Polina Zherebtsova was 14 when the bombs started raining down.
They hit the market where she worked with her mother, the streets she walked down daily, until Grozny was reduced to rubble, a hometown no longer recognisable.
From the start, Zherebtsova wrote about it, an act of catharsis as much as a document on the second Chechnya war. She filled dozens of diaries in a messy, scribbled cursive, sometimes embellished with doodles – bomb blasts that look like flowers, blocks of flats seen from a distance.
This week, despite death threats and fears for her safety, Zherebtsova published Polina Zherebtsova’s Diary, gathering three years’ worth of journals for a rare look into daily life in Grozny under siege.
“I thought, when they kill me, people will find this diary,” Zherebtsova said in Moscow, where she has been living since 2006. “I thought, people will read this diary and understand there is never a need to fight.”
Filled with the horrors of war and the daily concerns of a teenage girl, the book has already prompted comparisons with the diary of Anne Frank. But Zherebtsova prefers to be likened to Tanya Savicheva, who chronicled the slow death of her family during the siege of Leningrad.
“It kept me from going crazy,” Zherebtsova, 26, said, her dyed blonde fringe peeking out from under a headscarf and long gold earrings adorned with dolphins framing her lightly freckled face.
She spent the entire war in Chechnya as tens of thousands died or fled during Moscow’s brutal attempt to pacify the mainly Muslim republic.
Although extracts have been published in Russian magazines to wide acclaim, Zherebtsova still works odd jobs to make ends meet: she publishes articles and works as a nanny, sometimes as a consultant, sometimes as a secretary.
Almost every day includes a doctor’s visit to nurse the wounds – physical and psychological – that remain.
A bomb attack left shrapnel in her right leg and after several operations to remove the pieces, it is still painful. Her teeth fell out after weeks of hunger and years of malnutrition. The nightmares, she said, have eased since she finished the book but they persist.
The fear of death in war has now been replaced with the fear that writing about the horrors of Chechnya – a still taboo subject – will bring repercussions.
One by one, publishing houses refused to publish the book.
“Everyone said they really liked it but wanted no problems with the government,” she said. Last autumn, she finally found a saviour in Detektiv-Press, a small publisher devoted mainly to history books and memoirs. Days later, the calls began.
“One time they said: ‘So, you will write about Chechnya? Do you want to live?’ I don’t know who it was,” Zherebtsova said. Since then, the calls have come dozens of times over, from unknown numbers. No words are ever exchanged. In the past two weeks, her husband has been targeted instead, sometimes getting 20 calls a day. Zherebtsova was once attacked in a lift by a man she is certain was waiting for her.
But something pushed her forward. “I was always having nightmares about this war,” she said. “These civilians who were killed would come to me in my sleep and I felt I had a duty to them. I felt I had to tell it.”
It is a tradition among the women in the family to keep a diary, and Zherebtsova began when she was nine after her grandfather, a well-known journalist in Grozny, was killed in the early days of the first Chechen war.
“We thought there would be no more war, and then it started again,” she says of a conflict that raged from 1994-96, died down for three years, and then reignited.
Zherebtsova takes great pains to paint her family as ethnically mixed, and in the book describes how she is mainly Russian on her mother’s side, and Chechen on her father’s, although she never knew him. Ethnic tension remains sharp in the north Caucasus, and Zherebtsova hopes to avoid politicising the republic’s suffering.
“I don’t scold anyone in particular, neither the rebels nor the Russian soldiers,” she said. “There is no evil in the book – just the life of civilians who fell into life in war.”
Zherebtsova fled Chechnya in 2005, first to the south of Russia before making her way to Moscow thanks to a grant from Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s foundation. She says she will never go back.
“It’s a different country now, one that is no longer mine,” she said. “My dream now is to leave and live in a normal country.”. “There is no life here. If there’s no war, then there’s revolution.”
Zherebtsova holds little hope that Russia can change, yet there must be some. The book’s dedication reads: “Dedicated to the rulers of modern Russia.”