A debt of honor has been pursuing me for years: to write about Salauddin Islamov, whose name is quite unknown in Estonia. Yet this man pays an important role in the history of Estonia’s diplomacy, since he was the sole citizen of Russia, who physically protected Estonia’s Ambassador Marina Kaljurand during the siege of the embassy ten years ago.
Islamov, who will be 49 in July, headed the Moscow press center of one of Russia’s largest-selling newspapers, Argumenty i Fakty (AiF). Kaljurand held a press conference there on May 2, 2007, which opened with an unprecedented attack of Russian youths on the Estonian diplomats. The ambassador remained unharmed largely thanks to Islamov’s quick action.
Postimees finally managed to find Islamov in Grozny, where he had moved from Moscow. The following is his story, where he addresses people by their first name – a Chechen way of showing respect.
Marina: Marina Kaljurand, Estonian Ambassador to Moscow in 2005-2008
Franek: Franek Persidski, political and press officer of the Estonian Embassy
Urmas: Urmas Popp, police officer of the embassy and the ambassador’s bodyguard
Yakimenko: Vasili Yakimenko, leader of the largest pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi, who launched and organized the week-long siege of the Estonian Embassy, using the relocation of the “bronze soldier” as pretext.
As the head of the press center I had to seek for interesting subjects for events. As the affair with the embassy began, I became interested in it. I was interested in Estonia since Johar Dudayev returned from there and we received delegations from Estonia all the time in the early 1990s. (He refers to the invitation of General Dudayev, commander of the Soviet bomber regiment in Tartu, to become the leader of Chechnya. Islamov was then working in the Chechen government structures – J.P.)
I called the embassy and they accepted my proposal right away. I got acquainted with Franek, who said, no problems, let’s do it. We held the first news conference in April. It was peaceful and did not have much resonance.
Before the second press conference on May 2 Franek phoned himself and asked whether it would be possible. I said, of course, go right ahead. It is true, he warned that they initially wanted to do it in RIA Novosti (Russian governmental media agency) and had an agreement, which was broken at the last moment. That is typical of the Russian media press centers – they keep newsmakers at a short leash to cancel news conferences at the last moment and screw up all plans. I am quite certain that it had been deliberate. Franek added that they would not want us to have problems because of them. I answered that no one had specifically warned me not to allow the Estonian ambassador (to speak), so that we can do it.
The news conference was supposed to begin as I received a phone call that the gang is moving towards our building from the embassy. The first characters were there even before Marina arrived. I went down and asked about their business there, told them to get off. These were quite young and we drove them away. But it appeared that they had modern Kenwood walkie-talkies and they immediately announced when Marina’s car had arrived.
We were having tea in my office before the press conference as we could hear noise outside. The whole gang had rushed into the courtyard. Yakimenko no longer controlled the situation. They next forced their way into the press center. I could hear fighting in the corridor. It appeared that Urmas had stayed outside my office door, but did not come inside. He did not get confused, but fought them every way he could. He is a very tough man! I understood that we cannot protect the door very long; they will definitely force their way in. We did call the police, but they did not respond at all. They showed up only after some forty minutes. In central Moscow, imagine that.
There was a door in the back wall of my office (it had once been a pass-through room – J.P.) with a clothes stand and a small desk behind it; some half a meter wide.
Franek and I suddenly understood that we should hide Marina there. We had her sit there and closed the door. A bit later those bastards finally broke into the office.
It was quite funny in some way, since they did not know Marina by face. They only knew that the ambassador is female. My sales manager Lilia, a small, ark woman, was all the time sitting at her desk in the corner. She could not leave the room before. And they thought that she is the Estonian ambassador. Someone shouted: “Let that Nazi b…h have it!” Just like that. They must have been stoned silly or under adrenalin high from the sense of impunity to shout such nonsense. Lilia was so shocked she hid under the desk.
I managed to bring down the first one to broke in, face down into the floor. Even broke the parquet. Urmas was fighting like a lion, they grabbed him by arms and legs. Franek was struggling as well. The three of us were the only ones there. I had a moment to think: dammit, my little kids are at home (Islamov’s older son and daughter were a couple of years old at that time – J.P.) is something happens to me, who will take care of them? I was living alone at that time, there was only the Tajik nanny, but she could not have done anything in Moscow alone. I was aware that I have to be careful in fight; if I break some bones, they are certain to drag me to the police and would not release in a hurry.
