Soldiers' tales win war of words

Moscow - In an auditorium packed with middle-aged women, Captain Viktor Mychko, a wounded soldier just returned from Grozny, responds to Moscow's version of events in Chechnya by proposing an impromptu striptease, writes Andrew Higgins.

This, he says, will at least disprove one particularly malign piece of Kremlin disinformation about the enemy that held him captive in the bunker of Grozny's presidential palace for two weeks - that Chechen fighters are castrating Russian prisoners: "If you want, I can show you this is not true."

The offer to remove his trousers is declined. But the result is the same: yet another rout for Russia in an escalating propaganda war that, in the end, may prove as decisive, at least politically, as the real, and scarcely less disastrous, war in the mudand snow of the northern Caucasus.

Captain Mychko, 31, was taken prisoner in Grozny after being wounded in a botched Russian assault on the centre of the Chechen capital on New Year's eve. Along with half a dozen other prisoners whose mothers trekked to Grozny to search for their missing sons, he this week made it back to Moscow.

Not only did the Chechens not castrate him, Captain Mychko told his audience at an anti-war meeting in Moscow, they probably saved his life, dragging him from the flaming wreck of his armoured personnel carrier after it had been hit by a rocket-propelle d grenade near Freedom Square in the centre of Grozny.

Scores, possibly hundreds, of Russian prisoners remain in Chechen hands, some of them in the ravaged presidential palace, others in remote villages and makeshift prisons outside the city.

The release of Captain Mychko and a handful of others, though, highlights just how badly President Boris Yeltsin and his narrow circle of aides have misjudged their enemy. Chechnya has not only proved its skill at combat in five weeks of war against Europe's biggest army, but also its mastery of the much more subtle form of combat called propaganda.

Presenting the newly released prisoners to a meeting of soldiers' mothers in Moscow, Viktor Poptsov, a Russian anti-war activist who travelled to Grozny to help secure their release, explained the strategy: "Our goal is to expose the lies that surround the Russian army in Chechnya and to understand the real nature of this operation to disarm so-called armed bandit formations."

Authorities in Moscow describe Chechen fighters as a band of bloodthirsty gangsters and, when forced to admit setbacks, attribute their tenacity to the fanaticism of Islamic mercenaries, Ukrainian fascists and, in one particularly far-fetched report, female snipers in white stockings from Lithuania.

Chechnya's devastatingly effective response to such stories has been the testimony of Russia's own soldiers.All say they were well treated in captivity and are horrified by the carnage and chaos they encountered during what they had been told was an operation to "restore constitutional law and order".

Maxim Yashinko, a tank driver from the Kantemirov Division, says he was ordered into Grozny on New Year's eve without even a map, without any clear orders and without any real preparation. His unit's first clash that night took place just inside the citylimits. It lasted about 40 minutes and left the road littered with six burnt-out armoured vehicles.

Only when it was over did he realise the full horror of what had happened: "We were fighting with the Ministry of Interior troops, not the Chechens. We had destroyed all their equipment and killed our own men." He says he never really knew who or where the enemy was until the Chechens took him prisoner.

Also captured in the New Year's assault was Yuri Koptsov, a 37-year-old lieutenant-colonel and, unlike most of the troops sent to Chechnya, a professional soldier rather than a conscript. "We did not storm the capital but just threw ourselves into a stupid, unplanned attack. No one knew what they were supposed to be doing." He too had no map.

But it was not until the end of his first week in the bunker of the presidential palace, he says, that he realised the extent of incompetence and self-delusion surrounding the entire venture. He was given a copy of the official Russian government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, and read a report purporting to describe the situation in Grozny. The city, the paper said, had fallen and was now under Russian control. "It was pure fantasy. How can you fight a war like this?''

peopleFrankie Boyle responds to referendum result in characteristically offensive style
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
New Articles
i100... with this review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
footballTim Sherwood: This might be th match to wake up Manchester City
Arts and Entertainment
musicHow female vocalists are now writing their own hits
New Articles
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
Blahnik says: 'I think I understand the English more than they do themselves'
Arts and Entertainment
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey
TVInside Downton Abbey series 5
Life and Style
The term 'normcore' was given the oxygen of publicity by New York magazine during the autumn/winter shows in Paris in February
fashionWhen is a trend a non-trend? When it's Normcore, since you ask
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

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam