In Other Words

What They’re Reading: Chechnya’s Literary Pyre

Aslan Doukaev is the Prague-based director of the North Caucasus service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. His team broadcasts to the region daily, through morning and evening shows of 20 minutes each, in the Avar, Chechen, and Circassian languages. FOREIGN POLICY: Describe current Chechen reading habits. Aslan Doukaev: People in Grozny don’t read as much ...

Aslan Doukaev is the Prague-based director of the North Caucasus service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. His team broadcasts to the region daily, through morning and evening shows of 20 minutes each, in the Avar, Chechen, and Circassian languages.

FOREIGN POLICY: Describe current Chechen reading habits.

Aslan Doukaev: People in Grozny don't read as much as they did before the war. Nowadays, they prefer escapist reading. Detective stories, science fiction, esoteric literature, and love stories and romances are very popular. Mostly though, as people try to understand the roots and causes of the troubles that befell them, they buy and borrow a great deal of books about human psychology and the history of Russian-Chechen relations. Books by Abuzar Aidamirov are especially popular. His Long Nights trilogy, written in Chechen, is a powerful account of the Caucasian Wars waged by Russia in the 19th century. Interestingly, people even read anti-Chechen authors such as Kanta Ibragimov, a Moscow-based ethnic Chechen, who writes books in Russian which denigrate Chechnya and Chechens.

Aslan Doukaev is the Prague-based director of the North Caucasus service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. His team broadcasts to the region daily, through morning and evening shows of 20 minutes each, in the Avar, Chechen, and Circassian languages.

FOREIGN POLICY: Describe current Chechen reading habits.

Aslan Doukaev: People in Grozny don’t read as much as they did before the war. Nowadays, they prefer escapist reading. Detective stories, science fiction, esoteric literature, and love stories and romances are very popular. Mostly though, as people try to understand the roots and causes of the troubles that befell them, they buy and borrow a great deal of books about human psychology and the history of Russian-Chechen relations. Books by Abuzar Aidamirov are especially popular. His Long Nights trilogy, written in Chechen, is a powerful account of the Caucasian Wars waged by Russia in the 19th century. Interestingly, people even read anti-Chechen authors such as Kanta Ibragimov, a Moscow-based ethnic Chechen, who writes books in Russian which denigrate Chechnya and Chechens.

Antiwar books don’t reach the territory at all, and possessing books on Chechen aspirations for independence can be life-threatening. We received reports of people being executed when Russian soldiers found such books or video materials. A teacher in northern Chechnya was arrested simply for receiving in the mail the latest book by Alla Dudayeva, the widow of the slain Chechen president. That teacher spent three days being interrogated by officers in the Federal Security Service, the Russian secret service, which ultimately burned the book in front of him.

FP: Which foreign authors do Chechens like?

AD: Many people are familiar with classics by William Shakespeare, Lord Byron (George Gordon), Stendahl (Marie Henri Beyle), Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, and Mark Twain. Modern foreign writers are much more difficult to find. Young Chechens make painstaking efforts to acquire books by Japanese author Haruki Murakami and Brazilian novelist Paolo Coelho.

FP: Does anyone publish books in Chechnya at this point?

AD: All printing facilities in Grozny have been destroyed. In 2002, two primitive printing houses were organized in the northern and southeastern regions of Chechnya, producing a handful of books and monographs. Writers and researchers have to publish their books in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and southern Russian cities.

FP: How has the war affected how Chechens view their own history?

AD: Before the outbreak of the second war in 1999, when Chechnya was a de facto independent country, scholars and writers sought to reassess and rediscover Chechnya’s history, and thereby forge a new national identity. This wave of scholarship produced some provocative history books, particularly on the Caucasian wars and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s deportation of Chechens in the winter of 1944. The return of war further widened the schism among the Chechen intelligentsia over Russia’s role in Chechnya. Those who call for a greater role for Russia in Chechen life are primarily based in Grozny and control the education system and the media. They continue to suggest that Chechens voluntarily joined Russia in the late 18th century, a concept first promoted by Russian nationalist historians, and later popularized by the Communist authorities in Chechnya in the early 1980s. This group stands in opposition to the pro-independence intelligentsia, some of which are now abroad, expressing their views mostly online through multilingual, and sometimes exclusively Chechen-language websites. Yet with telephone lines in Chechnya virtually nonexistent, most Chechens cannot go online anyway — and in the computer room of the university, students are greeted by a sign prohibiting access to Chechen sites produced abroad.

FP: Is the Chechen language under threat?

AD: Naturally, the Russian language has become dominant in today’s Chechnya. Our linguistic heritage is eroding so swiftly that on the eve of last year’s constitutional referendum, the pro-Russian administration couldn’t find anyone to translate the ballots. Also, the translation of the draft constitution was so abysmal that the authorities decided not to translate the laws on presidential and parliamentary elections into Chechen at all.

FP: What newspapers can Chechens buy?

AD: The most popular newspaper is the Moscow-based Novaya Gazeta for its unbiased coverage of Chechnya. The resistance movement circulates several newspapers underground, including Ichkeria ("Chechnya"), and the Mexk-Qel ("The Council of the Land"). Few people — and that includes government representatives — read the local, Russian-language newspapers available in Grozny, such as Vesti Respubliki ("The News of the Republic"), Stolitsa ("The Capital"), or Golos Chechenskoi Respubliki ("The Voice of the Chechen Republic"), because all these publications are mouthpieces for the pro-Russian administration.

FP: Are television and radio channels accessible?

AD: People in Chechnya get one local and two Moscow-based TV channels, all of which reflect the views of the Russian government. As for radio, there is one station that broadcasts medium and long wave in Chechen from a Russian military base in the southern Russian town of Mozdok. Our multilingual shortwave service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) is still perceived as enemy radio. Recent research shows that more than 10 percent of Chechens and nearly a quarter of the population in the south listen to RFE/RL. When one of our correspondents wanted to interview an old lady in his town, she tried to teach him how to tune in to RFE/RL, not knowing who he was. She always makes her entire family listen to it.

FP: How about libraries?

AD: The destruction of libraries began in 1944, when Chechens were deported en masse to Kazakhstan, and the Soviet secret police confiscated so many Chechen books that when they burned them in Grozny’s central square, the fire is said to have lasted three days. In 1995, the advancing Russian troops destroyed the biggest library in Grozny, the Chekhov Library, as well as all four buildings of the university. My home library was looted twice by Russian soldiers. My older sister managed to rescue only a few books.

FP: Is the university operating now?

AD: Grozny University is the largest school for higher education in Chechnya. It used to have a particularly good reputation for its social science department. The university reopened four years ago. All non-Chechen lecturers, as well as many ethnic Chechens, have fled the province, leaving behind a small, yet competent lecturing team that keeps the university in operation. Higher education faces severe challenges in Grozny. For starters, many students have been detained and tortured, and some continue to risk their lives while crossing military checkpoints on their way to university. Second, the university lacks everything from maps to chemistry lab equipment. And finally, the Chechen intellectual community feels disconnected and isolated from both Russian and international academia.

FP: Intellectual life is virtually dead?

AD: The politics marred by violence has almost completely eclipsed intellectual life. Still, scientists, scholars, and writers continue to work. Some prepared commemoration for the Chechen writer Khalid Oshaev. Last December in northern Chechnya, others organized a conference discussing "problems of peace and humanism," which reflected on Leo Tolstoy and a 19th-century Chechen sheik named Kunta Haji. A Chechen shepherd, Haji experienced a mystical revelation during his travels in the Middle East. When he returned home around 1860, he began to preach nonviolence to war-weary Chechens.

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