Vyacheslav Mironov. Assault on Grozny Downtown
Vyacheslav Mironov. Assault on Grozny Downtown
--------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 1996-1999 Vyachslav Mironov © Copyright 2001 translation by Alex Dokin (firstname.lastname@example.org) © Copyright 2001 translation by Konstantin S. Leskov © Copyright 2001 translation by Marta Malinovskaya © Copyright 2001 translation by Oleg Petrov (email@example.com) Date: Feb-Mar 2001 --------------------------------------------------------------- Перевод романа В.Н.Миронова "Я был на этой войне" (Грозный-1995) Origin: http://lib.ru/MEMUARY/CHECHNYA/chechen_war.txt Translation includes 1,2,3,4,5,7,8,9,18 parts of novel. --------------------------------------------------------------- Желающие поучаствовать в переводе или редактуре перевода - пишите на адрес firstname.lastname@example.org If you are ready to take part in the translation and editing of this text, please write to email@example.com ---------------------------------------------------------------
--------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 2001 translation by Alex Dokin (firstname.lastname@example.org) Date: 7 Mar 2001 Date: 9 Mar 2001 Date: 26 May 2001 Corrected version Date: 4 Oct 2001 --------------------------------------------------------------- I'm running. The lungs are bursting. The damned wheeze is a murder. Have to run a zigzag path (in our brigade we call it "run a screw"). God, help... Please help. Help keep this insane tempo. That's it, if I ever get out of here - quit smoking. Zapp... Zapp... Sniper!!??... Get down and crawl, crawl out of the killing zone. Lying. All seems OK - no sniper, probably just "shul'nyak". Alright, now catch your breath, find your way around and race ahead - to the Central Post of our brigade's the first battalion. Just a few hours ago they reported on catching a sniper. From the report we knew he was Russian and, from his own words, even from Novosibirsk. F..ing compatriot. On two APCs, along with the recon squad I set off to pick up "the clapper". En route to the Central Train Station, the streets are crammed with burnt and mangled hulks of "armour" and strewn with dead bodies. The bodies of our Slavic brothers, all that's left of the Mikop Brigade, the one that "spooks" burnt and wiped out on the New Year's Eve 95-96. God, help me... let me out of here... They said, when the First Battalion busted the "demons" out of the Station building, as the gunfire slacked off, one of the grunts, having looked around, howled. From then on other grunts stayed away from him - another crank. Now charging through the walls like spellbound, scared of nothing. And there are enough screwballs like that in every unit, the enemy and ours. Eh, Mother Russia, what've you done to your sons? We thought, maybe medivac the fellow, but then again, can't even medivac the casualties, and this one, though a crank, still fighting. Up there on "The Continent" he'd definitely go nuts. Literally in a few blocks we came under ferocious gunfire. The spooks were spraying from above, madly (about 20 guns) but disorganised. With a couple of grunts now had to leave our APCs behind and sneak our way over to the headquarters. At least the dogfaces are more confident now, more or less used to this, all were tested by fire. In the beginning I howled a wolf, just like that mad grunt. The men were all "green", some rushing forward, others still fear struck in their "armour". I had to boot and kick them out of their APCs and foxholes. As for myself, I'm OK. Baku, Kutaisi - 90, Tshinvali -91, Moldova - 92 and now Chechnya. Alright, just let us get the hell out of here. But only in one piece. If crippled, I've got a little toy in my pocket - RGD-15. Surely enough for me. I've seen enough of our crippled post-war heroes living in peace life. They too were following orders of their Motherland, their Party, their Government and hell knows whom else. "Reinstating Constitutional Order" on the territory of the former Soviet Union. And now again, we are beating our own Russian land on somebody's hugger-mugger order... All this sped through my mind in a few seconds. Turned around - all my grunts are fine, prone on the ground, watching. Their faces are all black from gunpowder, eyeballs and teeth are shining. I'm probably no better. Nod to one, point direction to another and we are all off sprinting forward, zigzag, "screw" and roll. Although, these coats were surely not made for rolling. The sweat is blanketing my eyes, fatigues are steamy; the taste of blood in my mouth is unbearable and temples are pounding heavily. Blood is jammed with adrenaline. Short streaks forward, bits of bricks, chips of concrete and broken glass everywhere. Carefully avoiding open spaces. Still alive, thank God. Zapp... zapp... again! Damn it, could it really be a sniper? Ducking into the nearest basement, grenades on stand-by. Who or what is waiting for us in there? Pair of corpses. Fatigues seem like ours - Slavic. Nod to one of the grunts to secure the window, and then myself move to the doorframe. The second grunt kneels near one of the bodies, unbuttons his coat and flank jacket and fetches his papers and the dog tags. Same with the second corpse. The boys wouldn't mind anymore but their families must be notified. Otherwise smart asses in the Government won't pay them their pensions, reasoning that soldiers are missing in action and who knows, maybe even crossed over to the other side. - Got the papers? - I asked. - Got'em - answered private Semeonov, nicknamed "Semeon". - What's now? - Now, via this basement we run across to the neighbouring street, then to the first batt (battalion). Do we have radio contact with them? - I'm asking my RTO (Radiotelephone operator), private Harlamov. His nickname is "Glue". His arms are long, sticking out of his BDU, like sticks, no one size fits. Wrists are disproportionately huge. First time you see the guy the impression is like torn gorilla arms were sewn to a man's body. Now probably no one could recall where his nickname "Glue" originated. Our soldiers are Siberians and all together we are "mahra" (Russian word for cheap tobacco). In the WWII books and movies, infantry is called "The Queen of the battle field ". In real life, however, we are just "mahra". And one individual infantryman is a "mahor". That's life. - Get on the APCs too, - that's me about the left behind at the Railway Station APCs, - ask how they're hanging. Glue moves away from the window and a starts muttering into his handset, calling onto the 1st Battalion's Road Post and our APCs. - All OK, comrade Capitan, - says RTO. - "Sopka" is waiting for us, "boxes" were fired upon and rolled back a block. - Fine, let's go, or we'll frost down here, - I make terrible hoarse sounds coughing. At last my normal breathing came back. I spat with green and yellow slime - consequence of my many years of smoking. - Eh, mama told me: "learn English" - My mama told me: "Do NOT crawl into wells, sonny". - Picked up Semeon. No sign of the enemy in the window at the other side of the house and we leapfrog, taking short streaks, stooped four times our normal hight, towards the Central Train Station. High above in the sky, a jet fighter is barraging the city with high explosives and shooting at somebody's positions from an unreachable hight. Down here, there is no single front line. Gunfights are starting everywhere sporadically and sometimes turn into some kind of cheesecake: ragheads, us, ragheads again and so on (US Marines call it a "cluster fuck"). All of it, in one word could be called a madhouse, almost no interaction anywhere. Especially difficult to work with are the Internal Forces. To be precise: all THIS is their operation, but we, mahra, are doing their job for them. Often we storm the same objects in complete ignorance of each other's presence. Sometimes we even point the Air Force guys onto them and they onto us. In the dark we fire on each other and take our own grunts prisoners. Now we are going to the Central Train Station, where, in almost full complement, was wiped out the Mikop Brigade. Vanished into the night. Nothing was done before they were sent in. No reconnaissance to ascertain the spooks' defensive structures, no artillery runs to soften them up. When after the battle they began to fall asleep (imagine no sleep for a week, adrenaline and Vodka for breakfast, lunch and dinner), spooks slunk up and wasted them from a point blank range. Just the mistake Chapaev made: no guards along perimeter. Here, though, all guards were soundly asleep or spooks gashed them quietly. Everything was on fire, all that could burn and even all that couldn't. It seemed like the Earth, asphalt and house walls were ablaze from the burning fuel. People panicked in the inferno, some tried to return fire, some helping the wounded. Some even shot themselves not to get into the ragheads' hands. Few were trying to flee. No one of them must be judged. What would you, my reader, do in that hell on earth? Don't know? Ha? That's it. Then don't you dare judging them! No one knows what exactly happened there. Their commander, with both his legs injured; still tried to reassert control, although he could retreat to the rear. He stayed though. God, guard their souls and our lives... When our brigade fought its way through heavy rebel defences to help them, our tanks had to struggle through barricades of corpses of our Slavic brothers... When you see how tracks chop and hummer human flesh, how heavy leading wheels coil intestines of people just like yourself... When heads pop open with a crunch under a steel caterpillar and all around it is sprayed with a grey and red mass of brain. Brain of a maybe unaccomplished genius, poet, scientist or just good lad, father, brother, son, friend who didn't chicken out and came here in this shithole of a place called Chechnya and, may be, to his last moment, didn't even realised what the hell happened to him. When your boots slip on the bloody mucus, then the important thing is to think of nothing, and concentrate on only one objective: survive, survive and save your men. Because those you'd lose will come to you in your dreams. As their CO you'd then have to write up their Death Notifications and body ID reports. The job I don't even wish to my worst enemy. I'd rather choke in an attack, blasting from my beloved AKS left, right and forward with my eyes popping out, rather than write those horrible papers. Why all these wars? Although, honestly, no one of us has really understood what has transpired here. At all times only one goal in mind - survive, complete the task and save your men. And what if you don't? They'll send more in, who, maybe, because of your inexperience, cowardice and desire to go home, will drop under machinegun fire and will be ripped to pieces by grenades, mines, mortar or be captured. All THIS: because of YOU. The very thought of this responsibility makes my stomach rumble. How about you, my reader? Glue noticed some movement in a window of the five-story building, next to the Station Plaza. He yelled out: "Spooks!!!" and leaped back. Semeon and myself too hastened to take cover behind the nearest heap of rubble. From behind his corner, Glue opened up at the window from his AK. Shivering, we too began to load up grenades in launchers. Eh, what a wonderful device, this launcher (Russian GP-25, under-barrel grenade launcher for AK assault rifles, similar to M203 - grenade-launching tube sometimes mounted under the rifle barrel of an M-16). We call it lovingly: "podstvol'nichek", although, weight of the device could prove a bit too much (about half a kilo). It is mounted under the rifle's barrel and can be fired straight into the target or launch in an overhead trajectory. It could be described as a tube (about 2.5 inches in diameter) with a trigger and a safety pin. There is also an aiming mechanism, but since the first days we conned it so that now easily can do without it. From a standard issue GP-25, a grenade can easily be dropped into the smallest window or thrown over any structure. In a straight line it delivers its mighty punch to about 400 meters, its shrapnel (after the explosion) cover an area of about 14 meters. A fairytale of firearms. It saved countless lives in Grosny. How would you bust sharpshooters from upper floors in a quick gunfight in town? There is no other way but the GP-25, believe me. You could call for an air strike or long range artillery and then pull out or try to contact your own "armour", which, by the way, can be easily burnt by RPGs... On the other hand, there is an every soldier's personal launcher that he can use to bust the ragheads by himself. The device also possesses one other undisputed advantage: its grenades explode on impact. Imagine a gunfight inside a block of units when a raghead is above you on the third floor. Next, you throw a standard issue grenade with a time-delay of about 5 seconds. Now, count: fetch the safety pin and throw, then the bitch hits something on the way up and falls right back into your lap. Only later on in January they shipped us these mountainous grenades, or as we call them "afghan" grenades. These babies only explode when they hit something hard. Before then, some local "Kulibin" (famous Russian inventor of the 19th century) guessed to slam the grenade up his heel, thus arming it, and throw the darling as far as he could away from his persona. And, ramming an obstacle, it burst with shrapnel, obliterating every living thing around it. Now Semeon and I were blasting off our grenades into the window where Glue spotted motion. Semeon hit the target from his first attempt; I made it with my second. The first one slammed into the wall and burst, tearing off a decently sized piece of masonry and making a huge cloud of dust. Putting to work the results of our little skirmish, all three of us, glinting at the dreaded house, quickly cleared the open space, then, sprinting and sneaking, a few blocks later, at last made it to the HQ. The silly bastards imagined we were ragheads and nearly shot us. They escorted us to the outpost where we found our Com-batt (Battalion Commander). Tough chap is our Com-batt. Physically not so much a big man, but as a commander and a person: giant. I won't hide the fact that our brigade is blessed with battalion commanders. It'd take a while to describe each one of them, so I'll pass on that, but to say the least - all are real men. Who once went to war, would know what I mean. 1[[st]] battalion's HQ was situated in the Railway Station's basement. As we walked in, the Com-batt was boldly cursing somebody on the field radio. - F...ing hell, where are you charging, moron? You schmuck, they are luring you out there. And you are buying it with your dogfaces. Clean up the area around you! To the last "spook"!!! - Com-batt was yelling into the handset. - Pull the "boxes" out of there, let the grunts work! Yourself, stay on the BP and don't stick your head out there. He hung up and saw me. - Hey man, - he smiled. - God bless, - I said shaking his hand. - What's new in the Group's HQ? Let's go eat, - he offered, looking at me merrily. At war, seeing a familiar face before you is always a delight. That means that luck not only follows you but also your comrades. Still in the heat of the past clash, I knew that if I don't have a drink now, I'd soon be shaking with a nervous, drumbeat-like fever or turn hysterical and just keep gabbling ... So I accepted the man's offer with appreciation. Setting himself on a box from artillery rounds, Com-batt softly called: "Ivan, we've got guests, come on eat". Then from a neighbouring basement appeared the 1[[st]] Battalion's chief of staff captain Ilin. Skinny fellow, the biggest volleyball aficionado in our brigade, although, at his job, pedant and perfectionist. In peace life always tight, in perfectly ironed and shiny uniform, now he looked barely any different than any other man around us. Same gunpowder- parched face, unshaven and in need of sleep. - Hey, Slava, - he said and his eyes glinted a little. We were almost of the same age, only I was a senior officer in the Brigade's HQ and he was a chief of staff in the battalion. Both captains. We had a history of friendship, so did our wives and kids. I couldn't conceal my emotions and went straight for a hug. Slowly my nerves were giving in and I was turning a bit hysterical after our little adventure. I wasn't worried for my grunts. They were all here, amongst their own, thus will be worm and fed in no time. - You've come for the sniper, Slava? - Asked Com-batt. - Sure, who else, - I replied. - How did you manage to grab that son of a bitch? - He just wouldn't let us breath for three days, - Ivan turned grim. - He made up a nest by the Station and plinked at us over the plaza. Knocked down three grunts and shot our first company leader through his leg. We were unable to medivac the wounded and had to fetch the medics over here to operate on them. - And how is he, - I asked. That story about the medics I've already heard: fine job. But the company leader: would he live and walk again? - Yeah, yeah, sure, - Com-batt confirmed merrily, - I let him rest for now, only the problem is we're short on company leaders, you know it too well yourself. So we have to use the two-year-termers ("civilian officers", college graduates on the obligatory military duty, in officers ranks by default). But this lad is rather snappy. A bit of a hotshot though: like Chapaev on his horse, rushes to free all Chechnya by himself. - What did the sniper have on him? - I asked. - Maybe, he wasn't even a sniper after all. You know, could've been some daunted local, a great deal of them bumming around town these days. Com-batt and the CoS almost seemed upset. Ivan leapt to his feet, raced to his niche and fetched a soviet SKS rifle. Only the scope was foreign, I noticed that instantly, - I've seen those before. Most probably Japanese: fine toy. Pal Palych - com-batt - while Ivan and myself were inspecting the carbine, was telling that the detained shooter had two boxfuls of rounds in his pockets and in his nest they found a case of beer and two packs of cigarettes. While recounting this, Palych was setting up the table: carving bread, opening stewed meat cans, condensed milk containers, salads (God knows where those came from), pickles and marinated tomatoes. And at last, positioned a bottle of Vodka on this improvised table. By then I counted all slashes on the carbine's butt: equalled thirty-three. Thirty-three chopped lives. The way the snipers worked here we all knew first hand. They met us while we were coming into town, at night, by early WWII maps. Though we raced, crushing our heads against the walls inside our APCs, ragging our teeth from the mad ride and damning everyone and everything, snipers managed to shoot off dangling antennas from the passing armoured vehicles, at night and in clouds of dust. Without intercom they'd stop and officers sent men to check out what the hell happened, this very moment snipers picked them out. They also had another slick idea: they didn't always finish off their "game", but rather wounded him, shooting him through his legs, so that he wouldn't crawl out of the killing zone and then held back. The downed men cried out and snipers picked the speeding helpers, just like the duck silhouettes at a shooting gallery. By now, our brigade has lost about thirty men to this kind of sniper fire, thus adding to our special account to be "invoiced" to "spooks" some day. Amazing that the grunts brought this cocksucker alive. A few days ago, grunts from the second battalion discovered a nest, by all clues - female. All was like always: a sofa or a chair, soft drinks, a doll and a rifle, hidden close by. The grunts spent all day stalking her concealed, completely motionless. No piss, no shit, no smoke. Finally they succeeded. What happened next - no one knows, but the Chechen woman took a flight off the roof of a nine-storey building, but half way down her body burst from a grenade explosion. Afterwards, the grunts solemnly swore that the woman sensed the stench of their unwashed bodies and sprinted for the roof, and from up there, dived by herself. Everyone, of coarse, showed compassion, but still regretted that themselves couldn't help her flight. Nobody believed, however, that for her last dive with grenade she went by herself. Chechens never committed suicide - that is in OUR character - fear of captivity, dishonour and torture. After this memorable event, their com-batt declared a phrase, which was then to become our brigade's motto: "Siberians do not surrender, and do not take prisoners". By now Com-batt poured out Vodka and Ivan and myself settled down too. If anybody tells you that we fought here intoxicated, - spit him in his face. At war, people drink for disinfection. Not often you can boil your water or wash your hands properly. Our corpsmen's motto is: "Red eyes never go yellow". As for the drinking water, we had to get it from the Sunzha River - a tiny river that flows thought the whole of Chechnya and, of coarse, through the Grozny. Only no one could possible tell how many human and animal corpses drifted in there, which meant we could forget about the proper hygiene. I'm telling you, at war, nobody would drink to get shitfaced - that would mean certain death. Your comrades, too, would never let you do that kind of stuff - with firearms, who knows what's on the drunk's mind? We lifted up our plastic glasses - lots of these we chunked at the "North" airport - and struck them together. There was no ding, just rustle, "so that our zampolit wouldn't hear", officers jested. - Here is to good luck, men, - Com-batt enounced, and, having exhaled all air from his lungs, "capsized" half a glass. - To her, the damned, - I picked up and tipped my glass. The heat flooded my throat, worm wave swamped my guts and halted somewhere inside the stomach. My body suddenly relaxed. Then all of us attacked the food: who knows when the next opportunity like this would present itself. Bread, stewed meat, pickles, tomatoes. All vanished in our stomachs. Now, Ivan poured out Vodka; we toped, with the usual silent rustle. Lit up some smokes. I almost pulled out mine, from home, "TU-134", but noted Ivan's and Com-batt's Marlboro and tossed mine back. - Sniper's? - I inquired, reaching for one. - Yep, - Replied Com-batt. - How is the Second Battalion hanging? - Ivan asked, taking a deep puff. - Storming the hotel "Kavkaz", now we're throwing the Third Batt in to help them and some tanks too. Ragheads are deeply entrenched there and holding it so far. Ul'yanovtsy and marines are attempting the assault on the Minutka Square and Dudaev's Palace. But having no luck there as yet, just loosing men. - All of which means that we'll be sent in to help them soon - Com-batt broke in our conversation. - It's not as simple as a slugfest in a corner bar; some thinking must be done beforehand. To save the men and complete the task... I could never grasp the concept of the airborne troops: how is it so that they, absolutely sober and voluntarily, would jump off of a perfectly good aircraft, ha? - Palych made a joke. - And I never understood the rangers, - picked up Ivan, - for four years in college, they learnt how to use binoculars and tail behind a K-9... I'm sensing with my heart: we'll be crunching on asphalt down there at that freaking Square. In my mind I've already made a conscious decision: the captured sniper wouldn't make it to my HQ. He'll die on the way back, attempting an escape. He's already told everything he knew. In movies, agents, working with "a clapper", try to formulate the necessity to give up the information he possesses as well as break his ideology. Real life, however, is much simpler. Everything depends on your imagination, rancour and time on hands. If time permits and there is a matching desire, we can try to scrape enamel from his teeth, with a rasping file. Or we can use our field phone. A brown box with a side-handle. Connect your interlocutor to it with two stripped wires and spin the handle, having asked him a few questions beforehand. But all this is fine if you're housed comfortably and he's to stand trial afterwards. This kind of questioning will leave no marks. Of coarse it's best to soak him in water first. As far as the screaming is concerned, for that you fire up a heavy armoured truck near by. But, again, all this is for aesthetes. In the trenches it becomes even simpler. You shoot the fingers off his feet, one by one, with your assault rifle. There is no one human being who could take that. He'll tell you everything he knew and everything he ever remembered. Feeling a little seek, ha? During which time, you, my reader, celebrated New Years Eve, visited your friends, skied shitfaced from a hilltop with your kids. You didn't come out on the Red Square demanding to pull our soldiers out of that shithole. Neither were you collecting worm cloths or money for those Russians who fled Chechnya. Cold soldiers in their frozen bunkers never got so much as a cigarette from you. Therefore, do not look away. Listen to this truth of war. - OK, let's get the third one over with and we'll go take a look at your shooter, - I said pouring out the remains of Vodka. We stood silently for a few seconds, and toped without cheers. Third glass - is the most important in the military. Civilians drink it "to love", students: to something else, but soldiers always drink it "to the fallen", always standing up and in silence. Every one sees before him those he has lost. It is a chilling toast. Although, on the other hand, you know for sure, that if you perish, regardless of how many years would pass, some green lieutenant, in a God forsaken garrison in the Far East, or a stale colonel in the most prestigious headquarters, will stand up and drink their third glass to You. We toped; I cast another piece of stew in my mouth, a few bits of garlic and "the officers lemon" - onion. There are no vitamins at war, although your body constantly demands them. That's why we refer to onion as "our lemon". At war onion is a commonplace. The stench around is horrible though, but we've no women here, so we've grown used to it by now and wouldn't even notice anymore. Moreover, it fights the sickening odour of decomposing human flesh that otherwise turns your stomach inside out. I've chased the alcohol with refection, sipped condensed milk right out of its container, fished a smoke out of the Com-bat's packet and started for the exit. Com-bat and Ivan followed me. In about 30 yards from the basement's entrance, grunts encircled a tank and were having a loud discourse. I also noted that the tank's gun is unnaturally cocked upwards. As we walked closer to the scene, we also saw that a stretched rope was hanging from the barrel. The grunts saw us coming and gave way. The view that opened up in front of us was picturesque but terrible. At the end of that rope a man was hanging. His face was swollen from beatings, his eyes half shut, his tongue hanging out and his hands tied up behind him. Although, by now I've seen lots of stiffs, still, can't get used to them. Com-batt started yelling at the grunts: - Who did this?! You sons of bitches! - I'll leave out the rest of the names he called them. Ask any line officer, who served in the Army for 10 years or more, to swear a little and you'll greatly increase your vocabulary with all sorts of idiomatic expressions. Com-batt kept going at them, trying hard to beat the truth out of them, although I somehow knew, looking at his sly face, that he's not mad at them at all. He might've felt a bit regretful that he didn't send the bastard on his last journey, but mostly my presence, the HQ officer, drove him to this theatrical performance. All of us: the grunts and myself read it well. We also realise that no one commander would ever report anything of this kind. All this breezed through my mind while I was sucking on my cigarette. It's funny, but these cigarette belonged to this hangman, whose limbs are now dangling before my eyes, then to the Com-bat and now, I am smoking it while observing this spectacle. Tired of the circus, I asked surrounding us grunts, amongst which I picked Semeon and Glue: - What did he say, before he died? Out of the clear blue sky the grunts exploded. They told, interrupting one another, that the son of a bitch (the most delicate epithet they chose for him) squalled that he regretted he only managed to nock off only thirty-two of "your kind" (as he put it). In their recount the grunts especially emphasized the words "you kind". I gathered they were telling the truth and if he hadn't said this memorable phrase, he might've lived a little longer. All of a sudden, one of the grunts announced, invigorating everyone: - He throttled himself, comrade Captain. - With his hands trussed, he tied the rope around his neck and leaped off the "armour", all by himself. Right? - I choked laughing. Then I turned to the Com-batt: - Alright, take your hangman down. Let's write in the report that he couldn't take the torture of his guilty conscience anymore and thus ended his life strangling himself. - I spewed the cigarette's butt and pressed it into the mud. - His rifle, however, I'll take with me. - Nickolaich, please, - First time the Com-batt called me by my full name, - leave the rifle: every time I look at it, my body bends. I glanced into his praying eyes and knew: it would be of no use to try taking carbine away from him. - OK, you owe me one, and you, - I turned to Ivan, - bear witness. - Many thanks, Nikolaich, - Palych was violently shaking my hand. - Because of this moron I had to drag my ass all the way down here, under fire. And now I have to hoof back. - Take him with you, if you like. Tell them he was shot during an ambush or something, - Ivan tried to make a joke. - Go to hell, - I jested back. - Why don't you try and drag this stiff back. And if you ever have a misfortune taking a prisoner, drag him to the HQ yourselves or waste him down here please. Another thing: get something nice for the grunts that grabbed him, will you? That's it. We're off. Give us some escort for a few blocks, OK? We shook hands and Com-batt, sniffing, pulled out a brand new Marlboro packet from his inner pocket. I thanked him and sent for my grunts: - Semeon, Glue, let's go. They came up, fixing their rifles. - Ready? Did they feed you? - Yep. And a few drinks along with it, - said Semeon. - Also restocked on ammo and grenades for launchers. - Cheers men, let's run. We have to get to the HQ before the nightfall, - I muttered, buttoning my coat and attaching new magazine to my rifle. I made a "royal mag" by binding two 45-round RPK machinegun clips head-to-toe with an electric tape. This gave me 90 rounds always at the ready. It's a pity though, the calibre is 5.45, not 7.62, like before. The 5.45 bullet has some ricochet and once fired is all over the place. The 7.62 round, on the other hand, goes straight as. There is a legend - during the Vietnam War, American GIs had complained to the gunmakers that their M-16s wounded too many while killing very few (our AK-47 and AKM suffers from the same imperfection). Then, the gunsmakers came right to the trenches, studied the problem and began experimenting on the spot. Here's what they did: they drilled a hole through the bullet's tip and soldered a needle inside the hole. These modifications resulted in shifting of the bullet's centre of gravity and when it hit the target, it reeled on almost all of the target's guts too. Although the rounds' stability suffered greatly and the bullet did produce more ricochets than before, the end result was more enemy fatalities after all. Soviet Army didn't produce anything original but rather copied the American idea and, during the Afghan Campaign, swapped all 7.62 calibre AKs with the 5.45 ones. Maybe fine for some, but I am personally not ecstatic. We geared up, jumped a few times to warm up and studied each other. - God help us, - I said and turned around. The five escort grunts were busy carrying out the same manipulations. They were getting themselves ready to see us off. I looked again where the strangled sniper was meant to be hanging, but the tank's gun was back to its normal state and the rope with the dead man on it was already gone. - Alright, let's move, - I ordered and nodded to the escorting grunts to go first. Knowing the surrounding terrain much better, they didn't select the path we had chosen coming down, but rather dived into some basement first and then took us through piled up slabs and breaches. At some stage we even went down underground sewage network and afterwards and had to climb back up. I completely lost my sense of direction and could only glance at my wrist compass at times to see whether the overall course was correct. All seemed right though. In about 30 minutes, the sergeant, who headed our venture, halted and lit up a cigarette. All of us did the same. Then he enounced: - That's it. Now, from here, it's about 7 blocks, no more, till you reach your "boxes". Although, no more cover, only open spaces. I finished off my cigarette and shook the sergeant's hand. Then, I thanked every one of the escorting grunts and said: - Good luck! We all need it, don't we? - You guys go ahead; we'll stay here 10 more minutes. Just in case, - said the sergeant. - Let's move, - I ordered, turning to Semeon and Glue, pointing the direction to them. Myself first, I popped out from the basement, tumbled, whirled, finally coming up on one knee and scanning the surroundings in my sights. There was nothing suspicious there and I waved to the guys the go ahead. First, Semeon quickly popped out and then Glue emerged with his radio transmitter. Scurrying this way during the next forty minutes, we finally touched up with our "boxes". As we started for the home base, furious fire came down at us from the upper floors. I rode on the APC in the head of our convoy. The vehicle took a spin to the left and hit the corner, then slowed down and finally came to a complete halt. All of us, riding atop of the "box", opened up in bursts of suppressive fire. - Driver... You, screwed in the head mother! Get the hell out of here, - I yelled into the hatch. Then ordered the grunts next me to start setting up the smoke diversion. - One of the caterpillars is torn! - The driver shouted back at me. - F...ing hell... everyone off the "armour", now! Four of you start pulling the track back on, the rest - secure our perimeter. I need two GP-25s with me; second APC, load your cannon. That's all. Move it! Again, the heat of the battle consumed me. The first feeling, naturally, is fear. But after overcoming it, you begin to taste blood in your mouth and suddenly find yourself feeling cool and mighty; all of your senses sharpened. You note everything around you and your brain is like a computer, always gives off the right decision as well as lots of other possible options and combinations. I instantly leapfrogged off the "armour" and hopped behind the piece of concrete wall close about. Convulsively, trying to find the target but so far, can't find anything to fire at. OK, now breathe... I'm ready... let's rock, men! Give them Hell! Blood is full of adrenaline and I'm on fire again. The grunts didn't have to be told twice. They promptly pulled the pins out of smoke makers and our APC was wrapped up in the colourful clouds. Russian soldier is very resourceful and, just in case, nicks off everything that lies around unattended. After we took the Airport "North", the lads collected all kinds of these smoke makers. In the second APC, fellows echoed our little trick with the smokes. Actually, they did it just in time. The "spooks", obviously, realised that it'd be too hard to blindly mow our grunts off the "armour" and this time went for their RPGs. What is RPG? It is a standard rocket grenade launcher. The toy has a sister too: called "Muha", a tube-like devise (first versions were telescopic). "Muha" is an antipersonnel weapon, whereas the RPG is for the anti armour use. When a rocket-propelled grenade hits an obstacle (usually an armoured plate), it blasts off thin, needle-like, piss that burns through steel and creates a temperature of about three thousand degrees Celsius inside the vehicle. Obviously, tank's ammunition detonates which, in turn, rips off the tank's multi-tonne turret, tosses it off to about 30 meters and tears to pieces bodies of the crew and infantry inside it. Many died while they were still confined inside their mobile steel traps. In some cases, drivers watched the road from the open hatch and were only cast out of their vehicles by explosion, broken and muffled a little, but still alive and mostly in one piece. Now, these sons of bitches opened up on us from their RPGs and added Shmels to the chorus. (AD. Shmel" (Russian word for bumblebee), is an antipersonnel rocket Infantry flame-thrower (RPO-A, so-called bunker buster. End of comment. AD) Although, neither they could clearly see us, nor could we see them. In fact, the whole scene looked pretty comical. Wrapped up in heavy, standard black smoke, from which the coloured fumes were raising, like geysers into the sky: blue, red and yellow. They tangled in the air, mixing up and coming apart again, diverting the ragheads' attention away from us. Our second APC's cannon let off a burst, firing blindly in the direction where the spooks' rockets came from. Then suddenly, somewhere in there something blew up. May be it was us, actually hitting something, or their RPG gunner made a mistake in the heat of the gunfight. "Shmel", same as "Muha", is just a pipe. For the total fuckheads, there is a direction arrow with the description printed on it. Anyway, no one knew what happened up there, but the God, evidently, was on our side today. As there was no more gunfire coming from the spooks' positions, my grunts have gone jubilant. Mostly they yelled out curses that could probably be understood by soldiers of any army. - Shut it! - I barked at them. - Keep pulling the track on. Second APC! Secure our perimeter. Move it! I rose and tried to loosen up my back and numb feet, I was still wary and scrutinising the building where the shooting came from. Judging from the angle: third floor. In the havoc and because of the fumes, I never got the clear picture of what took place. Now, through the clearing smoke, I could see a huge hole in the third floor's reinforcement, blasted by the explosion. Thick black smoke was coming out of there. During the whole encounter, Semeon stayed next to me and now declared, pointing at the breach: - Cooked the mothers! Vechaslav Nikolaevich, can we go check? He was practically begging. It seemed like his fiance was holding it off for him up there. I was curious myself though. - Hold on, - I said to him and asked the crew, labouring near their "armour", - How much longer? - Any time now, comrade Captain, maybe 5 more minutes, - coughed up one of the grunts, forcing the busted caterpillar onto the leading wheel. - Semeon, Glue, Mazur, Americanets, Picasso - come with me. The rest stays here, assisting the repairs and watching our backs. If we do not return in half an hour, move forward, two blocks to the north. Over there, you wait for another half an hour and then ride back to base. Gunnery sergeant Sergeev will take over from me for the time being. All call signs are the same. Now to the grunts who'd come with me: - OK, children, let's move it. Picasso leads, Glue at the rear. Semeon - right flank, Mazur, take the left one. Have your grenades on stand-by. - And me? - The skinny private put up his voice. The chap was a qualified rock climber, nicknamed "Americanets" (the American). When he was drafted, he came into the office wearing his American flag shorts. - And you will walk by my side and watch your ass, - I replied in jest. - Let's go clean them up. Everyone understood perfectly what the words "clean up" meant. They meant, "take no prisoners". "Good apache - dead apache", - Conquistadors' motto was a close match in our case. What could we possible squeeze out of a live spook? Nothing: no maps, no storage hides, no communication system layouts - NO-THING. Moreover, a wounded raghead would be a major pain in the ass. First, you'd have to pool men to guard him. Second, he'd still be perfectly capable of pulling some kind of shit on us. Nor could he be exchanged for anything. Finish him off on the spot and that's that. He too would surely like it better than torture.
