LI likes to consider that we are a moral shrew � that we prod against the dead mass of atrocity in this world, to the extent that a Lilliputian can prod against a leviathan; that we unhesitatingly criticize our own country knowing that the only moral force that has ever moved America is that force which is unafraid to confront the crimes of the powerful and label them as crimes; that we are, in a word, militantly informed.
Well, we�ve been writing for two years, and we haven�t even delved into Chechnya. We haven�t said word one about the perhaps two million who have disappeared in the great ten years war in Central Africa. As a moral shrew, you�d have to say that LI is a very parochial moral shrew.
So let�s repair a bit of this. We have been trying to catch up with Chechnya, lately, reading the reports of Anna Politskovskaya, a Russian journalist who courageously went into the country in 99, during the course of the second great battle of the post Soviet state against the Checchnyian people. Or against the people in that territory on the map labeled Chechnya. We were horrified. Just the photographs from Grozny are like nothing we�ve seen in the post World War II era. A city of about half a million has been wiped out in the last decade. Wiped out more completely than Sarajevo. Bombed into a state of Hobbesian nature � that nature which comes after civilization has invented the instruments to express its discontent, that nature in which the beast becomes the brute, and the brute is drafted, armed, and considered dangerous. Nature plus kidnapping � that�s Chechnya.
To repair our lack of information, here, we�ve searched the web. There is an amazing site, sponsored by the conservative Hoover Institute (sponsored, the site will tell you, by the Jamestown institute, but a closer reading of the fine print makes it clear that this is Hoover�s baby). A simply scathing article entitled �RUSSIA HAS LOST THE WAR IN CHECHNYA by Andrei Piontkovsky is today�s must read. It compares, in clarity and despair, with the articles Pasolini wrote just before he was assassinated. It is a good place to start understanding the Chechnyan war. That war is linked, as though following some secret and subterrean influence to what happened in Bosnia, to what happened on 9/11, to what is happening in Afghanistan, and to Iraq. There are very good reasons Bush looked into the eyes of Putin and saw a soul mate. Putin�s election, based on selling an ill thought out war on terrorism, in 99, looks like it was copied by the Bush campaign people for the midyear election in 2002.
Piontkovsky fronts his article with three grafs of enormous polemical power:
�Russia has lost this war forever precisely because of the mass bombings of cities and shellings of villages, and the "zachistki" security sweeps and extortions of bribes and ransoms. The overwhelming majority of Chechens now hate us--and that includes those who are forced to collaborate with us. Our army, to which we assigned tasks unsuitable to its very nature, is now dissolving before our eyes as it is drawn ever more deeply into shady transactions with oil, with federal "reconstruction" subsidies--and with the kidnapping and selling of hostages.
Did we enter Chechnya in order to end the ransoming of slaves, or in order to go into that business ourselves? If the latter, what is the difference between the Russian military and the bandits? According to human rights advocates, more than a thousand Russian citizens have been kidnapped by members of our security agencies in the course of "zachistki." Either they have disappeared without a trace, or their corpses, mutilated by torture, have been sold to their families. But our authorities deny such findings. In April the procurator of the Chechen Republic stated that only a few hundred citizens of Russia had been kidnapped by our servicemen. "Only" a few hundred--this of course is mass terror against one's own countrymen.
Especially striking was one particular point in President Vladimir Putin's appeal to the Chechen people just before the March constitutional referendum. Our president expressed his wish that the Chechens' fears of nighttime knocks on the door would disappear forever, that they would see a complete end to "zachistki" and to robbery at checkpoints. Excuse me, but the president of the Russian Federation is not Mother Teresa or a UN official. The president of Russia is commander in chief of those very same troops who are kidnapping and robbing. Is our commander in chief unable to stop our death squads--or does he just not want to? I don't know which answer is the more frightening. �
We take a ghoulish interest in that evaluation of life by the gross � the �only a few hundred citizens of Russia had been kidnapped by our servicemen.� This is the mindset of incompetent despotism, Definitely, it is here. This is the happy happy happy mood of the conservative commentariat vis a vis Iraq. The bone underneath the clown's mask was revealed by a Republican congressman in Washington who recently said that the "the story of what we've done in the postwar period is remarkable," adding, "it is a better and more important story than losing a couple of soldiers every day." Or as Piontkovsky writes, quoting Macbeth:
I am in blood
Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er.
