. A breath in and out, in and slowly out, that's it I'm ready, let's roll Slavs, well stretch their eyes over their black ass. Adrenaline is once again raging in my veins and a feel a merry draw of the battle boiling up inside of me.
   The fighters did not have to be ordered twice. They quickly and precisely pulled out the rings from the smoke generator boxes and our vehicle disappeared in multi-coloured plumes of smoke. The Russian soldier is thrifty and consequently takes everything that isn't nailed down, just in case. So, when we took the airport "Severny" the lads picked up a bunch of smoke sticks. The second vehicle having seen us, released their own smokescreen. This was fortunate timing as the Chechens realised they won't be able to pick the infantry off the armour and started firing out of an RPG.
   What is an RPG? An ordinary grenade launcher, he also has a little sister, called "the fly". It looks like a pipe, the first modifications folded out telescopically. Both are designed for destruction of armoured vehicles and infantry. As the grenade encounters an obstacle, (this would often be an armoured plate), it releases a stream of fire the thickness of a needle that burns through the metal and inside the target creates a high level of pressure and a happy temperature of say three thousand degrees, or so. The shells and ammo begin to explode. This terrible explosion can tear off a many-ton turret and propel it thirty meters, shred the crew and the riders on top. How many infantry perished, when the lads were sitting thusly inside metal death-traps? However, there were instances when the mechanic or the gunner had their hatches open, in which case the explosion simply propelled them outward, slightly broken and concussed, but alive and not crippled.
   So these sons of bitches started to peck us with an RPG and on top of that from "bumblebees", and neither could the enemy see us, nor could we see them. It should be noted that we looked quite funny. Enveloped in heavy standard-issue black smoke from which coloured aviation smokes - blue, red, yellow, issued like geysers, weaving together and then separating, distracting the adversary.
   The second BMP's gun started reporting, shooting randomly into the general direction of the grenade launchers. And then there was an explosion over there. Either we hit something, or the RPG trooper slipped up in the heat of battle. Both "fly" and "bumblebee" are after all a pipe. For the complete idiot only, there is a label "direction of fire". Who knows what happened there, but the Lord was on our side today it seems. Hearing that the shooting from the Chechen side died down, our fighters started shouting merrily, mainly in mat and monosyllables that are understood no doubt by all warriors of the globe.
   -No stuffing around! - I barked. - Continue stretching on the caterpillar, second vehicle, take up defence.
   I stood up and began stretching my stiff legs and back, not relaxing for even a second, peering though the clearing smoke at the building from which the shooting came from.
   Judging by the angle of fire, it was probably the third floor. In the confusion and because of the smoke, I didn't properly determine where we were being shot at from. And only now did I see a gaping hole on the third level, torn open by the blast, belching smoke.
   Semyon, who during the whole fight was beside me, pointed at the hole in the wall:
   -The bitches cooked! Vyacheslav Nikolayevich, let's go check maybe?
   In his eyes was such a begging expression, one would think that his bride was waiting for him there.
   -In a moment, wait, - I said and addressing the mechanics working near the vehicle: - How long are you going to screw around with that track?
   -Almost done, Comrade Captain, another five minutes, rasped one of the fighters, as he assisted in affixing the caterpillar onto the leading sprocket.
   -Semyon, Glue, Mauser, American, Picasso - you're with me. The rest continue the repairs and cover us. If we do not return in half an hour, roll back two blocks and then wait for another half an hour. If we don't return then, go back to headquarters. That's all.
   And to the fighters that were to come with me:
   -Let's go, you devil spawn. Picasso--lead, rearguard--Glue, Semyon--on the right side, Mauser--left side. Prepare the grenades.
   -What about me? - piped up the weedy, but outwardly charming fighter, who possessed a first grade in rock climbing and nicknamed "American" because he turned up to be conscripted wearing shorts with the American flag design.
   -And you will walk next to us and won't snap with your soup-hole, - I answered un-maliciously. Let's go mop up the Chechens.
   -Everyone understood what it meant to "mop up", namely, no prisoners. "A good Indian is a dead Indian" - the conquistadors' motto was very fitting in our situation. What can a live Chechen offer us, especially some infantryman? Well - nothing, no maps, no stores, no communications systems - not-a-thing. And if the bitch is wounded, you have to stuff around with him - set out a guard. Meanwhile he could pull some trick - sabotage for example. Neither can we exchange him. We'll finish him and that the end of story. It's even better for him - at least we won't torture him.
   Chapter 2
   Carefully, we ascended to the third floor. There were fire points set up in two adjacent apartments. In one laid the RPG trooper, in the other, two gunners equipped with Kalashnikov machine guns. The most amazing thing was that they were kids 13-15 years of age. One of the gunners was still alive, unconscious, and was moaning softly. Judging by the profusely bleeding stump, in place of a leg, he was not going to survive. The shell hit the RPG gunner's room and by the looks of it destroyed his stores. I glanced around once more and the good mood evaporated. Of course these were Chechens and they shot at us, thirsting for our death, but... But they were kids. Shit. I spat off to the side and ordered the fighters standing beside me: "Finish him off and then comb the entire stairwell, in case somebody else crawled off". Though, somehow I doubted it.
   The three assault rifle reported - this was Semyon, Glue and Picasso releasing a short burst each into the mangled body. The kid bulked, the bullets tore up his chest, somebody hit the head, which cracked open marring the floor...I calmly watched this murder. I then turned away from the corpse, I hate corpses, maybe this is a normal response from a healthy individual? Who knows. I took out the sniper's Marlboro and treated the fighters.
   -I thought I said it in plain Russian - comb the stairwell. Is that understood? I said dragging on the cigarette. - The fighters mumbled something and went off to carry out the order. Meanwhile, I went through the pockets of the deceased, holding back bouts of vomit and covering myself in puffs of cigarette smoke.
   Oo! This wouldn't be the military ID card? Here, let's see: Semyonov Aleksei Pavlovich, born 1975. Semyonov, Semyonov, Semyonov. Something stirred in my memory. Wasn't there a Semyonov in the sapper engineers, that went missing in action during the storming of the "Severny" airport? He was sent to bring the fuse chord for de-mining and the kid disappeared. I hope he wasn't shooting at us. I carefully examined the Chechen's faces, comparing it to the bad photo on the ID card. I looked through a hole in the wall at the guy with the grenade launcher. Thank God, it wasn't any of them. I leafed through the ID a bit more. Fuck! Our detachment, our Semyonov. You fuckers are lucky, otherwise your death would have been terrible. I would have questioned you personally, I know how to loosen tongues virtue of being through many wars in the former Soviet territories, and I know how to keep them alive long and sane.
   The feeling of regret over the dead kids passed immediately and only hatred remained, hatred so strong that my teeth clenched spasmodically. If I have to, I will crush with my own hands not sparing my own life. If only I can bring the moron back, alive and unharmed.
   At this point, my fighters called out from stairwell.
   -Comrade Captain, Comrade Captain, we found somebody, up there, on the roof! Gasping shouted the American.
   I sprinted up the stairs like an arrow, and didn't wheeze. Our fighter was on the roof, nailed down, like Jesus, on a cross. His severed penis was inserted into his mouth. And despite the layer of mud encrusting his face, I recognised him from the photograph: it was him--Semyonov. And even though I have seen him only about ten times and didn't interact with him, I felt a lump in my throat, tears welling up in my eyes and a tickling in my nose. I regretted having not spoken to him earlier. I think he was commandeered to our brigade out of Abakan immediately before departure for Chechnya.
   -They nailed him to the cross and placed him on the roof. It looks like he was toppled over by the blast, which is why we didn't notice him, Picasso began. He seemed to be ashamed that we didn't spot the lad earlier.
   This is our soldier, - I laboured through the lump in my throat and holding back shouting and expletives, Semyonov, a sapper, disappeared at "Severny" during de-mining. I found his ID on one of the shooters.
   The fighters were as if struck by electricity, they started bustling around Semyonov, carefully removing from the cross, trying all the while not to damage him as though he was still alive. They whispered as if not to wake him, tears dripping and dripping from their eyes, making it harder to work. I turned away and retrieved the cigarette pack, light up, drawing greedily, trying to chase down the lump in my throat. I glanced sideways to check on the progress. When Semyonov was taken off the cross, a makeshift stretcher was constructed from the planks and rags lying nearbly and the martyr was placed upon it, I said:
   -Glue, talk to the boxes, tell them to drive up closer and that we are carrying "Cargo 200". Our "Cargo 200".
   I went first, checking the route, while the fighters carefully as if handling a wounded man, carried Semyonov on the stretcher. Glue concluded our procession weighed down with the radio and whatever remaining weaponry we found on the Chechens.
   Having emerged from the stairwell, we loaded the body into the crew compartment and set off. I thought to myself, woe to any Chechen that tried to show his nose in our way. For confirmation, I looked around and saw the fighters with the same frightening, empty eyes as mine. Only the fire of vengeance blazes inside and not a thing more, just emptiness. Blood, blood, blood, to pour out my rage, that a scull crack under my gun-stock and ribs crunch under my boot. To punch through with my knuckles and tear arteries and to look in their eyes and ask them: "Why did you, carrion, shoot at Russians?"
   Hold on bitches, there will be no mercy, not to the elderly or the children, nor to the women - nobody. Stalin and Yermolov were right - these people cannot be re-educated, only destroyed.
   The BMPs raced forward as if sensing our mood, its engines ran evenly, without interruptions, immersing us in greasy clouds of unburned diesel, lending our grimy composure a certain glistening dandyness. But our eyes continued to burn with a mad fire, demanding vengeance and there was no place in our souls for cowardice, no desire to run. It is perhaps this sort of state that compels a man to lay over an embrasure, so as to forfeit their life to save the lives others. The desire for revenge becomes a desire to protect those close to you, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for others.
   Glancing at my surroundings, with my very skin, I felt the stirrings in the ruins. Having rested the gun in the bend of my arm, I pulled out the remaining ID cards that were taken off the dead Chechen and started reading them. Petrov Andrej Aleksandrovich, - Maikop Brigade. Yelizar'yev Evgenii Anatol'yevich - MVD forces (MVD and border guards have four-digit unit numbers, regular army's are five-digit). All up - eight Ids. All up - eight lives. Where are you boys? It seems nobody will ever find this out and for the rest of her life the mother will weep, no grave, nowhere to go. It's scary stuff.
   I finished with the Ids, making sure there were no more fighters from our brigade and no Siberians. I put the documents away and looked my arkharovtsy over, thus indicating that there were no more of our comrades. They turned away again and gazed at the scenes of recent battles racing by.
   Demolished buildings, houses, uprooted trees. Burned out vehicles could be seen in places. Commonly, these were tanks with turrets blasted off over the distance of many meters, ripped tracks. The BMP and BTR got torn to pieces sometimes, depending on where the grenade trooper hit it and also what type of ammo was inside. Some mechanics got lucky, others - not.
   It was painful to see felled trees - I like nature. A man has a choice. He can choose not to go here, to serve time for desertion, to buy a "white ticket", engage in self-harm, or one of the many other ploys the cunning mind of a Russian citizen is capable of. Meanwhile trees, animals - they do not have the same choice. They are not responsible for any of this. They are kept or planted due to a man's whim and another man comes and maims them and there is nothing that they can do. Neither the trees nor the animals can flee and somehow protect themselves. So many accepted death on the threshold of their own house, together with their keepers. Those animals that remain will soon be eaten as there will surely be a famine. Already I witnessed people, shuffling like shadows amongst the ruins, mostly the elderly or middle-aged women. Everyone capable of bearing arms has left to join the partisans, to avenge themselves. Fair enough, we'll avenge also. And the circle is complete. Each one of us is fighting, in their opinion, the just, holy cause. Each one prays to their own gods, calling to their aid and demanding vengeance for their comrades, cursing the enemy. The Lord divides the spoils of war evenly. Fine then, we'll go to war. Only it is hard to fight a people. It would be better to fight the regular army of a state, as we were taught to fight. Knock out the enemy in an open field, conquer a city, grab some trophies and then into the open fields again. Meanwhile, this place is just like Afghanistan - you're fighting a whole people, hell knows for how long and neither is it a real war. By law - a crappy police operation to restore constitutional order and what this order means exactly, nobody really knows and are unlikely to ever find out. OK, so while we and the Chechens shred each-other, somebody up in the capital will handsomely warm their hands. I have seen enough of it already. For some it's war and for others it's their own mother. If one of those bitches was indicted for all the blood that has already been spilled on the former Union lands. I am not talking about the Balts - having jailed their thugs and OMON cops, what good did that do? They gained nothing other than vengeance for their comrades. Meanwhile those that sanctioned such actions, those that lead and gave the orders - it is in their belly-button that one would like to dig around with a bayonet-blade, look into their eyes, dilated from pain and fear, to grow deaf from their screams, to inhale the scent of their blood - that would be truly fun. Not this shit.
   The people here, for four years lived according to GULAG laws. It was us that fed them with money, supplied them with arms, raised and trained them in GRU camps. We wanted them to fight for us in Ossetia and Abkhazia, as if it was none of our concern. And when they were no longer needed, they had to be exterminated, but no - we hoped to tame the Chechen. High hopes - the Chechen turned against the Moskovite posse. One question remains - why is it that the whole country has to suffer from your Chicago shoot-outs and we had to race over here all the way from Siberia to pull you apart. China for us is closer than Chechnya. On top of that you brought in troops from Transbaikal, The Far East, Marines from the Pacific, for whom the States are closer. And another things I'm wondering about: why did these Chechens leave the oil refinery completely untouched and that we are strictly forbidden to use heavy arms there? Look at the air force - merrily bombing residential districts, but the old industrial district--no no.
   That means that this is somebody's property, somebody who can shoo the Minister of Defence, that he dare not wreck it. He has leave to level the entire city, but not the oil refinery. Naturally when the Russian trooper gets wound up, it's difficult to contain him, but even the Chechens know not to go there. Naively reckoning he is fighting for his shitty freedom, the idiot has no clue meanwhile that we are all simply a part of somebody's sort-out. Ordinary, urkagan sort-outs, although particularly brutal ones. One little pakhan, decided to throw a big one and establish his own business, so the pakhan sent his posse--the Russian army to sort it out. The little pakhan meanwhile smartly, squealed about independence of state and his "bulls" also rose up also. And so the sort-outs began. Nobody can now properly recall how this shit started. The boys are smashing each-other up, the pakhans are raking in the dough. Using the war as an excuse they take away pensions and allowances. The little pakhan meanwhile is inciting the Islamic world with his cheap religious ideology. God, have mercy and help us!
   At this point, the BMP made a sharp turn and we nearly fell off the armour. Serves you right, you idiot. You sit on the armour and shut your soup-hole, or you get picked off or fall off and break your neck. The commanders will do the thinking for you and deliver the right decision. Your task is to survive and fulfil the objective. Everything else is nothing but shit. For example Andrej Petrov, the former commander of the Mortar battery, upon dispatch demanded that his formation be given two weeks for personnel training. He motivated his demands with the fact that his fighters were conscripted in November, having held an assault rifle in their hands only once before--during the taking of the oath ceremony. He was discharged, so that others would not deign, discharged with dishonour for desertion. A snotty, lieutenant was promoted in his place - a two-year tertiary graduate. Where is this lieutenant and his battery now? During the assault on the airport, he laid down most of his men himself including. That's how it is. The army is staffed with idiots. With some you mess around for two years and with others - twenty five.
   No matter how we tried to convince our big-star commanders that we are not prepared for war either materially or technically. The men are unprepared physically. When in December, the command came to load up onto the echelons and head out, just then it was bitterly frosty. As it happens in our army, the BMPs were fuelled by the summer formula, whose constituency at this point resembled that of syrup. So the military district smartasses decided to pour kerosene into this syrup to dilute it. They poured...One BMP went off right in the motor-park, along with full munitions kit and it was simply a miracle, that nobody got hurt. The second exploded when loading onto the railway platform, but again The Lord was on our side. Again, as it happens in the army, a heap of equipment and armament was written off on these accidents, exactly like in Suvorov's "The Liberators". According to documentation, it turned out that these machines carried no less than fifty winter coats, twenty five night-vision instruments and no less than a hundred ugg boots and camouflage suits. When the write-off papers were brought to an officer of the staff for authorisation, having read it, he ordered: "A winter coat and camo-suit, report to me". The rear commander's deputy increased the number of "destroyed" winter coats and camo-suits exactly by one unit each and brought one of each back together with the papers for signing. The general signed without hesitation.
   This general is now here with us. Thank god he does not interfere in the running of the brigade, just signs disposal papers for "combat losses".
   My thought then switched over to how best to convincingly lie regarding the sniper's failure to reach the headquarters alive. I understood, that naturally, nobody will be breathing into my face in righteous indignation, only regret that they themselves had not the opportunity to spin his guts onto their elbow. Special forces and reconnaissance will experience heightened regret. For both want nothing more but to lay their hands on the adversary so they can be made to talk. In this we are also quite capable with the only difference being that they retain a veneer of intellect, whilst we are much simpler, although we can loosen some tongues much faster. You can't beat a master at his trade.
   Something stirred in the ruins and glimmered in the rays of the dying sun. The brain did not even react properly, the arms already cocked the gun, the finger gripped the trigger, searching for the target. Only then did I consciously perceive that these were anti aircraft gunners from our brigade, that took up positions upon the ruins of some house. They too were greeting us with pointed guns, but we both had enough brains and composure in order to not open fire. Moreover since their Shilka, the self-propelled anti-aircraft mount ZSU-23 with four paired barrels was already turning in our direction. If they were to open up on us out of that thing, there would be nothing left. Oh well, it's a good thing we identified one another. We yelled something merrily to greet each other. OK, this means the command post is right ahead of us. Oh and there's the fountain of fire spewing out of the ruptured gas pipeline. Another two hundred meters or so and we are "home" We can even relax.
   -Radioman, I directed to Glue, - inform them of our arrival, or they'll start shooting.
   Glue chattered something into his apparatus and then nodded to me to indicate that yes, we are being expected. There was no desire to talk and more so shout over the din of battle hanging over the city, exasperated by that feeling of the presence of a fallen comrade. It is as if we felt guilty for his death but at the same time each one of us knew that it could have been them in that kid's place.
