Among the Ingush - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 21. Among the Ingush

I had heard of Issa Kostoev, but if you’re under fifty you probably won’t have done. He was the Russian police officer in charge of Crimes of Special Importance who in 1990 artfully coaxed a confession from the serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, a Ukrainian engineer with fifty-three victims to his name. Today, Kostoev is a tireless and outspoken member of the Russian parliament, urging greater respect and citizens’ rights for the people of the North Caucasus, and particularly for his own people, the Ingush, whose fate he feels is unknown to the wider world.

He was barely born when Stalin declared all Chechen and Ingush to be criminals for collaborating with the German invader - a thing they had emphatically not done. The entire Ingush nation - his mother included - was forcibly deported to slave-labour camps in Kazakhstan. One of his earliest childhood memories is watching Russian guards on horseback whipping his mother for gleaning corn. The Ingush, he says darkly, hate all invaders equally. Even when Stalin died and they were grudgingly allowed home, they found their houses given over to the Ossetians, a tribe of Christianized usurpers from south of the mountains, and Stalin’s former henchmen. But what angers him most is the racial discrimination of the average Russian towards his people.

‘I’m a Russian nigger,’ he insists, yanking furiously at his Asian nose and ears. ‘I can be arrested in the Moscow streets any time, just for having these!’ Then without apology he changes metaphors, claiming that the Ingush are Russia’s Palestinians: ‘First they kick us out of our towns and villages, then they hate us for surviving.’

He tells me he will get a group of men together and take me to Ingushetia, why not? It’s a spontaneous invitation but, as I quickly realize, a genuine one. We will explore the glories of the landscape together, we will meet the people of Ingushetia, and I will judge for myself. And while my head is still reeling, I reply that I am honoured, and nothing would give me greater pleasure, and we shake hands on it then and there. The year is 1993.

All the best interrogators have a certain way with them, some personal characteristic they have learned to turn into a weapon of persuasion. Some present themselves as the soul of sweet reason, others strive to scare or unsettle; others to overwhelm you with their frankness and charm. But big, very tough, utterly inconsolable Issa Kostoev, from the moment you meet him, instils in you an urge to please. Nothing you can say or do, it seems, will dispel the air of perpetual sadness that accompanies his kind, elderly smile.

‘And Chikatilo?’ I ask him. ‘What was your moment of breakthrough?’

A half-lowering of the heavy eyelids, a small sigh. ‘The reek of his breath,’ he replies, after a long pull at his cigarette. ‘Chikatilo ate the private parts of his victims. Over time it affected his digestion.’

A two-way radio crackles. We are sitting head to head in the permanent dusk of the upper floor of a rickety old building in Moscow with the curtains drawn. Armed men knock, enter, exchange a word, go out again. Are they cops? Ingush patriots? Are we in an office or a safe house? And yes, he’s right: I am among exiles. The stern young woman who is introduced to me only as ‘the Prosecutor’ could as well be one of Salah Tamari’s fighters in Sidon or Beirut. The wheezing photocopier, the ancient typewriter, the half-eaten sandwiches, the overflowing ashtrays and tins of warm Coke are the mandatory furnishings of a Palestinian freedom fighter’s tenuous existence. So is the enormous pistol Kostoev keeps strapped to his rump, except for the times when he slides it into his groin for greater comfort.

I was interested in the Ingush partly because, as Kostoev rightly said, nobody in the Western world seemed to have heard of them: my American literary agent even asked me whether I had invented them. But mainly I was interested because on my travels I had become drawn to the fate of subject nations after the end of the Cold War. It was the same curiosity that led me at different times to Kenya, Congo, Hong Kong and Panama. In the early nineties the future of the Muslim republics of the North Caucasus was still on the scales. Would the Cold War ‘spheres of interest’ endure? With Russians freed from the chains of Bolshevism, might their southern dependencies wish to be free of Russia? And if so, will their age-old wars with the Bear be resumed?

The short answer, as we now know, is yes, they would indeed be resumed, and at frightful cost. But at the time of my conversation with Kostoev, the Asian republics’ cry for independence was deafening and nobody seemed to foresee - or, if they did, to care - that the price of suppression might be the radicalization of millions of moderate Muslims.

I had planned to set my new novel in Chechnya, but now I’d met Kostoev I preferred the cause of the Ingush next door, whose little country had been given away in their absence. Back home in Cornwall, I set about preparing for our promised trip. I applied for a visa and, with Kostoev’s support, got one. From the sports shop in Penzance I bought a rucksack and, surprisingly, a money-belt, in anticipation of my trip. I tried to get a little fitter so that I wouldn’t disgrace myself in the highest mountains in Europe. I contacted British academics who specialized in Russia’s Muslim communities, and discovered, as you always seem to when you start to delve, that there was an international community of impassioned scholars who talked and breathed nothing but the North Caucasus. I became its temporary and very junior member. I cultivated expatriate Chechens and Ingush in Europe, and picked their brains.

For reasons that I didn’t enquire into, but could well understand, Kostoev preferred to communicate through non-Caucasian intermediaries. He said I should be sure to provide myself with plenty of American cigarettes and a few trinkets. He recommended a cheap wristwatch, gold plated, a Zippo cigarette lighter or two, and a couple of ballpoint pens with metal cases. These were for the likelihood that our train southward was stopped by bandits. They were decent bandits, Kostoev insisted, and they didn’t want to kill anyone. It was just that they felt they had a right to exact a charge from anyone passing through their territory.

He had reduced our bodyguard to six. Six would be plenty. I bought the trinkets and the Zippos and added them to my rucksack. Forty-eight hours before I was due to depart for Moscow, and thence for Nazran, our intermediary phoned to say the trip had been called off. The ‘appropriate authorities’ could not be responsible for my safe passage and wished me not to come until things had settled down. Which authorities I never knew, but when I turned on the evening news a couple of days later I had reason to be grateful to them. The Red Army had launched a massive land and air attack on Chechnya, and neighbouring Ingushetia looked like being dragged into the war.

Fifteen years on, when I came to write A Most Wanted Man, I chose a Chechen for my innocent young Russian Muslim caught up in the so-called war on terror. And I called him Issa, after Issa Kostoev.