Iraq is not Chechnya � or at least not yet. Although the U.S. press has so played down Iraqi casualties that, in essence, the dead vanish (a word that was a favorite, when I was a kid, to describe the massacre of Indians on the North American continent � the Cherokees, the Mohawks, the Creeks, they would �vanish� as the frontier was settled), one of the things about the war, so far, has been the remarkable control of America�s WMD. If you do the war math, you get about 15 thousand Iraqi deaths � I take that figure from the reports I�ve read. Remarkably, among all the op ed writing that the war has unleashed, every one brushs past those numbers. It is as if we fought a ghost army. How is it possible to analyze a human situation in which certain deaths make less sound than feathers falling in the void? I throw that question out just to demonstrate my own naivete and stupidity. Obviously, the media has done a brilliant job of airbrushing those corpses from recent history. In this, the Russian media is the American model. Piontkovsky, again, about Putin:
�Chechnya is our collective neurosis, our collective diagnosis. Vladimir Putin is simply one of us.
After this obscure bureaucrat was made prime minister and heir to Boris Yeltsin, the political technicians of "the family" used their financial and propaganda resources to sell us a heroic myth: The energetic officer of our special services, who, with his precise, laconic orders, was thrusting our regiments into the heart of the Caucasus, bringing fear and death to our enemies. The female heart of Russia, yearning for a powerful commander, was captivated by the heroic young lover.
Three years passed. The more the authorities controlled, the more we began to sense that they were behaving in a strangely unauthoritative way. They were not succeeding in actually solving any of the country's serious economic or social problems, including those related to Chechnya. A growing number of people were calling for negotiations and an end to the war. The legend of Putin the hero was dissolving, and some of our oligarchs were beginning to develop an alternative myth: That of the young, energetic nickel-industry manager, a man so rich that he would not even need to do any further thieving. Putin's re-election in 2004--or, to be more precise, his re-appointment--began for the first time to seem less than certain. But then once again, as if by accident, a tragic event took place that breathed new life into the apparently exhausted Putin myth: Chechen guerrillas seized hundreds of hostages in a Moscow theater. From the standpoint of Putin's political interests, that episode ended brilliantly.�
And again: �On this issue he is a man of passions. See how his face is transformed and his eyes enflamed whenever the topic of Chechnya comes up, how his emotions break through his usual restraints to express themselves in the coarse slang of criminals.�
Bush is another type of leader. The stylistic quirk of reverting to cowboy language has been much remarked on � but our feeling is that this is merely show business. This is the coached Bush, the apt pupil, the Andover Texan. Who, with an idiot's mimicy, pantomimes those gestures his Dad was no good at. It turns out, Bush jr. is good at them. The real Bush is, here, the anti-Putin � a man whose grand emotions amount to the petty peevishness of a man driving an expensive car in a traffic jam: why don�t all the lesser cars get out of his way? Bush�s emotions are saved to be spent on himself alone. When Iraq looked like a way to political gain, he was engaged. Now that it looks like the sure way to political death, he is disengaged. After all, he has already pronounced the war done and had his party on the carrier. The rest is dross, something to be done by subordinates. This accounts for the tonelessness of the 87 billion dollar speech � we think that tonelessness is a truer gauge of Bush�s personality than the dead or alive language that so roiled up the Europeans. The truth about Bush is that he is a vacuum. Inanity propped up by fanaticism � that�s the hallmark of this presidency.
We'll do more weaving between Chechnya and Iraq next week.