Some little tinny things may create great moments
January 1995 – January 2015: 20 years from the invasion of the Russian troops to Grozny.
Tea with a hint of diesel
Sometimes, it seems the outcome of our life is god’s exams: You passed- heaven, you failed- hell! Some people need extra life time to prove their importance and usefulness in this world, others are discharged early. This is the only excuse we find for the “early discharge” for the death of those close to us. They are left in our memory, clean, bright, loved, adored. Remembering them, we make a correction in our own consciousness, abstract ourselves from reality, and step into the future. If this step resonates in someone’s memory, then we are on the way to heaven and aren’t just wasting oxygen. Of course, we live for love, love for ourselves and those close to us. Memory – that is the metric of love. It is important to try not to turn this higher emotion into just pleasant feelings. My memory has it’s limits; with time all my experiences are replaced with observation and emotion, positive or negative. If only referring to personal memories, then maybe this is for the best – you’ve drawn your conclusions? Good, keep going! However, the bright memory of those close to us needs to be treated with more respect.
My story is similar to hundreds, thousands of others’ tales of war. Memories of that period of life constantly plague the mind, forcing one to relive everything, often being the cause of lost sleep. There is a strong want to understand the bigger picture of the events: what was really happening there, to hear the stories of others that were there, those who I know well, and those who I didn’t get to know personally.
My memories concern the fates of many interesting and fantastic people, who we won’t ever see again. Let’s give them their due – remember now, those who never returned from battle – ETERNAL MEMORY TO THEM! And to those of you, currently in alive – good health and long years to you! I only regret one thing – I should have started writing earlier – my memory isn’t that great anymore! Many [first] names and [last] names I’ve forgotten, some things I may misremember chronologically. I’ll be glad if you can correct me!
Thanks to Konstantin Yauk (botter) for the impulse [?] and his great effort.
Part 1. THE BEGINNING
Dec 9, 1994. People celebrate/meet their 20th [birthday] differently – mine happened to be in the army! Fate brought a surprise for me and my brother. Today he turned 19, here he is the “permanently on company duty[any form of work detail]”, hurries with good news.
“Bocha [short for the writer’s last name of ‘Bochkarev’], you’ve got a letter!”
“From whom this time?”
It’s not like our parents “tried”, but our birthdays did end up on the same day. Even though we didn’t always manage to celebrate them at home with family, and even though presents were identical, we always celebrated this day together happily, and it was always fun! Difference of 1 year? It’s all relative – whoever is older isn’t always stronger or smarter. That’s not even important, what’s important is that we need each other, especially here, in the army!
“Well Bocha, what’re they writing about?”
“Mom says congrats. She’s sorry we couldn’t make it, everyone was hoping we would. Who would’ve guessed?!”
“I got a letter too, and a package notification, wanna come to the post office with me?”
“When do you wanna go? Who’s the package from?”
“From grandma probably – pine nuts! Let’s go in an hour, when it gets dark. Gotta get it before 6.”
“Is it far? We gotta run to town?”
“Nah, here. Post is on the territory of the military unit.”
“Alright, we’ll go! Hey, maybe we should ask the company commander for R&R tomorrow? Remember, he promised, and I mean it’s not like there’s anything to do, is there? Company has the weekend off. We’ll do it after morning formation.”
“Think we can go to Magnitka?[Magnitogorsk]”
“Why not?! From Chebar[Chebarkul] it’s only 200-250km. Two hours hitchiking, or maybe there’s a bus?”
“I’ll ask a buddy ensign, he’s gone there before. Anyway, gotta go, lots of officers in the company today and the commander is here.”
“I’ll come by in an hour…”
Duties [detail/postings/assignments] in the company are literally posted to each individual, there aren’t very many people, with little exception you get 3-4 days off, if you don’t screw up you can a few days off base. Unfortunately my bro had a knack for picking up duties, either he’d leave his belt loose, or leaves a shirt button undone. This isn’t boot camp, no grandad [DI/drill sergeant/NCO] to slap you on the forehead. In the company it’s just familiar conscripts, but he had to stand out! The only enemy of this behavior was the company commander
“Kleschyov![Brother’s last name] Fix your belt!”
“I fixed it!”
“Extra duty/detail.” The captain would say calmly.
“2 extra duty/details” He would repeat as calmly as the first time.
“Affirmative!” bro would suddenly be at attention, “two details!”
That’s how it generally went down. (I was left with plenty of genuinely pleasant memories of the captain, even though we had to run a few kilometers each morning in uniform #2 [full dress], and douse ourselves with cold water afterwards.)
But here’s our Bday, and we really want to go home, so we were on our best behavior, I could taste leave. But no – DIDN’T HAPPEN! The only thing that could be considered a present was choice of which detail to do: Command HQ or Chow hall, I preferred the second, and nabbed the first from bro.
Towards the evening Dan came to visit me at the chow hall:
“Bocha, wanna hear something good?”
“With another letter or postcard?”
“You’ll never guess! Some shit’s going down, long story short we’ve been reassigned to a different company!”
“WHAT?!!! Which company?”
“Some company. We all got transferred to a different barracks, and they sent me to tell everyone on duty to come to that barracks once they’re done.”
“Are we grabbing our junk from the old one?”
“Everything’s already moved. They just grabbed all the rucks, swapped out underwear and portyanki [Used instead of socks in the RKKA], and brought them over”
“Holy crap, what’s going on?”
“Don’t worry, I grabbed your gillete, toiletries and journal. Good thing I’m ‘On company duty'”
“What about the coat?”
“I told you, they’re giving out new overcoats. C’mon, lets go get the package from post.”
That day in my army papers I got two new entries: 1st. “Exclusion from armed unit #89547 – order #254 from Dec. 9, 1994”, and the 2nd “Inclusion in armed unit #29706 order #169 from Dec 9, 1994” In a week I’ll be part of armed unit #69771.
