How prisoners were sought and freed during the Chechen wars and what role human rights activists played in it
Memorial Human Rights Centre celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2023. It is a legendary organisation in Russia. Memorial members were not only witnesses but also participants in the key events in recent Russian history, painstakingly describing and carefully documenting them. For this work, the Russian government declared Memorial Human Rights Centre a “foreign agent” and disbanded it, forcing many of its employees to leave the country. And the Centre’s long-time head, Oleg Orlov, is now in a pretrial detention centre charged with “discrediting” the Russian army.

In 2022, Memorial HRC’s supporters established the Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre and continue the work. And to mark the organisation’s thirtieth anniversary, they launched the project 30 Years Before. As part of the project, independent media publish articles about the difficult and important work of human rights activists. You can read all of the articles on the Centre’s website at https://aboutrussia.org/en

Takie Dela chose a complicated topic: the situation of prisoners of war during the two armed conflicts in Chechnya.
They were usually called hostages, not prisoners of war, because, officially, there was no war. First it was called “restoring constitutional order,” then a “counterterrorism operation.” It lasted ten years, until 2009. The word “war” was not banned at the time, however, and independent journalism and the human rights movement together constituted a force that could influence the state and unite to solve many problems. It was civil society that played an important role — if not the leading role — in searching for and obtaining the release of prisoners and hostages.

“It wasn’t part of state policy,” human rights activist Alexander Cherkasov recalls. “And sometimes we filled in for the state. It was a time when something could be done.”

Cherkasov worked at the Memorial Human Rights Centre* from its founding in 1990 until it was shut down by the Russian government in 2022. From 1990, he was involved in searching for missing persons and hostages in various “hotspots,” initially in the Soviet Union, which still existed at the time. Later, in the now-former Soviet Union, he helped those wounded at the Ostankino [television tower] in October 1993. Like many other Memorial members, when the First Chechen War started, he worked with the human rights observer mission to Chechnya, better known as the “Sergei Kovalyov group.”

He says the hostilities in Chechnya had many specific features, but mainly they differed little from any other military conflict: there was the same escalating spiral of violence and the growing zeal of the warring parties over time, and this substantially determined who was taken prisoner.
It was the summer of 1991. The Soviets were still in power but Chechnya had already announced it would secede from the RSFSR [Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic]. The Soviet Union would cease to exist in December 1991, and federal army divisions and Interior Ministry forces would leave the republic the next year. They left behind almost their entire arsenal of weapons, equipment and ammunition. Chechnya became de facto independent. Internal tensions eventually resulted in a clash between armed groups under Dzhokhar Dudayev and the opposition Provisional Council of the Chechen Republic. Moscow actively supported the latter, but the fighting was still considered an internal conflict. It reached its height in the unsuccessful assault of Grozny by a column of “opposition” tanks on 26 November 1994.

“That’s when the first prisoners appeared,” Cherkasov says. “They were dozens of Russian tank operators who had been recruited from the Moscow area garrisons of the Federal Counterintelligence Service. They were unmarked troops, who have become the norm in the past ten years [and whose presence could be denied]. From the very start it wasn’t the authorities or the military who worked on releasing the prisoners. Defence Minister Pavel Grachev even said that there were no Russian POWs in Chechnya. MPs from the democratic parties went to Grozny and brought back most of the troops whose presence there was denied. Then the war began. On 11 December, columns of Russian troops started moving towards Chechnya from three directions. The column moving from Dagestan was blocked by local residents near Khasavyurt and an entire platoon of Interior Ministry troops were captured. After the New Year’s assault of Grozny, the number of prisoners reached three figures.”

At first, they were kept in good conditions and the Chechen side handed them over without an exchange. Cherkasov explains that the Chechens tried to say they were observing the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. They hoped to thereby get Chechnya recognised as an entity under international law. But the federal authorities, on the contrary, tried to avoid this at all costs. They presented the hostilities not as a bilateral conflict, but solely as a domestic special operation to “disarm armed groups” and “restore constitutional order.” Given such a difference in approaches, there was no room for contacts on an official level. And so, it was most often human rights activists, journalists, individual MPs, and soldiers’ mothers who took up the role of negotiators and to whom the prisoners were handed over.