With caution, we came up the third floor. In two neighbouring flats the rag-heads made up their firing nests. In the first one we found the "Shmel" shooter, in the second - two of his unlucky comrades, with one RPK each. The most disturbing thing was: they were just kids, most probably only about 13 to 15 years old. One of them was still alive and while unconscious was quietly groaning. Judging from the fact that one of his legs was torn off and he was bleeding heavily, I figured he wouldn't live for much longer. It seemed like one of our cannon rounds dropped into the room where he was launching his rockets from and blasted to shit his ammunition store. I looked around, my good mood was totally gone by now. Of coarse these rag-heads tried to blow us and all but... they're just kids for God's sake. Damn it. I spewed and gave another order to my grunts: "Finish him off and then sweep the block, someone might've got away." Although even I had doubts that anyone of them could escape. My grunts, Semeon, Glue and Picasso each let off a burst into the disfigured body, one after another. The kid's body flexed out, bullets ripping his chest open, some blasted his head to pieces and it sprayed the walls in red clots of his brain. I calmly watched this murder. Then I looked away from the corpse, still not used to this or maybe it's just normal human reaction? Who can tell? I fetched the sniper's Marlboro packet and handed some cigarettes to my grunts. - Didn't you hear what I just said? "Sweep the block". Anyone not clear? - I uttered, taking a puff. The grunts left, mumbling something. Left alone, trying hard no to vomit, I went through the dead rag-heads' pockets. Wow! An Army ID tag and many of them, OK, let's see: Semeonov Aleksey Pavlovich, born 1975. Semeonov, Semeonov, Semeonov... It suddenly clicked in my mind. Is that the Semeonov from the engineering regiment, which went missing after we stormed the Airport? They sent the fellow for some mine sweeping cord and he vanished. Was that he, shooting at us? I carefully studied the dead rag-heads' faces, matching them to the badly preserved photo on the ID Tag; I even looked inside the breach in the wall and at the dead "Shmel" launcher's face. No, not him, thank God. Turned a few more pages in his ID. Shit! Yes! Our division. Our Semeonov. Your deaths saved you a lot of trouble, assholes! Your end would've been brutal. I would've dealt with you myself. During my adventures in the former Soviet Union, I learnt well how to make people talk, make them last long and stay conscious all the way. My sadness was gone in a heartbeat. I cared about the dead boys' souls no more. My teeth cramped in rancour. If needs be, I'll tear anybody apart for Russian soldier. I'll crush anything just to return the youngster home alive and in one piece. All of a sudden somebody was screaming from upstairs: - Comrade Captain, Comrade Captain, they found some guy up there on the roof. I think one of ours! - Americanets was fretting. I flew up the stairs and felt no wheeze. On the roof, nailed to the cross, a dead soldier's body was resting, just like Jesus. His own cut off penis stuck in his mouth. Without even looking at his dirty face, I knew: it was he, Semeonov. I probably only saw him about 10 times before and never even spoke to the man. But suddenly tears were in my eyes and something pinched in my nose. Now I regretted that I never got the chance to properly meet the lad. I think he wasn't even one of the permanent staff. Right before the Chechen campaign, he was attached to our brigade from Abakan. - They nailed him to the cross and put it up on the roof. The cross collapsed from the explosion and that's probably why we didn't notice it before. - Picasso tried to explain something to me, feeling a little awkward that we didn't discover the body earlier. - He's one of ours. - I pronounced, labouring to stay calm, - Semeonov, of the sappers. Disappeared off the "North" while minesweeping. I found his ID tag on one of the shooters. The grunts were like lightning-struck; they fussed about Semeonov, removing him carefully from the cross. While doing that, they tried not to hurt him, handling his body like he was still alive, whispering not to wake him up and tears were falling down their faces complicating this chilling job even further. I looked away, pulled out a smoke and lit it up. Thirstily inhaling I tried to push the clog in my throat further down, glancing at the hustling grunts at times to see how things were moving along. When Semeonov's body was at last removed from the cross, lads placed it on some kind of stretchers they put together from all sorts of rubbish they could collect around here. When it was all over I said: - Glue, get on the "boxes". Tell them to come closer and that we are coming with a "cargo 200"... Our "cargo 200". I was coming down the stairs ahead of the rest, checking for anything suspicious along the way. My grunts were carefully carrying the stretchers, like the man on them was only wounded. At the rear, Glue was struggling under the weight of his radio transmitter and scraps of the armoury we discovered at the rag-heads' nest. We loaded the body into the infantry compartment inside our APC and started for the home. I felt that for any "spook" that tried to stick his nose out now, this attempt would be, for sure, his last. Confirmation to my thoughts was the empty and terrifying look in my grunts' eyes, were I could see the reflection of my own feelings. Only the fire of vengeance was blazing inside them and nothing else. Blood; blood; I now only craved for blood to drown my rage, breaking their skulls with my rifle's butt, crushing their ribs under my boots, tearing and ripping their veins with my finger nails, looking in his, her, their eyes and asking: "Why, why did you shoot at the Russian soldiers?" OK, hold on motherfuckers, I'm coming. No mercy for anyone, not for the elderly, not for the children, not for the women - NO BODY will be spared. Ermolov and Stalin were both right - these folk are not to be re-educated, only exterminated. Our APCs were both speeding ahead. It seemed they were feeling our mood too with their engines running absolutely fine now. Periodically, they drenched us with their oily exhaust fumes, adding some kind of foppish gloss to our black appearance. But our eyeballs were ablaze with mad fury, demanding vengeance and there was now no place in our minds for fear. Probably, in this state of mind, men run at machinegun nests to save others' lives at the price of their own. Desire for vengeance suddenly grows into care for those who are close to you and self-sacrifice for others. Glinting at the surroundings I could feel movement inside the rubbles with my skin. Resting AK on my elbow, I pulled out other ID tags and flicked through a few more. Petrov Andrey Aleksandrovich - Maikop Brigade. Elizariev Evgeniy Anatolievich - Internal Forces (they and the Rangers have their garrison numbers marked with four digits and The Army have theirs marked with five). Altogether, eight IDs - eight lives. Where are you boys? Probably, no one will ever know and your mothers will be crying tears until the end of their lives: their dead sons will have no graves. All of this is awful. I finished off reading all of the remaining IDs, I was positive there were no more grunts from our brigade in there. I hid them back in my inner pocked, looked at my "cavalry" and shook my head, assuring them that none of the remaining IDs belonged to anyone of ours. They again turned away, watching out, racing past onetime battlefields. Demolished houses, torn down trees, burnt and given up machinery. It was mostly tanks with torn caterpillars and their turrets ripped off and tossed over to great distances. APCs, with their thinner armour plates, were just blasted to pieces. All depended on where the rockets hit and how much ammo the "boxes" had onboard. Some drivers were lucky, others - not so much. With pain I was looking at the trees. I like nature. Humans have a choice. They can refuse to come here and go to jail for desertion or self inflict an injury, thus buying themselves "the white" ticket out of here: crafty Russians are capable of anything. But the trees and animals are helpless. Men planted them at will; others came and wiped them out. And they can do nothing in response. Neither trees, nor animals can flee or defend themselves. Thus many died together with their owners on their porches. What remain, people will eat later because of the famine. These-days people are frequently seen tottering about like shadows amongst the rubble. Mostly these are elderly men or middle-aged women. Everyone, who could fire weapons and more or less think clearly, escaped into the mountains seeking vengeance. No problem, we, in turn, will take revenge on them. Thus, closing up this vicious circle. Every one of us thinks he's right. We all believe in our own gods, praying them to help us and demanding retribution for deaths of our friends and brothers. But God deals spoils and losses equally for everyone. OK, so we'll fight. It would be pretty tough to fight the whole nation though, as opposed to a regular army of one particular state. That's what we've been taught to do. In an open field, busted your opponent, occupied a town, picked up the spoils and back to the field. Here it's more like in Afghanistan, fight the folk all you want. The whole thing is not even a war. According to the law, all this is a piddling policing operation, exclusive purpose of which is reinstating of the constitutional order. However, no one knows what this order used to be like in the first place. OK, while the "spooks" and us are mincing one another, someone in Moscow has hit the jackpot. We've all seen a lot of that going on. For some, war is like their mother. Not even one son of a bitch went down for all the blood they've spilt in our spacious former Union. Not counting the Baltic States - a couple of squealers and OMON guys went to jail, so what? They did nothing but avenge the deaths of their friends, but those who gave them orders... their bellies I would twitch with my bayonet, looking in their wide-open from pain and fear eyes, listening to their deafening screams and breathing in smell of their blood. That would be fun. Yet here, people lived by penitentiary laws for four years. We fed them with money, supplied with weapons and taught how to use them. Then we sent them to fight in Osetia and Abhazia for us, - like we are not even aware of what's going on. And when there was no longer need for them, they should've been eliminated, but no, - we tried to domesticate the Chechen. Yeah, right! He turned against our Moscow gang. Why, though, should the whole country suffer? We even came here from Siberia to break up the dogs. China is closer to us than Chechnya. Then men from ZabVO, DalVO and TOF were dragged down here too. They can walk to the States or Japan. One thing isn't clear though. Why is it so that the rag-heads left the oil refinery intact? We, too, were strictly ordered not so much as touch it. Here is our Air Force, happily bombing the city's living quarters, but as for the Staropromyslovsky part - no way. All of which means: the plant is somebody's property. Somebody who can hush our Defence Minister and tell him specifically to leave it alone, - you can level the whole town to the ground, but don't you dare ruining the refinery. Of coarse, when Russian soldier is in rage, he's very difficult to hold back, so too the rag-heads, not all are aware of the refinery's importance. They naively think that they are actually fighting for their own fucking freedom and don't get it, morons, that we are all simply taking part in an ordinary criminal quarrel, very big though. One little baron decided to screw The Big Daddy and start his own business. Then, Big Daddy sent his own hood, the Russian Army, over, to bang the little fellow. But the baron was a smart chap; he squalled with independence and sent his "bulls" in. That's how the quarrel has begun. Now, no one can remember why the whole thing started in the first place. The hoods are busy taking vengeance on each other; meanwhile, their barons are making big bucks expropriating salaries and pensions. The little one is pulling in Islamic World now, with his cheap religious mottos. God, help us and forgive! My APC took a sharp U-turn, which nearly cast me off the "armour". That's right, moron, your business is to keep your teeth from clapping: you'll break your neck one day, falling off the "armour" or a sharpshooter snaps you. Your COs are there to think for you and supply you with the ready-made decisions. Your objective is to survive and complete the task. All else is shit. Take Andrei Petrov, former mortar platoon commander. He had principles, right? He demanded that he be given two weeks to prepare his men, considering the fact that his grunts were only drafted in November and have only seen their rifles once before - during the oath. He was dismissed, made an example, like a coward, a deserter. Replaced with a raw lieutenant - two-year-termer college graduate. Where is that lieutenant now with his mortar platoon? During the Airport assault he lost almost all of his men and, himself, perished too. You see? They draft too many morons in The Army. Some of them you have to stand for two years, others for twenty-five. We tried to reason with our multi-star commanders that we are not ready for any war, not technically, not logistically. Men are not prepared physically. Then, in December, when the order came to load the gear onto the locomotives and step out, the weather was freezing cold. As it is always done in our Army, the diesel fuel, that vehicles were filled with, was of the summer kind and rather depicted a tomato sauce. So, some smart ass from our garrison came up with the idea to mix this "sauce" with kerosene. Yep! You guessed it. One of the APCs blew up right in the parking lot with its full ammo complement onboard; by some weird luck nobody was hurt. Second burst while loading onto cars. And again God was on our side. And, as it is customary in The Army, these events were used to write off much of the property, just like Suvorov described in his "Saviour". According to the official documents, those APCs had on board: not less than fifty uniform coats, twenty-five night-vision devices, no fewer than a hundred pairs of shoes and BDUs. When the papers were to be signed by the HQ representative, he read that masterpiece and pronounced: "Add one more parka plus one more BDUs, for me". Supplies XO added each of them by one and the General signed the papers with his eyes shut. Now this general is here somewhere. Thank God, he's just signing papers. "Material battle losses" is probably his credo. For now, my mind was occupied by thoughts of the dead sniper. What do I tell at the HQ? How did it happen that he didn't make here? I knew well, that no one would be breathing in my face with his honourable anger, only with disappointment that they couldn't hank his guts themselves. Particularly, the GRU and recon guys will be sad. It's their cup of tea, just let them play with the fellow, they'd make him talk. We can do that too, quick and simple, but they handle it gracefully. Liquor can't kill the mastery. Suddenly something moved in the rubble, twinkling with rays of the setting sun. My mind hasn't even produced a thought yet, but my hands already responded, quickly raising my AK, finger clung to the trigger. And only then my judgement kicked in - I saw our artillery spotters, the lads constructed their positions in one of the remaining pieces of a house by the road. They too met us with their rifle barrels. All of us, however, managed to keep our cool and hold fire. Moreover, they just began to wind their "Shilka" in our direction. It is a large calibre anti-aircraft gun (ZSU) with four barrels. It would've chopped us to chips for sure. Alright, at least we identified each other in time. We shouted merrily something to each other for greetings. This meant the HQ is near. Yep, there is the blazing fire-fountain from the breached gas pipe. 200 or so yards and we're "home". Now we can relax a little. - Hey, radioman, - I said to Glue, - Let them know we're coming, or they'll shoot us to hell. Glue tattled something in his headset and nodded to me that we were OK to go. Talking or rather shouting through roaring diesels seemed senseless and inappropriate with the dead man onboard our APC. Everyone felt a little guilty for some strange reason, although, on the other hand, knew well that he, himself, could've been down there in his place. Cars retarded a bit and, manoeuvring this way, we passed a virtual labyrinth of remaining concrete blocks and bricks. Soldiers watched us through their sights from behind every corner. Their faces were all covered with dust and, from that, seemed made of stone. They all looked exhausted, with their dog-tired red eyes. The lads greeted us with smiles and gestures, lowering their guns. We greeted guards the same way. I knew, our officers and men would be betting on me delivering the sniper alive and well. Personally, I wouldn't put my money on his safe journey. Lucky, we returned before the daybreak. Some smarty-pants in the defence ministry invented a new password system for us. Before, everything was nice and simple, but now, the thing is a brain surgery, without ten years of high school or lots of liqueur, impossible to translate. For example, before, the password was "Saratov" and the reply to it was "Leningrad", even a moron could understand that. Some grunts can barely read or write: outcomes of the "perestroika". The core of the new system is the number: say thirteen. The guard, seeing a silhouette in the dark, calls out: "Stop! Password - seven!" Now, you have to instantly take away seven out of thirteen and quickly yell back: "Reply - six!". After all this, the guard must add his "seven" and your "six", get "thirteen" and then let you pass. But, if any one of you can't count well enough or has something else on his mind, then, according to the Statute of the armed guard service, the guard can, and will, shoot you on the spot without any further investigation. And no one prosecutor would lift his finger to pursue this issue any further. You, moron, should've been learning your math back in high school. Fine, if you are not completely deaf and the grunt on duty can actually count, but some smart asses call out fractions and negative numbers. That's when you recall all of his relatives, and your math skills, while you're at it. For all this, some shithead got promoted back in Moscow, or maybe, even a medal on his chest. Those snakes are capable of anything. Thinking this way, we stopped near the partly demolished kindergarten, where our brigade's HQ was now situated. I jumped off the APC, rubbed my stalled and frozen feet and started for the entrance dragging my stiff legs. I had to see our HQ's CO, Lieutenant Colonel, Alexandr Alexandrovich Bilich first. All of us called him San Sanych. Already on my way, I ordered my grunts: - Start offloading our hero, carefully. Grunts nodded understandingly. San Sanych was about 1.75m tall with broad shoulders and constant sparks in his blue eyes. Or were the sparks just a fruit of our imagination? San Sanych was somehow different from all the officers in our Brigade. He was actually well mannered. At first, it seemed superficial, but the more you got to know him the more you were convinced that it is really in his nature. It seemed, he should've been born in times of chivalry, high society and duels, definitely not in our mad century. Even now, when we are more or less bottled in OK and started hammering our opposition, when the war, maybe only at times for now, but has taken a proper shape of the trench warfare, every day our lieutenant colonel Bilich has found the time for brief morning exercises. Every morning, if it was possible to catch any sleep at all at night, we crawled out of our cellars shacking from the cold. Because it's winter, may be southern, but still a winter. As a rule, there was no water, and our old unshaven whiskers were no longer rough, but felt rather fuzzy. However, looking at your CO, you, unwillingly, pick yourself up and find the time, the water and the razor. Although, many officers, some superstitious or some just plane lazy, grew beards and moustaches. Some even looked great like that. The only one who looked exactly like a Chechen, was, our recon platoon leader, Hlopov Roman, naturally possessing dark skin and having grown a dense beard. This way, during the Station siege, he was nearly shot by his own grunts. Luckily, he put on a helmet and his armoured west; otherwise, our sporty protectors would've definitely done him. Since then, Hlopov - we called him Hlop - developed a habit to shave every morning no matter what. About one and a half weeks ago, when he and the reconnaissance CO broke through to the Airport "North", the allied commander's HQ, on the way back they ran into an ambush. Their APC was blasted by RPG fire from a point blank range. Hlop died instantly, the CO had a bad concussion. For two days, skirmishing along the way, their grunts were slowly sneaking home. They brought back the Hlop's mutilated body and the severely concussed, almost deaf and blind, reconnaissance CO, Captain Stepchenko Sergey Stanislavovich. As they recounted afterwards, the days they spent in basements and at nights, risking the bullet from Chechens or from us, they crept back to their home base. They slept in turns, using parts of the poor Hlop's body as pillows. Maybe after his concussion or maybe after hiding in basements with the corpse, Sereoga Stepchenko started having problems. We almost cured his sight and hearing with liquor, but he couldn't stand closed and tight spaces anymore. Mostly he's OK, working and fighting, but sometimes he's just mumbling something completely out of this world. Our brigade's Commander, Colonel Bahel Alexandr Antonovich, placed an order to dismiss Stepchenko from his post, and watch him so he doesn't make any trouble. There was no chance to medivac the man as even our wounded were lying in bunkers: choppers couldn't land. He was, temporarily, replaced by senior lieutenant Krivosheev Stepan. Bilich San Sanych was taking care of Stepchenko, not just him though, of everyone around him. He arranged for the grunts that brought him and the Hlop's body back, to be awarded each by the Hero Of Russia Medal. But for now, the papers were kept in Chiefs of Staff's safe. Out of his principles, Bilich didn't recognised physical methods during conversations with the enemy or cursing with his own men. But the interesting part was, I knew from my own personal experience, that if you yell cursing at somebody, everything is done more quickly and clearly. And now I had to explain to this gentleman that I failed to deliver the sniper because grunts' thin patience wore off and they hung him off a tank's barrel. Trying a few combinations in my mind that could spare San Sanych's delicate hearing and let the Com-Batt and Ivan off the hook, I entered the HQ. On the way in I met our Supplies XO, Kleymeonov Arkadi Nikolaevich. Everybody was describing him with Suvorov's words: "...we can comfortably hang any supply officer in one year time...". Looking at the well-shaped figure of our "rear XO", you knew that the Generalissimos was absolutely right: in his time, Kleimeonov would've being dangling off the tree by now. His personal luggage has been growing in size by the day, regardless of the heavy fighting. - Ah, Slava, how was the trip? Got the sniper? - No such luck, Arkadiy Nikolaeich, he passed away, - I made a compassionate face, my eyes were telling a different story though and the rear XO picked up on my game. - Really? - Kleymeonov made a puzzled face and asked me, sounding surprised. - Weak heart, - I smiled, - he was wounded too, so didn't survive the departure. Now I have to delicately explain it to San Sanych. He'll be really sad. - He's too busy for that now. By the way, nobody believed you'd bring him anyway. Il'in and yourself could've thrown him harakiri over there on the spot. It is a petty though; we had people queuing up to converse with him, - Kleymeonov shone his teeth. - They were betting, weren't they? - I asked. - Sure, but mostly on your failure. - By the way, I also brought a soldier with me, Semeonov, disappeared during the "North" siege; my grunts are offloading him now. What else is new? - You were only gone for four hours. Oh, yeah, - his voice turned gloomy, - Chief of Staff of the Second Battalion was wounded. It seemed that the walls around us swayed. - Sashka Pahomenko? - I asked. - Himself. They are trying to break through to the hotel "Kavkaz". There are as many rag-heads there as there are demons in hell, so he caught a bullet in his chest. Medics couldn't get up there. Sargent patched him up for now. Now we're getting a storm group ready, made of scouts. Under the cover of dark, they'll try to get him out of there, - I could see Kleymeonov was pretty sad, telling me all that. Captain Pahomenko Alexandr Il'ich was loved by all in our brigade. Very tall fellow, open-minded, he loved having fun. He knew countless gags, funny stories and practical jokes, never malicious. The main thing about him was his openness and honesty. It always deeply affected people who knew him. While taking to him, in about ten minutes you felt like you had known the man since your college years. With all that he was never a layabout or an idler. He was always the first one where it was the hardest, always rushed in to help everyone. Our officers and men liked him unmeasurably. He could help with his words or action, he could also swear like hell - was a real virtuoso in that field. He could get behind the steering wheel of an APC, in freezing cold fix an engine or give soldiers a good lecture. Well, the very type of officer that our information sources were always pounding us with. Detesting his enemy, never hiding his genuine feelings, never refusing to give a helping hand. A bit loud at times, but you get used to it in time. That's what he's been to us, Sashka Pahomenko, who always asked to call him "simply Il'ich". Strange, but at war, these little, long forgotten things are suddenly surfacing in your mind. And now this young man was lying in some basement with a hole in his chest. God help him. - OK, Arkadiy Nikolaevich, I'm off to see San Sanych, - I nodded and headed off along the corridor. - He's in there with an Allied HQ representative. Bahel is out in the Third Battalion's HQ, meanwhile this clean-cut chap is stamping Sanych's brain. They'll probably throw us in to push somewhere, where our elite forces shitted themselves. It's always like that, they get to receive medals and fire at the parliament palace in Moscow and we, Siberian mahra, to crunch asphalt in winter. For that, we get to go home and they will pose for cameras and tell stories to girls, - he spewed and wondered off. The corridor was full of officers and soldiers. Some were smoking, some taking a snooz, leaning against walls riddled by bullets and shrapnel and raising their heads time to time from close explosions. We paid one hell of a price for this kindergarten. In his time, Dudaev announced that Chechnya does need scientists but needs warriors. Thus, boys should go to school for three years and girls for only one. Since women stay at home at all times anyway, kindergartens became obsolete. Then, people, close to his government, some with bribes, some with force, has claimed them all. This one too was rebuilt as a villa and belonged to one of the Dudaev's bandits. The owner and his gang fought for it with ferocity. We were busting these snakes out of here for 12 hours straight and when finally broke in, learnt that he maintained a pretty good live style in here: all floors were covered in carpets, not the cheap stuff but handmade. Design furniture, crystal and china, appliances we only ever saw in brochures. Left around photos had all his family pictured. We lacked women here, that's for sure, but I have never seen a pretty Chechen, not on pictures, not in real life. All had small faces, narrow eyes, hooklike noses and thin lips. Just like rats, if you ask me. Everyone has different tastes though. As we say, - "there are no ugly women, there is just not enough liquor, but I couldn't drink that much..." Occupied by this kind of thoughts I entered the main HQ's room in the basement. I pushed the door covered up by a raincoat-tent and felt the warmth coming from the army camping heater in the corner. I guess these heaters are only still alive in the Army. As long as the army exists they'll always be there on manoeuvres and at war, to offer soldiers warmth and comfort. - Comrade Lieutenant Colonel, captain Mironov, reporting back to duty, - I reported, looking at Bilich, who was leaning at the map. Next to him, bent over the map, were my partner or, as we called each other, "henchman", major Ryzhov Yuri Nikolaevich and some other officer. - We've been waiting for you, Vechaslav Nikolaevich. Did you pick up the sniper? - The Chief of staff asked me, inquisitively looking in my eyes. - Here is your mate, - he nodded at Ryzhov, - was betting a six-pack of cognac that you won't. - If I had only known about the cognac, Alexandr Alexandrovich, I would've brought back at least his head. But the dog died from his wounds and probably from some kind of heart condition. The son of a bitch was, from his own words, our compatriot, from Siberia. Thirty-two slashes I found on his rifle's butt and a fine Japanese scope too. - Where is the rifle? - Took interest in our conversation Ryzhov. - I left it back there. They show it to the grunts for ferocity and not a bad feed for themselves too. - Yeah right, "feed". We all need only one feed now - air support, probable enemy positioning and where the bustards are getting their resupplies from. They were not ready for this war for sure and prepared nothing: no arms, no ammunition and no food. - That's not all, - I interrupted Bilich, - on the way back we were fired upon and took on the rag-heads. After the counterattack, destroyed our enemy and found these on the corpses... - I reached my hand out with the dead soldier's ID tag. - One of ours. Semeonov. Again a clog was stuck in my throat, making it difficult to talk or breath. I pulled my cigarettes out. Bilich wouldn't object, realising what state I was in, although himself was a non-smoker. After a few deep gasps I felt the clog disappearing and continued: - The snakes, probably, were torturing him for some time, and likely while he was still alive, cut his penis off. Then nailed him to a cross, like Jesus. Penis stuck in his mouth. We brought him back; my grunts are probably offloading him now. Here is some more, - I fetched the rest of the IDs, - them too I got off the dead "spook". No more of ours though. San Sanych carefully listened to me, looking straight into my eyes, then, took the ID tags, briefly flicked through them, noting only the garrison numbers, added them up in a little pyramid and handed it to the unfamiliar officer. - By the way, let me introduce you, - he turned to the major, - Major Karpov Vechaslav Viktorovich, Allied HQ representative, General Command HQ officer. And this, - he said pointing at me, - Captain Mironov, our Brigade's HQ senior officer, an adventurer and a warrior. Still can't get accustomed to the fact that he is a HQ officer now not a combat company commander, - San Sanych somewhat fatherly lectured me. I was a bit stunned by the fact that my CO would speak of me so heartily. I reached out and shook the major's hand. - Vechaslav, - he introduced himself. Namesake. We'll see, what kind of bird you are and what the hell you're here for. I figure, one of the big boys, since was sent to us. They might want us softened up before giving some suicidal task or maybe find out in what state of affairs the brigade is in and then fire the CO. These fat cats from Moscow love this kind of tricks. I looked at him a bit more carefully this time. The face definitely looks familiar, but where I saw him before, I, for now, couldn't recall. OK, we'll figure that one out later. The fact that he was from Moscow and from the General Command HQ, immediately made me, like any other line combat officer, dislike him. All grievances come from them. They are all bastards and voracious rats. All soldiers knew this axiom, watching them do nothing but drink themselves stupid at every inspection and then departing for home with generous gifts. Human garbage, from first to last. It's their fault we're here in the first place. Moscow has planned the first and this Grozny assaults. 25[th] of November and 1[st] of January will both be black pages in the Russian Army's History Book. I thought about it while I was shaking the Moscow officer's hand and squeezing out of my face some kind of smile. Although, I think, my parched face reflected all my thoughts pretty well. But I couldn't send this coxcomb to hell right here, in front of San Sanych, whom I respected too much. - Vechalsav, - I introduced myself back to this Moscow rooster. - Major Karpov, take these IDs to the HQ please, let them work out which regions the soldiers are from and notify their families, - San Sanych passed the tags to him. The rep nodded, took the IDs and without even looking or counting, dropped them into one of his parka's outer pockets. Any normal officer would've at least counted them respectful of the dead. I was a bit disturbed by this and asked the son of a bitch with badly hidden irritation: - Aren't you going to loose them like this, my honourable man? Human lives are behind them. Spotting the rage in my voice, San Sanych and Ryzhov looked at the guy like he was an enemy of the state. He must've understood his lapse, mumbled something and placed the IDs in one of his flank jacket inner pockets, meanwhile giving me a very expressive look, like he wanted to grind me into dust. Alright, my boy, look all you want, I can chill a drunken soldier with my look, as for you, dandy ass, I can bring you down to your knees. I calmly stood the look of his watery eyes. He even seemed flimsy. About a meter seventy in hight, may be less, skinny and with small head. All blond, like albino, except his eyes, they weren't red, but rather colourless. His appearance was just repulsive, and his quiff, that he was fixing constantly, was even adding something female to it. Maybe he's gay: a funny thought breezed through my mind. The General Command HQ Officer is a homo. That would make a lot of noise. Well, I heard, in Moscow, it's very fashionable these days - alternative sexual lifestyles. I don't think I'll be sleeping next to him. Though, I think he's just lifeless, like a jellyfish. I might offer to paint this queer orange, for fun. Would make snipers' job easier too. For a second, I imagined the major painted in red colour and a smile stretched my lips. Karpov studied himself nervously - something wrong with his dress? Having ensured that his uniform was intact and finally realising that I'm just laughing at him, he stared at me angrily in response. Knowing my wild character and to relieve the tension in the air, San Sanych declared, talking to everyone at the same time: - Let's stop plotting against each other for now and go see Semeonov's corpse. We'll fill in the paperwork and you, Vechaslav Viktorovich, - he looked at Karpov, - would have to take him with you to the airport and send home. We all moved for the exit. Officers and men were already out in the yard. The corpse was carefully placed on the rolled out canvas, hands folded on his chest. Nail holes in the wrists were clearly seen, his face was thoughtfully covered with a soldiers' handkerchief. Hats off, all present were just standing around in silence. What was on their minds could only be read on their tight-lipped faces. Lucky for the sniper, he was dead. Here, he would've lived a long time, to his distress. Bilich came over to the diseased, lifted up the handkerchief, looked at his dirty face with forever frozen mask of terror on it, sighed and, turning toward standing next to him Kleymeonov, gave him an order: - Arkadiy Nikolaevich, fill in the ID report and prepare the body to be sent home. The HQ representative will take it with him. - Sure, Alexandr Nikolaevich, - and then to the surrounding him grunts, - Take the man inside. It's warmer in there. Call for the bookkeeper; tell him to write up the ID Act, the death notification and whatever else is needed. Everyone suddenly went active. Bilich announced, talking to Ryzhov, the Moscow dandy and me: - Let's go eat. I had, of coarse, nothing against throwing something in my stomach and tipping a nip or two, but not in the company of this faceless shit, that's why I politely refused his offer: - Thank you so much, comrade Colonel, but I'd rather do it later. I have to wash off the dust first and get the sniper and Semeonov's reports out of the way. Other paperwork can't wait for too long either. - As you wish. But at 2100, please be here at my meeting. Com-brig should be too back by then, - carefully looking at me, said San Sanych. It seemed that he figured out what the real reason for my refusal was. They went inside. I watched the grunts carrying away all that remained of Semeonov, then turned around and wandered off to my truck. Every brigade's HQ officer had his own truck. With Yurka Ruzhov, between the two of us, we shared GAZ-66 with a plywood cab. Although, most officers preferred to spend those few minutes of rest in basements, we loved our cab. We also had a personal driver, Harin Pashka, one meter and seventy tall, with broad bone, big and always twinkly face, little eyes but red hair, short, almost shaved, hairdo at the back, according to soldiers' fashion, and always waving long quiff. Naturally, Pashka was a crook and a worm, but I repeatedly observed him in gunfights: many times he pulled out the truck, with us, from under fire, for that we cared for him and trusted him. In peacetime Pashka was a leave abuser, bitter disciplinary offender, big liquor fan and a womaniser. His pregnant fiance was waiting for him back where we came from. He had another year to serve before discharge. Pashka knew practically everything that was going on in the brigade thanks to his friendship with the grunts from the HQ, communications hub and canteen. He supplied us with news, some of which he found out significantly earlier than we did, receiving his information from the comms operators. All of this gave us more time to think about it and then come forward with good advice and initiatives during the Sanych's or Com-brig's meetings, while others were only chewing on the newly received information. For that our superiors regarded us highly as competent officers. Although, we've always been on top as it is, the head start was never a burden. Walking up to our truck I noticed with satisfaction that Pashka managed to fill up the sandbags and enclosed the truck with them. Now we can breath almost freely. There was a thin puff of smoke rising from the pipe meaning that we've got heat, hot water and dry cigarettes. I came up to the door and called out without opening: - Pashka! Where are you? - I'm here, comrade Captain. Guarding. Pashka's figure emerged from the dark; I glanced at the position, he has chosen for his guard and noted to myself that he did it rather cleverly. - All right, my lovechild, what've you got to make your father happy? Did you behave? - I asked him jokingly. - Everything's fine, Vechaslav Nikolaevich. Enclosed the truck with sand, got some food too. Food was a problem, same as matrasses, linen and the BDUs. Reinforcement columns were left behind at the airport; it made no sense dragging them down with us under fire. Only the tankers, carefully guarded, carried over fuel for vehicles and power generators. Of coarse, every officer and soldier had reserves in their tanks and APCs: canned stew and meat kasha containers. But that's no real food, a paved road to stomach ulcer. That's why everyone was constantly busy hounding for nutrition. During the assault on this nice kindergarten, in its basements, we found a decent supply of food and beverages. Much of that we've already eaten and drunk, but we all knew who amassed most of it and using Pahka's personal charm or his cheeky character, periodically expropriated some from the comms operators. - Sonny, - talking to Pashka, I worked my way into the cab, - What kinds of entree and oversees brandy do you have to soften up your old and sick father? - Dutch ham, roasted lamb, sardines, I think French, and two bottles of cognac, judging from the labels, also French. - Got the hot water? - I inquired taking off my rifle, coat and other apparel. - Yep, full kettle, - reported Pashka, throwing the rifle behind his back. - Let's go, flush some on to me and then have dinner, - I have already comfortably settled in the warm atmosphere of the cab and now unwillingly stepped out into the night cold undressed. I scrubbed myself slowly and carefully, huffing and spitting out dirt and dust that clogged my nostrils and mouth. We had no steamer here so far; for that reason we gathered a lot of fresh towels and some cheap polish fragrance in the airport and periodically, stripping naked, rubbed ourselves with them. Our underwear we just chucked, putting on new pairs each time. I got back into the cab, put some cloths on and was wiping up my rifle with a piece of cloth. Meanwhile, Pashka cut up the ham and smelly lamb ribs and opened up a can of sardines. In the centre of the table he set up the sealed bottle of cognac "Hennessey". I opened it and smelled the contents. Not bad at all. Poured out some of it into plastic glasses, a bit more for myself. I lifted the glass, looked though it at the light, shook it and smelled once more, I definitely liked the aroma. - So, Pavel, to good luck. We cheered and tipped the glasses. - Vechaslav Nikolaevich, what happened to the sniper? - Don't you know already? Glue, Semeon, Americanets and the others must've told you all about it by now. He died from the heart condition and his wounds; the rest is none of your business. Now give me the news. Isn't the war over yet? - Not by a long shot, - pronounced Pashka, - on the contrary, the order came through, to speed up the assault of the hotel "Kavkaz". They even promised us air support. And then the brigade will be thrown in to storm the Minutka Square with the Dudaev's Palace. - That's where we'll all drop dead, because it is an obvious suicide to attack a structure of this kind with only one brigade. What else? - The second batt's Chief of Staff was wounded and some artist is up there stuck with them. Shevchuk from "DDT". Ever heard of him?
