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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya? Chichnya? Chechenia?

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"Hazel and his companions had suffered extremes of grief and horror during the telling of Holly's tale. ... [They] had been seized with convulsive choking as Bluebell told of the poisonous gas that murdered underground. ... While the story was being told, they heard it without any of the reserve or detachment that the kindest of civilized humans retains as he reads his newspaper. To themselves, they seemed to struggle in the poisoned runs and to blaze with rage for poor Pumpernel in the ditch. That was their way of honoring the dead."

-- "Watership Down," by Richard Adams

Watership Down" is a 30-year-old thriller of competing political and economic systems in which the characters are rabbits. It's one of those children's books adults devour. When I was 12, I read all 400-plus pages in a sitting, turning pages by flashlight long past my bedtime. I was staggered by the idea of rabbits who respond to a story -- just a story -- about other rabbits being gassed by being "seized with convulsive choking" themselves. Silly perhaps, but at the time it was electrifying.

Since then, for reasons I don't claim to fully understand, I've become someone who likes to tell true stories; and who does so hoping they matter. Sadly, they don't. How many stories have I and others related about Chechnya? Yet none of what we report seems to register; nothing is acknowledged; nothing changes.

Sometimes Chechnya comes up in conversation among Americans. Usually it's something like the scene from "Bridget Jones's Diary," a head-splittingly awful movie in which the heroine stands before her mirror trying on snooty-sounding pronunciations of "Chechnya" for an intellectual evening out: "Isn't it awful what's happening in Chechnya? Chichnyah? Chechenia?"

If Chechnya does come up, I may volunteer something mild about that unhappy place. No passionate oratory, just something like, "I was in Chechnya. I saw such-and-such. Since then I've read reports by others who say this-and-that, and I believe them because of so-and-so."

There are two reactions. One is glassy-eyed incomprehension. I get that a lot. But the other, which never ceases to fascinate me, is indignation -- about assertions that were often in their newspaper that very morning. It's like they're hearing it all for the first time, and they're outraged, shocked, really quite concerned and troubled.

It's easy to laugh at this naivete, but it's also awe-inspiring -- and chastening evidence of the limitations of the storytellers. Clearly most people, if they really understood how the zachistki and "disappearances" carried out by Russian forces drive the war, would be bellowing at President Vladimir Putin to be a man, for God's sake, and stop.

But they don't know. They may know it vaguely, the way they know "war is hell," and "the polar ice is melting," but they don't know it in their bones.

They don't blaze with rage for the 20 people killed by Thursday's suicide bombing of a bus in North Ossetia, or for the 78 killed by May's two suicide bombings. To be honest, when last month's terror attacks were reported, I myself did not blaze with even casual interest. I shrugged -- how many wars am I supposed to keep track of, anyway? -- and turned the page. More squalid and stupid killing. Must be spring in Russia.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, covered the first war in Chechnya for the Los Angeles Times.