For Chechnya in Love and Sorrow
by Galia Ackerman
So much has happened over the twenty years since a unilateral declaration of independence by this tiny autonomous republic in the North Caucasus about the size of a postage stamp! A brave Soviet Army general--Dzhokhar Dudayev--comes to power 1991. The First Chechen War is led by Yeltsin's regime from 1994 to 1997, settled by an armistice of sorts. Then the growing influence of thieves, and of Islamists. The Second Chechen War is led by Russia's new master Vladimir Putin, who fiddles while burning up Rome himself from 1999-2000, then becomes his own "antiterrorist operation" for an unspecified duration, with an onslaught of terrorism in Chechnya and throughout Russia and thousands of victims. Federal army extortions resulted in the deaths of nearly 200,000 Chechens, mostly innocent civilians, in a population of just one million. Once a fighter against Russia, Ramzan Kadyrov's coming to power in 2005 now serves the Kremlin, and Kadyrov reigns unchallenged over his fellow citizens, blessed by unconditional support from Moscow.
What do we really know about Kadyrov's Chechnya? First, what the paparazzi show us: Grozny, slumbering in ruins like Stalingrad or Dresden, until ten years ago and now rebuilt with a panache worthy of the United Arab Emirates. Kadyrov boasts that beyond mere skyscrapers he's built the largest mosque in Russia, one of the largest in the world, and he surrounds himself with international celebrity actors and musicians at the astronomically expensive parties of which he seems so fond.
The Chechen president's great hobby is sport. He loves soccer, and spares no expense to invite world-ranked soccer stars to play "friendly" matches against his own team. He's also got a weakness for the races, and owns over fifty thoroughbred stallions. Not satisfied with the luxurious local track, his jockeys compete in the UAE, London, Hong Kong, and Australia. The cost, of course, is also out of this world.
And then there are the luxury cars. Ramzan adores his Lamborghini Reventon with its roughly million-euro pricetag, but doesn't snub other luxury brands. His fleet includes about fifty vehicles that pour across Grozny at 170 km/hour. A few years ago, Kadyrov even gave the nod to night-time racing in the capital's streets.
Where does the money comes from for his proclivities? When asked, his answer is striking in its simplicity: "Money? I don't know. God provides." In fact, the money has two sources. First, the Kremlin seems to have an endless budget for keeping peace. The fighting has become "chechenized" so that Kadyrov and his clan-based Kadyrovtsy guard are tasked with eliminating both independence activists and recalcitrant Islamists. For the next 12 years, Kadyrov's regime will receive 12.5 billion euros just for "development projects."
Yet by itself this would be too small to fund his extravagances. The sad truth is rampant corruption from top to bottom of the little republic. Kadyrov's civil servants tax every service received: a spot for one's child at daycare or school; permission to open a business, receive any kind of certification, get a hospital bed, an administrative post. Each has its price. Businesses must "tithe," and the State's workers then tithe upward to their bosses, in a spiral reaching to Kadyrov.
Can there be revolt? Don't even think about it. Traditional Chechnya has always been clan-based. Kadyrov rules with help from his clan, an entourage including his"right hand," cousin Adam Delimkhanov, in charge, along with other family members, of Chechnya's military and police. A military school for teens located in Kadyrov's birthplace Tsentaroy trains teens of Kadyrov's clan only. The Chechen business world is also under the rule of the clan which extends from Stavropol to Moscow, Ingushetia and Dagestan--and even abroad, thanks to the Chechen diaspora.
The Kadyrovtsy militia sow the seeds of terror. After physical elimination of the leaders of the Yamadayev brothers' rival clan, no one dares oppose Kadyrov, whose people have the power of life and death over citizens of this republic even beyond its borders. We know about the high-profile cases: for example, the 2006 murder of the well-known and respected journalist Anna Politkovskaya; the murder of great human rights defender Natalya Estemirova in 2009. Russian NGOs such as the Memorial Against War and Torture and the Committee Against Torture note hundreds of kidnappings, cases of torture, and assassinations perpetrated by Kadyrov's death-squads under the most total impunity. "We mustn't upset the order in Chechnya" is what Moscow says to these NGOs when they call for federal trials.
To soften the influence of Wahhabis who hope to establish an emirate spanning the North Caucasus and separated from Russia, Kadyrov promotes his own type of Islam which differs markedly from traditional Chechen customs, yet is also not Wahabist. It is the women especially who suffer it: Chechen women traditionally wore headscarves and their skirts below the knee. Now the hijab is recommended at the office and on television, a headscarf barely sufficient. Wearing skirts long is seen as correct; wearing black best. Society's moral vanguard call "frivolous" women to order. Murders of women for "honor" reasons go unpunished; polygamy and arranged, even forced, marriages are encouraged. The Koran is taught starting with kindergarten and continues throughout public schooling.
A wariness has settled in over this society and even within families, as during Stalin's grand purges. "Life has become better, life has become merrier," Stalin's official slogan had it during the purges and this applies perfectly to Chechen society where the least criticism of Kadyrov and his regime becomes a risk. But it's not just fear. Brainwashing is the inevitable fruit of this much official propaganda. One part of the population, worn out by a decade of war and chaos, delights in Grozny town and other "marvels." This group views Kadyrov as its savior--or in any case, the lesser of two evils. It is the very model of a totalitarian regime. And Chechen's intelligentsia has mainly left, for Russian or other European cities where tens of thousands of refugees from the little republic now reside.
This then is the complex, tormented way of life Davide Monteleone knows so well. He has crisscrossed this country, stopping in cities and villages, mountains and forests. In this book, you'll find no paparazzi pictures nor blood-spattered scenes. Monteleone tries rather to show us the invisible: the stifling atmosphere, the diminishment and fear that reign, young women resigned to their fate, old people whose traditional authority weakens faced with Kadyrov's "colleagues."
But you'll also find a message of hope in these images: Chechens are mountain people who have for centuries endured wars and other atrocities, such as collective deportation to the arid Kazakh steppes under Stalin in 1944. They know how to resist and they also know when to wait. Strong by nature, they are able to laugh even in adversity, and sustain a birthrate that repopulates the land and replaces the dead. They know perfectly well that this dictatorial regime will fall sooner or later as it has in other Muslim countries.
To understand these signs and others the watchful eye will decipher, we must closely examine these photographs possessed of rare formal perfection and literally dive into the faces, the landscapes, the interiors, scenes of daily life and merrymaking. As a genuine artist, Monteleone both hypnotizes and awakens us. Chechnya is not only his love but his sorrow - and thus becomes ours.
translated by Beth G. Raps