Åsne Seierstad is a journalist with a moth-to-flame-like attraction to the world’s hot spots. Famed for her bestselling “The Bookseller of Kabul” (based on three months she spent there in 2002), she has also written about Baghdad and Serbia.
And yet, reporting on Chechnya posed a different kind of risk for Seierstad: It threatened the love of Russian culture that had propelled her into journalism. Enamored of Russian poetry, the Norwegian Seierstad learned to speak the language fluently and then became a Moscow-based reporter, eagerly canvassing Russia by train as she “searched for the Russian soul with fascination and uncontrollable curiosity.”
But what she saw in Chechyna nearly extinguished her passion. “Little by little,” she writes, after experiencing Chechnya, “I had become almost anti-Russian.”
Seierstad first travelled to Chechnya in 1994 as Russian tanks rolled in to squelch an uprising. Ten years later, she returns in disguise, this time to explore a territory and a people brutally brought to heel by Russia’s military.
What she discovers is a land in which 12th-century buildings have been leveled and human lives blasted. For centuries, Russians and Chechens have fought, but this last round has been particularly devastating.
Today, Chechnya is again part of Russia. The territory has a Russian-approved Chechen president and yet, “People are more afraid now than during the war [with Russia],” one Chechen tells Seierstad.
“It’s called ‘chechenising’ the conflict,” says Seierstad. “Whereas before, Russian forces committed the worst abuses, now the Chechen militia maintains control in a society maimed by fear.”
With Russia in the headlines again after last month’s incursion into Georgia, this book is bound to atract attention. Seierstad has not written an anti-Russian book.
She does, however, offer readers chilling views of the effects of conflict and upheaval on life in Chechnya. She interviews ordinary people (a schoolteacher brutalized by government thugs, a farming family who live as outcasts because a relative became a terrorist, an elderly man who recalls Russia’s 1944 forced evacuation of Chechnya) and the injustice of it all is almost unbearable.
Seierstad also attempts to write about those now in power in Chechnya and, after a series of miscues, she finally meets with Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov. The interview is a surreal encounter, almost a cross between “1984” and a Judd Apatow film.
But the dramatic center of this book – and its most wrenching material – comes from the months that Seierstad spent living with Hadijat, a Chechen woman who – after discovering that she could not have children of her own – began taking in the abandoned and neglected children of Grozny.
Tragically, there are an enormous number of such children.
Not only have many of the adults in charge of them been killed, but the breakdown of Chechen society has left them doubly bereft. (Kadyrov recently shut state-run orphanages, saying it is the job of relatives to be responsible for children in need.)
By the time Seierstad arrives in her life, Hadijat has dozens of children living with her. Having grown up as an orphan herself, Hadijat is determined that none of her charges will lack love.
Hadijat’s willingness to give her all for these children warms the heart of Seierstad’s book – and yet even all that Hadijat can give is not nearly enough.
Seierstad also interviews Russians (including the family of a soldier blinded in Chechnya) and makes clear that incomprehension exists on both sides of the equation.
But in the end it is a Russian who speaks most eloquently. “War?” wrote Tolstoy in 1853 after fighting with the Russian army in Chechnya. “What an incomprehensible phenomenon. When common sense asks: Is it right, is it necessary? the inner voice replies: No.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.