A Dirty War

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The literature of social witness has too many continuing career opportunities for talented writers. As the artillery targets its howitzers, a correspondent with a laptop is near-sure to be within range.

Anna Politkovskaya

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Thursday, August 30 2001, 4:28 PM

The literature of social witness has too many continuing career opportunities for talented writers. As the artillery targets its howitzers, a correspondent with a laptop is near-sure to be within range.

One of the questions that attends this literature concerns its effectiveness and influence on violent conflict. Equally cogent arguments can be adduced that writers either bring an expressive conscience that crystallizes the political causes and consequences of violence, or that they are no better than provocateur cheerleaders whose words are empty Hemingway-esque uselessness in the face of violence that cannot be justly described.

Anna Politkoskaya's passionate work definitely belongs to the camp of conscience. Reading page after page of horror in Politkovskaya's A Dirty War, which represents her prize-winning dispatches from July 1999 to January 2001, there seems reasonable cause to hope that writing on Russia's civil war in Chechnya will prove more effective than did American civil war writing. But then Russian literature offers Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry, which makes Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage look innocuous by comparison. Babel's bitter contempt for war, which seeped straight through his ideological allegience, is certainly present in Politkovskaya's writing.

After an intense and firepower-heavy campaign that overwhelmed Grozny, this long-running conflict turned into one of the so-called 'brushfire wars' that propelled late twentieth-century state violence. Today some thirty Russian soldiers -- according to official figures generally regarded as an under-report based on statistical concealment -- and an unknown number of civilians die in this beyond-the-back war in the north Caucus. Chechen sources estimate that 15-20 civilians die daily.

Yet this has become one of the least reported international conflicts. If Russia cannot finish the war, then at least Putin and company want to see it disappear from international headlines. One recent Los Angeles Times article, though, described this as 'A War Shrouded in Silence'. Another headline in the Guardian titled it 'The War the World Forgot'. Indeed, at the recent G-8 summit in Genoa, Putin's hidden war entirely disappeared from the agenda.

That invisibility only serves the conflict's perpetuation. Last month, Human Rights Watch reported discoveries of mass graves and provided accounts of fresh arrest sweeps -- the zachistka that pulls men off the streets and out of homes -- followed by arbitrary detention, torture, and execution. General Vladimir Molenskoi, current commander of Russian forces in Chechnya, admitted the truth of these charges. Instead of initiating prosecutions, however, the Russian military announced a public relations campaign to consist of home repairs and food giveaways.

Chechnya is a conflict that challenges any easy position assembled in distant comfort. There is no estimable political cause to embrace, so the cause becomes the human suffering brought on by by political thick-headedness. On one hand, Russian policy during the Yeltsin and Putin governments has been established on a neo-colonial rejection of Chechen self-rule and a history of violent misrule from Moscow. On the other hand, legitimate Chechen grievances only served as a gateway for warlords and thugs who threaten to become the Taleban on the Caucus. For the moment the Russian army prevails, as it has since its offensive in Fall 1999, but its abuse of Chechen civilians is recruiting strength for the Islamic underground, the so-called 'Wahhabites' who obtain their support from foreign jihadists.

A conscientious writer like Politkovskaya stands in a very difficult terrain of unpalatable choices. She is a Russian writing for Russian readers, identifying with both sides and against the war. Consequently, her writing focuses on the ethics of everyday life and individual misery in the midst of Chechnya's catastrophe. It is Chechen civilians and Russian conscript soldiers who are the centers of concern here. Politkovskaya's most withering scorn is reserved for the political and military classes that initiated this war, together with its profiteers, opportunists and contract soldiers straight from Russia's prisons. At one point she provides the telephone number of a scoundrel firm that sends botulin-filled tins of rotten meat to soldiers at the front, inviting her newspaper readers to ask the same questions she does about their profiteering.

Recently I read an oral history done some years ago with a great-uncle who as a very young man was a Bolshevik cadre serving at the front in the Czar's army as it collapsed during World War I. It drew a social portrait of absence of official care, squalor and hunger, and radical ferment among soldiers. The accounts of A Dirty War suggests that attitudes have not changed too much from the days of the Czar. Neglect and corruption, towards both civilians and soldiers, predominates in daily life. Politkovskaya writes a blistering report of postmodern Czarism, where the lives of civilians and conscripts alike are of no importance beyond their publicity value.

The writing is in many ways comparable to Israeli journalist Amira Hass's Drinking the Sea at Gaza in that both writers attend to the lives of women, children and elderly. A concern for the mass of humanity affected by violence, rather than an exclusive preoccupation with armed combatants, informs the perspective of both Politkovskaya and Hass. A couple of the most moving chapters concern the plight of an old people's home in the midst of Grozny, the only provincial capital on the globe to have been recently flattened by artillery fire. Polikovskaya walks through the hospital wards that have no medicine and watches death arrive from simple want. She visits refugees living in rail carriages without heat against the winter cold, without water or food, and in desperate need of assistance.

Polikovskaya arrives at the conclusion that both militaries, Russian and Chechen, support the same basic ideology: no pity for civilians. Masculinism and an inability to mediate drives the conflict. Chechen and Russian nationalists are engaged in a Hatfield vs. McCoy-style feud with no regard for fellow human lives, and barely any care for their own. The only functioning part of the economy, the oil fields, are run like feudal fiefdoms where owners torch their wells if they can't hold out against local gunmen. That wanton destruction serves as a metaphor for the entire conflict in Chechnya, a bloody squabble over vanity. The culture of violence has sunk to such depths that neighbors mine each other's flats in order to clear each other out and get more living space.

This is a hidden face of the New Russia, a world where old people beg for the mercy of death. To me, it sounds just like the Old Russia.

A Dirty War is available from Harvill Press 

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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