Dec 17, 1994
Saturday. Evening. Parents came down to visit. It’s like they felt something. We’re all living in the military town right now, in the apartment of one of parents’ acquaintances – a senior ensign in reserve. Grandma and both moms are in the kitchen, bother and I – in the bathroom. We’re just silent, no thoughts to speak about anyway. We’ve been in the new company a week now. We managed to take a trip to Ekaterinburg, where they gave us BMP-2 gunners a crash course on operation of the gunner position in the BMP-1. We showed good results, as this wasn’t a big change for us. The armament on the “1” is simpler than on the “2”. All week we don’t leave the field, we come back in the late evening with the song “The sun rises in the blue latitudes…”. We trudge to the chow hall, then crawl to the barracks after midnight, and fall into bed. But first, evening formation! And this isn’t the first time a few people are missing. Officers don’t have the right to keep soldiers whose parents have come to visit, and the adult children go to be with their loving mothers. To the fact that their leave is almost over and the soldiers are still no where in sight, the officers react calmly. Maybe they’re too worried about other things? Not many people discuss what’s going on in that Chechnya, but none of the officers tell us that that’s where we’re headed. But they unanimously tell us that we’ll be taking part in grandiose command exercises, and will possibly be on TV – that’s a life event!
But mothers’ hearts don’t believe it! They’ve already run around a hundred places, and found the “lesser of two evils”. They just need our agreement now…
And that’s what we’re discussing in this bathroom.
“Why so quiet?”
“Same as you..?”
“I dun’t know… you afraid of an operation?”
“No! What’s there to be afraid of? They just make a small cut and sew it up. A month, maybe more in bed!”
“Are you afraid?”
“No, that’s not the point…”
“I don’t know…”
“Well neither do I.”
“Do you think they’ll actually send us to war?”
“Sure, it’s a possibility.”
“Well, let’s suppose, we go to war. Are you afraid?”
“Of course I’m afraid! You know, that’s not the point here either. What if something happens to one of us?”
“Fucked. What the hell are we going to tell our moms?! And we’ll probably never forgive ourselves!”
“Yeah. If I was by myself it would be easier!”
“Oh, you’re a hero… If I was by myself I probably wouldn’t have trouble deciding either!”
“I feel sorry for mom! You saw her hands shaking…”
“I’ve never seen that… is that from nerves?”
“Well what else?”
“I’m sorry for our moms too!”
“Well Bocha? What’re we gonna do?”
“I don’t know! Listen, I was thinking about something else, when we came to Elan [military education unit] from Magnitogorsk, there were 14 of us, and we all promised we’d stay together. And look, one turned into a douchbag in a week, another – an even bigger douchbag! (How lowly of a douchbag someone can become, I won’t write about here, but this was an important fact for my brother and I, not to mention that it’s not the douchbags keeping the army alive.) And that means, our guys are going to go to war, and we’re going to stay here like cowards?!”
“Imagine if they come back heroes… and start walking around with medals! Nooooo. It’s better to stay in the battalion… Well, they’ll take us where they take us. Maybe they won’t even send us anywhere!”
“Our dads would go, that’s what I think! Your dad served, mine – served, uncle served! They didn’t have options like this!”
“And we’re not worse than them. Staying?”
“You mean, in the battalion?”
“I just can’t imagine what moms’ reactions are going to be in a minute…”
Afterwards there were tears, moms’ wails, pleas – no point writing about them, it’s difficult! The next day, with the promise “I WILL DEFINITELY COME HOME”, I put mom and grandma on the train and returned to brother. His mother (my aunt, the respectable Lidiya Innokentyeva [this is not her last name, it is her patronymic name. More on Russian naming here]) left the next day. In the battalion, people gave us odd looks, seemingly asking “you’re still here?!”
Dec 23, 1994
On this day, our motorized infantry battalion left from it’s home base. First the armored column left to Bishkil station, where the armor was fueled up, and the mechanics along with the zampoteh [Crew chief/quartermaster… I’m not sure how this would translate to english. Literally “substitute of the battalion commander on matters of armament”] started loading the armor onto the rail platforms. In the process of all this, etched into everyone’s memory became one slightly drunk lieutenant colonel, he investigated everything and everyone, woke up a snoozing driver, checked a passing infantryman to make sure he had his weapon (back then it we weren’t used to constantly having our weapon on us), demanded formal “at attention” reports to the challenge “What is your name?”, and just generally terrorized sleepy soldiers. Not only that, but in response he always came back with the informal “And I’m Sergei!”
Next morning the whole 1st battalion of the 276th motorized infantry stood in formation in front of the rail echelon, and that same ltCol declared that we were going to war. And that’s how we, with no feigned sympathy, were introduced to the assistant company commander – Sergei Smolkin.
Dec 27, 1994
The company arrived at Mozdok. Not everyone made it there, some people deserted the echelon. God can judge them! Brother and I stayed. The company set up on the military airport. Until the 30th [of December] we were busy with battle preparations, checking equipment and ammo for ourselves and our vehicles. A few times we went out to improvised field courses to throw live grenades. 2nd battalion got their call signs: Commander of the battalion, Captain I. Cherentaev – “Volhov”, squad commanders – “Volhov-1,2,3”. There was confusion in the numbering of the call signs, for example, the call sign of the 2nd vehicle of the 2nd squad (BMP-1 #325) was “Volhov-2-2”, but the commander of BMP-1 #322 would answer to the same call sign.
I remember the following from the call signs of the 276th motorized infantry I remember the following: “Factory” – battalion commander Col. Bunin, “Word” – assistant to the battalion commander LtCol Smolkin, “Trinket” – 1st batallion commander Captain Lysenko, “Pepper” – Head of battalion command Captain Agafonov, “Letter” – 1st company commander Captain Koshelev, “Vympel” – 3rd company commander, “Ural” – the battalion grenadier or mortar squad.
Part 2. SADOVOE
Dec 30, 1994
Early in the morning the 276th started moving from Mozlok to Grozny. Crews were in “battle” configuration, guns in a “pine tree” spread [even vehicles – left, odd – right]. To be honest, sitting around staring into the optics got boring, and the desire for fresh air beat out the element of danger. When the column passed through populated areas, we watched fine, pretty houses with ornate red brick patterns pass by. I felt like a guy in dirty boots that walked into the king’s chambers. This is likely why the local populace looked so irritated as they waved at us as we passed with picket boards, fists and sometimes rocks. But there were those that that blessed each passing vehicle with tears in their eyes! The column spread out for the march. During short stops the driver-mechanics [official term for armor drivers. They are both the driver and the lead mechanic for their vehicle] would doze off, causing the column to get choppy. They had to catch back up to the next vehicle. Other times pulled off the road to go around civilian traffic through the field. Towards the evening the company set up at the [north] base of the Tersk ridge.