The prisoners themselves also sensed their vulnerability. Cherkasov tells the story of a senior warrant officer whose surname was Kerim-Zade. He was from the Maykop-based 131st Separate Motor Rifle Brigade, which was captured like many others in the wake of the New Year’s assault on Grozny.

“Going by a different surname, Mashchenko (apparently, he didn’t want to disclose his Kabardian roots), [Kerim-Zade] suggested writing an open anti-war letter to the Chechens from all the prisoners. It was a ruse, and, considering the circumstances, it was also a brave thing to do. It wasn’t so important what was in the letter itself. The important thing was that ‘Mashchenko’ got all of the more than 100 captured soldiers to sign it. Kovalyov took the letter to Moscow, where the press got their hands on it. The list of prisoners’ names was made public, and the authorities could no longer ignore the problem. We managed to get all of them home.”

The “unconditional release” ended very soon: Oleg Orlov and Sergei Sirotkin of the Kovalyov group brought the last six soldiers out on 26 January 1995. That same day, thirty-nine soldiers from the GRU’s 22nd Separate Special Forces Brigade who had been taken prisoner near the village of Komsomolskoye were exchanged for forty-seven residents of Chechnya who had been held at so-called filtration points. It was a turning point.

“Those handed over from the filtration points had been brutally beaten and were emaciated. That’s when the Chechens’ attitude towards prisoners radically changed. To put it mildly, it also became more difficult for human rights activists, journalists, and soldiers’ mothers to contact the Chechens. It only got worse from there,” says Cherkasov.
Photo: Dmitri Beliakov
April 9, 2024
Author: Nikolai Zhukov
This article has been published as part of 30 Years Before, a project by Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre. The views of its authors and editors do not necessarily reflect the views of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre, and vice versa.
Photo: Dmitri Beliakov
By May 1995, all of Chechnya’s lowlands were controlled by Russian forces and the hostilities moved to the mountains. Prisoners were increasingly becoming a burden for the retreating guerrillas, and several cases in which they shot prisoners are known. Officially, however, the successful “elimination of armed bandit groups” was only a matter of time. But against this backdrop, some separatist units moved almost entirely unhindered not only around Chechnya but also in neighbouring regions. For example, on 14 July 1995 a group of terrorists headed by Shamil Basayev entered the city of Budyonnovsk in the Stavropol Territory and took around 1,500 hostages in a district hospital.

Cherkasov explains that one of the conditions for releasing the hostages was that peace negotiations be conducted for Chechnya under the auspices of the OSCE. There, the issue of exchanging prisoners “all for all” became paramount. But it very soon became clear that no one knew who those “all” were.

“That’s where our databases came in handy. At the time, we — Memorial and the Kovalyov group — gathered information not only about imprisoned soldiers but also about missing Chechen residents. The main difficulty was the confusion: there were many different prisoner lists circulating at the time and dead people were often listed as missing persons. It was also a problem that the federal lists of the deceased were split between two agencies, the Defence Ministry and the Interior Ministry. And if the Interior Ministry published its information practically online, the Defence Ministry on the contrary kept its information secret,” says Cherkasov.

Cherkasov explains that the human rights activists’ lists were always more complete and accurate. The Russian government sent special envoys to Chechnya, who would be in country for a couple of months. Unable to make sense of the chaotic array of documents, they would drop everything and hand things over to their replacements when it was time for them to leave. But the human rights activists had people who were involved, people who lived it, making the lists. It was they who also worked closely with the people in Grozny who generated the lists of missing local residents.

“Ultimately, we put all of this together in a single database. By some miracle we managed to find a working laser printer in Grozny. There was a problem with paper, which was doled out sparingly. So, we printed the lists in an impossibly small font. But it was still a hefty stack [of paper],” recalls Cherkasov.

Lists were delivered to three parties: the Chechens, the Russian authorities, and a representative of the OSCE assistance group. But the papers were just part of the affair.