- No, never heard of him before. What's he doing up there anyway? - Nothing really. He came to Grozny for a concert and then asked for a ride to the front line. Left all his musicians at the airport and popped up over here. Who could predict that the second batt would be then screwed like this? So now he's stuck there. Lads said on the radio he's pretty snappy, not scared at all and even rushing into battle. - Yep, now they'll throw our reserves in there to get him out and maybe even take the hotel for once. Finally medivac all our wounded to the airport and then go home. - The Moscow officer was going around taking to grunts. What's up in the brigade and how they're coping? - You should've told him to go screw himself and that's that. They won't send you any further than here. We've got our own zampolit to do this. We've all seen him in action; he's not hiding behind grunts' backs and doesn't crunch on his rations under the bed. And never throws any theatrical shit either. OK, I'll figure out later what to do with that dick. It's killing me that I can't remember where I saw him before, but I did for sure. - He says he was in the Prednestrovie at some stage. Something like this went down there. You were there too, weren't you? May be that's where you met the man? - May be so. Only I can tell you, Pashka, Pridnestravie of coarse was a lot of fun, but compared to Chachnya all that was like an innocent walk in the park. Over there, the war was more of a classic trench style, although, Bendery and Dubosary did change hands a few times. But overall, compared to this madhouse - boy-scout camp "Sunrise". Now I noticed that Pashka was wearing a rifle bullet on a piece of rope around his neck - an ancient soldiers' amulet; supposedly this very bullet was meant for you. If it was only so! These "charms" only relax you unnecessarily and flatten your sense of vigilance. I smirked: - You better hang a hand-grenade there by its safety pin, and I'll fetch it, or a mine. How about artillery round? How do you know that this bullet was cast for you? Not shrapnel or a concrete block? Go ahead, hang everything on your neck, it might be useful. Remember that grunt from the tank battalion? They found him strangled by this very rope with bullet, just like yours. It didn't save him. Thus, don't be a moron - take it off and use the bullet as intended Gabbing this way, I slowly wiped out the food on the table and leant back. Lighting up a sniper's cigarette I took a puff. The packet was a bit wet though, possibly from my sweat or humidity. - Pashka, got dry cigarettes? - Yep, - he handed me a packet of "Palmira", or, as we call it, "Bum in the mountains". Because the packet depicted some kind of hobo with a stick over his shoulder, wearing vocational panama and jellaba (just like a "spook") and a mountain gorge on the background. - Please, Vechaslav Nikolaevich. I've got more drying out on the heater. Give me yours; I'll fix them up too. I took the packet, twirled it, then lit up and stashed it in one of my pockets. - Give me paper, will you. I'll start on the sniper's report. Pashka gave me paper and sat down near: - Kozaks arrived, asking to let them fight. Even submitted letter of recommendation from the Commander in Chief, - Pashka said softly while cleaning up the remainders of my dinner. Meanwhile I was finishing off the report. - Well, if they are so anxious to fight for mother Russia - let them do it. In Moldova they fought pretty well, even captured weapons for themselves, - said I without raising my head. - Bahel said the same thing and sent them to the recon guys. All five of them. - I suppose I should go and meet them at some stage. All of a sudden, somewhere close by, a furious skirmish broke out. Both of us flew out of the cab at once. Shivering, I pulled on my coat; my mag pouch with a few extra clips was dangling on my shoulder. In case of an attack on the HQ, every officer and soldier knew his area of responsibility. That's why without any extra fuss we sprinted for our little foxhole, dug about by Pahka a few days ago. Somebody was discharging long bursts, meaning that the contact was a close one. Someone was yelling from the dark: - North-east, white five-story house. Discovered an infantry detachment, about ten men in all, could be a diversion of some kind. Not much could be seen in the settling dark, except a few blurred silhouettes. Somebody started launching flares. Pashka too launched a couple. Then, in about thirty yards, I noticed rag-heads, crawling toward us. They were all dressed in nice Turkish camouflage of significantly better pattern and quality than ours. If I catch a "spook" of my size - definitely strip him. Back in Prednistrovie, we caught a "policeman" once, in May's excruciating heat. My feet were boiling and this guy was wearing these really cool boots. Back then they were a rarity, light afghan type with the reinforced base, especially for mountaineering. So I got them off him. Back then we didn't kill prisoners; they were kind of the same as us, fighting because of morons politicians. Now I have been wearing them for three years, although they lost their attractive looks but nobody makes them anymore. Maybe, someone will pull them off me just like I did, perhaps alive or maybe dead. God alone knows. I touched Pashka's elbow and showed him the rag-heads. - Let's go, - I whispered. We opened up in short bursts. In flares' light we could see the little geysers of mud and snow. The rag-heads realised that they have been discovered and fired back at us. They were definitely in a worse situation and thus were letting off long bursts, crawling backwards. Someone opened up from his under barrel launcher cutting them off. Suddenly a machinegun fired from behind us. Did they plan to encircle us? No freaking way, assholes! I felt my fatigue beginning to disappear and again, intoxicating rush of the gunfight was consuming me, the flow of blood thrusting into my head forcing out remainders of the grogginess. - Pashka, cover me, I'll do them from my launcher, - I yelled with excitement, getting the weapon ready. - Come-on my darling, don't let me down, - I muttered, shoving grenade into its black trunk. "Bang", said my launcher, spitting the grenade towards the rag-heads. Too high, I noted correcting. Another one. Gotcha. The grenade burst right in the middle of the group of crawling "spooks". Two of them whirled around, obviously wounded; the third got up on his knees holding his head and then dropped face down in the mud. - That one's cooked, - I yelled in intoxication, meanwhile spotting another target. But the rest of the reg-heads managed to hide behind the rubble and began to gush at us from their rifles. Now, the flares worked against us, clearly giving away our positions. A grenade exploded right behind us. Looks like they too have the launchers. "Issued from the same warehouse?" I thought, bitterly grinning at my sad idea. I switched to automatic now, trying to spot where the enemy fire was coming from. Somebody was running at us from behind, heavily treading. We turned around sticking our rifle barrels into the dark, ready to open up at any moment. That was Yurka Ryzhov. - Shit, man, you scared the devil out of us, - said I getting back to business. - Yep, it's definitely more fun over here than with that Moscow creep. Ragging and ragging constantly. This is not right; that document is not correctly filled in. Do not write down that the man was captured prisoner; indicate that he is being unlawfully detained by the illegitimate armed formations. He also recommended that we speed up the hotel "Kavkaz" assault, ourselves, take it in the shortest possible time and then proceed toward the Minutka Square and storm it on the march, - he stopped for a second and then added: - head on. - Stuff that. They can storm it themselves if need it so much. As for us, we need more air support, - I yelled angrily, firing back into the night. After the Yurka's news I went frantic and was hammering with long bursts, - you see, I just took one out, the other two are over there whirling, probably wounded. Judging from the shooting, we figured the reg-heads were not leaving just like that. Somewhere from behind our backs we heard "Shilka" talking, the one that was set up this morning. Well, now it'll chop them up like salad with its rapid fire and calibre. Yurka together with us, was, with excitement, picking at the rag-heads with long bursts, keeping the bastards from raising their heads. - Slava, the Moscow shithead says he saw you before in Kishineov. All of a sudden, it became crystal clear. Now I remembered everything. When back in Kishineov, without any ID papers, we were transferred over the front line back and forward; this degenerate was there in the Staff Office. Then his Office was reassigned to the Moldova Republic. Although he stayed there in the same department and rank. Our personal folders then fell into the Moldovans' hands. At the end, all of us were pronounced war criminals. I came to him asking to return my folder, but he bluntly refused, motivating that I am, in fact, a war criminal and he wouldn't want to be my accomplice. Then he suggested I leave immediately or he'd call the guards and arrest me on the spot. The son of a bitch changed colours quickly, but apparently, eventually had to run for his life too. In a few months, they declared an amnesty and I am, for now, not a criminal anymore. The rag-heads started hammering our positions with renewed energy. Somebody screamed from behind us after the next burst. Shit, someone was hit. We saw a flash in the dark and redirected our fire over there. In a couple of minutes somebody in there screamed and something made a noise. For a few more minutes, in excitement, we kept going in the enemy's direction, but there was no response. Apparently the rag-heads retreated having got enough. We had no particular desire to go and check the area. We'll find out when the sun rises. - Apparently the original owner came for his liquor, - jested Yura. - The moron must've forgotten what Karl Marks wrote in his "Capital" on the second page first paragraph. - What did he write, Vechaslav Nikolaevich? - Pashka enquired from the dark. - A very simple phrase - was yours, now is ours. Expropriation of the expropriators. If they hadn't screwed around, we wouldn't have come here in the first place. - Anything left to drink? - Ryzhov wondered. - Sure, don't you worry; haven't you had a drink with the faceless shit? - I replied. - We have, but he is too fussy. We didn't offer him any cognac but rather had Vodka. The son of a bitch wondered if we, by any chance, had any spoils left. - Moscow motherfucker, - I spewed into the mud, meanwhile, in complete darkness, filling up empty magazines, feeling the rounds with my fingers. - All seems quiet. Let's go back. I still have my report to finish and San Sanych's meeting to attend. - OK. Pashka you stay here and guard, if you spot anything - call out, we'll come and rescue you form the evil Chechen, - Yura jested. We got out of the foxhole and, shaking off the dirt from our BDUs, started for the cab. Around us in the darkness, officers were walking, to their trucks to prepare for the meeting. - Hey people, who was shot? - I yelled into the night. - The comms driver, Larionov. He's OK though. The shrapnel only punctured the skin but the bones are fine. He is in the sickbay now. He'll live, - a voice answered me from the dark, sounded like the Arms XO Cherepkov Pavel Nikolaevich. - Soon, there won't any more room in the sickbay to put the wounded. We should try to break out the blockade and ship them all out, or we'll lose them, - said loudly Yura, returning to the cab. - We should look into it and discuss with our COs, - I picked up his idea. - Let's have a drink and then go listen to the rant of the Moscow pimp, - said Yurka, casting his rifle in the corner, - for I am sick of doing it alone. According to their perception, we can't fight for shit; we have to inspire men, make them imagine that all this is the Berlin assault and the Dudaev's Palace is the Reichstag. Bloody paranoia. If it were up to them, these bastards would lay us down like rails for their cheap glorious speeches, - Yurka was heating up more and more, that however didn't keep him from pouring out Vodka and opening sardines cans. - Alright, Yurok, stop it. Let's drink up and later on the meeting, we'll bonk the asskisser. Don't worry too much. Whatever they cook up, we are the ones who will be carrying it out. With the present air support and artillery back up, we're stuffed anyway. He can go and screw himself. OK, - I lifted the glass to my eye level and looked at the colours play, - let's go, to us, the good guys, and death to the morons. - Yeah right, start holding your breath, - Yurka just wouldn't cool down and, it seemed, was boiling even more. - Fight them all you want they'll win anyway. It looks like they are intentionally working for the Chechens, to kill as many our men as possible. - OK, Yura, stop yelling, we have to think of the way to get the wounded out of here. They won't give us a break until we step out anyway. And during the assault we'll take in more casualties for sure, now you do the maths. If you ask me, tomorrow morning we have to fetch the recon guys from the third battalion with whatever they still have that we can ride on, and break out. Otherwise we'll lose shitload of men. Drink up, - I raised my glass and toped it without cheers. Yurka too drunk his. Since we were under our full strength during the departure, we were complemented by one more battalion from Novosibirsk. According to the initial plan, we had to complete all preparations by autumn and depart for Tadzhikistan for integrating into the 201[st] division or some peacekeeping force; anyhow, to fight for God knows what or who. So this battalion arrived on new, experimental BMP-3s. The machine looked great, everything seemed thought of, - however, turned out total shit. Stuffed with electronics like your Lexus, but made in mother Russia. Thus, at first, we coped so much shit from it. It couldn't fire its weapons on the run: equipment failed from vibration. All its sighting systems were electronic, thus totally useless garbage. When it did fire, it couldn't move: something again to do with the damned computer. Well, all in one word, - very crude system and thus terrible. In the third battalion, twenty-four men died in the first quarter of January because of this buggered APC. Terrible statistics, isn't it? All because this unrefined machinery was shipped to the Army, furthermore, to the war zone. About five of them we've lost already. We've moved them off to a safe place and, for now, use as machinegun nests. Although the cannon jams after it fires its first shot. Or as taxi charter in the more or less safe neighbourhoods. I wish those snakes that accepted this weaponry dropped dead. Having my second drink I listened to Yura telling me about my Moscow namesake. He was on fire after I left - at war, he said, some officers let themselves loose and do not exercise proper behaviour code towards their superiors; the discipline is lax and so on and on. Then, having sent all this Moscow bullshit artists to hell, we finished off the bottle and in good mood left for the meeting. We felt like teaching the Moscow rep a lesson in gallantry and military science, in front of all the brigade's officers. At war, feelings towards all representatives are always the same - nobody can send you any further than these tranches, and their official warnings are not like clap, they'll hang out there for a while and then fall off at some stage. By the way, my honourable reader, - clap (gonorrhoea), is "the officers' heyfever". Back in their college years, half of the officers' corps managed to catch it. In the Army, compared to civilian life, this disease is not considered shameful. Shit happens. At the meeting, every officer knew his spot. Like all HQ officers, we were sitting close to the Chief of Staff. The meeting room was situated in the former children's basketball court, which had become a lounge room at the Chechen owner's villa, where he built in a beautiful fireplace, which we, in turn, were feeding with his own furniture. By the way, red timber burns badly, a lot of smoke and not much heat. Our com-brig was sitting at the head of the big dinner table. As we could see he didn't even wash up since his return. Judging from his mood, we figured second battalion was in deep shit. Somebody was talking behind us; I turned around - it was our Recon CO. His face was just as dirty as the com-brig's. I figured they went together and thus asked him: - How did you two go? How is the second battalion? - Totally stuffed. On the way back we drove into an ambush, one APC was hit. Driver wounded, Gusarov, you know him? First, busted the track then wasted us at close range. Barely escaped with our lives. - No, I don't know him. - I shook my head. - Bad wound? - His wrists are badly burnt, shrapnel cut his shoulder and part of his ear is gone. If they keep his hands, he'll be fine. It's a petty though, he is a smart fellow and I wanted to make him a sergeant. - Listen, I'll be suggesting now that before we go out and help the second battalion, we should ship our wounded off, or they're all goners, your driver too, by the way. For that we have to contract the third battalion and your lads. What do you reckon? - Sure, count me in. While we were offloading the wounded, I remembered that there is a republican drug warehouse here near by and our corpsemen have nothing besides aspirin and their enthusiasm. - OK, go on, make a suggestion. We'll work on that and snatch the drugs from the rag-heads. Otherwise addicts and marauders would bag them anyway. - Attention please! - Chief of Staff spoke out. The humming in the room stopped and everyone was now looking at the COs. - During yesterday, our brigade was participating in the following assaults: central train station, hotel "Kavkaz" and here. Also, while proceeding to locations of the brigade's detachments, several HQ Groups were fired upon and became involved in short skirmishes. As a result, our brigade has lost, - there was absolute silence in the room, - two KIA, private Azarov - tank battalion, sergeant Harlapidi - engineering battalion. There have been four wounded: Chief of Staff of the second battalion, senior lieutenant Pahomenko, first battalion company commander lieutenant Krasnov, Private Gusarov - recon company and private Larionov - communication battalion. Also, we found a body of private Semeonov - engineering battalion, who was earlier declared missing in action. The man died a terrible death, - here San Sanych looked up, faced everybody in the room and continued without the bulletin, - his was tortured, then nailed to the cross and his penis cut off and placed into his mouth. Horrible image, I have to tell you, gentlemen. The room went buzzing. Officers, despite the presence of their COs and the representative from Moscow were loudly and resentfully discussing death of the soldier. - Calm down, gentlemen, - Bilich resumed his speech after pausing for a moment, - I'll continue, I am no less disturbed by this, but let us dedicate our emotions and rancour to the enemy, right now, there is nothing we can do about it. Next, first battalion captured a sniper, from his own words our compatriot, from Novosibirsk. Captain Mironov was not able to bring him over, from his words, the latter died from his wounds and heart condition. And again the room went buzzing with noise, this time with approval. Those, whose eyes I met, were nodding and winking to me, approving, as I was the one who wasted the sniper. Someone from the back of the room declared: "his guilty conscience killed him". Officers cackled with approval. The room was scarcely lit, actually, only the table with the Com-brig, Chief of Staff and Karpov was illuminated, the rest was all covered in darkness. That's why those at the back were making all sorts of comments without the fear of being recognised. Lucky bastards. Again San Sanych had to call for order. Slowly the buzz settled. I inwardly was watching the faces of our Com-brig and the Moscow major. If our CO's lips were touched by a smile after the "conscience" remark, the representative kept cheerless expression on his face with his thin lips, displaying his negative impression of the matter. A rat is always a rat. It would be interesting to know if he was ever a platoon leader or a company commander. Or straight after the college he popped up on the HQ parquetry? I've gone through all the necessary stages, neither was I ever elevated in rank before the right time, kissing commanding asses along the way. That's probably why I travelled all over our country's hot spots. I have no desire for my son to serve in the military, although my father, my uncle, father in law and myself went to the same damned military college. If I had ever learnt English language, wouldn't have ended up in this shithole. Now San Sanych was telling us about our future objective, which Karpov brought with him. The latter was erupting with self-importance; it seemed all this was his idea and we owe him everything. The officers were listening carefully, quietly exchanging their comments at times. Then Karpov made his speech: - Gentlemen! Our Allied Force Head Quarters has set up an honourable task for you: amongst the first troops, you are to spearhead the attack on the lair of the savage and then destroy him. The Commander in Chief himself is keeping this operation under his control. You have proven yourselves in the past battles and therefore, as the Commander's representative, I am confident that the Siberians will handle their challenge with honour. And more of that boring rant, in the worst traditions of the soviet cinematography. If he thought his listeners would explode applauding and give him standing ovations, he was dead wrong. There was nothing in the room besides quiet chuckles and calm remarks. Then someone from the back clearly and loudly yelled out "Go to hell". From the construction of the phrase I figured who that was. Only one person in the room could express himself like that - our tank battalion commander, Mazur Sergei Mihailovich. When we came here, we had forty-two tanks T-72, now we have twenty-six. In ten days we have lost sixteen tanks, mostly with their crews. That's why major Mazur had the right to send all smarty-pants from Moscow the farthest and most often. Everyone was waiting for the response. It came swiftly: - Who said that? I suppose it's not a smart and honourable officer and unlikely that he would come out and say it to my face. But Mazur rose, and pushing away officers in their chairs, came up to the table. - I said that, so what are you going to do? Because of fucks like you I have lost forty-eight men and God knows how many more I will lose because of your hallucinations. Why won't the air force and artillery beat the crap out of this damned square with all that's still there? And the grunts would block the approaches and take out everyone who would try to sneak off. That's all. There won't be as many soldiers' blood spilt though and we'd have to spend more time. Now everyone was watching Karpov. He was obviously confused: - The problem is that the whole world is watching what is happening here. All major news agencies and television stations have been registered at the Head Quarters. If we use air force and artillery on a square of this kind, the world community might not take it well. As you correctly mentioned that it would take more time, but our government needs this conflict to stop as soon as possible. Local opposition, which is on our side, would also be against using air force and artillery to solve this problem. Maybe somebody would wish to surrender? Moreover, we had received authentic information that a group of well-known human rights activists headed by the Duma politician Krylov is in one of the Dudaev's basements. Krylov is the guarantor of Dudaev's personal safety. As a result of a massive air strike they might get hurt. - Screw them! - I'll become an artillery spotter, so that the lads wouldn't miss! - Hang the bitch! The well-known human rights activist Krylov was called many unflattering names. This madhouse would've gone on for a while, if the Com-brig hadn't barked: - That's enough! Please comment only on the subject. Orders are not to be discussed - they are to be carried out. Other details like air and artillery support, time frames and interactions with other units would be discussed later on. I am listening. Please note that the hotel must be taken within the next three days. Any suggestions? I raised my hand. - May I? Comrade Colonel, - the CO nodded to me and I went on, - If we are to face an assault like that it is possible to expect that we will take more casualties. Our wounded, however, are cramped in the sickbay as it is. We are also running out of medicaments. Therefore, I suggest the following: tomorrow, with the strength of the third battalion, support of the recon company and chemical defence company we would break away to the "North" airport and medivac all our wounded out of here. Then, in our immediate proximity, we have the republican medical warehouse. Medicaments definitely wouldn't hurt to have at this stage. - This warehouse is for the local population only! - The moron moscvich gave off a remark. - We must never do that, it would set the locals against us! - Keep quiet, major, - cut him off Com-brig, - we've already given you an opportunity to speak up. This war has already set them against us. There is no way back. Mironov, continue. - I'm pretty much done here. If my plan is approved, I offer to personally head the convoy. Other than that we have to notify the battalions so that they ship their wounded over at the HQ as early as possible. We should be under way at about 9.30 and if everything goes according to my plan, we could be back by about 17.00, leaving us enough time to start on the medical warehouse. - What about the hotel "Kavkaz" and the Square? - I suggest, that during evacuation of the wounded, myself, or someone else, would contact our front command office and discuss all available options. If somebody is willing to take over the train station from us, the first and second battalions could easily bust the rag-heads out of the hotel. We can also give them the third battalion for support and clean up operations. If we could also move the self-propelled howitzers a bit closer, we might be able to complete the task within the previously mentioned time frame. Only if our friends from the "North" don't shell us again, as it has happened many times before, - I couldn't help myself and again kicked the HQ rep. The discussion of all "for" and "against" arguments of my plan took a while after that. In about half an hour, our CO approved it overall. He made a decision to personally head the convoy to the "North". He was also taking several officers with him: myself with Ryzhov, recon CO, medical CO, third battalion CO and Supplies XO. After brief calculation, it turned out we had one hundred and twenty-two wounded to transfer, including all from the battalions. Many of them refused to medivac. It's strange though, for them this war was over, they didn't chicken out or self-inflict their wounds, many of them were even about to be awarded medals, some could be discharged before their term after this. But even the badly wounded refused to be shipped out. Their COs yelled at them, some ordering, some trying to convince them to go. A lot of grunts were broken down crying, like they were unjustly punished or something. A few didn't want to go because of the soldiers' brotherhood, the real one not the imaginary kind. Some were frankly saying that their thirst for blood isn't quenched yet for their fallen comrades. Looking at their faces and their madly blazing eyes, you begin to understand that these men could easily give up their own lives for their comrades. No looking back, no bargaining with death or enemy, just stand in the path between the bullet and his comrade without making demands for rewards or medals. I asked myself a question that I haven't yet been able to answer, maybe that's what this superior spirit of the Russian Soldier is, that no army could ever break? Despite the fact, that every government in Russia hated and dreaded its own army, trying tirelessly to break its backbone, something that no enemy could ever do. But the Russian mahor, regardless of his superiors' scams, has always sunk his teeth into his enemy's throat, in spite of his furious resistance, avenging the deaths of his brothers, himself died but killing his foe. The death of one would cause desire for vengeance in the others and this would go on to the last soldier. The government, knowing this phenomena, periodically makes new opponents, because when the obvious enemies are dead, you, having tasted their blood, can't stop any more and start looking back. And if you did look back, you'd understand, my reader, that while you were fighting here, at someone's obscure order, life in your country calmly went on. Somebody even made a little fortune from this war, someone else transferred money overseas. But your comrade, whose mutilated body you were dragging out of the killing zone, under fire, yourself soaking in blood and sweat, he now receives a pension from the government, for both his legs that he lost out there, 300 rubles. When after the third toast, he'll grab your hand and, looking into your eyes, ask you in breaking voice: "why the hell did you pull me out of there, why?" You will feel sick and ashamed that you saved his life. This very act, that you were so proud of and maybe even rewarded, - will be the most shameful and bitter act of your life. Because your government sent you into this butchery and then, chucked you out, the still living ones as well as all the dead. It has bedamned and forgotten you. There was nothing there. All this was your paranoid hallucination caused by the posttraumatic syndrome and multiple concussions. But don't you worry. We'll fix you up in the mental home in about five years, come on in. Whatever remains of the army, we'll disperse and downsize, so that they don't tell anybody anything and debate our actions. Same as witnesses after a crime, they'll remove the military after each of their "salvaging operations". Like they did after Afghanistan, Germany, and so on. Because they knew for sure, the Army can turn around and see that the real enemy is right here in Moscow. Thus, when they throw you out or lock in a God forsaken garrison, you'd look back at your life and realise that the brightest, most memorable moments and impressions, the taste and price of life you experienced back there at some war. Your whole life will be now divided in two parts: "before" and "after" that war. Here you will be put before the choice, the infinite Russian question: "what do I do now?" You can try and live you life like everyone else, but you know that you won't get far. You can try and enter the police force. By the way, they are not ecstatic to see us there, they say we are all psychos. We can become contract killers, our familiar business and the money's good too. To kill, not as many people, not for some principles or vengeance but for money. Would you do it? Does it make you sick? Some go for it. There is a third path however - mercenary. It's true though you'd be fighting side by side with those you were shooting at not so long ago, but that's OK. Money doesn't smell and who knows, you might even like it and take vengeance on the locals for your fallen friend who used to be your enemy. All our wounded grunts knew it only too well. Some knew; some sensed it with their skins that all this is what a man lives for, and if they leave now, they would never again experience it. That's why they hung in to every opportunity to stay. To some their COs plainly lied, telling them that they are only going out there to accompany the column and would then come back here again. Some of them believed it while others wanted to believe, hoping that the convoy won't be able to break out and would have to return. Some grunts anticipated that before the medivac they would, for one last time, fight and send a few more true believers to see their Allah for themselves. They do like squalling "Allah akbar, Allah akbar", - so what? We too know that he's "akbar", but they, for some reason, don't rush to meet him. That's no good. Moreover, they are promised a heaven for the holy war with the kafirs. Therefore, we are actually doing them a favour, sending them to paradise, but they are resisting it like blind puppies. This night at the HQ was pretty much sleepless. All of us, Yurka, myself, Chief of Staff, recon CO and other officers were working on the details for the medivac convoy. We talked to all the neighbouring units, arranging the safe passage through their territory and interaction in case of an ambush. Mechanics were busy getting their vehicles ready for the transit and gunsmiths tried to adjust BMP-3s. There was enough work to go around for everybody. When all arrangements were made and all questions answered, only the HQ officers were left in the room. Now the head of the Operational Department initiated the meeting. We now were discussing our options for the Minutka Square complex assault. At first we said everything we had on our minds about the Allied Command and Moscow smart asses, but gradually we cooled down and the meeting went along a calm path. All of us came to the conclusion, that a head-on assault of the square would be a sure suicide. But first, we had to take the bridge over the Sunzha River overlooking the square. There, marching our men under the deadly close range fire, we could lose them all. This bridge was right in our path and could not possibly be avoided, unless we took a detour over half of the city. Suddenly, chief of the guards barged into the room. - Comrade Lieutenant Colonel, - he started anxiously, addressing our Chief of Staff, - the Moscow rep just left. - What? - San Sanych couldn't grasp it at first. - Got on to his BRDM, said that he was called in and left. - When? - About fifteen minutes ago. I called him on the radio, he says that he must be at the "North" before the sunrise. - What a moron? He'll die himself and lose his men. He should've been riding with the convoy tomorrow morning. Idiot, nutcase, - the head of the operational department, major Ozerov was furious. We all knew too well what that meant - riding alone, in the dark, through a besieged town on a light armoured APC. The end result is almost always same - be captured by the rag-heads or catch a bullet from your own. Every soldier knew that, not mentioning the officers. It can't be that this screwed in the head even considered that his rank would save him! Martial law in Grozny was in full swing, which meant that sometimes we couldn't even medivac our worst wounded to the better-equipped hospital at the "North". And now this bonehead, this pimple on our asses, endangering the lives of the grunts escorting him, just vanished into the night. Immediately we called on the "North" and told them about their knucklehead. It's likely he did it on impulse, trying to get to the Command HQ before any news from here could reach them, and report that we dared to openly debate orders of our superiors. He actually had the poor Semeonov's body with him too. There is just no peace for him. Forgive us, private. In the "North" they all went nuts. I can only imagine - an officer has gone missing. An officer, who knew about, maybe only parts of, but still, plans of the General Command. Moreover, the allied HQ staff member. Looks like Karpov actually knew quite a bit, because a search party was organised to look for him in the middle of the night. The radio traffic was red hot. All detachments were reporting that the BRDM with the rep has not yet passed through their roadblocks. Down here, we were prepared to face the music of future allegations that we deliberately sent him away in the middle of the night. Thus, instead of catching at least a tiny bit of sleep, we were busy making up reports that we were never here and there or never did this and that, and all that bullshit. God forbid for you to be accused of sabotage towards your superiors. You can make a wooden souvenir out of your opponent, but don't you dare giving looks to your COs. Well, there are many morons for us to face in this life. Although, we do, feel petty for the bastard. He's our blood, Russian. So could the grunts in his escort, get hurt for nothing. For some reason everyone was convinced that, if the units along his route keep silent, he is a goner. Probably a captive now, in the rag-heads' hands. God, let him be captured dead, otherwise, a lot of our plans would have to be changed. Sometime about eight in the morning we received information that the BRDM with Karpov drove into one of the OMON roadblocks that was set up right before the dusk. As we have predicted he tried to wave his rank into their faces. The OMON lads, of coarse, didn't give a shit about some General Command HQ together with their major Karpov. At first, they really mistook him for a spy. For the rest of the night they kept kicking the crap out of him and the grunts. Before the sunrise they put him before the firing squad a few times, hoping he makes a confession. A couple of times they even fired a few shots over his head. In the morning everything became clear. Airborne fellows arrived, threw a few punches around for their grunts, picked up knocked out Karpov and the remains of Semeonov's body and left for the "North". Karpov went back to Mozdok with the first available flight and from there probably to Moscow. It's likely he'll be awarded a medal of some sort and later would be, on TV or in his memoirs, recounting how he, alone, rode through half of the whole Chechnya, or something like that. Well, good luck to him.
At 8.00 in the morning we began loading our wounded onto cars and lining up the convoy. Earlier, clashing along the way, armoured vehicles from the first and second battalions broke through to us with their dead and wounded. Since there was not enough room in the yard for everyone, only the worst ones were loaded up there. The rest, who were relatively OK: in clear mind, were squashed into armoured trucks using stretchers, crutches and whatever else could be utilised. All who could fire weapons rode on top of APCs. Everyone knew well, that those inside armoured carriers would inevitably die in case of a direct grenade hit or a mine explosion. Thus, responsibility for them rested heavily on shoulders of those riding atop of the "armour". The convoy turned out bigger than expected. In all: fifteen APCs. Wheeled trucks were dropped in favour of the armoured APCs since even a rifle bullet could easily penetrate their cabs, not mentioning cumulative grenades and mines. Luckily (or may be not), a heavy fog came down on the city. The winter here sucks. It's cold but there is no snow; the mud is not even mud, but rather a thick layer of muck that just swallows your boots. To free them you have to apply loads of pressure and they come out with huge pieces of filthy sludge on them. Vehicles had the same problem. What will it be like here in spring? During the night, surface has been covered with a little crust of ice and thus, we thought we could try and slip away quietly and quickly, using the fog and frozen soil. Comms operators radioed every one of our neighbours and the "North" that our convoy is about to leave. One paradox was that all army units, regardless of the kind, have been using the same radio frequencies and call signs that they did when they came into Grozny. All of which meant that if you try to scan the radio traffic within the range of 3 to 30 MHz, during the day, you could easily find out where each unit is located and what exactly it is doing there. Moreover you would know the names of the unit's leader, radio operator and all sorts of other useful and not so useful information. By the way, our opponents were not much smarter, keeping their frequencies and call signs unchanged for weeks at a time. Well, we kind of, matched each other over there. Services of the radio traffic interception and disinformation of both sides were on top at all times. However, chechens had one unquestionable advantage - they could speak Russian and therefore deceive us; we, on the other hand, could not speak Chechen and thus were helpless trying to fool them. More often than not, during clashes as well as during the breaks between them, aborigines, having set up radio contact with our units, tried to make propaganda conversations and of coarse threats. Since the first clashes they started calling us "dogs". Another example would be the Train Station assault. Back then, "spooks" fooled our neighbouring artillery regiment, and the lads, thinking they had spoken to us, for about 30 minutes, were thoroughly shelling us. Unfortunately these cases were not unique. With time, through the system of codes and passwords, we slowly stopped walking into chechen traps. After many of our men have already been killed or injured. And no matter what, our brigade, and those units that worked together with us, kept using old frequencies and call signs, right to the very time of our withdrawal. Army stupidity. What can you do? Unfortunately it was everywhere. Any suggestions from the lower levels of the power pyramid were met with resentment. Considering all this, we knew for sure, that our convoy's departure was not only known to the General Command in the "North", but also wasn't a secret to half of the rebels in town. Nevertheless, even if it was a probable suicide, we stood by our decision. Without the proper medical attention, men could simply die out here; moreover, they tied everybody else's hands with their presence. They have become a burden and an extra target. Besides, considering our next objective, we had to free up room for future casualties. Thus, after a short hesitation, we turned our faiths over to the good fortune and started our journey. Our path lied along the streets of a demolished city that, with its ruins, rather depicted the old chronicles of Stalingrad half a century ago. Death watched us from every basement and every window. A sniper could be hiding in there or an RPG launcher. He could've gone to the same military college as us. Or may be fought with us side-by-side in Afghanistan, Angola or here in one of our country's hot spots. According to the well-developed tactics, the first and the last vehicles in the convoy are destroyed first. Then, the rest of the column is methodically eliminated. Reliable tactics. Very few ever escape. - Let's move! - The instruction came from our Com-brig. He rode on the second APC. Recon guys were riding on their two carriers in front of the convoy. For ten minutes everything was fine. In a couple of days after we arrived in Grozny, our General Command ordered us to clearly mark our vehicles. For example, our cars had letter "S" painted on their sides, meaning Sebirian Military District. A bitter taste suddenly appeared in my mouth, although, there was no nervous rush as yet. That will come later. I knew that, all of us did. We all experienced the same feelings all over again. Suddenly a popular song motive played in my mind: "I want so much to crash into this town!" Yep, that's right, I really do want that. Or better crash into Mozdok, where our General Command is, which in turn, was heading our directional command. Nobody really knew why the hell we needed them in the first place. They always wanted to control separate detachments, over their COs' heads, which always ended up badly for the latter.The most interesting part was that they, in Mozdok, enjoyed the same allowances as we had over here. There weren't many of them, but still, at least we earned them. For instance, one day here counted as three and we'd get paid double time when we came home; that's pretty much it. And you, my reader, thought that we would be enjoying all the privileges of soldiers in a war zone. Yeah, right! There is no war in Chechnya. All this is the fruit of your TV's rich imagination. Although occupied by these thoughts, I didn't forget to constantly look around. So much we've destroyed here and we'll destroy yet even more. Demolishing is not the same as building. I carefully looked at my grunts' faces. All covered in dust, burnt by local winds, parched by the gunpowder from frequent shooting and grenade explosions. I noticed a grunt, sitting at the back, in his burnt through tank crew uniform and patched up head. I looked at him again more carefully this time. Wow, this guy is one hell of a lucky bustard. He was a driver-mechanic with the surname of German or Jewish origin - Goldstein. We had people of all sorts of nationalities in our brigade including even uzbeks and tadzhiks. This tanker was driving his tank through the Grozny entrance and the infantry were taking cover behind it. Back then, no one of the grunts knew that you must walk <i>in front</i> of the tank and only then it will save you. Now they know. It was a very expensive learning curve. Since they were entering the town at night, this guy was driving in the position "on manoeuvre", sticking his head out of the hatchway.God knows why some sniper didn't snatch him. Others they picked on the fly, this one was just plain lucky. He was lucky again when a rocket slammed into his tank's right side. Goldstein was propelled out of the tank like a cork, about fifteen meters up high and landed on a tree branch. I thought he was gone. But he's alive, only patched up a little meaning everything else is intact. Probably had a bad concussion. I wouldn't worry: They'll fix him up quickly in his historical homeland. I can remember when the conscripts arrived six months ago, he was begging not to be assigned anywhere to do with secrets*. If it weren't for the Army, he'd be with his relatives by now. His parents have left already, but he was still finishing up his graduate university diploma and didn't complete it in time. In any case he'll be discharged now and would be treated like a human being for once. * AD. Until recently, Jews in Russia (or anybody else) could be refused travelling visa to leave the country if they served in the military units that looked after classified technology. It was of particular importance to Jews, rather that to any other nationality, as this was the time of their mass migration to Israel. In this case, the man was drafted in the Army, while his parents have already immigrated. Serving in the strategic forces, for example, could've held him back in Russia for three or more years after his discharge. End of comment. AD That artist, who was stuck with the second battalion, is also here with us, riding on the fifth carrier. He came over with the wounded Chief of Staff and their three injured grunts. Some snappy fellow he turned out to be. Everyone expected him to be untouchable and star-like, but he is actually an easygoing chap, having been stuck in the basement for three days, under constant fire and counterattacks, according