   The vehicles reduced speed and slowly manoeuvred through the improvised labyrinth of wall panels and piles of broken brick. From around each corner, a soldier with a dusty face watched us through his gun-sight. Because of the dust, their weary, strained and chronically sleepless, red-eyed faces looked as if made of stone. Having recognised us, they lowered their weapons and greeted us with smiles and waves. I guessed that already the officers, like the soldiers were betting on the delivery of the captured sniper. Personally I would not wager on delivery. We greeted the minutemen wearily.
   It a good thing that we arrived while it's still light, as some smartass at the Ministry of Defence invented a new system of passwords. If before everything was simple and understandable, now without ten classes of education and a half-litre, there is no working this shit out. Example. If before there was the password "Saratov" and the response "Leningrad" - that, a dummy can understand. We now have fighters who can't read or write properly - children of the Perestroika. Meanwhile the gist of the new system is such that a numerical password is established for a day, let's say thirteen. So. The sentry spots a silhouette in the darkness and shouts "Halt! The password is seven!". You must immediately calculate in your head that thirteen minus seven is six and shout into the darkness "The answer is six!", after which the sentry adds six and seven in his head, resulting in thirteen and lets you through. But if one of you can't count or think straight, the sentry, according to the Charter of sentry and garrison duty and in wartime on top of that has the full right to shoot you without trial or jury and no prosecutor will lift a finger to punish him later. In that, you idiot, should have studied maths at school, harder. All good if you're not too concussed and the fighter is thinking straight, but there are some smartasses, who shout out fractions or negative numbers, which is where you'll curse all their relatives and loved ones, involuntarily remembering meanwhile middle-school maths. On top of all, some Moskva shithead might get a commendation out of all this or even a medal for his chest. Those fuckers can easily pull something like that off.
   With such thoughts in mind, we rode up to the semi-demolished kindergarten housing our brigade's command post. I jumped off the BMP, massaging stiff, frozen legs and walking rigidly approached the head of staff Bilich Alexandr Alexandrovich, or as he was known to everyone in the brigade, San Sanych. As I moved, I turned around and yelled to my fighters:
   -Unload the hero and be careful.
   They nodded their understanding.
   Bilich San Sanych was about one seventy in height. His hair, not so much white as they were fair. Wide in the shoulders, he always had sparks in his eyes, or perhaps it always seemed that way to those around him? What set him apart from the other brigade officers was that by his very nature and in life, he was an intellectual. At first it seemed to everyone, this was a front, but the more one interacts with him, the more they see that no, this was just his nature. It seemed like he did not belong in our times, but in the times of hussars, balls and duels. Even now, when having more or less learned to fight, having acclimatised to the city conditions and having began to rout the enemy, when the war took on a positional, if still patchy character, Bilich found the time for his small morning exercises.
   In the mornings, if we managed to nap over night, we crawled out of our holes in the basement and shook from the cold. Because winter, even if it was in the south is still winter. As a rule, there usually was no water and the several days' stubble no longer stuck out, but grew smoothly over our faces. But looking at our nonchalant commander one somehow felt the desire to straighten up and find wanter and time for shaving. Although many officers didn't shave due to superstition or laziness. Some even looked all-right that way. Only Khlopov Roman, the commander of the recon troop, that possessed a naturally dark skin looked like a true Chechen when he let out his beard. During the battle for the train terminal, his own fighters shot at him. To his good luck he was wearing a helmet and a flack jacket, otherwise they would have wacked him. From then on Khlopov, whom we called Khlop took up the habit of shaving daily, disregarding the conditions.
   A week and a half or so back, when he and the reconnaissance chief broke through to the "Severny" airport to the staff of the united forces commander, they came upon an ambush on the way back. Grenade troops shot up their BMP at point-blank. Khlop was killed instantly, the recon chief was heavily concussed. The soldiers fought their way back to their positions for two days. They even brought back the mutilated Khlop and the concussed, almost deaf and semi-blind chief of reconnaissance captain Stepchenko Sergei Stanislavovich. As the fighters later told us, they laid low in basements during the day and moved by night, risking assault rifle fire from both the Chechens and their own. They slept in turns, sometimes using Khlop's remains as a pillow.
   Something went awry with Seryoga Stepchenko's head. Maybe due to the concussion, maybe due to the time spent holed up in basements next to a corpse. His concussion treated with vodka, spirit and cognac saw his hearing and sight gradually restored, but he could not stand enclosed spaces. At first glance he seemed all-right - fighting, working, but suddenly, he'd start talking utter nonsense. The brigade commander, colonel Bakhel Aleksandr Antonovich ordered to relieve Stepchenko from duty and keep an eye on him, lest he pull something. There was no prospect of evacuation - the wounded were kept in dugouts and the helicopters could not approach. Leutenant Krivosheev Stepan, a recon troop commander was temporarily assigned to the post of recon chief. Bilich San Sanych took care of Stepchenko and not only him - but all who were by his side. He decreed that the fighters that pulled Stepchenko and Khlop out were recommended for the title of Hero of Russia. But for now these papers were kept in the mobile safe of the brigade's chief of staff.
   Bilich did not recognise on principle the use of physical methods or obscenities in conversation with the enemy or subordinates. But I know that shouting in mat at somebody ensures a clearer understanding and a speedier execution of the orders. From personal I experience.
   And so it was to this hussar intellectual that I was meant to explain that I did not deliver the sniper because the fighters lost all restraint and strung him up on a tank gun barrel. As I walked into the staff building, in my head I was polishing some of the gentler phrases that might spare the refined depths of San Sanych's soul whilst at the same time covering the asses of the com-batt and Ivan Il'in.
   On the way I ran into the deputy chief of brigade rear Kleimenov Arkadij Nikolayevich. Everyone spoke of him that "Suvorow was right, any quartermaster can be safely hung after a year on the job". And when one beheld the well-fed face and figure of this man, they knew that the Generalissimo was indeed right, and in his time Kleimenov would long since have swung from a thill. His personal baggage grew continuously, despite the state of warfare we were in.
   -Ah, Slava, how was the trip? Did you bring the shooter?
   -Alas, Arkadij Nikolaevich, he carked it. Passed away. - I made a sombre face, though my eyes were speaking otherwise, the quartermaster understood and parried.
   -How did he die? - surprised, he put on a questioning expression.
   -Weak heart, - I scoffed, - also he was wounded, so he didn't live until departure. Except, how to tell this to San Sanych, lest he become too upset?
   -He's got other worries other than that sniper. Neither did anyone believe you'd really deliver him. Especially when you and Il'in could well have administered him harakiri on the spot. It a shame though, as there was a line-up forming here for a colloquy, - grinned Klejmenov.
   -Did they wager on delivery? - I asked.
   -Yeah, but mainly on non-delivery.
   -Yeah, also I brought Semyonov - the fighter went MIA during the storming of "Severnyj". My guys are currently unloading him. So what else is new?
   -So you've only been away for four hours. Oh, also, - Arkadij Nikolaevich's voice changed to a gloomy tone, - second battalion's chief of staff was wounded.
   It seemed for a moment that the walls tilted.
   -This is Sashka Pakhomenko? - I asked.
   -Him. They are storming the hotel "Kavkaz", and in that area there as many Chechens as demons in hell, so he got it in the chest. The medics could not get through. The nurse bandaged him. Right now we are preparing a storm troop who will try to drag him out under the cover of darkness.
   I could see that Klejmenov became very upset as he told me this.
   Captain Pakhomenko Aleksandr Il'ich was the brigade's favourite. Of huge stature and open personality he loved to wisecrack and jest. He knew many anecdotes, stories, tall tales and lacked maliciousness. Most importantly he was responsive and sincere and this endeared him to the people, who after just ten minutes of interacting with him felt as if they knew him since academy days. On top of it all he was no idler or freeloader. He threw himself first into the toughest spots, came to the aid of his comrade and because of this the officers and soldiers loved him dearly. He could help in word or deed as well as he could lay on in three-tiered mat - he swore virtuosicaly. He could drive a BMP in place of a mechanic-driver, dig around in the engine in the bitter frost and competently conduct exercises. In less words, he was that very type of officer that the mass media went on about. Loathed the enemy, did not hide his feelings, always ready to get you out of trouble. Unfaltering. Although sometimes overly noisy, but one got used to that fairly quickly. That was Sashka Pakhomenko, who asked to be called "simply Il'ich". It's strange but somehow the war dredges up long forgotten details about your interactions with people. And now this joker was lying around in the basement of a semi-demolished house with a hole in his chest. The Lord, give him strength.
   -Well, Arkadij Nikolaevich, I'm off to report to San Sanych, - I nodded my head and departed onwards down the corridor.
   -He's with an agent of the unified command there. Bakhel is out visiting the third battalion, so this straightedge chap is riveting Sanych's brains. They'll probably send us on some break-through again, where the elite troops shat themselves. It's always like this with us. The elite forces get to receive medals and shoot up the parliament in Moskva, while Siberian Makhra has to gnaw the asphalt in the cold of winter. Then when it's over, they'll send us away and these slinks will tell pretty girls about their feats as the cameras flash. He spat, gesticulated in resignation and departed.
   There were soldiers and officers in the corridor, some smoked, some slept leaning against the bullet-cratered wall, rising up to the sound of the particularly close gun reports.
   This kindergarten came to us a high cost. Dudaev declared that he doesn't need academics, only warriors, so the boys should study three classes, whilst the girls only one. And since all women now stay at home, there is no need for kindergartens. People close to the government, either through bribery or force, would appropriate the premises, just like this one, refurbished as a mansion for some bandit. The host and his guard fought for it fiercely.
   We spent half a day smoking them out of here and when we finally stormed in, we could establish that this particular bandit lived well: carpets everywhere, not the mass-produced kind, but hand-made, expensive furniture, crystal, porcelain, such electronics that we had seen only on TV. We studied the photographs of the owner and his household. As much as we missed women, I have never seen beauties here, neither in photographs, not in real life. They all have small faces, small eyes, their noses are kind of crooked, small mouths, to my mind, really resemblant of rats. Everyone has his tastes, but as they say - "there are no ugly women, only a shortage of vodka, but I can't drink that much..."
   My mind thus occupied, I descended into the basement where the brigade headquarters were located. Drawing away a soldier's water-proof cape that hung over the door I immediately felt the warmth of a soldiers' field stove - the potbelly, that probably survives only in the army. But as long as the Russian Army survives, this stove will warm its soldiers in training and in battle.
   -Comrade colonel, captain Mironov, after fulfilment of objective, reporting. - I chanted, seeing Bilich rising his head from the map. Over that map also leaned a senior officer of the staff - my partner or as we referred to each other "accomplice", major Ryzhov Yurij Nikolaevich and some major unknown to me.
   -We have been waiting for you a long time now. How did you go with fetching the sniper? - asked, looking inquisitively into my eyes, the chief of staff. - Your buddy here wagers a case of cognac that you would not bring him.
   -Had I known that the talk was of cognac, I would have at least bought his head. But he died, the dog, from his wounds and by the looks of it from a weak heart. The bastard was our comrade by his own admission, a Siberian. Thirty two notches on the stock and an excellent sight on his gun - Japanese.
   -Where's the gun? - inquired Ryzhov.
   -I left it with the com-batt and Il'in. They only have to show it to their fighters and they go berserk. And it's a good charge-up for them too.
   -Enough, enough out of you about the "charge-up". Right now we need only the one type of charge-up - aviation from the air, the approximate location of the enemy and where those bitches are getting their supplies from. They were not prepared for war and consequently had no stores of arms, ammunition or supplies.
   -That's not all, - I interrupted Bilich, - upon our return route, we were fired upon, engaged, counter-attacked, destroying the enemy and discovered upon one of their bodies, here... - I handed over the dead private's Id, - Our fighter. Semyonov is his surname.
   Again, I felt that lump in my throat, interfering with my speech and breathing. I took out the cigarettes and although Bilich did not smoke, he sympathetically did not object. I felt the lump disappear after I dragged a few times. I continued:
   -It seems, that these bastards subjected him to prolonged torture, then cut off his member while he was still alive and nailed him to the cross. Then they shoved it in his mouth. We brought him back, the fighters must have unloaded him by now. Also, here are some more, - I handed over the other Ids, - no more of our boys.
   San Sanych listened attentively, then looked straight into my eyes and then accepted the Ids. He quickly looked them over examining only the serial numbers of army formations, then stacked them down on the table.
   -By the way, say hello, - he turned to the major, - major Karpov Vyacheslav Viktorovich, a representative of the unified command, officer of the General Staff. And this, - pointing at me, - is captain Mironov, a senior staff officer, an adventurer, still drawn to battle, still can't get used to not being a company commander, but a staffer.--San Sanych chided me fatherly-like.
   I was a little startled, I did not expect my boss to report me so warmly. I extended my arm, the major did also.
   -Vyacheslav, - he introduced himself.
   A namesake, huh. Let's see what sort of a bird you are and why the dick you fluttered in here. He must be a really big deal, this guy, seeing he was sent here to us. Maybe they want to butter us up before a suicide mission, check out the state of affairs in the collective, so as to remove the commander later. These far cats from Moskva like to pull such tricks.
   I looked him over attentively. A familiar mug. I've seen him somewhere, but where, for now, I could not remember. Very well, we'll sort that out later. But the fact that this was a Moskovite and on top of that General Staff made me dislike him immediately as it would any field officer. These Moskovites are the root of all evil, all of them scoundrels, thieves and coveters. This acxiom was known to every soldier, who watched them come down for inspections and engage in nothing but drunkenness. They then left carrying away lavish gifts. Slinks in other words - these Moskovites. We are here because of them. Moskva planned the first and the current storming of Grozny. November 25 and January 1 will be days of mourning in Russian military history.
   All of this raced through my head, as I shook the moskovite's hand and squeezed out a semblance of a smile. I think that my thoughts broadcast on my soot-covered faced very well. But I could not right there and then and in the presence of the commander send this fop to hell.
   -Vyacheslav, - I introduced myself in reply to the Moskva fop.
   -Major Karpov, take these documents to the stavka, let them sort out who's who and inform the relatives. - San Sanych handed him the Ids.
   The Moskovite nodded in agreement, took the Ids and without looking at or counting them shoved them into his pocket, not even the inner pocket as a normal officer would do out of respect for the fallen, but the outer pocket of his coat that hung on the chair.
   This severely pissed me off and with a poorly concealed irritation in my voice I said to this son of a bitch:
   -Dear sir, make sure you don't loose them, huh, after all these are someone's lives.
   San Sanych and Ryzhkov both sensed the rage in my voice and looked at the newcomer like he was the enemy of the people. Perceiving hopefully, that he made a mistake, he muttered something under his nose and moved the documents into his inner pocket. As he did this the fucker looked at me very expressively as if he wanted to grind me into dust. Well well, kiddo, have a good look, I can calm a drunken soldier with my stare, but as for you, you dandy, I'll put you on your knees with my stare and my gun. I held out the stare of his watery unremarkable eyes. He himself looked a bit puny. A meter seventy in height, maybe less, thin with a small head. Very pale, almost an albino, the difference being that the eyes are not red, but somehow colourless. Somehow he immediately instilled a repulsive impression. His long fringe, that he constantly adjusted gave him an almost impercievable effeminacy. "Maybe a faggot", raced a mischievous stray thought through my head. An officer of the General Staff is a queer. Imagine the hoo-hah. Although they say that to change sexual orientation is fashionable in Moskva now. But no - I won't sleep next to him. Maybe he's just colourless like a jellyfish. I should tell this reamer to paint himself into some happy colour - like red for instance. The sniper's job would be easier too.
   For a second, I imagined major Karpov painted red and a smile stretched over my face. Karpov began to look himself over nervously checking if by any chance there was something out of order with his clothes. Establishing this not to be the case he realised that I was insolently laughing at him and stared back at me angrily.
   Knowing my explosive temper, San Sanych spoke in order to discharge the atmosphere:
   -Enough glaring at one another, let's go look at the corpse, fill in the papers and you, Vyachelav Ivanovich, - he looked at Karpov, - will have to take him to the airport and send him home.
   We rose to exit. The soldiers and officers already gathered in the yard. Semyenov's corpse was neatly laid out on a tarp, his hands folded on his chest and the nail wounds clearly visible on the backs of his palms. Somebody covered his face with a soldier's handkerchief. The people simply stood there, keeping a mournful silence, their heads bared. And only by the tenseness of their figures could one judge what was going on inside each of their souls. The sniper was lucky that he was finished off over there. Here he would have had the misfortune to live a lot longer.
   Bilich approached the dead man, lifted up the handkerchief and looked into the dirty face contorted in an unmoving mask of horror. He sighed and turned to Klejmenov, who stood near. He ordered:
   -Arkadij Nikolaevich, fill out the act of identification and prepare him for shipping. The stavka agent will take him with, when he goes.
   -All right, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, - and to the surrounding soldiers: - Take him, bring him in, it's warmer there and we'll be able to sew him up. And call the scribe, let him prepare the identification act, death notice and everything else that's needed.
   Everyone got busy at the same time. Bilich, addressing me, Ryzhov and the Moskva fop:
   -Let's go have dinner.
   I would not have minded a snack of course, and to let through a hundred grams, but not in the company of this colourless mug, so I politely declined.
   -Thank you comrade colonel, but I'll eat a little later. I need to wash up from the road, prepare the report about the sniper and Semyonov plus the other work is piling up. I need to catch up.
   -As you wish, and report to me at 21.00, the brigade commander should be back by then. - he looked at me attentively as he said this, it seemed he knew the real reason for my refusal.
   They entered the building. I watched how the fighters brought in what remained of Semyonov, turned about and departed towards my vehicle.
   Each staff officer had his own vehicle. I and Yurka Ryzhkov had a GAZ-66 with a plywood kung. Whereas many officers preferred to spend the short periods of rest in basements, me and Ryzhov loved our kung. We had a driver - Kharin Pashka, a meter seventy in height, big-boned, wide, ever-grinning mug, small eyes with ginger hair and a shaven back and flowing forelock, as was the soldiers' fashion. Paska's nature was that of a scoundrel, wriggler and conman, but I have seen him numerous times in action, driving the truck and us out of the line of fire, which is why we loved and trusted him. In civilian life this Pashka was a self-willed, heinous shit-stirrer and a womaniser. A pregnant fiancИ awaited him where we came from. He had another year until leave into reserves. Pashka knew about almost everything that happened in the brigade as he kept up warm relations with the fighters in the staff, communications, the mess. He supplied us with news and knew some things before we did, having learned them from the communications officers. This gave us time to think and prepare and to deliver ripened ideas during meeting, while the others were only beginning to digest the new information. The command appreciated this and thought of us as competent officers. We were not debils of course, but it helped.
