journalists during
the First Chechen War
The First Chechen War was a unique time for Russian journalism. Many media outlets liberally covered aspects of the conflict that were inconvenient or even unflattering to the Russian authorities. At the same time, journalists faced aloofness on the part of the state, the first fledgling disinformation campaigns, and hostility from Russian conscripts and certain Ichkerian independence fighters.

How did war correspondents do their jobs during the First Chechen War? Why did that period of relative freedom for independent media end so quickly? Did the Kremlin really lose the information war to the Ichkerian authorities and how has this impacted Russia up to the present day? Caucasus. Realities posed these questions to Russian and international reporters who were in Grozny at the time and were arrested and attacked for doing their jobs.
In December 1991, after the failed August coup and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia adopted the law "On Mass Media", which enshrined freedom of speech, banned all forms of censorship, ended the state’s monopoly on information, and allowed individuals and organizations to freely establish their own media outlets.

A considerable number of TV channels, radio stations, and print media were concentrated in the hands of the state, including RTR, ITAR-TASS, RIA Novosti, and Rossiiskaya Gazeta, but in early 1992 private media also emerged. The largest media groups were run by the so-called oligarchs. Sibneft co-owner Boris Berezovsky acquired ORT, Kommersant, and the National News Service. Most Bank founder Vladimir Gusinsky owned NTV and Novaya Gazeta, while Norilsk Nickel owner Vladimir Potanin took control of the daily newspapers Izvestia and Komsomolskaya Pravda.

The new media paid close attention to events which occurred in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria a few weeks before the official start of the first war. On 26 November 1994, the Provisional Council, which was in opposition to President Dzhokhar Dudayev, joined specially recruited Russian soldiers in invading Grozny. At least 1,200 men, around 40 tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and truck-mounted machine gunners were involved in the assault. They reached downtown Grozny, where they fell into a trap laid by Dudayev’s army, which wiped out the invasion force.

Twenty-one tank soldiers were captured, Radio Svoboda reported. The Ichkerian president’s press service, meanwhile, reported they had captured around 70 Russian officers, one of whom later died. The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers said at the time that the soldiers and officers in question were from the Russian army’s Kantemirovka Division.

The Kremlin denied it had been involved in the attack on Grozny. According to Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, if Russian paratroopers actually had been deployed to Chechnya, "The problems would have been solved within two hours," and "One paratrooper regiment would have been enough to restore order." The Chechen side was more open with the press: the next day, 27 November, the captured Russian tank soldiers were shown in news broadcasts on several TV channels. The Kremlin could no longer deny its obvious involvement in the assault.

The first footage of the prisoners was broadcast by NTV, where Andrei Cherkasov, who was then an international TV correspondent and is now the creator and host of Current Time TV’s "Look Out", worked at the time.

"The captured soldiers gave their names and identified their military units on camera, and it was impossible to deny it. [Journalists] forced governments officials and military officers to acknowledge these prisoners, instead of insisting they were mercenaries caught up in internal Chechen squabbles," Cherkasov said in a conversation with us.

Vladimir Voronov, a photographer and special correspondent for the newspaper Sobesednik and the magazine Stolitsa, found out how much the specially recruited Russian soldiers had been paid. According to him, his interview with two captured tank soldiers was "printed without any censorship."

"One was a warrant officer, as I remember now, and his surname was Potekhin. The Chechens had pulled him out of a burning tank: he suffered burns to his face and both arms. My second interviewee was a conscript sergeant named Chikin, who had been identified as a contract soldier. They told me how they had been recruited. They even gave me the name of the person who did it: Lieutenant Colonel Dubina, head of their division’s special [secret services] branch. They were given money—about 300 dollars—and deployed," Voronov recalls.

Nikolai Potekhin and Alexei Chikin were amongst the prisoners of war returned to the Russian side on 9 December 1994.

The 1994 tank assault was one of the first instances when the post-Soviet Kremlin falsely claimed that Russian troops were not involved in particular conflicts. Russia has taken this tack many times since, for example during the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the war in Donbas, and the invasion of Ukraine regarding the deployments of conscripts.
Alexander Lebed fielding questions from Russian reporters after peace talks in the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, September 1996.
Photo: Alexander Nemenov
“They’re not there”
November 27, 2023
Authors: Natalia Kildiyarova
Russian soldiers in the village of Shatoy. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
Wars always generate rumours, some of which prove to be true, while others are wholly made up. But the propaganda which would feature prominently in Russia’s later military conflicts in Georgia, Syria, Donbas, and Ukraine was absent during the First Chechen War, argues journalist Andrei Cherkasov.