to the witnesses, he didn't hide at all. He acted like a real man, even attending to the wounded. They didn't give him a weapon though - he's pretty shortsighted, God forbid for him to get hurt. Other than that, first class fellow. When the rag-heads offered the battalion to surrender, the grunts told them that Shevchuk was with them. The "spooks" didn't believe it at first. The grunts let them listen to him on the radio and chechens offered to let him out, even guaranteed his safe passage. He refused though. He also promised (and soon we found out that he actually kept his promise) to send wounded grunts to a hospital in Germany. Not only from our brigade but others too, paying for that from his own pocket and his friends'. He was purchasing them wheel chairs and artificial limbs without the usual hype. There was no reporters or news conferences. He organised everything nicely and quietly, like a man. The recon guys radioed that they were fired upon and are now full time engaged in a skirmish. Estimated opponents' force - about 20 guns. Nobody used "Shmels" so far, only personal launchers and rifles. We made our decision - press forward. Because of the fog we couldn't see our enemy, they too can't see us for sure, thus firing pretty much blindly. The Com-brig ordered to put up the smoke covers and we added black smoke to the fog, just like crude oil in a milk container. Coming close, our trucks fired their cannons at the reported positions. Then BMP-3s opened up from their machineguns. Finally, we too, like in a well-schooled orchestra, lined up with our rifles and grenades. Great panorama, I'd tell you. From the thick black cloud of smoke, about a kilometre wide, the spirts of tracers were gushing everywhere, grenades were flying, leaving smoking tails behind them. A scene, that could be worthy of an artist's effort. Emotions were running hight too. We couldn't know if our path was clear - may be a wall along the way collapsed by itself or somebody helped it. Or may be an antitank mine is hidden somewhere in the piles of trash. But there was no fear, in my mind or in the eyes of the grunts that surrounded me here. We all knew that if we fail, our wounded comrades would die. Our decision was to go to the end: to the death or victory. So far we were definitely lucky, the engines roared on high revs, adding their semi-processed fuel exhausts to the thick smoke cover. Although the convoy stretched along a wide area, Com-brig decided not to break it down into small mobile units but still carry on as one column. Going past this neighbourhood, we kept our speed as high as we could squeeze out of our darling APCs. Finally we cleared it, surprisingly enough, without any friendly fire accidents. Maybe the rag-heads retreated or for some other reason, but nobody was shooting at us any more or chasing us. But all of us knew that it was still too early to relax. We had to keep going and survive. Recognisance party ahead of us, radioed in that they reached first of our neighbouring roadblocks. That's better. Now the airborne units will walk us through their territory. They are OK soldiers, but not persistent enough and too cocky. They can't tenaciously assault the same target for a long time. They push furiously at first, but gradually, run out of steam. They act well as a supporting force, but on their own, of not much use. They have been trained to storm a structure, destroy it and get out of there. They are not prepared for these long and backbreaking battles. But our mahra is a different thing all together. In excruciating heat, rain or snowstorm, we'll carry on anywhere: in the arctic, deserts or swamps. We'll die but complete the objective. On the roadblock, airborne guys were waving us and smiled, showing their teeth on the same parched faces as ours. It was a delight to see that we are not alone here in this hostile land. Their com-bat promised to send a party to sweep the area where we were ambushed. In case they'd find spooks there, he'll register them as his kills, we, in turn, would write them down as ours, indicating the approximate number of the enemy infantry destroyed. Some funny guy at the "North" managed to calculate how many of the enemy we have knocked down here in Chechnya. Turned out that during the 10 days of fighting we have wiped out the entire Chechen population twice around. It's strange, it's only been 10 days, but seems like not less than six months. If you believe reports of the Red Army commanders during the Second World War, the army of the Wermacht was destroyed about 100 times. As for us, we don't have to free half of Europe this time, but according to the reports we are ahead of any army. Thus, my reader, listening to the news bulletins, multiply our losses by three and divide enemy losses by two, then, you'd have a more or less clear picture of what is going on. The airborne lads tried to offload their wounded onto us, but we could hardly squeeze our own asses on the "armour". Inside the vehicles our own wounded were piled up like logs. If they wanted to come with us, no problem, but they'd have to use their own trucks and their own escort. We won't be waiting for them either as every second is counting. What are you saying? We're bustards? Fine, we're bustards, but you still medivac your own men. We have neither the time nor desire to argue with you. We understand you perfectly. If we start arguing now, you might even convince us or prepare your own cars. You should've thought about it beforehand. You had all night for that. Cheers men, good-bye. No, don't bother trying. Where did you send us? OK, stand still, we'll be coming back, talk to you then. We watched our Com-brig talking to their com-bat. Of coarse we couldn't hear anything, but we could observe the gestures they were using in their conversation, thus reading who sent who and where. When they were done myself and the grunts cackled simultaneously. But no one dared to yell anything upsetting or make a gesture of that kind. We understood what position they were in, but your wounded you medivac yourself. We're all a bit foxy, like the Jews, enjoy solving our problems with somebody else's help, but not the problems of this magnitude. We cleared the airborne zone of responsibility and now entered the area where for about ten blocks we would be moving along the zone for which the spooks were responsible. And they were obviously controlling it. OK, mutherfuckers, we'll medivac our wounded and take care of you. Let's concentrate on the medivac for now. I raise my hand and the grunts start carefully watching surrounding us rubble. Talking, screaming or instructing makes no point - the roar, fumes and dust from the carriers in front of us are making any attempt bound for failure. If you open your mouth trying, it'll be crammed with turd. Another beauty of riding atop of APC is that it is shaking violently as it moves and if you relax your jaws for a second you can lose your teeth or bite your own tongue off. There was a gag that some dumb ass, not from our garrison of coarse, bit his tongue's tip off like that, but the corpsemen sewed it back. He was discharged afterwards. I've heard so many of these gags during my commission that I can write a book now. Especially I like that fact that nothing ever happens in our garrison, but our neighbours - are a constant mess. But they are of the exact same opinion about us. The grunt next to me shouted something, pointing his finger at the top floor of a building near by and firing his rifle in that direction. My reflexes kicked in at once. My rifle let off a few bursts before I consciously stopped and actually looked there. A pair of binoculars that lay on the window frame was blasted to pieces. If you want to live, you shoot first and then think and look. Everyone finds out this formula after his first gunfight. I'm yelling out and waving to stop the shooting. Gradually it fades out. I'm not angry at the grunt. In our line of business it's better to overcook than undercook. The carriers are speeding forward without slowing down. Recon party radios in to report they are again taking fire. This time from three directions simultaneously. Now, they are waiting for our approach, as they can't handle the clash on their own. Com-brig called the neighbours for assistance to try and hammer the rag-heads in the rear, meanwhile we are speeding ahead to help out our scouts. The last APCs in line have retarded a bit so that in case of an ambush we don't become completely trapped. As we approached the intersection, the avenue, where our recon party took their turn, was barricaded with bricks, two neighbouring streets were also blocked, and thus we are either to break through or to retreat. If we do decide to retreat, there is no insurance that we wouldn't walk into another trap. Com-brig has made his decision: break through. Ryzhov and myself both completely upheld his choice. Those who could fire weapons leapt off the "armour" and the carriers rolled back covering us. First, we wanted to push the spooks inside the block and then, under fire, try and dismantle the barricade. Hiding behind the piles of trash we shot back. Both sides exchanged fire furiously. Suddenly a grenade exploded somewhere close to me - pieces of a blasted grunt flipped into the air and landed 5 meters away from me with dull sound. In a couple of seconds another soldier died the same terrible death. In the heat of the gunfight I had no time to look who that was. Next to the second body, three other grunts were whirling on the asphalt, screaming with pain and pressing fingers against their wounds. Their coats were soaking in blood. We thought at first that somebody was using a launcher, but then another grunt shifted a brick and noticed an F-1 grenade, lying under a pile of rubbish without its safety pin. Now everything was clear. Smart sons of bitches the spooks turned out to be. They cleverly chose the spot for their ambush and also considered that we would dismount and confront them. Our future positions, imposed by them, they booby-trapped with hand-grenades. In a gunfight you have to move around a lot: tumble, spin and hide behind the rubble. That's where they placed these nice toys - F-1 grenades without safety pins. You shift the brick on top of it, its guard lever flies off and here you go, in 6 seconds it bursts. Shrapnel cover an area of about 200 meters. No one mine will have the same effect. Now we had to solve this dilemma -either pull back or try and counterattack to bust the rag-heads out of the apartment block. Not much choice. Neighbours radioed that they are on their way and called for air support. That is exactly what we don't want. A soldier has many enemies at war, but one of the biggest is his own air force. Doubtfully they'll ever get the rag-heads, but to drop a few bombs on their own positions is a done deal. That's why we asked our rushing reinforcements to call off the "sky raiders". They'll stuff it up anyway. Instructions to storm the building were passed along the chain. We also told the "boxes" to open up from everything they have, keep going like that for 10 minutes and then cease fire and wait for further instructions. Every grunt and officer has his personal first aid kit, which contains an ordinary set of medications, like painkillers, anti-radiation pills and the likes. There are also drinking water tablets that can be used in any water except the seawater. Drop it into a puddle if you like, it'll roil for a second or two and you can drink it now without fear of catching some disease. It'd have a chlorine stench though. Every detachment has so called anti-fear tablets. When soldiers are dog-tired and can't move their feet any more, not mentioning attacks, their will is paralysed. Then their CO gives the order to hand out these tablets. The grunts eat them, rest for a while and spring to their feet. No one knows where the strength comes from and where the fear goes. Now we didn't have those tablets as well as the need for them. After a few gunfights, where the spooks were prevailing in every aspect and every little thing we gained was paid for dearly in efforts and losses, now men were experienced and confident and the rag-heads were getting a decent response for once. They no longer bullied carelessly, doped and squalling something about their Allah. First time it's actually quite scary, charging like spellbound, unafraid of bullets. At last our carriers opened up. Cracking salvos of their cannons and machineguns, at first, muffled short barking bursts of BMP-3s, but they caught up quickly with the old well-proven two-s. We also didn't fall behind with our rifles and launchers. APCs hit hard for ten minutes and then stopped as was agreed. The high pitched ding from the shooting was still in our ears, but now we had to attack. Our opponents had a lot more problems with their sense of dimension. Our shells were bursting in their tight nests, causing them to go crazy with terror. They were also still in awe from the air strikes. Now was the right time for the final move. This time nobody raised the grunts off the ground with his own example, like it used to be here during the first days. Every one of them sprung up by himself, some with the ancient "hoorah" other just yelling out from fear and excess of adrenalin, all were running ahead like one. When you plunge into attack like this, something medieval wakes up inside you. It seems you are watching yourself from aside, observing the gunfight, noticing every little thing. May be the common grudge and fear at this moment bear this collective ability? While we were clearing the open space of about 100 meters, we were met with rare and disorganised gunfire. No one of our men was hit, but the grunts, on the run and from the waist, were discharging long bursts at the broken windows where the deadly gush of lead was coming from. At last we crash into the doorway of this once apartment block, others are storming the remaining four entrances of the "khruschevka". Human reflexes are such that you always notice what's on your right-hand side first and then move to the left. Spooks made a good use of this fact and when we barged into a block they always stood to the left of the entrance. While we were automatically checking out everything on the right-hand side, they had a few seconds to shoot us in the back. Some time has passed before we learnt to toss a hand-grenade before walking inside and looked first to the left of the doorway. The sunlight started to break through the fog but here inside the building it was still dark from the shooting. Dust, mixed with gunpowder and some other chemicals hung in the air, abstracting the view. Together with some fifteen grunts we ran into the block. I glanced at the grunts with my side-vision. Looks like there are no cowards amongst them. All experienced. Two flats on the first floor, meaning that we should expect the same structure further up. Three grunts took guard on the staircase between the first and second floors, covering us from possible attacks from above. The rest are fetching safety pins from their hand-grenades. "Ready". Nocking down the door, it's not even locked but blasted by explosions, barely hanging off the frame. Our boots ram it down completely this time. I yell out: "Let's go!!!" We move out from the doorways, hiding behind the concrete walls. In three flats, grenades detonated almost simultaneously, probably about eight of them. My head feels like a church bell, smoke and dust is coming out of the blasted doorways. Move, move and don't stop now. Checking left, now right. Tonnes of dust in the air, can't see shit. Squeezing off two long bursts from the waist. We don't need no prisoners, not enough food for ourselves. Move! Move! Kitchen: nobody there; bathroom: the door is slightly open, screw it, another two bursts from the waist, the bathtub could be a nice hide from the shrapnel. I node to the grunt next to me, covering my rear. He jerks the door open and I pull the trigger slowly moving my rifle's barrel sidewards. It is convulsing in my arms like a living organism and flushing the bathtub with a deadly flow. The smashed off pieces from the tub are flipping in the air. Meanwhile other grunts are firing into next rooms dark with dust and smoke. Built-in wardrobes and shelves are also checked thoroughly. That's all with this two bedroom flat. Let's move on to the upper floors. The grunts guarding the staircase, indicate that they have just spotted some movement in one of the second floor apartments. Other grunts come out of their flats and join us. Those who guarded the staircase move up one more floor. I don't have to give out any instructions here, every grunt knows his manoeuvre too well. No need to yell at anybody. All of us work together like a well-tuned mechanism. Everyone covers everybody else's back. We repeat the same process on the second floor. We barge into the room tripping on a dead body ripped apart from a grenade explosion. That one's cooked. Moving along. There's nobody here. Three more levels to go, rooftop and the basement. Move! Move! Grunts report they discovered two more stiffs in the neighbouring flat. Screw them. Moving along. I look at my watch: it took us seven minutes to check two floors, we have to speed this whole thing up. On the third floor, when we knock the doors down, somebody inside the flat yells out without accent: "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" I raise my fist. Grunts hold back. I shout: "Come out slowly, hands behind your head". Wauling, a filthy chap is coming out, bristling with hand-grenades and a chechen knife (dagger welded together with stiletto), looks Russian. Smearing dirty tears on his face and weeping he's squalling that he was just drafted, he's just an ordinary con and nothing else, never killed anyone of ours. I notice some five personal dog-tags hanging around his neck. Earlier, they were only given out to officers, now, since we arrived in Chechnya, everyone gets a set. It looks like a little metal plate shaped like oval, about five santimeters in length and three wide. Along its length the plate is broken in two parts, upper part has "VS SSSR" stamped on it, the lower one has a letter and a six-digit code. Every soldier has his own code. The plate is cast from a stainless alloy. First they started using these plates after an experimental rocket fell down onto some committee and burnt it completely. At war every soldier wears it, jut like American GIs, except they also have their names and blood type printed there. I noticed that this "ordinary con" wore these dog-tags around his neck. There were a lot of scumbags bumming around Chechnya, which were surely due for jail time in Russia. Here they were like brothers to the local bandits. As locals told us, to prove their loyalty they tortured soldiers even worse than the chechens themselves. I grabbed him by the dog-tag chains, coiled them onto my fist and twitched the shaking con towards me. Grunts knew well what was going to follow. Some spooks collected personal numbers of soldiers they have killed. - What is this, asshole? - I asked him and kept pulling the chains. - I found them, I swear. I didn't kill nobody. They forced me to, - he squalled weeping. I shoved my rifle in his chest and pulled the trigger. Bullets ripped it open smearing my pants with his blood. The body jerked backwards, the neck snapped but it was still hanging by the dog-tag chains. It seemed the souls of the dead soldiers wouldn't let their murderer go free. Barrel still stuck in the con's chest I asked the grunt next to me: - Cut the chains, will you. He stripped the knife from the dead con and sliced the chains with one quick move. The no longer hanging body dropped to the ground with a thud. Grunt reached his hand out with the dagger offering it to me. I shook my head and he stashed it in his boot. I rose, put the dog-tags into one of my pockets and gave an order: - Get your hand-grenades ready and let's move. Again explosions roared and we barged inside other flats. There we found five more dead bodies. Without any further ado we squeezed off a few bursts into each one of them just in case. One of the "deceased" suddenly came alive and tried to draw his rifle - cross fire coming from three directions simultaneously nearly chopped him to pieces. All of a sudden we heard a grenade explosion and a rifle burst. We quickly finished off checking the apartment and popped outside. The gunfight there was in full swing. Rag-heads from the upper floors were attempting to break through to downstairs. Three grunts were keeping them up there; two more soldiers, covering the basement entrance, hustled up to help them. We too quickly got into the skirmish. Here on the narrow staircases we were too crowded. To add to the confusion, spooks started throwing hand-grenades down. Huddled down here together we couldn't possibly hide from them. Thank God, the morons threw them at the very moment they were pulling safety pins out, thus giving us time to push them away onto the lower floors. We also returned fire as best as we could. Two of the grunts were blasting off grenades from their under-barrels, the other four spraying the spooks from their rifles, keeping them at bay. Meanwhile something blew up there with a terrible boom. Ceiling collapsed in one of the kitchens on the third floor. Five grunts quickly dived into the breach and now the gunfight shifted to the fourth level. Coming up, from the point blank range, we wasted the rag-heads in the back. We were afraid of coarse to waist our own grunts, but this time we were lucky. After the clean up, twelve more bodies were left up on the fourth floor. Not bad at all, if according to the Regulation the ratio should be one defender to three or four members of the assaulting team. On the fifth floor nobody greeted us except for two dead bodies. With caution with we came up the roof. There is nobody there too, meaning that we are the first ones up here and have to help out other storm groups in the neighbouring blocks. I split my men, myself choosing the block Ryzhov went into. Walking on the roof we could here the gunfire in every block. Carefully we are opening the hatchway. Judging from the noise, the shootout is in between the first and second floors. We are starting the clean up from the fifth floor down. Voices and gunfire are coming from the two-bedroom flat, apparently the shooting comes from the inside. OK, assholes, let's roll. Hand-grenades at stand-by, at the nod of my head, the door is smashed open, we throw the grenades in and take cover. Burst; move, move; one of the grunts stays here guarding the staircase, I turn left: burst into an empty corner and burst dead ahead. The grunt on my right already checked the right hand side discharging a burst into the right corner. We finish off two wounded by the window. Next to them lies an RPG-7 rocket grenade launcher, fine toy. We take the launcher and the seven remaining rounds for it with us. Downstairs, the spooks apparently realised what happened and doubled their efforts attempting to fight their way out of the trap. Our grunts on the other side also figured that the help is near and pressed with renewed energy. We came down to the forth floor. Shooting off the doors and tossing in grenades. In two flats we discover a few more of the rag-heads' stiffs. No idea whose job that was, someone else's or ours, but what does it matter anyway. Move, move, downstairs, tempo, tempo. Hold on fellows, we're close. The spooks disparately tried to move upstairs and blow us off. No way, I'm yelling out: - Yurka, stay down, I'll meet them up here. We hear the treading and fire from the RPG and the under-barrels, ducking behind the concrete to cover from shrapnel. One of the grunts screams with pain. A shrapnel piece ricocheted in his arm. Two men stayed behind to give him first aid. The remaining grunts and myself fire into the dense blur of smoke and dust after the explosion. No one is shooting back. - Slava, don't shoot, we're coming up. - Let's move, boys, slowly. May be some son of a bitch is still there, - I yell to my grunts. We're slowly moving downstairs, ready to open up at even a slightest suspicion of movement. On the staircase between the forth and the third floors we stumble on the torn apart bodies of our resent foe. The BDUs on some are still burning. Nostrils are tingling from the stench of parched human flesh, cotton and something else, terribly stinky. I'm labouring not to vomit. Suddenly, from the dark, grunts' faces are emerging from the downstairs. We're all happy and hugging. - Still alive, demon? - We couldn't get enough of each other, like lovers after a long break-up. - How did we bust the shitheads, ha? Hammered the crap out of them! - Yurka was wound up. Despite the cold, everybody was steaming hot. - I grabbed some scumbag back in there. Squalled he was just a con, but had dog-tags dangling round his neck. Here they are, - I pulled a bunch of dog-tags out of my pocket, - I sent him off to meet his victims. - You did the right thing. They dug in well in here. With machinegun and all. Not even one approach. But thanks to you - OK, let's go. You owe me a drink. - I fetched a packet of cigarettes, my home ones, "TU-134", the sniper's smokes were long gone. It's a petty, they were really nice, - have some, the NATO threat. Happily chatting this way, though still in the heat of the gunfight, we walked out on the street. Following us, grunts helped my wounded lad out. He walks by himself though, his arm patched tightly, meaning that he'll live. Out here, the clash was also over. Apparently, the spooks retreated from their other positions, realising that we would've taken care of them too if they hadn't. The barricade was also nearly dismantled. From that direction our neighbours were coming up. - Slava, look. What the hell is that? - The approaching grunts had some tanks, they wore like backpacks, carrying metal pipes in their hands attached to the tanks by rubber hoses. - I think it's flame-throwers. I've never seen them live, but heard that some units got them off the emergency reserves and dragged them over here. Probably a marvellous tool. Meanwhile all our grunts left the building and the newly arrived soldiers, with jokes, approached the basement windows and having tossed a pair of hand-grenades in there first, started pouring from their backpack-type flamethrowers, which these devices did turn out to be. Bravo. Streams of flame, human hand sized and about 10 meters in length, widening as they left the pipes were flowing into the basements. At once we felt the stench of burnt kerosene and something else of the kind. - First class gadget. I wish we had more of them. We'd smoke the snakes out for sure. We should throw the idea at our commander to ask for them in the "North". Since they are sending us to storm "The Minutka", might as well give us these, - I said, watching with admiration as grunts having finished off our building are preparing to fry some other structure. - I've heard, in Afghan, there was a flame-throwing tank, but turned out useless in the mountains and was taken off the production line, - Yura said climbing our APC. - Such morons, ha? They could've figured that we'd have to take towns at some stage instead of clashing in the mountains or in the open all the time. Bloody Moskovites; what can you possibly get from them, except a urine sample, and that one will be hopeless too, - I spewed and tried to settle comfortably on top of the "armour". - Attention! All ready?- Then the order came through, - Move! On the march! As we set off, APC underneath me jerked sharply trying to shake us off the "armour", but clinging to each other and to every extending part on the APC's surface, we held on. Internal forces are lucky in that respect: they have the BTR-80s. Very smooth piece of machinery, moving fast and soft. We, on the other hand, have bulldozers. As we approached the flame-throwers' roadblock, we again greeted each other shouting. The rest of the journey was pretty uneventful, although we were prepared for any surprise. Now first outposts and roadblocks of the "North" airport were coming into view along the way. Whole regiment guarded the airport. When rumours came that spooks planned to assault it, another airborne battalion was fetched to help the defences. - One battle is over and another one begins, the longer and harder one and more important too, - I said to Yura. The mood was changing from the merry, since we came back all OK, to more grim and serious. We had to attend the briefing with the High Command representatives. The latter were itching to send us to our deaths.
- Regardless of the briefing's outcome I'll drink myself stupid tonight, - my good mood was totally gone by now and I was grimly watching the airport sentry. They have already managed to wash up and some even changed into brand spanking new BDUs. I looked at my blood-splattered pants, my filthy coat, burnt and even twice shot through by shrapnel. In peace life, a first police patrol would pick me up for sure dressed like this. A total tramp. - I agree Slavian, we should get wasted today. Moreover, I owe you one, - Yurka, on the contrary, was in a fabulous mood. - Where are you planning to get the liqueur? From under the bench? - I and Ryzhov, before the Grozny campaign, chipped in and bought three boxes of Vodka as well as seven litres of pure ethanol that I swapped for a camouflage set from the comms operators in commemoration of our old friendship. Thus, I would be very surprised if he found alcohol in any other place. - Where else? Spooks closed their stashes and our Voentorg never comes out beyond the "North" - Listen, near the field hospital, there is a Voentorg trading spot. Let's try to get some beer down there (fallen off the truck of coarse). What do you think? - Beer was a terrible temptation. Right now, right here, I even imagined its tight, bubbly, cool flow streaming down my throat and heavily bumping against my stomach walls on its way down. And I would drink it right from the bottle, no glasses, hate them. May be it's my unfit family upbringing, but I just like it like that and there is nothing I can do about it. - Good idea. We've got about twenty minutes, while they are offloading the wounded. The problem is if they actually have beer and if we've got enough dough? - He said, dumping everything from his pockets, including the useless here money and counted it. - I've got some more, - said I, pulling out some crumpled paper nodes, - get cigarettes too, preferably something nice. - Like a rich life, don't you? - Ryzhov sneered. - Yeah, rich life, sure. When right before your eyes people live like moguls, - I looked at "the royal court" regiment's HQ with a sigh. - Wait until we walk into the hospital with all its women, - Yurka was clearly tormenting me. - I'd either rape ten of them at once or put a bullet in my head. The hospital was situated in the airport's left wing, in the ex-restaurant building. Rumours had it that this restaurant used to belong to some relative of Dudaev's. Along the way we met some doctors and actually female nurses. At war, any woman is a goddess.It's not just about sexual deprivation. Looking or simply talking to them you don't harden up as fast. That thin wire that connects you back to the "normal" life doesn't break as quickly. We have no women in our brigade, maybe that's probably why we are so drawn to them. But first desire, of coarse, is purely sexual. Why don't we have mobile brothels with us? In the past wars were gradual and rigidly positioned. People had respect for their opponent. They had fine moving canteens, mobile brothels, champagne and whites. How times have changed? Not for the better, if you ask me, although, medical science is definitely on top. So far none of the incoming wounded here has died. - We're home! - Com-brig first leapt off his carrier. Everybody else followed him, warming up their numb legs and bums. Surgeons and nurses ran over and started offloading our wounded and dead. The latter are to be placed in wooden and then in zinc coffins, soldered in, meshed, to make it more comfortable to carry, and sent home to their parents as "Cargo-200". With the coffins, parents will also receive death notifications and thanking notes for their sons' wonderful upbringing. That's about it. After the funerals they'll have commemorative salvo fired into the air in their honour, with dummy rounds, by military college students or young soldiers. Both types are potential candidates for the same "elegant" burial in the nearest future. The God of War demands new sacrifices and opposing sides supply them in full. Then parents or wife of the dead soldier will be paid ten-year salary: the whole five million rubles. During the next six-month they'll have visitors and after that, as it is customary, they'll be left to themselves. When mother or wife comes to the authorities for help (no matter which, military or civilian), first, they'll nicely talk to her and then tell her that there is no money or prospects for help at this stage. And if she persists, they'd state the following: we, personally, did not send your son (or husband) to this war. Go ask for help those who did and please do not come here again because people who sent your son to his death must've forgotten to allocate money for your pension, your licking roof, telephone and so on. You can, my reader, complain all you want; there will be nothing done. The power hungry would say about you: "This is that woman who lost her son (or husband) in that war". That will be said jokingly, so that you weep, my reader, and run away never to come back here again. Even if they throw something at you for the New Years Eve or The Army Day. Now think if it's worth sending your son into that butchery because of some sick old Head Commander. Think well. By the way, during the Chechen campaign, he had a grandson of the drafting age, but for some reason, I have never seen him there, even on civilian visits. Meanwhile our wounded were being offloaded and carried into the hospital rooms. We followed them. Nobody was paying any attention to us. Ryzhov and I were staring at the women. No point in flirting anyway, they have already been shared and allocated long ago. Our appearances also didn't help. We were searching for the semi-legal Voentorg trading spot or any local crook that can sell us liqueur and cigarettes. History of the war shows that there have always been some niggling criminals who make money reselling small wanted goods. Nothing really law-breaking, on the contrary, they are doing more good supplying men with those little things from the "normal" life that they are deprived of. The problem is money. For some it's war, for others it's their darling mother. May be that is what it should be? No, I don't think so; my upbringing and poor life experience wouldn't let me do this. We were hanging around the hospital asking grunts where we could get some beer and cigarettes. But since this was a medivac hospital, as a rule, soldiers never stayed here for longer than a day and thus knew nothing. But suddenly we noticed a corporal, with a mug, wider than two of ours put together. He wore new camouflage fatigues and standing next to the window was leisurely puffing a ciggi. That mug expressed vanity and self-indulgence. It seemed nothing around concerned him. He did not look wounded at all. I pushed Yurka in the ribs when he was flat out staring at a nurse rushing to attend to some matter and fortunate enough to walk past us. Judging by the hungry expression on his face, he's already raped her about ten times and kept going. - OK, that's enough. We are here with a peacekeeping mission. Remember? You better look at that panorama, - I showed him the mighty worrier, - I think his body can be used to plug ten machinegun nests at the same time. It seems he represents the whole might of Russia's armed forces. What do you think Yura? I deliberately talked in loud voice for the grunt to hear us. Yurka read my plot and kept going. - Yeah man. You're right. We lack lads like this one in the recon unit. They need some kind of human shield. Or better yet in the storm group, pulling wounded out of the killing zone. The soldier slowly moved his eyes onto us without even turning his head. We didn't wear any insignia, like many other officers. Snipers have this bad habit of picking officers first. Some kind of sad hatred they have for us. Well, everyone has his own thing and for them it's professional and even well paid. - Sonny, - politely and smoothly started Yura, - what would you say if we invited you down for a visit, so that you, prick, could see the war for yourself? Otherwise, you'll just come home with a metal thingy on your chest, having actually never seen it. All of this Yurka was telling quietly, thus passing surgeons didn't even pay attention to us. Some fellow soldiers are standing here, chatting peacefully, no trouble. - Get stuffed, - the grunt mumbled leisurely without his head even moving. There was so much scorn in his voice that it made me sick. Momentarily the grudge inside me was alive. I know that in moments like this I exercise very little control and can do a lot of stupid things, but the thoughts come to me later. - Turn around, scum, when a line officer is talking to you, and apologise immediately, - I too tried to keep my voice down, but the words were boiling inside. No one soldier ever dared to insult me, no matter what state they were in. In my being a green lieutenant I had to calm down a drunken sentry once. And here, this supply sergeant piece of shit dared to offend two of us. The fat skunk turned his head and jokingly stared at us in silence, with his appearance obviously laughing at us. Both of us figured that words here were useless and we had to act. There was a niche near by, where hospital personnel kept their cleaning gear. From two sides simultaneously, we fast picked up the young man under his arms and shoved him into the dark and humid closet. At once I grabbed him by the throat to keep him from screaming and Yurka thrust his rifle in the guy's belly and pressed it real hard. Even in this meagre lighting we could see that the lad went pale. His eyes were popping out and screams were bursting out of his throat, but I was holding them tight in there, squeezing his throat stiffer, only allowing him to breath. I leaned over to his ear and whispered: - I will now let go my hand a little, if you, scumbag, promise to be a good boy and give us your apologies quietly. Beer and cigarettes too, I'm sure you've got some. If you agree, blink once, if not, I'll just strangle you right here and my friend will shoot your balls off. I'm sure no one would care, we'll write you off as a battle loss. And if you try to move a muscle, we'll keep our promise with the neck and balls. Or we can load you up on the truck and exchange with the rag-heads for beer and cigarettes. Besides, you freak, we are offering you the same deal anyway. Get it, asshole? - I squeezed his throat harder and Yurka pushed his AK a little more in. The grunt's eyelashes were flipping like butterflies near a light bulb: - I'm sorry, please forgive me, sirs my mistake I promise won't happen again, I'm giving you my word, - tears were falling down his face but I kept my grip on his fat throat. - What about the second part? - Asked Yurka, hinting at the beer and cigarettes. - No problem, right away, - The soldier hustled up and reached his hands somewhere behind his head and produced a six-pack of "Holsten" and a pack of "LM" or as we called it - "Cop's love". At last, we let the punk breath freely. I slapped him leniently on his cheek, pulled crumpled five thousand rubles from my pocket and shoved it in the weeping grunt's hand: - Do not ever be rude, young men, and maybe you'll even live through all this. There is the money for your goods, so that you don't tell anybody that we are thugs. By the way, lend us a few bags for the groceries, will you? The grunt turned around and again in the dark started searching for something in the buckets. Nice hide he's got here. Something banged inside buckets, something metal, like a pistol. Is he really planning a trick? I drew my rifle and pressed it hard against the junction of his scull and backbone. There is pain spot there and if you hit it, a person can collapse unconscious. In a moment Yurka too thrust his rifle against the man's kidneys. - Sonny, stop this, - I again spoke in a smooth voice, - or you, scumbag, decided to die like a hero. If that's the case, then go ahead, try. With my left hand I fetched my narrow stiletto and set it on his throat. Cold blade, for some reason produced more result than my Kalashnikov. Something metal banged in there again, he must've dropped it back in the bucket. Removing the stiletto I jerked him towards me and pressed the barrel under his chin. The grunt put his hands up, and his left one he was holding a bag off some equipment. With my left hand I searched behind his head and found a pistol. Wow! Makarov with a silencer! Bravo! Probably swiped it from some wounded scout or a Special Forces guy. I punched him in the nose with the pistol grip. He fell on the floor in a rumpled heap. We left him there, picked up our bags and walked away. Out on the street, the unloading was almost over and the Com-brig was gathering up our officers to go to the briefing. We stashed the bags inside our APC and told the driver that if we come back and they're gone he'll be castrated and left out here to die. The grunt nodded and carried on undressing passing women with his eyes. Walking behind our CO, we were slowly puffing good cigarettes and discussing our arguments against the head-on frontal assault of the bloody square. - Let's do this: first - airforce, then artillery, tanks, rockets and after they're all done, mahra goes in, what do you reckon? - Asked Yurka, enjoying his cigarette and observing all the almost peaceful life around here. - And better yet: napalm bombs, so that everything would burn alive and loud disco music for the spooks to sacrifice their lives to Allah with happy thoughts, - I was experiencing peace of mind and almost sexual satisfaction from the surrounding atmosphere and my cigarette. How little do we actually need? Good smoke, tranquillity and women walking past. Suddenly, we saw an officer whose face we instantly recognised. We were taking the airport together. His regiment was then left here to guard it. Lucky bustards. - Yura, Slava, you're alive! What a delight! We've heard about your deeds here and about Karpov too. We thought you guys wasted him, but all was then cleared. He's surely an idiot. He is to receive The Order of Fortitude. - So, you thought we killed the mother? - No, not really, but here everybody knows he is a rat. Yurka and I cackled loudly: - Sasha, we saw him for the first time and gave him exactly that nickname. Rat is rat. You better tell what the HQ has in store for the Minutka Square and us. - Fellows, listen to this: marines and some airborne units tried to take it on the fly, then lost about thirty men and backed off. Now is your turn. - Get out of here! - Yeah, that freaking peacemaker is there too. Radios to us all the time with statements. Listen to the joke: he's up there, inside one of the Dudaev's bunkers with his delegation committee and everybody has just forgotten about them. No food, no water, no nothing. They start to wander what to do. Suddenly he makes a suggestion: "Let's all convert to Islam". His friends ask him: "Would it help?" He says: "Not really, but we could make a soup out of the shreds!" -Sashka cracked up. We grinned at his joke and the news. - Guys, I work here in supplies now, come on over at some stage. Now I've got to run; somebody beat the shit out one of the grunts in the hospital. With our jaws dropped from surprise about Sashka's new appointment, we picked up our pace to catch up with the rest of our group. We cared not for the hospital grunt's health. I bet his skull is fine. Nosebleed is nothing, probably tripped over something in the dark. Could anybody possibly punch such a wonderful young lad? I don't think so. As for the officers: he must've dreamt them while splayed out dazed. With his excess weight and high blood pressure it all could've been much worse. He must go on a strict diet, dear doctors. Or better yet, give him to us for a week. You won't recognise the fellow then. Some officer came out and said that General Rolin is busy at this stage and will be free to meet with us in about ten to twenty minutes. They are on the telephone with the Defence Minister. Fine, let them talk. I'm pretty sure, nothing good will come out of that conversation. Meanwhile our Com-brig left to radio the brigade's HQ to see how they are hanging. We saw Sashka returning and called him: - How is the busted up grunt, Sasha? - He's telling some bullshit that two officers beat him up. He wet his pants while unconscious. His description, - he stared at us with suspicion, - sounds like you two. - Sashok, you don't seriously think that we could bust up the soldier. Personally, I only squeeze throats, - I started. - And I usually shoot nuts off. You know us too well, - supported me Yurka. We gazed at him upset, as to demand that all accusations be dropped at once. - I sure do. Mad cranks. I've seen a lot of you two. You wouldn't care, for yourselves or for anybody else. So, did you bust him? - Sasha, - I again spoke in the smooth voice, half-hugging him, - my dear man. Please explain to us, as you have put it, "mad cranks", what for did you run back to the hospital? We never noticed anything merciful about you. Even when we brought over our casualties, you, apparently, were so busy, that had totally forgotten to come and greet your friends. - Which, by the way, came to your rescue when the ragheads pinned you down badly at the edge of the airfield, - continued Yurka, - and (somehow I don't feel comfortable reminding you this) you swore by all saints that you will never forget about your saviours. - And now, my dear friend, you are about to sell off your guarding angels like bad meat at a discount price. - I picked up from Yura. - We, on the contrary, never even mentioned the fact that your lad was dropping liqueur at sky-high prices, and, son of a bitch, even tried to threaten us with a pistol. So, Alexander? I reckon your guy just hit his mug against something, a? - What did you do him for? - He told me bluntly to get stuffed, and didn't apologise. Get that. - I'll teach the bustard manners. - Sasha, since we have found common ground, I could now make you an offer to get us some of that humanitarian aid. - But you've snapped it already. - Shameless lies, false allegations and groundless attacks, - Yurka stated with style, - we never stole anything, we bought it for five bucks. Or five thousand rubles. It was dark in there, rubles or dollars, all in the same pocket. Is that true Slava? - It's the truth. I've paid him off myself. I reckon that your sidekick is trying to hide some of that illegally made profit from you. By the way, we only bought one piddling six-pack of itsy-bitsy beer cans, you know, and a pack of cigarettes, and you, after all this, refuse to gear us up properly. - Just imagine, - Yura was unstoppable, - if we were killed in action (God forbid of course) you would naturally be sad. Because you never gave us three sticks of good salami, Vodka of the well-known Moscow brand "Crystal", a few bottles of good cognac, surely some cheese for it and a few more bits and pieces. And we will visit you in your dreams reaching our hands out to you and yell, - we started grabbing him like vampires, - "you, cheap bastard!" - Yeah, Sasha, - I interrupted, - I might survive without a pair of beer packs and good cigarettes, but it would be nice of you to throw in some dry fish for the beer and - That's enough. Please give me some water, ma'am, cause I'm so hungry and have no roof for tonight, - Sasha copycatted us. - If you two hadn't saved my life, you would've been eating free food in the brick by now. - That's why, during that gunfight I said to Slava: "Hey, look at that officer dying there for nothing. Let's save him and he, when highly appointed, will be feeding us for the rest of the war." Slava, confirm please. - God, strike me by lightning if it's not true. Hey, that would be cool, for a week or two, to rest up in the brick. Food three times a day, clean sheets, steam-room. - I closed my eyes stargazing. - Nirvana! Sasha, could you send us to that prison of yours and your scumbag will change his confession in exactly two weeks from now. Let's say he mistook us for somebody else and they'll let us free. By then the war could too be over. Think about it Sasha. I'll buy you a drink for that. - You're naturally delirious. Spooks don't call you "dogs" for nothing. You are obviously mad and dangerous. - We are about to go and see our Commander in Chief now, listen to him trying to talk us into the Minutka assault. So, I'm thinking to suggest that he takes his own regiment off the airport guard duty and throw it at the Square. Meanwhile we would pull security here. Then, after you guys take the Square, we might move on. How about that, Sash? By the way, have you tasted all the girls around here? - No, they are all taken. No chance. - Don't be stingy and give us one. We'll return her, don't you worry! - You are mad, mad I tell you! A deputy assistant emerged from the HQ and called us in. - Sasha, we'll be there for about forty minutes, so, don't forget that humanitarian aid, we talked about or we'll come to you in your dreams. Tell your lad that if he's ever rude to us again, he won't get off this easily. Wait for us and we'll be back, you'll see, -- I cited a line off a well-known poem. - And dear, don't forget the beer, the rest is a must. Yura even blew him a kiss. - We'll meet again, darling! Sashka, spewed aside, clearly showing his attitude towards our giddy behaviour. Passing grunts were watching this whole scene with surprise. We walked into the airport tailing the rest of the group, hurriedly finishing off our cigarettes and chucking off the butts. At war we usually smoke, concealing cigarette in the fist. That way sniper wouldn't see the flash. This habit worked around the clock, night and day. It makes cense like this. If your habits are different throughout the day, it is easy to make that one fatal mistake. All of us walked into the boardroom where we met the Commander in Chief, General Rolin and our general Zaharin. In the past his surname was of Armenian origin, but after the fall of the Union it was suggested to him that he change it. That's how he turned from Avakian to Zaharin (his wife's surname). Sandbags plugged all windows in the meeting room. The poor light didn't reach the corners where all people looked like shadows: Comms officers, deputies and the rest of the General's aid as well as a few of those who couldn't miss the opportunity to kiss his ass. - Please be seated, gentlemen, - Rolin rose and shook Bahel's hand then simply nodded to the rest of us. - I have just spoken to the Defence Minister Grachin. At the high level, - Rolin emphasised the words "high level", - we came to the decision to assault the Minutka Square structure. I was appointed head of the operation and you would be carrying out this complex and demanding task. At the end of the speech his voice turned exultant. I wonder if he and Karpov had the same teacher in the academy, although, he's not from Moscow. Hell knows "who is who" in their HQ. - Our operative group, together with the General Headquarters, has devised a plan, which was successfully signed off by the Defence Minister. General Zaharin has just familiarised himself with it. I'm also asking you to listen carefully here. Correct completion of this task will allow us to eliminate the rebel forces, led by Dudaev, in the shortest possible time. They are all now concentrated in the Government Bank Building and in the so-called Dudaev's Palace, - he pointed his finger at the map laid out on the table. (Judging from the expression on Zaharin's face, he was not overly impressed by this plan), - The rest of the buildings, around the assaulted area, are not important and of not particular interest to us. It was amazing that a military officer, planning such a blood bath, treated structures surrounding the assault area with such neglect. Obviously, the rebels would defend those houses not mentioning the two bridges, which are for sure fortified and densely mined. In the Army, we've got three objectives: immediate, next and major. We always start at the immediate one, then, come to the next and after that arrive at the main. If people start with the main target, moreover, mentioning names such as Dudaev's, that is politics. Politics means death to soldiers. Because these morons never think of people's lives and consequences, all they're interested in is the result and the timeframe, regardless of the cost. Jesuitical axiom. We all stared hard at the map. It turns out that we had to cross both bridges in almost parade style. What if we didn't make it over? Or only parts of the assaulting force would cross. The spooks will for sure blow up the bridges. What's then? Then, those who did make it across, the quicker ones, ragheads will slaughter like sheep before our own eyes. No one of us liked this adventure. We are professional soldiers and learnt to risk our own lives and lives of our men back in college. But to perish foolishly like this - please, let me out of here. All faces in the room turned grim. Everyone understood that if we don't stand up for ourselves now, gloomy end of the Micop Brigade would soon seem like an innocent walk in the park. This was not even the Central Train Station. This was their President's Palace, symbol of their national pride. The only solution seemed a nuclear bomb drop or a long and laborious air assault. From inside the shadows, emerged the so-called Chief of Staff of the allied HQ, Colonel Sedov. No one knew much of him, but wars often promote great men as well as losers to the top of the military ladder. I, personally, couldn't hold anything against Sedov, but if it was he, who devised this plan in the first place, he wasn't a loser then, he was a criminal in ranks. Sedov began to speak. His conduct was well schooled. He didn't seem threatened by Rolin at all and it probably wasn't his first time in a company like this. Judging from his parched face and military posture, I figured he was a line officer. OK, let's see what he's got to say. - General and gentlemen, - started Sedov, - our opponent concentrated his chief forces in the Minutka Square area. "Tell me something new" - I thought to myself. - That's why to finally break his resistance, demoralise him and flush out of town, you are to carry out plan, signed off by the Defence Minister and approved by the Commander in Chief, - now it seemed like Sedov was admiring himself in the mirror. His was irrupting with pride, self-importance and the fact that this plan was his idea - now all doubts about the authorship were gone - he did it. - You are to quickly capture the bridges over the Sunzha River on the run and dash through the square, then, capture and destroy enemy infantry inside the Bank building and Dudaev's residence, so-called Palace, - Sedov continued to sing. "Hello my baby, how are you today?" - breezed through my mind. - To carry out this assault, several airborne elements, marines and the Leningrad regiment will complement your brigade. You will also have artillery and air back up. The most interesting part was that no one indicated unit numbers of the supporting force and the amount of back up we would supposedly receive. Would that be one air-wing or an artillery division? Altogether, the plan seemed raw and superficial. In case of failure, we would obviously take the full blame. Nice future! - The time for the assault was designated two days from now. During these two days you are to promptly take hotel "Kavkaz", then reassign it (to whom!?) and move out to the Square, - Sedov, it seemed, had it all figured out nicely and naturally we should've too, thus right now scooting out of here and capture the Square. Absolute foolishness! - General, gentlemen, I'm finished. Any questions please? - Judging from his tone, he must've thought that only degenerates and morons could ask questions - what can you possibly expect from siberian mahra? - What are the estimates of the enemy force at the Minutka complex? Their armament, mine fields around the square and bridges? - Quietly but sharply asked our Com-brig, emerging from the shadows. - The amount of the rebel force does not exceed three to four thousand men (I like the precision. Who cares? One less thousand or one more thousand). Their armament consists of standard issue small arms plus GP-25s, RPG-7 grenade launchers and light company mortars. (How about darting around a flat square under the shower of mortars?) - What about the bridges? - We do not have any precise information whether the bridges are mined or not. All approaches are heavily defended with nests and blocks without any possibility for proper reconnaissance at this stage. However, we are constantly working on it. Also our local supporters constantly inform us. We all smiled at this statement. A chechen would rarely sell another chechen, but to bust a non-believer is always a delight. - You are all laughing vainly, - Sedov turned nervous, - recently in Moscow a question was raised from the local opposition's initiative, whether this invasion and senselessly violent actions have caused this republic an irreparable economic damage and set its people against us. Partisan movement is growing stronger by the day (really?). Because of that, there is a notion, that we under no circumstance kill the rebels but only disarm them and let go home. In their majority they are only frightened peasants. The spring is coming so is their crop season. Otherwise they'll all die of famine. - So the hell with them! - I let it out in the mortal silence. Everyone instantly burst laughing and I attracted attention of both Rolin and Sedov. Yurka nudged me, but it was too late by then. - You must've missed the point, comrade - Sedov looked at my shoulder flashes and seeing no stars continued, - By the way, why aren't you wearing your proper insignia? - Scared of snipers, comrade colonel, - I replied modestly, although was close to making a huge scene. - It's all horseshit. Do you think that snipers are interested in your stars? I don't think so. How would you lead your men if you don't have your insignia? I was just about to burst into a long and unflattering speech about shoulder stars and my opinion about his lousy plan. I am no hero, but at war, you figure out quickly that there is no deeper shit than this, well, may be only if you're wounded. Other than that - screw them all. You want to fire me - be my guests! But Bahel outpaced me; he must've guessed what is going to follow and thus quickly spoke: - Comrade general, we'll work out later why captain Mironov is not wearing his stars. That was me who allowed my officers to take them off. I am for now more worried about the forthcoming operation. The timeframes you have set for us would not allow our brigade, which has been engaged in heavy fighting for weeks, to rapidly, without proper preparation, redeploy and carry out your assignment (Bahel emphasised the word "your"). I recommend you immediately give the order to commence sustained air and artillery strikes at the square network. That must continue on until the time comes for us to move into the area. Two hours before the assault, airborne reconnaissance units must capture the bridges and keep all attempts to blow them up at bay. By the way, could you tell us exactly which airborne units would act as our aid? In my opinion, frontal assault of the Minutka Square is a senseless suicide. I will not follow orders, which would literally mean running my men past a firing squad. - Do you understand what you are saying, colonel? - Rolin was furious. - I will make a phone call to Grachin and have you court-martialed! I will have you arrested on the spot! You'll be on the first plane to Moscow! You know how many men would want to take up your spot? - If it would save my men from slaughter I volunteer to write my letter of resignation immediately! - Now Bahel was enraged. -You are afraid to blast the shit out of this f...ing square from the air, but at the same time you are OK to drown in blood a few thousand soldiers! You better think of that first before you think of your public image - Shut you mouth, traitor! - Rolin erupted. - You are out of your god damned mind, colonel. You're a coward. I'll grind you into powder in five seconds. And you What are you all looking at? Get the hell out of here! No way, general, we'll tear up anybody for our commander if he only tells us to. - We uphold our CO's opinion that this is a sheer suicide to storm the square without preparatory air and artillery runs, - somebody from our group summarised the situation. - Does everyone think like that? - Rolin squinted and looked around heavily. - Out! Get out! Guards! Get them all out of here! Disarm them! Convoy the traitors to the brick! We only huddled closer in response. Silence set about the room. Mortal Silence The door opened and two privates and an officer entered, ready to carry out any order their commander gives them. All of us prepared for the worst possible outcome. General Zaharin suddenly interrupted the silence - what a brave man. - Let's all not make any rush decisions. We will let the officers go breath some fresh air for now and ourselves stay in here and discuss possible solutions to fix this situation. Let's keep our cool and not make any sudden moves. We all understand that a frontal assault would be dangerous, but together we must find the ultimate solution, - and now addressing us, - go gentlemen, wait outside, nothing is going to happen; I'm giving you my word. - Go, - The Com-brig told us dryly. We left the room. All of us were quivering. The guards were following us closely. Someone grabbed their chief and whispered: - If you bitch, even think about arresting our commander, I'll kill you. Get it? - What about my orders? - He asked in scare. His grunts kept away by the walls. - You want to live? - Yes! - If you are given the order to arrest him, we'll ambush you. During the ambush you'd give him up quietly. Understood? This way we'll let you and your grunts live. Did you understand everything I just said? - Yes! - We'll now move our vehicles up a little closer. Don't panic. When our CO comes out with your general, we'll get in the cars and leave. We don't want your blood, but if you stand in the way, we'll kill you. Understand? You know who we are? - I do, you are "the dogs". I understood. - You don't know anything. We're no dogs we are mahra. We'll tear you up if our commander is in danger. That's all.Now go. And if you or any of your grunts make a peep, you'll all die. You like that? - No I don't. - That's right. We are here to fight chechens, not each other. They want us to storm Minutka head-on. Basically they want us dead. But we don't want to die. That's why Rolin is angry. Go and don't make any trouble. - OK, I've got it. I've heard you guys are real madmen; but to jump at Rolin like that, is beyond everyone's expectations. You guys are total nuts! - Chief of the guards has already recovered from his shock and was walking with us towards the exit. His face expressed both admiration and distrust at the same time. All of us came out steaming hot. Everyone lit up and was inhaling hungrily, digesting the newly received information. Since he was the youngest one of all, our recon unit leader was sent to move the armour closer to the airport. Chief of the guards was told to give the order to allow that. - Are you nuts, men? I'll go down for this! This is crazy! - Do we have to tie you up or what? - Tie me up, kill me, do what you want. I can't give that order. Full stop. - OK, chill out. We won't move the cars beyond your posts. Are you happy with that? - Fine by me. But if you move in, I'll have to open up. - OK, fine. We all knew perfectly well what disobeying an order could lead to. Especially in a war-zone, it could result in anything up to the firing squad without court-martial or even an investigation. The Military Law states clearly: "An order must be carried out undisputedly, entirely and in time. After the order has been carried out it can then be challenged." Who can then challenge that order after our entire brigade will be slaughtered on this fing Square? Whoever lives through, we'll be permanent mental home clients. Yep, this looked like an armed rebellion. What else our open refusal to carry out an order could be called? - Slava, what do think about leaving, ah? Like the battleship"Poteomkin". Yurka asked, inhaling hungrily. - How about Turkey? - With our APC, via the Black Sea bottom. I'd say not such a bad idea. Don't be silly. We haven't done anything illegal as yet. There is a statute in the Military Law that if you consider that a given order violates The Constitution Laws, you have the right not to follow it*. To lead your men out there now means death. Take Chekhoslovakia for instance. Maybe just a bit bigger then Chechnya but back then preparations took six months. Over here, it was thrown together ad hoc. Because over there it was considered overseas, here, on the other hand, inside the boarders, the bustards can put down a million soldiers on both sides, no one would notice. I chucked off my cigarette and pulled out another one. Unaccustomed to the weaker tobacco I just couldn't get enough. - Look, Sashka is coming over with help! Next to the walking, with important look on his face, Sashka, was dragging his feet under a weight of two heavy boxes, our old acquaintance - corporal from the hospital with a patch across his nose and two black eyes. - We told you to watch your manners, sonny! - Yurka and I were smiling. - You brought it on yourself. - Don't be so ill mannered, young men, or you'll die before your discharge. - I added. - If had punched you a little higher, could've crushed your skull. You are a lucky lad, my friend, we could've held on until you make your move with a pistol and cut you open right there without a hint of anaesthetics. Sashka came just in time. For once, his appearance distracted us from our bitter thoughts. I had no desire to become a criminal while I am a patriot in my heart. Nor did I want to lose all my men at the square and then shoot myself. I don't think, as an officer, I could live on with such a heavy weight on my shoulders. What I did want was to get totally shitfaced. Those two boxes contained liqueur that would, at least for a short while, let me avoid making this horrible choice. However, we can't do it here and right now. Or they for sure would accuse us of drinking on the job. All present knew it well. - Did you guys just declare a rebellion? - Sashka was alarmed. - You stirred up some havoc. People are talking about your capture. - No, we just said that you have expressed desire to lead your company ahead of us at machineguns on the square, but he turned stubborn. Just wouldn't let you go full stop. He says that he would never allow his beloved captain to die like this. But you bastards, says he to us, I don't give a shit about. Go, perish, the whole brigade of yours with Colonel and General. I'll throw a medal in every one of your coffins, - I was again filling up with rage. I knew that neither Sashka nor the grunt had anything to do with it. I just needed to take it on somebody. - Or Sasha, you could donate this scumbag to us. We'd write up the request for transfer and he'd sign it at the gunpoint of his own pistol. In fact I think he'd sign anything. Nobody would notice the gunshot. As for the body, we'll stash it somewhere far in the debris. What do you scum think about that? I was waiting for anyone of them to reply, at least with a gesture of some kind. But they were both speechless. My mood was gloomy and ferocious. All my feelings and thoughts were now motionless, bound into a tightened spring, ready to pop open with a gigantic charge of energy. But they were still speechless. - Sasha, did you load up everything we talked about? - I was gradually getting the grip on myself. But the spring was tightening stiffer and stiffer, sharpening all my senses already sharp as it is. - Let's go load it up. We wondered off to our APC. I walked ahead, then corporal and Sashka at the tail of the procession. Thick mud was everywhere and the sun already started to set. I opened the infantry hatch and the grunt began to load Sashka's gifts inside the compartment. Sashka finally came over. I booted the grunt's ass, he disappeared inside the vehicle's belly and I slammed the hatch behind him. Then I grabbed Sashka by his vest, pressed him against APC's wall and drew my pistol. He face turned white and eyes widened. He looked at me then at the gun. - Now tell me who gave the order to encircle us. Hurry up, you know we'll either die now or later anyway.Hurry up, bitch, tell me all. Yurka came up behind me. - The ring is getting tighter. It'd be pretty difficult now to make our way into the building. They've dragged in there about a company of men, no fewer than that.RPG gunners are in there too. The range is damned close. - Yurka was absolutely deadpan and ready for action. He said to Sashka: - Come on, man, tell us who said what and what's the order? - Sedov came out after you left and ordered not to let out of the airport area. The passwords are already changed. The building has also been secured. If you make an attempt to fight your way out or inside the building, we are to open fire without warning. He said you're planning to change sides. I was given the order of distracting you, get you drunk or something. That's all. Let go me. Still, you're madmen. What are you going to do with the grunt? - Sashka was rubbing his neck. - Take him. He must've shitted his pants by now. What's the password? - I don't know. They only told me to get you drunk and get out quick. What do I tell Sedov? - The truth. The grunt will confirm. So, they'll start the onslaught soon since you've been told to promptly get out. OK Sasha, go. Good bye. - Slava, Yura, everything's going to be fine. They'll come to an agreement, you'll see. I'll approach Sedov and Rolin and ask them to leave you alone. Let's come with me and when it's all over I'll let you out. Come on guys. He said "whet it's all over". It could only be over after the firing squad is done shooting. Because I knew now, that I would not return fire. They are like us, how could I shoot back? In their eyes, however, we are traitors. - Thank you Sasha, but no. Just tell them we're not traitors, OK? Even if we die here today, we're still not. Good bye. I opened the hatch and the grunt hopped back. - It's OK. Get out. You've heard everything? - Yes. - When asked, tell the truth, - when they wondered off, I couldn't help myself and yelled out: - Don't be rude to strangers! The grunt cramped like from a punch. - So, Slava, let us go? All the way back we walked in silence. There was emptiness in my mind and talking seemed pointless. Absolutely nothing was up to us anymore. We knew what to do. All that was left was to await the slaughter, like sheep. All our officers herded together and talked about something. The grunts were all atop of APCs. Engines were all started and many guns were wheeled towards the airport building. We came closer to the crowd of officers. It seemed that every one of them was talking at the same time, but no one was listening to anybody: - They're really going to shoot? - What would you do? - We fought together before, how could they? Sons of bitches, freaks, mothers - Sold mother Russia and now trying to screw us! - Hey, who'd go to Moscow now? - My father was right, your worst enemy is in Moscow. He wants you dead first. Then comes your Air Force and only then the Germans! - Yura, Slava, what did you decide? - The discussion halted and everyone was staring at us now. - I, personally, - I emphasised "personally", - will not shoot at my own people. Supplies captain said Sedov ordered not to let us out of the area and inside the building. The password has been changed. There is about a company-sized element inside the building. Now maybe even more. I'd say, we're in deep shit. - So, you say we just stand there and let them shoot us like ducks? Nice attitude, man! - If I wanted to leave, I would've left by now. It's only a hundred meters to the gates. Sedov told them we want to change sides and thus refuse to assault Minutka. Everyone went nuts. It would be impossible to describe the monologues since I could only leave dots and comas. If you, my reader, can replicate the mood like that, you can yourself make up a speech or two. I can only say that politicians from the past as well as the ones presently in charge, ours as well as foreign, were all mentioned, so were their parents and other close and distant relatives. Officers of the security regiment were all standing on the airport's porch, also herded together. So to say: our "likely opponents", who were, not so long ago, our comrades in arms. Our lives now depended on them. If they believe Sedov's lies, we're doomed. Whatever they decide to do, I will not fire back at you guys. I felt sad; if they could only shoot me dead instantly. Or maybe I'll just shoot myself now? No, not yet, not all has been done; that I can do any time - it's never too late to put a bullet in my head. Meanwhile, behind those closed doors our fates were being decided. Much depends on the final decision. The fates of Russia and Chechnya are now in the hands of four men, who are now trying madly to prove each other wrong. Or maybe our CO is already under arrest with the general. It would be pretty foolish to just waist a military commander and a general without a court-martial. We, on the contrary, can easily be all hosed from a pair of machineguns now. Investigations can be done later. Yep, if you want to go home at some stage, you shoot first and ask questions later. I keep along that route myself when meet with the ragheads and now feel quite uncomfortable acting as target. Occupied by these thoughts I didn't even notice that I only had left one cigarette. The taste in my mouth was bitter from tabacco and the stupid situation we were in. I pulled the last smoke from the packet and a thought stung through my mind: is this my last cigarette? I started puffing it slowly, striving to enjoy every bit of smoke I breathed in. Allright, boys, I'm ready for anything now. With every breath came calm and confidence. I'm no sheep, waiting to be throttled; I am a man, having consciously made up his mind. I watched a small group of officers who probably felt just as uneasy. Perhaps, they were trying to make some sort of decision, to fire on us or not to fire at all: to kill or not to kill.
--------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 2001 translation by Alex Dokin (email@example.com) --------------------------------------------------------------- Anybody needs help? - Doctor, captain of the medical squad, Zhenya Ivanov, came up to the grunts. A very bright fellow, smart, intelligent, toll and skinny, with his head shaved, bushy moustache and glasses he reminded me of a very popular bard Rosenboum. The grunts flipped away from him. - No, nobody needs nothing! - Pliers tried to get away, but the doc, like any other corpseman, quickly grabbed him and pulled over: - Stand still, patient, and don't make any sudden movements or I'll break you something by mistake. OK, your bones are fine and the rest seems in place. You'll live for now. After your untimely death an autopsy will reveal the reason why such a young and pretty creature passed away. - Let's go, shell we? - Asked Zubastik surrounding him officers. - Yep. I gave the order and pointed my finger at Pliers, Badalov and the diggers: - You go ahead, we'll cover your rear. And make it snappy, will ya. Don't worry if you see lots of mines, we only need one go at it, move in and quickly back out. Is our medical team ready? - Yes chief! - Doc Zhenya answered for all. We set off one by one, glinting around and covering each other's backs, ready to scatter off and take security around perimeter at any moment. From where we left our carriers we could hear nothing besides their running engines. - Zhenya, - I caught up with the doc, - Yurka asked for some tablets against booze. - There is one very radical thing against booze. You know which one? - Not to drink? - Bingo! You knew, didn't you? - No, just a lucky guess. - Amazing. Usually people buy it. You couldn't have guessed, could you? - You see, Zhenya, being just as cynical as you are, I am trying not to take things the hard way. Because if I did I'd go nuts. The rest is all up to the Man. - It's a mystery how you can still maintain your sense of humour. - It's simple, really. Turks have this wonderful expression "kysmet" which means "destiny", that's what I use to stay afloat. If your fate were to live this long and die from a grenade burst at such particular moment, you would, trust me. Regardless of how cool you are and how many bodyguards you have, your guts will be dangling off a tree eventually. Same goes for the rest in life. - You seriously believe in all this? - Yes Zhenya, I do. For example. In your medical practise, have you ever had cases when your patient, according to all signs, must've been already dead by now, but he's still hanging there, against all odds? You can reject all laws, but he's still here, according to the law of fate. Have you? Don't try telling me that his immune system turned out much stronger than you previously thought. You have to agree that there is something mysterious in many medical cases. - I agree, especially there are lots of cases like that here, in extreme circumstances, so to say. - That's right. What about when men drop all around but one soldier is like spellbound, like bullets bounce off the guy. - Yeah, I've seen something like that. Remember platoon from the first battalion got lost and walked straight into an ambush? - I sure remember that one. They were all wasted from close range. - Three of them did survive though. Two wounded and one without a scratch on him. Everyone thought the guy was hiding behind the others' backs and nearly killed him in the rush. But the wounded confirmed that they only lived because of him. He pulled the burning track from under fire and only having made sure that all others were dead picked up the casualties and drove off. Thus, I think you might be right. What about you? Aren't you afraid of death? - Of coarse I am, Zhenya. But maybe, I'm just prepared for this, you know. But more than the death herself I'm scared of becoming crippled. Promise me Zhenya, that if I ever get onto your operating table without a limb or some other crippling wound, you would serve me the chance to leave this world peacefully. I understand you can't do it yourself, but please give me that chance. - OK, slow down. First, I think you are heading straight for a nervous breakdown and all this is just shock talking. I've heard, you know, what happened at the "North". I also know that you guys were first to refuse to return fire. It was your buddy the airport chief, who straightened it all out with our ex-allies and practically forced them come to the same decision. Therefore, take my advice, have a drink, or come to me and I'll give you some tablets. By the way, that's what we are here for. Only do not take too many of them. As for the death, everyone is free to do with his life whatever he wants. There are no "no choice" situations. There is always a choice and a way. Maybe, it's not the choice we would prefer, but it is still a choice. People create problems and people solve them. - You just don't get it, do you? - I wearily waved my hand, - I'm not a schoolgirl, hysterical over her boyfriend, and it's no breakdown. It's much worse for those guys at the frontline. I am just scared of being crippled, that's all. I have a huge respect for people like that Meresjev guy, clutching for every little thing in life, even when disabled, despite all the obstacles and shit they are faced with, but I don't think I've the character. I'd rather use the "toy" and let my guts fly free than live like that. OK, let's just drop it, shell we? Or we might bring the bad luck. - Look Slava, the sappers are signalling, they must've finished over there. Let's go, shell we. We'll continue our little talk some other time, accompanied by a bottle of good cognac and cards. - Fine, let's move. However, you, bastard, still haven't promised me anything. For now just think about it, would you? - OK. I'll think about it if you buzz off. I can consider it, but I don't have to do it. Understood? - Understood. Let's go. - Found anything? - I asked the sappers, coming over. - Not much, comrade Captain. A booby-trapped grenade at the entrance and that's about it, - they reported merrily, happy at the fact that there wasn't much to do for them out there. - OK, go check around the territory. When done, come back and help us load up. As the grunts heard about the loading up business, they were gone before I could finish my speech. Now, try to find an idiot to carry heavy boxes, even for a good reason like this one. I looked around. Republican medical warehouses were made up of several big hangars and two administrative single-storey buildings. I turned to our surgeons: - Well, gentlemen, where do you think we should start from? It's a lot of buildings out there. I suggest we split up in small groups and search the docks. If you find anything of use, we carry it outside and then load onto trucks. Any questions, doubts or proposals I shell accept in written form in no less than three printed copies. Some sneers came back instead and we all walked off. - Zhenya, - I asked Ivanov, - do you even know what you're looking for? - I sure do, - he pulled out a piece of paper with a decent list on it. I took a glance but couldn't work out any of it since it was all written in Latin, - Don't bother, you couldn't read any of it. - What about you, can you understand this? It's not really your writing. - I'll work it out. We have to look for tranquillisers, anti-shock stuff, anti-burns, breath relief, cardio medications, things like that. We came to the gates of the nearest hangar. They were locked up so I nodded to the private: - Go for it! Just watch for the ricochet, allright? Everyone moved behind the soldier and he smashed both locks with a short burst. We walked into the semi-dark dock. Long shelves with packages were stretching for as far as we could see. - Hey doc, watch for the expiry dates. You might have to feed this stuff to us. - It is as darks as in a nigger's ass in there, put some light on it, will ya. - It's good to know you've been places, doc, - I noted sarcastically and everybody cackled. - Zhenya, is it really that gloomy in there? - A voice came from the dark and again everyone gaggled. - As soon as I catch one I'll shove you bastards one by one up his ass and you'll see it for yourselves, - The doctor came back swiftly. - What if we catch a female one? Could we do an extensive checkup on her? - Mulatto girls are much prettier. - They say Korean women are nice too. - Even a girl from Rjasan' would do it for me these days. - Fellows, women of Europe are all horrible. No one is better than our Siberians. Gabbing this way about this and that, we moved along the endless rows of shelves. - Help me up, will ya, - Zhenya climbed up a shelf. Up there he opened up a package and helping himself with a torch, started digging into a bunch of little boxes. - OK, take them down. Watch it, they ampoules. - Found something useful? - Yes, cerebrolisin. - What kind of disease is that? - It's not a disease, you moron, it's a medication, helps against concussion. - Which means it's only any good for the young soldiers. We, officers, don't need that because we have no brains no more. What we have is one big strong bone instead. - I was in the mood for lyrics. After the shakedown at the "North" and preceding it briefing I just wished I could relax a little. - Sometime during my third year in college, - I continued, - we had one funny little incident. Those days we already lived in the student hostel and rules were not as tough as they used to be during the first years. So it was in April, we get up in the morning, going to the toilet but sergeants are kicking us out for the morning jog. It's bloody cold outside though. We rarely did any jogging as it is, but now, God knows why, they started kicking us out in the cold. May be an inspection of some sort arrived or something else happened, I can't remember. Anyway, one of the students, named Popov, decided to bugger it. He said stuff it, I won't go and that's that. Our unit leader was not all too happy with such attitude, so he grabs Popov and starts yelling at the guy. Popov, though, tells the unit leader to go screw himself. As the one who gave an order, the unit commander, as the law states, must see that the order is carried out and otherwise enforce it by any practical means so he punches Popov in the face. Popov, by the way, was returning from a trip to the bathroom and had a big carafe with water in his hand. Remember those huge, thick glass carafes in the army back then? Anyway, Popov turns around and hits his unit leader with that carafe right on the head. The carafe breaks into thousand little pieces, blood mixed with water is running down the leader's face. He tumbles like a sack of shit, we think that's it, the guy's dead. Popov, scared shitless, drops carafe's neck, which he was still clutching, and splits off via the corridor. All of us kneel near the leader, assuming the worst, but he pushes everyone off, jumps up and, like cougar, sprints after Popov. Then he catches up with him and starts kicking the living shit out of the fellow. We barely managed to tear him off the guy. We thought the leader was in shock or something and that's why he couldn't feel the pain. The blood was still streaming out from his most probably broken skull. Finally we called for a nurse. She gave the guy a checkup and a x-ray. After all this his skull was absolutely intact, without a single crack. She couldn't even find any signs of concussion. And now tell me if you think he had brains. A civilian would've been most likely dead, a first year student seriously hurt, but a military college graduate was absolutely fine. - Yep, that's right, servicemen' skulls are tough. - Doc, you've seen a lot of skulls. Which ones are tougher? - Airborne, for sure. They hit their heads constantly against the edge of the plane's hatch and land on their heads sometimes too, - the hangar shook with the thunderous laugh this time, - I'm kidding, I'm kidding, everyone's skull is different. Unfortunately, they don't get any stronger with careers. Imagine if that was true, how thick colonels' and generals' skulls would be. - Yeah, that's funny, imagine, fellows, how thick must be Rolin's skull! I say it could take a direct hit from a tank cannon. - He probably wouldn't even need a helmet. - Hey, help me up over here. There's more here of interest, - Zhenya again started to climb another rack. - Yeah, exactly what we need! Take it carefully. We took down a box from him with cardiamin and some other stuff. - It's for treating heart failure, - he explained, leaping down and dusting himself off. He climbed up a few more racks in this fashion, selected more boxes and passed them down to us. We, in turn, stockpiled them outside and left them all there in guards' possession. After that we visited a few more hangars, smaller than the first one, where we picked up all sorts of stuff. Everyone's pockets were full of vitamin tablets and soldiers were carrying huge cans with them. All of us were already crunching on the tablets and some were even chewing anti-nicotine chewing gum, hoping to quit smoking right about now. I loaded up on vitamins too as well as nicotine patches, zhen-shen balsam, tablets for Yura and some other stuff. Everyone was in fabulous mood. I looked at my watch and thought that I might even make it to the briefing. At the thought of the briefing I knew that relaxation time was nearly over. We must go back. - Let's move it boys! The sun is setting. It's true, the noon was almost over. - Hurry up, will ya. Get the boxes. I'm not in the mood to spend the night out here. Suddenly, the noise of sporadic gunfire came over from where we left our armour. - What the hell!? I thought, for once we could do something without interruption. Go, go, fellows! - I sprinted forward, carrying a package with heavy drugs, given to me by Zhenya. To get everything out we had to bust a little armoured door. For some strange reason no one has yet managed to snatch the drugs or may be we were just lucky. We've got the rare medicines and I had a feeling we'd soon need them. The gunfire soon died away which was very strange to say the least. Perhaps our drivers got it mixed up or maybe, they were not the winners. - Come on! Move it fellows. - Go! Go! - Hold on, guys! - We'll fry the motherfuckers! - Let's just hope the carriers are fine! Kicking and screaming like that we scooted ahead via the school rubble. The school's upper floors at the rear have all collapsed, having made a virtual hill with its debris, all the way down to the warehouses. Coming down was easy enough, but running uphill, stumbling on chips of bricks and concrete, was no fun at all. A funny kids rhyme suddenly popped in my mind: "...what a hard work that would be, to pull a hippo from a swamp...". Breathing heavily, falling down and getting back up again, tearing skin off our hands and faces and busting ampoules with medicine, we ran up the school's second floor and dashed down the opposite hill. Since I had the smallest box, I overtook everyone and was the first to see that our mechanics were peacefully chatting with some other unfamiliar soldiers next to the armoured tracks. I stood still in the shadow and carefully looked at the panorama. Everything seemed calm. Nobody seemed to be hiding or slinking about. Haven it was. I caught my breath and spewed with green and yellow slime again. Damn it. I've got to quit smoking. Others came up. All of us, with rifles braced, started to come down slowly. Those guys could be deserters or may be again, escaped cons. OK, we'll see when we get there. Coming closer, we saw that the guests were like us, "the saviours", "members of the southern adventure force". Having noticed our arrival, my mechanic leapfrogged over to me and jerked his hand up to his helmet in salute and reported: - Comrade Captain, during your absence nothing particular happened, with the exception... we mistook our neighbours for ragheads and opened fire at them... - And the number of casualties is... - None, we quickly worked it out. - That's good. Imagine, if you were better shooters you might've killed each other. - Comrade Captain, I am a platoon leader of the 125st artillery regiment, lieutenant Krikov! -Junior officer, barely any older than his subordinates, came up to me and saluted. "Krikov - Kryukov", it rhymed inside my head. Strangely enough, I was thinking of Kryukov this morning and now see Krikov. It's all too funny. - When did you graduate? - Someone asked from the back. - This year, - proudly answered lieutenant. - Right, - I whistled, - Lucky you didn't kill each other. What the hell are you doing out here anyway? - We were getting some water for the division. When we walked down, there were no one here, but returning we stumbled upon your backup. We've not enough people and too many heavy water tanks. We had no choice but to do the run without reconnaissance since every one was carrying water. Lieutenant was saying "us", like the decisions he was making were based on his and his men "chinese parliament", which was most probably true. He is very "green". I had the urge to give him a lecture, but held it in. He won't learn anything anyway until he steps into his own shit. That shit though could be his last. Thinking of this I spewed again. What a moron, ha? He'll die and his men would perish too. I could hold it in no more: - Next time, lieutenant, take either more men or fewer flasks. Otherwise, an ambush is out there waiting for you. Get it? - I told him in low voice. The man cringed under my look and most probably would say something daring in response but in the end changed his mind. So very "green" he was that all his thoughts could easily be read on his face. He thought it over for a while and then asked: - Comrade Captain, could you give us a ride for a few blocks to the regiment, I wouldn't want to tab all the way back. Spooks are always a problem too, wouldn't want to meet them either. - Sure, get in. Where do you get your water? - Stupid question, really, in this situation. Where else but Sunzha? - From Sunzha, of course. Twice someone shot at us. - Lieutenant was bragging. - If they wanted you dead, they would've left one good sniper there and we wouldn't be having this conversation right now. Where abouts? - I rolled out the map while we walked back to the carriers. - Here, - Krikov pointed at the spot, five blocks away from the school. - And here is the nest the shots came from. - OK, I wouldn't venture for water out here anymore, tomorrow they'll be waiting for us up there for sure. Did you at least shoot back? - Of course. - Fine, get in the trucks. We loaded up on the armour and set off. In a few blocks lieutenant asked to pull over. I gave the order to stop and APCs halted. Lieutenant and his men leapt off, waved us good by and walked off to the regiment quarters, crooked under the heavy weight of their tanks and flasks. Another half an hour and we were back at our base. Instantly Corpsemen hurried off to their tents to sort out the spoils. I was off to my cab too where Pashka was feeding firewood to our stove. - Tell me news, - I asked him taking off my gear. - No news. Everyone is at the briefing. Is that true we'll have a go at Minutka soon? - Yeah. - I said dryly, - long briefing? - It's been going on for about hour and a half. They've been calling for you a few times. - No shit, - I walked out and lit up on the way to briefing room. Making my way through the mud, I came over to the HQ. Crowd of officers and men near the entrance were having a lively discussion. I neither wanted to put off my sweet cigarette or get in there and continue on discussing those suicidal plans. The question now was how many hundreds of us will die out there. The "enemy" at the "North" and Moscow has finally rejected our appeal for air and artillery support and tightened the time frames. What we now had to discuss was which battalion was to go in first. Officers tried to tell me something but I wasn't listening to anybody. In my head, I was struggling to come up with the right arguments in favour of my plan, which I haven't even finished composing yet, but some details were already beginning to build up. There was, it seemed, a small chance to reduce the number of casualties. Having read my state of mind, the officers left me alone. I nodded to them in appreciation and tossed off my cigarette, which fell into the mud in an arc-like trajectory. Just like the life itself, isn't it? As soon as gets atop, it slams right back down. I was thinking how many lives would tomorrow fall without even reaching the top. Old men invented the war. They are already infertile but still lack wisdom and surely have enough ambitions for all the young ones put together. Their Power lets them push the youth to die for their old ideals and, after having satisfied their thirst for blood, they'd be stealing again left, right and forward whatever's left there. We, officers, the witnesses to their madness, are pretty much done too. They'll do to us what they did to the veterans of the afghan campaign. They'll portray us as idols, and then would demote us to the status of drunks and drug junkies. Those vets are now officially murderers that had gashed off peaceful afghan population unable to take on a decent force. Now they're shut out, blamed for everything. Their official diagnosis - the "afghan syndrome". Jesus, how many more of those "syndromes" they've forgotten to mention. Every hotspot is another "syndrome". Too many, if ask me, even for such large state like Russia. I was just "winding up" myself. It is better to walk in already pissed off and "wound up" than do it in there. Everybody's already tired of endless useless arguments and constant dead-end conversations and you are barging in, aggressive, ready to tear to pieces every one in your way. Your opinion at this stage is a breath of fresh air. My ideas have already begun to take shape of a final plan. We depended heavily though on our captured men not being in that palace, because I was afraid we could knock them out too. There is a device that sappers use for pushing mines out. It would work for us beautifully. The thing consists of a rocket with three jet engines, one for the flight and two initial boosters. When it takes off it drags behind it a thick hose stuffed with C4 and only flies in one particular direction. When that hose (or gut) unwinds all the way, the rocket slumps and in a few seconds the gut's C4 detonates, making a ditch about four meters wide. This "dragon" is employed to make ways for infantry inside minefields. Those mines that do not explode, after the detonation would surely be pushed out on the surface anyway. Depending on a type of terrain, the width of the ditch could vary from one meter to four. Therefore, if we got close to that fricking palace, we could launch a few of these "dragons" toward it. After that not much of that whorehouse will be left standing. The most important task would be to destroy the lower floors. The rest would fall soon after, burying them all in there. But again, it only worked well in case only the spooks were inside. Anyway, I walked up to the entrance, moved my AK behind my back, and pushed the door open. - May I come in, comrade Colonel? - I interrupted Bahel in the middle of his explanation. All battalion commanders, their chiefs, com-brig's XOs and other HQ officers were looking at the map. A few more men were smoking near the window breach barricaded with sandbags. - Come in, Mironov. How was the trip? - Very well, comrade Colonel. - Please take a seat and do not interrupt us. Whatever you have missed you can find out later. He turned to the map again and moved his pen across it, using it as pointer. Judging from the spot he was at, we were now storming the State Bank. Which in turn meant that we have already taken over (on the map that is) the bridges and successfully moved across the open space under the hail of gunfire. I should probably ask them afterwards how they did it. For now I'll just seat here quietly and listen. The time will come for me to stand up and express my point of view, like any other present here. First, the lowest ranking officers will speak, then, all the way up the pyramid. It is done deliberately, so that the opinion of the higher-ranking officers wasn't weighing on their shoulders. At the end, com-brig will do the summing up. He, the brigade's commander, is the one responsible for every single thing, he is to oversee the state of affairs, make decisions, give out orders and control the way they are carried out. His chief of staff could sometimes get a piece of the pie, but mostly it is up to him to do all those things. Same order is in the trenches. Battalion, company or platoon commander is always responsible for his unit. He is the one who would get all the blame if his men didn't achieve the objective. Tribunal would be swift, it won't drag on, I'd vouch for that. Best case scenario, he'll lose his ranks, get kicked out of the army and go back to farming. Worst case: court martial, dishonourable discharge, his medals taken away and then jail. In our country, the most fearful prefix to your status is "ex-". If they could have a go at the ex-president, an ex-military commander's rank is no cover for sure. If they found out you were at war, hold on to your pants, my friend, you are as good as dead. You're now a war criminal. The blood of innocent civilians is most definitely on your hands. We, law-abiding citizens killed no one. If any of our countrymen are being slaughtered somewhere in the south, so be it. What else would you like, Mr President, maybe send more of our children to the next bloodbath? No problem, sir! We voted for you so how can you possibly be wrong or lie to us? Not a chance! Did you, my reader, think like that? Or maybe still thinking? Chehov once said that one must squeeze a slave out of oneself, drop by drop. It must be added that our rulers should be daily squeezing big bosses out. Just look at the map. How can possibly a republic, so small that it's marked on the map as dot, be threatening Russia's sovereignty? Unless, you feed and support this motley general, encouraging his fiery speeches. Come on, he's nothing but a little Fuhrer with the chechen accent. When they needed Lev Trozhki dead, he was slain like a street dog, in Mexico, with an ice picker and without any guided missiles. I refuse to believe that this ex soviet pilot was so smart as to get away. For a reward, they'll serve you his head on a plate with salad and mayonnaise. Every one is worth money. If you can't buy a guy, put a hit on him. That's tricky though, because he might know the key combination to your bank account in Zurich, or maybe some other dirt on you. We, like all fine-bred sheep, would again go to the voting tables and vote for those who'd send us to another bloody "hood wrangle", send our children to slaughter and force veterans of the Great Patriotic War fetch empty cans from the rubbish bins. It's not about communists, democrats, socialists and other masters of jabbering. These guys are only after our bread and butter. The purpose of war is to redirect our attention from that stealfest. Meanwhile the briefing went on, the plan was drafted and presented. The time has come for us to speak up. Suddenly, San Sanych was called by an RTO to take an important phone call. All of us kept silent, may be the whole thing was called off. He came back to the table horrified and sat down with a helpless look on his face. Com-brig could no longer hold it: - Just tell us, will you. - We are receiving intelligence reports, confirmed by the opposition, that all our captured wounded are being brought up into the palace. We are to be extremely careful during the assault. Air support was refused, no "Grads" or "Uhragans" would be provided either and we are to use only our own artillery. Complete silence now hung in the room. The only ones to break it were the sounds of heavy breathing, moving chairs and a sudden loud crunch of com-brig's pencil. It seemed he didn't even notice that he broke it. He was still holding the pieces and staring at the wall. Everyone went into stupor. - We can't go in without artillery or air support, full stop. - Broke the silence commander of the first battalion. - We can't use them either. The hostages will die. But they'd die regardless whether we have support or not - Continued commander of the tank battalion. - Either the spooks will finish them off or we'd stop their sufferings with an accidental burst, grenade or mortar shrapnel. Same difference. I wouldn't want to be their murderer in a million years. It's a dead-end situation. - Third battalion's commander was thinking and talking at the same time. - We don't stand a chance in a world to even try and save the prisoners. But attempting to do so we could lose a lot more of our men. Neither can we ignore the possibility of counterattacks. - Continued Com-brig's artillery XO. Before the pause got too long, Com-brig tossed away pieces of his pencil: - Take a ten-minute break. Your men are to be told nothing! After the break everyone has three minutes to express his opinion on the subject. All of us poured outside to breathe in some fresh air, take a leak and have a smoke. While at it, we talked about all the previously mentioned without the commander. - We're totally screwed! - What the hell are they thinking? - Now, for sure, we'd have to climb those walls like pirates with knives. - OK, we've got to think men. - It seemed that the tank battalion commander was not at all concerned with all this hype. He spoke to the art battalion commanders and the com-brig's XO. Would you be able to get your howitzers a little closer to the palace? - I don't think so. The bridges won't handle the load. My self-propelled cannons are too heavy, too slow and the on-board ammunition stocks are too small. They'd have to be resupplied constantly. We'd have to be somewhere close, but not too close, dug in position. Then, we'd shell over your heads and houses right where you'd want us. But the tankers' com-batt wasn't listening to him anymore. He was mumbling something to himself: - Small stocks... too slow... Revolver! We should pull a "revolver", a carousel that is. First, infantry goes in, then, our tanks open up. No APCs though, their calibre's too small. He called for his chief of staff and they began to draw something. The time was up and we all went back to the briefing. When everyone was back in their chairs, com-brig said: - Gentlemen, all of us understand the present situation. We cannot attack like this but we cannot also not to attack. I've made calls to Rolin and our support units. They are giving us the carte blanche. We are to take the palace at any cost. Please say what you have to say: Silence hung about the room. The "chief tanker" took the opportunity: - As I understand it, we cannot use air force and artillery since our POWs are in the building. Is my notion correct? - Yes, it is, - confirmed Com-brig. - How very observant, - Someone giggled at the back. - Our APCs on the other hand have too smaller calibre weapons and not enough armour protection, thus are unable to effectively support us from the required distance. Correct? - Yes, - Com-brig again confirmed, still however puzzled by the com-bat's speech. - Our tanks, although properly armoured and have large enough calibre weapons, lack ammunition stocks, thus would still be ineffective since they would run out of ammo relatively quickly. So, as you can see, the problem here is how to restock them rapidly. Reloading tanks under enemy fire is surely a suicide; therefore I propose that the tanks do it themselves. I also suggest a "tank roundabout" to maintain constant bombardment. - What roundabout? - Hey, he's got something there! - Great idea, man! Almost everyone grasped the general intent proposed by the tanker. He walked up to the map and began to tell about his plan: - First, over here, two tanks roll out across the bridge. One of them maintains rapid fire; the other backs the first one with rare salvos but mostly is keeping quiet. The third one stands by in the middle of the bridge and is waiting for his turn. Meanwhile, on our side of the river, at the bridge's entrance, the forth tank is awaiting action and finally, the fifth one is reloading back up here. While, having spent all its ammo, the first tank is returning to our bank of the river to be reloaded, the one on stand by, on the middle of the bridge, moves in position and opens up. At the same time the third one, that was at the bridge's entrance moves forward to the middle. During all these moves, the tank that was stationary and kept silent now opens fire to keep the pressure on the enemy and prevent them from destroying the retreating empty tanks. This way we are able to maintain constant the required density and precision of bombardment and, at the same time support our infantry. We'd be acting as artillery, so to say. Although they usually aim at plazas, we, on the other hand, could aim at windows, - He finished off his speech on this funny note. - This is bloody great! - Thank you, - Com-brig shook his hand. - I also have an idea, - Third battalion's commander stepped forward. - I suggest we use sewage network to get into the palace. - Not a bad idea. - That way we could save our men and maybe even free the hostages. - What if they set up an ambush? We'd all be dead before we knew it. - Not bad, but too risky. - It's a pretty good idea, but we don't really know where the pipes could lead us. This and the fact that chechens are already actively using them as the means of approach and retreat while setting up ambushes. Therefore, there is a good chance that if we do decide to use the sewer network we could walk into a trap. Thanks for the idea though. I think we have to blow them up anyway so that the spooks wouldn't pop up at our rear. Agreed? - Agreed. - Com-bat said with a sigh of disappointment and settled back into his chair. - Any more suggestions, anyone? More people spoke but no one could propose anything more radical than the tankers' "roundabout". Storming hotel "Kavkaz" today was already out of the question and it was agreed with the "North" that we would transfer the task to the marines. We also came to the decision to pull our men closer to the HQ and let them rest as much as possible for now. Equipment had to be readied too. In conclusion, our HR officer, lieutenant colonel Sergey Nikolaevich Kazarzhev took the opportunity to speak to us. He was a short fellow (about a meter and sixty-five centimetres tall), not skinny though but rather muscular. He took part in the Afghan campaign some years ago back. He wasn't like the rest of the ex Political Officers brotherhood. He wasn't nasty to other people, nor was he bugging his superiors with ludicrous stuff, he was just doing his job. He made every effort to find common ground with men and was widely respected not just for his Afghan past but also for his people skills. - Gentlemen, I have just received a phone call from the "North". Two Moscow commercial banks are about to celebrate their anniversaries. The money that they saved up for the festivities, they decided to spend on supplies aid for the military personnel in Chechnya. So, tomorrow we have to send a truck to the "North" for the packages. Every one of them contains a track suite, snickers, toiletries, pack of cigarettes, two cans of beer for offices, two cans of cola for men and some other stuff. - Not bad! - Beer... - Freebee! - Lucky for those who'll be distributing that aid. - Take more, for wounded and KIAs too! - Yeah, get more. - Need a hand? - Which banks? - "Menatep" and "In-com", - shouting through the noise answered Kazanzhev. - "Menatep", hmmm, sounds like NATO. - Cigarettes! - Hey, who is non-smoker? I'll buy them off you. - Hold on. May be they're "Astra" or "Bum in the mountains". - Right, they can swap the good ones in the "North". - Yeah, those guys can swipe anything. - No, they wouldn't, dare. - Why would they care? They'd rather start distributing after the assault; more would be left for themselves. - Quite! - Com-brig barked through the roar. The noise suddenly abated. - Quite! - Repeated Com-brig. - We've all got lots to do. Let's not waste time, shall we. Questions? Everyone had many questions, but most of them were rhetorical. Knowing, that answers most probably would be to "get stuffed" and "go away" no one ventured to ask any. Everybody walked away discussing the freebees. Yurka and I came up to Kazanzhev: - Serega, you won't forget about us when you'll be dealing the packages, won't you? The most important thing is the cigarettes. May be some people don't smoke, you know. - Guys, you're not the first and you're not the last to ask me that. Give me a break, will you, have conscience. - Yura, what's he talking about? - Conscience. - What's that? - No idea. I know kidney, stomach, liver, but what conscience is I don't know. How about you? - Never heard of it. - Serge, we have an almost absolute monopoly on alcohol around here and we are, by the way, your neighbours. You can't just tell us off and that's it. It's not neighbourly. - Imagine how in good neighbourly spirit we'll be urinating on your car's tyres and dumping on your porch. Get the picture? - For the whole duration of this war. - And we'll keep going like that after the war too. We'll be shitting on your porch constantly. - Just imagine, Serge, you're coming out to go to work in the morning and tumble having slipped on our deifications. All dressed up in sparkling whites and covered in crap. Wouldn't that be a bummer? - And all of this because of some pissy cigarettes. - Idiots. - Slava, I thing we've heard that one before. - By the way, while you're at the North, find their airport chief, Sashka, and tell him we said "hi". Also remind him to put more cigarettes in and something nice. Let him surprise us. - I don't think he even remembers you. - Oh, yes he does. - So, what's it gonna be? - About what? - OK, so you choose to skate on shit till you retire. Or may be you'd just give us more cigarettes and we'll leave you alone. We don't fight elderly, you know. - Get stuffed... - Yura, he has chosen the shit path. - Obviously. We're starting tonight, immediately. Pashka will be crapping too. - I wonder if it was the blind chance that brought the three of you together from the whole SibVO and stuck you in one cab? - Why? Not just SibVO, but also UZN and Yurka, for example, is from SKVO. It's fate you see. Therefore, you, Srgei Nikolayevich, cannot avert your destiny too. - Slipping on crap, every day of the week. But all that could've been avoided... - If you had only agreed to give us more cigarettes. - And if you did, we'd always be happy to see you. - And we'd tell our kids how wonderful you are. But if you didn't, we'd also tell them... what an asshole you turned out to be. - Idiots. - He's obviously not ready to commit yet. - Don't worry, he'll fall a few times, he'll commit. - So? - OK, we'll talk tomorrow. - Oh, you should've said so straight away. - Wonderful! Good night, Serge. While walking over to the cab I suddenly realised how tired I was. At "home" Pashka was all smiles at the dinner table. Having pilled off mud from our boots (it made them look like ski boots), we barged into the cab. - And what are you so happy about? Won a prize or something? - Yura asked him. I was silent though, some thoughts, pretty important, as it turned out, were circling in my head. - I heard what you did at the "North"... - Shut up. Shut up and never tell anybody. Got it? Nothing happened up there. You understand? - I dryly interrupted him. I had the desire to neither recall nor discuss the events. - Put out what we've got in your little stash. We'll go wash our hands. We left the rifles in the cab and popped out with a pot of warm water. Hosing ourselves, we washed up thoroughly until the skin could finally breathe again. We sat down on the porch to light up, letting the night breeze caress our faces. I had the desire to just sit like this forever and think of nothing. Just sit and smoke with the heat from my cigarette stinging my fingers. Serenity it was. Yurka interrupted my jolly mood: - What was that about? - So that he doesn't go around blabbering everybody everything. Whatever happened is now in the past. No use now to jump about, especially for a grunt. Imagine if we told him what happened, he'd be running around telling everyone at the HQ. Just let him be sad but silent. I think when it's all over (God help us to get through), we'll yet stand before a jury of some kind. You'll see. What is it you sons of bitches were thinking about? A revolt? So I suggest you shut up too. - Am I supposed to be scared? Cause I'm not. - We are not, my young friend, taking part in the Great Patriotic War. This fight is for somebody else's property. So the owner might one day ask us if we didn't try to turn his own weapons, people and equipment, entrusted to us for a while, against himself. Yura, we are participants in such cheap show that we could just laugh outloud if it wasn't so scary. Do you, by any chance, know why all THIS is? - Drop it, Slava. You'll go nuts. - Too late. If I'm asking these questions, I'm already nuts. - I fished another cigarette out of the packet, lit it from the butt and tossed it off into the mud. - We shall be tossed out just like that butt when the time comes and it will come, trust me, may be even earlier than we all think. They'll wipe the floor with us and toss out. And just like you spit after you smoke they'll spit on us. Don't you forget it. If we could now show our teeth to the general, we could do it again, could we? And may be even jump at his throat some day. We're too used to blood and death by now. I, for example, cannot sleep in silence anymore. But if you fired up artillery or air bombardment, I'll be asleep in a second. - Yeah, me too. - Quietly noted Yura. - Just answer me this simple dumb question. What is nationality? - What do you mean? - Yura couldn't catch my drift. - You're born with it. God has given it to you, if you will. - But if, for example, a chechen infant were brought to France. All his life his parents would hide the fact that he's chechen from him. They would give him their surname, good education, first in a good school and later in a university. All cultured up in their little French surroundings. So who is he? OK, if it's easier for you, imagine it was a Russian child. (Pity it wasn't me). So Yura, what do think, WHO is he? - French, I guess, - Yura wasn't particularly confident. - So, you see - nationality is not biological, it is a rather social concept. Evidently, people invented this problem, this national criterion so that they can tell other people apart and now they are using it to bump us against each other. Remember the romans: "divide and conquer"? Do you also remember the soviet times, when they proclaimed everyone equal? They also sent Russians to serve their term in the military at the outskirts of the empire, whereas Muslims would always get to do theirs in one of the Baltic republics and Baltic people always went to Ukraine and Moldova? That was done for a purpose, so that if a revolt breaks out they wouldn't hesitate to shoot at strangers. And political officers would keep that fire burning at all times. - What about patriotism? Loyalty to your motherland? - Motherland? - Yes, motherland, - Yurka was jubilant. The question was in fact a tough one. - What is motherland, Yura? - I calmly asked him. - I'm not a Jew or a gipsy, or some nomad. Explain to me what motherland is. What do YOU mean by that? Once before, our soldiers called out: "for God, Tsar and the country!", then "for Motherland and Stalin!" and now what, "for Motherland and President!" or "Motherland and Grachin!". - I spewed. - May be in about twenty years from now they'll make a movie how grunts march at machinegun nests with that idiotic cry. As Grachin once said: "the boys died smiling". I'd like to pump a 7.62 in his belly and see how he would smile to me. So, what is it, motherland? Is it the president, who fucked it al up and then dipped us into this burning shit? I don't even have a word in my file about this. Would motherland that loves her sons send them to their deaths? Couldn't they kill the bustards from a distance? You know? Of course they could. And all of us, with the whole world, would applaud at the precision of that surgical operation. They could do anything but this. Unless you're on the same team with Dudaev. Patriotism? Hah. Oscar Wild once said that patriotism is the bastard's last sanctuary. The paradox is that I really love Russia. I love the country but I hate the government. So this paradox bears hatred for the whole meaning of the word "motherland". It's tough to live in a country that you hate. - So why do you fight? And, I think, you're pretty good at it too. - Stop kissing my ass, will you. I don't know. Maybe I'm defending my motherland. God knows why. It's paradox or a mental case. You see it's just too easy here, like black and white. Like Indians and confederate soldiers. We're defending our homeland that they are trying to tear apart. I don't know, I think I'm going nuts. You know this joke when a general arrives at the barracks to inspect them. He's walking around, checking things out and stuff. Then suddenly he says to the barracks' commander: "It's too gloomy around here, could you paint the fence in all colours of the spectrum?" The commander: "Yes sir!" So they walk further. General goes again: "And arrange the beds in a chess order, I think it's kinda happier looking that way." The commander again: "yes sir, general sir!" So the general's finally saying to him: "Do you have your own opinion on anything at all? To every single bullshit I propose all you can say is yes sir." But commander suddenly answers: "I do have my own opinion but I don't have enough years in the service, otherwise I would've told you to shove your orders up your ass, sir general sir!" The story of my life, Yura. Not enough years in the service to happily retire. Otherwise I wouldn't have had this split personality. - Maybe you have to go see a shrink or something? - Yeah, and he's going to explain to me what the word "motherland" means and why exactly I'm here. And while he's at it, he can also try and explain to me why we cannot blow the shit out of the oil refinery. But hands, my hands, Yura, are shaking with desire. Just in spite. To pull some pretty ugly joke on someone. The problem is that I don't think they'll be restoring it out of their own pockets. Most probably out of the state's budget. By the way, Yura, are you aware of the fact that our air force, first and foremost, bombed the shit out of the local finance ministry? - I am aware of that. So what? - I can bet you that at this very moment they are bombing not the palace, not the spooks' barracks, not their ammo depots, but the Chechen state bank. - Very unlikely. - Yura wasn't sure, - However, they could, you know. First the ministry and then bank. Logically, they are letting the reg-heads know about the assault. Bastards! - That's exactly what I'm talking about. So, Yura, what is motherland? - Get stuffed. You bloody sophist. You should've become a political officer. - My dad was an ex-serviceman. Therefore I have this unshakable antipathy for political officers. But sometimes, you know, there can be descent people amongst them. Rarely though. - OK, let's go eat. Shall we get pissed tonight? - I'd be happy to, but I don't think I can. Moreover, it was a crazy day. Remember we had about 500 grams of liqueur each, with only some chicken to chase it with, and it had no effect on any of us. - Yep, - Yurka grimly spewed. - What a life, hah? You want to get drunk but you can't. When I come home, I'll get totally shitfaced and dive facedown in salad. - Yep, salad it is. Up to your ears. Just watch the air supply. So we laughed. When you ask yourself questions that you cannot possibly answer, all you can do is relax, go with flow and hold on to your partner. As we made our way inside the cab, Pashka has already set up the table and placed an open bottle of vodka in the middle. - Any more cognac left? - Yes. - So put it out, will ya. Cheer up, man. Yurka looked at me reproachfully. It was pretty clear - no one could tell if we ever get another chance to drink it later, but his look was articulate enough to blame me for having a go at the fellow for my own rotten thoughts. Pashka left the Vodka where it was and pulled out the cognac. I opened the bottle and poured it out into almost full glasses. I had a raging desire to get drunk. - Let's go! - I lifted my plastic cup. Others followed my example and bumped their "cups" together. They rustled and the dark liquid inside them waved when we cheered. I capsized my glass and heavy syrupy liquid streamed down my stomach and spread out in there with worm sensation. I closed my eyes for a moment. The next moment we started eating. This meal was a silent one. There was nothing we could say or do. Everything was already decided and signed off. So what's the point? I could probably draw a request for discharge but the thought of that never even occurred to me at that stage. We were chewing quickly and when the warmth inside my stomach began to disappear I poured out whatever was left of cognac. Yurka quickly grabbed his cup: - Are we just having a drunken orgy or we actually have a reason? Any toasts anyone? - No, we are just having a meal, but if you feel like saying something, be my guest. But please make it short, I don't usually like to have my cognac warm or vodka for that matter. - I would like to make a toast, - began Yura, - to God. He's been on our side so far and I think I'm speaking for everyone at this table when I say that I hope he won't leave us now and that we somehow make it out of this shithole... - So that in a few years we could get ourselves into a new one... - I barged in the middle of his toast and continued for him. - May be we will, but we're here now and maybe tomorrow will have to storm Minutka, so I ask God to give us strength and bring us luck. To good fortune! - Yura, do you realise that you're in the army now? - Yeah, so? - So, so. In the army we have this thing called subordination. But you, over your commander's head, are speaking directly to God. That might go on your permanent record. - Get stuffed idiot! - Yurka exhaled air from his lungs and pumped in the cognac. Both, Pashka and myself did the same. Something moved inside my head. Am I really getting pissed?! What a wonderful feeling. I was afraid I could spook this delicate state away and was thus just sitting there motionless. The alcohol was actually having effect on me and it was growing too. - Slava, are you alright? - Yeah, yeah, I'm fine - I opened my eyes, - Bastard, you scared it off. My head was back to normal by now: - Shit, man! - Scared what off? - My partner asked me stupefied. - The grogginess, you moron. I'm sitting there, enjoying myself and now you've destroyed it. - I just saw you with that thousand mile look in your eyes, I though you choked or something. Sorry, man, won't happen again. You might still catch it, you know. - Yeah, you try to catch it, - I was really annoyed, - But I can surely try again. I picked up the bottle of vodka that Pashka left on the table and poured it out in cups. Yurka and I weren't chasing it with food anymore. May be now, mixing the two, I could get a little pissed. I stood up holding the cup in front of me. - The third one. - The third one, - said Yurka. - The third, - echoed us Pashka. Having stood like this for a while we drunk the vodka in silence and almost simultaneously sat back in our chairs and started slowly getting back into the meal. - Is that true we'll have to take Minutka head-on? - Pashka asked with his mouth full. - Yes, sonny boy, it is, - I answered. I knew he couldn't stand when we called him "sonny". And sure enough it enraged him this time: - I'm not your sonny boy! I'm about to have my own sonny. Then he added: - Or maybe daughter. So please don't call me "sonny boy". - You don't have to have a genius IQ to make one, Pasha, it's a ten minute job, but a lifetime of heavy labour afterwards. Look at you, for example, we tried really hard to make a person out of you, but yet achieved nothing. - Why is it nothing? - Pashka was getting furious. - You drink too much; respect for elders is a bit of a problem too. And we treat you like family, you know. I think we should try and be stricter from now on. What do you think Slava? - Yep, I guess we should use something more radical this time. Why did you get the sentry all drunk back on the train? A pissed guard with an assault rifle is a criminal. Which makes you, my friend, an accessary. - Accessary to what? - To a criminal act, dummy. Back in 1937 you would've been charged with sabotage and next step would've been the firing squad. All nice and quick, according to the martial law. ...A lead stamp in the back of the head, 9 mm in diameter. - I touched his occiput, which executioners usually aimed at and Pashka twitched. - That is a really dumb joke, Vechaslav Nikolaevich. I lit up. Yurka and Pashka followed my example. - Right, Pasha, - I started, - while we're absent... - And where would you go? - Interrupted me Pavel. - Down the basement, to hide, - I came back at him. - Don't interrupt senior citizens, would you. We'll most probably go with the battalions. You, son of a bitch, are responsible for the cab and everything inside it. You guard it with you life. If anything happens, you... - I stopped him, already opening his mouth, with a gesture, - You will return all of it to our families. You've got it? As for the cab, if anything happens to it, I'll screw your head off and make it look like you were born like this. Did you understand everything I just said? - Yeah, yeah. It's a hundredth time you're telling me all this. By the way, there isn't much to guard in there besides your dirty socks. - By the way you might want to wash them then. - Yeah, right, - Pashka snorted. - You will, I'm telling you. You'll be washing them and crying while doing it. - Even if I do cry, it will be because the stench from them is unbearable. - Pasha, - Yura interrupted his speech, - we now have this ritual: whenever we've got to go about our dangerous business, we tell you what to do with our dirty stuff. But since you're not so keen on taking on the task of washing it, you might as well be busily praying God so that he guides us through successfully, so that you, in turn, wouldn't have to wash the stuff in case something happens. By the way, have you forgotten what they smell like, our socks? - Yeah, like I ever knew! When I was "green", I'd never wash the "vet's" socks. I'm not about to start now. - Pashka was boiling. His anger only encouraged us. - Pasha, you know when a person is dying; his last will is the law. You might've heard about it. - Yeah, so? - So, - my tone turned declamatory. - Our last will, when we die, you must wash our socks, press them and return to our families. One pair from each of us you may keep for yourself. As a memory. You might want to hang them on the wall above you bed. - But you're not dying yet. - But what if... - I'm not going to wash nothing! - Pashka turned grim. - OK, OK, we're joking, man. Don't be sad. Better yet pour out the remains, will ya. He thoroughly poured out last of the vodka equally amongst three cups. We patiently waited until last drops fell into his glass. We were actually counting them. - Twenty-two, - said Yura, breaking the silence. - I've heard somewhere that it is possible to squeeze out thirty-three drops from any bottle. - I added to the conversation. We picked up our plastic cups. - Welcome to the brand new day. What's it going to be? - Asked us Yura. - Fuck knows. - Pashka answered for everyone. - Whatever happens let it be. And let's drink to that, shall we. To good fortune and her majesty fate! - I said the toast. - That's right! - Yura supported me, - To fate and fortune. Then he added, almost to himself, but we all heard him clearly: - We must be prepared for death. Although, let us hope to avoid it, - and drank his share. - What you just said is right. We must be prepared so that the death is not fully unexpected. We must finish the deeds we have started and not make any big debts so that our families don't end up having to pay them off. Let us hope to avoid all this, - I repeated his words and finished off my cup. Pashka drank his too and we ate some more out of the almost empty plates and cans in silence. Then we lit up again but now in a definitely better mood than before. The coming day did not seem so dark anymore. - What was it you were talking about, the deeds and stuff? - Pashka asked me, taking a deep puff out of his cigarette. - Jesus said it right before his death, talking to his father. He knew he was about to die and he was scared. So just in case he asked him not to do it. - I explained to him. - When you've got time, read The Bible, Pasha. You'll find a lot of interesting stuff in there. - Ah, a book... - stretched Pashka. - Read, Pasha, read. Wisdom of centuries of generations is in books like that. You see, you can't just live according to your own experiences. What would you teach your son? Which life examples are you going to tell him about? Whose life? Yours? But you haven't seen much besides the constant booze. Is that what you'd teach him? How to drink? Or how to get a sentry pissed? - Yurka obviously had a philosophical twirl up his ass. - Yura, don't twist his brain, - I interrupted his lecture. - At least he won't become a schizophrenic. - Why is that? - Back in the military college I had a girlfriend, she was majoring in medicine. So she told me once that on a psychology lecture she heard that if a person does not read books, it is very unlikely that he or she would ever suffer from schizophrenia. Because when you read a book you do in your mind everything the characters do. You suffer, love, hate, and fight like they do. This way his or her personality is replicated onto yourself and then you have got your personality also deviated. Then something else happens which I can't remember because it was all medical terms. - Hmmm, you're right, you know. Pashka is certainly unlikely to suffer from schizophrenia. But alcohol poisoning is definitely a possibility. - Yura signed off on his resume. - If, while we're absent, they'll be dispensing the aid, you come to the brigade's political officer, lieutenant colonel Kazartsev and tell him we sent you. Then you pick up the aid for yourself and us. If we come back and you, bastard, drank our beer, you'd better hang yourself. You know our sizes, don't you? I'll write them down once again, just in case. The most important thing is the cigarettes, he should give you more of those. If he forgets, remind him that he promised them to us. Understood? - Yep. How much more cigarettes? - I don't know, but we hope a lot. Don't worry, you'd be smoking them too. Have we ever deprived you of anything? - Nope, never. - You see. We're struggling to feed you and you, bastardo, don't even want to wash our socks! - Yura started the "socks" talk again. - I'm not going to wash your socks! - Pashka exploded. - Don't you yell at officers or I might want to mess up that pretty little face of yours. - Said Yura to his rage. - We'll pop out for a leak. You clean up in here, will ya, and think about the socks. Air out the cab so that we could get some sleep, I can't see the palm of my hand. - I'm not going to wash your socks! - Not as loud as before, but still as angry, Pashka said through his teeth. - Why are you winding him up? - I asked Yura, lighting up and standing next to him. - Bored, - simply said Yura. - No, it seems something is eating you on the inside. - Nothing is eating me on the inside. I just can't get that speech of yours about the motherland out of my head. What's motherland? - Oh, so you've got it now too. So what is motherland? - As I said before, get stuffed! - No, no, no. Don't tell me to get stuffed. You answer the question. - You should've asked about the meaning of life. - No Yura. Nobody knows that for sure, but you should know about the motherland. - You're right about one thing though. Motherland and government are two totally different things. - No, motherland and state. - Yeah, it's OK when your country is of only one culture, like Israel, for example. - But what about the States. It's like a bloody Babylon in there and they're all fine, all understand each other. No one wants to create an independent state on the territory of, say, Texas. Why? Because they have work over there. If you're not a bum, you live like a human being. - That's right. By comparison, we're like walking backwards. - OK, let's just drop this subject shall we. No use would come out of it anyway and Pashka's already gone bananas. - Yeah, that's for sure. Let's shoot? - Yura pulled a few signal rockets out of his pocket. - Let's do it! - I took a couple from him. Having split up, we walked some distance away from each other, then lifted the rockets and fired them, jerking the trigger cords. Almost simultaneously two claps boomed in the air and the hissing rockets raced into the night skies. Once at the end of their journeys they popped open with lights and slowly started their descend back down to earth. The guards also periodically launched these rockets, thus everything around here was illuminated by this dead artificial light. All things had unusual, funny looking sharp shadows. When you fire those rockets it seems like Christmas back home. Every time, on the New Year's eve, I brought home some of these rockets from the garrison and after the midnight we all came out of the house and launched them. We were so happy, me and my son. The same feeling of happiness for some reason overwhelmed me right now. I chucked off the empty shell and picked up another rocket. Without waiting for Yura I fired it into skies again. Heavy smell of the burnt gunpowder hung in the air. Yura was catching up fast. - Let's go get some sleep? - I asked Yura after the last rockets faded. - Let's have the last cigarette and that's it for today. - My partner said back to me. We lit up and just sat there in silence. - You think they'll send us together? - Yura broke the silence. - I don't know. Maybe. Who knows. - They might stick us into the second battalion until they find a replacement for their chief of operations. - Nah, they've got plenty of good company commanders there. Really, there is no shortage of people in our brigade, who would like to become a chief of Ops. - Not really, but not many of them have enough experience to be one. - You think they'll let you command the Ops? - Maybe. It won't be you, that's for sure. You are the interaction officer. - Yep, we'll see. - Imagine the guys in battalions are now busting their balls, getting equipment and people ready. Verifying the details of the operation, people and ammunition. Isn't it wonderful we no longer have to do this? The worst position in the army is a company commander. They are running around like crazy dogs. - That's right. There is a good joke about it. Only it's about the Navy, but still pretty relevant. They summon this old submarine captain to the HQ of submarine operations and tell him: "We would like to introduce new privileges to the sub crew members. What do you think about that?" The captain, old sea dog, says "Fine, I think it's about time". So the HQ chief again says "we would like to increase you wages, housing quota, holidays and family leave. We are thinking when the shore-based servicemen find out about it, they'll die of jealousy. What do you think?" The captain says: "Yeah, that's right, but still, when the first one of them dies, could you put me in his spot." Same goes for us, whatever privileges they promise company or platoon leaders, we must stay away from these posts. - OK, let's go. Tomorrow is going to be a hard day. - Yeah, who knows when we'd be able to catch a descent sleep. You know, Slava, you're such a bastard. - Why is that? - With your dumb motherland questions. My head is spinning. - But I've let it all out and feel much better now. Let the others suffer. You, for example. - That's what I said, bastard. - Don't worry about it too much. Take it easy and forget for now. If we'll live through, we'll talk afterwards. In the nearest future, I think we might have to lay off such conversations. Let the reflexes work for now. - True, let the nerve system labour. I feel for the boys though. Lots of them will probably stay here forever. - "Nineteen year olds forever", like Baklanov wrote. - OK. Let's go or you'll start it again. We came up to the cab, tossed the butts out and walked in. While we were out, Pashka cleaned up and was already in bed. - You're not on the guard duty tonight? - No. I'm on tomorrow during the day. - Wow, what a fluke? Who's going to guard my sleep tonight? - It's your sleep, so you guard it. - You're being an asshole again, Pasha. I guess we should make you dig a foxhole... for your horse and you together. - Together? - Yep, that's right. You let your tongue run free too often these days. - How big would the horse's hole be? - Three meters high. - Three meters? There are no such horses. - Sure there are. Have you been to Moscow? There is statue of Yuriy Dolgorukiy there. His horse is about that big. So you'll be digging a foxhole for his horse and himself if you don't keep your mouth shut. Understood? - Yeah, sure. - Grumbled Pashka, turning away. He knew we could make him do it if he got to us. All we took off was our boots and socks. The rest we kept on and only loosened our belts a little. My AK was on the floor, next to my bed, Yurka hung his on the wall above his head. A few hand-grenades went under my pillow. I chambered a round in my captured suppressed Makarov, put it back on "safety" and stashed it under the matrass on the same level as my waist. Now we can try and catch some sleep. Pity, I didn't get pissed tonight. Yurka, bastard, got in the way, but I'll get back at him tomorrow. I unscrewed the light bulb above my head and everything sank into darkness. To sum it all up for today I declared: - At ease, boys. So one more long day of this war was over. God and fate allowed me to stay alive this one more day. Let's hope they won't change their minds later. All my life in the past didn't mean much any more because tomorrow we would have to go and try that suicidal assault at the Minutka. God, please give me guidance! After this appeal to God I finally fell asleep.
