(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The British journalist Anatol Lieven has written an illuminating account of the Chechens’ long contention with Russia in CHECHNYA: TOMBSTONE OF RUSSIAN POWER Lieven finds Russia’s humiliation in the 1994-1996 war to have resulted from the general collapse of Russian society and the woeful conditions and complete demoralization of its military forces. Lieven’s study of Chechen traditions emphasizes the elements in Chechen culture that have always energized the Chechens’ fierce resistance to Russia (and the Soviet Union).

Lieven made several trips to Chechnya both before and during the war, interviewing soldiers and civilians on both sides and keeping his head down during the intense Russian bombing. His evaluations of the leaders on both sides are sharp. Ruslan Labazanov, for instance, was a colorful thug who switched over from the Chechen rebels to the Russian side before being killed in 1996. The courageous Chechen commander Shamil Basayev, although guilty of terrorist tactics, emerges as an intelligent and in many ways agreeable patriot, whereas General Dzhokhar Dudayev, president of the Chechen rebel government, impressed Lieven as arrogant and untrustworthy. General Aslan Maskhadov, whom Lieven respects, won the presidential election in 1997.

Lieven deplores the rise to power under liberal capitalism of a corrupt elite that is exploiting Russia’s resources for personal profit while contributing nothing to the economy. He rejects the arguments for Russian historical continuity and for Russia’s being “deeply, perennially and primordially imperialist, aggressive and expansionist.” In his chapter on Russian military incompetence, “A Fish Rots from the Head,” Lieven stresses that Russia is in no condition to threaten anyone, doubts the likelihood of an intense ethnic nationalism springing up, and even fears that Russia may become economically dependent.

Lieven has provided excellent research and analysis in this work.

Sources for Further Study

Current History. XCVII, October, 1998, p. 347.

The Economist. CCCXLVII, June 13, 1998, p. S10.

Foreign Affairs. LXXVII, May, 1998, p. 147.

Library Journal. CXXIII, April 1, 1998, p. 112.

The New Leader. LXXXI, August 10, 1998, p. 14.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, September 24, 1998, p. 44.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, June 21, 1998, p. 5.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, April 20, 1998, p. 53.

The Times Literary Supplement. June 5, 1998, p. 13.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, June 21, 1998, p. 6.


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Anatol Lieven is a British journalist with a broad knowledge of Russia who has authored a previous study of the Baltic revolution. In Chechnya Lieven has written a penetrating study in three parts of Russia’s misadventures in the Republic of Chechnya. Part 1, “The War,” includes Lieven’s “A Personal Memoir of Grozny and the Chechen War,” an account of the background to the war (1991-1994) and of the war itself, which lasted from December, 1994, to August, 1996. Part 2 conducts a postmortem of the “The Russian Defeat,” analyzing the collapse of state power in Russia and focusing on the social, cultural, and military roots of the Russian defeat. Part 3, “The Chechen Victory,” devotes three chapters to the Chechens’ cultural and religious traditions and Chechnya’s long, contentious relationship with Russia.

Lieven traveled to Chechnya several times both before and during the war, interviewing soldiers and civilians on all sides, recording his impressions of the battered landscape, and hunkering down during bombings. In his introductory memoir, the corruption that pervades the collapsed Soviet Union is well exemplified in Ruslan Labazanov, a Chechen hero because he allegedly murdered a Russian KGB officer. A former martial arts instructor and mafia boss, Labazanov was first a bodyguard in the entourage of General Dzhokhar Dudayev, president of the rebel Chechen government. In 1994 Labazanov switched to the Russian side and two years later was killed under mysterious circumstances. Something of Labazanov’s style emerges in his mistress—a “strange steel orchid” with “vampirical white make-up”—who wore a black miniskirt and boots. She was further gotten up with an AK-47, a machine pistol, and a bandolier.

If Labazanov and his crowd represented the worst element flourishing in those disordered times, the talented Chechen rebel commander Shamil Basayev, though clearly a terrorist, proved a more personable host. Basayev had been a fireman in the Soviet army, a building worker, and a computer salesman in Russia. Lieven met Basayev several times between 1993 and 1997 and obviously respected his courage and intelligence. Basayev’s outlaw tactics—taking civilian hostages, occupying a hospital by force—were fiercely criticized, but in all of his behavior he impresses Lieven as a true Chechen.

Lieven’s long chapter on the origins of the Chechen war tells a tangled story of revolt, corruption, and the geopolitics of oil. Chechen discontent with Russian policies led to Moscow’s appointment in 1989 of Doku Zavgayev as the first Chechen First Secretary of the autonomous republic. In 1989 Ruslan Khasbulatov, a supporter of Russian president Boris Yeltsin, was elected to the Soviet parliament from Chechnya and soon clashed with Zavgayev, who permitted the founding of the Chechen National Congress in 1990. The strong man of the Congress quickly proved to be Dzhokhar Dudayev, a general in the Soviet air force. Lieven sketches Dudayev’s powerful friends, some of them shady characters, who raised money for Dudayev and helped advance his career.

Under Dudayev and his henchmen, the National Congress supporters took over the Supreme Soviet in Grozny on September 6, 1991, and Zavgayev resigned. On October 27 Dudayev held presidential and parliamentary elections, winning the presidency easily, and on November 2 the Chechen parliament declared complete independence. Yeltsin’s military intervention failed—partly because of demoralization among the Russian soldiers—and by mid-1992 the Russian troops had been driven out of Chechnya.

Corruption and financial pressures led to disillusionment with Dudayev within a year of the Russian troop exodus. The Chechen government earned over $300 million dollars in oil profits between 1991 and 1994 but nobody could account for it. Moreover, the enormous oil deposits on the Azerbaijani shore of the Caspian Sea made control of the whole region of great concern to Turkey, Russia, and the United States. These compelling considerations, combined with Moscow’s anger at four bus hijackings by Chechen bandits in the North Caucasus, prompted Russia to send troops into Chechnya on December 11, 1994.

Russia’s poor planning for the war led to disastrously low morale among its troops and an embarrassing performance. Grozny was the scene of bitter fighting, with the Russians helpless in urban guerrilla combat against the determined Chechen volunteers. Under the talented general Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, the Chechen forces fought superbly. Basayev’s confinement of...

(The entire section is 1879 words.)