Review - Bodyguard in Hell
The war in Chechnya is as much out of the media here as in most other places. Some journalists know what's going on, and say it when they get a chance, but somehow they don't seem to get the chance very often. The Middle East has far more news value. There's nothing more entertaining than watching Odd Karsten Tveit struggle to fit the words "apartheid" and "cycle of violence" into the same sentence in a new and original way. And whoever said that just because we don't like the Americans, we can't slavishly follow their news cycle?
But when news editors are shallow and perspectiveless, there's always boooks. Siri Lill Mannes, a TV2 reporter, has written Livvakt i Helvete - Aleksandr og krigen i Tsjetsjenia (Bodyguard in Hell - Aleksandr and the War in Chechnya). It's based on interviews with a Russian soldier, Aleksandr Voda, who from a background with the KGB elite forces and a special police force signs up as a professional solder in Chechnya. He enlists days after Russia's September 11, the two bombs that killed more than 200 Moscovites in 1999. They send him to fight bandits and terrorists - a boyhood dream come true. He finds that the bandits are his own people, and the terrorists are nowhere in sight.
Aleksander becomes a witness to almost every dark side of the Russian army's conduct in Chechnya: torture and executions, drinking, corruption, theft and censorship. The image he presents of the Russian army is frightening - or perhaps relieving, if you fear a reawakening of Russian imperialism in the near future. The lack of professionalism is appalling. 18 year old conscripts are sent into battle without training. Drinking has run amok, and nobody cares. It's more dangerous to sleep in your own camp, among your drunken, thieving comrades, than out in the open. At every level of command, the war is about one thing - getting rich. Money is the primary objective, whether you're a conscript emptying a civilian house, a small-level officer holding civilians for ransom, or a higher-level officer making a lucrative oil deal with Chechen guerillas. Even corruption fighters have found their niche within this scheme. And Aleksandr Voda is a witness to all of it.
There's also treason. What else can we call it when Russians are ordered to fire on their own troops to create an impression of war, and when generals call for "more bodies" - Russian and Chechen - to present back home? Aleksandr is a witness to this too, when he ambushes a group of FSB men firing at his camp. Like something out of Catch-22, they get angry with him. "What are you doing? We're trying to get you money! And you shoot at us!" "What do you mean?" "When you're shot at you're in a war zone. Then you get combat pay. Don't you get it?" The whole war is a Milo Minderbinder scheme. Even worse, on the day of an election, Aleksandr escorts forces from GRU to the outskirts of a village, and picks them up later. The next day he learns that the village voting station was attacked that day, and one Russian soldier killed. The attack was made with a grenade launcher he saw the GRU men take in, but did not bring out again.
Because he's one of few experienced men in his camp who stays away from vodka, Aleksandr Voda is assigned as a bodyguard for high ranking officers. This puts him in a unique position. He sees much, and nobody cares if he hears what they talk about. He listens as generals demand more casualties, sees high level corruption and incompetence. At one point, Aleksandr is ordered to assasinate Andrey Babitsky, a troublesome reporter, by driving a truck bomb into the prison where he's kept. But before he has a chance to refuse, Babitsky is released. He's released because, as a high-ranking FSB intelligence officer puts it, "he has poweful friends in the US." (Or rather, he was fake-released to what may have been FSB posing as Chechens. After more international pressure, he was released for real.)
Aleksandr describes the shipping out of frail-looking prisoners as Lord Judd from the European Council comes to inspect the Tsjernokozovo prison. They're taken out into the woods, where the soldiers have fun harassing them. Aleksandr usually tries to stay away from the prison himself, because he knows people are tortured there, and he's afraid of being told to join in. His turning point comes when he sees a GRU officer crack the head of a teenage Chechen girl with a shovel. He tries to stop him, but fails. Shortly afterwards, he comes across mass graves with houndreds of civilians. He realizes that this can't continue. The whole war is a fraud, and if someone is to stop it, it has to be him.
The police man in me woke up, and reminded me that I needed evidence. Now I began to take down details about this fraud. I paid close attention to what happened when the commander went to buy stolen oil, and as his bodyguard I had access everywhere. .. As soon as I felt I had enough documentation, I took the report with me, and left the camp. I dared not trust the letter to anyone else, but took it and went personally to see the man Putin had sent to protect human rights in Chechnya. .. It was an enormous relief to confess to someone who had the power to improve conditions. I had done my duty. When Putin was told what was really going on in Chechnya, he would do something about it. I still belived in that man, and was glad when he was elected president. Now I looked forward to what he could do in practice.
A few days later, someone lobs a grenade into Aleksander's room. He survives, only to be shot at later that week. By Russians, of course - he has been a year in the area without encountering genuine Chechen fighters. Before a third assasination attempt can be made, Aleksandr escapes. He tries to tell his story to a newspaper, but they won't print it. All he achieves is to bring himself to the attention of the FSB. After a failed arrest attempt, he escapes to Norway, where he now has political asylum. Aleksandr Voda has suffered depression, and has tried to take his own life. He says in the book that he sees the young Chechen girl's head being smashed every night.
