A Russian city soldiers on as bodies return from Chechnya

 

The city of Pskov, 460 miles north-west of Moscow, is engaged in the grim task of burying its dead, and there are far more dead than Russia's officialdom first admitted.

The military announcement that 31 soldiers from the town had been killed in Chechnya has proved hopelessly wrong.

It is now known that in a single week 110 young Pskov paratroopers died. Eight were buried yesterday with military honours as the townsfolk gathered outside the mediaeval cathedral of Holy Trinity to pay their respects.

The military authorities would like it to be known that the action in which most of the Pskov men died involved an act of the utmost heroism which might boost the morale of other soldiers in Chechnya.

The official version is that the Pskov paratroopers fought heroically for several days while hopelessly outnumbered by a force of 2,500 Chechen rebels at Ulus-Kert, in the Argun Gorge of southern Chechnya.

Locals tell a different story. Igor Dokuchayev, political reporter with the local Pskovskaya Pravda, has information that the battle lasted a mere four hours and that it took place on the night of February 29th to March 1st, just hours after the Russian Defence Minister, Marshal Igor Sergeyev, announced that the war was over and Russia had won.

After the short engagement, 85 of the 91-man Pskov contingent lay dead.

Yesterday a chastened Marshal Sergeyev, his eyes hidden by dark glasses, a red-and-black mourning band strapped to the arm of his greatcoat, attended the first of the latest series of funerals which Pskov is becoming accustomed to.

Just a week before the Ulus-Kert incident, 25 members of the Russian Spetsnats special forces from Pskov were killed in another part of Chechnya.

Asked if the casualties would affect people's attitudes to the war, he began his reply simply with the words: "I don't know." As he spoke in the bitter wind which blew around the city's Kremlin, the townspeople lined up with their floral tributes.

An old man carried two carnations to the gates of the Pskov Kremlin to lay them formally in honour of the dead.

Ms Larissa Yegorova (28), wrapped up against the icy rain, held eight red tulips for Maj Alexander Dostovalov, whose body lay in the Holy Trinity cathedral. In Russia flowers in even numbers are given in tribute to the dead; odd numbers are for the living.

Ms Yulia Kalinina (25) was not at the cathedral. Dressed in black she stayed at home in front of the makeshift altar she had erected to her husband, Alexander, who was one of the 25 Pskov Spetsnats killed at the village of Roshni-Chu on February 21st.

A cardboard container which once held a washing machine was draped with a blue and white cloth. A photograph of Alexander, a black band at its right-hand corner, formed the altar's centrepiece.

Some sweets and a cigarette were placed in front beside a little icon of the Virgin and Child. A shot glass of vodka topped by a slice of black Russian bread was placed to the right. Also there was Alexander Kalinin's dog-tag marked BC-CCCP (Military Service-USSR).

Yulia spoke of the awful morning of February 22nd. Her husband of just one year had been due back that morning. There was a knock on the door of her tiny apartment on Sovietskaya Street. She opened the door expecting to see her husband.

Instead, she was greeted by a lieutenant colonel and two other officers. "There were no words spoken. I knew at once they had come to tell me Sasha was dead."

Sasha, full title Capt Alexander Kalinin (Posthumous Hero of Russia), went with his troops to the aid of an armoured personnel carrier which was being attacked by Chechen insurgents.

His unit was surrounded and wiped out either by Chechen fire or shells from Russian artillery which he himself had called in after his position became desperate.

Shortly after Alexander's death, Yulia had heard that "Cargo 200", the military jargon for zinc soldiers' coffins, was to arrive at an airfield near Pskov. She went to the airfield to find her husband's body.

There were 36 coffins there, she said. Six were for Pskov and the other 30 for unknown destinations.

She goes to the cemetery every day now to lay her flowers for Sasha. Soon she will go to Moscow, disillusioned with the whole concept of war, to accept her husband's Hero of Russia medal. It will in all probability be presented by the acting President, Mr Vladimir Putin.

Yulia says she wants to ask Mr Putin why there should be a war in which young men die.

On March 26th, she will vote in the presidential election.

"I will vote for Putin," she said. "I don't know why, but I feel that he gives us some hope."