Jan 29, 2007

Book Review: A Small Corner of Hell – Dispatches from Chechnya

A Small Corner of Hell – Dispatches from Chechnya, Anna Politkovskaya Politkovskaya, Anna

Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003, 224 pages

Anna Politkovskaya was a Russian journalist and human rights activist who was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building in October 2006. Politkovskaya was long a critic of the Putin administration, and her death was a sobering reminder that writers sometimes anger powerful people. A Small Corner of Hell is a collection of articles on the Second Chechen War that Politkovskaya produced for the Russian biweekly newspaper Novaya Gazeta. For many months the author was one of the few journalists brave enough to travel to Chechnya and report on the atrocities suffered by the civilian population. While accused by some critics of partisan bias in her accounts – which occasionally take the form of polemic against Putin and the Russian military - Politkovskaya’s focus in this book is on the effects of war upon the lives of average Chechens.

In the book’s prologue she wrote of her motivations in covering the war:
Naturally, I have traveled far and wide through all of Chechnya. I’v seen a lot of suffering. The worst of it is that many of the people I’ve been writing about for the past two and a half years are now dead. It has been such a terrible war. Simply medieval, even though it’s taking place as the twentieth century passes into the twenty-first, and in Eueope, too… So I want you to know the truth. Then you will be free of cynicism. And of the sticky swamp of racism our society has been sliding into. And of having to make difficult decisions about who’s right and who’s wrong in the Causcusus, and if there are any real heroes there now.

Map of Chechnya and the surrounding region Politkovskaya’s biases and motivations might be better understood within the context of her own experiences during her work as a journalist in Chechnya. She was arrested by security personnel on 18 February 2001, beaten, tortured, and threatened with death by unknown Russian officials. She wrote that she decided to “omit the nastiest details, since they are completely indecent,” but added that her own experiences at the hands of the FSS helped convince her that the Chechen accusations of atrocities were accurate. One scene in particular captures the horror of being held by state agents who have no fear of reprisal:

I demanded that they tell me my charges, write their report, and send me to prison so that my family could at least bring me a toothbrush. “No!” they said. “You’re a militant! You came here to look at the pits! Slut! Bitch! Basayev paid Yastrzhembsky for you, Yastrzhembsky paid your editor, and your editor sent you here”… The same lieutenant colonel was standing by the helicopter [after she was freed]. “If it were up to me, I’d shoot you,” he said as a goodbye.
Though the region has been a part of the Russian and Soviet empires since the tsarist expansion into the Caucasus Mountains in the late eighteenth century, the Chechens have long been a source of consternation for the Russians. Fears of a Chechen rebellion caused Stalin to deport in 1944 most of the population of Chechnya to the Kazakh SSR.

Although Khruschev allowed Chechens to return to their homeland after 1956, the desire for Chechen independence remained simmering during the ensuing decades. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 also saw the formation of the Chechen National Congress, a body dedicated to promoting independence for Chechnya. The First Chechen War was an effort by the Yeltsin government to prevent Chechen secession, and the war turned out to be a humiliating defeat for the once-mighty Russian army. The Second Chechen War, initiated by Putin in 1999, succeeded in reclaiming the territory of Chechnya as a part of the Russian state and installing a pro-Moscow regime, but the region remains prone to periodic fighting and terrorist attacks. The result of the two wars has been the death of thousands of combatants, many thousands of civilians, and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons.

Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in an undated photo Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in an undated photo

War is, of course, a brutal business, and it is doubtful that there has ever been a military operation in which at least a few participants did not commit acts of violence against innocent civilians. Politkovskaya depicted the military and security forces of the Russian state in a particularly unflattering light, bringing forth stories of widespread rape, robbery murder, and kidnapping for profit by soldiers and officers. A common practice in Chechnya, argued Politkovskaya, was for Russian soldiers to arrest innocent civilians and hold them until the local villages paid a ransom. The soldiers often extorted money simply for the bodies of dead Chechens, knowing that devout Muslims are anxious that the deceased be buried in a timely fashion. Politkovskaya recounted an especially sinister series of events surrounding a shakedown by Russian soldiers:

At the request of the village administration, Alkhazur, together with the others, went to Khankala, the main military base, for the body of a fellow villager who had first been detained at the time of the previous purge and then killed there, in Khankala. A serviceman who introduced himself as an FSS official, Sergei Koshelev, acted as the go-between for the ransom of the corpse. He demanded a lamb, a video camera, and a Zhiguli. But after he received everything, he still didn’t give back the body. At the same time, everyone who brought the ransom to Khankala disappeared without a trace. This happened on December 22, 2001. On the fourteenth day, the bodies of everyone who had disappeared were found not far from Khankala, in a ditch. One of Alkhazur Dagayev’s eyes had been cut out, and the body was black from being beaten. He was killed with a pistol shot at close range in the left temple.
Chechen civilians were not the only victims in the bloody campaign to recapture Chechnya and eliminate the militants. Politkovskaya interviewed Russian soldiers, officers, and Russian civilians who lived in the war-torn region, collecting horrific accounts that underscored the fact that violence cut across ethnic boundaries. Moreover, argued Politkovskaya, the violence and lawlessness in Chechnya has as much to do with corruption in the Russian military, judiciary, and other state divisions as they do with individual thuggery. This widespread corruption also includes local Chechen functionaries:
The overwhelming majority of the new Chechen officials, who arose in close contact with the military, strive to keep things in the “no war or peace” zone. Here, everything is allowed under threat of violence: illegal oil businesses, the fifty-fifty rule, humanitarian aid being sold in the markets, medicine that the republic got for free appearing in private drugstores belonging to Ministry of Health officials and their relatives… The soldiers and many civilians are depraved by the war to the utmost degree. They have formed a lethal combination: rule by the fist, zindan [prison], and submachine gun has fused with the ostensibly peaceful Chechnya where they prefer fraud nepotism, and lack of control.

Russian troops in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000Russian troops in the Chechen capital of Grozny in 2000

Politkovskaya’s book follows a chronological progression, although the chapters are organized in a thematic fashion. There are few footnotes in the text, and the material was drawn from personal interviews by the author with Chechen civilians, members and former members of the Soviet and Russian governments, and members of the Chechen resistance. It appears that the author intended this text for undergraduate students, non-specialist scholars, and the learned general public, and some familiarity with Russian history is helpful – but not essential - in order to enhance understanding.

Certainly Politkovskaya’s A Small Corner of Hell deserves some criticism for its occasional lack of objectivity, as the author bitterly condemned the people she believed most responsible for the atrocities of the war, including Vladimir Putin, Kofi Annan, and George W. Bush. The articles, while sharing common themes, sometimes do not flow well together, and more effort could have been placed in developing transitions between the pieces. Nonetheless, the book is invaluable for its descriptions of the effects of the war on people who were not participants, people who simply want to live a life without fear of brutality, kidnappings, or murder. While Politkovskaya’s killers might never be found, her death may serve a greater good by shining light into dark corners, where the nefarious henchmen of the Russian oligarchs lurk, whose notions of justice include political assassination and state-sponsored terrorism.


Anonymous said...

I'll have to read this one, Mike. I don't know much about Chechnya.


historymike said...

Good read, JD, and not too challenging for non-history types.

Very gritty, real-life experiences of people in war zone where governments have little control over the combatants.