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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Quiet, Fierce Memories of Exile

A small group, 30 in all, gathered Friday around the stone dedicated to Stalin's victims at Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters, but their anger was raw.

They were Chechens, some of whom had traveled from Grozny, gathering to commemorate Feb. 23, the 52nd anniversary of Josef Stalin's deportation of the entire Chechen and Ingush people in 1944.

"I was 10 years old at the time. I remember it like it was yesterday," said Idris Bakayev, 62, a director of one of Grozny's hospitals. His family, along with thousands of others, was loaded at gunpoint into cattle wagons and driven for days to the desolate steppes of Kazakhstan.

Stalin accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis and exiled them from their homeland. Those who could not be trucked out were rounded up and massacred. The Chechens were only allowed to return in 1957, after Stalin's death.

But Bakayev said the accusation was unwarranted. His father and uncles, who were at the front at the time of the deportations, had all fought loyally in the Soviet army.

One uncle died at the front and his father was crippled, but neither were remembered for their bravery, he said.

Veterans were celebrating the Day of the Defenders of the Fatherland around the country Friday, while the Russian Army was waging a war against innocent people in Chechnya, he said.

"We came specially from Grozny to draw attention to the fate of the Chechen people and to ask the people of Russia, who we know are old friends with good hearts, to demand a withdrawal of forces," Bakayev said.

But few Russians, trading and shopping across Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, gave them a glance. "Why are the Russians not doing something for their boys who are hungry and cold and are dying in Chechnya?" asked Laila Barayeva, 49, who came from Grozny.

"I just want to cry. People are living normally here and at home there is war and atrocities happening every day," she said.

A few did stop by. "It was unforgivable to deport them," said Natalia Varshavskaya, 24, a Russian economist who had come down from her office at the State Statistics Committee to show her support. "And all the Chechens remember that; their leaders [Dzhokhar] Dudayev and [Shamil] Basayev, they remember it," she said.

In Grozny, a group of up to 100 people met at the Minutka roundabout to mark the anniversary but were barred by police, backed by Russian troops, from entering the city center to demonstrate, Reuters reported.

Russian troops and local police were out in force on the streets of Grozny to avert any trouble on the day that all Chechens regard as a day of mourning.

Grozny's city center was completely closed to traffic and no incidents were reported, Reuters said. A rally was also held in Nazran, capital of neighboring Ingushetia, where many Chechen refugees fled to escape the war, Interfax reported.