The OSCE-led negotiations culminated in the creation of a Special Monitoring Commission headed by Aslan Maskhadov. The [Russian] government was represented by Lieutenant General Anatoly Romanov. Maskhadov ordered that ‘all’ the prisoners be rounded up for a subsequent exchange. But in the end, only seventeen could be found. The field commanders refused to hand over more, saying that they would need them themselves. In the village of Chiri-Yurt, they were held in relatively good conditions in a kindergarten.

“Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1995, [Chechen President] Dzhokhar Dudayev, in an effort to put an end to any separate hostage exchange negotiations by field commanders, ordered that all of the prisoners be gathered in one place. He intended to improve the situation, of course. They began to concentrate all of the captives at the pretrial detention facility of the Chechen State Security Department (DGB) in Stary Achkhoy, in a kind of field concentration camp. And that’s where the hell began,” recalls Cherkasov.

In December, the servicemen in the camp were joined by numerous civilian hostages, whom the separatists for some reason suspected of being FSB agents. They included construction workers from neighbouring regions who had been sent to Chechnya to rebuild infrastructure, power grid engineers, and even priests. Many readers will recall the tragic story of Father Anatoly (Chistousov), rector of the Church of the Archangel Michael in Grozny and Father Sergiy (Zhigulin, later Archpriest Filipp). They were traveling to Urus-Martan to negotiate the release of two captured soldiers, Andriyenko and Sorokin, when they themselves were captured and placed in the DGB pretrial detention facility.

“They shot Father Anatoly there when he came to the defence of a captured solider,” Cherkasov says. “They were buried in the same grave. Father Sergiy was released in early July 1996 in exchange for Alla Dudayeva, who was by then already the widow of the president of Chechnya.”

According to Cherkasov, more than 250 people were held at the DGB detention facility. At least fifty-five of them were killed. All of the seventeen soldiers held in Chiri-Yurt were successfully released.
Photo: Dmitri Beliakov
Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed in the spring of 1996. Mop-up operations were in full swing in Western Chechnya. Federal forces finally took control of the villages of Orekhovo, Stary Achkhoy and Bamut. But those military successes were not “enough” for the moment: Russia’s presidential elections were approaching. In this situation, a truce was again called, and negotiations began. Hostages were gradually released from the DGB detention facility. But there were still many prisoners in the mountains.

“It was around that time that a federal delegation attending negotiations requested information about some Chechens who had been apprehended. Could they be sitting in Russian jails? The Interior Ministry’s main information centre responded by saying, ‘No,’ ‘no,’ and ‘no.’ But it eventually provided a list of all Chechen natives who were held in Russia’s prisons and camps. And that was a terrible managerial decision,” says Cherkasov.

This list, of course, fell into the Chechen side’s hands and, from there, to anyone who wanted it. There was only one way to interpret such a leak: the Russian authorities were prepared to exchange prisoners for criminals. Cherkasov explains that there wasn’t a single captured fighter in the prisons at the time. They were either at the filtration points or already in the ground.

The Khasavyurt Accord was signed on 31 August 1996. The end of hostilities was declared, and federal forces began to withdraw from Chechnya. But this event did not have much of an effect on the prisoner situation, because they started to be traded back in the autumn, after the list was leaked. There had been individual cases of this earlier, but now the phenomenon was becoming widespread. Here is how it worked: first, the relatives of convicted criminals would purchase prisoners from field commanders. Then there was a real manhunt: hostages would be taken, including journalists, who could fetch a good ransom.

“Throughout the autumn,” recalls Cherkasov, “when things slowly but inexorably progressed to large-scale human trafficking, it was still possible to take advantage of the closing window of opportunity to release prisoners. But the political will to do that was lacking. Colonel Vyacheslav Pilipenko, who had previously gained the release of soldiers from the DGB detention facility, put it very emotionally at the time: ‘Some guy named Shamil from the village of Aslanbek-Sheripovo has prisoners and he is demanding a Ural [make] truck for them. But they won’t give me this truck! How am I supposed to get the boys out?’”

