On the last day of 1994, just over two weeks after Moscow began its first war against separatists in Russia's southern republic of Chechnya, Russian forces launched their first major assault on the capital, Grozny.
Instead of ringing in the new year, Grozny's residents cowered under shelling and bombing. The initial attack ended in a crushing defeat for Russian forces, although it was just the beginning of a long fight for the city.
RFE/RL Russian Service contributor Vladimir Voronov was on assignment in Grozny for a Russian newspaper at the time. Twenty-five years later, he looks back on his memories of covering the battle.
In the first days of January 1995 it was difficult to get lost on the way to Grozny. Pillars of dense black smoke were rising from afar, paving the way -- oil tanks and fuel dumps blazing from aerial bombardment. The Russian military's assault on Grozny -- started on December 31 -- was still in full swing.
Getting into the Chechen capital actually turned out to be simple: by taxi from the neighboring republic of Ingushetia right to the center of Grozny's Minutka Square.
There were no checks or roadblocks on the way from the town of what is now Sunzha in Ingushetia (known as Ordzhonikidzevskaya before 2016). Even the sole traffic police post on the outskirts of Grozny, lined with concrete blocks, was empty. Russian TV assured viewers that the city was completely blocked by federal troops. Official reports proclaimed that they controlled two-thirds of Grozny, but many armed locals strolled through the streets.
Grozny welcomed visitors with a Soviet-era message written on an entrance sign to the city: "People, take care of the world." Everywhere there was the rotten smell of natural gas as pipes were damaged in hundreds of places by shelling. Many houses faced the risk of an explosion. In the evening, bluish-red flames gave the sky an amazing crimson hue. It was better to stay away from the gas lines as they were a frequent target of Russian artillery or missile bombing for air strikes. It looked like a random dropping of bombs from great heights, mostly landing in residential areas.
The Battle Of Grozny And The First Chechen War
Dzhokhar Dudayev, a retired Soviet Air Force general, was elected president of Chechnya in 1991. Under Dudayev, Chechnya promptly -- and unilaterally -- seceded from the Russian Federation.
Over the next three years, tensions with Moscow steadily grew as Dudayev took steps to build a national army in a bid to prop up Chechnya's independence. Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin hesitated on how to bring the rebellious general back into the fold.
Finally, after several attempts to forcibly depose Dudayev through proxies, Moscow issued an ultimatum on November 29, 1994. Russia's National Security Council told Chechnya's government to disarm and submit to Moscow, or face retaliation.
On December 11, 1994, Russian troops entered Chechnya. Officially, their mission was to restore Moscow's authority over the secessionist republic.
On December 31, 1994, Russian troops began bombing Grozny and sent four armored columns toward the city's center. The initial street battles ended with thousands of Russian and Chechen casualties, and the destruction of hundreds of Russian fighting vehicles. The Russians retreated, but then mounted a second assault on January 4.
The scene on the streets of Grozny in the first week of January was truly apocalyptic: wrecked cars and armored vehicles along with hungry dogs showing their teeth and growling when they were driven away from their prey: the bodies of Russian soldiers who died in the first hours of the assault. Ruins were everywhere.
The closer I got to the center of the city, the more the debris of residential quarters resembled a monument to a lost civilization. I had a vivid recent memory of this city being alive and flourishing. Now, however, it seemed that in some absurd way I was in an old movie about the battles of Stalingrad or Berlin. The city was living its new life underground, in the cellars.
There were thousands of civilians in these basements and nobody evacuated them. In one of these cellars, we awaited another attack as a 17-year-old girl was giving birth next to us. The husband of this woman in labor was a year older than her. We asked him why he didn't move away from Grozny with his wife when it was already clear that attacks were coming. "Well, how could we know that Russian soldiers would attack residential neighborhoods?" he said.
Basements were jam-packed with women, old people, children, teenagers, living in fear. The vast majority were old Russian pensioners. Chechen citizens mostly managed to get out to stay with relatives in villages, but these people had simply nowhere to go.
People just burst out: "When will this all stop?" They shouted, mistaking us, apparently, as officials: "What is going on in the world? They just beat us constantly! They bomb us all the time! These pilots are worse than the fascists. We lived here normally without your bombs!"
“[Russian President Boris] Yeltsin said that all the residents left the city," my colleague told them.
"But all the basements in the city are full of people," they screamed. "How could we leave? We have nowhere to go, nobody is waiting for us anywhere. And what do we do for money if we haven't been paid pensions for more than two years now?"
Minutka Square was full of people carrying weapons and looking off into the distance. These were the so-called "ceremonial militants." They were not in a hurry to fight, but they were eagerly posing for photographers, hastily retreating into underpasses when somebody shouted "Air!" as an aerial bombardment came in.
