Lieven is a remarkably talented writer and a fine historian.

As a result he provides much more than an eyewitness account of the war’s smells, colors, and pain; he relates the conflict to Russia’s own uncertain battle with itself, explaining the mix of politics and miscalculation that led its leadership to make this mistake, what the conduct of the fighting tells us about the state of the country, particularly key institutions like the military, and why, in the end, it lost. One is hard pressed to say whether the Russian or the foreigner will gain more from this book.

by Anatol Lieven. Reviewed by Robert Legvold

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About the Author

Anatol Lieven is a professor in Georgetown University in Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC and a member of the academic board of the Valdai discussion club in Russia. He also serves on the advisory committee of the South Asia Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He holds a BA and PhD from Cambridge University in England.

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I have a number of regrets about this book. The first is obviously the title, which was – to put it mildly – a bit premature. I bowed to the pressure of the publishers for something dramatic, when it would have been better to have gone with a straightforward and workmanlike title. The problem was that two other books by journalist colleagues and friends who also covered the war, Tom de Waal and Sebastian Smith, appeared at the same time, so we needed something that would differentiate mine.

However, I must admit that I was also too influenced in my views by the dramatic spectacle of Russia’s disaster in the 1990s, and the extraordinary defeat of the Russian army by guerrilla forces with a tiny fraction of Russian numbers and firepower. I underestimated the residual strength of Russia and of Russian nationalism, the continued potential strength of the former KGB, and therefore the speed with which Vladimir Putin would be able to restore the basic powers of the state and win the second Chechen war after 1999 – albeit at terrible human cost to both Chechens and Russians.

A second regret is that while I mentioned the appearance of international Salafist volunteers led by Khattab in Chechnya and their growing prestige, I underestimated the degree to which they would be able to establish themselves in Chechnya as a result of the war, with disastrous consequences for Chechnya (and to be fair to some wickedly misguided but extremely brave men, with fatal consequences for themselves). This mistake was all the less excusable since I had after all previously reported on the Afghan Mujahedin, and encountered the Arab fighters who were later to form the basis for Al Qaeda. 

The reasons for my mistake were twofold. Firstly, whereas Afghanistan was obviously a society permeated by religious belief and practice, Chechnya before the first war was or appeared to have been largely secularized as a result of Soviet rule. The practice of Islam had been reduced largely to the level of small kinship groups following local Sufi traditions. I describe in the book how when I first visited Chechnya at the start of 1992, people calling themselves leaders of Islamic parties were deeply ignorant of Islam. Shamil Basayev, the famous (or infamous) Chechen commander, later became a Salafist himself and Khattab’s closest ally; but when I met him for the first time as a leader of Chechen volunteers in Abkhazia in 1993, he not only appeared to be but in fact was very much a kind of modern Soviet Muslim, believing but by no means fanatically devout, and totally unlike the Afghans. His transformation came later, as a result of the first war and the malign influence of international Salafism.

The final reason for my mistake was a familiar journalistic one – the question of who would and would not talk to me. That most certainly did not include the Arab Salafists. On the one occasion when Andrew Harding of the BBC and I met and tried to talk to a group of them (including, I later realized, Khattab himself), we were ushered away with extreme speed by our Chechen hosts. For this I am extremely grateful, since an interview with Khattab, though doubtless interesting, would probably have concluded painfully and conclusively for Andrew and me.

My greatest regret about this book however is that it is not two books. The central section, on Russia’s crisis of the 1990s, should really have been a separate book, and joined those of Stephen Cohen and Peter Reddaway in describing and critiquing the disastrous ways in which capitalism and “democracy” were introduced to Russia. For this I can simply plead lack of time. I only had a year ‘s visiting fellowship at the US Institute of Peace in which to write both this book and the one on Ukraine and Russia, after which I returned to journalism as a correspondent for the Financial Times in Central Europe.