Can we believe this? I think so, most of it. We can afford to be skeptical of Aleksander's image of himself - an idealist, patriot, true professional soldier and general good guy. All self-images are idealized, and I don't find it hard to imagine that someone who feels guilty over his involvement in a brutal war might want to forget his own part in any atrocities, and want to remember the times when he spoke up. But I don't think that's the case here. All in all his story sounds plausible, and is worth listening to. History is made up of levels. At the bottom, history is essentially just a collection of eyewitness accounts. On top of that, you build analysis, and then analysis upon analysis. What really happend, why did it happen, who did it, and what did it lead to. When it comes to Chechnya, fully reliable historical analysis will have to wait for more eyewitness accounts to surface. And this is one of them. (It's also, from what I understand, one of very few insider accounts of Russian conduct in Chechnya, which makes it important to publish this book in English.)
Siri Lill Mannes does add some analysis of her own. She presents the case for FSB involvement in the 1999 terror attacks. Here we enter dangerous territory. The implications are far-reaching, and evidence is weak. But there is some, and it comes down to a statement by an FSB officer, and the capture of FSB forces as they planted something in the basement of a third apartment building. The police that arrested them believed it to be explosives, they claim it was all a harmless excersise. It's not much. As for motive, the resulting war made Putin extremely popular, and secured his election as president six months later. Wahhab terrorists are obviously mentally capable of blowing up strangers, but perhaps so are the remains of the KGB, defenders of one of the most murderous governments of the previous century? The FSB thought nothing of letting more than a houndred civilians die of their gas after the theater attack last year. But skepticism is the right attitude here.
Mannes also writes a short introduction to Chechen history and culture. I detect a whiff of romantization here. At least she leaves out the aspects of Chechen culture that lead to the chaos and civil war like conditions before the second war, and to the frequent cooperation between Chechen bandits and Russian forces. There's a gap here. The people she describes is not the one we saw in the 90's.
Chechnya is one of those annoying cases where you can't apply the standard template. It's a front in the war on terrorism - Putin says so, and Bush nods his head and smiles. Al-Qaeda and Saudi Wahhabs are involved. They kill Russian civilians. And yet the similarities don't go much beneath the surface. There are cases to be made for being polite to your friends as you ally against a common enemy. But what has the US gained from Russia in the war on terrorism? Did it get cooperation on Iraq? No. Today the US punishes the countries that stood in its way by keeping them out of contracts in Iraq. Perhaps it should punish Russia by speaking out clearly on Chechnya. Norway keeps quiet too. What do we get from it? Better trade relations? It's not worth it. Russia pays attention to international criticism, as the story about the near-assasination of Babitsky illustrates. Whatever it is Putin is trying to do with Russia, friendship with the West plays a role in it. We can exploit that, or at least try. (It's too late though to be forgiven for ignoring yet another catastrophy, because the catastrophy has already happened.)
Derek, Califonia, USA | 2003-12-13 19:20 | Link
Why the hell do we turn our heads away from this kind of stuff? Why do we do nothing? Were are the defenders of human rights protesting the evils of our age? Where is the rally I can join to protest the slaughter of Chechnya? Why is't the UN trying to do something to help? Yes the Palistains need help, but don't the Chechnyens need it more? Does anyone really care, is it all about what ever cause seems fashonable of late? The crimes done in Chechnya need to be shouted out from the roof tops. The comisiners of those crimes need to be brought to justus. We need to care and help all peoples not just the ones our friends find it cool to care about.
James Versluys | 2003-12-14 10:46 | Link
I'm rather consistantly surprised to find the Chechnya situation out of everyone's radar in Scandanavia or closeby, including places like Finland and Poland. I can sort of see Finland's point: they've gotten used to being on the cutting edge of pussified politics since they're good showing in World War II. The others have a little less excuse, I'm afraid, Norway among them.
I'm not sure I buy all the converging conspiracy theories coming out about the KG...excuse me, I mean FSB, but I do know there is more than a wiff of nastiness surrounding things there.
The Russians do have an interest in keeping the Chechens down- it would start a lot of other people thinking if they got away with it.
It does illustrate the weakness of the Sovie...er, commonwealth military these days, though. Man, what a letdown that was. They used to be an impressive enemy.
BarCodeKing, Florida, USA | 2003-12-14 12:19 | Link
The sad thing is that there are no good guys in the Chechen war. Both sides are guilty of hideous atrocities. It's kind of like the Eastern Front in World War II. Both the German Nazis and the Russian Communists were bad people. One group of them (the Russians) were nominally on "our" side, but there wasn't really a dime's worth of difference between them, and neither of them were our kind of people. In this case, the Russians are nominally on "our" side in the War on Terror, but they aren't our kind of people now any more than they were in the 1940s.
