As a little light relief from the presidential election and the subsequent punditry, I was contemplating the place of Chechens as a Russian folk devils. For once, this was not so much about terrorists and criminals but the recurring alarum of Chechen police being sent to Moscow for the election.
The story cropped up first a little while back and was promptly denied, not least by Ramzan Kadyrov. However, you can never keep a good moral panic down, and on the eve of the election Moscow deputy Ilya Ponomarev claimed that 800 Chechen special police had been secretly deployed to the city. We even had such splendid detail as at the police or at least their officers were being put up in the Ritz hotel, while another account suggested it was the infamous Oil Regiment, a militarized security force. Needless to say, it was denied.
The bloody attack on a Dagestani polling station which left three police dead underline the point that Chechnya would probably have needed its full complement of cops to ensure its own security during the day of the election. That size deployment, apart from being hard to keep quiet, would seriously deplore Chechnya’s operational capacities.
Besides which, not only would the Kremlin, the MVD and the Moscow GUVD (police command) be well aware of the political downside of deploying Chechens in the capital’s streets — let alone if they had been involved in street violence — but they hardly needed them. After all, a reported 6000 extra police and security troops were deployed in support of the city’s formidable contingent. I saw OMON riot police from both the Moscow City and Moscow Region, VV Interior Troops from the 1st Independent Special Designation Division (1oe ODON, still known by its old name of the Dzerzhinsky Division) as well as the Moscow and North-West Interior Districts, FSO Federal Protection Service officers, police cadets, police from their 1st and 2nd Operational Regiments, military police from the Military Traffic Service, and ordinary cops of every stripe from Moscow and elsewhere. Indeed, had there been the need for extra warm bodies, I’d suggest that drawing on troops from the Moscow military garrison would have been less inflammatory. But in that context, a relative handful of Chechens, who in any case have relatively rudimentary public security training, would hardly have been useful enough to merit the obvious political cost.
(And anecdotally I saw no signs of Chechen paramilitaries at the Ritz Carlton and when I asked one VV officer about the rumors, he contemptuously snorted “those bandits? No!”)
But none of this matters. Just as the Chechens acquired a mythic status in the late 19th century narrative of imperial mission and burden, so too they have become larger-than-life figures in the modern Russian world view. But equally important, the willingness of so many to accept the conspiratorial accounts of their role also speaks to a fundamental credibility gap, a widespread belief even among those happy to support Putin, that reality is shaped by secret decisions kept from the populace. And that’s arguably even more dangerous than Chechen cutthroats on whomever’s side they happen to be.