Readers of this publication are familiar with the name of the award-winning war correspondent for the pro-democracy newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Anna Politkovskaya, whose coverage of the present Russo-Chechen conflict has been one of the few bright lights in Russian political life over the past two years. Recently The Harvill Press in London brought out a good, readable 336-page English translation of Politkovskaya’s book on the conflict, aptly titled “A Dirty War.” The book, which covers the period from July 1999 through January 2001, was translated and edited by John Crowfoot, and contains a helpful introduction by Thomas de Waal, himself the co-author of a useful book on the earlier 1994-1996 conflict. (“A Dirty War” may be purchased from Grantham Book Services, Isaac Newton Way, Alma Park Ind. Est., Grantham GG31 9SD, United Kingdom; email address for orders: email@example.com)
This treatment of Politkovskaya’s extraordinary book will focus on but a few of the numerous themes she broaches. Perhaps the most salient theme concerns the new kind of Russian State that has emerged under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. In a school essay written in one of the Chechen refugee camps in Ingushetia, Ali Makaev, a Chechen boy of eight or nine, writes: “I do not know if Putin has a heart. But if he did he would not have started such a war. Putin thinks that human life is worth fifty kopecks. He is deeply mistaken…. I’d like Putin to know that we [Chechens] are also human beings” (p. 158).
Reflecting on the clear-cut disinterest of the Russian state in the fate of 100 old people, a great majority of them ethnic Russians, living in a home in the Chechen capital that is in imminent danger of being destroyed by the war, Politkovskya writes: “What earthly use to me is the Putin we see, prancing about on TV and telling us that he’s going to ‘wipe out’ the bandits after they’re cornered ‘in the shithouse’? I want a Putin who will defend the weak–according to the constitution our state exists first and foremost for the good of the people. Give me a Putin who at least can control his ministries. Let’s have a Putin who does not kow-tow to the army, police and security service…. I want a different Putin” (p. 91).
If the Russian president lacks a human heart, many Russians prosecuting the war, including Russian generals, have become somewhat mad. “Do you yourself,” she asks General Vladimir Shamanov during the course of a revealing interview, “feel the need for [psychological] rehabilitation?” “Unquestionably,” he responds, “I’m just like everyone else.” In the murderous Shamanov, Politkovskaya discerns a “total and irreversible loneliness” (pp. 179-191). Another Russian army general she encounters is described as, “for no reason whatsoever,” killing “a skinny, young brown cow that provided milk for one Ingush family.” The general, Politkovskaya notes, “was young and handsome, a striking figure. A real fighter. Bear-chested, camouflage hat at an angle, he had fury in his eyes and was as full of testosterone as any teenager after three months at the front.” Asked his name, the general responds contemptuously, “it’s a military secret” (p. 104).
The attitude of the regime prosecuting the present war is manifestly one of complete indifference, not only toward Chechens, which might be expected, but also toward average Russian soldiers and civilians as well. “The regime,” Politkovskaya remarks, “stresses that it has taken a decision to begin the war, but accepts no responsibility for the consequences. They owe us nothing, we owe them everything! These are the rules by which the State plays with its people today” (p. 47). The state, for example, has made virtually no provision to care for Russian soldiers made invalids during the war, or for their families.
Politkovskaya believes that the Russian state, as these examples demonstrate, is both too powerful and too weak at the same time. “We are living under a constitution,” she observes, “that has in part been revoked and now functions only in those parts that continue to receive the approval of the Kremlin” (p. 137). Civil society exercises no control over the state’s actions. But, in its prosecution of the war, the state shows that it too, is, to a significant extent, not in control of the machine of destruction it has unleashed. Referring to extensive mining of Djohar by the federal forces, she writes: “If you look at it from the state’s point of view, why scatter a vast number of mines around the city and receive in return an astronomic growth in the number of disabled people who require tons of medicine, artificial limbs and so on? And then scatter more mines. And again ferry in medicine, etc. Now it’s clear what the state is up to. Its concern for the situation is purely virtual” (p. 218). “We build and them we tear it all down again,” she summarizes the situation elsewhere in the book. “That’s what the ‘antiterrorist operation’ amounts to” (pp. 268-269).
