In college, when I read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, a posthumously published novella set in Chechnya, I’d heard of the place but had barely any idea where it was. My limited knowledge of the region had been informed by reports of an ongoing war that I saw on the six o’clock news as a child. I certainly didn’t realize that despite being in Russia Chechnya was closer to Jerusalem than to Moscow. I wondered whether or not that war was even over as I eased into the narrator’s story: “On a cold November evening Hadji Murat rode into the hostile Chechen aoul of Makhet, filled with the fragrant smoke of kizyak.”
An aoul, some kizkyak? The glossary explained that the former was a mountain village, and the latter fuel made from dung and straw. “Hadji Murat” sounded like the name of a grand sultan, but here he rode as a warrior on horseback, ready for battle. Every successive line overwrote the vague ideas I had of a ruined cityscape with vivid, panoramic images of village strongholds and self-assured saviors.
The past is one kind of fiction; this novella was another, equally as valid and gripping. The food they ate was not European or Mediterranean, but distinctly Northern Caucasian: “tea, dumplings, pancakes with butter, curek—a thinly rolled-out bread—and honey.” It was the same sort of food my friend in the Peace Corps would eat every day in Kazakhstan. The text swirled with many languages: Arabic greetings, Russian discussions, aristocratic French asides, and—indeed—Chechen declarations. Even the Chechens were splintered: Hadji Murat leads one tribe, the Avars, and fights both the Russians as well as the leaders of the other Chechen tribes.
became immersed in the story of military struggles, negotiations, and evasions.
Tolstoy coalesces Russia’s imperial power into an outpost of troops led by a
prince; Hadji Murat walks into their tents prepared to surrender on the
condition that the Russians free his family, which has been captured by a rival
Chechen tribe. But there is little reason for the Russians to trust him. “He’ll
play us for fools,” one of them declares as Hadji Murat rides away later. In
the end, as the narrator foreshadows in the story’s first pages, Hadji Murat is
killed—not by the Russians, but by another Chechen who has turned against him.
Two weeks ago, Chechnya to most Westerners was just a name on a map, a region vaguely associated with Russia. Even as bombings shook the United States and a manhunt brought Boston to a standstill, people confused the republic with its Eastern European cousin. As reports came in that the main suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, were of Chechen extraction, the President of Russia distanced himself from the Caucasian region.
all its wars with Russia, Chechnya was turned into a real-life District 12,”
one of my friends declared. But on Google Maps, I saw pictures of Brutalist
concrete buildings and aquamarine
mosques. I zoomed into the capital; the
freshly-built streets of Grozny were a striking contrast to Shakh
Aivazov’s iconic image of a
soldier lighting his cigarette by the ruins of the First
Chechen War. What was it like to live, I wondered, in this region that
everybody had heard of but nobody knew about? Were these complexities really
any different from those rendered by Tolstoy?
In The Chechens: A Handbook, Amjad Jaikhouma names two folkloric symbols that have remained in the Chechen culture over the centuries. One is the wolf, “which [according to the Chechen ethos] is the only animal that would enter into an unequal match, making up for any disadvantage by its agility, wit, courage, and tenacity . . . This wolfish allegory is a depiction of how the Chechens have dealt with outside invaders for millennia.” The history of Chechnya reads as incursion upon incursion: the Cimmerians, the Scythians, the Mongols (twice), and then the Cossacks and Russians for two centuries. Each time, the outmatched inhabitants were able to successfully resist and push back their invaders to reclaim their territory.
The other symbol is the abrek, the wild horseman or rogue cowboy of the Northern Caucasus. The abrek lives in exile according to the mandates of blood revenge; he is an outlaw and commonly considered a bandit or a thief—and while the Chechens consider abreks to be heroes, Russian propaganda has been far less sympathetic.
yet no region is simple enough to be reduced to symbols. Indeed, Max Fisher
explains in his
introductory guide to Chechnya that “the Caucasus conflict
has too complicated a history to be pinned on any one group or ideology,” and Mark
for Forbes, indicates that recent historical events, from Stalinist
relocations to the two wars of the nineties and the Beslan
school hostage crisis have contributed just as much to the modern
Chechen mind-set. The republic’s children may be born into a world of wolves
and outlaw horsemen, but they grow up in a world under perpetual siege.