--------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 2001 translation by Marta Malinovskaya and Konstantin S.Leskov --------------------------------------------------------------- We split a bottle of vodka among all the officers including companies' commanders, gobbled some ice-frozen canned beef. Meanwhile, our artillery finished pounding Chechen positions. The roar of bombers ceased two minutes later. Silence fell interrupted only by an occasional riffle cracking and machine gun fire. "Comrade lieutenant-colonel!" A soldier emerged from the battalion commander's APC. "Order from the "twenty second" (it was the brigade commander's code): five-five-five". "Tell him: understood!" Battalion commander ran to his vehicle. We followed him. Tank crews and officers of the second battalion also rushed to their armored vehicles. A block before Minutka square our reconnaissance unit soldiers stopped us and told that they succeeded in pushing the "dukhs" from the bridge on our side, but the Chechens consolidated their position in the middle of the bridge and on the other bank. It seemed like the bridge was not mined, but I would not bet on it. Infantry jumped from the APCs and waited for a command hiding behind the vehicles and ruins. Tanks had arrived. It was agreed that infantry would go ahead with tanks following fifty meters behind. The Battalion Commander was in the head of his advancing unit, breaking all instructions to stay behind during the attack. My buddy Yura and I had no choice but to follow him. Sneaking through destroyed buildings, covering short distances in each run, we reached the bridge. Our scouts were barely holding the violent push of the "dukhs". A fortified stockade made of concrete blocks had been erected in the middle of the bridge. "Dukhs" were pouring our bank heavily with lead from behind of it not allowing us to raise a head. Chechen mortars started covering us with shells. At first they fired randomly, shells went into water, but after some corrections they started to explode closer and closer and hit our bank. In addition "dukhs" began shooting at us from grenade launchers. Reverberation was unbearable. The bellow of mortar shells increased. Bullets were constantly knocking at concrete blocks, which served us as a cover. There were first casualties. In the first company, where Yura and I were, a shell exploded very close to us, and a large fragment of it tore a half of soldier's head off. The body was lying belly down, a half of the neck was absent and another half bent to the right under the weight of what was left of the head. Blood was gushing from the devastated artery staining the wall red. Another soldier crawled to the dead, not to help, but to take off a chain with his personal number from the torn neck and to pull documents from the inner pocket of the uniform. When this guy turned the dead on his back, corpse's hands trembled grasping his assault rifle as if he did not want to part with it. I switched my attention back to "dukhs". Chechens accumulated more force on their side. An APC arrived to support them. We heard clanging and engine roar from the back. It was ours tanks. They could have come earlier. The front tank spat out a shell without good aiming. The projectile flew far above "dukh's" heads and exploded somewhere behind them. Second shot came closer. It scattered a crowd of "dukhs". Several bodies remained still on the ground. Few more were screaming and squirming in pain. Mortar shelling ceased, as well as automatic rifle fire. Battalion commander ordered: "Second company! Podstwolniks ready! Fire! First and third companies forward!" He jumped out of his hiding place and, ushering other people, ran ahead being bent almost to the ground. We followed him screaming and cursing on top of our lungs. Yurka and I blended with this rushing wave. Grenades from the podstwolniks rustled over our heads. Shrapnel from the exploded grenades clicked and banged on the bridge and on the other bank of the river. Tank cannons thundered behind us. Their shells dispersed Chechen infantry. "Dukhs" backed up from the bridge and hid behind a burned tank. Mortar shelling resumed. The howl of flying missiles drove me crazy even more then the noise from explosions. It I felt the air vibrating, hitting my eardrums, already callous from explosions. My will was paralyzed. The howl of falling shells made me feel that I knew which one was sent to hound me. I could almost imagine it falling down on me and tearing me into hundreds of pieces and scattering them around. I forced myself back to reality. The second company pulled closer to us. Radio told us that the first and the third battalions arrived and were ready to support us with fire during the bridge takeover. A minute later, the cannons of BMPs which belonged to two fresh battalions joined the chorus of tanks and Kalashnikovs. Rifle's voices of the first battalion sounded like dogs' barking, accompanied by more substantial large caliber shots of the third. "Dukhs" almost stopped responding. The opposite bank was cloaked in dust from shell and grenade explosions. It seamed as if we could feel this thick air with our hands. Teeth were grinding dust. My throat was sore from the gas from burned explosives and some other crap in the air. My eyes were watered. But horror of the first minutes of the battle started to pass away. Blood was pounding in my temples, sweat was dropping from under the helmet. I unbuttoned my coat and weakened the buckle of the armored vest. Then I rolled over to my back, fished out a pack of cigarettes, matches and lit the cigarette. Yurka, who was next to me, reached out his hand asking for a smoke. I shared my cigarette with him. Talking in this hellish roar was absolutely impossible. I inhaled cigarette smoke and did not feel its taste; just bitterness mixed with gunpowder gases and nicotine. My experience told me that in five-ten minutes this cacophony would end and we would have to attack running, crawling on that bridge. I don't want to! I want to lie down and stare at the sky. A fragment of a prayer came up to my mind. I could not remember it all. The most important - go onward and survive. Following our Battalion Commander's order, the fire shifted deeper into the "dukh's" defensive line. BMPs calmed down to avoid hitting us. Chief shouted, "Forward! Hurraaah!" People sprinted forward from their hiding places. I ran too. "dukhs" opened fire. Someone screamed on my right. Ahead of me a soldier stumbled on invisible obstacle and was thrown back with his arms wide spread. His Kalashnikov fell under my feet, I stepped on it and almost slipped. Passing I glanced on the body. The groin was torn. Pants swelled from blood, open eyes were looking at the sky without blinking. "Gone", a thought flew in my brain. I felt terror again. A taste of blood in my mouth returned. Dreadful, very dreadful. My legs felt as if were made of cotton. I screamed something unintelligible. Yelled, screamed from horror. Lord God, help! Help me to survive! We were not too far from the bridge. Here it is, littered with fragments of concrete, bricks, wrapped in barbed wire. Thirty men ahead of us got out on the bridge. The other side opened heavy fire. First ten people fell down, two of them were still moving, trying to crawl back. The rest backed up and hid behind the ruins of the former "dukh's" stockade. I flopped down too and crept behind a piece of concrete, stuck out my automatic and gave a short burst in the direction of "dukh's" bank, then looked back. All other officers were slightly behind. That meant that I would be in charge here. Trying to over cry thunder of the battle, I yelled that someone should drag the wounded back from the bridge. Soldiers ahead of me nodded showing that they understood. Two of them crawled forward and the rest opened fire to cover them. Seeing that the help is coming, the wounded tried to crawl in our direction, but seemingly, were not able to move well. Battalion commander appeared from behind and wheezed in my ear, "You are a good runner, Slava." "I would run back even faster", I answered. "Isn't it creepier than it was at the airport of Severny here?" "Exactly. I only wish not to let them blow up the bridge." "For that, Slavyan, we need to take over it as soon as possible," and he shouted again. "Forward! Forward, guys!" Soldiers started getting out of their hiding holes despite the danger of being killed by bombs. Battalion commander jumped from behind of a concrete slab and ran forward. I followed him. The advance guard got on the bridge again. Those who were retrieving the wounded rose and joined the others. I got on the bridge, it was whistling and roaring around. "Dukhs" shifted the mortar fire. Strong thunder came. I fell then sat up examining myself. Everything was fine, except I couldn't hear a thing. I flapped at one ear with open palm as if knocking the water out. It didn't help. Deaf curtain separated me from the world. It had to be a concussion. A strong air wave whipped my eardrums and popped them outside in, nothing terrible. It would pass over. I looked where the shell exploded. I remembered four people running ahead of me. Where were they? Right there. Devastated bodies of four soldiers were lying on the bridge. Apparently, they had taken all shrapnel as if they guarded me from it, at least so far. I felt sick and through up partially from the concussion, partially from the view of mutilated bodies. My fear contributed to it. I spat some bail out. Surprisingly, deafness passed over with vomit. I started to hear sounds. People ran by me. Some fell and moved no more. I was sitting like a fool by the puddle of my own puke feeling good. I was alive! I had nasty bitter taste in my mouth and was thirsty. I found my flask and took a sip. I spat it out immediately because me friend Pashka had filled it with brandy. I exhaled and made another sip. Head slowly cleared. All right, let's get out of here. I could not leave the battle field with concussion, that would be dishonest. I looked again at the remains of the soldiers, who took my shrapnel. Forward! Forward! Thoughts were mixed up still. I got up as if breaching through a thick cotton pad . It was difficult to keep upright. But I kept telling myself that everything was fine. It would pass over in an hour. It was not my first concussion. You cure it with shameless vodka drinking. Everything would be all right. Forward! I stubbornly made several steps then stopped and looked around. Soldiers were lying down ahead of me, in the middle of the bridge. Like a scarecrow, I was standing behind them and shaking. It was my luck that I still had not been shot. I found a spot where I could stand upright without problem. Then on half-bent, still infirm legs, I ran toward my comrades. Forward. Forward... About ten meters short from them I flopped down and started to crawl. After reaching ours positions, I leaned against a concrete fragment. Soldiers, who were just ahead of me, looked back and shouted something, but my brain refused to comprehend. Judging by their approving and encouraging gestures, it was something good. They figured that my hearing was impaired and lifted their thumbs up. I nodded and yelled back: "It's just a concussion" Tanks began to shoot above our heads. Hostile fire faded and we went forward again. Now I was dragging myself somewhere in the middle of the attack group. I was afraid of firing because I could shoot our own guys. Soldiers of the first battalion had already taken over the bridge. It was ours at last. From now on, the main task was to keep it. I looked back. "Dukhs" employed strong mortar fire to force the first battalion to move back. There were only soldiers from our battalion on the enemy's bank. The bridge was covered with corpses, I counted about fifty . Fifty died for hundred and fifty meters of bridge. It was a horrible math. Companies of the first battalion took the wounded with them. "Dukhs" continued pounding bridge with shells and, at the same time, started to shoot at us. They released a smoke-screen, which was a sign of their coming attack. There was enough smoke even without it. Chief's order was spread: "Get podstwolniks ready. Fire!" We started to shoot at the swelling black cloud with grenades. Some soldiers, who did not have podstwolniks, sprayed the smoke with long bursts from their semiautomatic weapons. I heard screaming of wounded coming from the cloud as well as from the our side. They were followed by clanging of tracks from behind the smoke-screen. It was either a tank or a BMP. It began to pound our positions. Random rocks and concrete fragments provided bad cover from shells. Roar came from the above. Those were our planes. It looked as if the sky opened and poured down bombs. Have you ever been under bombing? No? God blessed you. Bombs, five hundred kilos of metal and explosives each, are approaching the ground with debilitating howl. The roar of mortar shells is a sweet serenade in comparison with it. Aviation bomb howl paralyzes the body with horror, makes every cell of your body resonate. Thoughts go away and you are lying just like a piece of meat, trembling from fear and awaiting your death. Everything human leaves your body, you become a trembling beast. People said that many of our soldiers had been killed by our own aviation, but I myself had not been under friendly fire yet. First bomb exploded far ahead. Apparently, it induced panic among Chechens, because their fire from behind the smoke-screen stopped. A shook wave came from the explosion. It engulfed us with horrible thunder and hot air. It felt as if this roaring atmosphere was going to rip off my uniform, break my ribcage, tear my mouth and cheeks. Eardrums would collapse. Blood was already dripping out of my ears. A hail of small stones descended on us. Someone was yelling. I looked there. A soldier was rolling on the ground, holding hands on his eye. Blood was streaming between the fingers. A paramedic was crawling toward him. Soldiers who were next to the wounded grabbed the unfortunate and pressed strongly against the ground. One gave him a water bottle, another ripped his uniform to bare a forearm. Then he took a tube with painkiller from a medical kit and made an injection. I did not watch the rest. Judging by the noise, pilots were about to make a second barrage. That terrible, paralyzing howl started again. It was increasing. Following my instincts, I squeezed myself into earth and listened the silence that followed. Everybody was waiting where, whose chance would be to meet with Madam Death. An explosion happened unexpectedly close, on the left flank of our battalion. A hail of stones showered us again. It was strange, but after all these blasts, my hearing restored. The world of sounds rushed into my brain. A buzz in my head had not passed yet, but I tried not to pay any attention to it. I looked in the direction of the explosion. There was a huge crater, about ten meters in diameter. Around it... Scattered around it were body parts of our soldiers who happened to be close to epicenter. Smoke was rising from the crater. There was an acrid smell, a mixture of explosives, charred meat and burned wool. It made me sick again. Like a wave, nausea came and rolled back. I tried to remember how many people were there. It turned out that at least a platoon and a half. About fifty people. Oh, my God! We had lost hundred people already and still had not strengthened our grip on this bank! I heard Battalion Commander shouting obscenities into a radio set. He was not using any code names, screw the discipline! He was simply yelling into the microphone: "Recall those plains! Recall those Goddamn plains, you whore! These faggots killed half of my battalion! Recall immediately! I cannot hold it with my people! Why? Ask those bastards who don't give a shit where they drop their bombs! Thank them for me! Recall those perverts! I need support! I'm starting to dig in. Dukhs will attack in a moment. Did you recall the plains? Good job! I'm not sure, but I think I have more than a hundred "two-hundredths" and about sixty "hundredths". What am I to do with them? Get me some help! I need paramedics and evacuators. Some of my wounded are non-transportable. If no help comes, I'm out of here. Get me some support and not like this one from the air, you jerk. The real support! They promised vaunted paratroopers and marines! Where are those scoundrels? Ask Severny where they are! Ask Khankala. I'm done talking. Fuck off! Come here and you'll see why I've got no time to waist on you!" "Dukhs" opened massive dense fire at us and at the opposite bank. Mortars and BMP cannons hit us again. Their podstwolniks, Kalashnikovs and machine guns did not idle either. With infuriating noise, bullets and shrapnel plunged continuously into asphalt in front of our weak shelter grinding bricks and concrete fragments. Squeaking of ricocheting bullets was exasperatingly loud. The air became hot from the amount of metal bodies in it. I heard again the shouts and moaning of freshly wounded. Mechanic clanging came from behind. We looked back. Two our tanks drove on the bridge and started shooting. "Dukhs" cut their zeal and transferred all fire on them. Now it was our turn to attack. Chief ordered again: "Forward!" We left our wounded waiting for assistance and rushed ahead. It was so smoky that we could not see a thing on that square. We spread in a chain, shooting randomly from hips into the smoke. Eyes were watery from gunpowder gases. Forward! Only forward! I was screaming together with others. Some were shouting "Hurrah!" some cursing, "Sons of the bitches! Death to sons of the bitches!" I simply screamed with my mouth wide open "Aaaaah!" It helped to stay cool. Adrenaline was raging in blood. I could have head the world record in running beaten. Suddenly an automatic fire came from the behind of the smoke screen. Chechens shot the same way as we were doing, long bursts from hips. Apparently, they had allowed us to come closer deliberately. We dropped down. It was suicidal to lie on the open square. I rolled over, then again. Aha, here was a chunk of some wall. I flattened myself against it bruising my shoulder. Then I began firing back. The distance between us and the enemy was no more than fifteen meters, but they had unquestionable advantage. They were hidden behind the walls whereas we were with butts up in the middle of the square. My assault rifle clicked and shut up, it was out of ammunition at a wrong time as usual. The attached clips were empty too. I raised the barrel of my Kalashnikov and put a grenade into the launcher. It would be better to shoot from the knee, but I had no choice. I pressed the trigger with my left hand finger. Detonator exploded and grenade flew toward the enemy. It went too far. I corrected the aiming. Another grenade went into the launcher and the trigger was pulled. While the grenade was flying, I swiftly detached the empty clip and pushed the paired new one in. Thunder came from the behind. I looked back. Fuck! "Dukhs" hit both our tanks. They were engulfed in flames. Cartridges were cracking. Soon shells would explode. Yes, a moment later, deafening explosion thundered, followed by another one. Tanks' towers flew off. Almost synchronously, they slowly, very slowly went up in the air and, turning over and over, flew in the opposite directions. The first tower fell into the water with a loud splash, the second dropped on our side of the river. What was left of tanks continued to burn. The body of the first one split right in the middle. Cartridges were still bursting in flames. Rabid from their victory, "dukhs" switched their attention and fire to us. Mortar shells started to gather their crop again. Soldiers had to dig in under this hurricane fire. The luckiest ones appeared to be those who found themselves spots with asphalt destroyed by tanks' or BMP's tracks. There was mud there, in which a soldier would dig in up to his ears. Our ranks were dwindling with every second. Many were wounded. Sun could not break through the dense smoke. I was hoping to hear shooting from the other side of the square where, according to commanders' plan, paratroopers and marines were supposed to attack. But there was nothing going on there. So it was just us, a pity handful, no more than a hundred and fifty people, battling on the open space with well-fortified enemy. Shouts and bursts of automatic fire came from behind again. I turned back and saw first battalion trying to cross the bridge. With doubled efforts, we began to pour bullets and grenades on "dukhs". But the guys did not succeed in their attack and rolled back once more. Our ranks shivered. The feeling of emptiness and futility of our efforts enveloped us and crushed our will. Fear, dark fear smashed under its immense weight everything human in our souls. The instinct of self-preservation worked. Without any order, we began to retreat. Not to run, but to retreat, snapping back with bursts of automatic fire and sparse shots from the launchers, carrying our wounded, leaving our dead. Leaving them, however we knew that if we did not pick them up by tonight, "dukhs" would come and mutilate their bodies, would dismember them. They would cut off noses, ears, and private parts and would throw them, together with the body remains into the Sunzha River to feed fish. Please, forgive us, guys! We retreated to our former positions, where our own aviation bombed us. Suddenly we heard a shout: "Daddy is wounded!" Everybody turned and saw Battalion Commander to a shelter, his left arm hanging like a piece of rope. His left foot stampeded, he fell on his side. Soldiers ran to him and pulled him out from under the fire into a temporary shelter. Officers of the battalion began to show up, crawling and rolling on the ground. I hurried too. I saw my buddy Yura among them. Alive! I had lost him from my sight since the beginning of the fight. Major Ivan Genrihovich Kugel, a battalion commander deputy came as well. A paramedic was trying to stop Chief's hemorrhaging using rubber band and sterile bandage. Battalion commander was intermittently losing and gaining consciousness. He breathed hard. Something was croaking in his chest impeding ventilation. He was pale, big drops of sweat were constantly rolling down his face leaving gray traces on his dusty skin. "Why did you drag your butts up here?" he asked after opening his eyes. "Go, work. Don't leave people. Fuck off. While I'm here, my deputy is Kugel. Get out! Work, you shitheads, work!" He closed his eyes again and passed out. We turned to the paramedic. "How's he? Will he make it out?" "Leg arteries are punctured. Large blood loss is dangerous. I don't know, I need to get him to the hospital." "Save him! Listen you! Save the Chief or I'll make holes in you!" Vanya Kugel yelled at the guy. "Don't swear at him, Ivan! Let's carry him out," Commander of the first company said. "Take him and try to break through! We'll cover you up!" Ivan said. " Try! Carry Daddy out!" And then loudly to cover the roar of fight, "Listen to my order! I'm in command while Battalion Commander is incapacitated! First company has to break through and carry him out. We all will cover them! Dig in and fight until the last one! Radio operator, where the hell are you?" "There's no operator, the guy's killed, " one of the soldiers shouted. "Tune companies' transmitters on brigade's frequency and tell that in five minutes we'll try to carry our Chief out. Tell them to meet us and cover with fire. Is it clear? Forward! Forward!" First company went back under terrible fire, directed at the exposed bridge. They were carrying Battalion Commander, who was unconscious and three other wounded. They could not take any more with them. Only thirty-three men were left of the company, slightly more than a platoon. We were shooting, shooting, changing clips and shooting again. I looked over my shoulder. Five men from the first company lay still on the bridge adding their bodies to already so many fallen. The luckier ones had reached the middle. Just a little bit more, guys! Press forward! "Dukhs" were furiously shooting at us and at the first company. I hoped we had enough munitions to respond. Don't worry, sons of the bitches, we'll talk to you in a little while, you damn bastards! Suddenly my soul calmed down in peace. It happens when the decision has been made and you understand that this it is the final one. There is only an end of the story ahead and, unfortunately, you have no influence to change it. All you have to do is to sell your body and soul as high as possible. I did not want to die, but I had no fear of death any more, just absolute calmness. My head was clear. Thoughts were precise. Reflexes were sharp. Some kind of invigorating sense came, similar to that of gambling. Who would win? We were the good guys and they were the bad. Everything was simple. I remembered our boot camp song: We have everything we need, Frozen vodka goes with meet. Our girlfriends are the best, So is my AKMS! Let's make war, bastards!
--------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 2001 translation by Konstantin S. Leskov --------------------------------------------------------------- Everybody around me was slowly digging in. That's right. An infantry soldier will bite asphalt, but hold the position. I did not have a sapper's spade. A dead man was lying three meters from me. A spade in a slipcase was attached to his belt. I rolled to him and tried to unfasten the case. It did not work out. Bullet whistled close to me. Instinctively, I ducked. However it is known that the bullet, which you can hear, is not yours, I duck anyway. With a jerk, I turned the body over, unbuckled and pulled off the belt. Rolled back to my place. As soon as I found cover, a bullet pierced the dead body and made it shiver. They could have hit me, fucking souls. Explored my site. Asphalt was crashed in several places. I started to scoop its pieces out with a spade and put them in front of me. Here is earth mixed with stones. Not paying attention to my ground to blood fingers, I was continuing digging and building a parapet. Soil was cold. My chest and belly had already been in a small trench. Head and legs were still on the surface. I was completely dirty, ripped off the skullcap from under the helmet. Head was steaming. Hot, very hot. Heard clanging and roar from behind again. Looked back. Tanks had roped their burnt colleagues with wire hawsers and tried to pull them aside. "dukhs" began to shot at them with mortars and grenade launchers over our heads. We stopped digging and opened fire at the Chechen fortifications. With dread I heard dry click of my Kalashnikov. Shit, no ammo whatsoever. Only seven grenades were left for the launcher. Kaput! A water bottle and a clip bag were hanging from the dead soldier's belt. I weighted the bag. Oho! Heavy. We'll live for a while then. I pulled out three clips and examined them. Full. Three clips thirty shots each - ninety. Not too much, but it's the best we have. When there is no fish, even a dick is meat. I loaded the automatic, took an aim, and gave a short burst at barely visible shadow. It disappeared. Might be hit, might be not. Switched to single shots just in case. Started to dig in again. Suddenly, piercing screams of "dukhs" came from ahead. They cannot talk quietly even in normal life, on the war they scream so that ears get blocked. I heard a familiar clang. A tank and a BMP rolled out. Very nice. Retreating was impossible because of risk being shot in the back and a success of advance was also futile. It is very uncomfortable wrestle with a tank on the open square. Different weight categories. Ivan Kugel shouted something, but, because of distance and shooting, I could not hear anything. I only heard the result: popping of our launchers. It's hard to get a tank with a small launcher grenade, especially when it is coated in "active" armor. It's a good thing for tanks, the "active" armor. A number of square boxes are lain next to each other on the hull. There is a high-temperature-activated explosive inside each of them. When a cumulative shell or a "Mukha" grenade hits a tank, it produces a narrow stream of heat, which normally penetrates steel shields. When "active" armor is used, explosive blasts and breaks the direction of the stream. The tank remains intact. The enemy tank, which was moving in our direction, was decorated with those boxes like a Christmas tree. The bastards came prepared to meet us. A grenade launcher shot popped on the left flank. Judging by the sound, someone used "Mukha". Cumulative grenade precisely hit the junction between hull and tower. Explosion thundered. Smoke went up from the tank. Then flame. Deafening blast came next. Tower was ripped off and thrown back. It fell on "dukh's" positions. A wall collapsed in a cloud of dust. We heard yells. Flame was raging in the tank. Ammunition was cracking inside it's belly. We ourselves exploded with joyful exclamations and shouts. Aha, bitches, you have seen! What a shot! What a great shooter! I wouldn't spare a Star of Hero for such a shot! Great job! "Dukh's" BMP rolled back and began shelling us. Projectiles blasted in front of us, then behind our backs. Shrapnel hit several soldiers, but did not kill them, just wounded. To our luck, their crew was bad at aiming. An anti-aircraft cannon, installed on the BMP might have tear our humble fortifications into pieces. Two our tanks stopped at the beginning of the bridge ready to open fire. The third one was moving to our, or "dukh's", bank shooting randomly. Infantrymen were hiding behind it. They were launching grenades into the enemy over the tank and our heads. Great! "Dukh's" BMP retreated far back and disappeared from the view. Our tank came closer, stopped and shot "dukh's" positions at almost point-blank. Infantry ran from behind it. It was our first company, which returned, and a part of the first battalion. More infantry was running on the bridge. Those were first and third battalions. They told that Combat died. Unconscious, he kept shouting out orders, was restless, then calmed down and passed away. All soldiers and officers were shaken by the news. Alexander Petrovich had been an embodiment of courage, a colossus, something eternal and unshakable. He had been an axle of the battalion, and he was not with us anymore. It was hard to believe it had happened. We had used to losing close friends on the war, but him... No I could not believe it. I did not want to believe. Everybody around looked devastated. Petrovich was not only a commander, but for his soldiers and officers he was a teacher, big brother, "Batya", "Papa". Sad, too sad. The arrived brought more ammo. It was quickly distributed and loaded into empty clips, grenade bags, leaving the "novices" the pleasure of shooting at the "dukhs" and digging trenches for themselves. Shelling the enemy positions, tank backed up without turning the tower. Another one started from "our" bank its cannon firing as it was moving toward us. Its place was immediately occupied by the third one. Tank "carousel" was working. The fun was about to begin. Adrenalin raged in blood again. Steam was rising from skin. Excitement of battle came back. I looked at the nearest soldiers. The same effect. Only half an hour ago all of thought how to sell our lives as dear as possible, now everybody seemed to have the same hunter's heat. Cornered rabbits, we turned into mature wolves. No! Not wolves. Chechens are wolves. They have a wolf under the Moon on their flag. They call us dogs. We ARE rabid dogs. Hold on, dirty wolves, we are coming! Tear you apart, bitches! Rip your guts off for everybody! For Combat! For those kids, who left on the bridge and for those who lay on this shitty square. For our horror and for the bombing. For everything! The commander of the first battalion was in charge. He was talking on a radio for long time and then started to loudly give away orders. The roar of the battle did not allow to hear him, soldiers conveyed his commands by chain. The order was that after two tanks finish shooting, we would break through. The object of attack is the building of the State Bank. He had also said that on the other side of the square Marines, Paratroopers and motorized infantry from St. Petersburg were ready to attack. Let's make a stalingrad to "dukhs"! Everybody felt good. It is much better to fight as a mob, especially when somebody else will hit the enemy in the back. We increased small arm fire. "Dukhs" snapped back. They understood that our attack was imminent. Their tank had been burnt, BMP was a toy against our tanks. Now they were shaking in terror. It was their turn to sweat! One tank finished, another rolled in. We saw a fresh inscription on its cannon, "Catch!" People laughed over the crew's joke. Nobody knew how many shells the tank had, everybody was counting. "Ready!" command came. We put ourselves together, took weapons in the ready. Pockets were full with loaded clips, heavy launcher's grenade bag was bouncing against the leg. The order "Onward! Storm!" sounded like a song. With the last shot of tank we charged from our trenches and ran forward. Thunder roared behind. Bridge was invisible behind a dense cloud of shots and exhaust gases. Our tanks and BMPs were driving across to our side of the river. That meant that stuff was also pulling close to its battalions, which, bunched together without knowing who where, were charging toward the enemy's positions with shouts and bellowing. We were not met with flowers. Long automatic bursts streamed on us. Mortar shelling resumed. However, their aiming was wrong, or may be we were running too fast, and the shells were falling far behind without inflicting any damage. From the covered behind a wall BMP, a machine gun opened fire at us. Soldiers fell. Front ranks backed up. The rear ones pressed from behind pushing them under the bullets. We reached our first goal - a barricade of blocks, concrete slabs and bricks. It was five meters high and fifty meters long. It must have taken a lot of time to bring all this construction junk here. It was solid. Direct hit of a tank shell would not destroy it. But we were infantrymen! We climbed those slabs, encircled the structure from the flanks. The fire contact was so dense that we and "dukhs" were shooting each other point blank in long bursts, which interrupted only when a clip was empty or when the owner of the gun was killed. I ran, sweat was pouring down. Right in front of me, in an improvised gun port, a dushman popped up, his face distorted from fear and rage. He fired from his automatic at us. Still running, I raised my Kalashnikov and gave short burst in his direction. He noticed new danger and transferred fire on me. I ducked. A momentum of running body pushed me on my right side. From this hellishly uncomfortable position, I shot at the "dukh". Apparently, I got him, since he disappeared and did not show up any more. It is a very rare situation in such a fight when you see the face of your foe. I could not look closer. Shot means dead, fuck off. The most important was to survive and take this fucking square. "Dukhs" intensified their fire from behind the barricade. The pace of attack slowed down. Mortar shells and grenades began to explode among us. By radio we demanded tank's support. They hit "dukh's" structure with direct shots and "dukh's" rear with plunging fire using high-explosive shells. In contrast to the conventional shells, these fougasse projectiles explode not at the moment when they hit the ground, but a short time after. When it happens, shrapnel consists not only of the metallic parts of the shell itself, but also of stones and other sediment particles, which penetrate the body and kill just like the metal fragments. These shells are good to destroy enemy's fortifications mowing down everything inside. We rolled back. Shrapnel and brick fragments were flying on us, gathering their part of death crop to the God of War. Medics carried the wounded and killed from the square. Those beside them helped to evacuate their comrades. "Mukha" grenades flew in our direction from behind the barricade. Feeling that we had stampeded, "dukhs" tried to counter attack. Under the cover of their grenade launchers, they charged from their shelters, squeezed out from narrow slots, made by our tanks' shells. With screams "Allah akbar!" they rushed on us. Many had green bands on their foreheads. I had been told that those were suicide fighters or something. I had not asked "dukhs" themselves about it. If I catch one, I would definitely ask, if I would have enough time, of course... With these thoughts I rolled to the left and climbed into a small crater left from a tank cannon shell. Ground was still slightly warm and unbearably smell with acid - burnt explosives. I rose a bit and gave a short burst at the "dukhs". To check myself, so to say. Quickly looked around. The others were also in haste looking for shelters to get ready for the oncoming fight. Looked at the advancing "dukhs". About two hundred showed up and were trying to attack. About two companies. Not too many, guys. With you, whores, we finish up soon. Screaming from horror and frenzy, "dukhs" ran on us, desperately shooting from Kalashnikovs. Some were throwing grenades. Not allowing them to come closer, we met their wave with automatic fire. A machine gun started "talking" on the right. Another one a second later, then one more, then a couple. Trying to muffle their fear, soldiers were yelling too. In most cases they were shouting obscenities, not virtuous, but short like an automatic shots. Someone on the left flank was giving a short burst at the enemy after each yell. Apparently, he was remembering his killed friends. "For Fyodor!" - burst. "For Vaska!" - burst. "For Pashka!" - burst. "For Senya!" - burst. He had had a special account with the "dukhs". Inadvertently, I adjusted to his curses. When he was giving short, two-three bullets, burst, I was giving it too. When he was quiet, my automatic also was silent. I waited until he shouted the next name and whispered it too. Burst. "For Mishka!" - burst. Chose a dark silhouette of a "dukh", who was hurrying to his death. Pulled the trigger. "Dukh" fell as if he had been cut down. I checked whether he was moving. No. Finished. Burnt out. A voice again, "For Sashka!" Repeated the name silently. Chose the next "dukh". A green band on the forehead. He was shooting with Kalashnikov, taking aim carefully. Bitch! A soldier screamed on the left. Inhale, exhale, on the half-exhale, stopped breathing and placed an aiming slot, a foresight and a dark spot of the "dukh" on the same line. Beast! He was not standing in one place. Wounded soldier moaned on the left. Just a moment, just a moment, brother, I'll knock down this pederast and help you. Wait a little bit! Aha! Here is this bastard! Not taking any aim gave a short burst. "Dukh" fell and screamed. Wounded. No problem. I'll finish him later. I rolled to the left. To suppress fear, made a couple of short bursts. Here was the soldier. His face was pale, large droplets of sweat were pouring down from under his dirty cap. Left shoulder was devastated. Coat swelled from blood around the wound. Using his right hand, he had tried to tighten a rubber band to stop bleeding. It did not work. I unbuttoned his coat to expose the wound. The soldier creased from pain and yelled right in my ear. Unwillingly, I started back. "Don't yell, brother!" I tried to take the coat off him. He grimaced. Painful, very painful. He reached his breast pocket with his right hand, pulled out an individual medical kit and gave it to me. I opened it. A syringe tube with anaesthetic was in place. It was good. I put it aside. Unsheathed a trophy stiletto and carefully cut his coat on the shoulder. Wet from blood, fabric and cotton insulation was not yielding easily. Fountains of dust rose around us. I heard abhorrent screaming sounds of ricocheting bullets. Bastards! Don't you see that I am tending a wounded? I left the soldier, rose on my knee and poured the approaching "dukhs" with lead. They fell and shot back. I shouted to our soldiers nearby, "Hey, men, cover me up! I'll deal with wounded. Then help me to evacuate him." "All right, we'll do!" "Let's bury them!" Shooting rose around. I looked at the "dukhs". They tried to snap back at first, but then did not even dare to raise their heads. You earned that, bastards! I lay on my side by the wounded and continued to saw his bloody outfit. Whenever I pressed it, blood poured out, rolled down the knife, fingers and flowed into my sleeve. It looked as if I was cutting not fabric, but a living being and it was heavily bleeding. Too much blood. I had to hurry. I did not want to lose this guy. He was bravely endured all pushes. I cut off a collar, a sleeve and a piece of coat on the wounded shoulder. Then, working together, not rising from the ground, we took off the rest. I made a long cut on the right sleeve of his shirt exposing skin. Took an anaesthetic syringe from the kit. Twisted off a cap, punctured small plastics bag and punched the needle into soldier's arm. "Hold on, man! I hate injections my self. It'll be better now." I plunged. The liquid came out from the tube. I pulled the needle out and massaged his arm. "What's your name?" "Sasha", the soldier pushed the word out of him. "Everything will be all right, Sasha! I'll take care of your arm." He nodded agreeably. He must have felt too bad if it were painful for him to talk. "Hold on, brother, I'll be done soon." I examined the wound. Smashed bones were seen. "Make a deep inhale, I'll tighten the band." Wounded soldier obediently inhaled and held the breath. I swiftly threw the rubber band around the arm near the base of the neck, pulled it under the shoulder and tightened it on the chest. Guy's irises dilated from pain, but he only moaned silently, afraid of letting air out. I patted his cheek. "That's all, son. Now breath. Inhale often and deep, but make sure not to get dizzy, understood?" "Yes," he whispered. "Don't speak, man. Save your energy. Everything will be fine. Now I'll bandage you and then we'll carry you to the medics. They'll patch you up. Don't be afraid. We'll break through!" I yelled all this into his face and winked encouragingly. My grimace might have terrified a normal person. Dirty face smeared with blood. But the soldier understood me right and smiled weakly in response. Meanwhile, I took his Kalashnikov, took a bandaging bag from the foldable butt, and tore its rubber package and yellow paper. Took out a pin and cotton tampons and, trying not to touch their inside parts, applied them to the wound. One tampon to the inlet hole, another on the outlet. Then, clumsy, lying on one side bandaged the shoulder. From time to time, I looked in soldier's face whether he was alive. Alive. With healthy hand, he began too search for something in his pockets. Wanted to shoot himself? "What are you doing?" I asked alarmed. "Want to smoke, cannot find. Do you have some?" he half-whispered, half-rustled. "You could not find better time to smoke!" I was glad I had been wrong. "If you want to smoke, you'll live!" I took out cigarettes, inserted one into his lips, stroke a match and lightened up. Don't inhale the smoke too deeply or you'll get dizzy!" I warned him. I finished bandaging him. It did not look nice, but it covered the wound completely. I was steaming. "Hey, men! I've done, carry the wounded away, I'll cover!" I lay on the back, took a cigarette and smoked looking at the sky. My soul felt good. I had not made too many good deeds in my life. Now I had probably saved man's life. Good! Great! I turned and saw three soldiers rolling toward us. Then looked at "my" wounded. I was almost in love with him. I had saved his life. He would live. It was great! I felt myself such a good man, that I became proud of myself. Good job, Slava! I turned to my belly, grabbed automatic and looked around still holding a cigarette between my teeth. While I was saving the soldier, "dukhs" attack was stopped. They lay down and were shooting at us. No problem. We'll break through! I joined the cacophony of the fight with three short bursts at the places where "dukhs" were crawled about. Soldiers came, took the wounded, dragged, carried him to the bridge. Good luck to you, Sashka! I gave a long burst. Rifle's lock clicked dryly. Pulled Sashka's belt with a foot. It had a clip bag, bayonet, a spade and a water bottle. Took one clip, inserted into my automatic, put the rest into the pockets and opened fire again. "Dukhs" became agitated and started to retreat. Aha, wetted your pants! We rose and charged forward. Onward! Bear's roar came out from my chest. Lion's roar. Onward, hounds! Let's corner the wolves! Tear them apart like a flock of dogs kills a wolf. Hurrah! Kill the bastards! You are not wolves! Puppies! I rushed forward together with the rest. There was no command to storm. Everybody was running in the same heat. Nobody needed to be hurried. Nobody needed to be sworn at or kicked pulled by collar to be risen from the ground. Shut the bastards down! Hurrah! Aaaah! Blood was pounding again. Mind left me, only instincts remained. Let them work. There was a task, an extreme wish to survive. Mind would be of no help here. Only forward! Zigzagging, twisting, rolling, you name it, but only forward! Stop meant death! Forward! Hurrah! Kalashnikov at my shoulder, I made few shots. Threw myself to the left, rolled, shot at the barricade standing on one knee. Rolled to the right, one more roll. Burst while lying. Jumped, made ten steps forward with another burst. While approaching the "dukh's" stockade, our bursts became longer. We shot randomly. Shot at a sound, a shadow, and a flash. Shot without thinking. Mind, get out! Blood is storming. A taste of blood in my mouth. I wanted to smell "dukh's" blood with my nostrils, to see how it was streaming out of wounds, to feel how warmness left his body. Go away, mind! You cannot endure all this. Let a Neanderthal possess the body and the brain completely. Let him command. Only then, mind, you and I will survive and come back in one piece. Let the Neanderthal take us out of this! Hurrah! Aaaah! And the mind left me. Power came instead. Arteries, veins swelled. Mouth was open wide, there was not enough oxygen. I felt as if I was observing everything from aside. Soldiers and officers ran to the barricade like a single organism. Some climbed it, throwing down wounded and dead "dukhs". Some squeezed through slots and holes in the wall. The enemy ran. Get them! Take! Strangle! Tear them into pieces! The clip emptied. Right hand detached it, threw aside and started to pull out the next one from the pocket. A "dukh" rose suddenly from behind a pile of trash, bristled up and raised an assault rifle to the hip level. It was too late to insert new clip and cock the lock. "No time," flashed in my mind. A Neanderthal talked again. I made a long launch forward with my right foot. The barrel of my Kalashnikov thrust into soft "dukh's" belly. My mouth was open. I bellowed with inhuman voice. It was a roar of victory. My own eardrums barely survived it. "Dukh" tried to make a shot from his gun. Ha-ha-ha! Won't work! I grabbed and easily snatched the weapon from him. Threw it far away. His pupils became dilated from terror and pain. I pulled the barrel out. "Dukh" fell and clutched his devastated belly with left hand. His right hand was searching for something on his belt. I did not know why, but I knew exactly that he was looking for a grenade. He knew he would not survive and was determined to take me with him. Poor bastard! Bestial smile bared my teeth. I jumped as high as I could and landed on the chest of lying "dukh". I directed all weight of my body on the heels of my heavy boots. I clearly heard, felt how enemy's ribcage crackled. I jumped again and fell on my knees. I heard the ribs shattering again. Not rising from broken flesh, I looked into enemy's eyes. Blood was fountaining from his mouth and streaming from ears. His body jerked, bent and stilled. Open eyes stared at the sky. Pupils reflected icy, slow winter clouds. Are you sick of my story, dear reader? Unfortunately, it is not show off. It happened with me in real life. I am neither a superman, no a crazy maniac. Simply, if you want to come back alive and in one piece, you must become an animal in its worst. The monster of war gives birth to monsters in the brains of its participants. Those monsters will come out on the streets and take what, in their opinion, belongs to them. Belongs by the law of war. We do not know any other law. Forward! Forward! See, mind, there is nothing to do for you. You will not be able to endure this. You will escape the reality, you will flee and I will lose you. Hurrraaa! Tear them apart! Chew them down! What for? For my friend's and my own lives! We did not notice how we appeared on the other side of barricade. A building of the State Bank of Republic of Ichkeria, pox on it, was blackening fifty meters ahead. With wild yells and howls, we rushed toward it. Hidden by a cloud of exhaust gases, tanks and BMPs flowed around the stockade and took a position behind us. "Dukhs" hit us from the Bank building. They were shooting from small arms. Although the distance was large and nothing could be seen because of smoke, their bursts were long like in close combat. It indicated that the "wolf puppies" were panicking. Long bursts decrease the precision of fire. I wanted blood. Only blood and nothing else. I liked the experience of "dukh's" abdominal cavity dissection without anesthesia. I was drunk with fight. Drunk without wine. Onward, Neanderthal! Blood and life! Aaaaaaa! Nevertheless, the first ranks lay down. Somebody had stopped moving already. Somebody, howling, squeezing his wound, was rolling on asphalt covered with construction trash. Their comrades, fellows were hurrying to help them. We'll kill for every "one hundredth" and "two hundredth". Whatever genes were roaring in me, I decided not to make a hero out of myself and fell on the dirty asphalt like all the others. Dusk had fallen on us already. Those fools, our Mister Constitution Guarantee and his Defense Minister, started the war in winter. It would be much easier in summer. Warm and dry. Long day. No need in carrying heavy sweaty coat and in worrying about firewood. There would be no problem in sleeping right on the ground. Now was different. Winter darkness came down. Cold penetrated my body. Wind drove sparse clouds away. The full Moon illuminated us like bright lamps in a theatre lighten the scene. Thank you, Comrade Rolin, for your support from the air and from the other side of the square. If they did not engage the enemy during the daylight, they would certainly abandon us like dogs to die in this crappy place. Why? Who knows. It's warm now in the Kremlin, in the Government House, in the State Duma, in the Federal Council and Defense Ministry. I was thinking that bankers, for whom we were earning big money while breaking our necks, were not shivering from cold. If we did not go forward within two hours, we would start dying from hypothermia. Many soldiers' hearts would not withstand abrupt temperature drop. Alcohol, brandy, vodka, hot food and hot tea were in immediate need. Otherwise, we would not see any luck. All Siberians, we understood well that unless we had hot food, we would not be able to take Dudaev's Palace that night. I had some brandy, but others... By the way, I indeed had brandy! It would not be enough, of course, for the whole brigade, but I could share it with two-three soldiers. No problem. Fire never interrupted. Two soldiers ahead of me next to each other jerked and lay motionless. Arms and legs were bent in unnatural ways, heads thrown back. Wounded do not lie like that. One of the men next to me tried to crawl to them, but was caught by other soldiers. "Idiot? Where're you going? They'll shoot you not asking your last name. Lie still." "You son of a bitch, you want to leave them like that?" "They are done. Sniper killed them." "Get off me, you cowards! There's a fellow from the same town as I am. We're from the same apartment building. I don't believe you! Let me go!" The soldier was shouting trying to break loose from his friends. One of those holding him lost patience and released the guy. Using the moment, the soldier tried to run to the dead, but the same man who had let him go hit his nose strongly with elbow. The soldier passed out. Two others grabbed him under arms and gently carried the guy to the rear. Voices followed them. "Why did you punch him like that?" "He was in a hurry to get under a sniper, I just calmed him down. Don't worry, he'll be all right, even thank me for that." "Exactly. He'll be very grateful!" "He'll be in the Med Company soon. It's warm over there. They'll bandage his nose. He'll spend a couple of days there. Not too bad!" "Come over, I'll smash your mug and then tow to the medics. Come on!" "Get off." "Hey men, I would not refuse half a bottle of vodka, uh?" "Shut up, motherfucker!" "If no alcohol, we'll have to attack." "Right, see the Moon is coming up." ""We've got to either roll back and gobble alcohol or forward. It'll lighten everything in a minute like a train station." "What're we gonna do?" "Who knows. There are commanders. Let them have a headache." "Oh, a shish-kebab would be just right, " someone said dreamy in the Darkness and snapped at "dukh's" direction with automatic fire. Tanks began shooting behind us. After several correcting shots, shells started to hit the target more or less precisely. We met every good shot with cheering yells. It became too cold to lie on the ground. I pulled out my bottle with brandy, untwisted the cap and made a large gulp. Immediately, I felt warmer and cozier. At this moment, the mind of a twentieth century man got along well with a gloomy ancestor from cold caves, who was ready to take over and fight enemy with his claws and teeth. Apparently, they both liked the brandy. I made one more gulp. Hot air waves from explosions were rolling over our bodies raffling our clothing. Good! It slightly warmed us up. The State Bank building caught fire. We cheered. Snow had melted under us and we all were lying in muddy puddles. An order was spread by chain, "Get ready for assault!" Based on my previous combat experience, I had a big doubt in the necessity, rationality and effectiveness of this kind of night assaults, but I should have argued about it on the command point. Here, on the square, I had to follow the order. In two minutes the order for assault came. Tanks were still shooting. Shells flew right above our heads. After a ten meter run under friendly fire our pace slowed down, because we were afraid of getting hit by our own shrapnel. Mind left me again. I did not comprehend what was happening to me. Here was the building. Dark craters from aviation bombs punctured the square around it. The building stand solid. It was old. At that time they used to build well. "Dukhs" were intensively pouring lead on us. Apparently, they also had snipers hidden somewhere. Our first ranks... About twenty people were killed or wounded. Men from the second row tried to drag their comrades our of fire range. Many fell too. Some were just writhing, others, squeezing their wounds, were rolling with terrible scream and howl on muddy and bloody asphalt. Some made attempts to escape on their own. But many... Many men lay motionless. The whole scenery was illuminated by the fire of burning Bank, permanently hanging in the air torch rockets and by the Moon, which was indifferent to everything. Descended night was pierced by bursts of tracking bullets from the tank-mounted machine guns. The thunder of battle, howl of shrapnel and ricocheting bullets, their disgusting whacks whenever they hit dead bodies created a nightmarish acoustic picture, which paralyzed my brain. Not thinking was the most important. Otherwise, psychosis was guaranteed. Work, work! Forward, only forward! Ten more minutes of sitting in one place and we are finished. Dear parents, sweet wife, here is a zinc box with the body of your beloved warrior-liberator, the re-installer of Constitutional Order. Don't forget to sign here, here and here. Please don't vilify us. We did not send your beloved there. Who knows who sent him. That's all. Please accept our sincere condolences. Good bye! No. We can not stay here. We have three more "parcels" of this kind to deliver. Go to the military commissariat and social security office after funeral, fill out an application for aid and pension. Don't forget to bring twenty five memos with you. Make sure they are all originals, otherwise we won't give you anything. Have a nice life. F... you! You won't bring me back in this shitty box, unless I kill myself after a wound. Forward! Come on, infantry, move your asses! Move you stomachs! May be, there are still money in the Bank. Huraah! Dengi, money, babki, cabbage! Since this is the State Bank, there may be even dollars in it. May be there are, but they won't wait for you! Forward! Move! Don't push me with your Kalashnikov, idiot, it can shoot. The dirty-gray mass of our brigade came to life again. We ran, ran, ran. Tanks stopped firing to let us in. The Bank was so close. But what is it? From the darkness of our flanks we heard roar and clanging of tracks. Is it help coming? Hurrah! Push! We'll bury "dukhs" in a moment! Tanks indeed drove out from darkness. They were T-64s. Ours were T-72s. These old tanks began to shoot us point blank. Infantry was hiding behind them. Not our infantry. "Dukhs" had used the moment when in the rush of battle we started our assault. They hit our rear from both flanks. Nobody figured how many enemy tanks had been there. They hatched into our ranks, their tracks grinding and threshing our soldiers' bodies. Arms, legs, intestines, clothes were being wound on the wheels and gears. At the same time, they shoot at the tanks at our rear. Again, at our tanks. Those could not fight back, because of the danger of killing our infantry. They were sitting ducks. "Dukh's" tanks were shooting them like targets on a training ground. We were herded on a small patch in front of the Bank where "dukhs" were shooting us at point blank range from three sides, leaving us not a slight chance to escape the ambush. Our tanks could not help us and we could not get out to give them a chance. We were rushing about like a frightened herd of sheep. Someone succeeded in putting out one "dukh's" tank. It caught flame. While its ammo cache was exploding, we made an attempt to break out. By that time, our tanks were all burning bringing additional light to the blinding picture of the square. I did not feel anything but horror. It ousted all other emotions from me. Neither Capitain, no citizen Mironov had existed by then. Instead, a shivering clot of shit wanted only one thing - survive. That was all. Simply, survive. No long forgotten prayers came to my mind, I was just running into darkness. Stumbled, flew down, did not feel any pain from bruises and cuts. Nothing, except freezing terror. Flocks of bullets followed us. Yells of rage and pain, screams of wounded men. No way of going back to help them. Panic and horror smeared me on the asphalt, forced me to run in straight line like a rabid dog. Despite the speed, I felt that I was staying in place. I was running on the square, which I had been taking just several hours ago fighting for every centimeter. The place is littered with bodies of our soldiers, as well as "dukhs". I stampeded on one of them, fell, jumped up and ran forward. Corpses of my friends had not provoked any emotions already. There was no passion for revenge. I only felt irritation that they were obstacles for my run. What the hell are they doing on my way when I do not have any strength left? I slowed my pace down. Many our people were running around me. Bulged inhuman eyes, mouths open wide in soundless screams, same as mine. Nobody yelled. Nobody shouted obscenities. Everybody was saving power for the run. "Dukhs" were reluctant to come closer to us. Apparently, they were afraid of us striking back. Do not corner mouse, it becomes more vicious and aggressive than a cat. We lost our direction in the dark. Now we were already running not toward the bridge, but to Dudaev's Palace. Flares rose up in the sky and illuminated running herd. Those were we. There was nothing human in our faces, eyes, breath and stares. Kalashnikovs and machine guns fired. First row was mowed down. The rest tried to turn back still running. Those in the rear pressed them, shoved on the ground, fell themselves, rose and ran again into darkness. I saw sparkles from fatigue in my eyes. Nobody helped nobody. Wounded were shooting themselves. Some were making attempts to crawl into obscurity, farther from the light of the flare rockets. Moon the traitor, bitch, f... thing was lighting stronger than those flares through the curtain of smoke. I had almost had no strength left. Lord God! Not the captivity! Better death than that! Help me, Lord! Save me! I switched to trot. I was out of breath. I wanted to rip off the armored vest and the coat, to fall on the bloodied asphalt with open chest and lie. Lie still, hyperventilating, restoring breath. No! "Dukhs" would come over and then - captivity. I tried to run again. Blood was pounding inside my skull like a Siberian river on the falls. It felt like the skull might explode from extensive pressure. I could not hear anything from exhaustion, except for blood pounding in my ears. I slowed down my pace. Hanged the Kalashnikov on my neck and put my arms on it. It was hard not only to run but also simply to move the feet. A soldier came from the right. Without saying a word, he grabbed me and dragged along. After several meters I understood, that I only impeded his own run. A barely heard voice broke through my torn bronchi and nicotine plugs. "Go. Go. I'm not of a help to you." "What about you?" yelled the soldier into my ear. "Go. I'm on my own..." It was hard to talk. "I won't leave you!" Desperation was heard in his voice. "Get off me! Save yourself, I'll follow you." Gathering my last strength, I pushed the soldier with both hands. We flew in opposite directions. He disappeared. That last push consumed what was left of my energy. I sat on the ground breathing hard. Spat out viscous saliva. Heart was pounding fast. From my studies in the military college I knew that it was bad to sit right after run. Heart valves might close and not open back. When dancing sparkles in the eyes went away, I looked around, my stare heavy and bleak. My gun was still hanging from my neck. No energy was left to take it off or to simply move a hand. Not far from me, silhouettes of people were sitting and lying. Most of them were officers. It was understandable. Their age and physical shape were far from the best. Civilians sometimes complain that the military retire earlier. If there had been anybody older than forty five among us, they would have not been found alive later. Some were sitting on the dead bodies. May be it was comfortable, but I had not come into that state yet when I would not be able to perceive nothing. People were sitting and looking in the direction of the enemy. Somebody was about to resume the run, but many, including myself, were ready to accept the last battle. Mind awoke, horror subsided. Rage began to speak up and it was good. Healthy anger meant that I had not yet become an animal. It was time to figure out how to get out of there and save my skin. Soul was the last thing to think about. I remembered God as a powerful benefactor, whom I used to rely on. I coughed. A clog of nicotine mucus was painfully and slowly making its way out of my bronchi. Need to quit smoking or cigarettes won't allow me to reach the sanctuary of a stone, a bump or a hole. Spat out a wet shniblet of mucus. Felt a taste of my own blood. A piece of bronchi came out too. I took a deep breath. Chest pain knifed me again. Another suffocating seizure of cough. The only desire was to tear my chest apart and let fresh air in. I was too tired to run long distances. I would rather do something simple, short and quiet. "Learn English!" my Mommy always told me.
