Monday, April 12, 2010

Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary

I finished Thomas Goltz's Chechnya Diary over the weekend. I highly recommend this book (as well as Georgia Diary and Azerbaijan Diary) if people are interested in reading about these three remarkably interesting countries and regions.   However, I read the Goltz Caucasus trilogy out of order.  This posting briefly summarizes all three books and provides a short review of Chechnya Diary.

The first book in the trilogy that Goltz published was Azerbaijan Diary (M.E.Sharpe, 1999).  He does an admirable job of exploring the early Post-Soviet years in Azerbaijan, tracking the rise and fall of the popular political leader Elchibey, the rise and power of Heydar Aliyev, and the ethnic insanity of Nagorno (Mountainous) Karabagh, the still disputed portion of southwestern Azerbaijan that is currently occupied by Armenia.  It's 496 pages long, I finished it on my flight to Tblisi last month, and there was no way I was going to tote that tome back to Minneapolis: I left it in Vali Huseynov's capable hands and bright mind.

The final book in the trilogy is Georgian Diary (M.E. Sharpe, 2006).  The central story is the fall of Sukhumi and the secession of Abkhazia from Georgia in the tumultuous Post-Soviet years, a battle that left a profound mark on Goltz's worldview.  Goltz also writes about the political battles and includes the rise and fall of Gamsakhurdia and the eventual rise of former Central Communist Party bigwig-turn-champion of "democracy," Eduard Shevardnaze.  My recommendation: if you read only one of the trilogy, Georgia Diary is where you should begin.

"'The observer affects the observed.' --Essence of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle."  This is how Goltz's Chechnya Diary (Thomas Dunne, 2003) begins.  The middle book is, in many ways from a literary perspective, the most intriguing.   The other two Caucacus books are bold and broad attempts at examining nascent independence in two complex societies/cultures/countries.  Both books are filled with photographs and multiple maps of the region, as well as detailed descriptions of events and critical analysis.  Chechnya Diary strikes me as the most difficult for Goltz to have written.  Instead of multiple maps and photographs, there is but one graph: a hand-drawn map of Samashki, a small Chechnyan village and the focus of Goltz's story.  Samashki is home to Hussein and his family.  It is also the site of a a bloody Russian double-cross, one where the Russians first assured the villagers that if they cooperated that they would be spared, but in the end, the Russians "clear cut" the village.  Hussein's story plays against a background of rebel leaders and Moscow chaos, but unlike the other two books, Goltz allows Hussein's story to represent the larger Chechnyan story.  It is a profile writ large.

What I appreciated about this book was Goltz's willingness to disclose his own ignorance of Chechnya, its complicated history, its difficult language.  More than once, Goltz wonders why he is in Chechnya, and more than once, he comes very close to dying while covering a war that very few people outside of Chechnya understood nor cared to know.  What does a journalist do when writing stories that no editor is interested in publishing?  Eventually, Goltz is able to get the "money shot" (essentially, five minutes of video framing dead bodies in Samashki), and he goes from jounralist pariah to a man in demand, including a nomination for the Rory Peck Award.  The attention and attendant prosperity is not without complications, since Goltz recognizes that his prestige comes at a steep human price.  The book ends with a desperate call from an exiled Hussein living somewhere in Kazakhstan, asking Goltz to speak with him, that Hussein can trust no one else, and Goltz admitting to the reader that he had yet to make the trek because he was finishing this book.

There are other books that present a more "objective" perspective about Chechnya, but if you are looking for a book that shows the limits of "objective" reporting, of how war effects those who report war, and how both the observed and the observer are shaped and altered by that relationship, Chechnya Diary is a perfect book.

You can read more about Thomas Goltz and his work at his web site.

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