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German Sadulaev: Я — чеченец! (I am a Chechen!)

Chechen literature is not easy to find in English so, though this book is by no means a great work, it is certainly an interesting read. This is nominally the fictionalised memoir of our author but it is also about Chechnya and, in particular, the various wars Chechnya fought against Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.

We start off with his childhood – he seems to have been a mother’s boy but proceeds to jump all over the place with his life story, the story – both historical and folkloric, of Chechnya and the Chechen wars.

We learn that he ran away as a teenager, influenced by drinking vodka. We know he went to pioneer camp. We know he went off to St Petersburg, where life as a Chechen is not easy, but, he and other Chechens feel it easier than being in Chechnya under Russian attack. As a Caucasian, he is subject to less hassle than other darker-skinned peoples who may have more right to be in Russia than he has. One advantage of being in Russia is that if you sleep with a woman or even have sex with her, she does not expect you to marry her as a Chechen woman would.

We learn something about the history of Chechnya. Apparently the Chechens built towers and lived in them. A man must know how to make towers because the time will come when we’ll leave for the mountains. And we’ll build towers in order to survive.. But before that he gives us a potted history of how the Chechens became the Chechens, which does not fully accord with more conventional histories of Chechnya and the Chechens, including a warrior caste driven out of what is now India and involving the Egyptians. We do know that many Chechens were sent by Stalin to what is now Kazakhstan (I have found no official confirmation of this, but the Chechens themselves are convinced that Stalin decided to punish the entire Chechen nation). We learn that Misfortune always comes from the north, first from the Tartars and then from the Russians. (This reminds me of reading Ukrainian novels, where people said misfortune always come the East, i.e. Russia.)

But it is the Chechen wars that are key. We learn very early in the book about his sister who was flattened by the blast wave of a surface-to-surface missile launched from a submarine or distant missile site. He managed to take her to St Petersburg, where she required extensive treatment.

He is concerned for his mother as he is not there: when the heavy tank tracks crushed you, when the attacks persisted for days on end, when you bled, your houses falling, demolished by vacuum bombs, when you quietly moaned in pain in the far room of our house, when you stopped covering the shrapnel marks on the walls and gave up reglazing the windows, I was not there. It is his mother who tells him: ’It’s hard to be a Chechen. If you’re a Chechen, you must feed and shelter your enemy when he comes knocking as a guest; you must give up your life for a girl’s honour without a second thought; you must kill your blood foe by plunging a dagger into his chest, because you can never shoot anyone in the back; you must offer your last piece of bread to your friend; you must get out from your car to stand and greet an elderly man passing on foot; you must never run away, even if your enemy are a thousand strong and you stand no chance of victory, you must take up the fight all the same. And you can never cry, no matter what happens.

The war ends – sort of – The war has ended; perhaps soon they will even reduce the size of the limited contingent of troops based in Chechnya. Yet the artillery remains. And, in order to justify their combat pay, they fire shells. But as he rambles backwards and forwards we go back to the war 0r, rather, a war as there were two main wars as well as various skirmishes. As he says we weren’t created for love. We were created for war. That’s how the gods created our tribe and No matter what I write about, I write about the war, the war I wasn’t in.

We get various often bloody description of the war with various friends and acquaintances killed, either in combat or as civilians. The Russians had planes and used illegal cluster bombs. The Chechens had no planes and no air defence system, so the Russians could fly over at will and, with impunity, bomb the civilians . One plane used to do that regularly till a Chechen sharpshooter was able to shoot him down with a Kalashnikov.

While much of the book is about war and the history of Chechnya we do learn of his life, including his time in St Petersburg, his early dreams of being a rock star and his not very successful love life.

This book is a mishmash and really needed a good editor. At times he is narrating but other times it seems to be others, though it is not always clear who. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read about Chechnya and its wars and the horrors of the wars they had to suffer. He concludes by saying This tale is about how we searched for the road to heaven. you probably wanted to find out about the war. Frankly, contrary to what he says , a lot is about the waar and there is not too much about the road to heaven, unless the end of war can be so described.

Publishing history

First published in 2006 by Ultra
First published in English in 2010 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Anna Gunin