Sometimes there were “targeted” captures “for exchange.” The story of Artur Denisultanov, nicknamed Dingo, who in the ensuing decades would become known as a hitman in Vienna and Kyiv, is illustrative. Cherkasov says that he was a prominent figure in 1990s gangland Petersburg. One day, Dingo decided to kidnap the director of a meat processing plant for ransom. But something went wrong, and it was the director’s driver who was kidnapped. Of course, the driver’s wife did not have the amount demanded and she went to the police. The kidnappers were detained. But Denisultanov did not stay in prison for long: a border troops soldier was kidnapped in Ingushetia, and the two were exchanged.

Thus, in the period between the First and Second Chechen wars, human trafficking was on the rise in Chechnya, becoming almost commonplace. It was almost impossible to make money legally in the republic, which was essentially independent but hopelessly impoverished. And this was easy money. Now it was no longer a matter of holding prisoners of war, but of taking new hostages for whom ransom was demanded. Soldiers and officers were not the choicest targets in this case. Journalists and foreigners were in particularly high demand. They could fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars, occasionally up to a million.

However, according to Memorial, 1,231 servicemen were listed as prisoners, missing in action, or absent without leave as of the autumn of 1996. Human rights activists and journalists would spend many years searching for them and obtaining their release.
“Do Russians really not leave their own behind? This could be said, in part, of the military intelligence special forces. At least in 1995, the 22nd Separate Special Forces Brigade did everything possible to get their forty some prisoners released. In January, when they were captured, they managed to get all but one of the fighters out: Stanislav Dmitrichenko. He was released on 7 April in exchange for fifteen detainees, including Dzhokhar Dudayev’s brother. The Marines are also noteworthy: only one Marine died in captivity in the course of the hostilities. But this was more likely the exception to the rule. As for the others, ‘we don’t abandon our own’ were empty words,” argues Cherkasov.

And the prisoners were not greeted as heroes upon their release. Cherkasov says that sometimes they were accused of losing their weapons and desertion. Occasionally, things even went as far as actual criminal charges, but everything was mainly hushed up. “By the end of the first war, about half of the prisoners and missing were listed as being AWOL. This wording was very convenient for the commanders. They thus absolved themselves of the lion’s share of the responsibility.”

Only some officers who had their own motivation tried to solve the prisoner problem for the state. Major Vyacheslav “Slava” Izmailov was one of those people. Cherkasov describes him as a person of astonishing energy who did everything possible and impossible to bring soldiers home.

“I met Slava in Khankala, at the Search Group. The Group was then headed by two colonels. They were good people doing their level best, not for the sake of their careers but at a slower clock speed. I remember Izmailov coming in to see them and saying, ‘I obtained the release of two prisoners from Bamut today. I need to take them to Moscow tomorrow.’ It was Andriyenko and Sorokin, the same men whom the priests Chistousov and Zhigulin had tried to get out. ‘But Slava,’ the colonels replied, drawing out their words, ‘you yourself understand that the FSB still needs to question them.’ It ended with Izmailov leaning on the colonels, then the colonels leaned on the FSB. The soldiers were questioned hurriedly in the night, and the next morning they found themselves in Moscow after ten months of harrowing captivity. How did Slava manage it? Olga Trusevich and I had travel documents from the Search Group. Olga was my colleague and the driving force behind our work on prisoners. The only time the authorities did anything for us was when, one time, they sent a flight pass supposedly for a soldier’s mother and the soldier she was taking out. Slava managed to ‘find’ room on the plane for seven more people using that piece of paper.”

Before the start of the Chechen conflict, Izmailov worked at a military conscription office in the Moscow suburb of Zhukovsky. He had gone through the war in Afghanistan and had also served in Germany. When the first war [in Chechnya] started, he could not continue serving where he was. “I understood that, from being a Soviet and Russian major, I was turning into a criminal. I would tear boys away from their mothers and send them off to the army. From there they would be sent to the war in Chechnya and back to their mothers in zinc coffins,’ Izmailov writes in his autobiography, entitled War and War. That was when he himself went to Chechnya as an administrative officer in the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade. He did not go there to fight, but to “teach our soldiers and officers to respect the republic’s residents and thereby preserve both their own and other people’s lives.”

