Olga Allenova, Chechnya riadom. Voina glazami zhenshchiny
Olga Allenova, Chechnya riadom. Voina glazami zhenshchiny, Moscow, Kommersant, 2008, 360 pages
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Pipss.org is grateful to Susanne Gentz who edited this book review
1Olga Allenova’s book on Chechnya was published in 2008, and went relatively unnoticed among scholars and specialists of Russia and the war in Chechnya. Yet, the book deserves revisiting as it combines a historical day by day account of the Chechen war with personal testimony and insights into the world of Russian war journalism.
2The book is based on the articles that Olga Allenova wrote from 1999 to 2007 for the newspaper Kommersant. A young graduate from the North-Ossetia journalist faculty, Allenova starts as a stringer and ends as a correspondent for the Moscow-based Kommersant. Collected mainly in a chronological order, the articles do not only remind us of the key events of the war: Allenova puts each series of articles in context, reflecting on her mindset and on public opinion at that time.
3Her articles are well written, with much attention to detail and the “little people”, Russian people, Chechen civilians or Russian soldiers. Allenova is not a passive observer, butgets personally involved to rescue some of the refugees she meets. In addition, the book provides valuable interviews with key players of the Chechen war like General Chamanov, Bislan Gantermirov (freed from jail by the FSB in 2000 to become mayor of Grozny), the notorious Yamadaev brothers, former Maskhadov Defense Minister Magomed Khanbiev and President-to-be Ramzan Kadyrov in 2005.
4A good observer of the different groups and tensions among Chechens, between local administration and insurgents, as well as between local and Russian authorities, Allenova also writes extensively on the North Caucasus and the specificities of North Caucasian Islam.
5Allenova covered also the 2002 Dubrovka hostage crises, giving a voice to the people around the theater and to the parents searching for information on the fate of their loved ones after 130 people died during the rescue operation. She describes the 2004 hostage taking in a primary school in Beslan is a turning point in the process of growing civic awareness.
6The book is indeed also testimony to how the war in Chechnya “destroyed [her] understanding of life” and led her to pacifism: “During this war I understood one thing: no weapon should ever fire" (p 11-12).
7In 1999, Allenova says she was ready to believe the official discourse about defending the Russian population in the Caucasus and fighting against terrorism. Putin’s speech on a military base in Mozdok in October 1999 convinced her that he was the right man for the job… until she progressively realized that armed forces bombed and killed those they were supposed to save.
8She points out the consequences of the war in Chechnya, the rise of xenophobia in Russia as well asthe growing hatred between Russian soldiers and Chechen citizens. During the Dubrovka crisis, she realizes that the government’s main goal is not to save the hostages, but to “wipe out” the terrorists regardless of the consequences for Russian citizens. Beslan leaves an even deeper mark on her. The loss of close friends and friends’ relatives convinces her that the Russian government should take responsibility for the dead.
9Allenova writes with great self-irony on her débuts as a war journalist: arriving at Putin’s press conference on a military base in Mozdok in costume and high heels, she was gently teased by her more experienced colleagues (mainly men in military fatigues) and went back home to change for jeans and sneakers. These were to become her uniform for the rest of the war. Being an embedded woman journalist raises practical problems (how to get privacy in field conditions when all sleep under one tent) but also symbolical ones: an officer refused to take her on a helicopter trip because having a woman on board is a bad omen (p. 47).
10Allenova describes the work of journalists in the military base in Mozdok in the winter of 1999-2000. TV journalists are taken aboard a helicopter to film the troops on the battlefield, while their colleagues long for such an opportunity. Manwhile, those left behind drink vodka with the military press-center. “As I didn’t drink vodka and didn’t swear, there was no room for me in the press center” (p. 18)…, until she had established a network of relationships.
11Other parts of Allenova’s articles are written from the point of view of the Chechen police forces (OMON) with whom she gets quite close: she considers some of their commanders real friends. Although she is aware that her journalist approach and questions and her implicit criticism of the violence used are not understood and could even jeopardize their friendship, she even accompanies them for operations.
12Apart from the difficulties of establishing working relationships with the military, being a war journalist is a moral and physical challenge. For ethical reasons, Allenova refuses to carry a weapon, and her experience shows that it would anyway be of little help. In October 2001, she was denied access at the last moment to an armored vehicle to accompany soldiers on a mop up operation - the carrier exploded on a mine some 40 minutes later (p. 127). During the war ”you become a machine”, she writes, and you rely only on your instincts. Allenova confesses that she suffered a nervous breakdown in the summer of 2000. She just couldn not understand how people could lead a normal life and go to the theater while war was being waged elsewhere. Her remedy was to go back to the field, where she felt she was needed and useful.
13Though an embedded journalist, Allenova does not fear to write about the violence exerted by the Russian military, and the hatred that the Armed Forces provoke by their actions. When Chechen insurgents surrendered in March 2000 in Komsomolskoe, she reports that they were badly treated and beaten. Her depictions, of course, do not focus on human rights violations nor are they as thorough and systematic as human right reports. Thus, when she writes about Grozny in February 2000, she gives less room to the complaints about filtration and violence than to the humanitarian work of the Ministry for Emergency Situations or the fact that “Grozny is still alive" (11 February 2000).
14It speaks for her journalist ethics, however, that she realizes the privileged insider’s perspective she owes to her status as embedded journalistand does not deny nor downplay the violence exerted by the armed forces with whom she works. Her article on filtration camps in April 2001, for instance, mentions that during the military operations all journalist lived in Khankala and knew perfectly well how the prisoners were treated and that they were detained in pits. Though sometimes, we have to read between the lines to get the real scale of violence, devastation or hope, her articles are always balanced, full of humanity and honesty.
Amandine Regamey, « Olga Allenova, Chechnya riadom. Voina glazami zhenshchiny », The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies [Online], Issue 16 | 2014, Online since 05 October 2014, connection on 30 March 2017. URL : http://pipss.revues.org/4068Top of page
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