MOSCOW -- Leo Tolstoy told the story best, 130 years ago.
"It was a time of war in the Caucasus," he wrote. "The roads were not safe by night or day. If ever a Russian ventured to ride or walk any distance away from his fort, the Tartars killed him or carried him off to the hills. So it had been arranged that twice every week a body of soldiers should march from one fortress to the next to convoy travelers from point to point."
The Russian writer called his short story "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" and told of two Russian officers seized as they rode home through the treacherous mountains. The Muslim people of the Caucasus were known as Tartars then; modern Russians call them by their ethnic names: Chechens, Dagestanis, Ingush and others. Then they were at war, as Russia tried to subjugate a fierce people; so are they today.
The two Russian soldiers of 130 years ago were taken by one Tartar, who sold them to another. They would bring the master a fine ransom, and they were ordered to write to their relatives, begging for money.
"Paper was brought to them, and they wrote the letters. Shackles were put on their feet, and they were taken behind the Mosque to a deep pit about 12 feet square, into which they were let down.
"Life was now very hard for them. Their shackles were never taken off, and they were not let out into the fresh air. Unbaked dough was thrown to them as if they were dogs, and water was let down in a can."
Today, hundreds of people know Tolstoy's story intimately, terrifyingly. Russia fought another war with Chechnya from 1994 to 1996, and since then, nearly 1,100 people have been kidnapped there and in nearby Dagestan and Ingushetia. About 600 hostages are in captivity.
Business is brisk and lucrative, run by ordinary criminals as well as by insurgents who use the ransoms to finance their war. The kidnappers are not particular about whom they take, as long as they're useful or valuable to someone, able to work as slaves or fetch a nice price. Children age 4 or 5 have been captured. This year, a 72-year-old man, thought to have been the oldest hostage, was released after 18 months.
The victims are Chechens, Russian soldiers, Russian generals, humanitarian workers, teachers, scientists, journalists -- anyone, foreign or local. Ransoms vary from $1,000 to $3 million. When negotiations go wrong, they go very wrong. Three Britons and a New Zealander working for a British telecom company in Chechnya were beheaded after they were seized last year.
"While we rescue one or two people," says Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired army major who has helped negotiate the release of numerous hostages, "they abduct four or five more."
Today, a trip to the Caucasus has become unthinkable because of the likelihood of kidnapping. Even charitable groups have been driven out, although their help is desperately needed by a new flood of refugees, suffering from a recent outbreak of fighting.
On Sept. 20, 1997, two representatives of International Orthodox Christian Charities, which is based in Baltimore, were kidnapped after delivering humanitarian aid to a Chechen settlement in northern Ingushetia.
The two men, Russians, were eventually released -- one after six months, the other after 11 months. But the agency could no longer risk working there and, like nearly all other foreign agencies, pulled out.
"What's going on is unprecedented," says Mark Hodde, IOCC associate director of development. "The scale and magnitude is horrendous. It prevents a humanitarian response to extremely needy people." He thinks sadly of orphan children, with little food and no heat, who should be receiving IOCC help, but for whom nothing can be done.
Even the mothers of soldiers have become prey. During the war, Russian mothers roamed through Chechnya, searching for missing soldier sons. As a matter of honor, Chechens looked after and helped them. But the other day, four Russian mothers disappeared from the capital, Grozny, apparently into the hands of kidnappers.
All the stories are horrifying, but some are more unimaginable than others. In August, Izmailov says, a Russian officer in Vladikavkaz, just to the east of the Chechen border, sold eight of his soldiers to Chechen kidnappers.
The Caucasus and their troubles still inspire writers.
"The whole Union of Writers envies me my material," says Nikolai Ivanov, a former hostage who has written extensively on his captivity. Of course, he would gladly have done without it.
Tolstoy was sent to the Caucasus as a Russian officer but was never held hostage. Ivanov went as a colonel -- in the tax police -- and was kidnapped.
Looking back, the arrogance of his superiors was shocking.
Russia was pulling its men out of Chechnya in disgrace, having lost the war, killed tens of thousands of civilians, and destroyed cities, villages and all respect for Russia and its laws. Ivanov was told to begin re-establishing tax collections there. Shortly after his arrival, in June 1996, he was kidnapped with a banker and their driver.
"They have groups that catch people on the flatland," Ivanov says. "Then they turn them over to people in the mountains. They kept me in a hole."
Once he was held in a basement so shallow he could only kneel or lie down. For two months, he had only macaroni to eat.
"The most difficult thing was not to do anything," Ivanov says. Sometimes he passed the time catching mice. He transformed empty packs of L&M; cigarettes into calendars, tiny playing cards and dominoes.
The Chechens demanded a ransom of $500,000. But the tax police and the former KGB instead conspired to take the leader of the gang hostage. They were no match for the Chechens, who detected the plot. They took Ivanov into a field and put him into a grave-like hole.
"I was ordered to strip to the waist," Ivanov says. "I felt a submachine gun at the back of my head. I was told, 'If the operation starts, you'll be shot.' They took a Polaroid photo and sent it to the group. The group flew back to Moscow."
Eventually, the tax police found a Chechen from a nearby village who was being held in the notorious Butyrka pretrial prison in Moscow. He had been arrested in a roundup of Caucasians after three bombs exploded on Moscow trolleys and subway cars in 1996. The authorities told the man's family they could have their son if they pressured the gang to free Ivanov in exchange.
"The gang didn't consent for a long time," Ivanov says. "Our men showed the Chechen to his family to awaken them emotionally. They began to press the head of the gang. Finally, he agreed."
After 113 days, Ivanov was freed. He was thin and weak, and his clothes had turned to rags.
He cannot imagine an end to the kidnappings. Too many Chechens learned only how to fight during the war, and few jobs exist. Kidnapping has become the new trade. "So far," he says, "we are doomed."
Tolstoy knew that.
"A Prisoner in the Caucasus," he wrote, and the prisoner was Russia.