Last autumn, Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Wall, and the peaceful collapse of the Communist order in eastern Germany. Eight Pieces of Empire: A 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, by Lawrence Scott Sheets, reminds readers that in other places the end of Communism was not peaceful at all. The end of Moscow’s dictatorship brought freedom, but in many places it also brought war. In more than a dozen years as a journalist in the territory of the former Soviet Union, Sheets saw most of them.
Sheets writes, “One might wonder how these various stories are related. The answer is that empires do not break down along nice clean lines. They fragment, and the dissolution of the USSR and of the personal lives and explosive solutions affected by its fragmentation is the very subject of this book.”
And though Sheets spent quite a number of years writing about conflict, he seems to have stumbled into it. Other reporters he mentions are noted as “war correspondents,” a group in which he does not include himself. His editors just keep sending him to conflict zones, or fighting breaks out around where he happens to be. (This latter is not as improbable as it seems; in 2008, I fled to Armenia as the Russian Army invaded Georgia, whither I had moved two weeks previously.) Similarly, his motivation for learning Russian in the first place, which set everything in motion, remains obscure. Maybe he thought it too mundane to include; maybe he doesn’t know himself; maybe he left it open for readers to speculate about. Nevertheless, these two absences lend the book, initially, a sense of happenstance. (The closest he gets to writing explicitly about his relationship with Russia is in a chapter on seeking out reindeer herders on Sakhalin island: “The actual intent was to get as far away from Moscow as possible, to again feel the incredible breadth of Russia, even after it has lost its fourteen former “colonies,” or Soviet republics.” p. 278 Incidentally, if the book were from a British publisher, it would probably have an index, and be better off because of it.)
That happenstance sets Sheets apart from other writers who have worked in the region; in particular, I am thinking of Thomas Goltz (whom Sheets knows and shares some adventures with) and Anna Politkovskaya. Those two are very different writers, but each brings a sense of moral outrage, of indignance to their reporting that lends it an immediate and passionate quality. Terrible things are happening, and it doesn’t have to be that way. (Politkovskaya was astonishing in this regard; she was also assassinated in 2006, and while a conviction was attained for her murder, the reasons for it have never been satisfactorily explained.) Reading Sheets, I found more distance, more just the sense that this is how the world is.
On the other hand, it is clear that Sheets likes many of the people his chosen craft puts him in touch with, as well as the assortment of people he comes to know simply by living through surprising historic times. There’s the black-market currency changer who gets into low-level protection rackets in the first years of post-Communist St. Petersburg. There’s the voluble former actor from Kabul who, I suspect, turned out to be a bit much even for Sheets’ open and tolerant character. He even comes to like Eduard Shevardnadze, whom Sheets had (to my reading) mocked in early chapters of the book as The Man Who Ended the Cold War. Sheets describes the aftermath of Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003:
On the day after he resigned, Shevardnadze calmly and in high spirits went to his office and collected the memorabilia of thirty years in power: photographs with other world leaders, gifts from foreign dignitaries, and other trinkets. He and a secretary placed them in a box. Smilingly, he went home to his presidential residence high above the city, a comfort he was allowed to keep by Georgia’s new rulers out of general respect.
A few dozen jeerers caught wind of his foray to retrieve his office belongings. They gathered outside the presidential building, expecting him to whisk past in his car, pretending not to notice. Instead, Shevardnadze insisted on stopping, shocking the demonstrators by getting out and engaging them in conversation.
“My time is over,” he told them, smiling disarmingly. “Let’s see what these young people can do with Georgia now…”
Mostly, Sheets likes regular, if slightly oddball, people. They are the ones he chooses to write about, such as the aforementioned reindeer herders, or people living inside the Chernobyl radiation zone.
Another trait among numerous people Sheets writes about is that they miss the big country they were once a part of, the USSR. There is the Russian left stranded as captain of a border post between Armenia and Turkey. There are St. Petersburgers recalling their holidays to the Black Sea. I saw this sometimes, too, when I lived in Tbilisi. People who could remember the ease of a domestic trip to Kiev or Moscow missed that, while in a younger generation being confined to a smallish country with a population not much more than that of greater Atlanta could produce either a hothouse effect or a yearning to reach out to something more.
Sheets quite clearly shows the tragedies of an empire’s explosion. Writing about so many conflicts, how could it be otherwise? Chechnya is the broken heart at the center of the book. He shows first the improbability of the Chechens’ drive for independence immediately after the Soviet collapse, then the heavy-handed incompetence the Russian state used to try to stop that drive, and finally the mutually escalating dynamic of terror and overwhelming force. He witnessed many gruesome, brutal events in and around Chechnya, and he describes some of them. The conflict in Chechnya is now ostensibly settled, but the effects that it had, both in the region and for Russia as a whole, will linger much longer.
Nor is the writer immune:
Covering war and scores of human tragedies, which is what I did for nearly twenty years, is a bit like exposing oneself to radiation. In carefully measured doses, it often poses few well-established health risks, as for those who continue to work limited shifts in the most contaminated areas of Chernobyl—although journalists can also suffer devastating psychological effects from even a single traumatic event, just as soldiers and emergency workers can.
Unlimited exposure over very long periods, however, is unwise for the mind and soul, and I’ve seen the deadly effects on many a fellow reporter, from relationship problems to irritability to self-medication and various forms of depression, including a higher than normal rate of suicide among those who specialize in covering such stories.
When he finished writing the book, Sheets was South Caucasus director of the International Crisis Group, focusing on Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.