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Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya [Hardcover]

Asne Seierstad , Nadia Christensen
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

6 Mar 2008
Asne Seierstad began her writing career as a Moscow correspondent; the conflict in Chechnya was the first war she covered. Now ten years later, she returns to Chechnya and discovers that though the world's attention has moved on, the tragedy has continued, killing 10 to 15 per cent of the population and leaving a brutalised society - with a particular toll on its children - in its wake. Combining the violent history of the Caucasus and the battle between freedom fighters and the empire, with the story of the journeys Seierstad undertook in secrecy and disguise over the last two years, this will be another landmark book from this brave and brilliant writer.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Virago Press Ltd (6 Mar 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1844083950
  • ISBN-13: 978-1844083954
  • Product Dimensions: 13.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 555,396 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

'[Asne Seierstad] 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' -- Independent

`Anyone wanting to understand the Russia of today should read this compelling, shocking book about the forgotten suffering of Chechnya . . . a powerful book of heartbreaking yet flamboyant reportage from a forgotten hell' -- Evening Standard

`As a crash course on recent Chechen and Russian history, Seierstad's account is invaluable . . . an extraordinarily brave endeavour . . . moving and troubling' -- Observer

`Extraordinary and deeply harrowing . . . a tenacious and compassionate reporter, she finds her way into the homes of Chechens and tells their stories. These are so full of tragedy and despair I was, on a number of occasions, reduced to tears' -- Scotland on Sunday

`If Kapuscinski was the modern master of literary reportage, then Asne Seierstad's The Angel of Grozny proves her a worthy follower with this bleak but beautiful book' -- Sunday Herald

`One can only admire the incredible dedication and bravery of a reporter . . . in going undercover in Chechnya . . . she has produced the best book in English about one of the world's most brutal and under-reported conflicts . . . fascinating, if often horrifying' -- Sunday Times

`Touching stories of loss, survival and bravery . . . an invaluable account of the stormy conflicts that have blighted the area for centuries' -- Time Out

About the Author

Asne Seierstad (born 1970) has worked as a correspondent in Russia, China, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, amongst many other places. She has received numerous awards for her journalism. She lives in Oslo.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By A Common Reader TOP 50 REVIEWER VINE VOICE
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
In Angel of Grozny, Åsne Seierstad provides a deeply personal insight into the life and times of the Russian Republic of Chechnya. Her book is full of personal anecdotes and descriptions of her visits to a vast range of people in Chechnya, and her bravery and persistence in seeking out these stories is a wonder in itself however, and several times I found myself wondering how she would get out of the situations she found herself in.

Seierstad first visited Checyna during the war in 1994, when the break-up of the Russian empire was in full swing. Boris Yeltsin, while encouraging other Soviet nations to "take as much sovereignty as you can", drew the line at allowing Chechnya to gain its independence because he felt that this would threaten the borders of Russia itself. The result was a violent war, with Chechen fighters confronting young Russian soldiers with the traditional daggers and assassins' bullets, only provoking severe retaliation from the Russians against the civilian population.

Seierstad begins her book by describing her first visit to the country as a young reporter for a Swedish newspaper, managing to infiltrate herself deep into Chechen-held territory, where she met Chechen fighters and village elders, even staying in the home of a senior Chechen leader.

Eventually peace negotiations with Russia took place and Chechya gained a semi-independence from Russia. However, when Vladimir Putin became Prime Minister of Russia in 1999 another war started, even more brutal than the first, killing tens of thousands of Chechens and leading to ultimate Russian victory, greatly enhancing Putin's reputation among his own people, leading to his appointment as president in 2000.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The tragic tale of a nation 21 May 2008
Format:Hardcover
In 1990, Boris Yeltsin, trying to undermine Michel Gorbachev, told the leaders and potential leaders of the many republics of the USSR to "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow" from the Kremlin. The army general Johkar Dudayev did just that, as he was hell bent on making Chechnya independent of Russia. Four years later, Yeltsin sent tanks over the border. In the early hours of new years eve 1994, the Russian Army rolled into Grozny. In the resulting attack by the Chechens, a thousand Russian soldiers had died in 24 hours, and the first Chechen war had begun.

A Norwegian journalist, Asne Seierstad wanted to find the truth about the war, and why Yeltsin wanted to crush the rebel nation of Chechnya, so in 1995 she travelled into the war zone, and reported on the first war. Her first report was form a hospital in the capital and then "one week later I'm in a ditch" being shot at by the Russian army . It was a harrowing and sobering experience, with the Russian army laying waste to villages in the lowland plains, the fierce resistance in the mountains, and the brutality of the war in the breakaway republic. In 2005, Asne decided to report on the situation ten years on, and she returned to the still war torn republic.

The angel of Grozny presents stories and tales about the war in the republic, and the cost of the war from both sides, to the children orphaned, the Russian soldier injured in the war, the refugees facing huge discrimination in Russia, and the Putin backed president of the republic. And those tales are so well told that they are easily believed, coming from someone who went deeper into the conflict than possibly any other journalist.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A salutary reminder of an overlooked & bloody conflict 7 Dec 2008
By S. McGee - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Asnes Seierstad wonders, early in this book, "how do you go to a war?" She's based in Moscow, covering what seem to her increasingly mundane stories of Russian life, and struggling to understand the nature of the war that has broken out in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. The story begins when she talks her way on to a military transport to Grozny and lands in the middle of what is now known as the first Chechen war, in the mid 1990s.

But the book revolves around the aftermath of the second Chechen War, a decade later, when Seierstad combines the narratives of illicit trips (disguised and traveling under a false Chechen identity) and official 'group tours' organized for foreign journalists. It's the contrast between the two experiences that make up the principal drama of this book. On the one hand, she recounts the harrowing experiences of a mother who loses three of her four sons in various ways -- and whose fourth son returns after horrible torture. Set against the suffering, the absurdity of the current Chechen regime -- widely seen as a puppet government -- stands in even more striking contrast. In a park, police intervene when she is speaking to a local man. "We just have to make sure that people don't say the wrong things to you," the police chief tells her, earnestly. "Things that aren't true. We have to make sure that people tell the truth."

The truth that emerges from these pages is that a conflict of this ferocity leaves few heroes or heroines in its wake. One candidate is the title character, Hadijat, who earns her nickname for taking in scores of orphaned, abused and abandoned children. The children themselves are tragic figures, struggling to build lives of some kind after being traumatized. Seierstad doesn't shy away from displaying the full complexity of the situation; Liana, one abused young girl, is a thief, lazy and a fantasist who steals the money set aside to buy bread for the whole children's home. There is no one who can fail to feel compassion for Liana's plight; equally, I can't imagine who would be willing to open their home to her.

Seierstad is best known for The Bookseller of Kabul, a sharply-focused book about the aftermath of what then seemed to be the defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. This book, while less narrowly focused and a bit more rambling, is perhaps ultimately a more valuable one. While US and NATO troops are present in Afghanistan, a degree of public attention will continue to be directed there, and outrage rightly continues to grow about the horrific situation in Darfur. In Chechnya, however, it seems likely that people will continue to disappear and die unnoticed by the rest of the world. We deserve to be reminded of our apathy.

According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, in the years since 1992, a total of 49 journalists have been killed in Russia for doing their job -- reporting the news. No fewer than 18 of them died in Chechnya, while anothoer 7 have disappeared without trace there. One well-known journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered in Moscow; her furious denunciations of atrocities in Chechnya are believed to have been among the factors leading to her murder. We should be grateful that Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist with no axe to grind, nevertheless chose to risk her own life in order to provide the rest of the world with a first-hand view of life in Chechnya today.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Admirable Research, Disappointing Conclusion 15 Nov 2008
By ag_indc - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The title speaks of a woman who runs an independent orphanage in Chechnya's capital, a real "angel" who has dedicated her life to the conflict's youngest victims and, indirectly, to a safer and more sustainable future for the republic. However, Asne Seierstad's account of the Chechen war stretches far beyond its children - as it should, given the limited knowledge of most Western readers on the subject.

In her detailed narrative - which manages to be a surprisingly quick read, - Seierstad outlines the war's historic context, dedicates a chapter to the oft-forgotten deportation of Chechens into Kazakhstan, spends time on the plight of Russia's military, and interviews people in positions both high and low. She is an admirable reporter who, in keeping with the best of her profession, seems devoid of fear for her own safety. In addition, her eye for the human side of things makes the book a far more compelling story than most articles published about Chechnya these days.

That said, Seierstad is no superwoman: In the end, she falls victim to the same vices observed among most Western journalists covering emergency situations all throughout the non-Western world. Entire chapters are dedicated to a subtle ridicule of post-war Chechnya. People raised in the comfort and righteousness of the world's more "successful" countries (of the United States or Norway variety) seem to find themselves repeatedly incapable to understand that post-conflict societies cannot flip a switch and become law-abiding playgrounds of free thought.

