Staunton, January 13 – Twenty-three years ago today, two events took place in the Baltic countries, one of which is almost universally remembered and one of which is typically ignored, but both of which accelerated the disintegration of the USSR and helped trigger some of the most critical developments in post-Soviet Russia.
In the first of these, Soviet troops killed 13 peaceful demonstrators in at the television tower in Vilnius, an act that horrified the world but one that some in Moscow clearly felt they would get away with because most of the world was focused on the approaching launch of the international operation to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
In the second, Boris Yeltsin, then chairman of the presidium of the RSFSR Supreme Soviet, flew to Tallinn to meet with Baltic representatives and sign the documents with Estonia and Latvia that became the basis of bilateral relations between Moscow, on the one hand, and Tallinn and Riga, on the other. (The Lithuanians were unable to reach Tallinn that day.)
But while in Tallinn, Yeltsin issued an appeal to Russian officers and soldiers in the Soviet army not to fire on peaceful demonstrators and freely elected governments, an act that limited Mikhail Gorbachev’s turn to a new hard line – it tragically did not prevent the OMON killings in Riga a week later – and prevented the Soviet Union’s dissolution into bloody chaos.
Not everyone was happy with Yeltsin’s statements. Members of the KGB-organized Interdvizheniye challenged him in Tallinn. And Galina Starovoitova, then an advisor to Yeltsin recalled how tense things were in an interview she gave to Robert Seely, who reproduced it in his book The Russian-Chechen Conflict 1800-2000: A Deadly Embrace (Abingdon, 2000).
The heroic scholar who later was murdered herself said that after the attack in Vilnius, Yeltsin and his team of which she was a member “decided to fly to Estonia. Dudayev went to Estonia National Radio, took the floor and said that as commander of the air division in Tartu, he would not allow Soviet troops to come through his airspace. He had power to do that.”
“Later,” Starovoitova continued, “Yeltsin received a warning that the aircraft due to fly him back from Tallinn to Moscow would meet with an accident. He already had strange accidents. It could have been a KGB provocation. The team decided that Yeltsin would not catch the flight but would take a car to go from Tallinn to Leningrad.”
The Russian leader, she continued, “had no car at his disposal. Dudayev sent his general’s car to drive Boris Nikolayevich from Tallinn to Leningrad” and thus to safety (books.google.com/books?id=iicA4u6_keUC&pg=PT91&lpg=PT91&dq=dudayev+yeltsin+estonia&source=bl&ots=fTmr5_s2sd&sig=MBHpV6Xhd83PA22emsN3rM-DbMw&hl=en&sa=X&ei=OVHTUtqwJtS2sASHq4GIDA&ved=0CCsQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=dudayev%20yeltsin%20estonia&f=false).
According to Ants Veetousme, a former mayor of Tartu, “Estonia can’t forget what Dudayev did” either on that day or when he refused orders to suppress the Estonian national movement. “It was largely thanks to [Dudayev] that there was no bloodshed” in that Baltic republic (independent.co.uk/news/world/estonia-holds-on-to-dudayev-legend-1306954.html
Obviously, such actions were the end of Dudayev’s career in the Soviet military, and he resigned to return to his homeland where he explicitly said that he had become convinced that if nations like Estonia, whose language he had learned, and her neighbors had the right to self-determination so too did the Chechens.
And not surprisingly, Estonians erected a plague in his honor at the entrance of what had been his headquarters in Tartu and which later became a hotel a plague reading “The first president of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, worked in this house from 1987 to 1991.”
Estonia’s neighbors also remember Dudayev to this day for what he did to support the rights of the Baltic peoples and to prevent the spread of violence there. In the Latvian capital, there is a Dzhokhar Dudayev Street, and in the Lithuanian one, there is a Dzhokhar Dudayev monument in Dzhokhar Dudayev Square.
None of the subsequent events, including Chechnya’s declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, the Russian invasion and war, the tragic and senseless violence, and the assassination of Dudayev himself in 1996, changes what the Chechen leader did for Yeltsin and the Baltic states.
But among some Russians, as is too often the case among many other peoples around the world, there is a desire to simplify history, to play up those things which make themselves or their friends look good and to play down or even erase from the historical record anything which calls their narrative into question.
Their side must always be noble and victorious or, if not victorious, done in by forces of evil. Their opponents in turn are always evil and that evil extends to anyone who remembers a more complicated history in which good and bad are not so neatly separated and that those who may have done bad things nonetheless may have done good things as well – and vice versa.
That desire is clearly behind Vladimir Putin’s drive to create a single “Russian” textbook with a single and simplified history of Russia’s anything but simple past. But it is also behind much less defensible actions such as essays that suggest the Baltic countries by remembering Dudayev for what he did in 1991 are complicit in the 2013 terrorist bombings in Volgograd.
In a new 1500-word article entitled “Far Away from Volgograd: Baltic States on the Map of International Extremism,” Aleksandr Nosovich suggests that by putting up memorials to Dudayev, the Baltic countries have provided “fertile soil” for international terrorism (rubaltic.ru/articles/far_away_from_volgograd_baltic_states_on_the_map_of_international_extremism_/
Such vicious language and faulty logic infects the thinking of many and recalls the worst shortcomings of Soviet agitprop, but on this anniversary of the Vilnius tragedy, it should not be allowed to obscure the moment when Dudayev, by actions that can only be described as noble, saved Yeltsin from the KGB and the Baltic Countries from Gorbachev