The insanity of the present war, Politkovskaya makes clear, has also been set loose by the increasing hard-heartedness (emulating that of the “heartless” Russian president) of her fellow Russians. “You probably think I’m writing all this to stir your pity,” she apostrophizes her readers at one point, “My fellow citizens have indeed proved a hard-hearted lot.” They are able to eat their breakfast in peace while massive carnage is taking place to the south. Today’s Russians have willingly surrendered the invaluable freedoms which they acquired during the Gorbachev and early Yeltsin years. “By tolerating such things on our own doorstep and allowing the state’s officials to perform these acts of violence against us we shall very soon have our own Pinochet,” she predicts in November 1999. “We shall be so relieved, in fact, when he comes that we’ll throw ourselves at his feet, and beg him to save us.” Exhibiting little faith in her contemporaries, Politkovsakya is writing, she tells us, for future generations of Russians: “My notes… are written for the future. They are the testimony of the innocent victims of the new Chechen war” (p. 64).
Oddly enough, Politkovskaya reveals in her book–as she does in her weekly reportage in Novaya Gazeta–that she is in fact a rather fervent Russian patriot. Her patriotism, however, is centered not on the putative might of the Russian State (which the current regime has made de rigeur). but on the physical and spiritual well-being of “ordinary” Russians, on the mass of the population. And while Politkovskaya exhibits little sympathy for the Chechen separatists and, especially, for their leaders–she clearly would like to see Chechnya remain a part of Russia–she exudes a palpable compassion for “ordinary” Chechens for the enormous suffering being visited upon them as a people by the Russian military and police. “The theory of the criminal nation,” she recalls, “was very fashionable in Nazi Germany. Then they targeted the Jews and Gypsies. Filtration and concentration camps were opened for them everywhere, and they were also confined to ghettoes…. Shall we be forced to admit to our children and grandchildren that we aided this fascism and did nothing to prevent it happening?” (p. 56). The use of the word fascism here is no accident. Russia does appear to lie under a lengthening shadow of neo-fascism, as the conduct of the current war graphically shows.
The announced plans of the Russian leadership to require all Chechen refugees living in Ingushetia and elsewhere in Russia to move back to their war-torn republic causes Politkovskya to reflect: “We are moving toward the creation of some anti-constitutional territory, a reservation…. This reservation has been set aside for a people of an inferior status, Russia’s Red Indians of the late twentieth century, who are guilty of having been born in the Chechen Republic” (p. 137).
Nowhere is the anti-Chechen racism of much of Russian society more evident than in the way it impacts the lives of Chechen children. A unit of Petersburg OMON [police commandos] are billeted at School No. 18 in Djohar. Some Chechen mothers would like to have the OMON move out so that the building could once again function as a school for their children. Politkovskaya is given a tour of the school: “The former classroom walls,” she notes, “were now a mural of soldiers’ comments. The kindest of these read: ALL WOLVES DESERVE A DOG’S DEATH. The rest were obscenities from floor to ceiling, outlining in graphic terms what should be done to finish off the Chechens. It was a textbook of ethnic hatred” (pp. 234-235). Obviously, Politkovskaya notes, the children of School No. 18 “will not go back to their desks this autumn.”
The Russian Ministry of Defense has, she reports, invited fifteen Chechen teenagers to attend the Omsk military academy. In response, “Chechnya really did send its finest youths to the distant Siberian city.” The boys, however, did not last long there. Rather than being called by their names, they were termed “black asses” at the barracks, and “No one even tried to wash away the offensive slogans in the toilet: NIGGERS OUT OF OMSK!” (pp. 262-263).
Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Dirty War” is must reading for those seeking to understand the current Russo-Chechen war.