Friday, July 22, 2005

Who's Afraid of Grozny?

At Prague Watchdog, a translation I've made of an essay by Yuna Letts about her recent visit to the Chechen capital Grozny:
All journalists with the chronic form of the illness of their own profession have two or three aims in the early stages of their work. Some dream of reporting directly from a burning house, some are obsessed with notes of criminal proceedings, some fervently desire to take part in a scientific experiment. In the fourth year of journalistic syndrome, some of my little goals were achieved - living contact with Pele, Digger excavations, three months in a sect, Shabbat in a most rigid and inaccessible synagogue. My vanity was satisfied. There was just one thing that would not let me sleep – a city, dead and mysterious, a city of weeping and of decomposing bodies – Grozny. Only I went there not as a female journalist, but, but as "a person of this world".

Of course it would it foolish and dishonest with regard to those people simply to go to Grozny with the aim of taking a stroll and "running under the bullets a little". I went there to meet the writer Ismail Mukayev, to discuss an inter-republican project and regular collaboration with Chechen literary organizations. He advised to me to conceal my journalistic certification, not to talk with anyone on the way and not to stick my neck out when I didn’t need to.

In the North Caucasus

I travelled from Nalchik. The Gazelle minibuses that go to Grozny outwardly resemble hearses - black all over: black blinds on the windows, black seats, the drivers in black clothing, dark glasses, with stiff black beards. The passengers were mainly women with children, a few young girls and two lads. The Chechen girls wore skirts and shawls, almost without cosmetics, they seldom spoke Russian. All the women were accompanied by someone.

My looks are generic. If need be, it’s possible to see Chechen features in them, but also Kabardian, or Jewish ones, and even the representatives of the one nationality or the other are deceived by this similarity. But I did a foolish thing - I went in jeans, and so right from the very beginning I attracted the suspicious glances of my fellow-travellers.

I soon got the jitters. The driver was talking in Chechen, and rather rudely, too, shouting something, waving his hands. Then I understood what the matter was: he was asking who hadn’t paid. It was me, of course. The whole minibus turned round and looked at me as though I were an enemy of the people – by now they had realized that I knew no Chechen.

A ticket from Kabardino-Balkaria to Chechnya costs 200 rubles. This a lot of money for Chechens, and so they seldom manage to get to the most peaceful Caucasian republic, only out of necessity - to buy household items and provisions that aren’t available in Grozny. Chechens are not liked here. Locals told me that they once came for the markets of the Kabardino-Balkarian Republic – to Nalchik, Maisky, Prokhladny – stood for a day with their wares and never went there again – they were “asked” not to poke their noses into other people’s lands.

We faced the prospect of crossing several borders – there are approximately five checkpoints, not counting the additional checks made before public holidays. The problems started for me at the very first of these. One can also see it from the frontier guards’ point of view - a girl of strange appearance, registered in the Smolensk Oblast and re-registered in Moscow, travelling from Nalchik to Grozny. Alone.
The whole of my translation of the essay can be read at the Prague Watchdog website, here. The original Russian text is here.

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