“A Dirty War” by Anna Politkovskaya

a dirty war

Anyone tempted to say that heroes no longer exist need look no further than opposition Russian journalists to be proven wrong. Although there are many heroes and martyrs amongst that group, the name Anna Politkovskaya is particularly sacred. A furious truth-teller, Politkovskay always had the courage of her convictions, descending into chaos, corruption, and the hell of the Second Chechen War in order to shine the light of her reporting on the deserving and undeserving alike. Her murder, about which doubts still linger, was a tragedy, but it is heartening to see that even in death she could not be silenced. “A Dirty War” is a collection of her articles on the Second Chechen War, here translated into English and provided with an introduction, maps, and notes to help orient the reader.

“A Dirty War” is neither an exhaustive historical overview, nor the kind of “balanced” reporting American readers have come to expect from their own journalists. Politkovskaya was writing about contemporary issues for a Russian audience and expected them to be familiar with the cultural context of Russia in the late 1990s/early 2000s. The maps and notes will aid readers less familiar with the topic to keep track, but this is not a textbook survey of the situation and the players, so if you are looking for an introductory text on the Chechen wars, this is probably not the book for you. And American readers, used to the the fearful faux objectivity of much mainstream American news, may be taken aback by Politkovskaya’s overt presence within the text. She has no fear of taking a position and making it clear, even if it means contradicting herself: the first article, “Grave Robbers,” slams the agencies responsible for identifying the bodies of soldiers killed in action during the First Chechen War for incompetence and profiteering, while the second article, “Land of the Unknown Soldiers,” written after she had interviewed those in charge of the process, sympathetically lays out all the obstacles facing them. American readers may find the strident outrage that is so evident in Politkovskaya’s writing to be refreshing, or they may find it off-putting, but in either case they will find it striking.

Although Politkovskaya has no problem in staking a position and defending it, she does not shy away from presenting the voices of all sides of the issue. “A Dirty War” includes interviews with refugees, ordinary citizens, Chechen leaders, Russian functionaries, Russian soldiers of all ranks, including a surprisingly sympathetic interview with General Shamanov, and Chechen separatist fighters. The overall picture is of people drowning in confusion and incompetence, both their own and others’. Refugees are trapped in camps without food, water, or heating for months, but attempts to restore Grozny to habitability are stymied by looters who strip the water and sewage stations of parts, rendering them inoperable. OMON [kind of like American SWAT teams] troops are forced to live off meager supplies of spoiled meat as they man checkpoints. Doctors and the families of the wounded have to go barter on the black market for anesthetic to perform operations. Even the higher-ups are not immune to the soul-sucking nature of the conflict: Shamanov, after issuing a number of platitudes about the need to do the dirty work that no one else will, is last shown sitting by himself at a function honoring paratroopers, so lonely and depressed that “It was painful to look at him.” No one reading this can be left with the impression that war, particularly this war, is a glorious business.

Politkovskaya was in the business of revealing the ills of society, not necessarily curing them, and so there’s more here to infuriate the reader then to inspire them. Or rather, Politkovskaya wanted to inspire her readers by infuriating them into action. A number of the articles contain direct appeals to the readers to take specific actions to help Politkovskaya and her colleagues at Novaya Gazeta in their attempts to do at least a little good for the most wretched of the people she encounters. Although now, the better part of two decades after these events have taken place, and more than a decade after Politkovskaya’s murder, there is not much that we can do about anything depicted in the book, we can still bear witness. And while “A Dirty War” may have much in it that is indeed dirty, not to mention depressing, it is also a testament to unrelenting heroism, not just Politkovskaya’s, but that of the many doctors, teachers, volunteers, and others who stepped forward at great personal discomfort and risk in order to help out people whom their government and the world at large had abandoned. “A Dirty War” may leave you appalled at the depths to which humans can sink, but it will also leave you astounded at the heights of altruism and courage to which they can rise.

Amazon link here.

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