"[The authorities] didn’t know how to operate like that yet back then. They imagined it wouldn’t be necessary, that the conflict in Chechnya would be resolved quickly. A well-funded, technologically driven, conceptually savvy state propaganda machine was conceived and deployed only under the current regime," says Cherkasov.

However, in addition to the myth that only mercenaries, not Russian soldiers, had been involved in the initial assault on Grozny, another myth —about the so-called white tights—arose only after Russian federal troops were officially deployed in Chechnya. The "white tights" was the name the Russian command gave to the foreign mercenaries who allegedly fought for Ichkeria.

"There was even a news report about the ‘white tights," entitled ‘Band of lady snipers unmasked." In fact, the ‘lady snipers' in question were female journalists—Galina Kovalskaya from Novoe Vremya and Irina Dementieva from Izvestia," recalls Voronov. "They had arrived in Grozny right before the New Year’s assault on the presidential palace. When the bombardment began, they fled the flat they’d rented, leaving behind their rucksacks, which contained their feminine apparel. They were unable to go back there later. When someone discovered these items, it generated the myth about lady snipers from the Baltics dressed in white tights."

The Russian side also claimed that they were a huge number of mercenaries from Afghanistan in Chechnya, Voronov recounts. And yet, the foreigners he encountered in Chechnya during the first war were either fellow journalists or employees of international aid organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

On the morning of 11 December 1994, Russian forces advanced on Grozny from three directions—from Vladikavkaz via Ingushetia, from Northern Ossetia’s Mozdok District, and from Dagestan. From that moment on, the greatest problem journalists faced was getting from one place to another, argues Dmitry Soshin, a former producer with Worldwide Television News (WTN), an American news agency.

"Until [the conflict] kicked into high gear, journalists would fly into Vladikavkaz and could drive freely from there to Grozny, and they could travel around [Chechnya] with no hitches. After [Russian] troops were deployed, getting there got trickier, but it was still doable. We would come in from Mineralnye Vody and rent vans or private cars to take us to Grozny. It was fairly tricky, and sometimes it was quite dangerous," says Soshin.

Some correspondents were able to enter Chechnya along with a Chechen delegation who had gone to Vladikavkaz for negotiations with the Russian government, recalls a TASS photographer who wishes to remain anonymous for their own safety. The talks had commenced on 9 December 1994, but broke down after war was officially declared. The Chechens got in their cars and returned to Grozny, and several reporters travelled there with them in their motorcade.

Some journalists, Voronov amongst them, sought the aid of Ingush cabbies in getting to Chechnya. It was also possible to travel to Grozny via Mozdok, in North Ossetia, but this route was only open with express permission from the Russian Defence Ministry, as was the case with any trip to places where Russian troops were deployed.
Grozny, 25 January 1995. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
The “white tights”
The Russian State Press Committee’s press centre issued journalists permits to work in Chechnya. According to our sources, it was not particularly complicated to receive these permits. It was the usual procedure: the media outlet would send an official written request to the press centre along with a photo of the journalist and a questionnaire containing their passport details, and the laminated press badge would take two or three days to process. Aside from issuing credentials, however, the Russian authorities provided no other instructions military and civilian officials for interacting with the press during the war.

The TASS photojournalist recalls that it was virtually impossible even for reporters from state-run news media to embed with Russian federal troops. Correspondents were kept at press centres, and they were able to travel to army units in the field only on rare occasions, mainly by pulling strings.

"The staff officers didn’t let us do our jobs, while the rank-and-file soldiers were quite afraid of us. The Chechens were happy to talk to us, but when our [Russian] boys would see a photographer, they’d raise their weapons and shoot over our heads. They were frozen, frightened eighteen-year-old kids, of course," recalls the photojournalist.

Voronov also noted that it was impossible to work with Russian side. In 1995, the Russian army arrested Voronov and a colleague at their base in Khankala.

"When we arrived, we went to the press centre to get permission to travel to [Chechnya]. Despite the fact that we were on assignment and had credentials, we had no luck. We had to pull strings. We were offered a ride to the front in an army helicopter, but to make that happen we had to get to Khankala. When we got there it transpired the helicopter would be flying only the next day. We had to spend the night somewhere, and there was a press centre for state media journalists in the neighbourhood. It was a huge, comfortable, civilized army tent with room for fifty people. So that’s where we went. We were immediately asked who we were, how we had got there, and where our passes were. I showed them our credentials, our papers, and the letter from our editors, but we were detained," Voronov recounts.

