In July 2011, former Russian army colonel Budanov was killed near his new apartment in a fashionable area in Moscow. In march 2000, Budanov was arrested after he had kidnapped, raped and killed a Chechen girl, Elsa Kungaeva. His case is one of the very few cases of violence against civilians that have been brought before the tribunals in Russia – and the only well-documented one on sexual violence.
Even if Budanov was arrested in march 2000 for rape and murder, he was afterwards charged only with murder : though a first forensic expertise found evidence of rape, a second forensic expertise “indicated” that the rape had been committed post-mortem. A soldier was charged with raping the dead girl with a shovel before burying her: a criminal case was opened, but he benefited from an amnesty and afterwards went back on his testimony. The fact that Budanov was not charged with rape allowed him to build all his defence on the false assumption that the girl was an enemy combatant – and that he killed her during interrogation in a fit of rage. Therefore, public discussion concentrated on “what is permissible to do to an enemy combatant”, and not on sexual violence.
Budanov was sentenced to 10 years in 2003, and released on parole in 2009 (after several refusals – probably due to the fact that his case had become a symbolic one). As soon as he was released, a new case – supported by the Chechen leadership – was brought against him for the disappearance of 3 civilians in 2000, but this new case was closed after a few months.
This death allows us to see how, more than ten years after the crime, Russian society and Russian authorities react towards war crime perpetrators in Chechnya, and to try to understand why the issue of sexual violence is seldom if never discussed.
Though Budanov had been deprived of all military decoration and titles when he was sentenced to 10 years in 2003, he was nevertheless buried with military honours, the military orchestra of the ministry of Defence played a funeral march and salvoes were fired. Ultra-right groups called their supporters to come to the funerals and police security was reinforced. The priest who led the funerals has been reported to say : “There is now a new saint in Heaven. Together with Alexander Nevsky, Dmitry Donskoy and Evgeny Rodionov he will be praying for all of us”
It was reminded also that Budanov had always benefited from the compassion of Russian public opinion. According to the sociologist Denis Volkov from the independent public-opinion poll centre “Levada-centre”, “Over the years we have conducted several surveys of the attitude of Russians to Colonel Budanov. 50 to 60% of Russians sympathized with the prisoner, even if they did not deny that a murder took place. Most Russians did not doubt that he committed murder, but 36% of respondents said that this happened in Chechnya all the time and should not come as a surprise. What is significant in this crime is that, on the one hand, there was a soldier of the Russian armed forces, on the other – a Chechen girl. That is, there was a clear division between “us” and “them.” The Russian army – is one of the institutions that enjoys a high level of trust in Russian society. Whereas the Chechen girl, as a representative of the enemy’s side, was denied the right to sympathy. In December 2004, 55% of the respondents said that the Budanov trial was a step towards the Chechens. The most important for people was not the crime, but the opposition between “us” and “them“.
Another journalist remembers that after Budanov was sentenced to 10 years, there was an public poll opinion on TV : “It was on a Moscow channel, TVTs, at this time you could still have live interview of people by phone, and the question was asked: “What would have been your verdict?”. Different answers were proposed: 10 years, life or nothing. And Muscovites voted this way (even the talk show presenter was shocked): 10 years (what the court gave) – 333 votes ; life sentence – 1370 (this is those who wanted to see him more strongly condemned) ; acquit him – 16 000 700”.
Several journalist, commentators, observers wrote about this death in their newspapers or on the Internet – discussing mainly “is Budanov himself a victim of war”? The question of rape was nevertheless raised by some essayists. On the grani.ru website, essayist Mikhail Kriger criticized quite violently the public reaction towards Budanov’s death: “Budanov was buried with military honors. As a hero. As a warrior. Hundreds of people came to say final goodbyes to the former colonel. The leader of one the parliamentary party proposes to rehabilitate him. Streets are to be somewhere named after him (…). That’s the way it is, my dear fellow citizens. Today, half of those who voted on the radio “Ekho Moskvy” were in favor of the rehabilitation of Budanov. He appears now as a new hero. Are you sleeping or what? It is amazing! A murderer, a rapist, a looter, is now our new hero. This same colonel who kidnapped, raped and killed eighteen-years old Elsa Kungayeva.
