There have been many appalling conflicts in recent years: Afghanistan, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and now Syria all spring to mind. The two Chechen wars (1994-96 and 1999-2009) may not leap to the mind of the Western reader as readily, but they should, both because of their brutality and because of their outsized influence on other events. The Chechen conflicts dragged Russia, or rather, Russia dragged itself, into a prolonged internal war, marked with large-scale military operations, guerrilla warfare, and terrorist attacks–in fact, Russia holds the title for European country that has suffered the most terrorist attacks in recent years. Large numbers of Russian veterans of the wars now suffer severe PTSD, as written about by Russian writers and veterans such as Babchenko and Prilepin, and have also been transformed into a corrupt and violent force that, as Politkovskaya described in her articles, spreads its corruption and violence to the heartland of Russia upon its return from the Caucasus. The effect of these conflicts upon the Chechens themselves has been demonstrably even worse, but their stories have received even less attention, especially in the West, than those of the Russians. So Eldin’s first-hand accounts of his own experiences as a Chechen journalist and an ally/member of the Chechen resistance forces is important merely by the fact of its existence.
“The Sky Wept Fire” is a series of short vignettes, arranged in more or less chronological order, about Eldin’s experiences, beginning with the first storming of Grozny in winter 1994 and ending with his escape to Norway following his participation in the second war. Some of the chapters, such as the opening one about Eldin and everyone else’s astonishment and confusion on the first day of the storming operation, are told in the first person; that particular section documents with painful realism the hopeless naïveté and complete cluelessness of Eldin and the other civilians, as they face enemy bombardment for the first time. Running around chasing his “story,” Eldin witnesses death in combat for the first time, and realizes that “all those Soviet war films had been nothing but lies.” Eldin, just like the Russians on the other side (as he openly acknowledges), had a shared Soviet past and had been raised on films of Soviet heroism in WWII; just like the Russian soldiers he found the reality of war to be nothing like the movies he had grown up watching, as it is both much more horrifying, and much more natural, than anything on film.
Where Eldin’s account differs, and most enlighteningly, from most Russian ones, is in his open avowal of religious faith as a source of strength. While atheism was the official theology of the Soviet Union, it apparently made less headway against Islam in Chechnya than it did against Orthodoxy in European Russia, and the religious faith of Eldin and many of the other Chechens that appear in his stories is a striking difference from the portrayal of the same conflict from the Russian perspective. It is his faith that Eldin credits with saving him from suicide and carrying him through the interrogation and torture at a “filtration camp” in the second section of the book, which is marked both by its brutality (that word again!) and the fragmentation of the narrative voice: Eldin switches from a first-person account to a second-person narrative, something that sounds a little more natural in Russian but is still a marked development. From that point on, whenever the storylines touches upon something particularly politically or emotionally sensitive, the narrative goes into the second person, making it more immediate to the reader, and yet also more distanced from Eldin himself, suggesting psychological breakdown and distancing under the immense strain of the events overtaking him.
Eldin is acutely aware that he is telling a story that has been largely silenced or twisted, and it is clear that he is on a mission to set the record straight and give a voice to the Chechen rebels, who have garnered little more love for themselves in the West, with their association with Islamist radicalism and organizations such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, than in Russia. He is at pains to paint a sympathetic picture of them, as well as of the common Russian soldier, for whom he repeatedly expresses sympathy and respect. This is an essential perspective to understand if you are to understand the Chechen conflicts, and “The Sky Wept Fire” gives a powerful depiction of the religious fervor and particularly of the patriotic nationalism of the Chechen fighters, as well as their oppression and mistreatment at the hands of the Russians that helped push them over the edge into war. At the same time, someone has to be to blame for starting and continuing the war, and Eldin argues that it was a cynical conspiracy on the part of the Russian high command. Although I have no doubt of their cynicism, this level of conspiracy suggests a level of competence and coordination entirely at odds with much of their observed behavior. Which brings us back to some much more depressing conclusions: perhaps the whole thing was just a big stupid mess, combining cynical power grabs on both sides with general human villainy and bloodlust. I can’t respect or idealize the Chechen side as much as Eldin does, but I can understand them, and “The Sky Wept Fire” is a must-read for anyone wanting to read about this critical and often ignored conflict.