Celebrated internationally on its publication, A Russian Diary chronicles slightly more than two years worth of bald-faced political wrongdoing, deadening public apathy, and shockingly callous terrorism taking place in Russia under President Vladimir Putin. For certain audiences, the book offers much of value. For those readers with prior interest in or knowledge of recent Russian political history, the book offers a hard-nosed reporter’s insightful anecdotes. For those with an interest in human rights or those who have read Anna Politkovskaya’s other booksA Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya (2003), A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya (2003), or Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy (2004)this work offers another glimpse into the dirty struggle of desperate men in troubled Chechnya. Those readers who are aware of the threats made against Politkovskaya and of her unsolved murder will appreciate her bravery in truth-telling whatever the cost. For those readers who are not in any of the above groups, however, most of A Russian Diary will seem slow moving and esoteric, if not bewildering.
Born in 1958, Politkovskaya was a career journalist, cutting her teeth reporting news for Izvestia, the official newspaper of the Soviet government. During the glasnost period and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Politkovskaya covered news for Novaya Gazeta, a biweekly news digest. During the 1990’s, she frequently found herself covering events in the First and Second Chechen Wars. Her specialty was covering the human side of major events, focusing on the impact of war, terrorist activities, and reprisals on the innocent men, women, and children who are made to suffer.
Most of the significant events in A Russian Diary relate in one way or another to two wars fought in Chechnya between Russian and Chechen forces. Both wars stemmed from Chechen nationalism after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. This desire for independence resulted in armed conflict between pro-Russian and separatist forces in Chechnya. A mountainous region, Chechnya was difficult for pro-Russian forces to pacify, and from 1994 to 1996 Chechen independence forces were able to wrest control of the region despite overwhelming Russian manpower. The cost of the war was enormous, and the new national government was unable to neutralize many warlords who dominated different regions. In 1999, the most powerful of these warlords began calling for the republic’s transformation into a militantly Islamic state and arguing for the forcible transformation of predominantly Muslim neighboring states. One such warlord was Shamil Basayev, who led an unsuccessful incursion into Dagestan and who became the mastermind of various terrorist outrages in Russia, including the two events that bookend A Russian Diary.
For its part, the Russian government took a dim view of Chechen efforts to import Islamic revolution and invaded Chechnya in late 1999. It was the newly elected Vladimir Putin who became associated with the most destructive and heartless phases of this war; in particular, he wanted to limit Russian casualties by attacking Chechen towns with wave after wave of extremely lethal fuel-air bombs and enormous artillery attacks. As Russian forces advanced into the region, most civilians fled; those who remained were put into concentration camps. Although Russian troops seized the Chechen capital city of Grozny in early 2000, Chechen forces under warlords such as Basayev remained in existence, fighting small-scale combats against Russian and pro-Russian forces.
Besides encouraging the ill treatment of civilians, Putin’s government made the stunning mistake of giving power to outrageously violent men such as Ramzan Kadyrov. One of the striking parts of A Russian Diary, in fact, consists of an interview with Kadyrov, a vain and stupid man. Politkovskaya recounts Kadyrov acknowledging his complicity in criminal acts against civilians and announcing his unrealistic plan to pacify Chechnya by fighting Basayev in single combat. As Politkovskaya points out, one of the worst aspects of Russia’s policy in Chechnya was the support given to such men as Kadyrov. She considers it the hatching of “baby dragons,” who must be continually fed lest they destroy everything. Under the control of baby dragons like Kadyrov, Chechnya becomes a land of endless terror, dominated by unending kidnappings, murders, rapes, and torture.
While this chaotic and violent region churns to the south, the rest of the country lies in apathetic somnolence, only occasionally shaken from slumber by...
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