Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chechnya book review

War in the Caucasus

A small corner, very bloody
Dec 10th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Chechnya may have been largely pacified, but it is far from being at peace

Towers of Stone: The Battle of Wills in Chechnya. By Wojciech Jagielski. Translated by Soren Gauger. Seven Stories Press; 329 pages; $19.95. Buy from

FORMIDABLE, useful in war and, though picturesque, impractical in peacetime, the stone towers that dot Chechnya’s mountains could be regarded as symbols of its people. Wojciech Jagielski’s book sets new standards for gritty reporting of Russia’s most miserable corner, and the dreadful damage done to it by both outsiders and the Chechens’ own leaders.

Most readers will know something of the Chechen story: a toxic mix of terrorism, kidnapping, guerrilla warfare and reprisals. Two wars have ruined the country. Both began with attempts by Russia, over 100 times more populous, to restore order in what the Kremlin sees as a troublesome province. The first war, from 1994 to 1996, ended in a draw. The second, starting in 1999, has defeated the organised Chechen resistance, and installed a brutal local warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov, as Russia’s satrap. Chechnya is largely pacified, but it could hardly be called at peace.

What was all the bloodshed about? One point of view argues that the war was mainly a struggle against banditry. The tight-knit Chechen clan structure was ideally suited to running organised crime, first in the Soviet Union and then in Russia. Chechnya in the 1990s became the gangster capital of Russia, with a kidnapping industry that many believed was verging on organised slave trading.

Another viewpoint insists that this is a war about Islam, with the Chechens as fearsome harbingers of jihadism in the Caucasus. In the late 1990s no government recognised Chechnya or Taliban-run Afghanistan, but they had diplomatic relations with each other. Jihadist volunteers stiffened the Chechen resistance, and Chechens have repaid the favour in wars elsewhere. A third view dismisses all this as smears: the real truth is that Chechnya and its people are prisoners of the Russian empire, struggling heroically to regain the independence lost in the 19th century.

Mr Jagielski’s book shuns such stereotypes, while showing that all three perspectives have some validity. His first great asset is time spent on the ground. He is a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest independent daily. An heir of sorts to Ryszard Kapuscinski, he specialises, as did the older Polish reporter, in Africa, as well as Central Asia and the Caucasus. Whereas most journalists (foreign or local) visit Chechnya fleetingly, Mr Jagielski has lived there for repeated periods of many weeks, staying with Chechen families, slipping in and out of clandestine meetings with guerrilla commanders in safe houses under the noses of Russian troops.

The book brings to life the danger, squalor and misery of daily life in Chechnya with almost unbearable clarity. The partial stability of traditional clan practices was half-destroyed by the deportation of the entire nation to the steppes of Central Asia in 1944. The death and destruction of the past 20 years have finished the job—and opened the way for outsiders and youngsters, often with wilder ideas of their own.

That was an impossible challenge for the mainstream Chechen leadership—the dapper Jokhar Dudayev, the first president, and one of his ill-starred successors, Aslan Maskhadov. Both men had achieved high rank in the Soviet military (no small matter for Chechens, who tend to be distrusted and despised by Russians). They had exceptional military skills, but both were overwhelmed by the task of running a country in which personal and family honour counts for more than the law. Jailing a criminal, no matter how vile, is likely to cause a vendetta that will last for 12 generations.

Mr Jagielski paints memorable portraits of both men, and of their biggest headache, Shamil Basayev. The mercurial and brilliant unofficial military leader was responsible for some of the most revolting terrorist atrocities perpetrated in the Chechens’ name. Basayev, like the other more moderate Chechen leaders, was demonised by Russia and is now dead.

Mr Jagielski’s book is equally compelling about the lives of the more humble people among whom he has lived: Chechen fathers do not cuddle or play with their sons for fear of making them weak. Chechen women have become emancipated, unwillingly, by war: they spend a lot of time touring Russian prisons trying to recover their menfolk.

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