In 1995, amid an exchange of gunfire between insurgents and Russian troops in what would be the first of two bloody wars in Chechnya, the stately neoclassical pillars of the Chekhov National Library burned, along with the priceless collection of books inside.
The loss of multitudes of Chechen literary works contributed to the broader destruction of the region’s cultural patrimony. It is a common result of war--and often a deliberate means of warfare--when museums, historic architecture, and even libraries are caught in the crossfire.
“During the war I saw the main library in Grozny burning with my own eyes,” said RFE/RL North Caucasus Service Director Aslan Doukaev. “I was a frequent visitor to the library and spent my days and evenings reading all sorts of things there. I still remember the atmosphere, the people speaking softly and reading books--it was a great shock when I saw it burning.”
Chechen literature was targeted before the depredations of the Chechen Wars of the 1990s and 2000s. Books were destroyed en masse during the Soviet deportations of Chechen and Ingush peoples to Siberia and Central Asia in the 1940s under Stalin. Residents of Grozny tell of books piled on bonfires that burned for days.
As a step toward restoring Chechnya’s literary heritage, the North Caucasus Service has launched an online library available for free to users with both text and audio versions of classics selected from Chechen poetry and prose, as well as works from contemporary authors.
With around 80 titles, it’s still a modest collection, but the only one of its kind. Among the new authors are a number of young women poets, such as Birlant Belyayeva, Lyuba Arsaliyeva, and Petamat Petirova. All of the writers are beloved by Doukaev and his readers, though most are unknown to non-Chechen audiences.
Doukaev hopes the library will eventually be the definitive online repository of Chechen literature and serve as a resource for Chechens both at home and in the diaspora community. In addition to the greats of the Chechen literary cannon and promising new writers, the collection includes Chechen translations of Russian and English novels and plays, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, many of which were produced by members of the North Caucasus Service in their personal time.
The Service is currently focused on expanding the collection to include rare works from the inter-war period of the 1920s-1930s, as well as transcriptions of the fairytales and family histories that make up Chechnya’s rich oral tradition.
“Chechen literature, especially prose, tends to be historically based,” said Doukaev. “Chechens like to explore their own history, which is quite tragic, so a certain portion of the literature depicts historic events, such as the deportations or the numerous wars.”
Added to the complexity of collecting so many diverse genres is the challenge presented by the Chechen language itself, which, in addition to a dizzying phonology and grammar, is spoken in at least a dozen dialects and at different periods in its history has been written in Arabic, Latin, and Cyrillic scripts. The journalists working on the project often confront obscure words from archaic dialects that were common in the 19th century, but which now must be researched and explained in footnotes for modern readers.
Doukaev says that despite the difficulty of the work, it is extremely rewarding to be preserving Chechen literature and rescuing classics, many of which were nearly obliterated over the course of the region’s many conflicts, for new readers. Eventually he would like to begin adding works in other North Caucasus languages to the collection.
“Sometimes I wonder if we’re aiming too high,” he said. “But then again, I see the library as a project for the next generation. It will live longer than we do.”