Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Country's a War Zone

"Everywhere is war. Me say war." — Bob Marley.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

NAZRAN, Ingushetia — An attack helicopter roared a few meters above our car and disappeared behind an emerald green slope of the North Caucasus foothills. On the ground, a dozen tanks pointed their silent guns at us. A group of policemen wielding Kalashnikov automatic rifles waved us past a checkpoint.

Chechnya was close, just behind the steep wooded ridge — but this was not the war in Chechnya. This was peacetime in Ingushetia.

Russians bring their guns and tanks to Ingushetia, a republic that borders Chechnya. Chechens bring their wounded and homeless here. Everything about its neighbors is bringing it misery.

But it's not as though the war that rages on in Chechnya has spilled into this exquisite mountainous land. In fact, war has always been here, and in every other Russian city and town.

In the United States, a system of interstate highways was created so that the army could quickly move across the country and congregate anywhere it needs to strike. In Russia, it's everything that surrounds the country's roads and highways that serves the military: cows, pastures, forests and even that hydroelectric dam that spans the Volga in Yaroslavl region. The dam apparently is a highly strategic military site, so key to Russian military plans that it's not even on the map lest some errant, malevolent U.S. bomber should decide to bomb it into oblivion.

Fields, rivers and lakes in the Chelyabinsk region, in the southern Urals, are contaminated by a plutonium plant that used to build nuclear bombs. A chemical weapons storage site leaks poison into the groundwater in the Kurgan region next door. Decommissioned nuclear submarines are left to rot by the sea outside Murmansk, in Russia's north. Advanced surface-to-air missiles accidentally explode at military bases outside Moscow. City crowds vacationing at summer cottages in Karelia relax to the sound of nightly shootings: It's target practice, the usual.

For ages, Dutch investors have been eyeing a part of downtown St. Petersburg known as New Holland — an assortment of 300-year-old red-brick warehouses sprinkled atop a set of tiny islands. Arched stone bridges connect the islands. Patches of grass stick out from between the bricks, and birch trees grow randomly from the walls; the warehouses need repairs. The Dutch would love to turn the old, crumbling buildings into shopping malls with entertainment centers and restaurants. And wouldn't it be lovely to row around the canals that separate the islands?

But you can't, and the Dutch won't. The Russian army stores its ammunition and uniforms and God knows what else in New Holland, and the Russian army is not planning to move out. A 20-minute walk from the Hermitage, New Holland is a spooky, damp patch of darkness, a piece of prime real estate surrendered to the war.

Drivers outside St. Petersburg find signs on both sides of your road that read: "Stop! Warning: free fire zone!" That's because the forests around the city are military firing ranges.

If you walk into the forests outside St. Petersburg, you get hit by target practice.

In Ingushetia, you can see similar signs. But if you veer off the road in Ingushetia, the tanks, the attack helicopter that roars nearby, and possibly soldiers lying in ambush will all be shooting at you.

Either way, you die — in a beautiful land and a de facto war-zone.

Anna Badkhen is a freelance journalist in Moscow.