The second Chechen War had raged for a month in October 1999. Refugees flooded out of Chechnya, while Moscow was peaceful. Few realized that a new tragedy would overwhelm an entire nation, and that the pathway of blood would not bring better understanding between Russians and Chechens.
I felt great concern and anxiety, because I could do nothing to stop these events. I called Viktor Popkov, an “Old Believer” of deep faith, who worked hard in Chechnya during the first war bringing humanitarian aid, arranging prisoner exchanges, and observing the short armistice in the summer of 1995.
We realized there would be no mass protests against this war. Most people felt sure the Chechens were to blame for the recent explosions in Moscow, and the press screamed, “Let our army finish the job!!”
Viktor proposed a hunger strike in solidarity with Chechnya’s people. Words of the Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky were our motto: “Not by force! O God, but by truth.” Our action began in Moscow beside the Solovetsky stone, site of a large camp for political prisoners in Stalinist times. We tied our banners to the stone as if it were our foundation stone. We took shelter behind it from the icy wind that shook our placards like sails.
We ate no food and drank only hot water. Near the stone, we made a small shelter of polythene plastic sheets. We placed devotional books and icons on a small table. We prayed for everyone who perished in the war, Chechens and Russians, Christians and Muslims.
We explained what we were doing, and why, to anyone who approached, and received support from many. I especially recall a woman who traveled from another town to meet us.
Nine days into our strike my friend, Moscow Quaker Sasha Gorbenko, replaced me. I asked him to fast for a week. He stayed on the hunger strike for 43 days until the Russian elections. He felt called to a significant commitment while blood was being shed and innocent people were dying. The strike’s results were minimal, but we felt it better to act than to be silent while crime after crime was committed in the name of the Russian people.
After five weeks of his hunger strike, Viktor traveled to Chechnya to meet Chechen President, Alslan Maskhadov. He believed such a meeting could halt military activity. In December 1999, he flew to Sleptsovky in Ingushetia. The Chechens received this well-intentioned man of another faith with respect. He reached the villages of Urus-Martan and Valerik, but could not cross the front line into territory outside Federal forces’ control.
In the winter of 2000, twice Viktor carried money into Chechnya and bought flour for the villagers. In the Spring he met with President Maskhadov, but the road to peace proved harder than expected. The war sowed new seeds of hatred every day.
But I still believe that only by tearing hatred from our hearts can we set out to meet each other and learn that nothing is more precious than peace.