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The best books on Chechnya

recommended by Vanora Bennett

Award winning reporter and novelist says there are no superlatives too superlative for Anna Politkovskaya, who, after three books and innumerable investigative reporting trips to Chechnya, was murdered in Moscow

Interview by Anna Blundy

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You’ve chosen Tolstoy first.

Yes. This is the story of the 19th-century war between colonial Russia and the tough, fiercely independent mountain tribes they needed to control if they were to have easy access to their new territory of Georgia, on the southern side of the Caucasus mountains. In those days the mountaineers were united against Russia under Imam Shamil. Shamil’s war went on for half a lifetime. Many of the Russian writers of the day served in the war – notably Pushkin and Lermontov – and they wrote about it; so it’s remembered to this day, as literature rather than history. Tolstoy’s book is about a Shamil lieutenant, Hadji Murad, who goes over to the Russians, then tries to go back. What I like about it is that it shows war as profoundly ignoble – as an awful combination of personal circumstances that end in disaster for everyone. Hadji Murad, it turns out, was forced by tribal politics to join Shamil and become his star fighter; he turns to the Russians because he’s forced by more murderous tribal politics. He fears for his family and he tries to go back, with disastrous consequences, because rivalries among the Russian generals mean he doesn’t get the honourable deal from them that he’s been promised. Tolstoy is fearless in showing everyone in the theatre of war trapped between two tyrannies, the Russian tyranny a terrifying imposition, but the demands of the mountain armies no less tyrannical. The book also has a powerful and much-quoted description of how Chechen villagers feel when their homes are burned to the ground by Russian troops. “No one spoke of hatred of the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate. It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings … the desire to exterminate them – like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves – was as natural an instinct as that of self-preservation.”


It is. This next one is a collection of authoritative essays on how Russians and the mountain peoples of the Caucasus (among other Muslims in the former Soviet world) have interacted, from the end of the 19th-century wars to the outbreak of a modern Russian-Chechen war in 1994. There are accounts of various Russian persecutions right through the 20th century, and how they only stifled but never quite eradicated the spirit of the mountain peoples. Russian policies were aimed at bringing all Soviet peoples together in a Russian-speaking, post-religious, freely-intermarrying community. That didn’t fit with what the mountain people wanted. There are accounts of brutal Russian suppression of unrest in the Caucasus early in the 20th century, and of the mass deportation of the Chechens and other mountain peoples to the steppes of Central Asia during World War Two, after Stalin implausibly accused the Chechens of collaborating with the Nazis. The Chechens who survived (many tens of thousands died) were allowed back after Stalin’s death; but resentment, of course, lingers on. There’s a lot in this book, too, about the way Soviet Muslims learned to hide their faith to counter Russianisation; the preservation of religious belief through anything from secret meetings to, later, cassette recordings of sermons, sold in scruffy street markets, right under the noses of the Soviet authorities. And there are fascinating descriptions of the folksy Sufi form of Islam, with saints and shrines and wishing-wells and a traditional prayer in the form of a round-dance, the zikr, that, at least until the modern war, was how Chechens preferred to worship.

And then the first war?

The first two. A Small Victorious War is a very thorough, practical guide to the first of two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya. The authors interviewed everyone connected with the war, except maybe Boris Yeltsin. Their book tells the story of how and why newly independent Russia, in 1991, first gave its various ethnic minorities what the president called “as much independence as you can swallow” and then, a couple of years later, reined them back in – and how Chechnya, alone, refused to give in, leading to war. Chechnya had been run since independence by Dzhokhar Dudayev, whose enthusiasm for independence was probably genuine but whose claims that it could be easily financed, because Chechnya had enough oil to make it as rich as Kuwait, didn’t measure up against reality when Russia imposed an economic blockade. With President Yeltsin surrounded by an increasingly unpleasant bunch of hardliners, led by his bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, Russia’s generals came to feel they could follow the lead of America in Haiti, and boost their administration’s popularity with a quick war to depose what they regarded as an unpleasant little regime on their southern border. They counted without the two centuries of accumulated resentment of Chechens for their Russian invaders; and then they bungled it, and found themselves mired in a long-running, bloody, chaotic and unpopular repeat of the 19th century.

Your next book?

Baiev’s The Oath is probably the least well-known of my books and yet in some ways it’s the best. It’s an eyewitness account by an ordinary Chechen doctor who went home to stitch up wounds and served in the various makeshift hospitals around Grozny during both modern wars – both Yeltsin’s and the war that began under the next president, Vladimir Putin, in 2000. What’s unusual about it is not just the way it brings the facts of both wars to terrifying life, but that Baiev decided to drop the Chechens’ usual reticence about family and personal life and put a lot of the gallant, quietly courageous people in his life, and their backgrounds and memories, into the book. Most books about Chechnya take sides, one way or another. But Baiev is unflinchingly objective. He describes searing Russian injustices and brutalities. But he also shows how war gives Chechen neighbourhood bullies, like the Barayev family, the chance to turn into monsters (the Barayevs are said to have had a hand in many of the most notorious murders of the war, including the beheadings of four British telecoms engineers in 1998). By insisting on treating both Chechens and Russians, as the Hippocratic Oath demands, Baiev fell foul of both camps and had many hair-raising escapes from death. In the end, he had to escape to America, where he can no longer practise as a doctor. More than anything else, it was the uncomplaining, stoical tone of this book that reminded me of being among Chechens during the first war.

