Northern Light

The Angel from Grozny

Asne Seierstad, Norwegian journalist and bestselling author, has just published The Angel From Grozny: Stories From Chechnya in Danish. I guess a English translation will follow later this year. Seierstad, who’s claim to fame was The Bookseller of Kabul (2002), is a brave woman, but I am not sure if she is writing journalism or fiction, though she insists that she has been a witness to everything she is writing about.

Which is absolutely nonsense. Large parts of the book consists of the author’s reconstruction of events and lives of individuals, to which she wasn’t a witness. Seierstad insists that she is in the business of narrative journalism, but the genre requires even more meticulous research than ordinary reportage. I am sorry to say, but there are too many factual errors and distortion of events in the book to convince me that this is a work of journalism and not literature.

Seierstad covered the first Chechen war (1994-1996) for the Norwegian press and secretly returned in 2006 to write about the victims on both sides. She stayed in a children’s home in the Chechen capital that is run by ”the Angel from Grozny”, a Chechen woman who in 1995 at the height of the first war moved back from Siberia to the small republic in the Caucasus mountains.

Seierstad also finds a disabled Russian soldier who stepped on a mine in Chechnya and lost his sight and was crippled. She talks to perpetrators and victims of racist violence in Moscow. Interestingly, Seierstad doesn’t talk to any of the 200.000 Russians who were forced to leave the republic after its declaration of independence in 1991 and before the first war broke out in 1994. It’s important because she claims that her journalistic ambition is to cover the whole picture and write about the victims.

There are several factual errors in the book. Let me point out five of them:

1. Seierstad writes that the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov in 1837 after having written a poem critical of the zar was sent to a labor camp in the Caucasus. Not true. He was sent to the Caucasus as a privileged officer in the Russian army, not as soldier in the regular army, which is comparable to forced labor.

2. Seierstad writes that president Yeltsin in 1991 called on the Soviet republics ”to swallow as much soverignity as they could”. Not true: Yeltsin called on the regions of Russia ”to swallow as much soverignity as they could, and he said it in 1990 in Tatarstan, not in 1991. This was an important moment in the struggle for power between Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

3. Seierstad writes that Lavrentiy Beria was the brain behind the Moscow Trials in 1936 and 1937. Wrong. It was Nikolai Yezhov. Beria became head of the secret police in November 1938.

4. Seierstad claims that the Chechens didn’t cooperate with the Germans during World War II. Wrong: In fact, Chechen national hero Abdurakhman Avtorkhanov writes in his memoires that he in 1943 crossed the frontline and joined the Germans. Avtorkhanov delivered a memorandum from Chechen guerilla fighters in the mountains, who suggested an alliance with the Germans if they recognized Chechen independence.

5. Writing about a hostage drama in the Dagestan village Pervomaiskoye in January 1996 Seierstad claims that Russian forces didn’t attack the village. In fact they destroyed it in an attack that was broadcasted aorund the world.