Dec 31, 1994
Early morning! It’s snowing, the company slowly started passing the Tersk ridge. Constant uphill, so we’re never getting out of 1st or 2nd. Not every driver has the experience to go up steep areas, often we’re towing wheeled vehicles. Finally, downhill. Completely by accident I notice an orange wildcat in my optics. I think “things aren’t so bad”. Poked out the hatch and gestured my discovery to my brother, whose BMP (BMP-1 #329) is following mine. He smiled. After the downhill the company commander gets our assignment – set up our vehicles in the field near the suburb of Sadovoe. A few vehicles leave to organize a block post in the area of the bridge across the Neftyanka. We set the vehicles up in a column with 50-100 meters in between, sitting in battle configuration, watching the suburb. We get a command via radio – all descent [pronounced deasaant, mounted infantry, the guys you usually see sitting on top of the armor.] are to dig in in front of the armor. In some time the tense situation peaked in an unpleasant way – some vehicles from the 1st company took fire on the other side of the bridge in Sadovoe. From our position we could clearly see these BMPS through our optics. It seemed that they were just moving around within a small circle – driving through the field one way, then another, shooting in random directions. We couldn’t see the enmy, but, judging by the radio chatter, it was just hell over there. A few vehicles were destroyed by RPGs, the ammo started bursting in one of the BMPs. Shortly we were watching the vehicle burn. Who they were fighting over there, for us was a huge mystery! Fear slowly crept under the skin, but with it came an irresistible want to shoot at anything living in advance. We were waiting for the command to go to their aid, and were sure that it was about to come at any moment.
And this was exactly what happened. The 2nd squad of the 1st company and a few other regimental vehicles moved out, including LtCol S. Smolkin’s BTR-80. Finally, our company captain I. Cherentaev received the command to move out and assist 1st company, but via a different route – we were to flank the fighters from the rear. The column was bolstered by a few tanks from the tank battalion. We advanced. Drove a few hundred meters and suddenly the lead tank, followed by BMP-1 #328 went nose first into a huge trench 3 meters wide by 2 meters deep, so that you could see the underside of the armor. The crews were concussed and sustained minor injuries, including the commander of one of the squads of our company. The vehicles were towed out, the injured were sent to the field hospital, but the trench still needed to be crossed. There was the option to follow the trench upwards towards the Tersk ridge, where it started, and keep moving adjacent to the canal (The trench started by the base of the Tersk ridge and connected to the Alhanchurtovsk canal. Option 1 was to advance to the “Northern” airport, move south from there, and via the Starpromislovsk highway move into the 1st company’s AO. Option 2 – assignment given to the 2nd company to advance into the “Northern” [airfield] region as part of the northern battlegroup.) There was no time for this though, company commander captain Cherentaev though of something else:
“Attention all vehicles, this is ‘Volhov’!” – Came through the radio
“Listen to my order: Follow my lead! All [driver] mechanics – accelerate to 4th gear! All gunners – brace arms on optics! All crews – brace and hold on! Forward, forward!”
Everyone got it – the big venture was going to be successful, there’s no reason to not trust the commander! The column, after making a small loop, jumped the obstacle. The three meter flight ended in a soft landing. Adrenaline filled the veins and the fear vanished! The armor group advanced in the direction of “Northern” [airfield] at high RPMs. Didn’t get to the objective in time: someone radioed to report casualties to the commander, and they weren’t few: 22 “two-hundreds” [dead], including commander’s assistant 1st battalion major O. Borodaj, 1st squad commander A. Ivanov, and many “three-hundreds” [wounded]. For 1st company, which was at 60-70% staff, this was extremely high.
I poked out of the turret and looked at my brother’s vehicle to the rear. He was also seated in march configuration [out of the hatch] and was pointing to his headset, gesturing “Did you hear that?”. I nodded silently – “Yeah.” His next gesture I interpreted as “That’s fucked!”
We returned to our morning position. I felt like someone was dragging nails on a chalkboard, visuals kept floating up in my memory. Major Borodaj had quickly become a personnel favorite during the few days of our stay in Chebarkule as both a commander and good person.
ETERNAL MEMORY TO THE DEAD!
The second day of our stay in Chechnya was coming to a close. Vehicles had set up in battle formation in front of Sadovoe. The whole surrounding area was draped in such heavy fog that you had to walk fifteen minutes, blind, to the neighboring BMP just 100m away. Killing time, two of our crew (mine and my brother’s) brewed tea with biscuits. The now-hoarse voice on the radio kept asking about the column of “two-hundreds” and “three-hundreds” that left to Mozdok. The answer followed, but from an unknown [OPFOR] fighter, who seemed to be trying to convince the battalion commander that he, the fighter, is the column leader, that the column was destroyed and everyone dead. The trick didn’t work – commander assaulted the fighter with three regiments of swearing and went radio silent. Our crew met the new year twice that night. Once on Ural time, and once on Moskow time. Clinked hot tea that had a hint of diesel, and with the hope of tomorrow taking revenge for the fallen, wandered back to our vehicles.
Part 3. GROZNY
Jan 1, 1995
We didn’t have to wait long: just in the 5th hour of night a few vehicles of our company were sent to support the forming column (these were BMP-1 with the numbers 320, 321, 322, 325, and likely 327. Gunner of BMP-1 #325 Yuri Nikitin remembers that the call sign of his commander was “Volhov-2-2”. After the vehicles returned to the company I didn’t see any with that number.) The crew of Dan [Denis Kleschev – the cousin, who the author refers to as “brother”] wasn’t with us, which made me happy, and at the same time nervous. The expectation that we were to storm Sadovoe, where recently 1st company had engaged hostiles, didn’t come to fruition. The column was readying to enter Grozny. A few hours went to preparations: checked the ammo, fueled up the BMPs and wheeled vehicles, got rid of everything extra (camo nets, tents, etc.) and formed up. Before we advanced, command informed us of the objective: Delive ammunition, and provisions to our troops at the railroad station, extract their casualties. We got a short sitrep of the city, a few encouraging words, and the command “To vehicles!”
