A Russian Dreyfus Affair

No secret file is being used to secure a guilty verdict. The proceedings are held in open court, not in camera. Yet the trial of Colonel Yuri Budanov in the city of Rostov-on-Don on charges of kidnapping, raping and murdering an 18 year old Chechen girl named Elsa Kungaeva contains echoes of the notorious Dreyfus affair that divided France a century ago.

At that time, the French army was licking its wounds from the defeat at Sedan and the creation of Bismarck's imperial Germany. In the words of one of the French novelist Anatole France's characters in a novel written at the time, esteem for the army "is all that is left of our glorious past. It consoles us for the present and gives us hope of the future." An exaggerated sense of lost glory helped incite the French Army to fake the evidence that convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of spying for the Kaiser.

Today's Russian army is not the bastion of reactionary monarchism and anti-Semitism that shaped French officers' behavior in the Dreyfus affair. But the army's bitter resentiment at the demise of Russia's superpower status, reinforced by the military's own humiliating loss of resources and prestige, is no less evident. The army's exalted, tormented, and wounded pride appears to be shaping both its response to Budanov's trial as well as that of President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.

To Russia's officer corps, all opponents are ipso facto the army's enemies and, by extension, enemies of Russia. Unlike their turn-of-the-19th-century French counterparts, however, Russia's officer corps is essentially apolitical, despite decades of dictatorship.