Russia Honors Riffraff, Not Its Real Heroes

19 January 2005 |

Yulia is one of my favourite political commentators. Even though my knowledge of Russian History is as good as my my knowledge of the language - restricted to a couple of words - ' nyet and da' , reading Yulia's columns in the Moscow Times has helped me understand the historiography of Russia.

Yulia's passion for truth is indeed infectious.




Russia Honors Riffraff, Not Its Real Heroes
Russia is a strange country. We celebrate the creation of the Red Army on Feb. 23, the day when the Red Army fled before advancing German troops near Pskov. We honor 28 nonexistent members of the 316th Infantry -- the so-called panfilovtsy, named after the division's commander, Major General Ivan Panfilov -- as heroes of World War II. Patriots defend the only hero of the war in Chechnya, Yury Budanov, a colonel who raped and murdered an 18-year-old girl.


Could it be that Russia has no heroes? Or that we don't remember the ones we do have?

How many people in Russia remember the name Albazin, for example? Albazin was a fortified town in the Amur River region founded by Yerofei Khabarov. In 1665, Nikofor Chernigovsky converted the town into a fortress. Chernigovsky was not an official representative of Russia. He had fled from a Siberian factory where he had taken part in the murder of the local governor.

Albazin became the border between Russia and the enormous Qing empire. The Qing attacked Albazin for the first time in 1685 with a force of some 10,000 men. The 450 Russian soldiers in the fortress defended it so staunchly that following their surrender the surviving Russians were taken to Beijing, where they served in the forces of the elite Bordered Yellow Banner.

The Russians occupied Albazin once more the following year, and once more the Emperor Kangxi ordered that Albazin be wiped from the face of the earth. The siege lasted five months, even though the Qing enjoyed a 40-to-one advantage. The Russian commander Alexei Tolbuzin was killed on the fifth day of the siege. Command was assumed by Afanasy Beiton, who managed to save the fortress. The Manchu relented. By the end, only three Russians remained standing in Albazin. The cossacks at Albazin did more than the Spartans at Thermopylae and Roland at Roncesvalles. But those 300 Spartans are the stuff of legend. Few in Russia remember Tolbuzin and Beiton, but why?

Here's why. After the Chinese lifted the siege of Albazin, the tsar appointed Fyodor Golovin as plenipotentiary ambassador to Beijing. Golovin concluded the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which required that the fortress at Albazin be razed. On Aug. 31, 1689, three years after the siege was lifted, Golovin sent Beiton the order to destroy Albazin.

Albazin, the Russian Thermopylae, was destroyed not by a Chinese emperor, but by a Russian bureaucrat.

The history of Russia is the history of a state that betrays the very people who defend it. It is a history of false heroes created by decree and real heroes consigned to oblivion.

Some Israeli soldiers told me recently that they had fought for three days to recover the corpses of two comrades, losing 12 more men in the process. Because they do not leave their own to the mercy of the enemy, even in death.

Some Russian soldiers told me about how a wounded Russian officer was put on an overloaded chopper, but was thrown overboard when he died to lighten the load and make flying easier. No one would admit to this, of course, and the officer was officially listed as "missing in action." Because of this, the military refused to pay his widow the pension to which she was entitled.

Wars are not lost on the field of battle. Wars are lost when the leadership regards its soldiers as cannon fodder. And when we honor riffraff instead of real heroes.


Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

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