We advanced through “Northern” [airport]. Descent [mobile infantry] were given the order to ride in march configuration, and be on full alert. The crews were ordered to be in battle configuration [buttoned down]. We were in the lead armor group (a few tanks, BMPs of our company, possibly a Shilka [ZSU-23]) The column was so large that I couldn’t see the last vehicles. Around 1000 hours we reached the outskirts of Grozny. The city itself already looked pretty beat up: some houses had broken windows, walls chipped from bullet impacts, and a few places even had holes from shells. Other than army tech and soldiers of the Russian Army there were no people on the streets.
When we passed some bridge, the column stopped, the lead vehicle radioed that the road ahead is impassible – to many knocked out vehicles were blocking it. Shortly we turned right and advanced towards the rail yard through the private sector. We come out on to the square in front of the rail station from the direction of Popovich street. The tanks (T-72B #416,417,418, 439, call sign “Rampa”) and the commander’s vehicle moved a bit ahead and were engaged in battle, we were left in the square, to keep watch and lay down fire to the sides. My BMP was positioned on the intersection of Ordzhonikidze Prospekt, and Popovich street. To the right there was a construction site, encircled in a cement fence, at 12 o’clock the railway station, the square – littered jammed up with vehicles, and on the far end a 5 story residential building with a destroyed front. To the left – a tall 12 story building, Ordzhonekidze prospect, lined with damaged tech [vehicles/armor] and a block of 5 story residentials. To the rear was Popovich street, along which our armor column had stretched out, but I couldn’t see them. We stood there and fired, seemingly with no return fire. “Romashka”[Commander of our BMP sergeant Alexander Romanov or Rmoashov, nickname “Chamomile”] even got bored – he was tired of sitting on coms and staring into the optics. Together with the only infantryman in our crew – support gunner Rafik Dovletbai they went to our neighboring crews to find out how things are going. When Romashka returned, they told me and Yurik [Mechanic-driver of BMP-1 #3-2-2 Yuri Kirilov, later he would get the nickname “People”] disconcerting news – a soldier was heavily wounded in the head, and had been taken to the medic. I uncomprehending: “How could this happen? We don’t see anyone! Where are these ‘spirits’?”. I’d stared my eyes out into the optics already, and didn’t see anyone! The difference between here and field exercise became apparent: putting down pop-up targets on the range, training speed, accuracy, and consistency – isn’t as important as being able to determine likely enemy firing positions.
Not even a few minutes had passed since the tankers that moved ahead had left, and they were already in battle. From their radio transmissions it was apparent that they were maneuvering, covering each other, “putting down” hostiles with RPGs. From the confusion of the situation and lack of targets, things were getting more tense. We wanted to finally get a concise order, see these guerrillas and shoot, shoot, shoot them. Finally, on coms we got info that an RPG had taken up position on the 7th (or 5th) floor of the 12 story building – so then I tried to, like in training, fill the whole floor, one HE round into each window. Now, for at least a few minutes, all of us gunners had a job to do: Someone called in a target, and we laid down fire in that direction. Everything was ok, but suddenly, shaking the armor and blowing open my hatch, “lightning” hit. The compression blast compressed my rib cage for an instant, and my heart dropped into my heels, I just barely had time to cover my face with my gloves. When everything calmed down, I looked around – “What WAS that? An RPG hit? But then the vehicle would be a ‘rose'[blown open], or everything inside would be on fire, and I wouldn’t be here thinking about it!”. I see Yurik is also completely fine, he rolled up his coat collar. Checked the optics, turned the turret left, right – don’t see any fighters, but just in case I loaded a round into the breech and started firing the cannon and the machine gun at previous targets. Not five minutes passed, and the “lighting and thunder” hit again. Again, covered my face and braced. Yurik was swearing on internal coms. When the ringing stopped, I looked around – on the right side, level with the track there was a big hole. The thought “I could get my hand through there!” flitted through my mind. It’s like the thick armor had been opened up with a giant scalpel. “The grenade must have exploded next to the vehicle!” – I figured – “Well of course! Otherwise the ammo would have already popped! The ammo…” I checked the ammo conveyor and spotted one with a hole in the warhead, and then another. Whether or not they were dangerous or not, I had no idea. I radioed the company commander and asked him. His answer was a simple and effective “Toss ’em”, and I did just that. Figuring that our vehicle had been shot at from the right, I opened fire on the construction site.
Soon the tanks, along with the commander returned to us. I surmised that they’d decided to flank the enemy from the other side. The order “To vehicles” came through, “Romashka” took his station in the BMP, and “Davlet”[the infantry support gunner] and a few others from the other crews took up positions on top of the armor. The combat vehicles of our column burst forward and turned left onto Komsomolskaya street, while the wheeled vehicles stayed back on Popovich street. On the intersection with Rabochaya[worker’s] street, the head vehicles turned right and immediately stopped, hit by heavy fire from RPGs (the names of the streets I figured out later, looking at maps of the AO). My BMP and another two were left on Komsomolskaya inbetween a 5 story residential and the private sector. Just around the corner the battle was heating up. I hurried to herd everyone that was on top of the armor into the battle compartment of the BMP. Stuck my head out of the hatch, and immediately saw, bent over the turret, a dead soldier. Barely managed to call out “Everyone down, get in!”, and turned back to stare at the dead man. He had two hoes in his head – the entry and exit wound it seems, one in the back of the head, one by the throat. “The hell you staring at, Sergei?!”, called out Raf while jumping into the turret. “You can’t help him!”. That much was true! For a while, in the narrow space between the turret and the left crew compartment, we swapped places with Raf. When I got back to the “mickey mouse”[aiming and firing controls, reminiscent of mickey mouse’s head. Pull the left ear to the side – turret left, tug the ears towards you – gun up.], I heard on the internal coms from Yurik – “Contact around the corner of the building!”, I turn the turret in that direction, but see no one – the fighter is around the corner of the building, past my line of sight, but could be seen from the mechanic-driver’s optic. “Yurik, two meters forward!”, the vehicle jumps, I see a shadow and press the left button on the “mickey-mouse” [left button – machine gun, right button – cannon]. The burst chipped the corner of the house and hit the ground. The shadow is gone. In a minute I noticed movement on the first floor of the 5 story. Once again, I turned the turret and let go the PKT. I got the idea to put an HE in there. Difficult shot, again I call out to the driver “Yurik, pull back a little!” While the BMP crawled back, I loaded the gun and pulled the right trigger. Before I had time to admire my handiwork I noticed movement in the right triplex out of my peripheral vision on the second floor. Loaded, aimed, fired. Waited for the smoke to clear, and started observing. Everything’s quiet. Just in case decided to raise the gun up towards the 3rd floor, and realized that the max inclination was too low. The BMP was positioned too close to the building.
