Dzhokhar and Aleksandr. Clash of Civilizations

Aleksandr Shchipkov

I happened to serve in the Turkestan Military District. It was as far back as 1978-80, in Soviet times. I commenced in Ashgabat, in the elite NCO school of chemical defense corps. When it was discovered that I was an Orthodox Christian, I was transferred to an artillery regiment, and then to a construction battalion building the Tyuyamuyun hydroelectric powerplant in the Kyzylkum desert. It was the very border between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It was an experimental battalion consisting of three troops. One troop included the Turkmen, the second included the Georgians, and the third one, the Ossetians. Water was in short supply. Marijuana was rife. For the night, our barracks were locked from outside in order to prevent drugged-out soldiers from killing each other. Ethnic conflicts were very sharp and severe. Several Russians and one casual Chechen were sent to the Ossetian troop. Obviously, leaders in the headquarters of the district knew all the twists and turns in the "national question." I spent a few months there, but then I was sent to another military unit.


Common soldier Dzhokhar K. sat next to me on the muddy slope of the Amu-Darya riverside and looked longingly to the west. His home, Chechnya, was in the west. It was winter of 1979. We had both served in the desert, a day trip from Chardzhou and two days from Tashkent. But for the first time in my life I met Muslims in Ashgabat. Orthodox Christians were sent to Central Asia to do compulsory military service. Atheism seemed to rule everywhere in the Soviet Union, but nevertheless, some tacit decree allowed them to submerge Christians into Islamic culture. Islam was virtually absent in Moscow. Even Geydar Dzhemal (who is now the leader and the symbol) sometimes visited Christian clandestine meetings in those years of searching and yearning.

In Ashgabat, draftees were delivered to the military unit of chemical defense where we were in for a haircut, bathing, and the ritual of conceptual transformation: a person enters the bath as a "civilian" and leaves it in a "military cotton second-hand dress". Metanoia.

I was young and did not understand the mystique of this ritual, which required awareness rather than real bathing. Foolishly, I indeed rubbed my head with soap. That's where, blinded with laundry soap, I felt Turkmen strong hands pulling my chain with a next-to-skin cross. Previously brought by someone from the United States to the Soviet Union, along with colorful icons of Xenia of St. Petersburg, this beautiful cross was given to me by my ghostly adviser. The chain was brazed. While tearing it, Turkmen almost cut my neck. Pathetic blind attempts to defend the last link with my past life culminated in tooth loss and a brief notation: "Remember, you are not in Russia any more."

Later, I grew wiser and stronger. Traveling among military units of the Turkestan Military District, I managed to meet the sectarian violence with open eyes. Another cross was sent to me in a letter by my friend. He got it in the Epiphany Cathedral at vespers from the Patriarch Pimen. It was made of aluminum. I wore it on a shoelace from a soldier's boot.

The army was not a prison. There was much more freedom. The choice of communication was wider. We were friends with Dzhokhar. Being on duty together, we talked a lot about God. He respected me for my orthodox stubbornness, endless conflicts with commanders in my vindication of the right to wear a cross. He helped me hide the Gospel from company executive officers preaching political education. I respected him because he was not afraid to die. He was the only Chechen in our battalion. Georgians hated him. They tried to kill him, but he survived in terrible fights and came out victorious. He survived because he was ready to die each time, and this superiority over death made his enemies flee away from a battlefield.

Dzhokhar was an orphan. He was brought up by his grandmother, and faith was a part of his life. A natural part of his everyday life. Sometimes, it seemed that we had no matters of argument related to the faith. As it often happens with young people, at first we could find only common ground. We became enthusiastic over the coincidence of our religious experience. Until Dzhokhar asked me one direct and very important question. He preached with conviction and passion, trying to get me to like his innermost views. My "misbeliefs" irritated him.

We were sitting by the side of the Amu Darya and looked into a deep construction pit. "Chemists" and soldiers messed around there. They were building the Tyuyamuyun hydroelectric powerplant.

How does one not betray the "article of faith" and not tear the thread of human relations, which has already connected two persons? Even today, I cannot understand it. It is here where the prime cause of so-called "religious conflict" is. Spiritual connection and communication with God are not nearly the same thing. I did not deign to lie to Dzhokhar. We got up. He came very close to me. Button to button. Head to head. Spiritual connection was tearing. We heard the zip of this invisible thread. His eyes were full. They were full of incomprehension. Until my appointment to a new place of service in Tashkent, we never looked into each other's eyes again and did not say a single word to each other. On the eve of my departure, he didn't even come to the farewell party. I threw my duffel bag with a lunch box onto the seat of the car. The wind mixed Kyzylkum sand with dry snow, whipping the ground like a broom. I was tapping the rear ramp with my polished boot and delaying the departure. I wanted to see him. Suddenly, I noticed him standing on the terrace of the barrack, with his hands hanging limply from loneliness, in a white undershirt over green breeches. We nodded to each other through the window of the car that divided us. It was a hardly noticeable movement. I left, carrying away the Gospel that Dzhokhar helped me to hide at one time.

Aleksandr Shchipkov, Moscow, October 2012