Friends World Committee for Consultation - Europe & Middle East Section

Pre-Triennial study booklet: Being Faithful Witnesses: Serving God in a Changing World

Contents

12. Vigil for Peace

Misha Roshchin Moscow Monthly Meeting

English translation by J. Coutts

Autumn was cold in 1999. By the end of October the second Chechen War had already been raging for a month. Refugees were flooding out of Chechnya, but Moscow was calm and peaceful. Nobody was protesting against the war this time -many remembered the recent explosions in Moscow, and the vast majority felt certain that Chechens were to blame. At that time few realized that a new tragedy was overwhelming a whole nation, and that the pathway of blood was unlikely to lead to better understanding between Russians and Chechens.

I felt great concern at the time and was particularly anxious because I could do nothing about it. I phoned Viktor Popkov, a man of deep faith and an Old Believer. Viktor had been hard at work in Chechnya during the first war. He brought in humanitarian aid, arranged the exchange of prisoners and was an Observer of the short armistice that took place in the summer of 1995. We both realized that this time there would be no mass protests against the war. The press was screaming, ‘Let our army get the job finished!’ Nobody explained exactly what this would mean.

Viktor proposed a hunger strike in peaceful solidarity with the people of Chechnya. Our hunger strike was in fact a strict fast, because we regularly drank hot water in the nearby building belonging to MEMORIAL, a human rights organization. For our motto we chose words of the ancient Russian Prince Alexander Nevsky: ‘Not by force, oh God, but in truth.’ We began our action beside the Malo Solovetsky stone, which was brought from Solovki, where a large camp for political prisoners was set up in Stalinist times. Near the Solovetsky stone we set up a small polythene shelter. Here, on a folding table, we placed devotional books and icons. We prayed for all who perished in the war – Chechens and Russians, Christians and Muslims.

We tried to explain what we were doing – and why – to anyone who approached us. I have to say that we received support from many. I especially recall a certain woman who travelled from another town merely to meet us.

Nine days after the beginning of our hunger strike I was replaced by my friend Sasha Gorbenko, a member of Moscow Monthly Meeting. He stayed on hunger strike for 43 days, until the elections to the Russian Duma. Sasha felt called to make a high level of spiritual commitment at a time when blood was being shed in the world and innocent people were perishing. The results of our work were minimal, of course, but we felt that it was better to do something rather than look on silently while crime after crime was committed in the name of all Russians.

After five weeks of unbroken hunger strike Viktor Popkov got ready to travel to Chechnya for a meeting with the President, Aslan Maskhadov. Viktor believed that such a meeting could bring military activity to a halt. The Chechens received this well-intentioned man of another faith with respect. He was able to reach the villages of Urus-Martan and Valerik, but unable to cross the front line and reach territory outside the control of Federal forces. During the winter of 2000 Viktor was able to reach Chechnya on two further occasions. He carried money, bought flour and distributed it to villagers. Finally, when spring came, he was able to meet with the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, but the road to peace proved harder than we expected. New seeds of hatred are sown by the war every day.

On 18 April 2001 Viktor was mortally wounded in Chechnya, not far from Grozny, by unknown gunmen. He died on 2 June 2001. He really tried over all his life to serve God in our difficult time. He was very close to Moscow Monthly Meeting. A few of us Moscow Friends took part in his peacemaking initiatives.

I still believe that it is only by tearing hatred from our hearts that we can set out to meet each other. Only then can we learn that there is nothing more precious than peace.

Queries:

- What does the pursuit of peace mean in a world of injustice and inequality?

- How do we live the life of peace?

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