The most original aspect of this book within a book was its attempt to set what happened in Russia in the 1990s in the historical context of other liberal capitalist revolutions in previously closed and conservative societies. My greatest inspiration in this regard was Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard, portraying the unification of Sicily with Italy in the 1860s. In particular, I drew parallels between the way in which state property in Russia and elsewhere was privatized in the 1990s, and church and communal lands had been privatized by liberal regimes in Italy, Spain, Mexico and elsewhere in the 19th Century. In each case, “reforms” supposedly intended to promote modern economic development in fact created new great estates owned by the new elites who had run the privatization process – but without the minimal social services that previously existed, and with no sense at all of responsibility to local society. The result was the still deeper immiseration of the mass of the population. 

This part of the book took a hefty swipe at Fukuyama’s “End of History”, the notion of “getting to Denmark” (one set and inevitable Western-dictated path to successful capitalism and democracy), and the whole Western academic-bureaucratic-NGO industry of “transitionology” that appeared after the fall of Communism. A particular edge of anger was given by my disgust with the Western carpetbaggers who had descended on Russia and who covered their depredations with nauseating protestations of sympathy and charity. And since I was writing the book in Washington DC, in the chapter called “The Masque of Democracy” I also tried to dispel both the universal, ahistorical and ethereal version of international democracy believed in by the US elites, and their incorrigible tendency to believe that the development of democracy in other countries was innately tied to American geopolitical power. I attempted to show the fraudulent nature of Russian “democracy” in the 1990s, and its irrelevance or active harm as regards the lives of ordinary Russians.

In this part of the book, I also drew attention to something else about Russia: that the lack of a violent mass reaction against what happened in the 1990s was due not to the support of ordinary Russians for democracy, but to the fact that Soviet communist rule had atomized the population and prevented any basis for political organization and mobilization from below. I warned that in a society with stronger political traditions (like Germany in the early 1930s) this degree of suffering, chaos and national humiliation might well produce Fascism. I did not of course predict the rise of Donald Trump in the USA; but so many aspects of what has happened to the white American working classes over the past generation (including a rise in the death rate and in diseases of social despair) echo what happened in Russia in the 1990s that the rise of Trumpism did not altogether surprise me.

As for the Chechens, while I was accused by critics of being in love with them, in fact compared to other authors I also tried to bring out the darker sides of their tradition: in particular, how ancient traditions of raiding had fused with modern organized crime and hatred of the Soviet state to produce very serious social pathologies including a completely nihilistic attitude to the state and the law. In passages that proved disastrously prescient with regard to Chechnya’s period of quasi-independence from 1996-1999, I described the immense problems this caused for the Chechens’ own attempts to create a modern state in Chechnya. 

I also evoked the Chechens’ immense ethnic pride, its tremendous contribution to their victory in 1996 but also its tendency to turn into extreme arrogance and recklessness – though I did not predict just how disastrous Basayev’s blind confidence in Chechen superiority would later prove when he invaded Russian Daghestan in 1999 in an effort to bring about an Islamist revolution there. In this regard, I quoted another passage from The Leopard, in which he describes Sicilian self-satisfaction and resistance to change: “They have come to teach us good manners; but they will not succeed, for we are gods.”

The tone of most of the Western reviews of this book was one of more-or-less respectful bewilderment; for of course it did not fit well into any of the prisms through which Western observers had been accustomed to view either Russia or the Chechen War. It was indeed at this time in Washington that I first began to appreciate the harder and more ideologically conformist, intolerant and messianic edges of the Western liberal project, which I had previously, in my sleepy upper-middle class British centrist way, seen as dedicated to tolerance, empiricism and open debate. 

Not untypical was the reviewer for the New York Review of Books who condemned my picture of the specific cultural features of the Chechens with words to the effect that “mothers everywhere want the same things for their children.” Well, yes, it is probably fair to say that mothers everywhere want their sons to be successful. The question is as what. What did Livia Soprano want for her son? It is to be hoped that the disastrous experiences of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have taught our elites that different societies really do have different and deeply-rooted political cultures – but I wouldn’t bet on it.