In the crew compartment were Rafik with an RPK and another with an SVD. It was apparent that the rifle, with its long barrel, was ill suited in close combat and the cramped innards of the BMP, so I offered him my AKS-74U. He liked the idea. It only makes sense – the gunner has a cannon and machine gun at his disposal, and the assault rifle will increase firepower in close combat more than a sniper rifle. From the radio chatter I gathered that a BMP and a tank had been hit up ahead. Soon we heard the order “Turn around and fall back!”. I can’t call my driver inattentive or unresponsive, he was the first to turn around, and just in a few minutes we were on the intersection of Ordzhonikidze and Popovich. We didn’t stop, turned left and ended up on the railway. We hit the rails hard, without slowing down, turned right and passed the station for about 200m. Reached the trade station, where some unit was already set up, and went up onto the station landings. At the entrance to the trade station, two or three BMP-2’s were already set up. We moved farther and stopped next to a single story building. Within 5 minutes the rest of our vehicles had pulled up, but missing one tank and BMP-1 #327. The tankers said that they needed time to load ammo from the rack onto the conveyor. Via the radio, the commander ordered us to cover them. It was quiet, and everything was going smooth. Occasionally you’d hear the ping of a bullet off the armor, it seems they were coming from the direction of the cistern and the freight cars. Suddenly the vehicle was once again hit by the now familiar “lightning”. I waited a minute, looked around, but didn’t see any serious damage from the hit. Someone called out on coms about an RPG on the water tower. The commander called for a shot on it from the “Muha”[“Fly”, RPG-18]. I glued myself to the optics, the water tower was at 12 o’clock, about 50m away. Not thinking too long, I loaded a HEAT round and pulled the trigger. The shell hit the target. From the outside, they worked on the tower with “Flys” as well, causing it to become enveloped in smoke. However the quiet didn’t last long, the BMP again shook from a hit. I noticed a difference from the previous hits, it got lighter in the vehicle! I looked around and realized that all the doors and hatches were open. No one was in the vehicle, not in front in the driver’s and commander’s seat, not in the rear, in the crew compartment. That was terrifying. Checked the optics – the tankers and BMP crews were by their tech, some had already taken cover in the single story buildings. Since bullets were still pinging off the armor, I figured I’d leave the BMP through the rear door. Left the vehicle, noticed finger-width holes in the rear fuel tanks, diesel was leaking out of them. “Looks like 7.62 holes?!” I thought, “No standing by the armor then, or I’ll catch some lead…” I moved to the building, luckily the vehicle was 5 meters from it. The only thing left on the BMP was the dead soldier.
I ran inside and looked around. It seems this was a cafeteria. The inside was split into a few halls, one of which was large. The windows were on two sides, to the inner courtyard and the landing, where our vehicles were. Someone warned me not to stand too close to the windows, and gave me some juice. There really was a lot of juice in 3 liter bottles. The soldiers introduced themselves as Maykop troops, said that other than them here there were also Samara troops, and that it was their “two’s”[BMP-2’s] that we passed at the entrance. It seemed like they had been in the building for a long time.
[the author does not mention this here, but these are likely the remnants of the of the Maykop brigade that were the first to go into Grozny the night of the 31st. The largest group – that ended up at the railway station was pinned down, took heavy fire, and was all but destroyed while reinforcements became tied up during the night in the city. There are numerous compilations about them on youtube if you search “Grozny 1994/1995”, including audio of much of the radio chatter over the course of the night (such as this one) as the group took more and more casualties. They aren’t easy to watch or listen to, but provide some serious insight into the atmosphere of the battle.]
Captain Cherentaev entered into the adjacent room, where it seems the command post had been set up, and began conferring with the “local” officers. They, in turn, were interested in who he was, they’d already had plenty of people coming by. After introducing themselves, they started unfolding maps, and discussing further actions. The number of wounded was slowly climbing, but there luckily, none of them were heavily wounded. Our squad commander, Lt Tatarenko was with us, coordinating the personnel, taking care of the wounded, and finally removing the dead soldier from our armor. He himself wouldn’t sit still, and soon was also wounded.
