A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnyaby Anna Politkovskaya
Chechnya, a 6,000-square-mile corner of the northern Caucasus, has struggled under Russian domination for centuries. The region declared its independence in 1991, leading to a brutal war, Russian withdrawal, and subsequent "governance" by bandits and warlords. A series of apartment building attacks in Moscow in 1999, allegedly orchestrated by a rebel faction,… See more details below
Chechnya, a 6,000-square-mile corner of the northern Caucasus, has struggled under Russian domination for centuries. The region declared its independence in 1991, leading to a brutal war, Russian withdrawal, and subsequent "governance" by bandits and warlords. A series of apartment building attacks in Moscow in 1999, allegedly orchestrated by a rebel faction, reignited the war, which continues to rage today. Russia has gone to great lengths to keep journalists from reporting on the conflict; consequently, few people outside the region understand its scale and the atrocities—described by eyewitnesses as comparable to those discovered in Bosnia—committed there.
Anna Politkovskaya, a correspondent for the liberal Moscow newspaper Novaya gazeta, is the only journalist to have constant access to the region. Her international stature and reputation for honesty among the Chechens have allowed her to continue to report to the world the brutal tactics of Russia's leaders used to quell the uprisings. A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya is her second book on this bloody and prolonged war. More than a collection of articles and columns, A Small Corner of Hell offers a rare insider's view of life in Chechnya over the past years. Centered on stories of those caught-literally-in the crossfire of the conflict, her book recounts the horrors of living in the midst of the war, examines how the war has affected Russian society, and takes a hard look at how people on both sides are profiting from it, from the guards who accept bribes from Chechens out after curfew to the United Nations. Politkovskaya's unflinching honesty and her courage in speaking truth to power combine here to produce a powerful account of what is acknowledged as one of the most dangerous and least understood conflicts on the planet.
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A Small Corner of Hell
Dispatches from Chechnya
By Anna Politkovskaya
University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2003
University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Russia's Secret Heroes
The essence of the ruling regime of a country is how it designates heroes.
Who are the "Chechen" heroes? And what do we want in Chechnya? What are we
doing there? What is our goal? Who are we rewarding for what? And what are
we trying to achieve?
The tea got cold long ago. We're drinking it in a cafe at Magas Airport in
Ingushetia. I'm ashamed to look Colonel Mohammed Yandiev, an officer of
the Ingush Ministry of the Interior, in the eye. It's the third year in a
row that I'm ashamed.
As a result of a criminal blunder of the Moscow bureaucracy during the
storming of Grozny in December 1999, someone had to risk his life to save
eighty-nine elderly people from a Grozny retirement home that was
abandoned under the bombing. No one wanted to brave the firing for their
sake. Colonel Yandiev was the only one of the hundreds of Russian colonels
and generals gathered on this small area near Grozny to say "yes." And
with six of his officers whom he had personally asked about this, he
crawled for three days-this was the only possible way-along the streets of
Groznyto the neighborhood of Katayama, to Borodin Street, where the
lonely, hungry elderly were dying in the care of a government that had
forgotten its duty to them.
Yandiev rescued all these old people from Grozny. The losses turned out to
be minimal. Only one old woman died along the way; her heart couldn't take
it. But the colonel was able to save all of the others from bullets and
shells flying from both sides of the crazed battle, as if each of them
were his own mother or father.
"To this day, they send me letters on holidays. I don't even remember
their names. But they remember me. And they write," Yandiev says, very
quietly. And I have to drag these words from him, otherwise he would have
been silent. "They thank me, and that's the best kind of gratitude,"
Yandiev insists, continuing to stir the sugar he already stirred long ago
in the cold tea. "I don't need anything else."
But I need for there to be something else. I am a citizen, and for this
reason I want to know why the colonel still has not received the title of
Hero of Russia that he was nominated for early in 2000 for his deed, for
the true courage he showed in saving eighty-nine citizens of his country.
What do you need to do in Russia, the way things are now, to not only be a
hero, but to be officially acknowledged as one?
