Chechnya Truth Not Fit to Print in the NYT

Writing in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune on Sunday (September 30th), reporter C. J. Chivers told readers that Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya is being "reborn" under the "iron hand" of Kremlin proxy ruler Ramzan Kadyrov. The story was featured prominently as the lead photograph on the NYT home page on Sunday.

The story begins: "In the evenings, unexpected sights appear in this city, which less than two years ago seemed beyond saving and repair. Women stroll on sidewalks that did not exist last year. Teenagers cluster under newly installed street lights, chatting on cellphones. At a street corner, young men gather to race cars on a freshly paved road -- a scene, considering that this is the capital of Chechnya, that feels out of place and from another time."

Interesting news, to be sure -- if it's true.

Ironically, on the same day the British newspaper The Observer ran an article with a headline that read: "Wave of Killings Fuels Fears of a Second Chechnya." The Observer remarked: "While Chechnya - first a cauldron of separatist sentiment in the Nineties and then a new outpost in the global jihad - boasts safe streets and new apartment blocks, in recent weeks Ingushetia has suffered a wave of brutal executions of people of non-Ingush nationalities." There's not a word about Ingushetia in Chivers' breathless account.

It's somewhat interesting, too, to see this story come out right in the wake of yet another convening of the obscene propaganda exercise known as the Valdai Discussion Club, where the Russian government pays the expenses of a cadre of foreign journalists to scarf down caviar at the golden presidential table and then go forth and illuminate the world on all the wonders of KGB rule. Whether or not Chivers participated in this scam, it seems like he did. Not only does his article ignore the Ingushetia problem, but it only makes passing mention of the outrageous litany of human rights abuses that have occurred under Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov's jackboot ("Mr. Kadyrov's human rights record is chilling, and allegations of his government's patterns of brutality and impunity are widespread"), making no serious attempt to juxtapose them fairly against the alleged progress he is making rebuilding the city. The story doesn't even make reference to Chivers' own video account for the Times in August 2006 "on the revival of brutality among Chechnya's pro-Kremlin forces." At least a link would have been nice. One is reminded of New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who reported on all the great progress being made by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin whilst ignoring the Ukrainian Holocaust (incidentally, Columbia voted not long ago to let Duranty keep the Pulitzer they gave him notwithstanding revelations about his coverup of Stalin's atrocities)?

Deep into the story, Chivers finally admits: "In Grozny, a few buildings have been rebuilt on the outside only, and remain ruins inside or only partly finished -- the result of what some residents said was construction fraud." Yet, although the article contains over 1,600 words, there is no attempt to gather or present any actual data (or to question data supplied by the Kremlin) as to how many buildings in Grozny have been truly rebuilt as opposed to just erecting a Potemkin Village facade. The closest Chivers comes is when he writes: "Before the war, Grozny had about 79,000 apartments, said Rizvan Bakharchiyev, a deputy mayor. The city government expects to be able to restore about 45,000 apartments; the rest, he said, were in buildings that were destroyed." But on close inspection this claim seems to undermine rather than support his thesis. Expects to be able to? How many have actually been restored to date? Is this report saying that nearly half the apartments in Grozny have been written off as permanent losses? Is that a sign of progress for Kadyrov to brank about? And how can he simply take the word of a government official in a regime he himself admits is committing egregious human rights violations and is fundamentally corrupt?

Just one year ago, the London Review of Books reported:

Wherever you look in Grozny there are gaping shell-holes in the walls, crumbling balconies, empty window frames, and doors so pockmarked by bullets that you can see right through them. When I went back this spring, however, the central avenue in the city, called Prospect Pobedy , looked strikingly different. The pavement had been mended, the buildings were freshly painted and new windows had been put in. Here at last was tangible backing for Russia's claim that the situation in Chechnya is returning to normal, and that reconstruction is underway. Only when I got closer did it become clear that these buildings were uninhabitable. There was nothing behind the painted façades: no roofs or floors, no internal walls, just piles of rubble and broken steel supports. A 'Potemkin village' is usually no more than a metaphor. In Grozny, the Potemkin villages are real, but it's not clear who they're meant to impress, apart from the TV cameras.

Apparently, they were meant to impress "journalists" from the New York Times. Notably, no photographs of the interior of buildings accompany Chiver's report, only a shot of the glistening main drag of the capital, much less is there any information about what is going on in the rest of the country. One most important and courageous voices on the status of Chechnya, in the wake of the killing of hero journalist Anna Politkovskaya, is Marina Litvinovich, who routinely visits the region at tremendous personal risk and publishes photographs of real life at ground zero. No mention of her in Chivers' account, nor of any other activist involved in the issue speaking to the issue. He collects a few meaningless anecdotal statements from random residents (offering no polling data), speaks to somebody from the largely clueless Carnegie Foundation who popped in for a quick visit, and mentions someone from the human rights group Memorial who says the government is not paying workers and is not even asked to speak on the rebuilding (Chivers makes no attempt to investigate or flesh out these charges).

The NYT has been getting Russia so wrong, for so long, that incidents of this kind are hardly surprising. A succinct metaphor for its failure (at best, at worst, misrepresentation) is that it maintains what it calls a "Russia Navigator" page with a blogroll, but it lists only one blog about Russia and the link is dead (if you search the Technorati service for blogs that declare a Russia focus, you get more than 1,500 results). To put it mildly, the Times' reporting on Russia can't be trusted. If you've got the enough knowledge of the country to understand you're being misled, that's one thing, but most people don't -- an ignorance the Times is trading on.

Even if you assume he had the best of intentions, Chivers' story betrays the people of Russia and the world who face the rise of a neo-Soviet state.

Kim Zigfeld is a New York City-based writer who blogs at the Pajamas Media Network blog Publius Pundit and publishes her own Russia specialty blog, La Russophobe. She also writes for Russia! magazine and is researching a book on the rise of dictatorship in Putin's Russia.