The dangers of being a writer in Putin’s Russia

Things are even worse if you happen to be Chechen

A war on words

Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

The London Book Fair, which ran from April 16 to 18, hardly seemed like the best place for an enthusiastic endorsement of Joseph Stalin’s star-studded achievements. Nevertheless, Russian literary firebrand Mikhail Elizarov told a crowd at a seminar called “Beyond the Headlines: Writing About Russia Today” that Winston Churchill’s murders far outweighed those of Stalin, and furthermore, were it not for Stalin we would all be speaking German. Elizarov, whose novels include Pasternak and The Librarian, was part of the Russian delegation, jointly funded by the British Council and the Academia Rossica. In answer to the question whether journalism in Russia today was a dangerous choice of professions, Elizarov scoffed: “No more so than in the United States.”

While it’s a safe bet that Elizarov belongs to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s new patriotic intelligentsia, it is hard to believe that he would imagine the U.S. is as deadly for journalists as is Putin’s Russia. The International Federation of Journalists has documented over 300 deaths among journalists in Russia, plus hundreds of abductions, disappearances and severe beatings. The 2006 brutal murder of crusading journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the worldwide protests that followed, have neither slowed the mayhem, nor have there been signs that the authorities are prepared to arrest and prosecute those responsible. Several of her colleagues at Novaya Gazeta have been beaten, threatened or gunned down. In November 2010, investigative journalist Oleg Kashin suffered a fractured skull, broken leg and shattered jaw. There have been no arrests.

While writing about life in Putin’s Russia is dangerous, writing sympathetically about Chechnya must surely be suicidal. The death toll in the Second Chechen War is estimated to be between 25,000 and 50,000. It was her writings about atrocities there that likely killed Politkovskaya. And if journalism is a life-threatening profession for Russians, it must be doubly so for Chechens (two months before the London Book Fair, a Chechen warlord claimed credit for the bomb that killed 37 people at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport).

A few weeks before the fair, I had read German Sadulaev’s book I Am a Chechen!, a fictionalized memoir about the horrors that have befallen Chechnya. His answer to why he would publish such a book was mildly evasive: he writes what he must write. The war that destroyed his bucolic homeland is central to his imagination. Born in Shali, “the heart of Chechnya,” of a Russian mother and Chechen father, Sadulaev now feels more comfortable in St. Petersburg: what’s left of his homeland “no longer resembles the place where I was born. Not even the trees have remained.” He writes of the swallows that used to return each spring, the friends, the fields where they played that were bombed into mud- and blood-slides. Till the birds no longer came. “The war began after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time of chaos that opened the door to Islamic fanatics from everywhere,” who wanted a fundamentalist state. Their ideas are as foreign to Chechens as Orthodox Christianity. “They are even less tolerant of human differences,” he says.

While there is now no large-scale military conflict in the area, it has become an exporter of terror. “This is no longer a fight between Russians and Chechens,” Sadulaev says. “It is a war between nobody and nobody, with no more hope of winning the so-called war on terror in Chechnya than elsewhere.”

A large, bear-like man with short-cropped grey hair and a crumpled face, Sadulaev speaks surprisingly precise English. In addition to his writing, he is a corporate lawyer, outraged by the fact that the West is willing to welcome Russian businessmen-thieves. The latest, former CEO of the Bank of Moscow Andrei Borodin, allegedly stole $433 million, but has found a comfortable place in London. “The West is happy to offer him refuge,” Sadulaev says. “Please don’t admit them, because you are our last hope. In Russia, these men have so much money, they can have us shot.” Sadulaev is convinced that most of the murdered journalists in Russia have been victims of the businessmen who really run things. “You have a free press,” he says. “You can tell the truth. We can’t. In Russia everything is infected by corruption. We have no transparency. We cannot hope for justice. You can!”

Sadulaev’s new book is called Attack on Shali. It’s “more reasoned, less emotional than I Am a Chechen!,” he says. It will go back through the history of Russia’s obsession with Chechens, the wars that ended with Soviet rule, and Joseph Stalin’s attempt to wipe Chechnya off the map by deporting about a million of its people to Siberia.


The Ghosts of Europe, Anna Porter’s latest book, recently won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

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