“A Small Corner of Hell” by Anna Politkovskaya

A Small Corner of Hell
In “A Small Corner of Hell,” Anna Politkovskaya continues her reportage of the Second Chechen War. While “A Dirty War,” the first collection of her articles, conveys them in more or less their original form, “A Small Corner of Hell,” while still divided into individual reports, is a more coherent, book-like narrative, with large sections such as “Ordinary Chechen Life in Wartime” and “Who Wants this War?” in which each article is thematically connected with the ones around it. This, plus the insightful and informative introduction by Georgi Derluguian, may make “A Small Corner of Hell” slightly more approachable for Western readers, or those with little knowledge of the Chechen wars, than “A Dirty War.”

Either book, however, is likely to be an eye-opening read. While Politkovskaya’s style here is slightly less blistering than in “A Dirty War,” the outrage is still simmering close to the surface, and justifiably so. She interviews all different sorts of people affected by the war: ordinary Chechen and Russian citizens are her main interest, but there are also Russian and Chechen officials and soldiers as well.

The ultimate picture formed is one of a brutal and self-perpetuating war, one that will leave long-term scars no matter what the outcome. Although older Chechens have maturity and a shared Soviet past to support them, the young are particularly vulnerable: “the young people of Chechnya, whose teenage years have been flooded with the endless tears of their sisters and mothers, are not going to overcome it [the war]. The younger generation of Chechens–high school seniors or graduates–is the toughest generation that has ever lived here.” She compares the young Chechens to young Jews in pre-Revolutionary Russia: marginalized and angered by the pogroms and the Pale of Settlement, they joined the Bolsheviks, and “The whole world knows the results.” Some may object to the comparison, but in Politkovskaya’s understanding it has validity: oppressed groups will seek, naturally, to overthrow the regime oppressing them, but the results tend to be tragic.

And the problem is not just confined to Chechnya. Politkovskaya tracks how corrupted and traumatized veterans bring their corruption and trauma with them back to the Russian heartland, so that “The ‘Chechnya’ special operation has infected the whole country, which is becoming more and more beastly and idiotic. The value of human life was already very low in Russia, and now it has slipped to almost nothing.” As can be seen by the excerpts given here, Politkovskaya’s writing is more powerful than “objective” in the way that American reporting is expected to be, even though she does take pains to interview people from all sides of the conflict. However, she clearly and deliberately paints a picture of a corrupt and decaying country, which has lost its moral center and is in the grip of a possibly terminal case of war-mongering. Little wonder that Politkovskaya was and even now, more than a decade after her murder, continues to be, a controversial figure, venerated as a saint in some circles, even as she is reviled in others. Not all readers will enjoy this book, but none will leave it unmoved.

Although Politkovskaya was in some ways a unique figure, and she certainly has a different take on the war than that of Russian-combatants-turned-writers such as Arkady Babchenko and Zakhar Prilepin, it is hard not to see certain parallels nonetheless. While Politkovskaya abhorred the macho posturing and casual violence of the (largely male) fighters, and is rightly lauded for focusing on women’s stories and bringing a distinctly feminine sensibility to her work and actions, she is neither immune to the thrill of battle, nor entirely “feminist” in the mainstream sense of the word. Just like the (largely male) combatants who found themselves called up to serve in Chechnya and then found it to be the defining experience of their life, one that they try to recreate again and again, either by volunteering for other conflicts or by becoming war correspondents, Politkovskaya says, “I’m thankful for this war. I got here by chance, and got stuck by chance as well. But now I know how to rise above all this nonsense. The war is horrible, but it has purified me of everything that was superfluous, unnecessary. How can I not be thankful?” Politkovskaya says, and I believe honestly, that she does not hold war to be glorious, but she is still addicted to it, and it was and still is what developed and defined her as a person.

At the same time, while she demonstrated enormous courage and superhuman dedication in her pursuit of the truth and her quest to reveal and stop corruption and cruelty, her actions should still make us stop and ask: how much of her apparent flouting of a woman’s “proper place” is deemed acceptable precisely because was doing it selflessly, for the sake of others? Although not shy about voicing her opinion, Politkovskaya largely lets others speak in her writing, in this way resembling another contemporary Russian author, this time of fiction, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, who also claims that she’s merely acting as a copyist of other people’s stories. Are writers such as Politkovskaya and Petrushevskaya giving voice to women who would otherwise remain silent, and developing a uniquely feminine writing style, or are they falling back into the role of women as selfless silent vessels, unable to admit to their own thrill-seeking and creativity without triggering an even greater backlash than they already have? This is just one of the many questions that Politkovskaya’s challenging and eye-opening work may evoke in the reader who is willing to descend into hell with her.

Amazon link here.

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