A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Literary Window into Russia’s Chechnya Wars


Anyone who thinks “western values” are an arrogant fiction created to perpetuate the dominance of market democracies or whitewash their crimes should read A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a heartbreakingly poignant novel about the wars in Chechnya.  Based on the reporting of amazingly brave — and murdered — Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, and the memoir of Chechen doctor Khassan Baiev, it chillingly recounts Russia’s arbitrary and brutal reign of terror during several attempts to subdue rebellion in one of its constituent republics.

In the novel, as in reality, Russian paramilitaries work under the command of intelligence operatives, mercenary corps are integral to the government forces, and conscripted soldiers are victims, too, of the dishonorable behavior.  The government paints all Chechens as terrorists, justifying indiscriminate violence.  The only outside nations willing to help Chechens are “Arab states (who) would not fund a war of nationalism, only a war of religion,” which shades the conflict toward jihad and makes it of even less interest internationally.

The Brutality of Russia in Chechnya

The Russian counter-insurgency campaign has never been effective in Chechnya, in large part because the brutality and fear they sowed among Chechens.  There has been no redress of legitimate grievance or separation of people into reconcilable and irreconcilable factions, as had been essential to every successful counter-insurgency campaign from Britain in Malaya to the U.S.-led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, by 2004, Few Russians cared.  Chechen jihadists had attacked a school in Beslan, killing 330 people and attacked the Moscow theater where 120 hostages died (though most from gas used by Russian police); the Putin government further blamed them for bombing an apartment building in Moscow.  Media in Russia were narrowing as the government became increasingly authoritarian.  Whether corresponding to that change or because Russians themselves were changing in their attitudes (information on Russian abuses was not difficult to come by) — 80% of Russians supported their government’s campaign.  In fact, reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena during Russia’s ongoing dirty war in Ukraine, the similarities in Russian attitudes and behavior between the two conflicts is depressingly striking.  A 2012 Human Rights Watch appeal assessed that:

The known risk to activists in Chechnya, reinforced by blatant public threats by Kadyrov, who is alleged to be personally behind a number of cases of torture and killings, heightens the obligation of the Russian authorities to act urgently.

It goes without saying that Russian authorities have done no such thing.  It makes preposterous Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s hypocritical recent denunciation that “the Ukrainian authorities think they can use any means in order to defend their territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

It is literally impossible to imagine the American or other Western militaries committing the systematic depredations Russia has in Chechnya, or the organizations of our vibrant civil society, including the media, allowing it to occur with impunity.  We in the West rightly condemned the degradation of inmates at Abu Ghraib, recoiled from torture, and vehemently debated the limits of appropriate interrogation techniques applied to terrorists who have no compunction about such practices. Details of all of these were brought into the light by journalists. But the reality is a different one in Chechnya, whose sad fate is described in the novel: “Porous enough to allow luxury cars, American cigarettes, and Russian firearms, the borders remained too dense for objective journalism.”

Finding Humanity Amid the Horror

So read the novel to be outraged anew at Russian behavior.  But read it also for a novel that is tender and funny and speaks majestically to the human condition.  The dilemma of brutal circumstances is summarized by the book’s sorriest character: “to live with dignity meant a premature death,” (this said as she chooses a dignified death).  It is worthy of Tolstoy.  In fact, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena reads very much like Tolstoy.  Crowded with minor characters, they are each given their due — their humanity — by bringing them into individual focus, often using Tolstoy’s technique of a quick aside telling us what they later would remember of the event occurring or how it affected their subsequent choices.

Unlike Tolstoy, Constellation does not take a vast historical canvas: the action is compressed into a five-day period.  It begins with a Chechen widower being “taken for questioning” by the Russians, in the middle of the night, duct taped and thrown in the back of a truck.  It is understood in his village that (a) he will be tortured to death by the Russians, and (b) the Russians took him because an informer — known by all to be an informer, and a friend of the widower — told them to.  This orphans the widower’s young daughter, who is impulsively saved by a neighbor and spirited away from the village.

The daughter’s savior, Akhmed, describes himself (and, indeed, others also describe him) as “the worst doctor in Chechnya.”  A promising student, his village raised money to send him to medical school; instead, he went to art classes.  His incapacity is borne out by the fact that he cannot cure or even diagnose his own wife of a neurological disorder, a shame compounded by his secretly harbored suspicion that there is nothing medically wrong with her.  He is, however, a healer.  Not only does he save the girl, but after a Russian punitive attack kills 40 villagers, his painted commemorations of them help grieving loved ones.  He supports himself by drawing likenesses of the dead from their families’ descriptions, a sadly booming business in war-torn Chechnya.

In order to save the girl, he takes her to what he imagines would be the person most able to care for her: a surgeon in the nearest city whose dental floss stitches he had seen on a casualty.  That surgeon, a Russian woman trained in London who had grown up in Chechnya and returned for her sister, is a hard-bitten character: at one point she fears he is a Russian informer and has him interrogated by a Chechen mafioso from whom she procures medical supplies for the hospital.

But she is also grieving the disappearance of her sister, a heroin addict preyed upon by human traffickers as she tries to barter a way out of the country.  They had been reunited, the sister breaking her heroin addiction by reading the surgeon’s medical encyclopedia — from which comes the book’s title, the definition of life — but leaves again because of the difficulty of seeing her surgeon sister operate: “To work in these circumstances a surgeon must reduce each patient to her body, but this was an attitude shared by the traffickers, pimps and johns populating Natasha’s private perdition.”  A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a novel about preserving humanity amidst horror.  And everyone must find their own redemption.  The surgeon barters Akhmed’s work at the hospital for protecting the child.  And eventually, Akhmed barters his life in the same way.

Even the informer at the beginning of the novel is given a three-dimensional explanation of his motives: “for nearly two years he had worked as an informer for the state security forces.  He had given up neighbors who had wished him a happy birthday every year of his life.  And still he believed himself the victim as much as the perpetrator of his crimes.”  The informant had himself been taken for questioning, tortured with castration, and terrified into compliance.

But I am giving short shrift to the humor and askance insights that buoy the book through such grimness.  Here is a passage that captures the liltingness of Constellation:

No one wanted to risk moving the unexploded shells that lay scattered across the village, so the next morning Havaa’s parents, among other villagers, prised toiled bowls from the rubble of collapsed houses and dragging them upside down and two by two gently set them over the unexploded shells.  Havaa would never forget the sight.  So many dozens of upside-down toilet bowls crowded the street that cars wouldn’t pass for weeks, and in that time, she would occasionally hear the overdue explosions, the shrapnel ringing within the ceramic, but those bowls, the one decent legacy of the Soviet Union, never broke.

I am also giving short shrift to a plot line that weaves these lives into a tight brocade. It is a taut story in which the search for a person and a gun that has been used to kill a Russian colonel pulls all of the lives into a tragic vortex.  The assignment of nationality and motive to the killer is both inaccurate and also a ringing metaphor for why Russia has been unable across 24 years to subdue violence in Chechnya.

The moral of the story is that everyone suffers; but those who emerge victorious over it — even if they die — are those who give purpose to their suffering.  Those who either offer themselves in sacrifice for others or take actions that redeem them to themselves.  The creation of meaning is the ennobling of our lives.

How sad for Russia that the great novels of its societal experience seem no longer to be written by Russians.  Constellation’s author, Anthony Marra, is a professor of literature at Stanford University.


Kori Schake, Ph.D. is a fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.  She formerly worked in the Departments of Defense and State, was the director of defense strategy and requirements on the NSC, and held the distinguished chair in international security studies at West Point.


Photo credit: European Commission DG ECHO