   Having reached the vehicle, I noted with satisfaction that over the course of the day, Pashka found the time to fill up paper sandbags and position them around the vehicle. I can breathe easier now. A waft of smoke was streaming from the pipe, meaning that inside there is warmth, hot water and dry cigarettes. I went to the door and without opening it, called out:
   -Pashka! Where are you?
   -I am here, comrade captain. I'm guarding.
   Pashka emerged from the twilight. I glanced at the spot he picked to take up guard duty and noted that it was well-chosen.
   -So, my illegitimate son, what will you delight your father with? Did you behave? - I jested to Pashka.
   -All is well, Vyacheslav Nikolaevich. Here - I secured the vehicle with sand, procured some provisions.
   There was a problem with provisions, as well as mattresses, underwear and uniforms. The supply columns fell back , back at "Severny" and there was no sense to drag them here under numerous cross-fires. Only the fuel trucks, under escort brought us diesel for the vehicles and power generators. It's a given that every soldier and officer in their vehicle or BMP, had access to spam, preserved porridge with meat, etc, but that is not food. That is a direct route to a stomach ulcer. For that reason, everyone, without exception constantly hunted for provisions.
   During the storming of this lovely former kindergarten, significant stores of provisions and alcohol were located in its basements. A lot of it we already ate and drank, but we also knew who grabbed more than the rest and through personal charm or some other ploy of Paska's continued to dekulakize the communications personnel.
   -Dear son, - I directed to Pashka whilst climbing into the kung, - what exotic delights will you bring your elderly, ailing father?
   -Dutch ham, cured lamb, sardines, French, I think, and two bottles of cognac, also French judging by the label. - he reported.
   -Hot water? - I inquired, taking off the gun, the coat and other ammunition.
   -Yes, a full kettle. Pashka reported, as he threw the gun over his shoulder.
   -Come and pour me some water and then we'll have supper. - I have already began to enjoy the warmth in the kung and very reluctantly emerged back out into the gloomy frost, seeing that I had to also undress.
   I washed my face thoroughly, snorting like a cat and spitting out the dust lodged in my mouth and nostrils. There was no sauna for the time being, so we used sanitary napkins that we picked up at the airport and some cheap polish cologne, which we periodically rubbed into our skin having first undressed completely. We simply threw away our underwear, donning fresh ones each time.
   Back in the kung, while I was dressing, and polishing the gun with a rag, Pashka sliced up the ham and the pungent lamb ribs and opened a can of sardines. In the cenre of the table he hoisted the unopened bottle of cognac "Hennesy". I opened the bottle and sniffed its contents. They smelled all-right. I poured into the plastic cups. A little more for myself, a little less for Pashka. Raised the glass and looked at the liquid through the light, sniffed it once more. I definitely like the smell.
   -So Pavel, to good fortune.
   Clinking, we drank.
   -Vyacheslav Nikolaevich, why did you not bring the sniper?
   -You know damn well why. Glue, Semyon, the American and the others must have already told you. He died from a heart attack and from his wounds and the rest if not your business.
   -Tell me the news. Has the war ended yet?
   -Nooo. - dragged Pashka. -- There is an order to assist in the taking of hotel "Kavkaz". They promise air support. Then they'll send the whole brigade to take the Minutka square together with Dudaev's palace.
   -That's where we'll perish, because it's suicide to storm such a target with one brigade. What else?
   -The chief of staff of the second battalion is wounded. Up there with him is the singer Shevchuk from DDT. Have you heard of this?
   Chapter 3
   -No, I haven't heard of this. What is he doing there?
   -Nothing, he just came to play a concert at "Severny" and when he was there, asked to be taken to the frontline. He left his band at the airport and ended up with our guys. Who would have known that the second battalion would get surrounded so thoroughly, that they won't be able to get out? So he's staying put for now. The guys are saying over the radio that he's a fine lad and is not afraid, wants to fight.
   -Wait and see, they'll send reinforcements to break through and get him out and by the by, they'll take "Kavkaz". Then they'll get all the wounded out to "Severny" and from there home.
   -The moskovite keeps lurking around, asking the soldiers about their living conditions, probing and so forth.
   -You should have sent this fucker to hell and be done with it. They can't send you further than the front. Meanwhile what he's doing--we have our own political officer for that, whom we have seen at work and in combat. He doesn't hide behind other soldiers' backs and doesn't gnaw his rations under his bunk. And he doesn't instigate any showy exercises. Anyway, I'll sort this condom out. Only, I can't remember where I've seen him. But we've crossed paths before somewhere.
   -He was saying that he fought in Transnistria and that the situation there resembled this one. You were there too and maybe that's how you met? -Maybe we met there. Only Pashka, I'll tell you the shit in Transnistria was certainly brutal, but in comparison to Chechnya, that was child's play in the park. The battles there were mostly of the classical positional type, although Bender and Dubossary changed hands several times. But in comparison to the local madhouse, that was a scout camp.
   I noticed that Pashka wore a bullet on a string around his neck - an ancient soldiers' amulet, that' supposed to represent the bullet cast for that particular man. Oh if only it was true. These trinkets are no good - they help the man relax, blunt his vigilance. I laughed: -You'd better hang a grenade by its pin and I'll pull it, or a mine or a shell. How do you know that it's a bullet that's cast for you as opposed to a piece of shrapnel, hmm? Maybe it's a concrete slab, you should sling that around your neck too, it'll come in handy. Remember how they found a fighter from the tank battalion that suffocated on just such a silk string? The bullet didn't save him, so don't be a bull, take it off and use it according to specification.
   Fooling around in this manner, I finished off the provisions that were on the table and leaning back against the kung's wall retrieved the sniper's cigarettes and lit up. They were damp, probably from my sweat and let's face it, it's not May out there.
   -Pasha, are there dry cigarettes around?
   -Here, he handed me a packet of "Pamir" or as we called them "Pauper in the mountains" because the design features some bum with a crooked stick wearing a safari hat and a felt cloak, a basmach, a dukh in other words. - Take them Vacheslav Nikolaevich, there are more on the stove. And hand yours over too, we'll dry them.
   I took the packet, spun it around in my hands and placed it in my pocket.
   -Give me some paper, I need to write up the report about the sniper and Semyonov.
   Pashka fetched the paper and sat down near me.
   -Some Cossacks came to the commander, asking to be allowed to fight. They brought recommendations from their commander.--Pashka said quietly, removing the leftovers of my supper from the table as I continued writing.
   -Well, if they want to fight for the Russian idea, let them fight. In Moldova they fought well, even procured their own weapons, I remarked, not lofting my head away from the paper.
   -Yeah, Bakhel said the same thing and sent them to the reconnaissance guys. There are five of them.
   -We should go make friends with them later...
   Suddenly a fierce fire-fight broke out near-by. We leapt out of the kung. I hurriedly put on my coat, a bag of spare cartridges dangling off my arm. In the case of the headquarters coming under attack, every soldier and officer had their own zone of responsibility, their firing range and knew their place. And so without much ado, we ran to a little trench dug out by Pashka a few days ago.
   The shooting came in long volleys indicating a close range of fire contact. Somebody was issuing orders out of the darkness: -North-east, a white five-storey building. An infantry group has been spotted numbering up to ten people. A diversion manoeuvre is a possibility.
   Nothing could be made out in the thickening gloom, only dim silhouettes. Suddenly somebody started launching flares and Pashka followed suit with a few of our own. I noticed that about thirty meters away a group of Chechens was crawling towards us. They were dressed in good-quality Turkish camouflage which was conveniently distinctive from ours in both its pattern and grade of material. If I come across a Chechen my size, I'm going to undress him. Like that time in Transnistria, when we caught a policeman. It was May and I was dressed in high boots, which were very hot, my feet nearly melted off. This fellow meanwhile was wearing GPs. Which were in deficit at the time. On top of that they were the Afghan lighter model with a reinforced sole, so as to aid in mountain-climbing. Back then in Moldavia, we did not execute prisoners, they were like us after all - orthodox and they were fighting because of dumb politicians. I'm wearing these boots even now, three years now and they are still good, although they lost their shelf appeal. Nobody makes them like this any more. And maybe someday, somebody will likewise take them off me dead or alive. The Lord only knows.
   I touched Pashka's elbow and pointed out the Chechens.
   -Let's go, - I whispered.
   And we opened fire. We shot after aiming, in short bursts. One could see little fountains of snow, earth and mud in the flare light. The Chechens knowing that they have been discovered, returned fire. They were in a less favourable position and therefore fired in long volleys as they crawled back. Someone started firing the underbarreler cutting off their retreat. Suddenly a machine gun reported behind us. So, the bastards decided to encircle us?
   Tough chance, you mongrels! I felt the day's fatigue disappear, the rush of battle taking over me once again. The blood pumped thudding into my head, chasing away the remnants of alcohol.
   -Pashka, cover me, I'm going to work these bitches over with the underbarreler, I said preparing the grenade launcher for combat.
   -Don't let me down, baby, - I muttered inserting the first grenade.
   "Bang", reported the underbarreler, spitting out the grenade at the Chechens. Over-flight. I corrected for it and made the second shot. Gotcha. The grenade exploded in the midst of the crawling infantry. Two of them span on the spot, wounded by the looks of it, the third rose up to his knees clutching his head and without taking away his hands collapsed face first into the mud.
   -Done, baked him, - I said in ardour, looking for the next target meanwhile. But the other Chechens hid behind piles of debris and started hosing us down with machine gun fire. The flares suspended in the air now worked against us, revealing our fire-points.
   An underbarreler grenade exploded behind us, meaning they too had that weapon. "I wonder if they were issued out of the same supply dump?", I contemplated bitterly, smirking at such unhappy thoughts.
   I switched from the underbarreler to the gun, searching out the source of the shooting. At this point, the sound of footsteps emerged from behind us and we turned our guns towards the darkness, ready to fire. It turned out to be Ryzhov Yurka.
   -Shit, you scared us, you idiot, - I said returning to what I was doing previously.
   -It's merrier here, compared to being with that moskovite, that is. He's droning on and on; this isn't right, that document isn't worked out correctly. Don't write "captured", instead write "unlawfully held by unlawful armed formations". It is recommended to continue advancing towards the hotel "Kavkaz", using our own resources. Take it as soon as is possible and then shift in the direction of Minutka and take it on the go. - Yura fell silent for a moment. - Take it head-on.
   -They can go to hell. They can take it if they want it so badly, we need aviation meanwhile, the more the better, let them knock away at it, - I shouted angrily, firing into the darkness. After Yurka's news, I was riled up and started firing off long volleys. - Yura, I took one out using the undrerbarreler, and those two are twisting around on the spot - must be wounded.
   From the way they were firing, we knew that the Chechens did not want to leave it at this. Meanwhile, the Shilka--the same one that was installed today, started reporting somewhere behind us. Well, that thing with its speed of fire and calibre will chop everyone into cabbage. Together with Pashka, Yurka were also arduously hosing down the darkness with long volleys, not letting the Chechens peek out.
   -Slava, that Moskva asshole says he's seen you somewhere. Says it was in Kishenyov.
   And then it came to me.
   I remembered everything. When were shipped into Transnistria from Kishenyov, over the front line, in civilian clothes and without documents, this freak was in the human resources of the Stavka of the South West front. This organ was then made into the Ministry of Defence of Moldova. This fop remained in the same department as on the same post. Meanwhile our dossiers fell into Moldovan hands. As a result, we were declared war criminals and it was to him that I came to appeal for my dossier to be returned to me. He put on airs--"no", he said, "You are a criminal and I don't want to be your accomplice. I recommend that you leave immediately or I will call the guards and you will be arrested". The chameleon bitch. But it seems, he had to leg it from there in the end too. An amnesty was declared a few months later, so for now - I'm not a criminal.
   The Chechens again started firing at our positions using the underbarreler. After a grenade explosion, somebody shouted out behind us. Shit, one of ours must have been wounded. But we spotted the muzzle flash in the dark and shifted our fire. After a few minutes we heard screams issue from there and then some sort of other noise.
   We continued firing for another few minutes, but received no response. It seemed the Chechens having encountered resistance must have fallen back. There was no desire to go and confirm this in the dark. Once it grows light--we'll sort it out.
   -Looks like the former owner came for his cognac, - Yurka joked.
   -The fucker must have forgotten what Marx wrote in the second volume of "Capital", on page two, second paragraph.
   -So what does it say there, Vyacheslav Nikolaevich? - Pashka enquired out of the dark.
   -It's is very simple, it says - what was yours is now ours, expropriation of the expropriators. Had they not kicked up a fuss, we would not have come. -Is there anything left to drink there? - said Ryzhov to me.
   -There is, don't fret. Didn't you drink with the colourless fellow? - I answered.
   -We drank, but that bitch turned us down. Probably because we didn't offer him cognac - we poured him vodka. And by the by the creep enquired if we had any trophies.
   -Moskovite, fucking, ulcer his soul, - I spat to the ground, fumbling to replenish the empty magazines in the utter darkness. Looks like it's quiet. Let's be off, I still have to fill out the report and go to the meeting with San Sanych.
   -Let's go. Pashka, you'll remain on guard duty, make a noise if something happens and we'll sprint over and save you from the evil Chechen, - Yurka joked.
   Shaking off the clumps of mud from our trousers, we emerged from the dug-out and walked to the kung. Other officers walked towards their vehicles beside us, to ready themselves for the war council.
   -Oi, people, who was wounded there? - I shouted into the darkness.
   -Larionov, the comms driver. He's OK though - the shrapnel went through his leg sparing the bones. He's with the medics now. - A voice answered from the darkness, probably that of the armament deputy Cherepkov Pavel Nikolaevich.
   -The medics are running out of room to keep the wounded, we should break out to get them out of here, otherwise we'll loose them, - Yurka announced loudly, as we approached our vehicle.
   -This should be brained over and offered up to the father-commanders, - I picked up his idea.
   -Let's drop a hundred and go hear the moskovite pimple's crap, -Yura said, throwing off the assault rifle into the corner of the kung, - I'm sick of listening to it alone. The Moskovites reckon that we can't fight and that we should inspire the guys with images of the Siege of Berlin and that Dudaev's palace is the Reichstag. It's some crazy paranoia. If we let them, these mongrels will lay us down in stacks for the sake of their propaganda, - Yurka was riled up, but this did not prevent him from continuing to pour the cognac and crack open the delicious oily imported sardines. -Well, Yurok, don't fuss, we'll have a drink now and then go fuck this ass-licker up at the meeting. Don't worry. Whatever these geriatrics come up with for us to accomplish--we'll accomplish. But with the current artillery and air support, we won't get far. Let him go to hell. Well, - I lifted up the plastic cup filled with amber liquid to eye level, contemplated the play of light within it, - let's go, to us, good lads and to death to idiots. -Whatever, you won't get it from them, - Yurka had no intention to let it go and continued to foam.--No matter how well you fight, the advantage will remain on the side of idiots, as if they are deliberately working for the Chechens, so as to waste as many of ours as possible.
   -Don't shout, Yura, we should think about how we'll ferry the wounded out. The Chechens won't leave us alone anyway, until we resume the advance. And as you yourself well know there will be more wounded then. I'd say, we take the recon troops by the ass, the third battalion with anything that they've got that still rides and break out. Otherwise we'll loose people without count. Let's drink--I raised my glass again, and drank without clinking. Yurka drank his.
   When we were departing, our formation's incomplete numbers were supplemented with a battalion from Novosibirsk. The plan was for complete preparations by autumn and depart for Tajikistan and then to join either the 201-st division or the peacekeepers, same shit really--no-one knew for whom and for what we were to fight. So this battalion arrived in new, experimental BMP-3's. Outwardly and conceptually, this is a wonderful machine, but in reality - pure crap. Like your import car, my reader, it's choke-full with electronics. But it is made by our, that is Russian manufacturers. And so we drank from this chalice together. It cannot shoot whilst moving, the electronics fail from the jolting. The aiming and tracking systems are all electronic, so the fucking thing jams. And if it shoots, it doesn't fucking move, also something to do with the electronics. In other words a very "green", scary machine to be in. In early January the third battalion lost twenty four people because of the shitty electronics--a scary statistic. Ant it's all because untested machinery was released into armament and into active combat on top of that. Quite a few of them got burned--five or so actually. They withdrew them to safer quarters and are using them as machine gun nests now--the cannon jams for half a day after one shot. Or they are used as taxis for movement over more or less safe ground. It'd rip the arms off the creeps that approved this half baked shit for armament.
   Letting though the second shot, I heard Yurij's account of how my Moskovite namesake foamed after I left. That apparently in war certain officers are allowing insubordinations towards senior staff, the discipline is deteriorating and so on and so forth. So we finished off the bottle toasting to the extremely distant removal of moskovite foolishness and departed for the meeting in a merry state of mood. Our souls were filled with the desire to demonstrate to all the officers in our brigade a shining example of courtesy and military craft to our moskovite reviser. The is only one treatment for revisers in war--you won't be sent further than the front and even if you are reprimanded. Unlike gonorrhoea it won't hang around and will eventually go away. By the way, gonorrhoea, my dear reader is known as the "officer's cold". Whilst they were still cadets most officers had time to experience this disease. There is nothing shameful about it in the army, unlike in civilian life. All sorts of things happen.
   Every commander had his place at the meeting. Being officers of the staff, we sat close to the chief. The meeting was held in the former children's gym, which then became the guest room of the Chechen host, where he constructed a decent fireplace, which was now being vigorously fired using his own furniture. By the way, mahogany burns poorly--a lot of smoke and little heat.
   The chief of staff sat at the head of a large dinging table. It was obvious that he had not time to even wash his face after his journey and also that the second battalion was not doing at all well. There was talking behind me, I turned and saw that the chief of reconnaissance was sitting there. His mug was just as dusty as the com-brig's. He must have shared his journey, so I asked:
   -How was your trip with Bakhel? How's the second battalion doing?
   -Utter fucking disaster. We were ambushed on the way back, lost one BMP. The mechanic was wounded--you know Gusarov? He got banged up. First they tore up the track, then shot us up. We narrowly escaped from under fire.
