In Angel of Grozny, Ãsne Seierstad provides a deeply personal insight into the life and times of the Russian Republic of Chechnya. Her book is full of personal anecdotes and descriptions of her visits to a vast range of people in Chechnya, and while this makes it very readable, it can at times be a little disjointed, and it is not always easy to find a common thread. Her bravery and persistence in seeking out these stories is a wonder in itself however, and several times I found myself wondering how she would get out of the situations she found herself in.
Seierstad first visited Checyna during the war in 1994, when the break-up of the Russian empire was in full swing. Boris Yeltsin, while encouraging other Soviet nations to “take as much sovereignty as you can”, drew the line at allowing Chechnya to gain its independence because he felt that this would threaten the borders of Russia itself. The result was a violent war, with Chechen fighters confronting young Russian soldiers with the traditional daggers and assassins’ bullets, only provoking severe retaliation from the Russians against the civilian population.
Seierstad begins her book by describing her first visit to the country as a young reporter for a Swedish newspaper, managing to infiltrate herself deep into Chechen-held territory, where she met Chechen fighters and village elders, even staying in the home of a senior Chechen leader.
Eventually peace negotiations with Russia took place and Chechya gained a semi-independence from Russia. However, when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister of Russia in 1999 another war started, even more brutal than the first, killing tens of thousands of Chechens and leading to ultimate Russian victory, greatly enhancing Putin’s reputation among his own people, leading to his appointment as president in 2000. The Chechen leaders were killed over the next few years during a “normalisation process”, resulting in a Chechen republic fully integrated with Russia, with every official photograph of the Chechen President Ramzan being accompanied by another one of Putin.
Seierstad’s book is largely about her recent return to Chechnya, during which she travelled extensively and interviewed many people both citizens and officials. Much of her book describes the plight of the many orphaned children of Chechnya. She stayed for several weeks with Hadijat, the “Angel of Grozny” of the books title, who began to take in and look after street children, and runs a non-official orphanage based in her home and the homes of some of her supporters. The children’s tales are harrowing, and there is no certain future for them, for the instability of life in the republic results in a daily struggle for survival. Such is the damage done to the children through war and poverty, abuse and neglect that it seems impossible at times to see any future for them. Hadijat somehow managed to create a family experience for them however, and her influence on the children is considerable.
Seierstad manages to gain an extensive interview with President Ramzan himself. Ramzan is adulated by most of his people but this seems to be the adulation due to a tribal chief rather than the leader of a democracy. He seems to be a man both humble and autocratic at the same time, and evidently immensely dangerous to his enemies. He is a committed Muslim and this leads to statements about the need to “protect” women by keeping them modestly dressed and focusing on their domestic duties, while he himself has no compunction about being seen with glamorous models.
The tension between Whabbist Islam (as preached by followers of Osama Bin Laden) and the mainstream Islam approved by the state is visible throughout the book. The mainstream Islam is seen as a means of social control and order, whereas Whabbist Islam is outlawed and its followers seen as enemies of the state.
This book is probably about as good as it gets if you want a picture of Chechyna today. There is much of interest, not least the way in which a Muslim republic can form part of modern Russia. The countless personal stories give it a much human interest, but there is also plenty of background to the history and politics of Chechnya, such that having read this you feel you know as much as you need to know about this sorry nation, whose troubles are probably far from over.