The real fighting rebels were different. They were dusty, dirty, exhausted. It seems that there were very few of them in comparison with Russian forces. They really had no heavy weaponry -- only machine guns, grenade launchers, and hand grenades. I saw one antiaircraft gun: a heavy machine gun apparently taken from a damaged armored personnel carrier and mounted on the back of a truck. Occasionally, a tank and an armored personnel carrier with Chechen flags would drive back and forth along the main street, Lenin Avenue, at full speed.
On my previous visit to Grozny a month earlier, I saw more serious equipment. Apparently these weapons had already been lost in the battles or, perhaps, taken out of the city to hiding places.
The square in front of the former Chechen Communist Party headquarters, which became the makeshift presidential palace of separatist Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev, resembled a dump: crushed stones, broken glass, burned-out cars, heaps of spent cartridges, along with unexploded tank shells and aircraft missiles. We could not move much because of mortar shelling. From time to time, the militants jumped out of their shelters and rushed, one at a time, like hares, through the shooting zone toward the palace. Some of the wounded were taken out in Zhiguli or Moskvich cars flashing through the square at full speed, or by an armored personnel carrier, on which Russian federal troops immediately opened fire.
The sight was truly mind-boggling: An armored car rushed out of the palace as two old women walked by carrying shopping bags. Skeletons of armored vehicles burned near the bodies of Russian soldiers.
One vehicle stood out: On a rear door there was the number "684" and on the turret, the charred remains of a man. The fire that took his life was so hellish and merciless that his skull split, exposing his brain. The left rear door of the fighting vehicle was wide open and burned ammunition was visible -- machine-gun belts, charred shells, blackened bullets with leaking molten cores. Another charred silhouette was seen in a thick layer of gray ash.
I forced myself to pick up the camera and take a few pictures. A moment later there was a series of explosions very close to me and I fell on the asphalt. The same damaged vehicle whose armor did not save its crew protected me from the shells.
Several months later, Voronov sought out details about the crew in the destroyed Russian infantry vehicle:
In the summer of 1995 in Samara, in Russia. I was introduced to Captain Viktor Mychko, who was at the District Military Hospital, healing from the wounds he received in Chechnya. He talked about the assault on Grozny. I showed him my photographs. The officer literally clung to one of them: "This is my vehicle! And on the turret Major Belov, the commanding officer of our battalion!" He added: "They hit us on the afternoon of December 31."
A few days later, in Samara, I met with Nadezhda and Anatoly Mihkaylov. They saw my photograph of a horribly burnt vehicle that was published in the Sobesednik newspaper. Their son was in it: Senior Sergeant Andrei Mikhaylov. Little by little, I found out about the fate of the entire crew.
It was an infantry fighting vehicle of the second battalion of the 81st Motorized Rifle Regiment. Four people were inside: Major Artur Valentinovich Belov, the chief of staff of the battalion; his deputy, Mychko; driver mechanic Dmitry Gennadievich Kazakov; and the signalman, Senior Sergeant Andrei Anatolyevich Mikhailov. Mychko was the only survivor. Belov had also served in Afghanistan and was considered one of the best officers of the unit.
Mychko told me during our meeting that no one mentioned any combat mission to them in Grozny: "Only an order on the radio: to enter the city. Kazakov was sitting at the levers, Mikhaylov was in the aft, next to the radio. He maintained the signal. Well, then it was me and Belov."
They entered Grozny at noon on December 31: "We really didn’t understand anything, didn’t even manage to fire a single shot -- not from a cannon, not from a machine gun, or from rifles. It was hell. We didn’t see anything or anybody. Our vehicle was shaking from hits. Everything fired from everywhere and we had no other thought than to get out of here! The radio was brought down by the first hits. We were just a...target.
"We didn't even try to shoot back and we didn’t even know where to shoot because we didn’t see the enemy. Everything was like in a nightmare. Even now it seems that it lasted for ages, although it was just a few minutes. We were hit, the car was on fire. Belov rushed into the upper hatch and blood poured on me right away. He was cut down by a bullet or debris, and he hung on the tower. Then I myself rushed to get out of the vehicle."
Mychko himself was wounded: "I leaned out of the hatch and suddenly I felt terrible pain, fell back, and apparently lost consciousness, I don’t remember anything else. I woke up in some basement, as it turned out, of Dudayev’s palace. Chechens said that they dragged me by the arms..."
A shard pierced Mychko's chest and lung. His arm and leg were also wounded.
The first surgery was done by a Chechen doctor in the basement of Dudayev's palace. Pus was pumped out of his lung. Then there was a release, not even an exchange: "Just like that." A group of prisoners who were in that basement were transferred to the Russian command.
On May 8, 1995, Andrei Mikhailov's remains were officially identified. In the summer of that year his parents said to me: "Yes, we received a coffin and buried it, but it was not our son."
For a while after that assignment, almost every night I had the same terrible dream: as if I were running past that infantry vehicle again and again with Major Belov, into this damned shooting area in front of Dudayev's palace. Nearby, those same two old women are still wandering around with their tote bags.