Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review: The Angel of Grozny

I first discovered Åsne Seierstad's work with The Bookseller of Kabul, a book that I found incredibly powerful, interesting and very informative on a region in the world that I knew very little about. This book, while written in a much more journalistic rather than novelistic style, was even more so.

First of all, it is 100% confirmed that Asne Seierstad has balls of steel. She brazenly enters one of the scariest places in the world, repeatedly, without the permission let alone the support and protection of the Russian government, in order to report first hand what life is really like in Chechnya once you rip off the blinds of propaganda. Believe me, she takes no prisoners with this one, delving into the real, complicated mess that is the Caucasus.

I know that it is easy to laugh at Putin for all of the ridiculous stunts he pulls, trying to portray himself as a badass that no one wants to mess with. Trust me, I wouldn't want to mess with Putin either, but for entirely different reasons. He is far, far more sneaky than he wants to come off, a weasel trying to convince his people he's a bear, and after reading this book it is incredibly hard to just laugh him off as pathetic. You laugh at people that are essentially harmless, and this man is anything but.

There are parts of this book that are very hard to read, and there are things that happened that are fucking inexcusable. It made me angry, sad, guilty that I didn't know or care about this before, and plain depressed that humanity can even go there. 

Iznaur disappeared in 2000 and returned in 2007. He is marked for life.
They pounded a nail into one of his shoulders. All the way in. With a hammer.
They drove a pencil into his chest. The lead is still there.
They pulled flesh from his chest with tongs. Deep hollows remain.
 "The Russians. To get me to talk," says Iznaur. 

In cases like this it is very easy to slip into a narrative that is based around a simple dicotomy. Chechens=martyrs, Russians=evil tyrants. Asne Seierstad is very good at steering clear of this, and no one comes off 100% perfect in this book. Chechnya has become rife with Islamist extremism and honor killings are rampant. Chechens have been pitted against other Chechens and often can be the most sadistic of them all. These are all consequences of ignorance, high mortality and power struggles that one can come to expect after years of oppression (after all, look what happened in Afghanistan), but it goes to show that reality is so much more complicated that good v. evil. It's poor v. poorer, Islam v. Atheism v. Christianity, working class Russian v. Chechen children, Chechen v. Chechen, ignorance v. power, and for what? Hundreds of thousands of lives murdered, maimed and manipulated by the hands of a few sadists and narcissistic sociopaths at the very top.  

Everyone, even the racist bullying Nazi sympatheisers that finally get caught in their hate crimes are difficult to be angry at, or hate. Is it their fault that they were raised in a country rife with ignorance and propaganda against certain people? Do they deserve to be sent to a prison which bleeds their family dry by extorting money from them, a prison with twice as many inmates as beds, where prisoners constantly die of infectious diseases? 

Can you hate the Russian soldier, after you realize that he signed up so that he can finally help his mother financially, but gets his pay stolen by other officers, gte severely wounded and then unceremoniously dumped by his government which doesn't want to pay him his pension or any of the money he is owed for being "voluntarily coerced" into service?

The Chechens are evil on the inside. They are evil in their souls. They're like wolves, and live according to the laws of that beast. [...] "They have hot blood, you see, [...] Red-hot. War seethes in them right from birth".

Oh, how easy life would be if it were really that simple. Reading this part, it made me think about another thing that the major religions really need to answer for. The creation of the Devil, this us vs. them mentality, as if life could be distilled into something as easy as that. "Evil" still exists in this world, but not because the Devil is alive and well. It "exists" because this shit is a vicious cycle, breeding more hate and violence as it goes along, by keeping a people in ignorance and refusing to understand their own history. It makes me scream in frustration because it never ends, and it just gets worse every time it goes around.

It's a tough one to read, but it is so very very worth it. It is another that I would highly recommend, if for no other reason than it is something that has been dismissed for far too long.   

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