December 10, 2009
Formidable, useful in war and, though picturesque, impractical in peacetime, the stone towers that dot Chechnya’s mountains could be regarded as symbols of its people. Wojciech Jagielski’s book sets new standards for gritty reporting of Russia’s most miserable corner, and the dreadful damage done to it by both outsiders and the Chechens’ own leaders.
What was all the bloodshed about? One point of view argues that the war was mainly a struggle against banditry… Chechnya in the 1990s became the gangster capital of Russia, with a kidnapping industry that many believed was verging on organized slave trading. Another viewpoint insists that this is a war about Islam, with the Chechens as fearsome harbingers of jihadism in the Caucasus… A third view dismisses all this as smears: the real truth is that Chechnya and its people are prisoners of the Russian empire, struggling heroically to regain the independence lost in the 19th century.
Mr. Jagielski’s book shuns such stereotypes, while showing that all three perspectives have some validity. His first great asset is time spent on the ground. He is a journalist at Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s biggest independent daily. An heir of sorts to Ryszard Kapuscinski, he specializes, as did the older Polish reporter, in Africa, as well as Central Asia and the Caucasus. Whereas most journalists (foreign or local) visit Chechnya fleetingly, Mr. Jagielski has lived there for repeated periods of many weeks, staying with Chechen families, slipping in and out of clandestine meetings with guerrilla commanders in safe houses under the noses of Russian troops…. The book brings to life the danger, squalor and misery of daily life in Chechnya with almost unbearable clarity.
Chechnya is a tragedy, one of the greatest yet most under-appreciated ones of contemporary European history. Learn more about the situation from Wojciech Jagielski’s Towers of Stone, now available from Seven Stories Press.