   -No I don't know him, - I shook my head. Badly wounded?
   -His palms got burned and the shrapnel tore off half his ear and cut up his shoulder. If they save his hands, then all will be well. A shame, he was a competent mechanic, I wanted to make him a sergeant.
   -Listen, I'm going to now propose that we bring out the wounded before coming to the second battalion's aid, otherwise they'll cark it. Your mechanic can be brought out with them. The third battalion will be required to do this--your Arkharovites. What say you?
   -Of course I'm for it. When we were dragging out the wounded guy, I remembered that a republican pharmacological stores are situated nearbly. Meanwhile our medics are out of everything other than aspirin and enthusiasm.
   -Great, suggest this to the council, we'll work out the details and take the medicaments from the Chechens. Junkies and speculators will do that anyway.
   -Attention, Comrade officers! The chief of staff addressed all present.
   The room fell silent and everyone's attention turned to the brigade's command.
   -In the last twenty four hours, our brigade engaged in combat at the railway terminal, the hotel "Kavkaz", and here at the bridgehead. Also, during tours of the brigades positions, some elements of the of the brigade's staff were ambushed and committed to short fire-fights. As a result of these engagements we have suffered the following losses--the room went deadly quiet, - dead: private Azarov--tank battalion, sergeant Kharlapidi--the engineer-sapper battalion, totalling two. Wounded--the chief of staff of the second battalion lieutenant Pakhomenko, the commander of the first battalion lieutenant Krasnov, private Gusarov--recon troop and private Larionov--the comms battalion. The body of private Semyenov was located and brought back--engineer-sapper battalion, who was listed as missing in action. The man suffered an agonising death, - here San Sanych lifted his eyes from the paper and continues without looking at the brief: - He was tortured for a long time, then crucified, his member inserted into his mouth. It was a chilling sight, comrade officers, let me tell you.
   There was noise in the audience, as the officers began to loudly discuss the soldier's death, disregarding the presence of their superiors or the Moskva reviser.
   -Quiet, comrade officers, - Bilich continued having withheld a slight pause, - I am no less outraged than you, but let us set emotions and anger aside as for now we cannot do anything about it. The first battalion captured a sniper, a Siberian by his own admission, from our own Novosibirsk. Captain Mironov was unable to deliver him to the headquarters, reporting that he died from wounds he sustained and from cardiac arrest.
   Again it became noisy this time in the sign of approval. Those with whom I made eye contact, nodded approvingly and winked to me as if it was I who finished the sniper. Someone remarked from the back "He could not live with his conscious and so his heart gave out". The officers heehawed approvingly. The room was bathed in a semi-darkness, the only light falling on the table where the commander, the chief of staff and Karpov sat. All others gradually receded into the gloom and so those at the back could comment without fear of being identified. Lucky.
   Again San Sanych had to call for order and the noise gradually died down. I covertly observed the expression on the faces of the commander and that of the Moskavite. Whilst the commander's lips smiled ever so slightly at that replica, the reviser continued to grimace with his thin lips indicating his extreme displeasure with what was happening. A rat is a rat. I wondered if he ever made at least company commander before ending up upon the parquet floors of the Stavka? I went through all the levels, was never promoted early, having licked commanders' ass and as a result ended up travelling around the country and seeing a lot of wars. I do not want my son in an academy, even though my father, my father's brother, my father in law and me--the idiot finished the same bloody military academy. Had I learned English instead, I would not have been stuck here now.
   Later San Sanych began to explain the nature of our future task, that Karpov brought, who meanwhile bloated up from the pomp and importance of his mission, as if it was all his idea and we owed him bringing it to us into the very grave. The officers listened tensely, exchanging quiet replicas.
   Then Karpov spoke:
   -Comrade officers! The united command honours you with the task to be the first to storm the layer of the beast and destroy him. The Supreme Commander himself delegates the progress of this operation. You have recommended yourself well in the recent battles and in the name of the command I express my confidence that Siberian warriors will cope with the task at hand with honour.
   And he continued in the same dull manner in the worst traditions of Soviet cinema. If he supposed that the audience would break out in unending ovation, he was deeply mistaken. Nothing was heard apart from quiet snickers and the same replicas as before. Then somebody from the back row pronounced loudly and clearly: "Go get fucked". I and many present knew who that was from the way that was phrased. Only one officer in the brigade spoke like that--Mazur Sergej Mikhajlovich the tank battalion commander. When we entered Grozny, we had forty two T-72 tanks. Now we had twenty six. In the ten days of fighting we lost sixteen tanks, often with their crews. So major Mazur had the right to send all the moskovite smartasses as far away and as often as was possible.
   Everyone awaited the response and it came without delay.
   -Who said that? I suppose this is not a particularly righteous officer who would dare step up and say it right to my face.
   Mazur got up and pushing aside those sitting in front of him approached the table.
   -I said it, and so what? Because of you fuckers, I lost forty eight people and who knows how many more will fall because of such bullshit command. Why can't the artillery and aviation blow that square apart to hell together with everyone nested there? Why can't the troops just block it meanwhile and take anyone trying to escape it? There will be less Russian blood and we'll take more of them.
   Everyone looked to Karpov. Taken aback, he cleared his throat and began:
   -The issue here is that the whole world watches the events here with great intent and even in the Stavka, all leading news and television outlets registered themselves for coverage. So if we were to employ artillery and aviation on such a scale, the international community may not understand. You remarked correctly that the process will take longer, meanwhile the country's leadership requires a speedy resolution of this conflict. Also the local opposition, who are on our side are against a resolution via the massive deployment of artillery and aviation. Maybe some of the militants will wish to surrender? Also. We currently have reliable information that a group of prominent rights activists headed by a deputy of the State Duma Krylov are currently located in Dudaev's basement as guarantors of his safety. They may come to harm during a massed raid.
   -Fuck him in the mouth with sweaty toes!
   -Go get fucked!
   -I'll spot the aviation fire myself, so that the lads don't miss!
   -That bitch needs to hang!
   Many other unflattering things were uttered about the prominent rights activist Krylov. This would have continued for a long time if the commander didn't say:
   -Enough! I urge you not to speak unless it's business. The order is not subject to discussion but subject to fulfilment. The details such as artillery and aviation support as well as deadlines will be worked out later. I'm listening. Remember that you have three days to take the hotel and mop up the surrounding area. Any suggestions?
   I raised my hand.
   -If I may comrade colonel, - and having received a nod of approval, I proposed: - If we have to face such an engagement, we will have many more wounded, whereas we already have no room to pit them or medicine to treat them. To that end, I propose the following: using the third battalion forces, supported by the recon and the chemical-warfare companies, we must break out to Severny tomorrow and bring out all the wounded. In that vicinity are located the republican medical stores and I think fresh medical supplies will be of help to us.
   -Those stores are meant for the civilian population! - replied the retard moskovite. - we must not do that under any circumstances, as to not incite the local populace against us!
   -Be quiet, major, you've had your say. The local populace are incited against us beyond any further measure as it is. Mironov, continue.
   -That's about all from me. If the plan is approved, I am prepared to personally lead the column. We just need to let the battalions know to ship their wounded here as early as possible and we'll move out at 9:30. If everything goes as I plan, we'll return by 17:00 with just enough time left for raiding the pharmaceutical stores.
   -And what are your thoughts in regard to "Kavkaz" and the square?
   -I propose that as the wounded are being shipped out, somebody talk to our superior at the Stavka staff and discuss all available combinations. If somebody would take over the rail terminal in our stead, then the first battalion in conjunction with the second can easily knock out the Chechens. During the mop -up we can even get the third battalion to support us. Also, if it is possible to have one of the division's self-propelled artillery machines approach I think that we can fulfil the objective within the required timeframe...That is...if our friendly neighbours from "Severny" don't shoot us up again as they have several times now. I couldn't help but let that one out to stir up the reviser.
   The pros and cons of my plan were scrutinised at length, until the commander largely approved it. He decided to lead the column himself, choosing myself and Rhyzhov to accompany him as well as the chief of reconnaissance, the medics commander, the third battalion commander and the deputy quartermaster. After a headcount it turned out that we had one hundred and twenty wounded, including those in the battalions and that many are refusing evacuation. One would think that the war having thus ended for them, having not given in to cowardice, having not shot themselves and with many being recommended for decoration...Many of the wounded fighters could well count on a speedy dismissal from military service. But no. Even some of the heavily wounded were refusing to be evacuated to the rear. Their commanders had to shout, order, try to convince them.
   Honestly, some fighters openly wept, as if they were treated unjustly, offended, punished. Some did not want to leave the soldiers' brotherhood, not a fake brotherhood, but a real one, many confessed that they have not yet satisfied their lust for revenge of their fallen comrades. Looking at these faces lit up with a mad inner fire, yet also their eyes, illuminated somehow, one understood that these people were ready to give up their lives for those around them. To die without thought or haggle with the reaper or the enemy, to stand between a bullet and their comrade, undemanding of any privilege, decoration or indulgence. I was asking myself the question to which to this day I find no answer: maybe this is that very might of spirit possessing of the Russian soldier, that no world army was capable of breaking? This is regardless of the fact that not one Russian ruler loved his army, they feared it, constantly trying to break its back, to achieve that which the enemy had failed to do. And all the while, the Russian Makhor, disregarding the intrigues of its rulers and the frenzied resistance of all its enemies, tears at their throats, avenging fallen comrades, destroying the foe as he himself perishes. The demise of one will give birth to desire for revenge in the brothers in arms who surround him and the power that be, aware of this paradox will keep supplying them with new enemies, when there are no more real ones, because they know that for one who has tasted blood, it is practically impossible to stop and that if they do, they might look back.
   And, my reader, when one looks back they will see that while they were fighting out someone's incomprehensible orders, the whole country lived peacefully and prospered. Somebody made a fortune in war, amassing a healthy fortune, brought their money overseas, meanwhile one's soldier, whom they are dragging under fire, with both their legs missing is receiving a government pension of 300 roubles for both those legs.
   And he will grab one after the third toast, look hauntingly into their eyes and ask "Why, why did you drag me out?". And one will feel bitter, despondent, ashamed that they saved him. And that deed, that one felt so proud of, that they may have been decorated for will feel low and grievous, for the rest of their lives.
   That is because one's state sent them to slaughter upon its whim and then abandoned them. Both the living and dead. And nothing else. One's paranoid fantasies ushered in by post-traumatic stress and numerous concussions are nothing--they'll fix you up in a madhouse, give them five years or so, come on in. As for the remaining soldiers, they'll scatter and retrench them, lest they wag their tongues, and discuss their superiors' conduct. As the witnesses of a crime are removed, so are the military men of each "liberation" campaign are dismissed and exiled. This happened after Afghanistan as it did after the withdrawal from East Germany. Because they knew: the army may turn around and perceive that its real enemy is so near--in Moskva.
   And when one is dismissed from active service, or ousted into civilian life, or exiled to a peripheral garrison, they will realise that the brightest, the most un-retouched memories they had, that the very taste of life they tasted out there in some wretched war. And that their life henceforth will always be divided into BEFORE and AFTER.
   It is here that one is forced to choose, the eternal Russian question "What is to be done?"
   One could try to live like everyone else, but they know that they will not get far in life. One can get recruited into law enforcement, where they are by the way very welcome, and thought of as madmen. One could become an assassin--familiar work and they say decent pay. However, to kill not for ideals or revenge and not in such a quantity, but for money...will one cope?
   An then there is the third surrogate way--mercenary. Though, there one will need to fight alongside those at whom they were shooting at not so long ago, but money doesn't judge and if they get a taste for it, they can wield ruthless vengeance on the aborigines with one's friend, their recent enemy.
   And the wounded knew all this. Some understood it, some felt it intuitively, with their skin. They knew that this was that very thing for which every real man lives and if they were to now leave, they will never experience it in their life again. Because of that they clung onto every opportunity to remain. The commanders deceived some of them, saying that they are to accompany the column and will return into the brigade upon its delivery. Some believed, others wanted to believe, hoping that maybe the column would not break through and would have to turn back, some believed that before being shipped to hospital they can fight one last time and dispatch many faithful to their Allah.
   They like to shriek "Allah akhbar, Allah akhbar", - we are guessing that he's "akhbar" without their aid, but for some reason they are not in much of a hurry to meet him. Considering especially that they are promised heaven in return for war against the unfaithful. So, that means that we're doing good works for the true faithful, dispatching them to heaven but they, like blind puppies, dare resist.
   It was a sleepless night at the command post. I, Yurka, the chief of staff and the chief of recon, along with a large number of other officers were working out the various possible routes, conferred with neighbouring formations regarding passage through their territory and joint action in case of Chechen ambush. There was enough work for all; the mechanics prepared their vehicles for the journey, the armorers were trying to tune the BMP-3's.
   Once the matters of evacuation and the taking of medical stores were sorted out, only the staff officers remained behind. This council was led by the chief of the operations department and we spent a long time discussing various ways of storming the complex of buildings at the Minutka square. Firstly a lot was said in regards to the unified command and the moskovite smartasses but gradually people calmed down and the debate proceeded along peacefully.
   Unanimously we concluded that a frontal assault was suicide. Moreover that it meant the taking of the bridge across Sunzha first, the bridge that led to the square and that lay directly in our path. That would mean that we would have to rally the troops across it, under razor-sharp fire and could have simply laid them all down right there on that little bridge. But we could not avoid it either, as that would mean going around through half the city.
   At this point the sentry chief of the commanding post burst in.
   -Comrade colonel, - he began excitedly, addressing the chief of staff, - the moskovite left.
   -What, how did he leave? - San Sanych asked, having not understood him.
   -He said that he was summoned to the headquarters, got into his BRDM and left.
   -How long ago?
   -Maybe fifteen minutes has now passed. I spoke to him on the radio and he said that he has to arrive at "Severny" before sunrise.
   -Lunatic, idiot and a dumbass, he'll die himself and get his people killed. He was supposed to depart with the column. Foolish cretin, - the operations chief continued to make noise.
   We all realised very clearly what it meant to travel alone in a lightly-armoured car in the darkness in the war-torn city. The result is almost always the same -either Chechen capture or a shoot-up by friendly fire. Every soldier knew this, not to speak of the officers and this moron is counting on his status as a staff officer to save him from the bullets!
   There was a curfew in Grozny and because of it we sometimes could not evacuate the badly wounded to Severny, to their better hospital.
   And this pimple, this upstart out of the blue decides to leave into the night endangering the soldiers that accompany him.
   We radioed "Severny immediately and told them about their retard. He probably did this impulsively in order to arrive ahead of us and report that we deigned to openly debate higher orders. It's a pity that this careerist took the long suffering remains of Semyonov with him. There is no peace for the fallen lad. Forgive us private Semnyonov.
   A panic spread at the staff of "Severny". To think of it--an officer is missing, who is if partially but is still privy to the plans of the command and an officer of the General Staff on top of that. It seems that he knew enough for there to have been a night search mission organised to find him. Crazy things were happening on the air. All formations were reporting that the moskovite's BRDM had not passed through their checkpoints. We were preparing ourselves for lengthy dialogue at the staff where we would be tried and tested if it was us perchance that sent him into the darkness. So instead of sleeping soundly the rest of the night, we spent it composing reports to the effect that that we did not, were not a part of and other similar nonsense. God forbid, they decide to implicate you in sabotage action against the higher bosses. You can craft pocket souvenirs from the enemy, but not dare as to look at the command sideways. OK, one will encounter plenty more fools in their life, but it's a pity, after all he's Russian and his fighters, the escort, will suffer needlessly. For some reason we were all convinced that he was taken by the Chechens as the formations along his path did not report him passing. God willing he was taken dead rather than alive, as in the latter case a lot will have to be changed in our plans.
   At approximately eight in the morning, we learned that Karpov's BRDM ended up at an OMON checkpoint that was put up just before nightfall. As we suspected, at first he pompously bragged about his influence, but the guys in OMON severely did not give a shit about some General Staff and some major Karpov. At first they simply thought he was a real spy and together with his fighters mercilessly beat him the remainder of the night. Towards the morning, they led him out to several mock executions, in order to extract a confession that he really is a spy. It was said that they even shot above his head. But everything cleared up in the morning, the paratroopers that arrived to pick him up, thoroughly beat in the militia's mugs and departed, having collected Karpov in an unconscious state, along with Semyonov's remains. After this, Karpor was flown out on the first flight to Mozdok and from there probably to Moskva. He'll probably be decorated and will be seen on television or read in his memoirs recalling how he fought though half of Chechnya, or something to that effect. Good luck to him.?
   Chapter 4
   Loading of the wounded began sometime around eight in the morning. By this time vehicles from the first and second battalion bearing their dead and wounded broke thought to us under enemy fire. Due to the fact that there was no room in the kindergarten yard, only the most serious casualties were loaded there. Those who were conscious, could be carried in another's arms, on stretchers, or could move on crutches were packed into the vehicles. Those who could participate in a fire-fight placed themselves on top of the armour. They all knew very well that if there is a grenade hit or a mine blast, the wounded inside the BM will perish and the responsibility of vigilance weighed down heavily upon the shoulders of those on top. The column turned out to be bigger than was counted on. Fifteen BMPs. We had to forego wheeled vehicles as even a rifle bullet punches a kung all the way through, no to speak of a grenade or a mine.

