A former Russian army colonel convicted of the torture and murder of an 18-year-old Chechen girl was given a hero's burial yesterday, after he was shot dead by unknown attackers in Moscow last week.
Hundreds of Russian nationalists joined family and former army comrades at the funeral of Yuri Budanov, at a small church in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow. The air was thick with the smell of incense and freshly cut carnations as a long line of mourners filed past the open coffin to kiss Budanov's corpse. Choral music echoed around the church, but the tranquil setting could not hide the controversial past of the central player.
Yuri Budanov was jailed for 10 years in 2003 for the kidnap and murder of Elza Kungayeva. He abducted the teenager after an evening of drinking in March 2000, dragging her from her family home in Chechnya and torturing her in a railway carriage. He was arrested two days later and charged with murder and rape – one of very few Russian officers to be put on trial for atrocities committed during the Chechen campaigns.
The rape charge was dropped, but Budanov admitted killing the girl, saying he thought she was a sniper, and that he had killed her in a fit of anger during questioning.
The colonel became a hero for the Russian far right, and most Russians believe he should not have been prosecuted. His initial trial ended with a "not guilty" verdict, the court finding that he had been a victim of temporary insanity. That was overturned by the country's Supreme Court, which gave him a 10-year prison sentence, of which he served six years before being released in 2009.
His release caused outrage in Chechnya, even among its pro-Moscow authorities, and the most likely motive for his killing on Friday appears to be revenge for Ms Kungayeva's murder. He was shot four times in the head, outside a Moscow notary's office, before the assailant fled in a Mitsubishi Lancer driven by an accomplice.
Chechnya has a long tradition of "blood feuds", in which victims' relatives take revenge for the dead, but Ms Kungayeva's father, who now lives in Norway, said the family had nothing to do with Budanov's killing. Chechnya's controversial President, Ramzan Kadyrov, has spoken out on the case several times, however. In 2009 when the possibility of Budanov's release was raised, he said: "Budanov is a schizophrenic and a killer; an enemy of the Chechen people. He insulted our people, and every man, woman and child believes that while Budanov still exists, the shame is still there."
Mr Kadyrov, a former rebel who now has the Kremlin's backing, warned: "Even a life sentence will only slightly ease our suffering. We will not take insults, and if the right decision isn't taken, the consequences will be bad."
At the funeral yesterday, many pointed the finger at Mr Kadyrov, and at Chechens in general, with some calling for revenge attacks. Many of those in attendance were members of Russia's neo-Nazi moment. Some had SS tattoos or wore swastika armbands, while others sported ribbons and slogans glorifying the Soviet victory inthe Second World War. Yet more were decked out in Orthodox Christian paraphernalia, highlighting the confused nature of the country's nationalist far right. However, it is not just a lunatic fringe which supports Budanov. After the church ceremony, the coffin was interred with full military honours.
As he was laid in the earth, a military band played a dirge and soldiers standing in front of a Russian tricolour fired off a salute from rifles. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a leading nationalist politician, made an appearance at the funeral, and called for the posthumous rehabilitation of Budanov. Even on Ekho Moskvy, the radio station listened to mainly by the liberal elite, more than half of the respondents to a telephone poll said they believed the dead soldier should be rehabilitated. "He was an absolute hero, and I hope that one day children will come here to his grave and pray," said Viktor Potapov, 52, a tall, grizzled paratrooper who had served with the Soviet army during its ill-fated campaign in Afghanistan and then with Budanov during the First Chechen War of 1994-96.
He said that Budanov had commanded the respect of all that served with him, and was known for his bravery. "Once he disobeyed orders and managed to save four tanks and their crews, that we all thought were goners," he said. The soldier said that Ms Kungayeva was a sniper, a frequently heard claim that was not substantiated by the investigation, and added: "War is war – terrible things happen."
The police investigation into Budanov's murder is continuing.