The company commander returned with a new mission for us: exfil the trade station! While prepping, we checked the vehicles. The decision was made to leave my “322”, as the right side track was missing a dozen “earrings” [track pin locks], and the track was firmly linked only on one side. Cherentaev ordered to load weapons and ammo into BMPs #320, 321, and 325, then load all wounded into the rear crew compartments, and only then would every one else mount up. It was twilight by that time. I removed the PKT from my BMP, grabbed my ruck, and respectfully said goodbye to the gunner controls. I ended up in the #320, with the commander. In the left half of the compartment were all the weapons and ammo, along with all the injured: squad commander Lt Tatarenko and a few officers from other units. In the right crew compartment there were less people, but this didn’t mean that there was more elbow room. In order to fit everyone in, I squeezed in to the engine compartment and sat in a tiny corner on my ruck. Mishka Kuznetsov, gunner of BMP-1 #320 took his station in the turret. Someone closed the rear doors and the vehicle jerked into motion. Where we were going, I have no idea, no viewports, no optics were anywhere near me, all I saw were the people in the right compartment: the gunner “Kuzya”[Mihail Kuznetsov], jerking the turret left and right while glued to the optic, and the silhouette of the commander in the commander’s compartment. About ten minutes later my stomach grumbled – the whole day and not a bite to eat. It was the perfect moment for it too, the BMP was moving with determination, and all around was calm. I took out two cans of porridge from my ruck and opened them with a key from lead boxes [?], that I had nabbed recently, after which the porridge went to the whole crew. Absorbing some calories, my mind was calmed with the thought of the road back to my battalion – to brother! However the calm didn’t last long, 20-30 minutes from the time we left the trade station something SLAMMED the armor. Everyone jumped and a general chorus of “Blyat’!”[Fuck! literally “whore”] and “Ni huya sebe!”[Holy shit!] went around the crew. Within a minute Mishka was sharply jerking the turret in different directions and muttering something on coms. The next moment another grenade hit the armor, once again everyone remembered god and Russian ‘mat'[an extremely vulgar subset of the Russian language, akin to swearing]. Mishka loosed a shell in our direction of travel, as well as a few bursts from the machine gun, managing to reload the main gun at the same time. The number of hits to the armor was rising, with an interval of 1-2 minutes the BMP shoot 3 more times. We returned fire without stopping. We stopped taking enemy fire, but there was a new danger – from the left crew compartment someone yelled “We’re buring!”, only now I noticed that the previously dark left compartment was getting brighter with the light of a growing fire. “Extinguisher! We need the extinguisher! Where is it?” – someone called from the compartment. No kidding! There had to be one in the vehicle! We all received them and personally equipped every BMP! Then I remembered – the extinguisher is next to the rear doors!!! But by the left, or right door? Didn’t have to help though, they quickly found the extinguisher themselves and killed the fire in under a minute. Thank god, now no stopping – go, go, go! The respite only lasted 5 minutes, the vehicle started taking taking RPG fire at the same rate, and that was enough. There were 4-5 hits, first I saw a bright flame growing in the commanders compartment(Commander Cherentaev was no longer there at that point [I’m not sure if the author means that the commander was dead, or that he had moved earlier]). “We’re burning again! The driver’s on fire!! C’mon we have to put it out, the vehicle’s still moving! Just have to put it out!” – went through my head, but the BMP stopped “What happened? Why’re we stopped?” came from the rear. “Driver’s dead!” Someone called back. Without waiting for the order, everyone bailed out. From the outside I could see that our combat vehicle was sitting in on a metal-cement bridge. The commander’s and driver’s positions were spewing flames from their hatches. Commander Cherentaev was not in the vehicle (Later Mishka explained that the commander didn’t always sit buttoned down in battle configuration, and it’s possible that when we started on fire the commander bailed out, or was blown clear by the explosion). The body of driver-mechanic private Makarov was being consumed by flames. A stationary vehicle is a good target! We had to find cover quick. The bridge! It’s perfect, quickly, get under! Someone remembered – “Weapons, we have to get the weapons out of the infantry compartment!” I was unarmed, I left the SVD in the vehicle, so I hurried back to the BMP. The vehicle was hit with another grenade, blowing open all the hatches, out of one of which came a moving body, engulfed in flames, it made an inhuman sound, threw up its arms, and collapsed onto the armor. I’d only ever seen anything like this in horror movie, but this was reality!
Everyone that was left was gathering under the bridge (later it was established that in addition to K. Makarov, in BMP-1 #320 died privates Zh. Nizamov, and A. Akat’ev). There were 8 of us: me, Misha Kuznetsov, Lt Tatarenko, one contractor, and 4 Lt’s from the 131st armored infantry support brigade and 81st armored infantry. Almost all the officers were wounded. Decided to leave the bridge, since the ammo in the BMP could blow, not to mention the “spirits”[Chechen resistance] could show up at any moment. The Lt’s had sidearms, Mishka and I were left unarmed. One of the officers proposed breaking through to “Northern”[airfield], they left from there the previous morning, and their brigade was there. This sounded like a good idea, and at first we headed up the stream. A thin fog rolled in. One of the Lt’s who was wounded in the leg got worse (I think it was Tatarenko) – the pain was increasing. After about 50m we stopped next to some bushes, and good thing too! We noticed a handcar full of Chechen fighters in white camo passing on the railroad. Someone gave the Lt a shot of promedolum – in two minutes he felt better. I gave him my coat, because he was shivering, and we advanced farther up the trail. It wound through the private sector for a bit, we had to help the heavily wounded, occasionally carrying him. One of the officers suggested grabbing a long stick and dragging it along the ground in front of us, so that we wouldn’t step into a wire mine or claymore. Mishka and I switched off leading, carrying the stick in front, and the wounded in back. The suburb through which we were moving was on the side of a hill, and in order to take a look around we figured we’d climb to the apex, determine our location, and plot a path. Looking around, we understood where we were: behind us was Grozny, with its fires, to the left – “Northern”, below us – the suburb we just came through. Someone suggested finding a guide, but he was ignored, we didn’t want to go back through the suburb. We continued moving forward. I was thirsty, and tired of chewing on snow. Unexpectedly we noticed a stream, and moved in its direction. You can imagine our surprise and disappointment when we realized that instead of water, it was full of fuel oil. Haha, an oil stream! It became apparent why we were here!
Moving a little ahead, we worked up the courage to pass through the suburb. Beginning our descent down the hill, we almost immediately ran straight into a block post manned by a “spirit” with an assault rifle. It was too late to run/hide, so we brazenly passed the post a few tens of meters away. The fighter probably also freaked out – there are 8 of us, and he doesn’t know that we’re pretty much unarmed, he pretended he didn’t see us. We also decided not to tempt fate, and quickly wound our way through the streets, constantly descending farther into the suburb (it seems the suburb was Ivanov.). For direction we used a large flame bursting out of a gas pipe, that provided enough light to see the surrounding houses. We could see the edge of the suburb, across the road there was a field, when we unexpectedly stumbled straight onto another block post. There were three of them this time, and likely they already know that we were in the area. “HALT! Who’s there?” – Called a sharp, loud voice with a caucasian accent. One of our guys yelled “Свои!”[pronounced ‘svoyee’, literally meaning – ‘ours’, semantic meaning – ‘friendly’]. The trick didn’t work: “What fucking ‘свои’?!” and a burst of gunfire ripped through the air. We all scattered in the local yards. I had to jump over the nearest fence, run across a yard, then another fence on the other side, and I was in the field! My legs weren’t responding and were running by themselves, even the injured were running! The bursts of gunfire doubled, then tripled. Bullets whizzed and broke the snow and dirt under our feet. In 100 meters we were hidden in the dark. From some place farther away a artillery barrage responded to the “serenade” of gunfire directed at us. No one was following us, so we slowed to a walk and gathered back into a group. In another 100m we reached a large stream (the name of it was Neftyanka). Here, finally, we had some ice cold water to drink, and rest. To our left, up the stream, was an unknown settlement (upon returning I checked the map, this was Proletarskoe settlement). Dogs were barking there. It was about 400m, but the dogs were definitely barking at us. We decided to move on and get onto the other bank of the stream. The contractor tried to ford, but the bank was too steep and the stream too deep, ended up getting wet for no reason. We set off downstream, away from the dogs. A few hundred meters down we found a pipe (gas, or oil) that crossed the stream. We crawled across to the other bank. At first we were moving in the direction of the artillery fire, but soon the barrage ended, and it became difficult to keep track of that direction. Occasionally an illumination shell would be fired up into the air. Again someone suggested moving towards “Northern”. We moved east, reached a treeline and road with track patterns all over it – these were tank tracks, we tried to determine their direction of travel. One Lt, who it seems was a tanker, figured it out but that didn’t make us any happier. We figured we’d take a look at what was on the other side of the tree line, two left to scout ahead. Upon returned they reported – “Houses, looks like orchards.” Then we started deciding, how to keep moving east, how to get to the airport, and to go through the orchards or no.
The heavily wounded Lt by this point was often delirious. Looks like the two injections had gone to gone to his head… He was begging to go back to the stream, because he was thirsty. The officers decided to grant his request, and sent me with him to the stream. I dragged him, listening to various ravings. He was completely pessimistic, he kept “seeing” our guys 20m ahead, or the “spirits” and grabbing his sidearm. I had to constantly grab him and calm him down. While we were walking, we introduced ourselves. Turns out we had the same name. We got to the stream, I sat him down, and descended to the water, but I couldn’t get any – it was too cold and the bank was too steep. I remembered that I’d seen some metal junk on the other bank that may well work as a cup. I told Sergei of my idea, he agreed – “one foot here, the other there”. By my estimate, I’d need 5 minutes for all of this, only one thing worried me – the Lt had the assault rifle! What if he “sees” something again? He absolutely refused to give the gun to me, telling me “It’s fine!”. I crawled across to the other side, found the cup, then “BANG” – gunshot! “Motherfu… Segei! What did you do?!”, and ran back. What the hell did he see? Is he insane? Why the hell did he shoot? Most important thing is to get back to him quick! But what the hell? Where is he? I’m where I left him, but he’s not there! Checked by the stream, in the stream – nope. Maybe he went back to our guys? If that’s the case it shouldn’t be too hard to find him – he’s wounded, can barely walk! Looked around the field – no one. He wouldn’t go towards where the dogs are barking, that’s enemy territory, there might be Chechens there! So he went back? Lost me, and went back! I hurried to where the others were waiting for us. Whenever an illumination shell was in the sky I’d look around the area hoping to see the Lt, but no luck. With each step the hope of finding him dwindled. I got to where we left everyone, and what do you know – no one there.
Part 4. ALONE
You’ve got to be kidding me. No, I’m not making a mistake,this is the right place! Maybe the hid? Someone scared them off? Maybe they headed off to the airport after all! But why not wait for us? No point thinking about it now! Gotta find them, and then they’ll tell me all about it… and I lost Sergei… Well, where to? To the airport? Airport it is!Without a coat or weapon, in boots, fatigues, and tank helmet I headed east.
Passed right through some orchard for an hour and a half – two hours, while I could navigate by the north star, when it started getting lighter, I had to slow down and be extra careful. Ahead there was nothing that even remotely resembled an airport. Then the orchards ended, the terrain became pretty open, I came to some artificial ditch, a dike or a canal, both sides of which were overgrown with bushes. Crossing it I noticed some spread out single story structures. They didn’t look like airport buildings, more likely these were private farm structures. They looked empty, but I was figured it was too dangerous to go to them and instead meandered down the ditch. About half a click down I saw a settlement (It seems this was the farming complex “Rodina”), and some movement in it. My mind boiled with the though “I have to find out who is there, are there any units of the Russian Army?!” It was about 400 meters away. I need to get closer, but how? It’s just a big open field… Wait – something is in the middle.. a well? It really was a well, looked around some more, saw a few more well, located one behind the other in the direction of the settlement. This was perfect! I laid on the ground and began crawling. None of yesterday’s snow was left, but the ground was still frozen. Crawled to the first well, looked inside – about 2 meters deep, perfect to hide and keep a lookout, but I still needed to get closer. The next well was more satisfying, and I crawled into that one. In the desired direction there was a perfect crack to keep watch over the settlement. To get a good understanding of what was going on there, I had to sit in it for a half hour. This was a civilian occupied settlement with short buildings, and a large asphalt road passing through. Civilian vehicles occasionally went along the road. I didn’t see any Russian military, but plenty of people with weapons. I counted 15-20, they were dressed differently, some in white camo. The armed people were spread out by different buildings in groups of 2-4 people, every 100-200m, patrolling occasionally. I realized that getting out of here was going to be a lot more difficult than getting in, they might notice me! “Damn these blockposts! Wait…! blockposts! Our blockposts are located on the outskirts of the suburbs! Two days ago our company set up on the outskirts of Sadovoe! That means that I just need to find it! And so, where to look? The outskirts are where we took fire yesterday. Definitely! There’s a Chechen blockpost there, so there’ll be one of ours as well!” I needed to get out of here, but how? By chance, nature found an exit for me: a thick fog quickly descended on the area. I climbed out of the well and wandered away from that place, thinking up a plan of action along the way. I needed to get to the very outskirts and find the block post. I decided to return by the same route that I’d gotten here, through the orchards, that’ll be safer, plus maybe I’ll find some fruit. Then, I figured, I’d cross the stream via the same pipe and get closer to the outskirts. Good thing it’s foggy right now! It’ll help me stay hidden. The way back was longer, and all I found in the orchards was one small frozen apple. Didn’t even get to eat it, it turned out to be completely rotten. Found a long stick – it got easier to walk. In an hour and a half I got back to the river Neftyanka. Here the snow hadn’t melted yet, so after finding a trail, I followed it. Suddenly around the turn of the stream, in a bush, about 30m away I saw a bearded guy in a light coat with an assault rifle on his shoulder. What to do, I didn’t have time, just dropped where I was, onto my back, closed my eyes and waited, just my heart beating out an insane pulse, and the thought “Did he see me?” spiraling through my mind. “if he noticed, he’ll be here in a moment, what to do? Is he gonna shoot? Maybe he’ll take me prisoner? How do I act, what to do?” I could hear him coming this way: “He’s coming, I’m fucked!!!” The steps were getting clearer, and seemed to be within a few meters. However, the guy stopped, and then the steps started receding, until they became inaudible in the fog. “Maybe he thought I was dead?” – I thought. I laid there another 5 minutes – all quiet! “Well, enough!” Jumped up onto my feet, and quickly but carefully went in the direction opposite of him. Reached the pipe, crossed to the other side and reached the outskirts of the settlement.
