What you can see of Grozny

In a "Diary" about a recent visit to Grozny, Chechnya, published in the 22 March 2007 issue of the London Review of Books, Tony Wood writes:

It is hard to tell exactly where Grozny begins: it still consists for the most part of rubble-strewn patches of ground. Low, single-storey houses lie in ruins, entangled in dry, dead bushes; apartment blocks stand ragged, some blown open by shells, others peppered with bullet holes, yet others consisting now of nothing more than fragments of concrete — one or two bones from a skeleton. For a few miles there is nothing but ruins and rubble, half-homes that would seem to be uninhabitable. But then you see washing hanging from balconies, lights in a window here or there. There have been many images of Grozny after the Russian bombardments of 1994-95 and 1999-2000, and the memory of them goes part of the way towards preparing you for the devastation. The biggest shock is not the scale of destruction but the idea that anyone at all can live in this desert; that anyone could have returned to it and wanted to start again.

Wood’s description was so grim that I found myself wondering, as I read it, whether the devastation was visible from space — by the satellites and low-flying planes that feed data to Google Maps, to be specific. I put the article aside a few weeks ago, meaning to check, but forgot to, in part, I think, because I feared that Wood must have been exaggerating. Could the destruction really have been of such a magnitude, and the evidence of it still so abundant half a dozen years after the last major bombardment? And then there was the possibility that Wood was telling the truth, but that the wreckage wouldn’t be identifiable from a pure vertical angle. Maybe, if you were looking straight down, a bombed building would look very much like an intact building. Or maybe it would look like an empty field, and be invisible for the opposite reason.

A Printer's Tray

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The maps at Google fully support Wood, and it’s very easy to identify a bombed building: the walls are often still standing, at least in part, but the roofs never are. So, when you look from above, instead of seeing the single homogeneous rectangle of a roof, you see all the elaboration of the building’s floor plan — the interstitial division of the building into individual rooms. They look uncannily like printer’s trays, the wooden boxes that typesetters once used to store their type, one compartment per letter.

For example:

Grozny, Chechnya

Sometimes you can see more evidence of the building’s state in the shadow it casts. The sun seems to fall through this building as through a skeleton:

Grozny, Chechnya

Sometimes all the buildings in an area are skeletons, but sometimes the skeletons are standing beside intact buildings on the same block, confirming Wood’s observation that some residents of Grozny are living next-door to rubble:

Grozny, Chechnya

If Ronald Firbank were a peak-oil fanboy . . .

. . . he would probably have written cocktail-party banter along these lines:

"I heard a most interesting broadcast today," Mrs. Kelso said firmly. Fluffy entered the room carrying a dead mouse.

"Funny, I never noticed that place on the ceiling before," Irving said.

"If you’re looking at the place I am," Fabia said, "I think it’s the shadow of the knob on that lamp."

"You look terribly uncomfortable, Mr. Bush," Mrs. Kelso said. "Why don’t you sit on one of the less ornamental chairs. In the broadcast I heard," she went on, "a scientist explained how very close our planet is to being drained of its natural resources. He seemed to think it quite likely we would run out of them before men have learned how to harness solar energy or the tides, in which case we would all either starve or freeze."

"Oh, Mildred," Irving said, "he sounds like that discredited alarmist to me."

"I’m sure it made very good sense as he explained it," Mrs. Kelso said. "The first thing to go will be coal."

"We could all go down South and live, until the food started running low," Alice suggested pleasantly.

"Collard greens with salt pork? Not for me thank you," Fabia said.

"I don’t think it’s a joking matter," Mrs. Kelso said.

"Are these goblets Bohemian glass?" Marshall asked.

"Of course I don’t know why I’m criticizing you," Mrs. Kelso said, ignoring Marshall. "Being an inveterate apartment dweller, I’d be totally hamstrung if the electricity or the gas were to go off."

From chapter 3 of John Ashbery and James Schuyler’s A Nest of Ninnies (1969), which one hopes the NYRB folks will soon restore to print, along with their lovely editions of Schuyler’s sublime Alfred and Guinevere and his silly What’s for Dinner?. (Of course, and for the record, it probably won’t in fact be coal that goes first.)

The New Climate

One day Grandmother drove us away from such a sky,
Iron gray, clotted like mud, leaking light
Like sheets stripped from a bed in a dim room and thrown
Over a lamp still plugged in. She held our fear
With hers at the steering wheel; for play, my sister and I
Watched trees bow and arch, and wondered if we might
See cyclones. One crossed the road behind us, we learned by phone
Near Houston, by only half an hour. How sharp the air
Then smelled. We were so young, we would never die
And thought it clever to have preceded fate with flight,
Instead of lucky, or, as she might say, if alone,
Blessed. To keep us from such knowledge was her care
    And our adventure, an order changed if the sky here,
    In Brooklyn, is the same that came after us there.


The western papers write that cyclones have
Moved east. A flood has touched the engine of a
Responsibly small car. In the park
My dog and I watch the wind stretch north
The branches of trees, as an archer a bow, while stony
Clouds are pulled south with the completeness
Of a slide lifted out of a projector.