He calls their arrest "very original." The journalists were held in the very same press tent in which their colleagues were staying.

"There were reporters from Krasnaya Zvezda, Parlamentskaya Gazeta, and Rossiiskaya Gazeta [the official newspapers of the Russian army, the Russian parliament, and the Russian government, respectively]. They were able to interact with the federal troops, but we were under arrest. We were unable to leave the tent," recalls Voronov. "We were escorted to the mess hall three times a day by a soldier armed with a machine gun. But the soldier grew tired of that by our second trip out and started showing up without his gun. We were also escorted by guards to the toilet. There was a wooden outhouse with room for around ten people. There was no toilet paper. Instead, there were stacks of the Defence Ministry’s newspaper and Krasnaya Zvezda."

Petra Procházková, a correspondent for the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny, told Caucasus. Realities that Russian press credentials were of little use to journalists.

"We just had them with us, but the soldiers and officers acted at their own discretion. It was quite hard to get any information out of them," she said. "Rather, what did the trick was bribing [the soldiers manning] the checkpoints. A couple of bottles of vodka would get us through a lot more effectively than papers."

Procházková is convinced that Russian soldiers regarded most journalists as their enemies. When she attempted to strike up a conversation with one of them, she was physically assaulted, and she came under fire from Russian forces on several occasions.

"We were trying film a civilian vehicle near Grozny that had been destroyed by federal troops. The city was in chaos, and many people were leaving, but there was also chaos on the roads. As soon as we pulled out our camera, Russian soldiers opened fire on us. We weren’t prepared for that: we didn’t have any markings that identified us as members of the press. On the one hand, the Russian soldiers could have taken us for anyone whomsoever. On the other hand, we had film and photo cameras, and so only an idiot wouldn’t have understood that we weren’t militants. Even if we had been Chechen civilians, they shouldn’t have shot at us. But they did shoot at us. And that same thing would happen many times," says Procházková.

Procházková once had to remove the "PRESS" sign they had eventually acquired from the roof of their work vehicle. A Russian helicopter was trailing the group of journalists, who feared it would open fire on them.

"We couldn’t count on the fact that Russian soldiers would observe the international rules of military engagement. They regarded most of us journalists as enemies because we were against the war. Sometimes we had to conceal not only our ["PRESS"] sign but also our bulletproof vests to avoid triggering aggression on the part of [Russian] soldiers," Procházková recalls.
Press credentials and a bottle of vodka
A Russian soldier in Urus-Martan, Chechnya, May 1996. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
Russian soldiers withdrawing from the village of Shatoy, February 1996. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
Chechens and journalists
Soshin recounts that journalists also needed to obtain press credentials from the Chechen side.

"But you could also show them a work ID, say, from NTV. Because back then everyone followed the conflict quite closely and knew what the correspondents looked like," Soshin says. "You didn’t have to produce your papers if the Chechen soldiers had seen your report on TV that evening."

And yet, Procházková at some point had several Chechen press credentials, not just one.

"Every Chechen leader, politician, and field commander started handing out papers with stamps. The Chechens liked having official documents, maybe because it made them feel important. We often travelled from Russian positions to Chechen positions, from one unit to another, and these quick and dirty documents, notarized with a seal fashioned from a potato, were a help. The main thing was not to mix them up at a Russian checkpoint and accidentally show them press credentials bearing the image of the Ichkerian wolf. And vice versa, of course," she says.

Procházková claims that the Chechens were much more open in communicating with the press because they had a stake in getting their story out.

"It was a defensive war for Chechens. They were defending their homes, and journalists initially sympathised with the Chechen side," she says. "Everyone from militiamen and military commanders to local officials tried to show us what the Russian soldiers had been up to. And they did have things to show us."

Interacting with Ichkeria supporters was a peculiar thing, admits Voronov, because every Chechen militant regarded himself as the commander-in-chief. But it was possible to travel to their units in the field. Once, journalists were unable to leave, and the Chechens showed them an empty apartment in which they could spend the night.

"It wasn’t as if they helped us do our jobs, but at least they didn’t get in our way. You could ask them, ‘Guys, can we work here with you for a while?' They had no problem giving us permission. Because [the Chechens] had a stake in it, they were calmer with the press. That’s why they won the information war hands down," says the TASS photojournalist.

Alexander Cherkasov, a Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre board member, argues that not all journalists found it easy to work with the Chechens, and not all Chechens were fond of journalists.

