Pavel Grachev: General and politician who came unstuck in Chechnya


Sometimes for better, but more often for worse, Pavel Grachev played a role in many of the main events of the most tumultuous decade in Russia's modern history: from the winding down of Moscow's Afghan war in the late 1980s to the attempted 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and the constitutional crisis two years later that brought the country to the brink of civil war, and the savage and misconceived Chechen conflict that led to his sacking as Defence Minister in 1996.

Grachev was at his best in the field, the bold, plain-talking parachute commander in Afghanistan who was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. High military strategy, however, was not his forte, as evidenced by the disaster for which he is best remembered, Russia's assault on Chechnya in 1994.

By then he was Defence Minister, promising President Boris Yeltsin, his boss and patron, that a single parachute regiment could put an end to the trouble in the rebellious southern republic within a couple of hours. Instead, fighting dragged on for 20 months, laying waste to Chechnya and causing tens of thousands of deaths, humiliating the Russian military and destroying Yeltsin's reputation. It also finished the career of Grachev himself, who was sacked after Yeltsin won re-election in 1996.

Grachev had earned Yeltsin's trust by siding with him at the two crucial moments in the establishment of post-Communist Russia. As paratroop commander-in-chief in August 1991 he helped hasten the collapse of the short-lived coup by ignoring the plotters' orders to send in his men to suppress pro-Yeltsin resistance in Moscow. In 1993 by contrast, Grachev did act, sending in the army to bombard the hardline parliament that opposed Yeltsin – the bloodiest street-fighting since the October Revolution of 1917 which scotched hopes that Russia would quickly evolve into a "normal" democracy.

That loyalty, however, did seal Grachev's place in the Kremlin's innermost circle, as a drinking and hunting partner of an ailing and increasingly erratic president. His closeness to Yeltsin only fuelled widespread allegations of corruption, most notably the embezzlement of luxury cars as Russian forces withdrew from a re-unified Germany. Grachev was dubbed "Pasha Mercedes" – the "pasha" signifying both the diminutive for Pavel, and a potentate's title from the former Ottoman empire.

The Chechen fiasco would seal his downfall. Among Grachev's rivals was Alexander Lebed, himself a tough-talking general who entered politics promising to restore Russian greatness and who came third in the inconclusive first round of the 1996 presidential election. Part of a deal Yeltsin struck with Lebed to win the latter's endorsement in the second round was Grachev's removal. His final post, which he held for 10 years until 2007, was as adviser to the Russian state arms exporting concern, Ros-vooruzheniye. He died 10 days after being taken to hospital with an unspecified condition.

At the height of their alliance, Yeltsin called Grachev the country's "greatest defence minister," but history will surely be less kind. He was a soldier's soldier, but as a minister he signally failed to push through the reform and modernisation the post-Soviet military desperately needed – defects so glaringly exposed in Chechnya.

Grachev was far from the first soldier promoted beyond his abilities, and he certainly will not be the last. The most charitable verdict, perhaps, is that he was thrust into a role he did not want but could not refuse. As the respected military analyst Alexander Golts told the radio station Ekho Moskvy, Grachev "would have ended up a very well-respected man had he lived under different circumstances."

Pavel Sergeyevich Grachev, military commander and politician: born Rvy, Tula Oblast, Soviet Union 1 January 1948; First Deputy Defence Minister of the Soviet Union August-December 1991; Defence Minister, Russian Federation 1992-96; married (two sons); died Krasnogorsk, Russia 23 September 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor