HE ALWAYS has freshly ironed clothes - camouflage fatigues, spiffy dark pinstripes or, when in a melodramatic mood, an all-white "death" suit. And, says the man now commanding a war from a bunker somewhere in Grozny, he adores fresh flowers, reve res Pushkin and Lermontov. A vain, meticulous and profoundly eccentric man of 50, Dzhokhar Dudayev, president of Chechnya, also takes great pride in his moustache, which, even when everything around is ablaze, he trims to approximate the aerodynamic line s of the nuclear bombers he used to pilot as a general in the Soviet Air Force.
Before the Russians shelled his presidential palace, his spotless office on the eighth floor revolved around a Chechen flag. It was attached to a metal stand, so small and tidy it looked like a sand-castle pennant, and stood on a polished wooden table. The fastidious order of the room was underscored by a sedate tick-tock from a mock-antique, Chinese-made grandfather clock. Yet, in the corridors outside, unkempt men roamed with guns.
It was concern for outward trappings that first brought the Dudayev regime notoriety in Britain. Nearly two years before gruesome television pictures brought Chechnya into every living-room, Dudayev's name had popped up at the Old Bailey in London. He had sent two Chechen brothers, Ruslan and Nazarbek Utsyev, to London to get currency and passports for his self-declared independent state. Both were murdered. The trial of their murderer, an Armenian immigrant, heard how the emissaries had got involved with shady arms deals and nights on the town with escort girls. Dudayev blamed the KGB.
The episode helped feed an image - part bigotry but also part truth - of Chechnya as a haven for criminals and mobsters. Two months later, Dmitri Krikoriants, a journalist with a Moscow weekly, was murdered in Grozny. He had been investigating the plunder of profits from Chechnya's oil reserves by officials who hovered around Dudayev. Then there was an ingenious Chechen scam to cheat the Russian Central Bank of 25 billion roubles. The Chechen "mafia" became an explanation for all Russia's ills.
But the Chechen president's meticulous single-mindedness makes a mockery of Russian stereotypes of the Caucasus as a land of ignorant braggadocio populated by wild, unthinking gun nuts.
A former head of his presidential guard, Ruslan Labazanov, a convicted murderer who escaped from jail in 1991, used to tell a story of a bodyguard called Issa, who stole the president's pistol. Dudayev summoned him for a "conversation". It ended with Issa crawling from the president's study like a dog. He spent the next two days recovering. "We thought that was the end of him: he would be fired, court-martialled or eliminated in another way. Two days later Dzhokhar telephoned Issa and yelled: `Why don'tyou report for duty?' ."
So Dudayev knows how to be brutal but also, in sharp contrast to President Yeltsin, how to calibrate his brutality. Labazanov, along with many of the president's other early allies, would later fall foul of Dudayev, too. The shoot-out became the main channel of political debate. The economy was in decline and discontent growing. As Dudayev's allies fell away, Russia armed Dudayev's foes and, last November, launched a "rebel" assault on Grozny, which was led by Russian troops. But instead of destroying Dudayev, Moscow made his survival synonymous with that of Chechnya. Old feuds faded; Labazanov and many others rallied to the cause.
The war gave Dudayev's rhetoric a new resonance. "For every Chechen ear we must take ten Russian ears," he announced at one of his last press conferences.
THE youngest of seven children, Dudayev was born in the Chechen village of Yalkhor in 1944, the year Stalin launched a holocaust against the Muslim peoples of the North Caucasus. He would spend the next 13 years of his life on a reservation in Kazakhstan, the terminus of a forced exodus. Accused of collaboration with the Nazis, the entire Chechen nation of half a million people was packed into cattle cars and scattered around Central Asia and Siberia. Some 200,000 died. Dudayev made the journey with hismother and four siblings. Two older brothers were at the front fighting with the Soviet Army against Hitler. Not until four years after Stalin's death in 1953 did the family return home.
Dudayev's military career began in 1962 at an air force training school in the central Russian city of Tambov. He got a place there after two years studying electronics in Vladikavkaz, near to home in the Caucasus. Overcoming the stigma carried by Chechens in Russia, he would later graduate from one of the Soviet Union's most prestigious institutions, the Yuri Gagarin Air Force Academy near Moscow. He also married a Russian poetess called Alla. They had three children. One of two sons is reported to have been killed in the war.
Even today, as Russian fighter-bombers reduce Grozny to ruins, former superiors find it hard to speak ill of Dudayev. "He was honest and trustworthy," said Major-General Pyotr Deinekin, commander of Russia's air force, last week, "I would say upright. His one outstanding quality was concern for people."
Until 1989 Dudayev played scrupulously by the rules, serving in bases across the empire. In Afghanistan, he won the attention of senior commanders with new bombing tactics against the Mujaheddin, the Islamic rebels he now hails as heroes and whose tactics he tries to copy.
His first public deviation came at the peak of his career: command of a force of strategic nuclear bombers in the Estonian town of Tartu. He allowed a procession of Estonians demonstrating for independence to cross his base and ordered a mobile military kitchen to serve hot tea. He turned a blind eye when, during a holiday air show, paratroopers unfurled an Estonian flag. At this point, he has said, he recognised the power of nationalism.
As Moscow lost control of the Baltic states, Dudayev was posted back home. In late 1990, he left the military - though he never seems formally to have left the Communist Party - to lead a new nationalist organisation, the National Congress of the ChechenPeople. Then came the August 1991 putsch which temporarily ousted Gorbachev in Moscow. He joined Chechen elders to discuss how the drama 1,000 miles away might affect what was still the Chechen-Ingush Republic, a nominally autonomous, but ve r y much subservient part of the Russian Federation, then itself part of the Soviet Union. A speech on what would become his only theme - the deportation of 1944 and earlier tsarist attempts to crush Chechnya - earned tumultuous applause.
Less than two months later, through a single-candidate election, he was president. The ballot was deeply flawed. But perhaps the deepest flaw was one that Yeltsin would repeat in Moscow two years later - Dudayev unceremoniously disbanded the local Supreme Soviet, or parliament, and declared the old Communist order defunct.
Aside from issuing a decree giving every man the right to bear arms (his own pistol was first on the official register), Dudayev delivered on another election promise: on 1 November 1991, he declared Chechnya - or Ichkeria - independent from Russia. He promptly ordered a set of five postage stamps. Each bore a picture of what were to become icons of the new republic: Mr Dudayev himself (wearing full dress uniform and a peaked cap); Sheik Mansur, leader of an 18th-century revolt against Moscow; Imam Shamil, leader of another rebellion half a century later; the presidential palace; and the new national flag showing the silhouette of a lone wolf sitting under the moon.
No foreign leader, except Zviad Gamsakhurdia, ousted president of Georgia, recognised the new nation. "We must take our right and live like the wolf, proud and alone," said Dudayev. Radicals demanded the wolf stand not sit, but he calmed them by saying awatchful, sitting wolf was a better symbol of the peace and prosperity awaiting their land. Now, Chechnya is still alone but there is no prospect of peace.
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