Perhaps the details of Grozny's cumbersome bureaucracy and numerous (but laughably mission-less) administrative institutions are an attempt by Seierstad to return to the impersonal, fact-based journalistic style missing from the book's first section. Or, they may be another stroke of paint meant to highlight the ridicule of politics in the face of Chechnya's human tragedy. In either case, Seierstad shows surprisingly little sympathy for the average resident of Grozny when she describes their avid enthusiasm for Ramzan Kadyrov, the republic's new (puppet) president. To someone who has lived through political upheaval, it becomes painfully obvious that she is missing the link between a population's suffering and its elemental need for heroes - be they corrupt or true - in the disaster's aftermath.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Chekhovian gift for literary journalism 17 Oct 2008
By Paul E. Richardson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Either Asne Seierstad is seriously brave or seriously insane. In 2006, despite a ban on foreigners traveling without government sanction and escort to Chechnya, she disguised herself as a Chechen (which, for a Norwegian, involves dark hair dye and long, well-pinned scarves) and, with the help of friends, smuggled herself into the war-torn republic - one of the most dangerous war zones on Earth.

Seierstad is no stranger to war zones. Her bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, recounts life in Afghanistan through intimate portraits of a middle class family, gained through her living incognito in that milieu. And her more recent A Hundred and One Days looked at life in Baghdad on the eve of the American invasion.

In this instance, Seierstad is on a quest to meet the Angel for whom this book is named - a Chechen woman who grew up an orphan in the Soviet system, a self-appointed caretaker for the orphaned children of Grozny (the second war, by UNICEF's account, created 25,000 orphans). But, more fundamentally, she feels called to Chechnya, which she visited frequently in the 1990s, during the first Russo- Chechen war:

The trips to Chechnya changed me. When I went back to Moscow to recuperate, I became depressed, had lost my drive. I just wanted to go back again. Real life was in the mountains, where people were waging a life-and-death struggle. Little by little I became almost anti-Russian, from being captivated by the poetry, the music, in search of `the Russian soul', I became aware of the racism, the nationalism, the corruption of senior government officials, the ignorance, the bleak history; as Anton Chekhov put it: `Russian life is like a thousand-pound stone, it grinds a Russian down till there's not even a wet patch left.'

And so she dons her disguise, readying to fly to Vladikavkaz.

The dark brown scarf is knotted firmly at my neck.

`Now you look like one of us!'

Two women from the North Caucasus, one a native, the other disguised as one, are going to board an aeroplane. Scarves on their heads, full skirts, clicking heels.

`But most important of all: don't smile all the time, and stop looking around as you usually do. Your open expression gives you away immediately. Keep your head down, frown and look unfriendly.'

There's no turning back now. A few pages on, after they have landed in Vladikavkaz and passed uneventfully from Russia into Ingushetia, their driver replies to her request to slow down with a fact Seierstad admits to having known, namely: "Anyone who's afraid shouldn't go to Chechnya."

And so people like Seierstad go for us, suppressing fear with bravery or insanity (or a mixture of the two). The result, in Seierstad's case, is a moving and insightful portrait of a forgotten war in a forgotten corner of the Russian empire, of the people whose lives intersect with the Angel (Hadijat) and with the author's. Seierstad spent several months in this "post-war" Chechnya, living in Hadijat's orphanage and learning the children's heartbreaking stories. She also returned there officially, as a guest of the Kadyrov regime, which she portrays in all its bombast and ignominy.

Seierstad tells human stories that we all need to hear, shorn of politics. She travels with a perceptive eye and has a Chekhovian gift for literary journalism, for telling stories with meaning, for capturing the ink lines of character and bringing them to the printed page. This promises to be one of this fall's best books.
(Reviewed in Russian Life)
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you wish to understand Chechnya & the wars, read this book 22 Nov 2010
By InMyMindsAyn - Published on Amazon.com
This book is by far the most informative on the Chechen conflict. Kudos to Ms. Seierstad for putting together such a great novel. If you wish to have an understanding of the past, present, and future of the nation of Chechnya then I strongly recommend this book. Contained within are the translations of a diary belonging to the cousin of a Chechen man who survived the ordered deportations of Chechens from the Caucasus to Central Asia. By far the best book on Chechnya I've read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars superb account 13 Feb 2010
By Paulo Edson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
An excellent account of Seierstad's experience in the Chechen society which has suffered a violent and barbaric plight for the last 15 years after two Russian invasions.
She takes the reader to the Gataevs' home, which is a kind of orphanage to children who lost their parents in the Chechnya conflits. She describes their sad stories and discloses to the world a forbidden region of Russia, where no independent journalists can enter on their own.
A must read for those interested in a fair and realist description of today's demodernized Russia and its rawest side of cruelty, poverty, misery and Medieval way of ruling.
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