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18 November 2018

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The Angel of Grozny

by Asne Seierstad

Either Asne Seierstad is seriously brave or seriously insane. In 2006, despite a ban on foreigners traveling without government sanction and escort to Chechnya, she disguised herself as a Chechen (which, for a Norwegian, involves dark hair dye and long, well-pinned scarves) and, with the help of friends, smuggled herself into the war-torn republic – one of the most dangerous war zones on Earth.

Seierstad is no stranger to war zones. Her bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, recounts life in Afghanistan through intimate portraits of a middle class family, gained through her living incognito in that milieu. And her more recent A Hundred and One Days looked at life in Baghdad on the eve of the American invasion.

In this instance, Seierstad is on a quest to meet the Angel for whom this book is named – a Chechen woman who grew up an orphan in the Soviet system, a self-appointed caretaker for the orphaned children of Grozny (the second war, by UNICEF’s account, created 25,000 orphans). But, more fundamentally, she feels called to Chechnya, which she visited frequently in the 1990s, during the first Russo- Chechen war:

The trips to Chechnya changed me. When I went back to Moscow to recuperate, I became depressed, had lost my drive. I just wanted to go back again. Real life was in the mountains, where people were waging a life-and-death struggle. Little by little I became almost anti-Russian, from being captivated by the poetry, the music, in search of ‘the Russian soul’, I became aware of the racism, the nationalism, the corruption of senior government officials, the ignorance, the bleak history; as Anton Chekhov put it: ‘Russian life is like a thousand-pound stone, it grinds a Russian down till there’s not even a wet patch left.’

And so she dons her disguise, readying to fly to Vladikavkaz.

The dark brown scarf is knotted firmly at my neck.

‘Now you look like one of us!’

Two women from the North Caucasus, one a native, the other disguised as one, are going to board an aeroplane. Scarves on their heads, full skirts, clicking heels.

‘But most important of all: don’t smile all the time, and stop looking around as you usually do. Your open expression gives you away immediately. Keep your head down, frown and look unfriendly.’

There’s no turning back now. A few pages on, after they have landed in Vladikavkaz and passed uneventfully from Russia into Ingushetia, their driver replies to her request to slow down with a fact Seierstad admits to having known, namely: “Anyone who’s afraid shouldn’t go to Chechnya.”

And so people like Seierstad go for us, suppressing fear with bravery or insanity (or a mixture of the two). The result, in Seierstad’s case, is a moving and insightful portrait of a forgotten war in a forgotten corner of the Russian empire, of the people whose lives intersect with the Angel (Hadijat) and with the author’s. Seierstad spent several months in this “post-war” Chechnya, living in Hadijat’s orphanage and learning the children’s heartbreaking stories. She also returned there officially, as a guest of the Kadyrov regime, which she portrays in all its bombast and ignominy.

Seierstad tells human stories that we all need to hear, shorn of politics. She travels with a perceptive eye and has a Chekhovian gift for literary journalism, for telling stories with meaning, for capturing the ink lines of character and bringing them to the printed page. This promises to be one of this fall’s best books.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2008