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Analysis, book reviews and photography from Abkhazia and the wider Caucasus — updates when time permits

Book review: Chechnya Diary by Thomas Goltz

chechnya diary - coverChechnya Diary — A War Correspondent’s Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya

Thomas Goltz

Thomas Dunne Books, New York
October 2003
302 pages
ISBN: 978-0-312-26874-9

The village of Samashki was the site of a massacre during the first Chechen war in which more than hundred residents were executed by Russian forces. Chechnya Diary is written around this event. The author, Thomas Goltz, was in Samashki in the weeks before the massacre to film a freelance report on the ‘Chechen spirit’, and documented the fighting that preceded it.

Still, Chechnya Diary is not so much a book about the Samashki massacre, but rather a book about Goltz’s report of the Samashki massacre and everything that preceded and followed it. It is a breathtaking account of war reporting. (Goltz has documented his prior experiences elsewhere in the Caucasus in Azerbaijan Diary and Georgia Diary.)

Throughout the book, Goltz is brutally honest, most of all about his own failings. That while he doesn’t condone their acts of killing, he sympathises with the volunteer fighters, that they have become his friends. That he is courting death, that he is often senselessly risking his life, his primary concern being merely to obtain spectacular shots. And Goltz admits that he is consciously blurring the lines between observation and participation — this is the declared theme of the book, dedicated to the Heisenberg principle.

We do learn things about the Chechen conflict itself, and about Samashki in particular. For instance, the tension stemming from the fact that while Chechen resistance was fueled by a desire to protect traditional society and morality (adat), recently arrived Chechens from the diaspora in Central Asia would at the same time hold a more hardline position regarding armed resistance against and cooperation with Russian authorities and put less value in adat and be generally more modern than local Chechens. In general, Goltz does his best to set the record straight whenever his observations on the ground belie contemporaneous media reports. Most importantly perhaps, he tries to do justice to the Chechens he meets, whether or not they pick up arms. The Chechen wars were largely fought by ordinary villagers with families, who would revert to being just that.

Nevertheless, Goltz somehow does not manage to convey the scale of the Samashki massacre implied by the number of dead. Here the book’s main strength — focusing on Goltz’s personal experiences — is also its principal weakness. Goltz was not present during the worst violence, and most of his friends and acquaintances survive, the fighters having retreated into the forest as a precondition from the Russian army for the ‘peaceful surrender’ of the town.

Chechnya Diary also contains some more minor omissions. Goltz speculates several times whether he might not be killed by either Russian or Chechen forces. In fact, when he returns to Samashki after the first war, his most urgent task is to convince people that he is not a spy, that his filming had not been reconnaissance work for the Russians. It is strange then that he does not mention Nadezhda Chaikova, who died under similar circumstances and who had also filmed in Samashki.

Likewise, when Goltz returns to Samashki, he finds that the commander of the local Chechen forces, Hussein — whose guest he had been — has been forced into exile back to his native village in Kazakhstan. Goltz is initially told that this is because the withdrawal of the fighters left the town defenceless before the Russian onslaught, but then hears that the real reason is that Hussein did not participate in the successful defence of Samashki when the Russians tried to conquer it a second time in March 1996. What is curious is that when Goltz visits Hussein in Kazakhstan, he does not address this rather incongruous development.

That being said, these open ends do not change the fact that Chechnya Diary is both an essential piece of war reporting and an important account of one of the lowest points of the first Chechen war.

Filed under: Book reviews, Chechnya, Media, Russia, ,

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