A few years ago, I was told that one of the most talked-about young writers in Russia was a Chechen man by the name of German Sadulaev, and so I bought a newly translated copy of his I Am a Chechen! Having left his homeland before the wars, Sadulaev declares: “Beyond my window is a late white St. Petersburg autumn. The quiet of an old lane. The quiet of an imperial building. And memories. Once my memory was a strawberry field. Now my memory is a minefield.” The description is no hyperbole: strawberries grew in plenty not far from Sadulaev’s childhood village. He mentions, in an aside, the myth of mandrakes, plants that shriek and will kill whoever plucks them out of the earth; those plants, therefore, are tied to the tails of dogs that will pull them out of the ground before dying. In the wake of carpet-bombing and heavy artillery, which razed the land and killed many of its inhabitants, the strawberries grew back, “even more, it seems, than ever. Nobody picks them . . . Strawberries grow well in fields watered with thick, rich human blood. But perhaps they are no longer strawberries. Perhaps it is mandrake growing in the forest fields near Serzhen-Yurt.”
In The Chechens: A Handbook, the author’s surprisingly heartfelt note explains German Sadulaev’s mission: “The Chechens have proved to be remarkably resistant . . . You cannot eat a poem or a well-crafted story or joke; but poems, stories and humorous anecdotes have many times saved and sustained the hungry as they’ve hunted for food and fought themselves out of difficult corners.” Sadulaev, who studied law instead of fighting, writes to remember, to bring back the strawberry field that existed before the minefields. Reading his book triggered my memories of Hadji Murat with his return to Grozny (“I was met by my relatives, who had become like the city: hunched and darkened”) and how his village eagerly awaited the swallows’ return each spring; he describes hallucinatory fairy tales alongside vivid reminiscences of his parents and his childhood friends; he draws in sharp detail how instead of learning how to kiss, he learned to assemble a Kalashnikov. In an interview, he explained that he wrote “partly to put myself back together.”
Chechnya, once a region of feuding tribes, has been changed by the struggles of the past decades; Sadulaev warns that “if the Chechens become a nation, they’ll have only the Russians to thank.” Yet, despite Chechnya’s revitalization under Russian rule, it is still a vehemently independent territory.
when I read reports that the Boston bombing suspects were ethnically Chechen, I
suspected the media’s emphasis on their origins was every bit as reductive as
simplifying the region’s peoples to a pack of wolves or an entire army of abreks.
Both brothers lived in other countries during the wars, and had lived in the
United States for over a decade; their origins were hardly descriptive of their
In the midst of this media furor, strangely enough, I was reading yet another book set in Chechnya. Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena spans five wintry days and stretches back a full decade, bringing together the stories of an exhausted doctor in a barely functioning hospital and the man who comes to help her in exchange for sheltering a little girl from investigators.
Through these characters, I gained a far clearer impression of the Northern Caucasus than I had from heartfelt memoirs or on-the-ground photographs. The wars of the last twenty years have affected Chechnya’s people, and the consequences—a village’s oversized hopes on its one child sent to medical school, a doctor’s hard-nosed dealings in order to get her medical supplies, a girl’s suitcase filled with mementos from refugees sleeping on the family couch—were so clearly and honestly portrayed. Oblique references and asides tossed off early on in the book later became astonishing revelations that stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not things had changed since. (They have, a little, but not entirely.)
this novel’s epigraph, Marra offers the final line of Hadji Murat. “It was of this death that I was reminded by the
crushed thistle in the midst of the plowed field.” If Tolstoy suggested that
every stratum of society, from lowly plants to the highest of Russian royalty,
was interconnected, Marra shows that same principle in vivid color, connecting
the points across pages and words to show us the constellations of real life.
In all the books I read about Chechnya, from Tolstoy’s opus to Anna Politkovskaya’s dispatches from the region, from Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War to Joe Sacco’s graphic-novel reportage, the past looms imponderably over the present. History has shown Chechnya’s inhabitants that invasion and war are never distant. Other war-torn regions—Alsace-Lorraine, Tibet, Ulster, the Basque region—eventually settle into quiet, but the Chechnya-Russia conflict seems paralleled only by the surprisingly proximate Middle East. However, the Chechen mode seems to be one of cautious optimism; they live in a world vastly distanced from the one Boston’s bombers inhabited, and I am hard-pressed to draw connections between their actions and their ethnic homeland. After all, if Chechen folklore portrays its people as wolves or as abreks, it does so with the hope that they will win. If the cities rebuild their houses and repave their streets, it is in hope that those builders’ children will, one day, pluck strawberries from fresh, unsullied fields.
Credit, from top: Flick user Tsuda, Wikimedia contributor Adam Smit, Flickr user Gastev, Flickr user praegerr, Flickr user Yankee Doodle1, and Wikimedia contributor Олег Шеин. Used with a Creative Commons license.