When you read his memoirs, you realise that total chaos reigned in Chechnya in those years: maniacal cruelty, a yearning for easy money, impunity and lies made themselves felt on both sides, eroding everything that was human in people. “I defined my place in that chaos as follows: to drag people from both sides out of captivity, to drag out everyone who ended up in that cauldron against their own will, and to keep on dragging them out until the leaders from both sides settled down,” writes Izmailov.

Izmailov became a recognisable figure thanks to his appearances on the Russian television program Vzglyad. This greatly reduced the risk of his “disappearing without a trace” in Chechnya. It also gave him credibility, including among the guerrillas. He would go to negotiate with them to get prisoners and the bodies of the dead handed over. He helped local residents search for missing persons. He transported the wounded and dead from the battlefield, and fought against looting in his own division. Once, he even pulled drunken guerrilla leaders out of a cellar where their own subordinates had imprisoned them.

The army did not appreciate his efforts, to put it mildly. When Major Izmailov was first transferred from Chechnya, to a unit as far away as possible (in the Moscow Region), and was then discharged, he continued to travel to the republic as a journalist for Novaya Gazeta, focusing on liberating mostly civilian hostages. A total of 174 people were released thanks to his persistence and talent as a negotiator.
Photo: Dmitri Beliakov
Photo: Dmitri Beliakov
In the mid-1990s, Chechnya was the epicentre of an ongoing war without a front line. The only laws that functioned there were the laws of physics. But even in that chaos there was a chance of finding missing people if you tried hard enough, though it was much easier to disappear yourself. Those who were involved in the search effort did so hoping to find people while constantly thinking about the possibility of disappearing themselves.

Alexander Cherkasov spent a total of “many weeks or a few months” in Chechnya. Each trip involved tedious checking of lists, meetings with witnesses, and travel to different places hoping to find the person you were looking for. Help came in the form of interviews with those who had been freed and information from soldiers’ parents and local residents who were also looking for prisoners in order to exchange them for their missing relatives. One could move around the republic quite freely. But that did not mean it was safe: both sides were quite suspicious of civilians, especially those from out of town.

“Between the summer of 1995 and the spring of 1996, we spent a lot of time in the village of Chiri-Yurt, where the Chechens were holding prisoners. You’re always in plain sight there. People look at you, evaluate you and are constantly checking who you are. It seems really strange and suspicious that some civilian is taking care of soldiers. But we were very lucky that we had hospitable hosts. And those prisoners were lucky,” he recounts.

But in other places, some people didn’t pass the test. Many people I knew disappeared. They stayed there forever. Probably, it was simple with me, with us. I did my thing and tried not to display any rash courage, meaning stupidity.

When Chechnya’s chief jailer, Usman Firzauli, who was head of Ichkeria’s Department of Corrections, said after our second meeting in Bamut, ‘If I see you here again, you’ll come down into my cellar,’ I didn’t go there a third time. I could also understand Usman: ‘It was his job.’

Vladimir Shamanov’s paratroopers would also detain Olga Trusevich and me. But they would also let us go. In any case, my story is the story of a lucky person, ‘survival bias.’ But many weren’t lucky.

“One time in Grozny the DGB’s Special Branch detained me and my colleagues Oleg Orlov** and Andrei Mironov. We were locked in a former nursing home pending an investigation. That’s when the shelling started. Oleg counted the shells: several dozens of them came from Khankala. Andrei lectured us on what to do under fire. Some windows were shattered but the building itself was intact. The guards had scattered. We walked out and saw that the landscape had changed a little. The private sector had been blown up. Something was burning somewhere, and we found the Special Branch guys hiding in a cellar. They probably realised that we likely were not anyone’s agents and issued us documents we could use to move freely around the city. Grozny was in total chaos at the time. The city was in disarray: the feds were in some parts, while the guerrillas were in others. They were constantly shooting at each other. But we had documents that allowed us to work undisturbed for several days. Although not really: the shelling escalated.”