To our fortune, or not, the city became immersed in fog. In general, the winter weather here is pretty shitty. It's cold, but there is no snow and the mud beneath us is not even mud, more like slop, which bogs our feet, that we have to tear out with great effort, our shoes weighed down with large clumps of mud. The same happens to the vehicles. What will it be like here in the springtime? The ground froze over slightly overnight, so we hoped to skip through under the cover of fog over the frozen dirt. The comms troops once again announced to all neighbouring formations as well as "Severny" that the convoy bearing the wounded was departing.

There was this paradox--all formations, regardless of their specialty were broadcasting using the same bandwidth and the same call-signs. Meaning that if one was to scan the 3--30 MHz range for a day, they could easily learn which troop was stationed where, what it was doing, the name of the commander, the radioman and a lot of other useful and useless information.

The enemy by the way did not shine with intelligence of inventiveness either, broadcasting on the same frequencies and using the same call-signs weeks on end. We were as dumb as each another, in other words. Radio interception and disinformation services performed fabulously on both sides of the front, but the Chechens had one major advantage. They knew Russian and were capable of misinforming us in our native tongue, whilst we could not do the same in their Chechen language.

The aborigines often established a radio link with our forces, both during battle and otherwise and fed them their propaganda, including threats. They christened us "dogs" from the first days of war. During the liberation of the rail terminal, they successfully disoriented a neighbouring artillery battery, who thoroughly pounded us for half an hour thinking all the while that they were talking to us. And sadly these were not isolated incidents. It took time to counter this menace through a system of codes and passwords and eventually we stopped falling for Chechen ploys, but a lot of people were killed and wounded because of it in the meantime. Regardless, our brigade continued to work on the same frequencies until the time we were led out of the theatre. Army stupidity remains and there is naught to do and unfortunately this is not its only manifestation. Any initiative from below was greeted with derision from above.

And so, upon our convoy's departure we knew full well that this fact was known not only to the leadership at "Severny" but also to half the insurgents in the city of Grozny. Regardless, we went ahead with our potentially suicidal plan, because we knew that in lieu of proper medical care, the people will simply die and the rest will tie down the healthy troops, serve as additional targets and take up room that will have to be made for the future wounded, as the assault's date drew near. And so we departed after only a moment's hesitation, having placed ourselves in the hands of fate. The road ahead of us stretched for fifteen kilometres though the streets of a devastated city, whose ruins were reminiscent of those seen in the footage made in Stalingrad over half a century ago. Each window, each basement were a source of mortal danger for us. There could be an RPG trooper there, or a sniper, and to think of it, we may have graduated from the same military academies, learned to fight together in Afghanistan, Angola and a multitude of "hot spots" of the former Union.

The prevalent, long-standing tactic is to destroy the heading and the tailing vehicle, after which the vehicle column is methodically shot up. This tactic is fool-proof. Very few survivors.
-To your vehicles! - ordered the brigade commander. He got into the second BMP himself.

The recon troops were leading in the first two vehicles and we progressed for ten minutes without incident. A few days after entry to Grozny, the army group command ordered that all vehicles be marked with identifying signage. For example, the sides of our machines were marked with the letter "S", meaning Siberian Military District.

A bitter taste appeared in one's mouth, but there was no feeling of nervous excitement yet, that will come later. I as well as others knew this, having experienced similar things before. An infectious tune "Oh, how I want burst into this town", appeared in my head. Truly, it would have been good to burst into the town, Mozdok best of all, the town where the command that supervised the unified command of our army group was located. Nobody properly knew why the hell this command was required They, who tried to direct the actions of specific formations in the theatre over the heads of local command, resulting in primarily tragic outcomes for the latter. The most interesting thing was that those located in Mozdok, received the same benefits as us. Modest as our benefits are, they are well-earned. Concretely these are one day's extra pay for each three days served, double pay during leave. And that's it. Did the reader suppose that war veterans will receive fitting benefits, as becoming of war veterans? Get stuffed. There was no war in Chechnya, it's all mass media fabrications, nothing more.

My thoughts thus occupied, I remained vigilant, attentively watching over the ruins as we passed them. There was a lot that we destroyed here and will continue to destroy even more. To demolish is nothing like to build. I looked attentively into the fighters' faces, who were sitting beside me on the armour. They were all dusty, burned by the local winds and frosts, covered in soot of numerous shots and explosions of mines, grenades and shells. I noticed a soldier wearing a burned-through tanker uniform, sitting on the stern; he had a bandage on his head. Yes, there's somebody living a charmed life - a driver-mechanic, I think he had either a German or Jewish name--Goldstein. 

A multitude of ethnicities were represented in our brigade, including even Uzbeks and Tadjiks. So this tank driver was driving his tank during our entrance to Grozny, whilst the infantry was hiding behind him. None of the fighters then knew that they should have been walking in front of the tank, and only then can it cover them, save them. They know this now, but not back then. We paid dearly for such education. And because we were advancing at night, he was riding "tour style", i.e. with his head sticking out of his hatch. How a sniper didn't spot him, nobody still knows, others were taken out just like that, but he got lucky. He got lucky a second time when an RPG trooper smashed a grenade into his starboard. Goldstein was projected out of the vehicle, like a candle about five meters into the air and landed in the canopy of a tree. I thought that he lad didn't live, but was I wrong. There he was, only his head bandaged, meaning that everything else was in one piece. A severe concussion by the looks of it, but he'll be all-right. They'll fix him up in the historical homeland. I remember that when they brought in newbies, half a year a go, he kept asking to not be assigned to anything classified. If not for the army, he would have long departed to live with his relatives. His parents have already left, but he remained to finish his diploma and did not leave in time. In any case he will now be decommissioned and will be treated by good doctors and in civilised conditions.

Yurij Shevchuk, the leader or soloist in the group "DDT" (who knows which is which) was riding in the fifth vehicle in our column. He was brought together with the wounded chief of staff and three more injured fighters. This Shevchuk turned out to be a great guy. Everyone expected that he'd feign a rock-start untouchable. Nothing of the sort--the guy was simple like three kopeks. According to witnesses, having spent three days in a basement under fire and enduring counter-attacks, he did not hide. He conducted himself like a real man, assisted the wounded. They did not give him a gun, as he is blind like a mole anyway and God forbid he got hit. Apparently, when the Chechens offered them to surrender, they were told over the radio that Shevchuk was there with them. The Chechens did not believe them, so Shevchuk sang, then spoke to them. They offered to get him out, guaranteed his safety. He refused. Also Shevchuk promised (and as it later turned out delivered on his promise) to send the wounded from our brigade and elsewhere for treatment using his own funds and those of his friends, to Germany. He bought them prosthetics, wheelchairs and all of it without showing off. There were no reporters or press-conferences, everything was done quietly and modestly. In other words--a Real Man.

The reconnaissance detail in the avant-garde reportecoming under fire from a group of up to twelve insurgents and that they have taken up the fight. Hand-held grenade launchers have not been employed yet, they are pounding them out of underbarrelers and assault rifles.

We decide to proceed forward towards a break-out. Because of the fog we cannot see the enemy and they can't see us properly either, firing at guesswork. The comm-brig ordered to let out the smokes and the fog began to darken as if somebody poured tar into a barrel of milk.

Upon approach, our vehicles fired at the coordinates supplied by the recon troopers. First the cannons of the BMP fired along with the machine guns of the BMP-3, then, as if in a well-rehearsed orchestra, we joined in with underbarrelers and assault rifles. The picture was something to behold. Streams of fire and dark grenade trails were issuing out of a kilometre-length cloud of black smoke that concealed all other detail. This picture was worthy of an artist's brush. And what a rush! We did not know if the road ahead was clear or not. A wall could have collapsed during the night or was deliberately collapsed. Could there be an anti-tank mine under the heaps of debris? But there was no fear in my eyes or of others, a part of this expedition. We all knew that if we were not to break through, that our wounded friends would die. It was decided to continue until the end. Towards victory or death.

We were definitely in luck. Our engines revved at full power, roaring, adding clouds of diesel exhaust to the smokescreen. And although the convoy stretched over a large distance, the commander decided not to break it up into smaller, more manoeuvrable groups , but to continue on as one long formation.

We traversed this sector at speed, squeezing our dear BMPs for everything that they had. What is surprising, we did not nick any of ours and got through OK. Maybe the Chechens retreated or for some other reason, no-one shot or pursued us, but it was too early to rest and everyone understood this. Forward and survive.

The recon guys ahead reported that they have reached our neighbours' first checkpoint. That's more like it. We'll be lead through friendly territory by the Uliyanovites, a para-troop. Decent lads, but lacking in resolve and they put on a bit too much swank. They are incapable of fighting long and hard for an objective. Their assault is fierce at first, but it peters out to nothing. They are good as support for somebody, but lack the guts to act independently. They were only taught to take over a target, destroy it and then disappear and go and blow up something else. They are simply unprepared for such protracted, heavy fighting. "Makra" is another story entirely. We'll fight in heat, rain, blizzard and anywhere else. We'll fulfil our objective in the North, in a desert or in a swamp. We'll lay our bones there, but fulfil it.

As we passed the checkpoint, the paratroopers waved to us, baring the teeth on their sooty mugs, sooty as our own. It was good to see that we were not alone here in this hostile country.

The battalion's commander through whose territory we were passing, promised to direct a mop-up detail towards the spot where we were attached.

If Chechen corpses are located there, he will write them up as his own kills and if we manage to return to our brigade's positions, we will naturally record the approximate number of enemy forces destroyed. One comic at "Severny" once counted the enemy numbers destroyed by our army group. It turned out that in ten days of battle, we have killed the entire population of Chechnya twice over. It's scary that only ten days have passed, but it feels like no less than six months. During the Great Patriotic War, the Wehrmacht was destroyed one hundred times over, according to army command briefs. We don't have to liberate half of Europe, but according to the reports we're ahead of all world armies. So when the reader hears front-line briefs, let them divide the number of enemy killed by two and multiply our own losses by three. Only then will they get a more or less realistic picture of what's happening.

The paratroopers tried to put up their wounded up with us, but didn't get anywhere. We barely fit our own asses on the armour and down below, the wounded were stacked like firewood. Want to ride with our column? God willing, but using your own vehicles and your own escort. We won't wait, every minute counts. What did you say? Louder please, the engine is drowning you out. We're swine? OK, let it be, we're swine, but you have to haul your own people yourself. There is no time or desire to argue with you. We understand how you feel--after discussing it, you'll either convince us or prepare your own transport. You had all night to get ready. Bye-bye, good luck and don't try to talk us into it. Where did you send us? We'll be coming back, so stand right there and wait and we'll sort it out then.

We watched as out brigade commander was talking to the paratrooper's commander. Of course nothing was audible, but their gesticulation plainly illustrated who was sent where and what the reply was. We laughed merrily when this dialogue was over, but nobody dared to flip off the paratroopers or to say something disparaging. Everyone understood that they too have their wounded, but that they must take care of them themselves. We are all of us slightly sly on the inside, like Jews, who like to solve their problems at somebody else's expense. But not life-and death matters such as these.

The paratrooper's sector ended and we had to traverse approximately ten city blocks that were for the time being under Chechen control. OK, bitches, we'll haul out the wounded and then we'll sort you out. No distractions. I raise my hand into the air and the soldiers begin to carefully observe the surrounding ruins. There is no desire or any sense to speak or shout whilst on top of a moving vehicle. The noise and the dust and soot from the leading BMPs is so thick that to open one's mouth would be to inhale such disgusting crap that you would have to hark it out for a long time afterwards. And another thing. The moving BMP rocks and jolts and if one was to open their mouth, they might end up shattering their teeth or biting off their own tongue. There is a story going around that some soldier from a neighbouring formation, not ours naturally--bit off the end of his tongue in just such a manner. The doctors sew it back on and he was decommissioned. I have heard so many of these stories in my time in the army that I could write a book. The funniest thing is that according to the stories, this always happen in other formations, not ours, where there are no such debils, of course. If one was to believe the tales, complete chaos reigns there. But I think our neighbours are of the same opinion in regards to us.

The fighter to the right of me shouts something, pointing his finger to an upper floor window of an intact building and shoots in that direction. My reflexes are instantaneous. The assault rifle lets out a few volleys even before I consciously stop and look carefully in the direction of fire. There is a set of binoculars lying on the windowsill, which immediately shatter from the ammunition's impact and fall inside. If one wants to live, one has to shoot first. We all learned this after their first engagement. I yell to cease fire and the shooting gradually dies down. I'm not blaming the soldier. In our work, over-vigilance is better than under-vigilance.

The vehicles continue to race forward without reducing speed. Reconnaissance report that they are under fire again, this time on three sides and that they will not manage on their own. The commander calls for backup from the neighbours, so as to supply firepower from the rear and races over to rescue the recon guys.

The trailing vehicles fell back slightly so as not to fall into a tight trap in case of an attack from behind. Upon approach to the intersection where the recon guys turned, it emerged that the street is blocked with broken brick. They have already checked the two adjacent streets, which are likewise blocked. There were no assurances that we would not be blocked if we were to now retreat. The commander decides: break out. I was in complete agreement and so was Ryzhov.

Those that could bear arms leapt off the vehicles, which rolled back, supporting us with their fire. We decided to first push the enemy back into the depths of the housing complex, then, under fire to attempt to pick apart the blocking debris. We began returning fire after taking cover behind piles of rubble. There was an explosion near-by and pieces of a soldier rose up into the air and landed back down with dull thuds, about five meters away from me. A few seconds later another soldier met the same terrible fate. There was no time to determine who it was in the heat of battle. Next to the second casualty, three more soldiers were rolling around on the asphalt shouting in pain and holding on to their wounds. Stains of blood spread on their uniforms right there in front of one's eyes. At first we thought that they were killed and wounded using an underbarreler, but when a third soldier noticed an F-1 grenade, missing its pin, as he moved a brick, the situation became clear.

The bastards are competent, one has to give it to them, they have talent. They smartly picked the ambush spot, knew that we'll dig in in a place dictated to us by them and mined it with grenades. During such fighting, you have to move all the time, roll around, hide behind piles of rubble and these "pretty" things are waiting there for us--F-1 grenades, without the ring. Move a brick, the protecting lever flies off and there is an explosion after six seconds. The fragments disperse over two hundred meters, providing a better result than any mine.

And so we were facing a dilemma--either to retreat or to counter-attack and try to knock the Chechens out of the surrounding buildings. A happy perspective. The neighbours reported that they are hurrying to our aid and that they have summoned the aviation. If there is something that we don't need here, it's air support. The soldier has many enemies and his own air support is one of the primary ones. If it hits the enemy or not, that's another question, but to bomb its own positions--that's for sure. So we asked the reinforcements to recall the air support. They'll succeed in only one thing--spoiling everything. We communicated down the chain to prepare for attack. Our "boxes" were to open up maximum fire for ten minutes, then to cease and wait for further instructions.

Each soldier and officer carries a medi-pack in combat. Ordinarily it contains a range of basic medicines. These are painkillers, which double as anti-shock medicine, Omnopon, Trimeperedin. Tablets for nausea, radiation and chemical poisoning are also included. Also there are water purifiers--chuck them into any puddle, except for sea water, it will bubble for a bit, producing a sediment and you can drink the water safely, though it stinks of chlorine, but it's now clean--no trace of contagion in it.

Each detachment carries the so called "combat stimulators". When the soldiers are tired, and there is no desire not only to go into combat, but to even move and when fear has paralysed all will, then the commander orders the troops to take these tablets in order to save lives and fulfil the objective. Having taken them, they sit around for a bit and suddenly--zing, forward, their energy comes back from somewhere and the fear disappears without a trace.

We didn't have these tablets now and neither did we need them. After the first two or three engagements, where the Chechens bettered us in every regard and the smallest victory cost the most tremendous effort and losses, the people now believed in themselves. The Chechens started being repelled and no longer advanced wantonly, stinking of marijuana and shrieking something about their Allah. When one sees this for the first time, it's a little eerie. They would come at us as if bewitched, unafraid of the bullet or death.

And now our BMPs opened up in full force. The barking of the BMP-3 cannons could not be heard at first over the din of BMP-2's guns, but they eventually lined up with the good old "two's". We also kept up our fire, pounding the buildings with our assault rifles and underbarrelers.

The BMPs finished their ten minute assault and fell silent. The ears rang from the shooting and explosions, but we had to move forward. The enemy would be in a worse state now, having to endure detonations within enclosed spaces, they would be stunned and frightened, remaining in a temporary state of shock and that is why we had to move forward, forward, forward.

Nobody had to raise up the soldiers this time, leading them forward by example as it happened in the first days of war. No, they rose up themselves, some with the ancient battle call "Ura!", others just shrieking in fright and from an excess of adrenaline in their blood, ran forward. Something primordial awakens in you, when you attack in this manner. You see yourself as if from outside your body and perceive almost all corners of the battlefield. It is as if the rage and fright of the collective generates a collective consciousness.

Shouting madly, as we traversed the one hundred or so meter-long stretch ahead of us, we were met with a shallow aimless fire. None of our guys were hit. They sprayed the broken windows above us from the stomach-- those windows - the source of death-bringing metal hurtling towards us.

We burst into the stairwell of a former apartment building. The other groups are storming the remaining four of this "Kruschevka" block.

The human brain works in such a way as to first notice that which is to their right, then their left. The Chechens exploited this trait by taking up position on the left of an entrance. And as we instinctively looked right, they had a few seconds to shoot us in the back. Later on we started throwing grenades in, before we entered and then, looked left of the doorway.

The sun began to break through the fog, but the interior of the building was immersed in twilight due to the dust from the shoot-out, mixed with burned explosives and some other chemicals, obscuring our view.

I had about fifteen people with me in this stairwell. As we ran to the front door, I looked them over with my peripheral vision, as to remember them. I didn't see any cowards there--all good, shot-up lads. There were three apartments on the first floor, meaning that it's the same above. Three fighters on the next landing to cover us from possible attack from above. The rest, craftily prepare their grenades, tearing off the rings and clutching them in their hands shout to the others "Ready." They kick in the doors, which are barely hanging on after the explosions. The doors fly off their hinges under the blows of soldiers' boots. I shout: "Hide, go!"

We fall back away from the door apertures, behind protruding concrete walls. About eight grenades explode almost simultaneously in the three apartments. Our heads ring from the concussions and smoke and dust billow from the mutilated doors. Forward, forward, not letting up our pace. Left, right. The dust, can't see a damn thing, two long volleys from the stomach. No prisoners, we have nothing to eat ourselves. Forward, forward. Kitchen--no-one, bathroom, the door is ajar, two volleys off to the side from the stomach, the carbon steel bath can conceal one from the shrapnel and the grenades. I nod to the fighter standing next to me, who is covering my back, he jerks open the door and I pull the trigger, sweeping the barrel of the assault gun, it jitters as if alive and hoses down the bathtub with a deadly stream, as the shards scatter in every direction. The other fighters are meanwhile shooting up the dust and smoke-choked rooms. Wardrobes and shelves, nothing escapes our attention. That's it, the three-bedroom flat is secured. Onwards, upwards.

The fighters standing in the landing indicate that there is some sort of movement in the flat on the second floor. The other soldiers also leap out of the other flats to join us. Those that were covering us on the landing move higher. No-one has to be told where to go and what to do, everyone knows their moves. No need to shout at anyone. We work as a well-oiled machine. Every man covers the other.

Everything repeats on the second floor. When we burst into the apartment, we stumble over a corpse torn apart by a grenade. Baked one. Checking further we find no-one. Three more levels lie ahead of us, then the attic, roof and the dark basement. Forward, forward.

The fighters report that there are two more corpses in the adjacent flat. Fuck them. Forward. I look at the watch. We have spent seven minutes on the first and second floor. We have to hurry up.

On the third floor, after we kick in the doors, we hear "Don't shoot, don't shoot!". No accent. I raise my hand. The fighters wait, not throwing their grenades. I shout: "Come out with your hands behind your head".

He emerges, weeping, dirty, grenades dangling and a Chechen knife (this thing--a dagger welded onto a knuckleduster) on his belt, but by the looks of it one of ours. Rubbing the tears across his face, he shouts that he is an ordinary prisoner, who was mobilised and who above all did not kill any of our own. I notice that around his neck dangle about five dog tags. Dog tags were issued only to officers and NCO's in the past and during insertion into Chechnya--to all personnel. It is an oval piece of metal five centimetres in length and three in width. The plate is divided into two halves lengthwise, the top of which is stamped "AF USSR" and below bears a letter and a six-digit number. It is made from non-oxidising, heat-resistant alloy. It first came into use when a new rocket fell onto the inspecting commission, burning them all. Everyone perished. In war everyone carries their dog-tag bearing their identification number on their neck, just like the Americans, except they have a second tag with the soldier's surname and their blood group on it. 

So here I noticed that this "ordinary prisoner" had dog-tags hanging off his neck. There was a lot of rabble hanging around in Chechnya, who would have long been in jail back in Russia. But here they were amongst bandits--their own. As the local Russians reported, to prove their loyalty they treated their blood brothers with even greater cruelty.

I grabbed the dog-tag stings with my left hand, they were strong as no soldier wanted to loose them and winding them up on my palm yanked the prisoner, who was trembling with fear. The fighters immediately understood everything. Some Chechens collected dog-tags of the soldiers they have killed.

-What is this then, bitch? - I asked, pulling on the strings.
-I found them, I swear, I found them. I didn't shoot. I was forcibly placed here, he howled and cried.

With my right hand, I pressed the gun against his chest and squeezed the trigger. The bullets tore up his chest, marring my trousers with blood. The body jerked backwards from the shots, but held on by the dog-tag strings. The vertebrae in the neck cracked. It seemed as if the souls of the dead soldiers held on, refusing to let the killer's soul go free. I continued to hold the barrel against the dead body and asked the soldier beside me:
-Cut off the strings.
He took the Chechen knife cut the string with a single swish, The corpse fell to the ground with a dull thud. The fighter handed me the knife, but I shook my head and he hid it in his boot. I straightened out, placed the dog-tags into my pocket and ordered:
-Ready the grenades, let's go.

Grenade explosions rang out again and again we burst into the flats. There were five corpses here. Without looking around or sorting out what's what, we fired off a couple of volleys. One of the "corpses" came to life at this point, raising up his gun, but assault-rifle crossfire nearly chopped him to pieces.

Suddenly there was an explosion in the square outside and a crackling of assault rifles. We quickly finished off the apartment and leapt out onto the landing. The battle raged in full force there. The Chechens in the upper floors were trying to break through to the bottom. Three fighters were holding them off from below and two more soldiers who were guarding from an attack out of the basement entrance joined them. We joined in on this lively exchange of fire, though we interfered with one another on the narrow landing. Because of that there was no cover on that platform, thank God these morons threw their grenades right after they tore off the pins, so there was time to pick them up and lob them downwards onto the lower floors.

We did not remain in debt to them. Two of us fired the underbarrelers from the knee, whilst four more fired their machine guns over their heads not letting the Chechens raise their heads. Meanwhile something exploded over there, there was a terrible racket and the ceiling collapsed in a kitchen on the third floor. Five fighters quickly leapt into the hole and the battle started up on the fourth floor. Having ascended, we started shooting up the Chechens from the rear at point-blank range. We were afraid to hit our own, but it turned out OK. After the mop-up, twelve bodies remained on the fourth floor, which was not bad, considering the Combat Charter, which stipulates no less than three or four attackers against one defender.

Nobody greeted us on the fifth floor, except for a pair of corpses. We carefully ascended the roof. Nobody. That means we're the first and we have to go help our boys in the neighbouring stairwells. I consign the people. Myself, I picked the one where Ryzhkov went. We could hear the thunder of battle in each stairwell as we walked on the roof.

We carefully lift up the hatch. By the sounds of it, the battle is between the first and second floors. We begin the mop up on the fifth floor. We can hear voices in the two-room flat as well as shooting directed at the street. OK, bitches, let's go. Grenades at the ready, a nod of the head, a kick in the door, the grenades thrown, we take cover. Explosion, forward, forward. One soldier guards the stairwell, turn left, volley into an empty corner, another volley forward. The fighter beside me, checks the right hand side, shoots, we are shooting up two wounded next to the window. There is an RPG-7 lying next to them, a nice toy, which we collect along with five or so remaining shots.

The Chechens below seemingly understood what happened above intensify their assault. They are longing to break out of the trap, but are held back by our guys who having realised that help is near also intensify their fire. We descend to the fourth level, shoot up the doors and lob the grenades. We find two more dushman corpses, no idea if they are ours or from before. It doesn't matter now, forward, forward, lower, tempo, tempo, hold on guys, we're coming to help.

The insurgents tried to break through to the top, hoping to mow us down. Not a chance. I'm shouting:
-Yurka, don't come up, I'm going to take them on here!

As we hear the footsteps on the stairwell, we lob the grenades and immediately take cover behind the walls so as to not get cut up by the fragmentation. One soldier cries out--a ricocheting fragment hit his arm. Two of us remain to administer first aid, I and another two soldiers shoot into the unsightly, smoky, dusty darkness that is lingering after the explosion. There is no answer.

-Slava! We're coming up. Don't Shoot!
-Go ahead, lads, but watch out, some bitch may be holed up somewhere, I shout to my fighters.

We descend slowly, ready to open fire at the smallest suspicion of any noise or movement. We stumble upon the torn-up corpses of our recent enemies lying on the landing between the third and fourth floors. The clothes are burning on some of them. Our nostrils are assaulted with the smell of burned meat, wool, cloth and something else, terribly pungent and nauseating. I am barely containing bouts of vomit. Suddenly the ascending soldiers' mugs leap out of the darkness. We embrace happily. Yurka is here also. We embrace.
-You're alive, you devil, - we can't take our eyes off one another like lovers after a long time apart.
-We smashed those fuckers to shit. Smashed their souls right out! - Yurka is excited. Steam is rising from everyone despite the cold.
-I caught one shithead here, he was shouting that he is a prisoner, meanwhile he has these dangling around his neck, here, - I retrieve the handful of dog-tags, then put them away, - I sent him to meet his victims.
-Good on you. They were well-dug in here, had a machine gun and everything, we could not approach them. Thank you for helping us out.
-Anyway--let's go, you owe me a bottle, - I retrieved the cigarette pack that I brought from home "TU-134", the sniper's quickly ran out. - Have a smoke, you NATO menace.

Chatting merrily, having not yet recovered from the excitement of battle, we emerge into the street. My casualty is being led behind us, tourniquet on his arm. He's walking on his own, meaning he'll live.

The fighting died down in the street also, it looks like the insurgents have retreated from their other positions, fearing that we'll get to them too. Our neighbour soldiers were approaching from the direction of the roadblock.
-Slava, look--what's that they have there? - the approaching soldiers wore large cisterns on their backs, like a backpack, which had rubber tubing connected to them.
-I think they are flamethrowers. I've never seen them in action, but I've heard that some formation took them out of emergency stores and brought them with.

Meanwhile all of our guys emerged from the building. The newly arrived soldiers, joking, approached the basement windows, threw in a few grenades and then started spraying them out of their flamethrowers. Cool stuff. Streams the thickness of a hand and the length of about five meters, widening as they travelled away hosed down the basement enclosures. It immediately stank of choking burned petrol and something else.
-Cool toy, wish we had some of these ourselves to quickly smoke those creeps out. We should hint to the commander to ask for some of these at "Severny", they'll come in handy at Minutka, - I said with envy, watching as the flame throwers having finished with mopping up our building, were preparing to roast some other target.
-I've heard that a flame thrower tank was being deployed in Afghanistan, but turned out to not be effective in the mountains, so they stopped producing it.--Yurka said, as he climbed back onto our BMP.
-Well, they are fucktards, they could have thought of having to take cities. Not all fighting will be in the fields and mountains. Moskovites--what's to be had from them, other than stool samples and even those will be shitty, - I spat and started to nudge around for a more comfortable spot on the armour.
-Attention! Everybody ready? - the command rang out over the column: Forward! March!

We set off and the BMP under me jerked abruptly, trying to throw us off, but we held on by clutching onto each-other and any available protrusions. The internal forces are lucky. They have BTR-80s, beautifully soft-going speedy vehicles, and we have these tractors.

As we passed the flamethrower troopers' checkpoint, we again began shouting greeting to one another.

The rest of the journey was unadventurous, although we were ready for more surprises. We passed the first checkpoint of the "Severny" airport, which was guarded by a whole regiment following rumours that the Chechens were planning a raid to take it over. They even added in a battalion of marines. -One battle is over, but another one will soon begin, much heavier and more important.--I said to Yurka.

The mood began to shift from elation of a safe arrival to something more sombre and serious. Ahead of us was a conference with the representatives of the command, who were anxious to send us to our deaths.
   Chapter 5
   My good mood was completely spoilt. No matter what happens today I will definitely get drunk. I glared angrily at the "Severny" guards. Those guys had already managed to wash up and fix their uniforms. Some were strutting around in fresh new, clothes.

I looked down on my trousers, marred with the dead prisoner's blood. My coat was covered in dirt, grease, burn marks and punctured in two places by shrapnel. Hmm, if I was to appear like this in normal public, militia would be quick to arrest me.

-We shall positively get drunk, Slavyan, after all I owe you, - Yurka, unlike myself was in great spirits.
-Where are you going to get the vodka? From under the bunk? - Ryzhov and I have pitched in for three cases of vodka before we entered Grozny and as an old favour, I also traded a full camouflage suit for some spirits, with the comms men. I would have been surprised if my partner were to find another source of vodka.
-And where else would I get it form? The Chechens closed down all the street kiosks, and our trading division doesn't go any further than "Severny".
-Listen, they should have an outlet near the hospital, let's try and get some beer from under the counter? - Suddenly I craved beer, right there, that very moment. I imagined it streaming down my throat, firm, chilled, bubbling and pounding against the walls of my stomach. To drink it straight out of the bottle, no glasses. Maybe this is a lack of culture, but I cannot help myself, I love drinking beer straight out of the bottle.
-That is an idea. Might as well--they are going to upload the wounded for about twenty minutes anyway. Only, will there be beer and do we have enough cash? - he said, scooping out the cash, that was almost useless here, from his pockets and counting it.
-I've got some too, - I said, and retrieved a clump of notes, - and we should get some cigarettes, preferably something classy.
-Want to live the good life, hmm? - Ryzhov laughed.
-You'd want to, seeing how people live just fifteen kilometres away from you--I said gazing around at the "courtier" regiment's positions.
-What are you going to say when we get to the hospital and see the women.--Yurka was teasing now.

I decided to continue the subject:
-Either I'll rape a dozen or so or shoot myself.

We were approaching the hospital. It was located on the former premises of a large restaurant. Rumour had it that it was owned by one of Dudaev's relatives. We started coming across medical nurses and doctors and there were women amongst their number. On the front--any woman is a goddess. And this is not only due to sexual famine. Simply to look on and talk to a woman, allows one to retain that thin thread connecting them to the real world, not to toughen so quickly. We had no women in our brigade, which is probably why we were so especially drawn to them. Naturally the primary desire is sexual. Why aren't there mobile bordellos any more? The wars were better back in the day--positional, unhurried. We respected the adversary. A wonderful kitchen, mobile brothels, champagne, white shirts. The times have changed and in my opinion, did not change for the better. On the other hand, medical services are at an all-time high now. None of the wounded brought here have yet died.
-We have arrived! - the brigade commander was the first to jump off his BMP.

Everyone followed his example, stretching their stiff joints and rubbing their frozen asses. The orderlies ran up and started unloading the dead and wounded. The former will be laid into wooden coffins, here or in Mozdok, the coffins then welded into zinc boxes, with handles, so that they are easier to carry and one can tell top from bottom and this "cargo-200" will be forwarded to the parents accompanied by notices of death and gratitude for outstanding parenting of their son. And that's about it. A blanks salute will sound over their grave, fired by young cadets or soldiers. Both, potential candidates for the same "grande" send-off in the not so distant future. The god of war demands fresh sacrifices and the belligerents deliver them in abundance.

Next, the parents will be awarded money for the dead soldier--ten-year's salary, a whole five million Rubles. They will receive visits from social workers for six months, after which they will be forgotten. And when the mother or widow approaches the powers that be (it doesn't matter if it's the regional administration or the conscription board), at first she will hear excuses and will then be informed that no means to help her are available. If she insists, she would be told that they did not send her son or husband to war, to go and bother those that have sent him to die, because it is they that failed to provide a pension for the loss of a breadwinner, as well as repairs to the roof, telephone connection, etc. And the reader can complain all they like, believe me, to no avail. The powers that be will say: "O, that's that woman/man, whose husband/son died?" And this will be uttered with such contempt that regardless of age and health, you the reader would weep and run to the door and never come back here, even when you will be granted a laughable sum for a New Year's or February 23 gift. So have a think about it, is it worth it to send your son to bloody slaughter for some sick Supreme Commander. Have a good think about it. When the Chechen war rolled around, he had a grandson who was of conscription age. But for some reason, I have never seen him there, not even at inspections.

The wounded were being unloaded meanwhile and we walked behind them, unnoticed by anyone. We gawked at the women and even tried to chat them up, although we knew that they are all long taken and divided up with no need for our contribution. Also our outward appearance probably did not inspire a lot of interest. We were searching for the semi-official trading post of the supplies division or in the very least for a local swindler, that would be quietly trading in alcohol and cigarettes. The history of warfare shows that there will always be petty swindlers willing to make an easy buck, from selling small items of popular demand. Nothing particularly unlawful and on the other hand, beneficial, as they bring small pleasures of normal living to those who are deprived of them. For some--it's war and for some it's their own mother. Maybe this is normal? I would not be able to do this sort of thing. My upbringing and limited life experience would stand in the way.

To that end as we stalked through the hospital, we asked the soldiers there, where we could find beer and cigarettes. This being an evacuation-type hospital, nobody normally stayed here for more than a day and so nobody could help us. And then we spotted a soldier, whose mug was wider than both of ours. He was dressed in new camouflage and was standing by the window leaf, blissfully blowing smoke in the upwards direction. He looked well-fed and the surroundings appeared to be none of his concern. He didn't look like a wounding casualty.

I prodded Yuka in the side. He was busy staring at a medical nurse, who had the misfortune upon the dispatch of her business, to hurry by us. Judging by Yurka's famished face he has, in his imagination raped her at least ten times by now and was planning to carry on in this fashion.
-Stop spoiling the women, we're here on a peace-keeping mission. Take a gander at this here little picture instead, - I pointed out the brave warrior, - you could cover ten embrasures with that body. It's as if he embodies the entirety of the armed forces of the Russian Federation, what do you think, Yura?

I was speaking deliberately loudly, so that the fighter would hear us. Yurka understood this and picked up the game.
-Yeah, man, you're right. He'd do well in reconnaissance as a human shield or in a rapid assault group, to carry out the wounded.

The fighter glanced sideways, but didn't even turn towards us. Like many officers here, we did not carry any signs of distinction on our uniforms. This was due to the snipers' nasty habit to take out the officers first. It was as if they totally hated us for some reason. Oh well, everyone has their complexes and this complex is a professional and a well renumerated one to boot.
-Sonny, - Yurka began quietly and politely, - what do you think, should we take you on an excursion to our brigade's positions? Otherwise you faggot will come home with a medal, having not seen the war properly.

All this he said in a lowered tone, so that the passing medical staff would not notice. As if we were standing there and conversing peacefully, no noise or shouting.
-Why don't you go fuck yourself, - the fighter muttered lazily, not even turning his head and his voice was filled with such disdain that one began to feel awkward. My rage awakened immediately. I knew from experience that in such instances I do not control myself well and can commit various stupidities, the nature of which I would comprehend only later.
-Why don't you about face, you louse, when addressed by a combat officer and apologise immediately, - I also tried to speak calmly, but the words were boiling up in my throat. No soldier has ever dared to insult me, no matter what state they were in. When I was a snotty lieutenant, I had to pacify a drunken sentry detail. And here a shithead from the rear deigned to talk down to two officers.

The tabby swine turned around and once again looked at us mockingly, not uttering a word. He wanted to flaunt his complete lack of respect fir us. We knew that it was useless to reason with this animal, we had to act. There was a closet near-by that contained utility inventory. Not saying a word ourselves, we grabbed the youth under his arms and manhandled him into that dark, stuffy closet. I grabbed his throat immediately, lest he scream, Yurka, pressed the barrel of his gun against his groin and pushed hard. Our subject turned white, one could see it, even in that gloom. His eyes were ready to pop out of his orbits, the scream ready to issue from his throat, but held back by my hand, which only allowed him to breathe. I leaned to his ear and whispered:
-I'm going to let go of your throat now, so that you, miscreant can quietly offer us an apology. You will also offer us beer and cigarettes, which I am sure you have. If you agree, blink and if you do not, I will suffocate you, whilst my partner shoots off your balls. Nobody will care, they'll write you off as a casualty of combat. If you scream or pull something, the story will repeat: crushed throat and amputated balls, also we can load you into the vehicle and trade for with the Chechens for a crate of beer and a carton of cigarettes. Got it, fucker? - I squeezed a little harder and Yurka pressed onto the machine gun.

The soldier's eyelids fluttered like a moth to a flame:
-Please excuse me comrade officers, I made a mistake, won't happen again, I promise, - tears rolled from his eyes, but I was not letting go of his throat.

-And the second act? - Yurka asked, referring to the beer and cigarettes.
-Yes yes, here, - the fighter scrambled, feeling in the dark and finally retrieving a pack of Holstein beer and a carton of LM cigarettes, or as we called them "Militiaman's Love".

We released the little shit and I patted him on the cheek conciliatorily. Producing a crumpled five thousand rubles from my pocket I placed it in his.
-Don't ever speak rudely to people, you'll live longer. And this is the money for the goods, so that you don't take us for bandits. By the way, lend us a couple of bags, so that we can carry our shopping.

Again he started fumbling around in the buckets down there. A nice little hidy-hole he's got here. Suddenly something clinked against the metal, possibly a pistol. Surely the lad's not going to be silly? I raised my assault rifle and pressed the barrel into the base of his skull--there is a pressure point there, if you hit it hard enough the guy falls down unconscious. Yurka immediately pressed his gun against his spine in the region of the kidneys.
-Don't be silly, sonny, - again I was speaking softly, - unless you decided to die a hero, you miscreant, in which case, go right ahead.

With my hand, I retrieved a narrow stiletto knife (a trophy) and pressed it against his throat. The cold steel against his larynx for some reason worked better than the guns. I wonder why that is? Again we heard a clinking, looks like he dropped the pistol back into the bucket. Removing the stiletto knife, I spun the soldier around to face me and pressed my barrel under his chin. He raised his hands into the air, clutching the holster with his left hand. With my left hand again, I felt around behind him and retrieved the pistol. Fuck me! A silencer was fitted to this gun. Nice. He must have nicked it from some wounded recon or spetsnaz man. With the handle of that gun, I hit him on the nose, the spot where it connects to the skull and he sank to the floor soundlessly. We helped him down to the floor and having packed the beer and cigarettes departed.

Back outside, the unloading of the wounded was drawing to conclusion and the brigade commander was gathering his officers in order to go meet the army group's command. We threw our bags into our BMP and instructed the mechanic to watch them closely lest they be stolen and we would then castrate him and leave him here. The man nodded understandingly and returned to visually undressing the passing women. As we followed the commander, we leisurely dragged on our good cigarettes and discussed the argument we were going to present against the taking of that fucking Minutka head-on.

Let's do it like this: the aviation, then artillery, tanks and self-propelled artillery, and then after they knock everything out, the "makhra" enters, huh? - Yurka asked, dragging on his cigarette with great pleasure, looking over the almost peaceful surroundings.
-And even better, napalm munitions, so that everything around would burn and merry music, the louder the better, so that the Chechens give up their souls to Allah more happily. I was feeling at peace--and an almost sexual pleasure from the cigarette and the calm around me. It's amazing how little a man needs--a good cigarette, a peaceful atmosphere, women all around him.

We noticed a familiar officer--we took "Severny" together and his regiment was retained here for sentry duty afterwards--lucky people.
-Yura, Slava--you're alive, that's great! Your fame precedes you. And Karpov's fame also. We thought at first that you wacked him, but then it emerged that he himself is an idiot. He has been recommended for the Order of Bravery.
-So you jus thought that me and Slavka just killed that moskovite fucker?
-No no, we all know here, that he's a massive shithead.

We laughed, me and Yurka:
-Sasha, we saw him for the first time and gave him the exact same nickname: massive shithead. Tell us instead what our prospects are regarding Minutka.
-Guys, the marines and the paratroopers tried to take that fucking square head-on, lost about thirty people and rolled back. So now they want you to try.
-Let them go fuck themselves!
-That shitty rights activist is there also. He keeps appealing to us over the radio. I've got an anecdote about him, listen. So this rights activist is sitting there in Dudaev's bunker with his delegation, forgotten by everybody, unfed, no water. They are considering their options. Suddenly he proposes: "Let's convert to Islam!" The others ask: "Do you think it'll help?", "No but we can make a soup from the foreskins!". Sashka cackled merrily.

Gagging from hearing such news as well as his anecdote, we too laughed.
-Guys, I got myself up as a commandant here, come by sometime. But you'll have to excuse me right now, somebody caved in a soldier's skull at the hospital.

We whistled from surprise at Sashka's ascension to such a role and departed to catch up with our guys. We were not worried about that soldier. His head was in one piece and the fact he's got a bloody nose must mean he stumbled over in the dark. Who in our armed forces would dare punch such a fine lad? Naturally as he was lying there dazed, he dreamt up two officers. That's the least he could have hallucinated with his excessive weight and the heightened blood pressure. He needs to diet, comrade doctor. Or better still, lend him to us for a week or so. You won't recognise the boy. An officer emerged to greet us and declared that General Rolin was busy at the moment and will be available in ten or fifteen minutes. Apparently he was in conversation with the Minister of Defence. Let them talk. Same shit--nothing will come of it. The brigade commander went off to call the brigade for the latest news.

We noticed Sashka hurrying back and called him over:
-Sashka, how's the fighter?
-He's babbling some nonsense about how two officers beat him up. His trousers are wet--he must have pissed himself as he was lying unconscious. And the assailant's identifying characteristics... - he looked us over suspiciously, - well, basically they match you two, more or less.
-Sashok, do you really think that we're capable of assaulting a soldier? Personally I just grab by the throat.
-And I shoot off the balls, straight up. You know us well, - Yurka picked up.

Feigning offence, we stared at Sashka Kholin, as if to demand the removal of all suspicion from our persons.
-I know you very well, you punks, don't worry. I've seen enough. No pity for yourselves or others. So it was you who roughed up the soldier?
-Sasha, - I began again in velvet tones, hugging him gently around the shoulder, - tell us, punks, you kind man, why on earth would we be doing in the hospital? You have never been known for your mercifulness and compassion. Even when we brought our wounded to you, you must have been so busy as to neglect greeting your friends.
-Your friends, who by the way came to your rescue when the Chechens backed you and you fighters into the corner of the airport, - Yurka continues, - it's awkward to remind you that you wowed by the name of all saints that you will never forget your saviours.
-And now, dear father, you want to turn your benefactors in as if they were recycling, - I again continued.--After all we're not telling anyone that your subordinate is selling your stolen, pardon, spare goods at speculative prices and on top of it all threatened us with a pistol. So, what will it be Alexander? I'm thinking your fighter must have just knocked his head somewhere.
-Why did you do that to him?
-He sent me to hell, very earnestly, imagine it, and didn't even apologise.
-I'll kick the little shit's ass for that.
-Since we found a common language, Sasha, we propose that you supply us with humanitarian aid.
-You've already grabbed enough.
-Lies, slander and insinuation, - Yurij proclaimed with pomp, - we did not steal it, we bought it for five dollars, or five thousand rubles, I'm not sure which. It was dark and the dollars were in the same pocket as the rubles. Right, Slava?

-The whole truth, I reimbursed him personally. But I'm thinking that your crappy subordinate is trying to conceal a portion of the taking from you. And all we bought from him was a tiny pack of beer, cans this small, a carton of "Militiaman's Love" and you are refusing to supply us properly for the road ahead?
-Imagine if we're killed, knock on wood of course, you will feel guilty that you neglected to give us three sticks of good sausage, vodka, from the Moskva factory "Kristall", a pair of bottles of good cognac, and say some cheese and change. We'd appear to you at night like vampires, - we stretched out our arms like vampires, - "You greedy fuck!"

Yes, Sasha, I will definitely cark it without a couple of packs of beer, good cigarettes and some dried fish to go with the beer, and also... -Enough, you retards. Give us some water to drink, kind lady, as we are hungry and have nowhere to sleep tonight, - Sasha mocked us.--Had you not saved my life, you'd be in the brig by now, chewing standard issue rations.
-Well, as I said to Slava during that battle: "Look Slava, a good captain is dying, let's save him so that when he's in charge, he can feed us `til the end of the war". Right Slava?
-I swear on my life. Although, Yura it would have been good to spend a week or two in the brig catching lice? Three meals a day, clean sheets, you can undress, go to a sauna! - I closed my eyes dreamily.--Good times! Sasha, maybe you'll turn us in, meanwhile your butt-licker will change his testimony after two weeks and maybe the war will be over by then? Think about it, Sasha. We'll shout you cognac.

-You two are positively insane. No wonder the Chechens call your brigade "dogs". You'll maul anyone to death or failing that, send them insane.
-We're going to go hear the command rouse us to go take Minutka. So, I'm thinking Slava, we'll propose that this regiment should go and take it and we'll come here to replace it. And after you take Minutka, we'll continue fighting. What do you think, Sasha? By the way, have you tried out all the girls here yet?
-No they're all taken here, so don't stick your nose into another man's backyard.
-Why don't you share her for a day or two. We'll bring her back afterwards, don't be greedy!
-Idiots, crazy idiots.

A messenger emerged, he called our group of staff officers to go to the commander.
-Sasha, we'll be about forty minutes, don't forget the humanitarian aid, or we'll appear to you at night. And tell you your shithead not to say anything about us and to be polite henceforth, or he'll get more than a mild fright next time. Wait and we'll return, but wait well, I paraphrased the famous poem. Don't forge the beer and everything else, naturally.

Jesting, Yurka blew Sashka a kiss.
-Farewell, my dear! Expect guests!

Sashka spat off the side, demonstrating his disposition to our foolishness. The passing soldiers observed the scene of our parting with a look of surprise on their faces.

We followed our regiment's officers, hurriedly finishing off our cigarettes and casting off the butts. In war, the cigarette is normally held inside a fist as to hide it from snipers' view. This habit held during the day. If one had one set of habits for daytime and another for night, it would be easier to mix hem up and make a fatal mistake.

We all entered the room, the army group commander Rolin was already seated there along with our general--Zakharin. In the past, this man bore an Armenian surname, but it was suggested to him that he change it following the Union's collapse. So instead of Avakyan, he became Zakharin--his wife's surname.

The chamber's windows were covered with sandbags. The lighting was not bright enough to illuminate the corners of the room, where a whole range of people were seated--comms men, orderlies, assistants and various other assistants and sycophants of the general.

-Comrade officers, please be seated. Rolin rose to shake Bakhel's hand. He nodded to the others.
-I just spoke to the Minister of Defence--Grachin. The decision to storm the Minutka complex has been made at the highest level, - he paused as if to underscore the words "highest level". I am ordered to supervise this operation and for your brigade to carry out this difficult and important mission.
The end of this address as spoken in exalted tones. I wondered if he and Karpov had the same tutor. Fuck knows who is who at this Stavka.

-Our operational group has developed the plan, which has been confirmed with the General staff and approved by the minister of defence. General Zkharin has just finished familiarising himself with the plan and I want you to listen carefully so that you can do the same. Its correct execution will allow us to liquidate enemy forces in the shortest period of time, eliminating the insurgents and their leader Dudaev, who have taken positions at the state bank building and the so-called Dudaev's palace. - He began to point at the map laid out on the table in front of him with his finger (Judging by the expression on Zakharin's face, he was not too fond of this plan), - the other structures here are of little interest to us.

It was amazing that a military man, whilst planning such a bloody engagement would so flippantly dismiss the insurgents sure to be in position in the neighbouring buildings. Not to speak of the fact that he failed to say a single word about the two bridges on approach to the square. It was a safe bet that they were heavily guarded probably mined.

In the army, there is the immediate objective, the next objective and the main objective. Everything begins with the immediate objective, then expanding on the theme towards the main goal. So if one begins at the primary objective, especially when such personages as Dudaev are mentioned, and the intermediate objective are not, that's pure politics. For the soldier, politics are sure death, because idiot politicians do not think about lives lost or consequences following, only the result and as quickly as possible. The ends justify the means. An old Jesuit axiom.

We all stared at the maps. It turned out that we had to skip over the bridges at full speed. So what if that doesn't work and only some of our forces get through, and then the Chechens blow up the bridges? And the ones that got ahead, the most energetic ones get slaughtered like lambs right in front of our eyes? Nobody likes this adventure. We are professional soldiers and from our very academy days have been taught to risk lives--both our own and of those around us, but to die this absurdly--no way. Everyone's face turned grim. We knew that if we do not defend our point of view on this now, the destruction of the Maikop Brigade will seem like a child's babble in a summer glade. This is the residence of their president, no less. The symbol of national pride. Here one has to either chuck an atom bomb and finish them all off once and for all, or work long and hard with artillery and aviation.