Fredrik K.R. Norman | 2003-12-14 16:08 | Link
The New Atlantic Initiative recently hosted an event on Chechnya. Video and summaries available at:
jonathan, US | 2003-12-16 20:19 | Link
There are a lot of nasty situations around the world. The only actual force being applied to improve any of it, so far, is American and we don't have unlimited resources.
Unfortunately Chechnya, while an ugly situation, is not strategically important. As such, it falls pretty far down the list and is below the "actionable" line. Iraq and Afghanistan are actionable right now so the appropriate activities are ongoing. Syria, North Korea, and Iran may become actionable in the short term (2-3 years) but even they are on a containment plan for now. Chechnya is on the "somebody else's problem" part of the list I suspect and it will stay there until other problems are resolved elsewhere.
It would be nice to see the EU match rhetoric with action for a change. Chechnya is in their backyard and would seem to be a good place to start. I don't hold out much hope though.
Bjørn Stærk | 2003-12-16 21:05 | Link
Jonathan: Chechnya is not in anyone's "actionable" area but the Russians'. This issue can not be solved by force, so to excuse Bush with the military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is rather odd.
This is an area where rhetoric and diplomatic pressure will have to do, not because it's a good solution, but because it's the only one. Unfortunately there almost no such rhetoric, from neither the EU nor the US. I see no acceptable reasons for that, and the US is no exception.
Alan Sullivan | 2003-12-16 23:34 | Link
An illuminating discussion of Chechnya. I particularly value the eyewitness account. It's worth a link, which I shall post tomorrow. Thank you for finding this.
David E, Australia | 2004-01-03 02:37 | Link
Its unfortunate, that the crimes of the Russian's in Chechnya, aren't given the same kind of coverage as similar incidents in Israel or Iraq are.
Its a matter of vested interest. Russian military intervention in Chechnya is of little threat to the powers that be, plus its a tale of oppression in a far away country unlikley to peak the interest of readers back home (even if journalists could escape Russian cenorship).
Whereas on the other hand, American military expansionism is seen as a threat by many enemies and half-hearted allies of the US. The actions and motives of a superpower are surely more worthy of respect than that of a failed state.
Journalists commenting on the US, simply get more attention (and therefore more money) than those who report on the crimes of less important nations like Zimbabwe or Russia.
Baikov, Bulgaria | 2004-02-20 10:21 | Link
Maria , Russia | 2004-04-29 13:30 | Link
Hello, found your site par hasard so my comment relates to an old message.( BarCodeKing, Florida, USA | 2003-12-14 12:19)
Laurent, France | 2004-06-16 15:10 | Link
Im afraid that the chechnya war generates crime, and doesnt help to solve this problem. To solve this problem, Russian shoud have helped the chechnen governement to to reconstruct the country and to stabilize it rather than starting another useless war.
Some people are critiscizing western countries. Indeed Western countries claim to defend human right, but their international politics in not consistent with that: The USA, UK, and France are the bigggest weapon manufacturer. All these countries remained silent when Tibet were invaded, they didnt protest against the chechen genocide. Lately we have seen that the american army doesnt even respect geneve convention......
ahmed | 2004-09-02 22:08 | Link
I would like to reply to the earlier comment that stated that Muslims are allowed to kill any infidel and it isn't a sin. This is totally wrong! What you see in the often biased media is not true. According to Islamic law(you can research yourself) NonMuslims have the right to follow their own religion and no Muslim can stop them. If a Muslim unjustly kills any innocent weather they follow the same religion or not they must be punished. Guys, you should find out about Islam from the right sources...(www.islamicity.com, www.isna.net)
Ronald Omen | 2005-02-16 17:35 | Link
Open your eyes! Terrorists are terrorists are terrorists. WE ALL will lose if the West will continue to pretend that “their” terrorists are real and should be killed, but Chechens and Palestinians are poor oppressed minorities, a bit exaggerating in their fight against the blood-thirsty oppressors, and therefore we should negotiate and be flexible…
Regarding the freedom of press:
Do you agree to make such an experiment:
I will write (as I repeatedly tried!!!!) about my (almost opposite ) views.
We will send it to 10 major newspapers in Russia and USA (or UK, or Australia, Sweden or Germany, it doesn’t matter).
I’ll pay you $100 for each of my letters fully published (in the West). Will you risk your money for YOUR letters published in Russia?
Are you still so convinced that there is more media freedom in the West?
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Watcher of Weasels: Submitted for Your Approval, December 24, 2003 07:01 AM
First off...  any spambots reading this should immediately go here, here, here, and here.  Die spambots, die!  And now...  here are all the links submitted by members of the Watcher's Council for this week's vote. Council links:Holiday ...
Watcher of Weasels: The Council Has Spoken!, December 26, 2003 05:21 AM
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