And now you’ve got Anna Politkovskaya.

There are no superlatives too superlative for Anna Politkovskaya, who, after three books and innumerable investigative reporting trips to Chechnya, was murdered, execution-style, outside her Moscow apartment in 2007. Politkovskaya, a social affairs reporter, was sent to Chechnya in 2000 by her liberal newspaper editor to cover the second, Putin-era, war, not because she knew about wars but because she was “just a civilian”. She turned out to be the best possible kind of Moscow intellectual – a fearless truth-teller. She took issue with the swaggering, macho, murderous pro-Moscow leaders of today’s Chechnya, under Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, (she campaigned against Putin’s man in Chechnya being named to run the region, interviewing people who’d been interrogated by him and publishing reports that he was a sadistic torturer who enjoyed stripping the skin off his victims’ backs).Yet Politkovskaya had no romantic sympathies with the freedom fighters either. Her targets also included the swaggering, macho, murderous anti-Moscow separatists led by Shamil Basayev, now dead, whose extremism plunged Chechnya into a second war against Putin’s forces in 1999 and brought disaster to hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chechen civilians. She’d had considerable sympathy for earlier, moderate, separatists, under Aslan Maskhadov, who’d tried to find accommodation with Moscow as well as more freedom for their people. But, if Politkovskaya was on anyone’s side, it was that of ordinary civilians. Civilians in Chechnya, torn between two rival tyrannies, who couldn’t get their own stories heard by the world – the people who get woken up by soldiers taking their teenage daughter away to rape, or who lose their legs treading on mines, or whose neighbours get their throats cut or their fingers cut off – whose predicament she movingly described. And, of course, she was on the side of ordinary Russians – the people increasingly hemmed in by a blinkered press and ignorant of the world’s bigger realities. What motivated Politkovskaya to go on braving the danger of Chechnya, long after Putin made it clear that journalists were not welcome at his war, was more than compassion. It was the conviction that Russians needed to know what was being done in their name in the secretive south, behind army lines. “I’m sure this has to be done, for one simple reason,” she wrote briskly in A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya. “As contemporaries of this war, we will be held responsible for it. The classic Soviet excuse of not being there and not taking part in anything personally won’t work. So I want you to know the truth. Then you’ll be free of cynicism.”

The breathtaking horror – and cynicism – she uncovered gave her a mission so important that she separated with her husband and ignored her son’s pleas to stop her new work. Her discoveries are detailed in this extraordinary book, beautifully written, but so full of tragedy it makes the hairs rise on the nape of your neck. She found corrupt Russian soldiers working hand-in-glove with shady Chechen criminals and political extremists. Her stories put flesh on the widely held belief that Chechnya is a for-profit war. The Russian army, which faces being scaled down as there is no Soviet bloc to defend, has found in Chechnya an excuse to perpetuate itself – and get rich. The economics are grisly: a civilian kept in a pit, alive, by Russian soldiers is worth a ransom from his relatives; a corpse’s price is rather higher. “Everyone has found a niche,” she wrote. “The mercenaries at the checkpoints get bribes of ten to 20 roubles around the clock. The generals in Moscow and Chechnya use their war budget for personal gain. Officers of the middle ranks collect ransom for temporary hostages and corpses. Junior officers get to go marauding during the purges.” Hence an official policy based on, at best, outrageous distortions of the truth, and a landscape empty of heroes or winners.

Politkovskaya’s discoveries gave her life a strange new shape. She negotiated with Chechen hostage-takers who took over Moscow’s Dubrovka theatre in October 2002 (a friend of her son’s was among the prisoners). She was subjected to a mock execution by security forces in Chechnya. Kadyrov’s father, an earlier pro-Russian president of Chechnya, “publicly threatened to murder me. He actually said during a meeting of his government that Politkovskaya was a condemned woman”. In 2004, during the siege by Chechen separatists of a school at Beslan in southern Russia, she was asked, by the Chechens, to join the negotiations. She was on the plane south, hoping both to report on the crisis and to act as an intermediary and help to get hundreds of child prisoners out of the boobytrapped gym. But she was slipped a Mickey Finn [drink laced with drugs] on the plane. The next thing she knew, she was in hospital and it was several days later – too late for the children, who had by then been killed in their hundreds. What she remembered of the experience was the three men she’d noticed in the plane, staring at her with the “eyes of enemies”. She blamed the Russian secret services for poisoning her.

Politkovskaya’s killer has never been named. Nor has the killer of another Russian whistle-blower, Sasha Litvinenko, who was slipped a dose of radioactive polonium in Piccadilly a month later, or a host of other anti-war activists who have met strange, untimely ends during Vladimir Putin’s Russian presidency. It is some consolation to know that, while Politkovskaya’s books are still in print, her voice has not been silenced.

Interview by Anna Blundy

October 16, 2009

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Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett covered the first post-Soviet Chechen war for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times. She received a US Press Club Foreign Reporting Award and an Orwell Prize for Journalism. She is also a best-selling historical novelist.

Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett

Vanora Bennett covered the first post-Soviet Chechen war for Reuters and the Los Angeles Times. She received a US Press Club Foreign Reporting Award and an Orwell Prize for Journalism. She is also a best-selling historical novelist.