In “I am a Chechen!” German Sadulaev pulls together a set of stories, based heavily on his own biographical experiences, about the Chechen conflicts. Fragmentary, lyrical, in turns desperate and magical, and often non-linear, this collection follows in the tradition of Russian writers such as Lermontov and Babel, taking bare biography and mixing it with fiction, folk tales, and poetry in order to create, not a historical account of the wars that have torn Chechnya apart, but an impression of what it is like to live through such conflicts.
Born in the Chechen village of Shali to a Russian mother and Chechen father, Sadulaev subsequently moved to St. Petersburg and has become one of the more prominent–and controversial–voices in contemporary Russian fiction, as well as representing the Communist Party in elections. This complexity of biography is reflected in Sadulaev’s complexity of composition: along with the fragmentary nature of the book’s structure, made up as it is of multiple short stories and vignettes with multiple narrators, reminiscent of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Penguin Classics)
the overarching theme of the book seems to be the fragmented and contradictory contemporary Chechen self. Just as Babel’s narrators in the “Red Cavalry” and “Odessa” tales
are torn between their Jewish and their Russian identities, so are Sadulaev’s narrators torn between their Chechen and Russian selves, something illustrated most graphically in in the section entitled “When the Tanks Awoke,” about two friends, each half-Russian, half-Chechen, who end up on opposite sides of the conflict. Only one survives the confrontation, but nonetheless “even now there are two of us, my friend and I. My brother and I.” The two halves of the book’s super-narrator seem equally caught up in an eternal conflict, unable to split off the Chechen from the Russian parts, but just as unable to reconcile these opposing forces.
This internal ethnic conflict appears not only in the stories’ narrators’ explicit struggle to accept the fact that they are both Chechen and Russian, but in the concern about ethnicity and appearance that appears over and over again. Chechens, Sadulaev tells us, are largely “person of non-Caucasian ethnic origins,” meaning that they are not necessarily the swarthy “chernozhopiye” (“black-asses”) the police in Moscow and St. Petersburg are on the lookout for, but fair-skinned and -haired Aryans. “If you want to arrest a Chechen,” Sadulaev informs us in “One Swallow Doesn’t Make a Summer,” the first, most biographical section, “don’t look for someone swarthy.” Instead, look at behavior, since “a Chechen always holds himself as though today the whole world belongs to him, and tomorrow he’ll be killed regardless.”
Even so, Sadulaev’s narrators are obsessed with the “wheaten-haired girls” of Russia proper, who are so alluring and promiscuous, but whose enticing appearance and seductive behavior contains a trap: “There is no happiness,” the narrator of “One Swallow” concludes, “the fair-haired Russian women brought us none. We ourselves have become women like them.” Again, like Babel’s Jewish narrators, but vastly more so, Sadulaev’s Chechen men are deeply concerned with their manhood, which they want to prove by sexual domination of Russian women–but instead they find themselves feminized by the contact, and worse yet, carrying in their veins the blood of the Russian women who took Chechen men as husbands and lovers. It is the Chechen women (and, we know, not just the women) who are the victims of the Russian army’s planned and unplanned use of rape as a weapon in their war against the Chechen populace.
“I Am a Chechen!” is not, as can be predicted by the subject matter, a lighthearted read. Nothing about Chechnya can be. Sadulaev himself compares his stories to snuff films, and accuses the reader of reading them for the same reason. But this collection of stories, for all the brutality of its subject matter, is ultimately neither titillating nor, surprisingly, even depressing. While I still consider Arkady Babchenko’s One Soldier’s War
the definitive and essential work on the experience of the Chechen conflicts, Babchenko’s book is inherently Russo-centric. Sadulaev’s work is a necessary corrective to that Russo-centric view, and beyond that, it is full of a literary power and lyrical beauty that deserves to be read in its own right. And unlike Babchenko’s pessimistic conclusion to his work, which focuses on the scars of PTSD carried by the Russian soldiers after the war has technically ended, Sadulaev ends on a call to positive action: “Each of us, individually and collectively, persons and nations, we have to walk this path,” he tells us. “We have to conquer evil, to rise above hatred…And then the doors will open. The doors of heaven.”
Want your own copy? Here’s the link: I Am a Chechen!
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