Let it be clear. Why do I insist on rape? Simply because we can not assume anything else. Because that morning, the dead girl was naked, and our “hero” too. There were signs of rape on the body (it is only afterwards that someone found this clever explanation about a shovel’s handle). If my late wife would have caught me in a similar situation, I wouldn’t even have tried to find excuses. It would have been so obvious. Why, dear Russians, do you pretend to be idiots? Why are you so ready to believe in all sorts of nonsense? Are you really so gullible?
What I find interesting here is the suggestion that the information given publicly was sufficient to draw the conclusions about what happened … but that nobody really wanted to see the facts. This is also stressed by a political commentator for the tabloid newspaper Moskovski Komsomolets, Aleksandr Minkin, who has written several articles on this case. In a radio interview after the murder of Budanov, he reads an excerpt of Budanov’s official acknowledgement of guilt : “As we were left alone, I asked her where her mother was. She started to scream, to bite and tried to escape. I had to use force. A fight ensued, in the result of which I tore her blouse and bra. I told her to calm down. But she continued to scream and escape, then I had to lay her on the bed and I started to choke her. I choked her throat. I did not take off the lower part of her clothes...”. Aleksandr Minkin comments : “When he says that, left alone with her, he began to ask her where her mother was, and that she started screaming, biting and escaping, then the question arises : what did this interrogation look like, if the person examined had to bite and to try to escape? An examination – it’s when you sit on one side of the table and I sit on the other side of the table and I write down what you say. You don’t have to escape and bite. I am sorry, but you have to escape and to bite only if you are raped.”
A. Minkin stresses also that so many persons mobilized to defend Budanov because the girl was a Chechen, and people felt the need to defend the honour of a Russian officer : the fact that Budanov was an officer, and not simply a soldier, may indeed explain part of the reactions and the support he benefited from the military hierarchy.
But apart from this case, the question remains of why the question of rapes committed in Chechnya by Russian soldiers has never been raised publicly in Russia, even if cases were documented. Several explanations can be found:
• the reluctance of victims to talk about rape and the attitude of Chechen society towards rape and rape victims : the cases were not brought forward by Chechen activists or representatives of civil society
• the general level of impunity for crimes committed in Chechnya : there were only five significant public trials for crimes committed against civilians in Chechnya since 1999, whereas the European Court of Human Rights (where most of the cases are brought now) has condemned Russia more than 200 times since 2006
• the lack of interest of Russian public opinion for a war that always has been presented as a “war on terror”, and has benefited from public support, even before the tragic hostage takings of October 2002 (Dubrovka theatre, Moscow) and September 2004 (School in Beslan)
• the lack of groups or public opinion leaders in Russia who could bring forward this question. The main Russian Human Rights organisations are reluctant to address the issue of women rights or violence against women, and did not have complaints to build upon. There are also in Russia women organisations, who work especially on the question of violence against women: but they address mainly the question of domestic violence and Chechnya is not part of their preoccupations. During a field work in 2010, none of the NGOs we met in Moscow or St Petersburg did mention the army and the war in Chechnya as part of the general problem of “violence against women”, and violence against women is mainly understood as violence against Russian women. When they mentioned violence against women in the North-Caucasus, they explained it only as “violence due to traditions” (bride kidnapping, vendetta), and they are not necessarily aware of the racist subtext in some of the cases they have defended..
• the global perception of Chechen males, as well as all Caucasians, as men representing a danger for Russian women … (and not the contrary)
• the question of sexual violence and rape committed by Russian / Soviet army in other conflicts has never been discussed publically – especially as far as WWII is concerned.
Afterword : looking for the murder suspect…..
The Kungaev family denied any link to this assassination and refuted the versions of a vengeance by Chechen relatives. On August 26, a Chechen (Magomed Suleymanov) was arrested and charged with the murder, though nothing is known about his possible motives and about the possible instigators or his accomplices. Reporting about his arrest, the Kommersant newspaper reported that his was recognized by a witness whose name is kept secret. According to some sources, the witness may have picked him up among three other suspects during the official identification at the police precincts as he was the only one who wore handcuffs…
Nb : A slightly different version of this text has been prepared for the international workshop “Sexual Violence in Armed Conflicts”, Hamburger Institut fur Sozialforschung / Centro de Estudos Sociais, Universidade de Coimbra, 9/10 September 2011-08-22
photo credit: http://media.photobucket.com/image/budanov/bdpopeye/popeyes%20pix/3-117.jpg?o=3