Thomas Goltz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Chechnya: Conversation with Thomas Goltz, writer, November 17, 2003, by Harry Kreisler

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Chechnya

Let's talk a little about Chechnya and the people there. You've said two things to us. One, you had a very romantic view when you went there, and also, that the conflict between Russia and the Chechens may at one level have been a personality conflict between two leaders. Help us understand what you found when you got to know the Chechen people. Your book is called Chechnya Diary: A War Correspondent's Story of Surviving the War in Chechnya. Talk a little about the evolution of your views toward the people and the conflict.

Okay. I'd also like to come back to the subtitle, which I really, really dislike.

Okay, that's fair enough.

I entered Chechnya in disguise -- a beard -- illegally from Azerbaijan, thinking that I was going to go the capital city, Grozny. This was late January/early February 1995, right after the war had initially begun in December of '94.

My mission was to find an individual who embodied this concept of the "Chechen spirit." The problem with pursuing this is that anybody who would be willing to work with me, by definition, did not embody the Chechen spirit. Who would have me? If you were a fighter or whatever, how could you possibly burden yourself with me, with my cameras? I was a one-man camera band at the time, as always. So there was that initial problem.

Coupled with that was my mode of entry, which was illegal. Even though I was on the Chechen side of the line, the Chechens, by definition, were very, very concerned about who was lurking around taking pictures. So I was arrested often, even by old ladies in markets. They would say, "Why are you here in our market? Are you trying to take pictures of us just to make life look normal? It is not normal. Get thee to the capital city where the battle rages."

So my guide at the time said, "Look, this is getting to be too problematic. We need a place for you to chill out for a little while, where you can get your feet on the ground [while] we figure out what exactly you're trying to do with this program that you keep talking about, about the 'Chechen spirit.' My brother lives in a small community not far from here. We have a house there, let's go." I ended up in this little town called Samashki. In the Chechen language, it means "the place of deer." For the first three days there I was, more or less, incarcerated in this house, and I was furious. I was sure I was in the wrong place. I was not with my colleagues under fire in the capital city. I was in the wrong place, and even thought maybe I'd been kidnapped.

And then something happened. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but on day number three or day number four, suddenly I said to myself, "You are in Grovers Corners, à la Chechnya" (a reference to the Thornton Wilder play Our Town ). "There is no wrong place to be." This muddy little place of 10,000 souls, mainly potato farmers, electricians, blacksmiths, teachers -- nobody was filled with any sort of Islamic fundamentalist urge, if you will, or rabid nationalism. It was a totally normal, little, boring town trying to stay out of the war, but that was being day-by-day brought closer and closer into the war.

Initially, the interest in the Russians in taking control of Samashki was vodka.Vodka run on the town of Shali, with tank as encouragement device; photo by Thomas Goltz The crews of a number of tanks and APCs decided that they were thirsty one evening, and they came in and started pointing their barrels at the doors of the town, demanding vodka.

So these were Russian troops, who were fighting battles everywhere?

Yeah, on the outskirts of the town. That's how things began in Samashki. It was still a relatively normal place when I [arrived]. That's why I said, "You will go to ground here. The writing is on the wall. The Russians will come in and take this place eventually. They must. It controls railway tracks, etc. But for the time being, you stay here and do a program about Our Town, 'Grovers Corners à la Chechnya.'" And that's how this thing began.

What did you begin to see that you didn't know about these people? Clearly, they were a product of their history in the Soviet Union; that was one story that you tell in the book.

Absolutely. Actually, the first time I'd been introduced to Chechnya, almost by accident, on February 23, 1994, was a year before the war had begun. My reason for going there was quite different. The story is rather involved, so we don't have to go there; it has to do with Georgia. What I ran into was the fiftieth anniversary of what the Chechens commemorate as their day of genocide, the day, February 23/24, in 1944, when Joseph Stalin sent Laverentii Beria, the head of the NKBD, the predecessor of the KGB, to round up all the suspected peoples of the region, including Chechens, and bundle them off to the wastelands of Central Asia, to dissolve their republics within the Russian Federation, and basically make them into non-people. Half died en route to Soviet Central Asia. Solzhenitsyn says of the Chechens that they were the only people in the Gulag system who could not be broken.

Stalin dies in 1953, Khrushchev rises to power. In 1957, as part of the de-Stalinization program, he rehabilitates the Chechens and others. So in 1957, '58, the survivors in Central Asia, call them half a million people or so, begin to return to the Caucasus.

So they return?

In large part, yes. This is an extraordinary event in Soviet history, because we in the West, or certainly, the United States, are taught to think of this monolithic police state where a bird will not fly without the KGB knowing. Here you have this event of 300,000 people in a two-year period, packing their bags -- previously non-people; they don't have internal passports, they don't have money, they don't have anything -- 300,000 people packing their bags and going 3,000 kilometers back from Central Asia to the Caucasus, to their homelands and to their farms, now occupied by others who've been brought in, settlers. And there's not a trace of this in Soviet history. There's one little police report about a riot that happened in Grozny. This is as if the Seminole Indians, kicked out of Florida to Oklahoma, would one day decide to pack their bags and go back down the Trail of Tears to Florida, and nobody notices. This is phenomenal.

It's a product of the liberalization going on at the center in the Soviet Union, and then the people deciding to make this move?

Yes, yes.

That's quite something.

So the Chechen Republic is reformulated, but slightly smaller than before. And that's when the Chechens become territorial animals, and that's basically when you could say that the process of collapse and the independence movement really begins.

And that would be what year?

1958. Just to get back to Samashki ...

The people in the village ...

Yes. What were they doing there? Many were returnees from Kazakhstan and elsewhere, including a local commander, who was one of the guys who arrested me one night as I was walking around the streets of Samashki. I realized with a jolt that this was the guy who could embody this thing called the "Chechen spirit," but the problem was how to convince him to allow me to tag along with him. As I suggested before, anybody who would say "yes" to this proposal, by definition, did not embody the Chechen spirit.

Anyway, there was a rocket attack or an artillery attack that night, and I ended up in the basement with the women and children and the pickles, and such like. The next day, there was another minor attack going on, and I ended up in the presence of the commander. I said, "Let me stick with you," and he said, "Sure." And thus began this extraordinary relationship with the commander of the garrison town.

And his name was?

Hussein.

Hussein.

Hussein. The book is dedicated to him and his family.

Right. He taught you a lot just by showing you how this history that you've just described was embedded in his consciousness, even on the very land and farm that he had come to occupy. Tell us a little about that.

During one of the first times that we made an excursion together, he brought me to a piece of property that he said he had come back to claim. He himself was a bundle of contradictions. He was a Chechen, but he was a Soviet Chechen. He had been the director of a collective farm out in Kazakhstan, mainly in a Russian/Ukrainian area of Kazakhstan. But here he is. Call him an agro-scientist or the equivalent of that. He had come back to develop this piece of property that he had remembered from his youth, before the exile, and had come back and was delighted to find out that nobody else had claimed it or wanted to develop it. Well, the reason for that was that there was a miniature hydroelectric plant with sluice gate and things like this, and a small generator and pond -- all made out of the tombstones of the Chechens who had been living in Samashki prior to February 23, 1944. The Soviet authorities under Stalin had ripped up every last tombstone to use as building blocks. He said, "Do you understand why I could not settle here? Do you understand why we are now fighting?" And I started to get it at that time. History is deep ... deep.

Next page: The Attack on Samashki

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