Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 43

Thomas Goltz, Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent’s Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2003.

Reviewed by Lawrence A. Uzzell

On April 7 and 8, 1995, troops from Russia’s Interior Ministry entered the village of Samashki in western Chechnya. Though they met only slight, disorganized resistance, they proceeded to massacre at least 103 Chechens. The research center Memorial later established that the great majority of the dead were not separatist guerrillas but local civilians. These Chechens died from artillery and machine-gun fire, the shooting up of their streets by armored vehicles, directed fire by Russian snipers, or hand grenades thrown into basements and courtyards where the Chechens had vainly sought shelter. Some perished during the deliberate arson of their homes, and most of the buildings in the village were destroyed. Others, especially men, were tortured and murdered while being held captive after they had surrendered.

Ironically, a strong band of Chechen guerrillas was within earshot of the massacre–but they had previously agreed to leave Samashki under pressure from the village elders, the mayor and the Muslim imam. These civilian leaders had made the mistake of believing Russian promises that their people would not be harmed if they demilitarized the village.

Television journalist Thomas Goltz spent weeks in Samashki not long before the massacre and returned there almost immediately afterward. A self-confessed combat addict, he produced film footage that brought home brutal truths about the first Chechen war to mainstream TV audiences in America and Britain–and even in Russia, where he donated his videotapes free of charge to Yevgeny Kiselev of the then-independent NTV network.

Goltz is blessed with a vivid prose style, and his gritty account of life among the guerrillas brings Chechnya’s warrior code alive. In one of his unforgettable scenes he relays a farmer’s matter-of-fact account of how to attack Russian armored vehicles with a hunting rifle. “‘You have to aim just so,’ he explained to me on camera. ‘Then it explodes.’ ‘Then it explodes!’ echoed his mother, pleased as punch, following her son around the kitchen with an apronfull of what must have been armor-piercing shells.” Nearby, Goltz “shot videotape of scruffy men…planting and replanting mines in a field across which Hussein anticipated a possible Russian armor attack. Tromping around in the mud with the men was unnerving, to say the least, since the locations of the mine field (the mines themselves purchased from the enemy in exchange for vodka and cash) was only marked in individual memory, and the removal of and relocation of the devices seemed casual in the extreme.”

The centerpiece of the book is Goltz’s relationship with the guerrilla commander Hussein, a former collective farm boss born in Kazakhstan. The journalist agonizes over the contradictions in this relationship: The guerrilla quickly became not just a source and a protector but a friend, one whom Goltz inadvertently exposes to danger. That leads to larger agonizing over the role of a war correspondent–on which topic this book is sure to exhaust the patience of at least some readers whose primary interest is Chechnya and not the professional travails and triumphs of reporters. (Such readers would be well-advised to skip chapters 1 and 11.) With refreshing honesty, Goltz pleads guilty to “celebrating my own bravery.”

This book’s biggest weakness, however, is not its excessive use of the first person singular but its narrow focus on gun-toting guerrillas at the expense of other key players in the Chechen tragedy. For example, a crucial element in the Samashki drama was the interplay between the guerrillas and the village elders–but the latter never come alive in Goltz’s narrative. We never learn from him what we would like to know about the village administrators and Muslim clerics who found themselves caught between rival gunmen as they tried to preserve Chechnya’s traditions without destroying her people.

But if you should want to visit Chechnya yourself, this book will be more useful than many academic studies. Goltz tells us about the limitations of flak jackets: They stop a bullet essentially by self-destructing, leaving you unprotected from the second and later rounds. Try to avoid getting bruises on your shoulders, for these are among the telltale signs that Russian troops look for at checkpoints when trying to unmask guerrillas.

A Dudaev official told Goltz that “you Western correspondents are idiots. You show up in the lands of the former Soviet Union and try to impose your own terms of reference on us, when you do not even know the terms of reference in which we, former Soviets, think. You throw around terms like ‘democrat,’ ‘conservative,’ ‘reformer,’ and ‘hardliner’ when they have either no meaning here or a completely different meaning than you understand. How can I have a real conversation with you? You ask me to explain highly specialized issues, and you take down notes and impressions in black and white. It is like asking me to explain what a Sony television is to my great grandfather….” Goltz perceptively notes that this was “in many ways, the most enlightening conversation I have ever had in the lands of the former Soviet Union.” It is one that we should all keep in mind.