- - Wednesday, January 11, 2012

By Lawrence Scott Sheets
Crown, $28, 318 pages

Lawrence Sheets is a foreign correspondent whose bravery exceeds one’s comprehension. For two decades, he risked death covering the violent chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The multiple “wars” he covered were not set-piece battles but disorganized carnage by guerrillas and remnants of national armies that smashed cities throughout the old USSR and slaughtered uncountable thousands of people. He survived. And he has produced some of the most gripping war correspondence I have ever read.

A bum-about student, Mr. Sheets was living in a sordid communal apartment in Petrograd, learning Russian, when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pronounced the end of Soviet communism on Christmas Day 1991. No one seemed surprised; his neighbors “paid little attention to Gorbachev’s long-winded speeches on state television.” Naive Westerners who praised Mr. Gorbachev “evoked a sensation similar to the regurgitation of curdled milk among many of them.”

Mr. Sheets immediately signed on with National Public Radio to report on the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. An early assignment involved covering disturbances in Moldova. With that background, when he shifted to Reuters news agency a year or so later, an editor immediately labeled him a “war correspondent” although he professed minimal knowledge of the military. No matter; Mr. Sheets‘ linguistic skills were so good that he often was mistaken for a Russian.

The emerging independent states were a lumpy and unassimilated blend of scores of national, racial and religious groups, many nursing grievances - make that hatreds - stretching back into the mists of time. Only the strong hand of the czars and Soviet leaders such as Josef Stalin had maintained relative peace. As Mr. Sheets points out, many of the conflicts he covered started with trivial provocations.

Consider Georgia, once the richest corner of the Soviet Union, with abundant agriculture, its Black Sea beaches dotted with luxurious resorts owned by the Soviet hierarchy. But the Abkhaz people, who made up 17 percent of the population, wished to break away from the Georgians, who accounted for 45 percent. A “national guard” unit was sent out supposedly to maintain the peace, but soon things degenerated into open warfare. Much of Georgia was laid to waste, with Russian artillery and bombs doing much of the damage.

A victim of the collapse was Eduard Shevardnadze, a Georgian who had served as Soviet foreign minister under Mr. Gorbachev and then become head of state in Georgia. Mr. Sheets rode on the presidential plane when “Shevvy” went to the United Nations to plead for help in restoring peace. But few of the Georgian officials and journalists who accompanied him bothered to attend his speech. “They skipped the protocol bit and busied themselves scouring the bowels of the Bronx for cut-rate TVs and stereos.” Shevvy’s plane “became a flying warehouse of cheap electronics.”

Perhaps the saddest story in Mr. Sheets‘ litany of agony was Chechnya, a Connecticut-size state that took the czars longer than any other to “pacify” in the 19th century. Stalin packed much of the population off to Siberia in 1944 lest the people cooperate with the Germans; the remaining million or so hated the Soviets, and a strongly anti-Moscow government sprang into being once the Soviet Union collapsed.

Mr. Sheets gives a sickening account of the Russians’ methodical destruction of the Chechen capital, Grozny, and the ruthless slaughter of hostages by both sides. From this rubble emerged “a steadily growing radical Islamist movement (once money and ideology had poured into Chechnya during the war) and warped psyches.” Criminal gangs seized control of much of the country “under the banner of radical Islam.” Two of the “Islamist” bands were noted for “booze-soaked parties.”

Woven throughout Mr. Sheets‘ book are vignettes of the most unforgettable characters: “three charming sabotage women” he met in Chechnya, one of whom related how she had packed her knockoff Gucci bag with explosives and blown the dickens out of a train carrying Russian troops; the Russian intelligence officer who made a clumsy attempt to recruit him as a spy; the dissident poet locked away for decades; the ambitious friend who turned to extortion to survive after the collapse.

Sadly, Mr. Sheets thinks his book “doesn’t really have an ending, for the fragmentation … continues to this day and will continue for years and perhaps decades.” The “stan” republics sink deeper into Stalinist authoritarianism - their immense oil and gas reserves doing nothing to benefit the man in the fields.

Further, “[F]ew but the most addicted Russia watchers seem ready to consider the consequence … we humans [are] rarely able to react until after the facts have seared themselves into history.”

Joseph C. Goulden’s expanded edition of “Spy-Speak: The Dictionary of Intelligence” will be published by Dover Books later this month.

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