Virago 14.99 (341pp) 13.49(free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

The Angel of Grozny, by Asne Seierstad, trans. Nadia Christensen

Shelter for the orphans of Russia's Chechen storm

Timur likes to imagine he's a wolf. He knows how to kick and how to smash a dog's skull. Pretending to be a wolf gets him through the days, and gives him courage in the cold and frightening nights. But he's not a wolf: he's an 11-year-old child, one of many whose lives have been blighted, by the Chechen wars. Åsne Seierstad, who has spent time with such children, tells their stories with poignancy and compassion. The Angel of Grozny reads at times almost like a novel; the pity is that Seierstad isn't making it up.

Timur was a baby when Russia invaded the Republic of Chechnya at the end of 1994. His father joined the resistance and was killed; his mother died a couple of years later. He and his half-sister Liana were sent to live with an uncle who brutalised them, forcing them on the streets to beg or steal, beating them with a red-hot cable if they came home empty-handed. When Timur could stand it no longer, he ran away.

The "angel" who came to his rescue was Hadijat, a Chechen woman unable to have children of her own, who has found herself looking after dozens of the damaged children of Grozny. Many start to flourish in her care. But for some the warping of their characters, by what they have seen and endured is too severe to be repaired. One such case is that of Liana, Timur's sister. No matter what is said to her, no matter how repentant she is and how hard she tries, she cannot give up stealing. Her hands reach out despite herself, and it's hard to see what hope there is.

Seierstad first visited Chechnya during the first war in the mid-1990s, when she was able to cadge a lift to Grozny in a military plane. She returned in 2006, but this time had to be smuggled in; these days, the few officially sanctioned journalists are presented with a sanitised, Kremlin-approved version of the situation.

If Chechens have been damaged, by this conflict, then so have Russians, and Seierstad does not take sides when narrating tales of individual misery. One ex-soldier she meets is Nikolai, the victim of a particularly Russian sort of bureaucracy. After stepping on a landmine, he is utterly dependent on his mother. But when she applies for his veteran's pension, it seems the army has forgotten to discharge him. As far as the officials in Moscow are concerned, the blind and brain-damaged man standing in front of them is theoretically still in Chechnya and hence ineligible for a pension.

Considering the future, Seierstad identifies three issues of concern. The first is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism among Chechen youth, exacerbated, by the sometimes brutal conduct of Russian forces. Connected to this is the deteriorating position of women, and the continued prevalence of "honour killings". On the other side, there is the upsurge of a form of Russian patriotism, whose slogan is "Russia for the Russians", which can become indistinguishable from racism. Chechens are an obvious target. Not only are they implicated in rebellion now, but they have been portrayed in Russian literature as dangerous and wild for generations.



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