A Conversation with the Author Apti Bisultanov

Apti Bisultanov experiments with both traditional Chechen literary genres and free verse. Bisultanov, who has fought as a partisan in Chechnya, is of the opinion that religion and poetry cannot be kept apart. By Sieglinde Geisel

photo: Ekkehard Maass
Apti Birsultanov

​​An editor and copy-editor by profession, Apti Bisultanov continued to write poetry during the first Chechen war. Unwilling to be a victim for a second time, Bisultanov joined the fighters when the second Chechen war broke out in 1999.

He stayed with them for three years before leaving his native country. The significance of this move for him is poignantly described in the first lines of a poem dedicated to this farewell: "Both hands grasp the heart / this old hedgehog / and firmly patch up all the wounds / like old boots on a shoemaker's awl".

Bisultanov explains that he has lived in poetry since his childhood. As always, whenever he speaks of poetry, his face lights up. Circumstances brought him into politics: "if you can really put it like that" he says.

Bisultanov hopes that he will at some point in his life be able to devote himself entirely to art again. He points out that that very little poetry is being read in Chechnya at present.

"The beauty of poetry no longer has anything to do with people's everyday lives," says Bisultanov. "People say that poems could no longer be written after Auschwitz. The same now applies to Chechnya." Of the one million Chechens that were alive before the war, some 200,000 have been killed in the conflict. Yet, says Bisultanov, there is still more poetry in Chechnya than in the West. "Here there is no secret; no sacrament. Everything is standardised".

Beslan as a mirror

Apti Bisultanov is not naive when it comes to the West; he knows that he, his attitudes, and his experience do not fit into the western intellectual scene. The poems in his volume entitled Shadow of a Lightning Flash come from a world where religion is woven through every fibre of the being. "For me, there are no two ways about it: religion and poetry are one and the same. God created the world like a poem".

For a religious person, there is no such thing as a coincidence. This being the case, it is no surprise that Bisultanov sees a deeper meaning in the Chechen war. "Tell the world, which is sacrificing Chechnya, / that for the world Chechnya is burning" is a quote from one of the few poems he wrote during the war.

"The world is revealed in Chechnya," he explains. "We learn the truth about the Russians' attitude to the Chechens, the Russians' attitude to each other, and the Chechens' attitude to each other. What's more, the rest of the world reveals its true colours in its silence about the war".

Bisultanov goes on to say that it is only when children are killed that the world takes an interest in the conflict; a fact demonstrated by the hostage-taking in Beslan. He adds, however, that no-one is interested in the Chechen victims; even when these victims are children. Human rights organisations estimate that at least 40,000 children have died in the fighting over the past five years.

"But regardless of how many die - be it 30,000, or 1,000, or one - it is still children that are dying," says Bisultanov, himself a father. "Beslan was the most horrific, gruesome mirror image of the Chechen war to date. Beslan is Chechnya".

The religious beliefs of the Chechens, says Bisultanov, is one reason for the West's indifference: if the Chechens were not Muslim, the West would react differently. At the same time, Bisultanov strenuously denies that religion plays any kind of role in the war. It is, he says, all about putting up resistance to an occupying force; everything else is pure propaganda.

He estimates that there are at most between ten and twenty foreign combatants fighting on the Chechen side, and adds that it is above all because of the war that the young generation is turning to the Islamists; the West, at any rate, has not given them any reason to hope.

The suffering of the Chechen people is carved into every single Chechen family tree. Bisultanov's father fought in the Red Army. Despite this and the fact that he was wounded at the time, he was deported along with the entire Chechen population as an "enemy of the people" directly from the front line to Kazakhstan in February 1944.

Five of his ten children starved. Apti, the youngest, was the first of them to be born in Chechnya in 1959.

He was six years of age when his father died from his war wounds. Last year, his mother died at the age of 89 having witnessed her village, Goitschu, being razed to the ground. In the winter of 2000 the village was surrounded by Russian soldiers. The women, children, and old people were driven into a snow-covered field where they were forced to remain, exposed to the elements without food or water, for ten whole days.

In addition to Bisultanov's nationally tinted poems, there are others that are immediately accessible for non-Chechen readers. The power of the images in these poems hints that Bisultanov has in his poems "arrived at a place where no-one else has ever been" as Joseph Brodsky describes the task of a poet.

The heart is a central motif in his poetry: "The round nest in the boughs / my heart / in the undergrowth of my ribs", he writes in the poem X-ray. That being said, the heart is hardly ever a refuge for private feelings. It is "more powerful than the world" and beats for the fate of an entire people.

The heart is the seat of both bravery and an unshakeable pride that shapes Apti Bisultanov's attitudes, but without the slightest trace of pathos. His anecdotes from the war bear witness to the Chechens' desire for freedom; the Chechens, who have never in their history known feudal structures.

Man against man

"I'll tell you quite honestly," says Bisultanov: "I like when men are men and wouldn't hesitate for a second to die for their convictions." He is, however, quick to point out that not everyone who dies for his convictions is demonstrating courage. Bisultanov roundly rejects terrorist attacks and hostage-taking, and quickly adds that there is not much courage involved in steering an airplane into a skyscraper.

Courage is man fighting against man. War is not a taboo subject for Bisultanov; it is an experience. When he went to war, he explains, he stopped smoking and committed no other sins. After all, if he was to meet his maker, he wanted to do so with a clear conscience.

"In war, everything is what you say it is: an enemy is an enemy; a friend is a friend; pain is pain; and joy really is joy." Be that as it may, there is no room for poetic metaphors in war. At the time, he thought he would never write poetry again.

It was only when he went straight from the forests of Chechnya to the Literature Festival in Berlin that he saw things differently. In the audience were a few Germans and a dozen Chechens living in exile. The Germans that were there heard something they had never heard before. Ravaged by the deprivation of forest life, the poet-partisan recited his poem Chaibach with his eyes tightly shut.

It was a glimpse of the aesthetics of another world. "I must be too archaic for the Germans," says Bisultanov in an ironic tone that softens his estrangement from the West. "The clouds did not stop passing across the heavens when the computer was invented. Why then should I disappear?"

Sieglinde Geisel


This article was previously published in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 18/19 September 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan