Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Chilling Flashback to the Soviet Past

A tale of betrayal in Chechnya prompts fears that the Russian people are once again being brainwashed by Kremlin propaganda

In post-Soviet Russia, stories of betrayal open up old wounds. They bring back unwanted memories of the Red Terror and Stalin's purges. They demonstrate the power of propaganda to erode the most basic human instincts.

It was for this reason that Russian society was rocked to the foundations last week by the tale of a Vologda woman who betrayed her son to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Coming on the eve of the presidential elections, the frisson of collective guilt may have made some think twice about voting for Vladimir Putin. It was, after all, his propaganda machine that had prompted the woman's unmotherly behaviour.

The villain of the piece is Yelena Matrusyak, who hails from the small town of Gryazovets. She was contacted in March by Zeinap Gashaeva, of the Union of North Caucasus Women (UNCW), who revealed that her son, Vyacheslav, had deserted from his regiment during a tour of duty in Chechnya and was hiding from the authorities in Ingushetia.

Vyacheslav's tale is familiar enough - a phenomenon of both Chechen wars. He was beaten and persecuted by his comrades for making the heretical remark, "The Churki [Chechens] are people like us." His officers turned a blind eye to the hazing. After his unit was deployed to Grozny, Vyacheslav slipped away one night and headed for the Ingushetian border.

In the Chechen town of Samashki, he was taken in by an old Russian woman, Lyuba, who kept him in her cellar for four months. Although she was living in wretched conditions with no gas or electricity, Lyuba shared with him the little food she had. In early March, she heard that interior ministry police were planning a raid on the village and convinced her neighbour to take the 19-year-old conscript across the border in his car.

So they dressed Vyacheslav as a woman and smuggled him through four successive checkpoints - risking arrest and summary execution in the event of discovery.

In Ingushetia, Zeinap Gashaeva billetted the young man with a family in Plievo and set about finding his mother, so that she could come and take him home. But Matrusyak's reaction at discovering her son's whereabouts came as something of a surprise. Complaining of poor health and a lack of funds, she refused to make the journey and asked Gashaeva to hand over Vyacheslav to the military commissariat.

Valentina Melnikova, of the Soldiers' Mothers' Committee, in Moscow, took up the cause and offered to pay for the trip. Still, the mother remained adamant.

Finally, just as the situation was becoming desperate, Matrusyak rang Melnikova and announced that she was in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia. She said she wanted to meet with Gashaeva and would wait for her at the Assa Hotel.

When Gashaeva arrived at the rendez-vous, she found Matrusyak in the company of a nondescript young man, whom she introduced as her "relative". However, when Gashaeva had recounted the whole story and described Vyacheslav's whereabouts, the "relative" promptly signalled to a group of plain-clothed accomplices who arrested the entire welcoming committee.

Matrusyak had reported her son's desertion to the FSB and lured the UNCW representatives into a trap. "That's how it should be," she commented when Vyacheslav was arrested. He is expected to serve up to five years in a disciplinary battalion.

The story illustrates the difference between the two Chechen wars - and the dramatic shift in mood which has swept across the country in the wake of Putin's rise to power.

In the 1994-1996 campaign, taking their cue from a promise made by Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev, thousands of mothers flocked down to Chechnya to reclaim sons who had been taken prisoner by the rebels. The Soldiers' Mothers' Committee won a Nobel Prize for its part in these rescues while the stories the mothers brought back played a large part in turning public opinion against the military campaign.

The second war has enjoyed enormous public support, fuelled by righteous indignation against the bomb attacks in Moscow and Volgodonsk which were conveniently blamed on Chechen terrorists. Since then, the Russian propaganda machine has made every effort to preserve this warlike spirit, downplaying federal losses and highlighting Chechen defeats. In a more recent development, the media has been banned from interviewing any of the separatist leaders currently wanted by the federal authorities.

But people are only beginning to understand the extent to which Putin's propaganda has been successful - particularly in the impressionable provinces. Matrusyak was proud that her son had been called upon to take part in the anti-terrorist campaign and appalled that he had shirked his patriotic duty. The massive support for Vladimir Putin's presidential bid would indicate that she is not alone.

If Vladimir Putin's regime is forming legions of Matrusyaks, then the Russian people has every reason to fear the worst. Most can remember how the Soviets held up the young Pavel Morozov as a role model - Morozov's parents died in a labour camp after their son betrayed them to the authorities for making anti-Soviet remarks.

People still fear their hidden weaknesses. They fear that the spectre of betrayal has not been eradicated but still lies dormant in the Russian soul. And Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB spy, seems intent on awakening the Hydra.

Alexander Voronin is a correspondent for Moskovsky Komsomolets