The people of Grozny were woken before dawn by a thundering bombardment crashing around them. It was New Year's Eve 1994 and they should have been preparing for what was traditionally their biggest holiday of the year. Instead, from 5 a.m. until mid-morning they cowered as attack aircraft roared overhead, diving low to hurl bombs at the city. In the high-rise apartment blocks on the east of Grozny, a few residents, already weary from nights spent in their cellars during weeks of bombing, climbed to the top floors to watch the planes. A one-storey house was already burning furiously, the rafters cracking in the intense heat. Some Russian pensioners, white with shock and brick dust, crawled out of their bombed building and sat wailing on the pavement, still in their nightclothes. Tank shells and mortars were now slamming into the city with steady consistency, growing closer and harder by the hour. Everyone in the Chechen capital knew this was more serious than anything that had come before.
For nearly three weeks Russian tanks had been massing on the ridges above Grozny as Moscow called on the Chechen separatist fighters to surrender and disarm. The embattled President of Chechnya, Jokhar Dudayev, locked in a dangerous game of brinkmanship with Russian President Boris Yeltsin, had moved his office into the bunker of his Presidential Palace but was refusing to back down on his bid for independence from Russia. Dudayev had declared his tiny mountainous republic independent when he came to power in 1991. Now Russian tanks had invaded Chechnya to force him out of office and some 6000 troops were moving in on his city.
Over 1000 men of Russia's 131st Maikop Brigade had spent the night in the fields just north of Grozny, poised to advance at dawn. Viktor Kim, a nineteen-year-old conscript in command of a unit of four driving a self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, received the order to move at 6.40 a.m. Their task was to take the airport, and they moved across the open fields to it with surprising ease. When they met no opposition they were told to head into the centre of town and occupy the railway station. Nikolai Ryabtsev was in the first battalion that pressed on to the centre, driving slowly in a column of thirty vehicles, tanks, armoured troop-carriers and self-propelled guns rumbling on their thick tank treads. A big, tall nineteen-year-old, Ryabtsev had started his military service six months before, one of tens of thousands of barely trained conscripts who made up the bulk of the Russian army. Now amongst the infantry, he was walking alongside the column, sometimes hopping back on to his armoured personnel carrier to ride a few blocks. They turned on to the wide avenue, Staropromyslovskoye Chaussee, that leads from the north-west into the city centre, packed with high-rise apartment blocks and other residential buildings. A few people were watching from their balconies, but the streets were deserted, with no traffic at all.
By mid-morning the whole sky over Grozny was black. A noxious blanket of oily smoke poured from fierce fires burning on the west side of the city where bombs had hit the oil refineries' storage tanks. The smoke hung low over the city, a line of bright light only showing at the horizon. The Oil Institute in the centre of Grozny was on fire, the top floors blazing orange and red, billowing thick smoke across the central square, reducing visibility for the men guarding the Palace. Tank fire was now landing in the city centre, pounding the buildings at thirty-second intervals.
The massive Soviet-style concrete building of the Presidential Palace was the nerve centre of the Chechen resistance, its extensive, well-protected bunker serving as the headquarters of the defence of Grozny. Akhmed Zupkukhajiev, a commander of the Chechen Presidential Guard, a huge, bearded Chechen with a deceptively gentle manner, was on duty on New Year's Eve. A group of Russian parliamentary deputies arrived mid-morning to consult with the Chechen leadership in what was becoming an increasingly hopeless attempt to try to avert the destruction of the city.
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