"How many journalists were buried in the Bamut District? That’s where Fred Cuny, an [American humanitarian], went missing along with his interpreter, Galina Oleynik, and two [doctors] from the Russian Committee of the Red Cross who were escorting them. In February 1996, Maxim Shabalin and Felix Titov, reporters with the [St. Petersburg] newspaper Nevskoye Vremya, disappeared in an area controlled by the Ichkerians. Alexander Terentiev, who worked for the Chelyabinsk newspaper Aktsiya, disappeared in the outskirts of Vedeno. Nadezhda Chaikova, a journalist with Obshchaya Gazeta, was executed. Like Terentiev, the Ichkerians had accused her of collaborating with the Russian secret services. The list is a long one. We cannot deny that journalists also had trouble with the other side," Cherkasov concludes.
Usman Imayev, head of the Chechen delegation, answering a reporter’s questions, 22 July 1995. Photo: Alexander Nemenov
Chechen Republic of Ichkeria representatives Akhmed Zakayev, Ruslan Gelayev, and Daud Akhmadov at a press conference on 20 October 1995.
Photo: Alexander Nemenov
In 1994, Russian television was dominated by three channels: ORT (now known as Channel One), RTR (now known as Russian State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company), and NTV.

"NTV was the most visible and audible," recalls the TASS staffer. "They had an astoundingly professional team. But it has to be said that state television also broadcast fairly strong reports. That’s how everything functioned back then. It was the norm not to agree with the actions of the authorities and talk about it on the air on state TV channels."

Alexander Sladkov was responsible for RTR’s coverage from Chechnya. Nowadays, Sladkov is a so-called milblogger who supports Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has been sanctioned by all EU countries for engaging in propaganda. In December 1994, however, the 27-year-old Sladkov filed reports from Grozny as the Russian army was bombing the city in advance of assaulting it.

"They're pounding [Grozny] crudely, indiscriminately. We swear and crank out the news, and this is what our news looks like. [We see the bodies of dead civilians.] It’s a nightmare, like some kind of Vietnam. What is the point? During the war, my grandfather was a [combat] pilot, my dad was a pilot, and I myself served in the air force for eight years, so I know what its mission is during war. But this here is complete crap. They don’t want to live with us. So, what, they should all be slaughtered?" Sladkov says in a documentary film based on his dispatches.

Twenty-nine years later, during the war against Ukraine, Sladkov would congratulate the military helicopter pilots among his acquaintances on their professional holiday and emphasise in particular how proud he was to be acquainted with veterans of the Chechen wars.

Caucasus.Realities tried to contact the "milblogger" to ask him questions for this article, but Sladkov did not reply to our requests for an interview.

Some journalists who worked for non-state media outlets have also changed their views and political opinions over time.

Alexander Cherkasov calls the reports filed from both Chechen wars by Radio Svoboda correspondent Andrei Babitsky the station’s "finest hour." But in 2014, Babitsky filed several reports from separatist-controlled regions of Ukraine before resigning from Radio Svoboda in the autumn of that year. Babitsky moved to Donetsk in 2015. He worked for Russian media outlets and the press in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. He harshly criticised Ukraine and voiced his support for President Vladimir Putin.

"Radio Svoboda’s reports from the Chechen War were one of the primary sources of free information," says Cherkasov. "Babitsky filed amazing reports back in the days before he underwent his transformation. At one time he worked in Chechnya with Sasha Yevtushenko, who now works for state media and has completely blended into that job. I remember well how we—Radio Svoboda and Memorial—travelled with a NTV crew to Bamut, where [the Chechens] were planning to execute five prisoners a day. And that young guy from NTV who was with us in Bamut also later went over to the ‘dark side' of the Force."

Vladimir Voronov confidently argues that there was no censorship during the First Chechen War, that "everything was published as was." According to him, censorship was even technically impossible then. Martial law would have had to been declared nationwide and armed soldiers stationed outside every media outlet to enforce it.

Marko Mikhelson, who is an Estonian politician nowadays but was once a journalist and newspaper columnist, felt no pressure from the Kremlin during his time in Chechnya. From 1994 to 1997, Mikhelson was stationed in Moscow as foreign news editor for the Estonia newspaper Postimees. In February 1995, he did an interview with the then-Ichkerian president Dzhokhar Dudayev.

"Russian journalists didn’t report the events in a significantly different way: they filmed, showed, and said completely sincerely what they saw. There were no discrepancies with the reports filed by international media, and personally I never noticed any Russian state propaganda in their reports," says Mikhelson.

