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Politkovskaya – “A Dirty War: a Russian reporter in Chechnya”

June 12, 2014

Summary: Anna Politkovskaya’s grim book on the Chechen conflicts of the 1990s exposed all sorts of flaws within the Russian government and military.

“The destruction of Grozny was both terrible and strange. Terrible because of the wantonness and scale of the damage. Strange, because this destruction was ordered from Moscow with the stated aim of preserving Chechnya within the Russian Federation…In 1999-2000 even more devastation was inflicted on the city by artillery and bombers. Chechnya has now lost almost everything we associate with a modern state…” Thomas de Waal

Grozny destroyed

Stalingrad or Grozny?

As a result of a chance encounter with a bookshelf in Malmö library earlier this year I stumbled across the murdered Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Dirty War”. This is essentially a compilation of the Novaya Gazeta articles written by during the course of the fighting in Chechnya in the late 1990s and early 21st century – the two “Chechen Wars” of 1994 – 96 and 1998 to…well I’m not really sure it has finished. It depends which history book you read. I understand the Russians swapped Defence Ministry Army soldiers for Interior Ministry police (although weapons and equipment may have remained the same) which was intended to signify the return to “normality” in 2009. But an insurgency is still continuing today.

Politkovskaya died of gunshots to the head in the stairwell of her apartment block in Moscow in 2006. Although five men were convicted, with two given life sentences, it is still unclear who ordered the killing. Reading the book, with her aggressively compassionate championing of the ordinary civilian and condemnation of the waste, incompetence, indifference and brutality of the Russian government and security ministries, it is easy to see that she almost certainly made dozens of enemies through naming and shaming.

“An armoured personnel carrier races through the maize fields along the road that borders the cordon sanitaire. It is full of soldiers. An officer leaps out…The colonel is in a highly nervous state. Restlessly he struts back and forth, twitching and sometimes breaking into a run; he gives an odd and unbalanced impression. At his command the soldiers point their weapons at everyone who isn’t in uniform or riding in an army vehicle. No one trusts anyone else here and they’re all afraid of each other. That’s how we now behave, yet the land around is part of our country, it’s not a fascist, gangster-run republic. We created this situation. Only officers who are daily shown how little they count could behave this way.” Anna Politkovskaya, “A Dirty War”, Harvill Press, London, 2002.

The reading is pretty gruelling.  If you take a look at some of the footage and photographs from the time as well, you are left with something that looks like the recreation of some of the grimmer scenes from the Russo-German war of 1941-45.  Most forms of excess are there.  The charges she levels the Russian government and military (providing numerous examples) include:


The Chechen fighters began to specialise in mass kidnappings – a packed theatre, a hospital full of patients and a school full of children. Russian counter-terrorist techniques were blunt, even crude. You could usually count on half of the captives (sometimes this went into the hundreds) being killed along with the kidnappers.

grozny, woman refugeePolitkovskaya was certainly not an impartial journalist or observer – more of a one-woman relief agency. She gave away her own money to refugees, harangued civil officials and military personnel into action and used her newspaper column (and her own phone number) to rally support, create awareness and raise funds to help those civilians (and sometimes soldiers) trapped in the middle of what was one long (and internationally over-looked) atrocity. On a smaller scale, it fore-warned of the sorts of conflict we are seeing in Syria and Iraq.

Very worth reading. Very unsettling.

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