The path to answers to these questions turned out to be quite treacherous.
The babbling of the high-ranking officers responsible for moving the
applications higher and higher in the capital of our Motherland, toward
the president's signature, boiled down to two arguments against Colonel
Yandiev's candidacy as a Hero.
First of all, he is "one of them." In translation from their Moscow
bureaucratic language, that means that Yandiev is an Ingush, and Ingush in
the army aren't trusted much, like Chechens. Yandiev, I was told, is
"practically a Chechen," and "who knows just what was going on in Grozny
then-he might have made arrangements with militants."
And what if he did? For the sake of eighty-nine lives?
But there's a second reason too, and this argument doesn't only concern
Vainakhs [Chechens and Ingush]. It turns out that we are only supposed to
give the title of Hero if the person "killed a bandit."
"And if they saved someone's life?"
"That's not quite what we're looking for."
"So do you give it for rescues or not?"
"Who would admit that they don't?"
Alas, I gave my word that I would withhold the names of those who agreed
to give inside information on this matter. These people, though they have
big stars on their epaulettes and orders on their chests, are merely
gofers in the grand scheme of things, obeying a higher authority. They
know which documents the president won't sign. And Putin won't sign for
rescues. Just a detail, you think? By no means. We've all observed how the
word "mercy" has been swept out of the government vocabulary. The
government relies on cruelty in relation to its citizens. Destruction is
encouraged. The logic of murder is a logic that is understood by the
government and propagated by it. The way things are, you need to kill to
become a Hero.
This is Putin's modern ideology. When capitalists can't get it done,
comrades take over again. We know very well that they never forget to line
their own pockets. That's how things stand: at the end of the seventh year
of the war, and in the third year of the second campaign, Chechnya has
been turned into a genuine cash cow. Here, military careers are speedily
forged, long lists of awards are compiled, and ranks and titles are handed
out ahead of time. And all you have to do is to kill a Chechen and submit
So here I am, sitting across from Mohammed Yandiev. A normal hero in an
abnormal country. He hasn't robbed anyone, hasn't raped anyone, and hasn't
stuffed any stolen women's lingerie inside his camouflage jacket. He has
simply saved lives. And therefore he's not a general. And his Hero
application is rotting in Moscow vaults.
A Perplexed Afterword
I called the Information Department of the Russian presidential
administration. The head is Igor Porshnev, but it's generally better known
as the department of Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an assistant of Putin's who is
responsible for "information support for the antiterrorism operation." I
had two very simple questions. The first was, How many soldiers have
received state awards for their participation in the second Chechen war?
And the second was, How many of them earned the Hero of Russia title?
The Information Department sent me to the Putin administration's
Department of Government Awards, whose head is Nina Alekseevna Sivova.
"That information is classified," the assistants firmly stated,
categorically refusing me any chance to talk with the bosses of their
departments. "It's not subject to disclosure."
"But that's absurd!" I objected.
Finally, in Yastrzhembsky's department, which is responsible for the
formation of a "proper image of the war," they took pity and at least
agreed to "examine an official inquiry on this subject," albeit without
guaranteeing a positive answer (of two numbers!) or a date by which they'd
examine it (and indeed, an answer never came!).
A conversation with Nina Sivova from the Award Department soon took place.
And she affirmed: "This information is in fact confidential, for official
Maybe some people remember this term from Soviet times. Wherever you
looked, everything was "for official use only."
"Why are the Hero of Russia and other awards confidential?" I tried to
find out from Nina Alekseevna.
"For the protection of those who receive these awards," came yet another
"But I'm not even asking for their last names."
"Call back ..."
"Yes, tomorrow. Maybe ..."
Or maybe not. A country in which the number of heroes is information for
official use only of those bureaucrats who handed out the awards, and
where real heroes don't receive the Hero title, is hopeless. It will lose
all wars. Because it never encourages the right people.
Excerpted from A Small Corner of Hell
by Anna Politkovskaya
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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