With his close-shaven head and his small, feral eyes, Yuri Budanov, 37, is not the kind of man to inspire affection. Yet he's got plenty of fans. Outside the courthouse in southern Russia, where Budanov's case is being tried, demonstrators hold up placards proclaiming his innocence and calling for his release. When the trial started, supporters brought flowers--and chased away a man who held up a banner proclaiming death to criminals.
A criminal is exactly what Budanov would normally be. Not only is he on trial for murder, he's actually confessed to it--except he committed the deed while fighting on Moscow's side in the Chechen war. A little more than a year ago, Budanov has admitted, he detained and killed an 18-year-old Chechen woman named Elza Kungayeva. The prosecution says she was a non-combatant--an assertion that, if true, would give Budanov, an Army colonel, the dubious distinction of becoming the highest-ranking Russian military officer in recent memory to be officially accused of killing a civilian. As a result, his trial, which went into recess last week, has assumed an importance that goes well beyond a run-of-the-mill homicide case. According to the Russian magazine Kommersant Vlast, "This is not a trial of an individual person. Russia's Army itself is being judged."
Russian society may be in the dock as well. The most striking thing about Budanov's crime is how many Russians think it doesn't warrant punishment. The demonstrators in front of the courthouse, in the city of Rostov-on-Don, are only the most vocal representatives of a wider mood. One recent survey by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda showed that 79 percent didn't think Budanov should be tried. At the start of the trial, Budanov's former commanding general, Vladimir Shamanov, made a point of visiting the court and shaking Budanov's hand. And the charges of rape that originally figured in Budanov's indictment have been dropped.
So why are Russians so forgiving of such a brutal killing? The answer, at least in part, can be found in Russia's long record of wars inflicted and endured. Again and again, the country has been traumatized by external invaders or riven by civil war. Its authoritarian rulers, from Ivan the Terrible to Joseph Stalin, have all too often resorted to using force against their own citizens. British military historian Antony Beevor, author of a book about the savage World War II battle for the Soviet city of Stalingrad, points out that Russia's original conquest of Chechnya in the middle of the 19th century was notorious even by the low standards of other colonial powers like Britain and France. "Because Russian history has been so bloody, there's a kind of acceptance of violence," says Beevor. "It's regarded almost as inevitable--especially in war." And most Russians would point to Chechen atrocities as a rationale for anything-goes retaliation. Last week the Kremlin accused Chechen separatists of masterminding a series of bombing attacks that left 20 Russians dead and 81 injured. Budanov, for his part, justified strangling Kungayeva by saying that he believed her to be a sniper who had fired at his troops.
"Military officers repeat: war is war," noted the Russian newspaper Sobesednik, "and the murder of Elza Kungayeva cannot be punished by the same laws that apply during peaceful civilian life." And war in Chechnya is unusually ferocious. Human-rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Russian military for the use of force against civilians in both the earlier Chechen war (1994-1996) and the present conflict (which began in 1999). New York-based Human Rights Watch published a report last week documenting the disappearance of 113 Chechens, including women and children. Moscow defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer notes that Russia has made open use in Chechnya of fuel bombs, a devastating weapon prohibited by the Geneva Convention. "They'll show footage of fuel-bomb attacks on television," he says. "I asked a general about it once; he said, 'In war, Geneva conventions don't apply.' That's the attitude: rules don't apply in war."
Other commentators point out that it would be hard to expect exemplary behavior from soldiers who get miserable treatment from their own political leaders. The "war is war" mentality, argues defense correspondent Aleksandr Golts, is the same in other places--"but other armies have more food and ammunition than our Army, and that makes things worse." "Russians know how the Army lives," says historian Edvard Radzinsky. "They live in dormitories and return home from war zones to places where even criminals should not be living. They don't get paid." "We're treated like cattle," says 30-year-old Ilya Turikov, who has been fighting in Chechnya as a kontraktnik, a volunteer who earns $40 a month. "We have to buy our own clothes." Meanwhile, even though President Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to withdraw regular Army troops from the rebellious republic, the killing shows no sign of slackening. Many Russians seem resigned to the idea that the war could go on for generations--a sense of inevitability, say experts, that could raise the tolerance for future atrocities. "They're dying, we're dying," says Arbusov with characteristic fatalism. "This isn't civilian life." Not that anyone would have thought so.