Oksana Chelysheva, 22.10.2007
Police in the Russian city of Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, raided the home of the local journalist, Ms Natalia Petrova, on 6 September 2007.
The police inflicted serious bodily harm to Natalia, smashed a tooth of her nine-year-old daughter, Mary, beat up her 70-year-old mother, Nina Petrova, and insulted and humiliated her father, retired colonel Gennady Petrov.
No criminal case has so far been initiated, despite the fact that the father of the journalist submitted an application to the prosecutor’s office on the same day as the raid took place.
What happened then in Kazan on 6 September 2007?
On that day, Natalia took her two daughters, Mary and Nelly, to school. The nine-year-old girls love to study; their hobbies are music and fencing. Rather, used to be: after the stress that they suffered, the girls are afraid to go out.
Having brought the girls to school, Natalia left; once outside the school gates, two men seized her by the arms. In Natalia’s words, the men looked absolutely “trashed”, one of them was clearly under the influence of alcohol.
The men, who were both in civilian clothes, did not show any documents. They told Natalia that they would take her to a psychiatric asylum, “so that she would never write anything anymore.”
Natalia struggled away from her assailants and ran home. She hoped to be able to call the police. Her mother Nina Petrova was home. Earlier that morning, they had called an ambulance to check in on her condition, as she had a high blood pressure. Natalia’s father was at the family dacha.
Natalia ran into her apartment and slammed the door. “Mom, trouble!” she cried. “They wanted to kidnap me. We have to call the police.” That turned out to be rather difficult: somebody had switched off their telephone line.
They then called their father on the mobile phone, on which they had practically no money left. Somebody had to bring the girls from school, but Natalia was afraid to go out.
Gennady Petrov brought the girls home at around 11 am. The girls rang the doorbell. Natalia opened the door, and at that moment, three men in civilian clothes pushed their way into the apartment.
The men shoved the old man aside and lashed at the two girls. Mary fell at her mother’s feet, and Nelly fell on cans of paint in the corridor. (The family was planning to renovate the apartment.)
The bandits were primarily interested in Natalia. One of the men twisted her arm and hit her hard behind her neck. The blow was so hard that she almost lost consciousness. She began to vomit.
The bandits pushed Natalia’s father into a corner. Natalia was beaten under the eyes of her daughters.
One of the men stepped on the journalist’s fingers, saying: “You will not write anything anymore.” The blows were very professional, flatwise, so that there would be less traces.
Having heard the noise and cries, Natalia’s mother got up from bed. As soon as she got out of her room, she received a blow in her belly. The seventy-year-old woman began to bleed, but still tried to save her daughter. Nina Petrova protected Natalia from the blows. She was all bruised as a result.
Natalia’s father, aged 84, could not do anything. The men insulted him, saying: “Come on, old-timer, hit me!” The colonel, remaining loyal to his rank, replied: “I will not dirty my hands on you.”
The girls grabbed their umbrellas and began to defend their mother. The children’s umbrellas soon came to pieces.
Meanwhile, the bandits called somebody on their mobile phone: “Slava [diminutive for Vyacheslav], we are here. What should we do next?” The girls heard a voice giving orders to continue beating their mother. They also heard that reinforcements were on their way.
The girls realised that the phone was an element of danger, and when one of the bandits dropped the phone during the fight, the girls grabbed it and threw it out of the fifth-floor window.
They got very scared when one of the men who was beating their mother suddenly turned on them. The girls dashed out of the apartment.
Natalia was dragged downstairs. The men put two handcuffs on her, even though she could not resist in any way. She was thrown onto the floor of the lift and taken downstairs, while her parents ran down by the stairs.
Over an hour had passed since the attack. There were many neighbours outside. They all knew Natalia and her family, and came to her defence, saying: “What are you doing?! Bandits! She is a famous journalist! Everybody knows her.”
In response, the bandits said: “She is a criminal carrying an international warrant for arrest.”
Natalia’s mother, Nina Petrova, ran outside all covered in blood.
The neighbours called an ambulance, which arrived quickly. However, a police jeep did not allow the ambulance to proceed further. Natalia’s daughters were dragged into the police jeep, most likely as hostages.
Natalia herself was lying on the floor of her staircase. The policemen, i.e., the bandits that attacked Natalia, deceived the doctors, claiming that it was a “false alarm”. The ambulance turned back and drove away.
Natalia was carried by her hands and feet from the staircase into the waiting police jeep. Mary and Nelly were kicked out of the jeep. Mary was very scared and ran away, trying to hide. Later she said: “I wanted to live so much. I did not know, where Mom was.”
