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Return of the Chechens

Investigators were still marching in and out of the Lubyanka subway station on Monday morning, but Nina Ivanovna, a 57-year-old retiree, was not waiting around to hear their conclusions.

world Updated: Mar 31, 2010 00:01 IST

Investigators were still marching in and out of the Lubyanka subway station on Monday morning, but Nina Ivanovna, a 57-year-old retiree, was not waiting around to hear their conclusions.

She stared coldly at the staircase where wounded and weeping passengers had streamed away from the chaos of the suicide bombing, and said, with a curl of her lip, who she thought was behind it.

“It’s the Chechens, they will never let us live in peace,” she said. “We should build a Great Wall of China to keep them away from us. They should be walled away. They hate us, and they will always hate us.”

During the six years since the last suicide bomb attack on the Moscow subway, Muscovites came to think of themselves as insulated from the guerrilla warfare in the North Caucasus.

They lost the jittery reflexes of a decade in which Russians refused to board airplanes beside a veiled woman, or waited for the last train car because they assumed suicide bombers would get on at the front.

That fear reshaped the Russian state at the beginning of the decade. Vladimir V. Putin, then president, used the terrorist threat to justify a sweeping consolidation of power, and won enormous popularity for apparently bringing the years of violence to an end. But old anxieties rushed back to the surface on Monday, when commuters handed over wads of cash to taxis rather than descend into the subway. Many were asking the same question: Is it starting again?

“Supposedly the war is over and people have been living well” in the Caucasus, said Lyudmila Margulis, 60, an edge of sarcasm in her voice, as she made her way through the Park Kultury subway station on Monday afternoon. The station was still dripping from a thorough washing after the attack, but on the white floor tiles you could still make out a faint trail of bloody boot prints.

“You know, I don’t think it ever actually stopped,” said Aleksandr Zharkov, 22, a graduate student. He said he had started seeking out information about fighting in the Caucasus on Internet news sources, and had been surprised to discover much was still going on there, despite government claims that the insurgency had been brought to heel.

Statistics from the North Caucasus showed that clashes between militants and government forces jumped last year, nearly doubling the number of fatalities and quadrupling the number of suicide bombings.

But those statistics are abstractions to Muscovites, said Sergei Markedonov, a Caucasus specialist at the Institute for Political and Military Analysis.

“The Caucasus is far away, it’s way over there, ‘those dummies who keep blowing themselves up,’ that’s what Uncle John says — it doesn’t involve us,” he said. “An explosion in Moscow, that involves us directly.”