I laid down and started observing. The fog covered me well, but didn’t allow me to see anything up ahead! After a while I noticed the silhouettes of a BMP up ahead: “I was right, it’s the block post!” The happiness quickly turned to disappointment, the fog cleared in a minute, and I was laying in the middle of a field 150m from a settlement, from which I began hearing pieces of conversation in a foreign language. I looked closer – with 1-2 meters between them, spread out, 4 men with guns were talking and moving directly towards me. Exactly like in the movies about Nazis – they’re walking spread out like conquerors, and are looking for partizans [guerrillas]! I got up and ran towards the blockpost, towards our BMPs. Ahead there was a surprise in store for me: all the vehicles were knocked out. It hit me – “These are the BMPs of our 1st company, that were engaged in battle 2 days ago. Yep! That one’s missing the turret from when the ammo went!” my train of though was interrupted by a burst of automatic fire – “Bastard! They’re shooting”, I kept running. Up ahead, across the river on the mountain are our guys anyway! It’s hard to hit a moving target from a distance of a few hundred meters, especially with a burst. Bullets were flying over my head, hitting the dirt at my feet, but missing their target. I ran to the stream and flew into the water. Good thing the water was only to my waist! Now I’m on the other side, and they won’t follow me through the cold stream. Continuing to move ahead, I wasn’t paying attention and again ended up in the water, the stream made a hairpin turn. But that wasn’t the only discovery, there was a bridge ahead! “Motherfucker! Why’d I go swimming?” I thought. The shooting hadn’t stopped, but bullets were hitting the ground farther and farther from me. Interesting dilemma: Where to now? Not the field! There, to the left, in the “green”? In response to the machinegun fire came a soprano of mortars. OURS! My legs carried me to the overgrowth and trees. I fell into some ditch. I had to catch my breath, wait out the artillery cannonade, and gather my thoughts. I checked my watch – it was about 1400. I lay on my back on old broken branches, under which gurgled a little stream, and watched the sky. The mortar shelling stopped after about a half hour. That whole time I barely moved. Fatigue hit me. It’s risky to go now, I should pass by Sadovoe after dark. It gets dark early here, in three hours it’ll be perfect! My head swam with recent experiences and images. At some point I just wanted to cry my eyes out, but all that came out was some grimace and a short sob. Just one calming though – good thing that Dan didn’t end up there! I wonder where he is? Hopefully he’ll still be in the company, at least til I get back!
Twilight set. Waiting a little more, I moved north, towards the base of the Tersk ridge. The frozen dirt from the morning had turned to muddy porridge. Just a few steps and my boots were twice as heavy from all the clay sticking to them. Every 5 meters I had to shake the mud from them. In a short while, I found a something to use for navigation: on the hill some armor turned on its lights and started moving around. But in between us there were private houses, and I still had to go around them. With the sun setting the local dogs’ senses sharpened, and they wouldn’t stop barking in my direction. However, I didn’t care at this point – I could clearly see my objective. I circumvented several yards by 50m, and dropped down into a canal (later determined that this was the Alhanchurtsk canal). There was only a kilometer left to the objective, but it took almost a full hour. Sometimes it seemed that the lights were receding and that there were less of them, so I tried to speed up, but the liquefied dirt wouldn’t let me. Finally 100m away I saw bright lights, approaching me. “STOP! STOP!”- I yelled, waving my arms. “Stop!”, the vehicle stopped. It was a BTR-80. The long figure, sitting on the armor in march configuration, bent down towards me, and I recognized the 276th commander’s assistant Lt Col S. Smolkin. My heart soared, breathing quickened: “Свои! Thank god, finally – свои!”
“Son, where are you from? What unit?” – said a hoarse voice.
“I’m from 2nd company! We were getting out of the railyard!”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m also Sergei! Where’s your commander Sergei? Where’s Cherentaev? C’mon, get up-” and stretched his hand out to me.
I clambered up onto the armor, and the BTR started moving. While we drove, the Lt Col questioned me, and I told him the whole story, what I saw, and what I thought about it. Smolkin listened intently, occasionally swearing, calling the unlawfully formed armed militia the still unfamiliar to me term – “spirits”. Later, I recounted my story numerous times, showed the bridge on maps, where the BMP of the commander was knocked out. The route of our group and myself. The most attentive was the commander of the 276 regiment, Col S. Bunin and the head of his command post, Lt Col V. Dolgov. When I recounted the battle on the streets of Grozny, and how the gun on the BMP would only go as high as the 3rd story, the officers swore up a storm directed at high command! It became clear to me, that our operation in the center of Grozny seemed questionable to them from the very start. In just under a week our unit developed a new tactic of battle. It came down to our infantry quietly taking certain objectives during the night, fortified, then in the morning we’d pull up the armor.
Also I got good news: Miska Kuznetsov [the gunner from the commander’s BMP], together with Commander Tatarenko made it out the previous night. Squadmate [Lt Tatarenko] was sent to the hospital, to Mozdok. I also asked about my brother, a short while later, they told me “Kleschev, Denis is alive and well, and is located at the blockpost of his company.” They sent me to battalion, washed me clean, gave me new clothes, fed me, and put me to bed. In the morning, I asked to be redirected back to the company, and finally saw familiar faces.