Natalia’s father found Mary after one and a half hours. She was hiding behind a heap of trash, and had been sitting there for all that time.
The kidnappers threw Natalia on the floor of the jeep. They stepped on her with their heavy police boots. Feeling content and tired, they had a smoke. The smoke from the cigarettes was so heavy that Natalia had trouble breathing.
Natalia tried to get up but every attempt to do so was thwarted by kicks. The policemen dropped the ashes from their cigarettes on her. One of them stumped his cigarette on her. The journalist was turned into an ashtray and a spittoon. Natalia again lost consciousness.
The pain of being thrown out of the police jeep brought her back to consciousness. She was lying all blooded up in the courtyard of the police department in Kazan’s Moskovsky district.
The colleagues and her torturers shook hands, saying: “Well, you brought her in, then? How is she?” “Well, she’s finished…” “You beat her to death, did you?” Not yet…
Natalia was dragged into a cell and locked up. She was held there until 6 pm. No accusations were made against her, no questioning was conducted. In the end, she was just thrown out, half dead.
Gennady Petrov, Natalia’s father, only learned on 17 October 2007 the identity of the man called “Slava” who directed the beating of his daughter over the mobile phone.
The old man came to the same police department and asked the officer on duty: “Who gave the order for the special operation against the journalist, Petrova?”
The officer replied: “The chief of the department, Mr Vyacheslav Prokofyev. Come in, he is in cabinet Nr 24.”
The retired colonel in the Soviet Army went to cabinet Nr 24, and asked: “What did you do to my family?”
A man in uniform answered: “Your daughter knows too much. She is under an international arrest warrant. I can do to her whatever I want.”
Who is then this journalist, Ms Natalia Petrova?
One of the most strident and candid human rights activists in Russia, Ms Svetlana Gannushkina, immediately remembered Natalia, saying: “Yes, I saw her with her camera in Karabakh”.
Mr Andrey Mironov, member of the human rights organisation, Memorial, met Natalia in Chechnya during the first Chechen war (1994-1996). She was not just filming; she carried the wounded and tended to their wounds.
Andrey said: “During the first Chechen war, Natalia did what Anna Politkovskaya did during the second. Anna had small kids during the first, while Natalia’s kids were small during the second war.”
When he heard my question about Natalia Petrova, the Moscow-based journalist, Mr Aleksandr Mnatsakanyan, said: “I can only say good things about Natalia. I saw her with her camera in Abkhazia and Chechnya.”
Natalia is a documentary film maker. She made a film about Karabakh, titled “Children of Karabakh”. She was sorry that she had no opportunity to edit the film properly, given that she had been wounded by a splinter which almost cost her leg.
Then, together with her husband, Mr Ruslan Umarov, they did a film titled “The Ancient Land of the Chechens”. They met in Chechnya. Ruslan became her husband and producer. They did the film together. The film was screened in Germany when Natalia was six months pregnant.
Ruslan said to her: “I will carry you on my arms if need be, but you have to see the results of your work.” They arrived in Moscow, where they received German visas within a day.
For Natalia, the premier of her film about Chechnya was one of the most important moments of her life. She had not risked in vain, having smuggled video cassettes with important shoots hidden in her underpants.
She recalled: “Everybody was after us. The federal troops on the one side, and those Chechens who did not know us on the other.” The film was an attempt to break through to people’s souls. “I tried to find the roots of the conflict,” Natalia said.
The film received the Grand Prix of the German Film Academy in 1997.
At the time of the latest trouble in Kazan, Natalia had just finished another documentary film, “Abkhazia, My Love”. Not long before the attack on her family, she had come back from a screening of her film in Abkhazia. She was planning to go to another screening in Georgia.
Natalia was just another Russian journalist trying to bring together two peoples separated by conflict.
Now everything has been postponed. Natalia’s children and parents are in constant fear and shock from the criminal attack of the cops. The girls are not going to school. Mary suffers from a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder. When I called Natalia, I heard her mother saying: “Quick, Mary’s temperature is again at 40.3 C.”
Natalia herself is in bad need of treatment. The cerebral concussion that she suffered causes severe headaches.
Talking to me, she forgot the word for the virtual community where one can publish information about her. I asked her, did she mean the internet? “Yes, of course. I have to write everything myself. Colleagues in Kazan will not do anything; they are afraid.”
Natalia said she had hoped that her beloved Tatarstan would be a land of peace and tranquility for her, but it turned out that Russia is going through very strange times. Not only journalists, but their families, are being attacked.
