Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sheets' 8 Pieces of Empire

"A return to these horrors was unthinkable, save for the fact that nothing in Russia was unthinkable." Isaiah Berlin, The Soviet Mind.

Lawrence Scott Sheets was a foreign correspondent whose beat somehow became the whole of the former Soviet Union. As such, Sheets had a unique vantage point over the disintegration of the "prison of nations." Over and over again, Sheets visited corners of the former empire which were awash in internecine violence. Sheets' account of the conflagration of the last twenty years, entitled 8 Pieces of Empire: a 20-Year Journey Through the Soviet Collapse, isn't overly theoretical: Sheets offers neither historical backdrop nor overarching explanation of two decades of murder, mayhem, militarism, neocolonialism, political fraud, religious extremism, and ethnic anarchy. On the other hand, Sheets' deeply personal, war correspondent approach to the topic of post-Soviet history sheds invaluable light on the horror of the Soviet implosion.

Sheets claims that his book deliberately avoids meta-narrative. That is to say, he argues that if one seeks to tell a single story about the Soviet Union's collapse and political aftermath, one has already missed the main point about the former Soviet Union, and that is that the Empire was fragmenting into many more than the "eight" pieces. Although we can't ultimately afford to do without a unifying theory of post-communist collapse, Sheets' fast-moving, journalistic descriptions of widely discrepant ethnic conflicts gives readers a sense of both the complexity and horror of the events he describes. In fact, Sheets' journalistic forays to far-flung ethnic battlefields is in many respects a useful corrective to the existing meta-narrative of Russia's journey through financial and political chaos into the coercive but putatively stable present of Putin and Medvedev.

What are Sheets' 8 pieces of empire? They include the Russian mainland (St. Petersburg in particular), Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Sakhalin Island, and Afghanistan, but almost all of these fragments of empire threaten to splinter (or have already splintered) into even small pieces. The irony of the book's title is that this isn't really a tale of empire or even geopolitics at all, but rather a very personal examination of one incredibly brave war journalist's decent into a wide variety of humanitarian hells. Over and over again, Sheets put himself in harm's way in order to show the world how bad things had gotten in remote areas of the world.

Chechnya, of course, was the worst place of all. In Chechnya, there were no winners. Grozny, like the rest of the country, was almost completed destroyed by two waves of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Almost nothing, either physical or psychological, was left standing. Kidnapping became endemic. Terrorist attacks, both inside and outside of Chechnya, commonplace. Over time, the staunchest rebels forgot seemed to forget what they were fighting for, other than bloody revenge. Indeed, the only semblance of a moral code in the country now seems to belong to the radical Islamic groups. Having overthrown any hint of secularism or traditional Sufism, the radical Islamic groups advocate Sharia law (which ironically has been implemented by Moscow's puppet government) and jihad in the name of some future pan-Central Asia caliphate.

The saddest element of Sheets' life as a reporter has surely been the number of personal friends, professional colleagues, and sources he has lost over the past twenty years. The juxtaposition of personal and public loss is extraordinarily depressing. Sheets often hints at the psychic toll of these losses, even suggesting that he had to leave field journalism as a result of these numerous traumas, but it is probably impossible to explain how these senseless deaths have ultimately changed him. We may or may not know how the accidental or even deliberate death of a single friend or relative can irrevocably change us. How can we approximate the impact of terrorism, torture, air attacks, and genocide on the soul of the reporter who so often "got there first" to report the news back to an indifferent West?

As a memoir of political reportage, the book makes few political arguments. Sheets has somehow maintained an incredible posture of objectivity in the midst of his travels. While he's not shy about pointing out the faults of an Uzbek dictator or Georgian politician, he seldom offers a prescription to end the chaos. As a reporter rather than a public policy expert, one cannot blame him for doing his job. However, Sheets' brief description of the Soviet and early American experience in Afghanistan is an implicit indictment of American foreign policy. How is that America, then or today, could have so completely overlooked the Soviet experience in that country? Like Chechnya, Afghanistan is unconquerable. As Sheets points out, even some of our closest allies in the country have changed sides countless times over the past few decades. And whatever else we know about the country, it is no oversimplification or ahistorical stereotype to assume that Afghans will go on fighting outsiders, and one another, for many, many more years to come.


  1. This blog is a treasure house of strong vodka and caviar style commentary. I look forward to reading FurCoat's insights in the future.

    Why is the blog called Soviet Roulette? It seems more like a Soviet game of chess.

    Roosevelt X

  2. Thanks for the comment. I think I went with Roulette to signify the random nature of my reflections, and to hint at the dark nature of Soviet Roulette. See my post on the wonderful silent film, Chess Fever, or maybe one or two others on Russian chess...

  3. Interesting take on how the reporter's lens can influence their work.

  4. Thanks for the review. Looks like an interesting purchase for the library. Have to see if it's available in Kindle.