--------------------------------------------------------------- © Copyright 2001 translation by Oleg Petrov (firstname.lastname@example.org) Editor: Dan Ray --------------------------------------------------------------- "Hey, easy, you sadistic moron! That hurts!" "Sure, and that's the good news." "Easy, you bastard, you can tear it off!" "Not to worry, I will sew it back." He checked each of my ears twice with a metal pipe, and then inspected the insides of my mouth and nose. Now what, Papa Doc? "The eardrums are OK, just some inflammation." "Say it again in Russian, and louder, please." "You will survive." "What about hearing?" "That will recover later. I'll give you some eardrops. Stay away from cold. And-take care of yourself." "They keep you really busy here, don't they?" "You bet! It has been slow for a while, but all through the night and morning we were getting so many wounded we almost panicked. A lot of shrapnel wounds, broken bones, stomach wounds...Many died right in the hands of paramedics, some on their way here. Overall, thirty men did not make it." "Oh, shit!" "Yeah, this sucks." "Do you have enough supplies?" "Well, we got enough for now, but my colleagues from other units are completely out of medications. The Ministry of Emergencies has some, but they won't share their stock with us or Interior Ministry troops. They say their supplies are for the local civilians." "What a bunch of dickheads! They would rather let their own kin die!" "Sorry, Slava, but I got work to do. Come see me, if you have any problems." "I'd rather have you visiting me." "I'm too busy, and if I get a break, I just drop dead asleep. I have no time even to take a shot of vodka, only the cigarettes keep me going. The dukhi will keep us busy tonight for sure, so I need to get ready for that. What about you? A couple of days rest in the hospital won't hurt you." "Forget it. Remember our talk?" "You mean, the life and death stuff?" "Yes. If it comes to that, you will help me." "You're such a bloody fool, Slava." "Look, I feel really dumb right now because I'm deaf, but I guess that won't last for too long, and I'll get back in shape soon. But...if some day you find me passed out here, will you please make sure that I won't regain my consciousness back, OK?" "No way and I don't even want to talk about that." Zhenya rubbed his eyes that were -- red from fatigue and constant lack of sleep. "I will go now. I really have too much work to do. And you need some rest. You guys won't take that shithouse tonight anyway. I am also tired of shouting into your ear at the top of my lungs. Take a good nap. Good luck to you, and here are your eardrops." He took a plastic batch of some tablets out of his pocket and held it out to me. "What's that?" "This will take care of fatigue and stimulate your cardiovascular system. It's sort of like doping. They used to give this to athletes, like marathon runners. This will keep you awake and you will stay cool when the shit hits the fan. I even take this stuff myself sometimes. But do not take too many of them at once. Hey, take these vitamins too. Some vitamin C, don't forget to take it." "Thanks, Zhenya." "Good luck!" "Good luck to you too!" When he left, I felt how tired I was. The fatigue hit me hard. Part of the hard, dangerous job was done, but there was too much to be done yet, and the end was nowhere to be seen. Only in the movies is everyone bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in between the fighting, where they take every chance to start dancing. Well, maybe that's what it used to be, but now it looks very different. Everyone is just dead tired. It gets you when you keep fighting non-stop for too long. Your emotions, senses, even instincts are silenced, your reaction gets too slow. And that is bad for you. When your instincts become numb, you are dead. You will stick your head out in the wrong moment, or become negligent with your weapons. So, you better forget your feelings. On one hand, your numbed emotions won't let you go crazy, on the other hand, you need to keep your reaction fast and your senses sharp. For that you need some relaxation and rest. Vodka can relax you, and slumber is the best possible rest. Killing a couple of dukhi is also an excellent way of relaxing, and will relieve your stress completely. Those who have hand grenades or other explosives at hand, but no dukhi around, can use a loud explosion for the recovery. I used to do that too, it helps. But a couple of dukhi would work much better. The chopper pilots, as I've been told, have dropped some dukhi down over enemy's territory, with an awesome psychological effect. The dukhi got their will paralyzed, and the chopper pilots got some stress relief in turn. I won't bet that this was for real, but I liked the idea. I heard this tale even before the troops entered Grozny; of how 2-3 dukhi were taken up into the skies in a chopper. One of them knew some important stuff, but, being an idiot or just a tough SOB, won't talk. And for some obscure reason torture was out of question. So, they put some psychological pressure on him, by throwing his friends out of the chopper. He saw that, and when they kicked him to the door, he started talking. Here, everything goes. That is why I felt so tired, not depressed, just tired. I took a couple of vitamin tablets and put the unknown stimulant into my pocket. I got the whole night ahead of me to experiment with those. I took a good look at myself: I was as dirty, as a pig. My overcoat and pants were covered with mud, clay, and blood, and got torn and holed in several spots. My boots were also covered with mud. I sighed. Luckily, major Zemtzov, my mentor in the Academy, could not see me in such poor condition! When it came to uniforms, he was a perfectionist, and tried to bring us up the same way. Any given moment might look as the most brutal time of your life ever, but when you look back later, things that you took for hardship earlier can only make you laugh. It would actually be fun to recall your high school problems later, when you become a college student or an Academy cadet. Likewise, it would be fun to tell your kids of your hardships at the exams in the Academy. Also, you will laugh with your friends at a party at how being in charge of a platoon for the first time was really a big deal for you. After you had lost some hair and your face got all wrinkled, you would recall just how shy you used to be when it came to dating girls; how excited you were when getting ready for your first date, and romantic stuff like that. Yeah, if only that young cadet Slava Mironov had my experience! Now, when I meet a girl younger than myself, I do not get as excited as I used to. I am getting old, I guess, my blood is getting colder. This idea made me grin. Some dating right now sure would be fun. Hey, how about Christmas, did it already pass? What date is it today, anyway? Maybe, I should go and ask someone. Oh well, just forget about it. Who cares? Let's forget that my birthday is coming up in January, thinking of it won't do me any good. All I need to do is to fulfill my duty and survive. That's it. The rest, including those who remained on the Big Land, can go to hell. Me and my boys, we don't give a shit about you, just like you don't give a shit about us. But we will be back! I looked around. Everyone seemed tired and moved slowly, their faces dull, with sharp, pointed features; their deep-fallen eyes turned into red, like those of albinos. All signs of corpulence in these folks were gone by now. That's a great diet, I thought. If anyone is interested in loosing some weight, just come here and success is guaranteed. Previously, anticipation of a fight would have caused some excitement; now everyone was just plain tired. If we must fight, so be it and to hell with all that. Your nerves must have learned the trick of self-preservation by avoiding unnecessary waste of any emotional energy before the event itself comes. But when it comes, the adrenalin will start rushing and I will get my reaction back. The human organism is a pretty smart device... Yuri showed up, looking jumpy. "So, what's new? "Have you seen the Doc?" "Cut the crap, will you? I have asked you a question." "Well, I've been to the HQ. No good news. They are under lots of pressure from Hankala. Our neighbors shat their pants, so we will bear the brunt. That's it." "That will be our last and decisive battle, right?" "Sure. You don't seem to be interested, are you?" "That's not the right word, Yuri. I don't give a fuck. Whatever." "You are just depressed." "I am calm. I am so absolutely calm. I did not feel that peaceful for God knows how long. I'm totally cool, and nothing else matters anymore. No regrets, no remorse. No fear, nor vigilance, no other feelings. Everything looks parallel." "You look as if you made some kind of decision. You don't have any suicidal ideas, I hope? Like, assaulting a machine-gun nest with your own body?" "No, I am just mortally tired of this madness. So, let them decide anything they want. I will go anywhere, except for the hospital. I will just stay here, the way I am, just doing my job." "Hey, you did not lose your appetite for life, did you?" "Don't worry about that. I'm fine. When do they plan to attack, at night?" "No, they changed the plan, as usual. We are to begin in two hours. The neighbors will start, and we will join them in 20 minutes." "I wish there were 2 hours instead. "Oh, sure. Unlike the elite troops, Siberian makhra never complain. We just keep on fighting till we die, as usual." "Stop talking like that. We are just fine, your highness! You better help me." "Like what?" "I need a first aid kit and body armor, if you can find any. If not, that's OK too." "I'll see what I can do. Take it easy!" "I'm fine. I repeat: I am just cool, you moron. That's all." He left and came back in about 20 minutes, carrying brand new body armor. "Where did you get that?" "They just got some in Battalion 3, and that's their gift. Zhenya Ivanov asked me to give you the eardrops. He said that's his last batch. Take it, and here is the first aid kit, too." "Thanks, Yuri. What am I going to do without you?" "Nothing. You would just spend the night with no body armor, that's all." "Right. Can you help me adjusting it? Careful, my ear hurts." "What's the big deal? You are deaf anyway, right?" "Doesn't matter, it still hurts." "Patience, I'm loosening the belts." "This shit is so heavy. I've spent a half day without body armor, and I felt like flying." "Get down to Earth. San Sanytch wants you to stay at the HQ during the assault." "Are you kidding me?" "Yeah, he knows about your ears." "Was it you who told him?" "No. The whole brigade already knows that you brought a dead soldier back. The same thing happened in Battalion 1, and their platoon leader had just gone mad. That's why San Sanytch and Sergei Kazartsev are worried about your mental health. You better stay, Slava. One just can't go into night fighting in a state of mind like yours." "Back off, I'm fine. I'm just cool. I feel really good. Never felt this good before. Well, maybe that's my reaction to the night before. But I want to go and I will go into this night fighting. And to hell with the orders, I don't need any sympathy. So, guys, I do respect you and I love you, but you can go and screw yourselves." And even saying that, I was calm as a python. No emotion, just a sober mind. We spent the rest of the break shooting alcohol, trying to stay low on snacks. Yuri was tired of shouting into my ears, so he did not talk much. And I did not want to turn the evening into a one-actor performance. I had no intention of pushing the fragile piece of my soul off balance by talking too much. So, time passed in silence. I was neither thinking, nor dreaming or recollecting, I just kept my eye on what was going on around me. I picked up some ammo, filled my canteen with water, and off I went. This time we went along with the remains of the 1[st] Battalion. Sergei Kazartzev was walking next to us. The neighbors attacked first and engaged with the enemy, but the dukhi were not dumb and they were waiting for us. Ten minutes after the fighting started we had received Budalov's order to attack. The dukhi opened up with tremendous fire. Some of the 2[nd] Battalion troops could not hold on and turned back, searching for cover near the State Bank building. For a moment, it seemed the whole Brigade was going to retreat. But something stopped folks from turning their backs on the enemy. The troops hesitated, but they did not run back this time. Running made me sweat, but I stayed calm and collected. I tried to stay away from corpses and to avoid the point where I had stayed the night before. My body armor remained there, as was the corpse of that private who rushed to help me out. It still lay there in the same pose. I just caught this picture with the corner of my eye, but I had no intention of going through all that again. I could not resurrect him, but I will remember him until I die. The Brigade charged ahead like an avalanche. The dukhi were under attack from all sides. Ahead, charge ahead! Soon we were under the walls of the Palace. The dukhi blew up the entrance into the Palace, so it was not easy to get inside. They were shooting at us from above. Our tanks, hiding behind the Gosbank building, began firing at their nests in the Palace. The dukhi returned the fire, shooting back at the Gosbank area. A large piece of the Gosbank wall collapsed, and some soldiers, who could not hold the enemy's fire and have turned back in the first minutes of the battle, were now crouching behind the fallen wall, terrified. They were shooting chaotically at the Palace, and that attracted more and more of the dukhi's fire. At that moment, Sergei Kazartzev did what later had became the subject of many discussions in the Brigade. He rushed toward them and, with kicks and curses, he managed to rise them up and lead them toward the Palace. It was sheer madness. We were just stunned by his courage, and tried to cover him with fire. But for the dukhi this was just like sports hunting. They were shooting at him first, then at his group when they charged forward. My heart sank when I watched this mad racing. I did not breath, all my feelings were with these guys. Even when I was not looking their way and was shooting up at the dukhi, I could sense with the back of my head where they were at the moment. I tried to distract the enemy's attention by keeping up firing, and only when I changed the mag I glanced at the running men. They seemed close enough, but still had a lot of space to cover. I could not shoot a bomb up into the dukhi's nest because it was way too steep. So we just kept shooting long bursts at them, trying to distract their attention or draw them away from the windows. And the dukhi also began shooting wildly with long bursts at the square. Run faster, guys! Faster! Just fucking run! I know you can make it! Come on, Sergei! The Gods must have been on our side that night. The guys had made it safely through the wall of bullets and joined us successfully. They just could not believe their luck and looked around themselves in dizziness. They shouted something and we patted them on their shoulders, saying some words of encouragement. But Sergei, of course, was the real hero. From now on, we would respect him in a new way. He was rather short and skinny, and I was always skeptical of the abilities of political officers, but occasionally you could come across a worthy officer even among their big crowd. He was sweating, his warm breath clouding, and he drank the whole canteen of water that somebody gave him. Everyone was trying to greet him. Earlier, in Soviet times, he would get a Star of a Hero for that, but now only the soldier's mothers could appreciate his courage. He would never hear them, though. So, pray, you mothers, for Sergei Kazartzev, a man with a big soul. Wish him good health. Meanwhile, the dukhi started putting pressure on us, dropping down some hand grenades. That did not cause us any damage and we managed to shoot down a couple of dukhi. One went down with a scream. Others, already dead, fell down silently. The grunts did not bother to search their dead bodies. Step by step, we moved on, shooting up at the dukhi above. My neck and shoulders became stiff from looking up and the gun smoke was getting into my eyes and lungs. It would be great to stop, bend down and cough this crap out. So, I had to breath slowly, through my nose. OK, we had reached the walls of the Palace. The first group climbed the wall and got inside. I screamed to overcome my fear, as I tried to jump up the wall. A window nearby was blocked with sandbags. The bags were made of heavy-duty glossy paper and were packed densely with sand and soil. My fingers slid on those sandbags, unable to cut through the surface. My body armor and the AK were pulling me down with their weight. So I stuck to those sandbags, like snot on a mirror, listening to the battle raging inside. I felt I could not hold on. In a second I would have fallen down, but anger at my own clumsiness gave me some extra strength and I managed to climb up a little. I found an opening between the bags, with some dirt and some traces of recent shooting. This must have been a good machine gun nest over here. When I felt I could hold on, I shifted my AK forward to my chest and peered inside. I was lucky to spot a small group of the enemy from behind. Four of the dukhi with their backs turned toward me were shooting at the grunts that were inside the building. Almost without aiming, I gave a long burst at their backs. Two of them fell down, howling; the other two ran away. I saw some grunts bursting into the room and cried for help. They dragged me in and we ran. No words were said between us. The hall at the first floor was rather typical for a large administrative building. The ceiling was high and numerous columns and niches provided the defenders with many opportunities to hide, to set up an ambush or booby-trap the place. Darkness did not help us either. The air was dense with smoke and dust. I felt how the gunk that accumulated in my lungs was trying to get out of there. Surprisingly enough, I was still calm, despite the adrenaline rush that I just had. My mind was clear and worked like a calculator. The dukhi were fighting for every inch of the hall, and we kept pushing them out. We kept shooting, aiming at muzzle flairs, at noises, or simply intuitively. Some furious gunfire erupted to my left, followed by a tremendous explosion. Just as it happened before, my hearing had somewhat improved after the concussion. It was great to hear all the sounds of battle again. I felt rage and a wild desire to live. My tranquility and numbness were gone. Charge ahead and kill them all! The blast had opened a breach in the wall and in rushed our neighbors, who were also makhra, judging by their uniforms. They were eager to join us. Some of the dukhi, who made it to the upper floor, were now trying to throw down hand grenades, but most of the enemy were cut off and cornered in the end of the hall. They were fighting vigorously, but we were too strong for them. We kept firing our grenade launchers, and the small fragments from the bombs killed everything in the closed space. More troops came in. Siberian makhra, Volga area makhra, some paratroopers, and even some Interior Ministry troops were all mixed now. Naturally, there was no one in command and no plan. There was just an overwhelming desire to destroy the enemy, to dump these jackals down from the Palace's roof. Charge ahead! I was out of breath again. Nobody listened to anyone anymore. Shooting at the enemy, everyone was shouting something of their own, like names of those friends who were killed in action, pressing the trigger with every name. We were right in the enemy's den! We lost too many of our comrades on the damned Square. We cried when we saw our comrades hanged in the windows of this building. Though now, at the turn of the century, there is a general cry for kindness and forgiveness in our world, there will be no mercy for you, dukhi! For using our boys as human shields, death to you all! The Judgment Day has come! I kept shooting, excited by the battle again. I put a long burst into the shadow that jerked ahead of me. I was shouting something, too, like everybody else, but I don't remember, what. So that is our Reichstag, at last! We have finally done it! I will remember this moment for the rest of my life. Somebody pat me on the shoulder. Whoa, this is it's Yuri! He was also very excited, his eyes shining with joy. We smile to each other: we are alive, and if we had survived all that, we will live forever. I tried to tell him, that I got my hearing back, but the noise was just too terrible. We moved on together. Part of our ragtag force went down into the basement. There was no shooting down there, so the basement must have been clean. In our direction, it was also clear, and all the surviving dukhi were pushed upstairs. I had no intention of going upstairs at the moment. It was getting really dark now. The grunts were throwing some bloodied rags out through the windows. We did not want to spend the night here with whatever was left of the first floor defenders. There was some excitement at the basement entrance, and I saw a group of makhra with burning torches carrying out corpses of our soldiers from the basement. Some were carried on improvised stretchers, some were just carried on hands. Some bodies were still dressed in uniforms, and some were naked. Many bodies were mutilated and clearly had signs of torture. Many corpses had their throats slashed, which was a typical style of execution by the dukhi. Some had eyes poked out, fingers crashed into the bloody mess, and two corpses had their feet cut off. We screamed in anger. From now on, there will be no mercy for the enemy! In that same basement, where the world-known blabber Korolev had spent some time with his team, our soldiers were tortured to death. They were his countrymen, his kin. So, what right did he have to talk about our "cruelty" and " civilian abuse"? He is the same kind of pervert as everyone who defended this building! We kept watching, in silence now. Those who had their helmets or wool caps on, took them off, and watched in great sorrow. Dear friends, forgive us, for we were too late and failed to rescue you. They kept carrying the bodies out. No one kept count, but there were no less than 50. When the sad line stretched outside the building, the dukhi opened fire. Someone screamed, as only a wounded can scream. We were suddenly overwhelmed with a thirst for revenge. Forward, and up! Nobody gave an order, but we rushed toward the two stairways to the second floor. The dukhi tried to stop us with a hail of bullets, but we overpowered them with our grenade launchers. This time we fought in silence. There were no victorious shouts and that sheer delight of battle we felt earlier was gone. Only one feeling was left, Revenge! They cannot be left alive. Step by step, we moved upstairs. Dead militants were lying on the steps. We walked right over them. These were not human beings any more, just some stuff under the feet. All attention was concentrated on aiming. I step on something soft; it's a militant's corpse. My foot sinks in some soft and disgusting stuff. Without looking down, I kick it away. The visibility is very poor, only the wind blows through the shattered windows. It is too dark to see the enemy. Now the game of who's going to lose his nerve first begins. Whoever makes the first shot will reveal his position and die. None of us smoked or talked, we just kept walking very carefully. One of the grunts picked up an empty can and threw it ahead. At once, three bursts of automatic fire erupted from different sites. We locked onto those muzzle flashes and fired back. Those of us who used the other stairway opened up too. There were more flashes in front of us. We just kept spraying the second floor with long bursts of fire. Bullets ricocheted from the columns with terrible noise. It was too dangerous to stay where we were, so we dispersed. I shot from kneeling a position, then dodged forward, rolled over and shot again, then rushed ahead. It was hard to breathe; I was sweating like a pig again. My feet slipped on broken glass and spent cases. But to stop meant to die, so we kept moving on. I could hear the steps of the soldiers behind my back. The open area of the first floor was easier to take. Here there were plenty of offices, there were pillars and doorways in the corridor. Inch by inch, cutting the dukhi away from the exits and elevator shafts we kept moving inside. We reached the office area and began mopping up cleaning it: one or two hand grenades were thrown inside, then a spray of gunfire. Most of the doors were gone, so we did not have to kick through the doors down. Someone screamed to the left of me and cursed loudly in Russian. I figured, the guy was wounded by the fragments of his own hand grenade. I could tell from the noise that he was taken downstairs. The dukhi were also throwing grenades and shooting bombs. More and more often the fallen soldiers were carried away. Some would become "Cargo 200", and some would become "Cargo 300"... But that was not on my mind then: ahead, charge ahead! Again, I had the salty taste of blood in my mouth; again, adrenaline rushed in my veins. Fear and excitement are the feelings that motivate men in the battle. When these two feelings mix, an explosive is formed that can blast with a tremendous amount of energy. We got to another office. A couple of hand grenades were thrown in and we took cover behind the pillars. As two explosions thunder inside the office, we heard more explosions echoing in the far end of the corridor. We jumped through the doorway and sprayed the inside of the office with bullets. Looks like no one was inside. We turn our backs and at once a burst of fire comes from the inside. Luckily, no one gets hurt. We throw grenades again, shoot bombs and the AK's. Altogether, about six bombs explode inside, one by one. We keep shooting the automatics and move inside slowly, stumping on a corpse of a militant, badly torn by explosions. It's too dark to inspect the body and we just check his pockets. When we get out of the office again, we find that the rest of our group had gone far ahead. The corridor is dark; only some muzzle flashes and grenade explosions, so deafening when inside the building, light the darkness. Slowly, everything quiets down. The second floor is taken! I can feel my sympathy for the militants vanishing with every action. I felt some remorse initially, that we had come here as conquerors, and I was tortured by guilt of being an occupant, maybe even a murderer. Now, I do not give a shit. This is all just about revenge, and nothing else. Everything is just black and white. We are the good guys, they are the bad guys. Gradually, the delight of the battle is fading away, and I felt tired and drowsy. The soldiers around me were chatting in excitement, interrupting each other, telling the most remembered moments of the fight. Two soldiers came from the first floor. I figured, one of them had a shoulder wound. The medics kept operating heavily wounded in the basement. The soldiers pulled some cotton out from their padded coats to make improvised torches. A sympathetic crowd gathered at once. The wounded soldier took his coat off, and we saw that his shoulder was messed up. Someone gave him a canteen with vodka, or maybe alcohol, and he took a good drink of it. Then they began cleaning his wound. The wounded clutched a leather belt between his teeth. And just bit it harder with every touch, that made his body shiver. He wiped sweat and drops of saliva rolling down his chin with the back of his hand. Others kept talking, trying to distract him from pain. Someone offered him a shot of painkiller, but he refused. His friend was working with his bayonet, and a stiletto, widening the wound, trying to get to the fragment. When he finally cleared his way to the piece of metal, he attached the sheath to the bayonet, the way it is normally done to turn the bayonet into scissors to cut the barbed wire. Only this time the device would be used as forceps. We already knew that the fragment must be pulled out quickly, or the patient could lose his conciousness, or even die from pain shock. The war had turned us into fairly good medics. Such skills are always valuable here. The helpers held him tight now. He stiffened, shut his eyes and bit the belt harder, waiting for the shock to come. His friend carefully reached the fragment inside the wound with his improvised forceps, and then pulled it out abruptly. The wounded soldier groaned, jerked backward, then forward. Blood streamed out of the wound. The soldiers nearby opened the packs of bandages and tried to stop the bleeding, but it did not work. The blood quickly soaked all bandages and streamed down his back. Either an artery was cut, or this guy's blood did not clot fast enough. We realized he could eventually die from bleeding. Someone took the mag off his assault rifle and quickly took out several catridges. There was no other way to stop bleeding, but to use this barbaric approach. We often dusted small scratches with cigarette ashes, and more serious wounds were treated with gunpowder. A soldier came forward with two opened cases in his hand. The bandages were removed at once and he quickly poured the gunpowder from the cases into the wound. One of the guys touched it with his torch and the powder burned with a flash that blinded us for a second. The wounded soldier jumped up, but we saw that the bleeding had stopped. Cries of relief roared through the group. The shoulder was finally bandaged; the fragment was washed with vodka and given to the wounded as a souvenir. Then he drank whatever vodka was left in the canteen. The operation was over. We were facing another long, cold winter night in Chechnya. My partner took something out of his pocket and showed it to me. It was too dark to see the object, so I bent down and in the dim red light of my cigarette I saw that he was holding a hand grenade, and a fuse. So, he also kept one in his pocket! Our time has not come yet. "I see, you did not use it." "Not yet. Where have you been? I was going to stay with you, but I lost you somewhere." "Fuck knows where. I just ran with the pack. I was hoping they were after some beer, but they had led me here instead." "There would be a line to get beer. So, how are you doing?" "Fine. Even my ears can hear something. Just fine." "Well, just fine?" His voice was skeptical. "Aren't we both alive? Yes! Unhurt? More or less so. We are on the second floor of their Reichstag. What else do you need?" "A shot of vodka and some chow." "Why don't you go upstairs and ask?" "Yeah, right. They will give me some. How are we going to spend the night?" "I have no idea, Yuri. Let us figure out something. We can't go down to the basement, cause the medics work down there. How can they operate, I can't even imagine." "Well, they got some torches, just like us here." "Shit! This is the end of the Twentieth Century, and they still operate in torchlight. It's good to know that the wounds are not treated with snake oil and witchcraft." "When you fight with your own people, you end up treating wounds with witchcraft. What did you expect?" "Nothing. Can we sneak out of the building?" "No way! No one could break through, either here or back. That is it, we are sealed up!" "Bastards!" "Who?" "Not us. Dukhi, of course!" "Stop that. If you need some action, there are more stories above you. They will wear us down. We won't hold for long without food, water, ammo and evacuation of the wounded. So, we have no choice but move up." "Just wait till they surprise us by blowing up a ceiling right above our heads, the way they did it in Gosbank. That will be really funny!" "They won't do that." "Why not?" "Cause the upper floors could collapse." "Big deal. When Muslims fight with unbelievers, they can sacrifice their lives." "Everybody wants to live." "True, but there can always be a couple of fanatics among them, who don't give a shit. And these could light the fuse. There are enough fools everywhere." "I like your optimism. When one needs to hear some encouragement, we can always bet on you, Slava. You are always there to boost our morale!" "I am just being realistic. Let's go and find some place to take a nap." "We will need to build a fire. Maybe the dukhi left us some firewood." We slowly walked along the corridor, searching for some firewood in the offices. We picked up whatever we could find: pieces of broken furniture, doors and window frames. We carried all that into one of the offices, where we built a fire with the help of some office paper we found there. The office furniture was not as good as firewood. It burned slowly, with the remnants of polish bubbling and blackening. We sat shoulder to shoulder, our backs to the wall, watching the flames in silence. Soon, our thoughts drifted far away from reality and from everything that happened today. The warmth of the fire made us drowsy, and despite hunger and thirst, we fell asleep. One more day in my life had ended; one more day of war... We did not sleep comfortably. The limbs became numb every now and then, and I even got cramps in my leg. Then the fire almost died and I felt really cold, so I had to stay half awake, keeping an eye on the fire. We woke up before the dawn and threw the remaining firewood into the fire, then warmed up doing some squats, jumping jacks and push-ups. We finally warmed up, but without hot meals and vodka we would not hold out for long. The dukhi would not let us out, and they will keep the reinforcements away. But we also would not let them out, no way! Meanwhile, some shooting began on the square. Carefully, we looked outside. A large formation the size of a regiment, was trying to break through into the palace. Judging by their uniforms, they were a mix of marines and internal ministry troops. The dukhi were shooting from the upper floors. Only then we had realized the brutality of what we had managed to fulfill by breaking across the square earlier. Even in the morning dusk the whole square was clearly seen from the palace. And the soldiers down there, who were trying to find cover behind the broken armor and in ditches, were just perfect targets for shooting practice. I heard some explosions and small arms fire back in the corridor. We rushed out of the office. On the second stairway the soldiers were slowly retreating under the attack of the militants from above. So, the bastards are trying to break out! Forget about it, you won't! There was also shooting on the first stairway now. The dukhi were desperately trying to break out from the trap. Next to me, Yuri launched a grenade. I knew that he was good in that -- a lot better than I am. I just lack imagination needed to predict the trajectory of the round. And on many occasions I was stunned by his ability to shoot a grenade from some kinky position. It would fly by some unbelievable arc and inevitably hit the target. And he would always hit it with the very first shot. So now he kept shooting grenades, staying cool. But I knew that his stony face concealed a lot of excitement. The enemy also switched to launching bombs and throwing hand grenades, and that kept both sides well apart from each other. That grenade duel went on for a while. For a second, I thought it would be great if we evacuated the building and just blew it up with all the dukhi inside, but the brass, of course, would not go for such radical solution. They need victorious press releases, with snapshots of the captured Palace on the cover of some hot magazine. Maybe, with a banner on top, the way it was on the Reichstag building in May of 1945. They will rush more troops across the square now, and maybe a third would not make it. They'd gather no less than a division inside the Palace, and most of them would die there. Comments: dukhi a nickname for the Chechen rebels makhra a nickname for the Russian infantry
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