Mr Andrey Mironov comments on Natalia Petrova’s nightmare in Kazan: “They are taking advantage of the fact that she is not prominent. She does not live in Moscow. She is a quiet and soft-spoken person.” But why then do they fear and hate her so much?
Natalia was born into a family of professional soldiers in a military town in Siberia. Her father was a colonel in the Soviet Army, while her uncle, Lt. Gen. Petrov, was head of the personnel department at the South-Caucasian military district until the very beginning of the war in Abkhazia. He could have become Russia’s Minister of Defence instead of the infamous Pavel Grachev, but refused. Grachev did not.
Then, the first Chechen war began. Natalia recalled that her uncle was one of the biggest problems she had in her tours in Chechnya. He did everything to prevent her from going to the war zone. Yet she did go and did film.
After the attack on Natalia’s family on 6 September 2007, her father has not talked to anyone. She only asked her daughter: “Why didn’t you take the matter to the conclusion? Why didn’t you fight against them when you were harassed in 2005? Why didn’t you take the case to court?”
Natalia had already met the man called “Slava”… In 2005, four heads of state met in Kazan: Putin, Yushchenko, Nazarbaev, and Lukashenka. Natalia was one of seventeen journalists accredited to the summit.
She was on her way to the international press centre, when two men seized her by the arms at the bus stop. Neither showed any documents; they just said: “You are going with us.”
Natalia began to shout: “Help, I am being kidnapped!” Thanks to the cover she received from people around her, she managed to phone her colleagues. After 15 minutes, a car arrived from the press centre and took her away.
A criminal investigation was initiated, but it came to nothing. Natalia said: “I have no time to worry about myself. I have my children, my work, my new film to take care of…” She left for Abkhazia.
Natalia said she did not see anything strange in the situation she has found herself in. Her family always said that one must call a spade a spade.
In summer 2006, there was a contest in Tatarstan called “I am a citizen of Russia”. The contest was organised by the department of the Federal Bureau of Migration in the Republic of Tatarstan.
There were five prizes: for the best drawing, best tale, best poem, best song, and best photograph.
Natalia’s daughters took part in the drawing contest, choosing the popular actor, Marat Basharov, as their subject. They were rooting for him to win in the televised ice-skating contest, “Ice Dances”, and hoped that if they would win, so would their favourite, Marat.
Natalia had a lot of confidence in her daughters’ talent. She felt that her daughters had inherited the genes of one of her mother’s forefathers, the Polish aristocrat, Rozinski, who was deported to Siberia. Natalia’s daughters loved to draw.
Mary was long unsatisfied with the results of their work. Natalia tried to convince her that the victory of an actor over Olympic champions was unlikely. Yet Mary was adamant in her goal: her victory would ensure victory for Marat Basharov as well.
“After all, he’s our Tatar,” Mary said.
The girls won. Basharov won his well-earned prize as well. Mary received her first art prize from Col. Gen. Romodanovsky of the local police corps. People’s fates are strangely intertwined by Russia’s contemporary history.
Now this young winner of a federal contest for the young citizens of the Russian Federation, daughter of the Russian journalist, Ms Natalia Petrova, and Mr Ruslan Umarov from Chechnya, is lying ill in bed.
Mary has had a temperature of over 40 C for the past few days. The doctors say it is because of stress. They say she needs to be healed. How can one heal the horror that the small girl had to endure when she defended her mother with a children’s umbrella?
Natalia told me: “You know, the Beno family’s Chechen blood is definitely there.” According to legend, her father’s family are direct descendants of the one-legged Baisangur, a famous Chechen commander in the 19th century.
When Natalia returned home on that day, mauled and exhausted, Mary came to her and said: “Mom, I have a surprise.” She opened her palm and showed the tooth that the policemen had smashed in.
Natalia could not take it anymore. She still laments that she could not contain herself. She shouted like an animal: “I don’t believe in God anymore!” Mary replied: “There’s no need for that. You are a saintly person. This is just an ordeal.”
How many ordeals does every Russian have to suffer before we make our choice? Natalia recalled her friends who perished in the Chechen war. “I am sorry for Anna. Many did not even leave any children behind. We were just kids then, I think.”
Natalia was very happy that I called. She understood that she needed help, but did not really expect to get any. Our talk ended with her phrase: “How many people have to suffer because they have no one to turn to? How many people this Slava has already sent to the after-life?”
There is a saying in Tatar: “A scoundrel always finds a bludgeon in the form of an idiot.” This “Slava” is that bludgeon. He will continue doing his work until we stop the scoundrels.
Translation: Kerkko Paananen.