The wild bunch

To Catch a Tartar: notes from the Caucasus

Chris Bird <em>John Murray, 315pp, £17.99</em>

ISBN 0

No one of common sense today believes in the liberal myth of the noble savage, but a belief in its conservative counterpart - the savage savage - has become a cornerstone of realism. There can be no reasoning, we are told, with those firing rocket-propelled grenades from rooftops in Mogadishu, or assault rifles from barricades in Grozny. They are the "brutes" - unworthy and incapable of the order they have no desire for, and, for that reason, best left well alone. If they are killed in great numbers, this is presented as the inevitable outcome of a modern, martial society meeting an ancient, martial race. The latter are routinely portrayed as the aggressors, even though the fighting is conducted exclusively on their territory.

There is no better example of such lucklessness than the Chechens, the subject of this instructive and erudite account of the time Chris Bird spent as Caucasus correspondent for Agence France-Presse, during the war of 1994-96. Had there been more such material over the past ten years, fewer westerners might have felt quite so sorry for the Russian invaders who tried to massacre the Chechens.

The tribal peoples of central Asia have too often been caricatured as brutes. The Chechen capital, Grozny, is itself named after a Russian word for "dangerous" or "threatening". According to the pre-war travelling historian John Baddeley, "cattle-lifting, highway robbery and murder were", for the Chechens, "counted deeds of honour". These, along with fighting the Russians at every opportunity, were the only pursuits deemed worthy of a mature man. A Russian general noted, in 1828, that not to carry out raids would make a Chechen "an object of contempt even for the women, not one of whom would join her fate to his". Or as one Muscovite put it, after three Britons and a New Zealander were kidnapped and beheaded in Chechnya in 1998: "These people are fucking medieval. We should have nuked them."

However, as Bird reports, Russian prisoners of war regularly claimed better treatment at the hands of their captors than they had received in their own units. If the Chechens spent as much time killing one another as some would have us believe, there would never have been a need for their neighbours to give them such a helping shove.

Russia has sent punitive expeditions to Islamic Chechnya at intervals of 50 years or so over the past three centuries. Stalin dismissed the people of the region as "bandits" after they refused to collectivise, although they had volunteered to fight against Hitler, as they had fought loyally against the Kaiser more than 20 years earlier. In 1942, Stalin diverted warplanes from the eastern front to bomb his Chechen allies. When that did not work, he deported the better part of the population to the central Asian steppe.

More than 200,000 people died, in 1944, after they were taken in trucks from the mountains and forests and dumped, freezing and diseased, in a snowy wilderness. Those who survived were not allowed to return until 1957 - and then only after Nikita Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin (their original removal from their home villages was dressed up as an effort to save them from German death squads). So perhaps the Chechen national character owes less to innate psychopathy than it does to the proximity of 150 million belligerent Russians.

Some suspicion as to the sanity of Chechens must remain, however, if only because of their prophecy that, one day, "rulers from England" will arrive and bring peace to the country.

Nicholas Fearn is the author of Zeno and the Tortoise: how to think like a philosopher (Atlantic Books)