I took a dump in a dead man's dacha.
Not just any dead man -- this was Afghan War hero, presidential candidate and Krasnoyarsk governor General Alexander Lebed's dacha toilet. On Sunday, Lebed died in a helicopter accident that will undoubtedly keep all the local conspiracy-theorists gainfully employed. The timing of his death -- coming just after Khattab's -- will no doubt be noted as "significant," since Lebed is the one who brought the first Chechen war to an end. One should expect cheap comparisons to Venezuela's Air Force Chief Gen. Luis Acevedo, who died in a similar helicopter accident due to "low cloud cover" shortly after the coup to oust President Chavez failed a few weeks ago.
Yet the sad truth is that in all likelihood, Lebed died in a helicopter accident, and that's it. Sad because it's an unspectacular end to an almost-spectacular life. Lebed simply doesn't matter enough today to warrant a state-sponsored assassination. He does have his local enemies -- including jailed ex-aluminum magnate Anatoly Bykov and much of the Krasnoyarsk elite. However, the Big Cheeses who run this country, from the Kremlin to Anatoly Chubais and Oleg Deripaska, have found Lebed to be both useful and easy to manipulate. Willingly and unwillingly, he has served them well.
I first got to know about Lebed from his detractors -- Limonov, and later, in Transdneistr, from the local breakaway regime leaders, who held a grudge against Lebed that I never quite understood. It is commonly said that Lebed turned the 14th Army on the Moldovans during the brief civil war there, forcing peace between the Slavic separatists and the Moldovan Army and helping to secure the Transdneistr's independence. Local rebels in Tiraspol told me, however, that they had already secured Transdneistr and Bendera before Lebed arrived, and that in fact Lebed had turned his guns on the Russian rebels, killing among others a celebrated pro-Slavic bandit-hero named Kostenko (if I remember right), thereby establishing not peace with the Moldovans, but rather Lebed's control over the Russian separatists. For this, they never forgave him.
I met the General in May of 1999. CNN had sent over a team from Seattle to do a 1-hour documentary on "The Real Russia" using the eXile to frame its story. Taibbi and I did our best to tolerate and accommodate the CNN crew, who fussed around in their Gore-Tex North Face uniforms, lightweight hiking boots and titanium coffee thermoses for their specially-brewed Starbuck's coffee. It was the CNN crew's idea to take us out to Krasnoyarsk to interview General Lebed. They thought it was a great story -- that Lebed, as both a nationalist and an anti-Communist who leaned liberal when it came to his economic program, was the future of Russia.
In a way they weren't completely wrong. Vladimir Putin probably lifted his liberal-nationalist schtick from Lebed. Only, Putin has done it much better, and much more successfully, largely by keeping his cards close to his chest, something Lebed was incapable of.
I was coming off a colossal speed binge when we flew out to Krasnoyarsk with CNN. The following morning, I accompanied the TV crew to the governor's office. Taibbi stayed behind -- he was in bad shape.
CNN's correspondent, Jack Hammon (whom we'd nicknamed "Hack Jammin'"), briefly interviewed Lebed, delivering softball questions with the caring tone of a nursery school teacher -- a tone common to Americans when they want people to know that they're trying to understand them.
My turn to interview came. CNN hooked a mike up to my left breast, sat me right next to Lebed, and rolled. I was terrified. Lebed's head, when viewed up-close, was a scary thing to behold: like a Half Moon Bay prize pumpkin, only ossified and pocked. His gestures were exaggerated, like the macho vozhd' from those old Eisenshtein movies; his voice rattled my giardia-infested guts.