The soldiers’ parents had a lot less experience living and working in such conditions. But they had more determination, which was born primarily from despair. They travelled from all over the country with the understanding that only they themselves were interested in their sons’ fates. They travelled through the mountain villages, coming under fire from both sides. Sometimes they even fell under their influence: both the Russian security services and the DGB tried to use the prisoners’ mothers as their agents. In some places they were even allowed to live near the prisoners. This played a very positive role: it made it harder to mistreat the captured soldiers.

They also lived in Chiri-Yurt, awaiting an exchange. But mainly they were based where the Russian forces were based, in Khankala. At first, they would stay wherever they could: in tents and ruined residential buildings. Some were even taken in by local residents. In January 1996, they were allocated one of the barracks and, by autumn, more than two hundred parents (mostly mothers) of servicemen who were missing in action were living there. When the Russian forces withdrew from Chechnya in December 1996, they wound up on the streets again.

Izmailov recalls that Adam Imadayev, an advisor to the governor of the Maritime Territory (Primorsky Krai), was able to shelter the remaining mothers in Grozny. To do this, he purchased a house on purpose and hired guerrillas as guards. Imadayev was himself kidnapped a year and a half later, and the unpaid guards ran off. The mothers had to look for new housing. Employees of the Russian mission in Chechnya rented a house on Mayakovsky Street for them. But that did not last long either. Soon the mission employee in charge of the house was kidnapped. He had asthma and suffocated in the boot of the Zhiguli sedan into which he had been stuffed. The women were taken hostage and were not released until six months later, after the Second Chechen War started.
The Second Chechen War, officially known as the “counterterrorism operation,” started in 1999 and was totally different. There were almost no prisoners of war. In fact, the number of prisoners of war had dropped sharply during the first campaign, starting in August 1996 when the separatists stormed Grozny again. Maskhadov, who was in charge of the operation, had issued an instruction to treat prisoners humanely. Predictably, the response to this was the opposite: the guerrillas preferred simply not to take prisoners. The growing bitterness of the warring parties was also a factor. The trend only got worse during the second war.

Speaking about prisoners of the Second Chechen War, Cherkasov recalls the soldiers from the Perm riot police who were captured in the spring of 2000 in the Vedensky District. All of them were executed.

Only a few survived in captivity.

“For example, GRU special forces officer Alexei Galkin, who had been captured early in the second war in northern Chechnya,” recounts Cherkasov. “He was employed as a witness, testifying that the FSB had bombed the residential buildings in Moscow, after [the Chechens] had tortured and starved him for a long time. When they finally forced him to memorise the testimony they needed, they fed him, sprinkled his head with cologne so he didn’t stink so much, and took him to the journalists, to whom he told ‘the whole truth.’ State security is the same everywhere. Then, when they withdrew from Grozny, the guerrillas took him with them into the mountains. On 29 February he was in the vicinity of Hill 776, where a company of paratroopers based in Pskov had come under friendly artillery fire. Galkin and another captive officer, Vladimir Pakhomov, were led along a mountain trail littered with the bodies of the dead. At some point they managed to break away from the pack of militants and ultimately reached their own troops. Galkin was later the prototype for the main character in the action film Service Number, which was such a piece of science fiction. But it was also a miracle that he survived. However, prisoners were no longer a major phenomenon in the second war.”
It is difficult to say precisely how many prisoners of war were freed over the entire Chechen conflict. Cherkasov says it was many hundreds. But he emphasises other numbers. According to Memorial, about 1,200 security forces and 1,300 local residents went missing during the first war. Between three and five thousand civilians disappeared without a trace during the second war. The General Lebed Peacekeeping Mission cites similar figures: a total of 7,000 people during the two wars throughout the North Caucasus.

This means thousands of people who are still lying in unmarked graves. Finding them, identifying them and burying them with dignity should be the most important task of a state that honours the memory of the victims of those terrible events. But that task has yet to be completed and, apparently, it will not be completed in the near future.

* Declared a “foreign agent” and dissolved by the Russian authorities.

** Declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian authorities.

*** The editors’ opinions and those of Memorial Human Rights Defence Centre may differ.
Photo: Alexander Nemenov
Photo: Alexander Nemenov