German Sadulaev: I wrote this book to put myself back together

Chechen author German Sadulaev talks to Metro about angering the president of his home country and the real reason he wrote his novel.

Claire Allfree

Metro- 23rd November, 2010

Chechen author German Sadulaev wrote his latest book to deal with the loss of his friends

Chechen author German Sadulaev wrote his latest book to deal with the loss of his friends

As a child living in Shali, not far from Chechnya’s capital Grozny, German Sadulaev would watch each spring for the arrival of the swallows, that unknown day in March or April when the migrating birds would suddenly flood the sky like vast blooms of exploding flowers.

Their arrival, impossible to predict, would mark the first day of summer. ‘It was an event we always looked forward to,’ says Sadulaev. ‘We were always worried they wouldn’t come back. When they came there was always a festival.’

In his visceral new novel about growing up in Chechnya, Sadulaev writes about the swallows as ‘a totem, a sacred bird’. If they nested in your house, it was seen as a sign of good luck. Perhaps your children would marry. Perhaps they would produce a grandchild.

Yet good luck has been in short supply in Chechnya in the last 16 years, ever since the Russian tanks rolled in in 1994 to quell an uprising led by Chechen nationalists seeking independence following the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, in what is now known as the First Chechen War. The second began in 1999, officially ended ten years later and cost, many believe, 50,000 lives. 

Today, Sadulaev lives in St Petersburg (he left his homeland in 1989 aged 16) and is a lawyer. But at night he works as a novelist, a job that sometimes lands him in hot water. His novels appear to attract prizes and opprobrium in almost equal measure.

A recent interview he gave to a Russian newspaper about political hypocrisy in Chechnya motivated the Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov to denounce Sadulaev as ‘not human, not Chechen’ and warned his relatives to ‘look after’ him.

Sadulaev, who to be frank looks like a bit of a bruiser with his stocky build and shaved head, appears unperturbed. ‘It’s fun being a writer in Russia,’ he says with a shrug of his shoulders. ‘But we have to go on.’ (The week we speak two Russian political journalists were severely beaten up in Moscow in separate incidents.) Then he adds: ‘I’d like to say I’m not scared of anyone. But it would not be true.’

I Am A Chechen!, the first of Sadulaev’s novels to be translated into English, is an emotionally eviscerating story of devastation told as a series of hallucinatory fragments.

It’s part creative memoir, part imaginative reconstruction of the lives of Sadulaev’s friends who died in the conflict. He resisted publishing it for a long time, believing it ‘too personal’ and ‘too against the official position’ and only wrote it ‘partly to put myself back together’ and partly out of guilt at having survived the conflict when so many of his friends did not.

‘We all feel a certain guilt for the collapse of the Soviet Union because we could have done things differently,’ he says. ‘In any event, writing helps you to survive.’ There is a ceasefire now in Chechnya (‘although there isn’t peace,’ argues Sadulaev) and he goes back to see his family often. ‘Well, until I became persona non grata,’ he half jokes. ‘There’s an atmosphere of hatred there.’

While the book is a scorching lament for Chechnya’s blood-soaked history, it’s also about an ongoing quest for personal identity. Sadulaev admits he feels neither fully Chechen nor fully Russian, and that Russia has failed to unite its many diverse ethnic groups under one umbrella.

‘The country is named Russia but not everyone is Russian,’ he says.

‘There are a lot of misunderstandings between people. At least under communism everyone felt Soviet. It’s exciting for me to be in London and see Muslims, Jews and Hindus living together. They are all British and proud. That’s a good legacy of empire.’

He doesn’t believe Chechnya should be independent and is angry at the political threat posed by the rise of right-wing Islamic militants there. ‘The political culture within society is more important than formal political independence,’ he argues.

‘I’m against all fanatics, all extremism, all the putting of pressure on people of different cultures.’ The book, in the end, is a cry of rage against the iniquity of war. ‘What a way to pay for your cause,’ Sadulaev agrees. ‘All that loss of life.’

I Am A Chechen! is published today by Harvill Secker, priced £12.99.

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