I am half a Chechen or I was a Chechen might be a better title for German Sadulaev’s compilation of nine pieces of lyrical or apocalyptic remembrance and fiction about a country he left when he was sixteen and a nationality he owes to his father. The longest episode, ‘One Swallow doesn’t make a Summer’, written in 2001, recalls the Chechnya that was wiped out in the carpet bombing and mass murders of the 1990s. Although the Sadulaevs were lucky (German’s Cossack mother died of natural causes and his sister recovered from her shrapnel wounds), this piece is a lament for all the slaughtered villagers with whom German grew up. Evocations of peaceful village life – growing pumpkins, guarding swallows’ nests – alternate with violent episodes between Russians and Chechens, which involve rapes and knifings as well as bombs and tanks. The book’s other episodes deal with the enmity or guarded friendship between Chechen children and their Russian or half-Chechen neighbours, but the most imaginative and powerful piece, ‘When the Tanks Awoke’, splits the author’s personality into Zelik and Dinka, two half-Chechen, half-Russian friends so close as to be virtually one person. Each section is alternately narrated by one of these spiritual twins. They split up: Dinka is despised as a bastard, for his Chechen father has absconded, and he leaves to serve in the Russian Special Forces, while Zelik is recruited into the Chechen separatists. Zelik’s death at Dinka’s hands encapsulates the fratricidal madness of Chechen separatism and Russian vengeance.
The shorter pieces in the other two-fifths of the book add little. Sadulaev’s political analysis is crude: the Chechen war started because ‘a dim-witted drunkard and clever-arsed Jewish advisers had toppled the Soviet Union’ (readers will not be surprised that Sadulaev has now joined the Communist Party). On