I finished this book yesterday. I do not know who it took me so long. It has been around my desk for several months even if I loved the previous book by Åsne Seierstad I had read (With Their Backs to the World) and I am always very interested in all the things Russian.
I wanted to gain some insight on the Chechnyan matters. Who the Chechnyans are, what the trouble with Russia is, which developments lead to the war…. Some months ago, I was listening to the BBC and they talked about the current Chechnyan leader, Ramzam Kadyrov and how he is not a separatist, but a member of the United Russia party of Vladimir Putin. Russia finished off the war operations in 2009 and we are now in a phase that has been called of Chechnisation of the conflict. The rule of Kadyrov has been criticised by human rights organisations, but in the end it seems to be what has given stability to the area. So more or less, the situation is of semi-independence with loyalty to Moscow. Most ethnics Russians fleed from Chechnya and the security forces chase the Islamists that still want a total independence from Russia.
After reading some other things, my idea about Chechnya is roughly, that the country is a very tough land and the arrival of the Russian Empire there in the 19th century was not smooth at all. The Chechens have been treated very harshly by the Czarist Russia and also by the Soviet Union, but their own culture has elements of violence and brutality too. In the golden era of the Soviet Union, say the 1970s, everything may have looked rosier. Probably there was a certain level of cultural approach, with higher Chechen classes becoming proficient in Russian or migrating to big urban centers of the USSR, probably some transfers of wealth from the central power to the deprived autonomous republic, but when the Soviet Union collapses and stops providing Chechnya with resources or security, it is the moment of the independentists. Following the pattern of the republics they hang to the power and want to secede. That was all too much for Russia, as the dismemberment of the Soviet Union was already a big loss. In the war we have face to face, an Empire which does not want to disappear and an ethnic group that embraces Islamism as an essential element of identity and has no limits to the use of the violence in order to succeed. Russia committed crimes of war and was criticized by the Western powers, but the enemies of the powerful have a tough task in finding allies (same thing applies to Tibet, or to the Western Sahara to a lesser extent). Through actions of terrorism such as the attack to the Muscovite theatre in 2002 of the massacre of Beslan in 2004 the Chechen separatists lost any possible friends they may have had in the rest of the world. Russia was given a free hand, and indeed and as usual, the Chechens were not a monolithic thing, so there were internal movements that ended up in the current statu quo. This is, very simplified, Alfanje’s vision of Chechnya…. as of today.
According to the preface the book was finished in October 2007 in a moment in which Chechnya’s situation was already quite stabilized. It starts slowly. Seierstad’s technique is to provide painter strokes or the small pieces of a big mosaic. Then she tells the story of Timur, a Chechen boy or that of a Chechen veteran of the Red Army during WWII, who wants to return home not knowing that his people have been deported east to Kazakhstan.
From a political or historical perspective, the book becomes more interesting around the chapter 10, in which we find fine fragments as this one:
Mass deportations of entire nations were an escalation of Stalin’s terror, which until the Second World War had been used against the ‘enemies of the people’ based on class or political affiliation. Beginning in 1943 ‘enemies of the people’ were also identified by ethnic origin. First to be deported to Siberia and Central Asia were a million Volga Germans who were accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Next were the Karachai, a nomadic people living at the foot of the Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus. Then the Kalmyks, a Buddhist people living near the Caspian Sea, were sent east. And in February 1944 it was the turn of the Chechens and Ingush; it was the most comprehensive action since the deportation of the Volga Germans.One week after the cleansing operation began, Stalin received a telegram from his trusty executioner: ‘478,479 people, namely 91,250 Ingush and 387,229 Chechens, have been deported and loaded on to trains. 180 trains are fully loaded, of which 159 have been sent to new areas. Today trains were sent with the government forces and the religious authorities in Chechen-Ingushetia we utilised to carry out the operation. ‘Russians, Avars and Ossetians moved into the empty houses.After the Chechens were deported, Beria sent another telegram to Stalin in which he described the Balkar people of the Caucasus as bandits and accused them of attacking the Red Army. ‘If you agree, before I return to Moscow I can take the necessary steps to give the Balkars a new place to live. I ask for your orders.’ He got them. Later, the Tatars of the Crimea got their turn, too. According to the NKVD, a quarter of those deported died on the way and during the first months in exile.
Åsne Seierstad, The Angel of Grozny, p. 123
Then we have more characters, conversations and interviews. The Russian soldier, invalid after stepping on a mine, the Chechnyan singer living in Moscow who suffers a racist attack, the family of the racist attackers or the Chechen fanatic who killed his sister in a so-called “killing of honour”. A piece which is very interesting is the interview that Seierstad holds with Kadyrov. Sometimes we want to know how others are, it is curious that we can know so much if we pay attention to how the see us:
‘What’s so great about Europe, anyway?’ he asks suddendly. ‘Men and women are equal there. What’s so good about that? The birth rate is low, people don’t get married. The society ruins young men, they don’t want to go into the army – a disaster for the country, a shame. The country will collapse completely; a boy is born and he doesn’t know who his father is, who his relations are, what kind of people he comes from. That’s how I see Europe. There is no patriotism. Here our traditions, our customs, are important to us. The wahhabists tried to force us into their mould, the Arabs tried, the Avars, the Turks, but we always said: We want to remain Chechens. We have everything here – justice, order, Islam. Why accept foreign things? Patriotic education is the most important thing of all. What it is democracy anyway? If it leads to wickedness?
Åsne Seierstad, The Angel of Grozny, pp. 218-219
In general, I must say I liked to book. I wonder why I enjoyed With Their Backs to the World better. Is it maybe because the Serbian characters feel closer? Chechnya is a distant place to where I do not expect ever going. For sure it is more difficult to connect with its reality. Anyway, I love this kind of thick description as a way to complete the numbers of the official statistics with the narrative of the individuals, in order to provide some insight of a higher quality. The Bookseller of Kabul is waiting for me somewhere.