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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hunger Strikers Protest Chechen War




Viktor Popkov stood Friday praying in a makeshift tent, made from a plastic table with an umbrella and some plastic sheets, and set up in the middle of an empty courtyard in central Moscow.


Popkov, a self-styled peacemaker and Old Believer, started a hunger strike Friday with Islam specialist Mikhail Roshchin as a gesture of "solidarity with the Chechen people and in memory of all those who died as a result of wars and crimes borne from our indifference and egotism."


If they have enough strength, the two men plan to fast until "Russia ceases to destroy Chechnya and stops its self-destructive policy of escalating ethnic and religious hate." They intend to stay in their improvised chapel - featuring only an icon, several religious books and a sleeping bag - at least through the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections.


They have city permission to stay in the tent on Maly Karetny Pereulok, near Pushkin Square, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. They have to go home overnight.


"Dear Chechen brothers and sisters, we want to be with you in this nightmare ... so we can overcome with dignity the ordeal we've created ourselves," the activists wrote in their manifesto. "We are trying to push through the wall of silence surrounding the violence waged against you by Russia's corrupt authorities, because we can't stop hearing the roar of our Russian bombers bringing death to you."


The white-haired, bearded Popkov, 53, has worked since 1989 as head of the Omega mission promoting ethnic harmony, and in 1996 he set up a committee to keep watch on Russia's and Chechnya's adherence to the peace deal ending the war.


He said the hunger strike is in memory not only of Chechen civilians who have died but of fallen Russian soldiers and victims of the September apartment building bombings.


Popkov said he hopes to spark some repentance in the hearts of his fellow Russians for the government's policies against Chechnya.


"It's all our fault," he said. "We want to sort out our problems at somebody else's expense. That's what [Moscow Mayor Yury] Luzhkov's dirty policies in Moscow and the rise in [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's rating are based on. It's terrifying when a society supports the cynicism of its leaders."


He encouraged those who have lost loved ones in Russia's ethnic conflicts to join him in his vigil, either by signing the manifesto, fasting for three days in private or joining the public action. Popkov said he has the support of at least six other activists, including writer Andrei Bitov and Alexander Tkachenko, director of the Russian PEN-Center.


"I know it won't change anything, but it's a big help to us," said Zainap Gashayeva, a Chechen member of the Union of North Caucasian Women. "I told them I admire their courage because public opinion is completely pro-war."


A dozen people of various confessions, including Buddhists, Quakers and Moslems, came to express their support for the two men Friday morning.


Andrei Mironov, a member of human rights group Memorial, said he was skeptical the hunger strikers would help awaken the conscience of most Russians.


"People would follow if you called them to go beat up the Caucasians, but not something like this," he said bitterly.