An eye-opening account of the long-running war between Russia and Chechnya.
A decade ago, as former British freelance journalist Bird’s account opens, that war was being waged in the streets of Moscow, as Chechen gangsters battled over turf and Muscovite landlords posted signs that instructed “those who were LKN—the insulting Russian initials which stand for those of ‘Caucasus National Appearance’—not to bother enquiring.” Successful in transferring as a news stringer to Chechnya proper, Bird finds the war a far bloodier reality there, as Russian troops try to suppress an independence movement that, in one form or another, has been resisting them for 400 years. In Grozny, Bird encounters the legendary leader and sometime president Jakhar Dudayev, who enjoys the role of philosopher king (Q: “Not one state officially recognizes the Republic of Chechnya. Doesn’t this disturb you?” A: “I’m completely calm, you’re not mistaken. It wouldn’t be worth having a complex over this”). The war that Bird details is bloody, messy, unnecessary, and with a logic of its own; Russian commanders ignore orders from Russian President Yeltsin commanding them to stop bombing civilians, while Chechen fighters resign themselves to accepting the constancy of slaughter; as one remarks to Bird as Russian columns advance into Chechnya, “Of course there will be a partisan war. It’s very simple—either we die fighting or, as you can see . . . we die anyway.” Die they do, as do Russian draftees by the hundreds. The carnage continues: as Bird notes, after having been fought to a draw, the Russian Army invaded Chechnya anew in 1999, which Bird likens to an American president’s resuming the war in Vietnam in 1978. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, has put the task of breaking the country in the hands of the KGB’s secret-police descendants. And the war goes on, in Grozny and Moscow and points between.
“Had no one in the Kremlin or the power ministries read Tolstoy?” Bird asks. Evidently not. Readers innocent of the Caucasus will learn much from his pages.