Alexander Cherkasov disagrees with Mikhelson’s assessment.

"The state-run media were pushing the agenda of the various [state press] centres and defence and law enforcement agencies," Cherkasov argues. "Yes, the Russian authorities were unable back then to restrict other [media], but the flood of ["news"] coming from the state was enormous. From our vantage point in the present day, in which there is no alternative [to state-run media], such claims might seem strange, but the stuff that the Interior Ministry’s press centre and so on were spouting was awful."

Cherkasov notes the significance of materials published by human rights activists, in particular, the multitude of text, books, and articles released at the time by Memorial, some of which dealt with the difficulties of reporting about the war.

"[We analysed] the difference between the two sources of information, official and journalistic, and [found that] the official information was totally at odds with the reports of independent journalists. The book ‘Our Submarine Wasn’t There': Chronicle of a Smoke Screen, Kizlyar-Pervomayskoye deals with just this issue," says Cherkasov.

And indeed, the Kremlin, irked by critical appraisals of its actions in the press, used state-controlled media to accuse independent media of "aggravating the political situation, undermining the state’s international authority and foundations, and betraying the interests of the country and the army." President Boris Yeltsin himself claimed that several periodicals were funded by Chechen independence supporters. The Kremlin was convinced that journalists were broadcasting only the views of Chechen militants.

Former NTV journalist Andrei Cherkasov categorically rejects this argument.

"Tons of military equipment were destroyed, and very many Russian soldiers were killed. It was impossible to conceal this because there were international news agencies in Grozny and journalists reporting from the Chechen side. From January 1995 our TV company’s camera crews were present on both sides of the front. I was part of the first NTV camera crew to go into Grozny with the federal troops," says Cherkasov.

The journalists we interviewed agreed that the Russian government lost the media battle in the first war in Chechnya. Several factors contributed to this defeat, argues Dmitry Soshin, and the lack of a protocol for engaging with the press was only one of them. He argues that we should also consider how the pro-Ichkerian forces behaved.

"First, Dudayev regularly gave interviews. Right up until the New Year’s assault on the presidential palace in Grozny, he was conversing with journalists almost daily. And [Ichkerian field commander Shamil] Basayev would travel to neutral territory to meet with the media, and we filmed him too. So, I definitely agree that the Chechen side thus won the information war."

Soshin is seconded by the TASS photojournalist.

"If the defence minister screamed that now we’re going to take this city with a single parachute regiment, but consequently everyone there bit the dust, what was there to say? The information war was lost hands down," they say.

In August 1996, Russia and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria signed the Khasavyurt Accord. Aslan Maskhadov, chief of staff of the Chechen armed forces, and Alexander Lebed, secretary of the Russian Federal Security Council, inked the deal, thus officially ending the First Chechen War. In January 1997, Maskhadov was elected president of Ichkeria.
Kommersant lists the names of twenty journalists who were killed in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996: Gelani Chagirov, cameraman for the Chechen TV program Marsho; American photojournalist Cynthia Elbaum; Bilal Akhmadov, correspondent for the program Marsho; Vladimir Zhitarenko, special correspondent, Krasnaya Zvezda; Chechen journalist Sultan Nuriyev; Jochen Piest, correspondent for the German magazine Stern; Valentin Yanus, cameraman for Pskov TV; Maxim Shabalin and Felix Titov, correspondents for the St. Petersburg newspaper Nevskyoe Vremya; Ruslan Tsebiyev, correspondent for the Presidential Channel on Chechen TV; Malkan Suleimanova, correspondent for the newspaper Ickheria; Farkhad Kerimov, cameraman, Associated Press TV; Shamkhan Kagirov, correspondent for the Chechen newspaper Vozrozhedenie and Rossiiskaya Gazeta; Yevgeny Molchanov, cameraman for NTV; Viktor Pimenov, cameraman for the Chechen TV company Vainakh; Nadezhda Chaikova, correspondent, Obshchaia Gazeta; Anatoly Yagodin, correspondent for Na Boevom Postu, the magazine of the Russian Interior Ministry’s Home Troops; Nina Yefimova, correspondent for Vozrozhdenie; Ramzan Khodzhiyev, correspondent, ORT; Ivan Gogun, correspondent for the newspaper Groznenskii Rabochii.
A Russian police office makes a souvenir videotape of his friends several days before Russian troops are withdrawn from Chechnya.
Photo: Alexander Nemenov