The so-called chief of army group staff emerged from the shadows--Colonel Sedov. Very few people knew anything about this man. The war often elevates great military leaders to the military Olympus, just as it propels there great imposters. I could say nothing about Sedov other than that if this was his plan lying here before our eyes, that made him not just an imposter, but a war criminal--or more precisely a criminal with epaulettes. Sedov began to speak. He had a well-trained speaking voice. One could sense that he was not showing off in front of Rolin and that he had to speak like this many times. Judging by the way he bore himself and his weathered face, this was a field rather than a staff officer. All-right, we'll listen.
-Comrade general, comrade officers, - Sedov began, - the enemy has concentrated his main forces in the region of Minutka square.
"Tell us something we don't know", - I thought.
-Consequenly and as to finally break down their resistance, demoralise them and knock them out of the city, you are offered to fulfil the plan that has been approved by the Minister of Defence and agreed upon by the Supreme Commander. - It now seemed that Sedov was admiring himself, bursting at the seams with pride that his own plan--there was no doubt now that it was his has been approved by Him.
-You are required to march in force and take the bridges over Sunja, rapidly enter the Minutka square and destroy the enemy forces in the State Bank building as well as Dudaev's government residence known as "Dudaev's Palace, - Sedov continued to sing.
-"Hello ass-crack, it's New Year's", - rang out in my head.
-To aid the taking of this complex of buildings, formations of parachute troops, marines and the Leningrad regiment are to join you. You will also receive air support and artillery cover.

Most interestingly, practically none of the formations meant to participate in the siege were specifically identified. Neither the numbers of aircraft nor artillery were stated. Was it going to be a squadron and an artillery division? In other words, the plan was not thought-through and its failure was sure to be blamed on us. What a happy prospect!
-The siege will begin in two days. During these two days, you are to take over the hotel "Kavkaz", hand it over (to whom?) and move out to the Minutka square, - it would seem that everything is perfectly clear to Sedov and therefore to us also and we were to sett off immediately on a black horse and take Minutka. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
-Comrade general, comrade officers, that's all form me. Any questions? - his tone indicated that he expected only degenerates and cretins to have questions. What else was one to expect from this Siberian "makhra"?
-What data do you have on the garrison numbers at the Minutka square, their armaments and whether or not the bridges are mined? - the comm-brig asked softly, but firmly, having stepped forward from the shadows.
-Their numbers do not exceed three or four thousand (a nice approximation, who would think another thousand or so is important?), their armaments are the usual small arms, plus the underbarrelers, RPG-7s and infantry mortars (who's up for a dash across the square under mortar fire?) -What about the bridges?
-We do not possess accurate data regarding the mining of those bridges. The enemy is conducting dense fire upon the approaches to them, there are ambushes and enemy secrets everywhere, preventing us from establishing this for certain. But we are constantly working on this and comrades from the local opposition are assisting us too.

We all grinned widely. A Chechen won't poke another Chechen's eye out. But to turn in an unfaithful infidel--that's for sure.
-You laugh, - Sedov seemed nervous now, - meanwhile in Moskva, thanks to the opposition, the question is raised of whether our incursion is pointless and cruel and has irreparably damaged the republic's economy, angered its people. The partisan movement is gaining more an more popularity (the blind finally see). So there is an opinion that the insurgents should not be killed, but disarmed and let go to their homes, that they are for the most part simple, frightened peasants and that spring is near, they need to sow. Otherwise there will be famine here.
-To hell with them! - I yelled out in the dead silence. Everyone burst out laughing and Rolin and Sedov turned their attention to me. Yurka prodded me in the side, but it was too late.
-Maybe you do not understand, comrade...- Sedov looked at my epaulettes and seeing no stars there, continued: - And by the way--why are you not wearing your stars?
-I'm scared of the snipers, comrade colonel, - I answered as modestly as I could, as much as I was tempted to instigate a scandal.
-Nonsense, what do you think that the sniper is looking out for your stars? Nothing of the sort. How are you capable of leading the personnel without your insignia?

I was ready to launch into a long and unflattering tirade regarding insignia stars and his wretched plan. I'm no hero, but at the front, one knows that you are not going to do any worse unless maybe they are wounded. So all these smartasses can go to hell. If you want my dismissal--go ahead!

Bakhel, seemingly sensing the pending scandal pre-empted anything that I was about to say by beginning to speak:
-Comrade general, we'll establish why captain Mironovs' stars are missing later. It was I, who authorised the officers to remove their insignia. Right now I am more concerned with the upcoming operation. Such tight deadlines will not allow our brigade, which is constantly engaged in heavy fighting to commence executing your plan (Bakhel made an emphasis on the word "your") without appropriate preparations. Also I propose to immediately issue the order for a massed air and artillery bombardment of the complex. These are to be carried out without pause until the commencement of operations aimed at taking the square. Two hours beforehand, saboteur-reconnaissance forces from the parachute troops are to take the bridges and to prevent them being detonated. By the way, what formations exactly are we to co-operate with? I think that to attempt to take the square head on would be unwise and suicidal. I will not carry out such orders that are equivalent to placing my people in front of a firing squad.
-Do you, colonel understand what you're saying! - Rolin began to rage. I'll call Grachin right now and you'll be court-marshalled! I'll simply take you under arrest on the spot and fly you to Moskva on the nearest flight! How many people do you think want your position?
-If that can prevent the execution of my people, I'm prepared to submit my resignation immediately! - Bakhel shouted in return.--You're scared of blowing apart that fucking square, but are not afraid of laying down a few thousand lads, to drown in their own blood?! Why don't you think about that instead, or is your tough guy image more important to you than the soldiers' lives...
-Silence, you traitor! - Rolin shouted. - You colonel have gone insane, you coward. I'd get the Hero of Russia for you idiot in five seconds. What are you looking at, get out of here!

Get fucked, general, we'll rip people's throats out for our commander, he only has to say a word--we'll tear everyone apart here.
-We support our commander, to go without preliminary air and artillery preparation is suicide. - One of ours spoke out of the darkness.
-So all of you think this way? - Rolin squinted as he looked us over with a heavy gaze. - Oooout! Guards! Lead them out, disarm and detain these traitors!

In place of an answer, we stood closer, shoulder to shoulder. Silence. Death-like silence. The door swings open and two soldiers accompanied by an officer run inside, ready to carry out the commander's orders. Everyone readied themselves for the worst. And then that good lad, the Armenian, general Zakharin broke the silence.
-Let's not do anything foolish. We'll dismiss the officers now and amongst ourselves here, resolve the situation. Calmly and quietly. It is obvious that a frontal assault is dangerous, but together we'll be able to find the optimal solution, - and addressing us now: - Go comrade officers, wait outside, nothing will happen, I promise you.
-Go and wait, - the comm-brig ordered. His voice was dry.

We filed out. Everyone was rattled, neurotic. The guards followed us out. Somebody grabbed their chief by the collar and started whispering:
-If you bitches decide to arrest our commander, I'm going to kill you, you understand?
-What about my orders? - The frightened soldier asked.
-Want to live?
-If you are going to arrest the commander, we are going to assault you and you will hand him over without any unnecessary noise. Understand? In return you and your soldiers will remain alive. Do you understand?
-We'll bring the vehicles closer now, so don't raise an alarm. When our commander and general emerge, we'll calmly load in and drive off. Remember that we don't want your blood, but if you get in the way - we'll kill you. Understand? You know who we are?
-I know. You are the "dogs". I've got it.
-Fuck off, you got none of it. We're not dogs, we're "makhra" and we'll tear you apart for our commander. That's all--go. If you or your fighters squeal anything, we're going to war. Do you want that?
-No I don't.
-Correct answer. We and you have to fight the Chechens, not each-other. They want to send us to storm Minutka head-on. They are sending us to our deaths. But we don't want to go. That's why Rolin is raging. Don't make any unnecessary noise.
-I get it. I've heard that you are real thugs. But that you'd go against Rolin--no-one expected that from you. You lads are something! - the guards chief has recovered from his initial shock and was walking towards the exist beside us. His face expressed both admiration mistrust.

Steam was rising from everybody, as we emerged into the street. We smoked, greedily digesting the information we just acquired. The acting chief of reconnaissance being the youngest, was sent to fetch the vehicles and bring them closer to the airport. The guards chief was told to order the vehicles closer to the terminal building.
-What is this, guys, I'll get arrested! This is sabotage!
-Do you want us to tie you up or something!
-Tie me up, kill me, I cannot issue such an order.
-All-right lad, cool it, we'll bring them up to your posts and leave them there. Happy?
-All-right, but let them stay there, otherwise we'll shoot.
-All-right, deal.

We were perfectly aware of the gravity of our actions, that a failure to follow orders, especially in combat conditions can precipitate almost anything, up to and including the firing squad on the spot with no trial or investigation. The Charter - the army's law - proclaims: "The order must be carried to the letter, exactly and in a timely manner. The order may be appealed after its fulfilment". And who will be left to appeal it after the entire brigade lays its bones on that shitty square? Those that would remain alive will be permanent clients of a mental institution.

Yes, an armed mutiny. That is the only way an open refusal to follow orders can be interpreted.
-Slava, maybe we should nick off somewhere, like the battleship Potemkin? - Yurka asked, dragging greedily. - To Turkey or something.
-On a BMP on the Black Sea bottom - not a bad plan. Don't be stupid and hysterical. We are yet to commit anything unlawful. There's a chapter in the Charter that says that you have the right to ignore an order you feel is unconstitutional (after the first "Chechen conflict", the Charter of the armed forces was re-written and this clause was missing from the new version). And to lead people to their peril--is death. Look at Czechoslovakia--not much bigger than Chechnya, yet they prepared for that incursion for six months, whilst here...Because it's another country there, whilst here they are free to kill a million on either side. Mongrels. I threw away the cigarette butt and took another out immediately. I can't smoke enough of these lighter once after "Prima".--Look, Sashka, they're hauling our aid to us!

Our old acquaintance - the sergeant major from the hospital with a plaster over his nose and two black eyes forming like spectacles on his face, was dragging two boxes as he walked along the solemn commandant.
-Didn't we tell you not to be rude, sonny! - Yurka and I were smiling widely. - You didn't want to level with us and so you go it.
-If you're going to be rude to strangers, you may not live to demobilisation, - I picked up, - Had I hit slightly higher, I could have cracked open your skull. You're lucky kid, had we waited for you to turn around armed with that pistol, we could have given you an autopsy without anaesthesia.

Sashaka arrived just in time to distract us from such grim thoughts with his hapless assistant. Nobody wants to be a criminal, in their soul being really a patriot. Nobody wanted to lay down their men on a square and then have to shoot themselves. One's consciousness, one's officer's honour would not allow them to continue living with such a burden. A wild desire to get drunk prevailed - there was booze in those boxes. It will help escape the frightening choices ahead, for some time. And then they definitely will accuse one of drunkenness. All the officers present knew this very well.
-Did you guys decide to mutiny or something? - Sahska sounded worried. - Everyone's frantic, talking about taking you out.
-No, we just said that the airport's commandant offered to lead the garrison company ahead of ours onto the enemy machine gun fire, but he, get this, doesn't want to let you go. He stubbornly insists that he won't let his favourite captain go towards certain death. Personally, I would not spare you shitheads. You can die, he says, your whole brigade if necessary, together with your commander and valiant general and I'll lay a Hero into each of your coffins, - I was getting angry again. I knew that Sashaka and this fighter had nothing to do with it, but I wanted to let off some steam at someone's expense.
-Sasha, why don't you lend us this slink, we'll write up a report regarding his transfer, he'll sign anything we want under the barrel of his own gun. No-one will hear the shot and we'll dump the body somewhere far away in the ruins. What say you, you jerk?

I waited for response on Sashka's part or that of his fighter, but none followed, not even a gesture. They were silent. I was moody, ferocious, all my feelings, thoughts at a standstill, wound up into a tight spring, ready to explode and release a tremendous burst of energy. Sashka and his fighter remained silent.
-Sasha, have you loaded up the provisions you promised? - I was calmer now, having composed myself, but the spring continued to wind up sharpening the already keen perceptions.--Let's go and load them up.
-We walked over to our BMP. I went ahead, then the fighter, and then Sashka at the rear. Impassable mud was all around us. The sun was beginning to set. I opened the personnel hatch and the fighter started placing Sashka's gifts inside. Sashka approached. With a kick, I sent the soldier into the dark recesses of the vehicle and slammed the hatch closed. I grabbed Sashka by the collar, pressed him against the BMP and drew my pistol out of my coat. He turned pale and looked at me, then the barrel with widened eyes.
-So, who gave the order to have us surrounded? Well, chop chop, or as you know either our guys will finish you off or the Chechens later on. Quickly you bitch.

Yurka came up behind.
-They are surrounding us. It will be difficult to break into the terminal, they must have brought in a whole company into there by now, no less. And the mortar-men are there too, they'll fire point blank.--Yurka was absolutely composed and ready for action.

He spoke calmly, addressing Sashka:
-Tell us who said what and what the orders are.
-Sedov emerged after you did and said that you are not to be let out of "Severny". The passwords have been changed already and no-one is to be admitted to the terminal. If you attempt to drive off without permission or penetrate the airport building there is an order to open fire without warning. He said that you are planning to cross over to Dudaev with your brigade. I am commanded to distract you, to try to get you drunk. That's all. Let me go, you'll choke me. You are thugs after all. What will you do to my fighter? - Sashka was rubbing his neck.
-You can have him, he must have pissed himself from fright by now. What's the password?
-I don't know. I was only told to get you drunk and leave quickly. What should I say to Sedov?
-Tell it as it happened, you fighter will confirm. They told you to leave quickly, it means that they will start killing us soon. Well, you should go Sasha. So long.
-Slava, Yura, everything will be fine, they'll talk it out over there. If you want, I'll go to Sedov and Rolin and ask that you be left here. Or come with me and I'll lead you out when it's all finished. Let's go, lads.

Sashka said "when it's all over" and the only thing that will be over is the execution. Because I then understood that I cannot shoot at my own troops, whereas in their eyes we're--insurgent accomplices.
-Thank you Sasha. Go. Tell them only that we are not traitors, even if we fall here, we're not traitors. So long.

I opened the personnel hatch. The fighter inside sprung back.
-Don't be afraid, come out. Did you hear it all?
-If they ask you, tell them what you heard, - and when they walked off for a bit, I could not contain myself and as a farewell shouted: - Don't be rude to strangers!

The fighter drew in his head as if he was hit.
-So, Slava, shall we go?

We tracked back without speaking a word. My soul was empty, dark. There was no desire to speak. Absolutely nothing depended on us any more. All that remained was to wait await one's slaughter, like sheep.

All the officers were bunched together, discussing something. Our fighters were seated upon the BMPs, whose engines were running, and many of whose cannons were turned towards the airport terminal's building. We approached them. It seemed that everybody was speaking at the same time, paying no heed to one another:
-I don't believe that they will shoot.
-What would you do?
-We took this airport together. Bitches, abominable whores!
-They sold the whole Russian out and now they are fucking us!
-Oh how I would turn to Moskva now!
-My veteran father was right when he said that the primary adversary sits in Moskva - he desires your death most of all, your aviation is second in line and only third in line is the German!
-Yura, Slava, have you thought of anything? - everyone stared at us.
-I, - I began, accentuating this pronoun, - I refuse to shoot at our guys. The commandant told us that Sedov ordered us to be kept here. Not to let us into the building. He changed the password. Troops have been pulled into the building. About a company's strength. Maybe more now. In other words--shit.
-So what do you propose, to simply wait until we get shot up like quail? What can I say, a fine goose you are!
-Had I wanted to leave, I would have by now, look it's a hundred meters to the airport. Sedov is saying that our whole brigade has decided to cross over to Dudaev and is therefore refusing to storm Minutka.

There was a lot of noise. Everyone was speaking loudly and offendedly. It's impossible to describe these dialogues because the narrative would have to consist of triple dots and particles such as "...and...","...or...", followed by "let them go/do", "they themselves are/should" and so forth. If the reader was to tune themselves onto the same wavelength, they would independently find twenty or so variants. But believe me, all the prominent political and military leaders both current and past from home as well as from abroad were mentioned along with their parents and other close relatives.

A similarly dense crowd of officers and NCOs from "Severny's" guarding regiment were standing on the porch of the airport. Our "probable adversary". Recently our former colleagues, allies, companions, brothers in arms. Our lives depended on them very much right now. If they believe Sedov's crap, we're finished. Whatever they decide over yonder, I will not shoot at you, lads. I felt dreary. I did not want to be wounded. To be killed outright would be best. Maybe I should shoot myself? No, too early, nothing is decided yet, I'll always have time, there is always time to do that.

Behind those closed doors, the fate of our brigade, everyone single one of us here is being decided. A lot depends on the decision to be made. Chechnya's fate, the fate of Russia is in the hands of those four men, that are now arguing, with foam at their mouths trying to prove that they are right. Our commander and our general may well already be under arrest. Although it would be foolish to execute a field commander and a general without trial or jury. Our little gang can be felled out of a pair of machine guns--no problem, with all questions asked afterwards. Hmm. If you want to come home, shoot first then ask question. I have always followed this rule in my meetings with the Chechens, but being an live target myself now, I felt very uncomfortable. Occupied with such wretched thoughts, I didn't notice how my cigarettes I smoked until they dwindled down to a single one. There was a bitter taste in the mouth from the tobacco smoked and the stupid situation we were in. I took the last cigarette. It struck me, "Is this my last cigarette?" I smoked it with relish, dragging slowly, unhurriedly. Well, boys I'm ready for anything. With every drag I became calmer, more sure of myself. I'm not a lamb awaiting my slaughter. I am a man, who has made my choice consciously. I began to study the group of officers by the terminal building, who must not had had it easy at this point either. It was possible that they were in council right now, trying to make a decision. To shoot us or not to shoot us. To kills or not to kill, that was the question.

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