Since there were a number of them, they got in each other’s way. We somehow managed to pull Urmas into the office. We were weakening, there were so many opponents. Finally Urmas managed to pull out his gas can. He did fine, did not spare the gas. I believe he emptied the whole can into them. This way we managed to drive them out of the office. I broke the led off a chair and thus blocked the door. Before being shoved out they actually threw their expensive walkie-talkies at us. I got two Kenwoods as booty. Moreover, I got their flag and someone’s cap with hair in it.
I took this as a true Chechen: Marina and Franek were my guests and someone tried to attack them. This is unacceptable to a Chechen – much like someone tries to pull your pants off. I was truly furious. It is good I did not kill anyone.
Marina was standing all the time behind the double doors where Franek and I had hid her. As she came out, she looked like a true Estonia lady: superficially calm. But it was obvious that her emotions were running high.
They probably did not really understand in the Kremlin what had happened, since it came close to a physical attack against a foreign ambassador. Just like what happened to Griboyedov. (Angry Persians broke into the Russian Embassy in Teheran in 1829 and killed the ambassador, the writer Alexander Griboyedov – J.P.) France Press, Euronews and other large agencies were present at the press conference and they reported it all at once.
I still cannot understand what these youths must have thought about Marina to attack her like that. Especially if they could not even recognize her.
The attackers had their own security. They were all FSO (Russia’s state protection service, which provides security to important government officials and institutions – J.P.) Thanks to my job I knew how they work. I can always tell them by their standard appearance and equipment. They accompanied Yakimenko and his commissars.
Finally two policemen arrived and drove the attackers away. Only then I could leave the office. I went to the hall and saw that Yakimenko was sitting there like an honest man. I told him off: get lost, you animal! (In fact, Islamov used somewhat harsher terms – J.P.) He started whining that he is in Russia and has the right to be there. I said that the same way I could walk into his apartment and settle down there, saying that I am in Russia. The bastard!
Well I was delighted with the way Marina, Urmas and Franek carried on. How bravely Urmas stood there: so what if they attack, I stand here and guard the post as long as I live. Like a Viking! You could see at once that he was brought up well.
And Marina was, of course, the best. I apologized and asked whether to cancel the news conference. She said that the conference will of course take place. I then understood that she is a really strong woman. Not all men would have dared to go out after such an attack. There was still a number of “them” around, “they” could have attacked again and there was no guarantee that the situation would not get out of control.
The only thing Marina demanded was that she would not go to the conference room as long as Yakimenko is sitting there. “Let him go away, I do not want to see him!” Later someone asked at the press conference, why so, they came to see you. Marina answered: “If you want to visit someone, then you should wait until you are invited”: She clearly showed her contempt towards that bunch.
I was still excited until the evening. A kept thinking what I had done wrong. I still remember that chilly feeling of fear – what if something happens to her (the ambassador – J.P.) How would I look in my children’s eyes afterwards? What would have my father said? If she had been injured or, God forbid, killed, my father would have definitely asked, why I am still alive. He would have asked first, how I intend to live on after that. He would no longer call me his son and I should not call him Father. This is exactly what he would have said.
In the evening they began to call me and make threats. Yakimenko himself called and promised that it is not yet over for me. I even took my children to a friend’s place in another end of Moscow, because “they” knew where I lived. And I have to admit: “they” managed it – after my contract with AiF ended two years later, no one would employ me in Moscow.
There was a scandal in AiF as well. The management was angry that I had allowed the “Nazi” hold a press conference. I retorted, why do they buy paper from these “Nazis” and print their magazines on it? They printed the AiF supplements in Estonia then because it was high quality work at low cost. They got scared that now they have to amend the records about printing in Estonia.
Marina later invited me to the embassy. She of course thanked me, although there was nothing to thank me for. I was later invited to all the events in the embassy as long as Marina was the ambassador. I had a number of Estonian friends in Moscow after than. This was my main reward. .Anyway, you do not do such things for others, but for your own sake. I consider myself a rather cynical and practical person, but I have some principles I am ready to die for.