Don't Mention This War Either

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Review of 'A Small Corner of Hell' by Anna Politkovskaya, University of Chicago Press £17.50

If you want to know what life is like at the receiving end of Russian imperialism, I don't think you could do much better than this grim little book. Anna Politkovskaya is a Russian journalist who has broken with her own imperial establishment to report on its atrocities in Chechnya - not just once or twice, but over and over again. She has cowered under Russian air attack together with Chechen refugees and been tortured by Russian officers as a pro-Chechen 'militant bitch'. Her extraordinary courage in one of the most dangerous places on earth makes her account all the more believable.

The various armed forces of the massive Russian Federation have been smashing up the tiny republic of Chechnya for roughly six out of the last ten years. These forces number somewhere around 100,000. They are ranged against maybe 1,500 Chechen fighters. According to the most recent credible estimate I can find, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians had been killed by the beginning of last year (plus 13,000 to 20,000 combatants). By November 2003 there were, according to the UN, 210,000 refugees in Chechnya and in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, and an unknown number in other parts of Russia. These are huge proportions of the Chechen population even if you accept the official Russian claim that it is over a million. They give some idea of the scale of the ongoing catastrophe. But you need the testimony of a Politkovskaya to know what it feels like.

Through her you smell the fear and feel the reality of mutilation and death by bullet, bomb, landmine and torture. You witness the heroism of starving old women giving up their scraps of food to the young. You witness also the demoralisation of the starving half-crazed women tearing at each other's rations, tuberculosis victims spitting at the uninfected to jump a place in the food queue. You understand the brutalisation of the Russian military, whose major crimes include at least four big massacres since 1999. You admire all the more the troops who refuse to crack, like the ones who saved 89 inmates of an old people's home under intense fire from their own side.

Chechnya has been subjected to a harsh regime of institutionalised corruption in which those who systematically thieve its oil wealth are protected by Russian uniforms and guns. Yet western leaders have kept remarkably quiet about it. Keeping quiet about Chechnya is part of the price for Russian compliance in the west's own dirty wars. If the mainstream western media suddenly regain the power of speech about Chechnya (as they have recently about the threat to democracy in Russia proper), it won't be on account of humanitarian scruples. It will be because Putin and Co aren't complying enough. Russian imperialism may be down but it's far from out. The US is the world's only superpower, but it isn't right next door in the way Russia is for a great swathe of countries from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

There are striking parallels in this book with the activities of western imperialism from Vietnam to Iraq. A lot of the differences are basically due to Russia being poorer than Britain or the US. Sadly, Politkovskaya's understanding of the Putin leadership seems to be restricted to its Soviet origin. She never mentions the western aggressiveness to which it is responding. Consequently, she never mentions the international anti-war movement which incorporates the only real alternative to the relentless pressure of imperial competition, east and west. Her book is an important contribution to that movement nevertheless.