Honoring a General Who is Silenced
Published: September 30, 2003 (Issue # 906)
MOSCOW - If asked the way to General Anatoly Romanov's ward in the Burdenko Central Military Hospital, almost any of the staff can give directions. The hospital's department No.18 has been home for almost eight years to the former commander of federal troops in Chechnya.
Here in the two-room ward, once the most respected of Russian generals spends his lonely days, sitting in a wheelchair by the window or watching television.
Having miraculously survived a deadly attack during the first Chechnya campaign, Romanov, who turns 55 on Saturday, does not talk or walk due to the severe brain damage he sustained.
The general's wife, Larisa Romanova, who has become his spokeswoman and representative, even stepping in to receive military awards for him, said she believes the attack was a political hit, since it came as he was negotiating with the rebels to try to end the war.
Romanova said she has many questions for his commanders, but sees no point in raking up the past. "What shall we win if I smear everybody? My husband will not rise to his feet and walk because of that," she said in a recent interview at the Biblio Globus bookstore, where she works as a commercial director.
Without pointing a finger, she said too many interests were involved in the 1994-1996 Chechen war, and not only Chechen rebels, who were blamed for the attack, would have had an interest in sidelining her husband.
Romanov was wounded Oct. 6, 1995, when a bomb exploded as his motorcade was passing through an underpass near Minutka Square in central Grozny. His bodyguard and driver were killed, and only a few pieces were left of the jeep that Romanov was traveling in.
The general, who narrowly escaped death, was rushed to Vladikavkaz and then to Moscow with numerous injuries. He remained in a coma for about a year.
The attack occurred at a time when Romanov was making progress in peace talks with the Chechen rebels and it was widely seen as aimed aimed at sabotaging the talks. After taking up the post in July 1995, he had traveled extensively throughout Chechnya to persuade rebels to lay down their arms in exchange for a promise of a partial withdrawal of federal troops.
After the attack, the peace talks stalled for almost a year until another general, Alexander Lebed, and separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov reached a peace agreement in the town of Khasavyurt in neighboring Dagestan.
Romanov was one of the few military commanders respected by the Chechen separatist leaders. In an interview with Moscow News in July 1996, Maskhadov, then the separatists' military chief of staff, said Romanov was the easiest to talk to.
"Anatoly Romanov was the opponent and butcher of the Chechen town of Samashki. But it was pleasant to talk with him, because this was a cultured, well-mannered, intelligent man. In Chechnya, people respect this very much," Maskhadov said.
"Romanov cannot be forgiven for what he did here, but he grew tired of the war and sincerely wanted to end it. I don't feel the same about others, like [the deputy commander of federal forces in Chechnya, General Vladimir] Shamanov, and [the commander, Lieutenant General Vyacheslav] Tikhomirov."
Alexander Lebedev, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry troops, where Romanov served, said he is still highly revered. "There is no way anyone will ever forget him here."
Romanov is not a forgotten hero of a past war. On the contrary, at times he gets too much publicity. It has become a tradition for generals and ministers to pose for the camera with him in his ward. But his wife has learned not to be annoyed by the "PR" visits. Romanov said that years of seeing her husband motionless and speechless have taught her tolerance and diplomacy.
Romanova, whose eyes are often teary when speaking about her husband, said he was skeptical of the success of the campaign his army was leading.
"He could see the war from the inside, was sick and tired of it and wanted to end it as soon as possible, was telling me that he was close to doing so, but that someone was not allowing him to."
In the hospital, Romanov has a team of nurses caring for him 24 hours a day and a cook who makes meals just for him because he cannot swallow independently and eats only strained food.
His wife said she is appreciative of the care he gets that hundreds of other servicemen crippled in the war do not. "Can you imagine how many crippled soldiers return from the war and their relatives have no money to buy a prosthetic leg or arm not to mention a decent wheelchair, which costs $4,000," she said.
Though busy at work, she visits her husband almost every day and has learned to tell his mood by his slight reactions to life around him. Romanov can smile and his eyes follow people around the room.
Igor Klimov, the doctor who has been treating Romanov since 1996, said the general does not require any therapy. "The last three to four years he has been stable, in a minimal conscious state, but there has not been any progress," Klimov said in a telephone interview.
Three months after the bomb attack, Romanov had a tiny device implanted in his upper spinal cord by a Japanese surgeon in an effort to stimulate his injured brain. The electronic device, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, sent impulses to the brain. It had a 40 percent success rate in 150 attempts in Japan, but failed to help Romanov, Klimov said.
"Unfortunately, groundbreaking and revolutionary methods of treatment for such patients are yet to come," the doctor said.
Romanova hopes that her husband lives to the time when a new treatment arrives to "wake his sleeping brain" or at least make it possible for her to take him home.
"If we could learn to swallow, we could live at home again," said Romanova, who always says "we" in speaking about her husband.
Klimov said the nurses who have been caring for the general for years have become very attached to him.
"Our nurses often tell me that in their dreams they see how he rises up onto his feet and walks," Klimov said.