In October 2001 I went to a conference on transnational approaches to economic development in Makhachkala, Dagestan. The conflict in neighbouring Chechnya was still hot and with international organisations on security alert after 9/11 the representatives of the World Bank, IMF and UN couldn’t go. The only ‘internationals’ were a romantic French economist who believed the Caucasus economy could be fixed by cross-breeding the local, scrawny cattle with Burgundy cows, and me, a very junior think-tank researcher just out of university. The local politicians, tall men with long black leather coats and large moustaches, looked past me when I talked about lessons-to-be-learned from Yugoslavia and plied me with the local sweet, thick cognac and ladles of black caviar from Soviet crystal bowls.
After the conference we were driven to the World Wrestling Championship in an old gym. The wrestlers were from Serbia, Azerbaijan and a smattering of North Caucasus republics (Dagestan, Balkaria, Ingushetia), which they represented rather than ‘Russia’. There were Olympic champions: the contest’s title was perhaps no more of a misnomer than the baseball World Series. We were accompanied by an entourage of men with Kalashnikovs. I thought they were there to protect us until a local journalist explained they were from rival militias: the international conference was an excuse to get them round a table. They were fighting over control of Kremlin donations and the caviar trade. Bombs, kidnappings and shoot-outs were common. We weren’t allowed out of the hotel at night. We wouldn’t have been able to find our way in any case as the street lights didn’t work. The day after we left, the host of the conference, the deputy speaker of the Dagestani parliament, was killed in a gun-battle.
I returned to the North Caucasus in 2006. This time to Kabardino-Balkaria, the other side of Chechnya from Dagestan. I landed in the capital, Nalchik, towards evening. The suburbs were dark: street lights were still a problem. The only brightly lit building was the brand new central mosque, a glitzy edifice paid for personally by the recently installed president, Arsen Kanokov. Locals call it the KGB mosque. But the youth are into salafi preachers. Crowds of young men milled about. A year earlier the centre of Nalchik had been stormed by 217 Islamic militants. It had taken the army days to defeat them. A hundred people died, including 14 civilians.
‘We were shocked when we found out the militants weren’t Chechens but local lads from the university where I teach,’ Anzor, a historian, told me over dinner, smoked mutton at the Sosruko, a restaurant named after the Caucasian mythical hero. ‘I don’t know what my students think about, it’s like they speak another language to me. The only people they listen to are the Wahhabis who have come here from Saudi. My generation were all Soviets. But my students, they don’t even feel Russian. When they go to Moscow they have skinheads tell them to go home. There’s no work here, and only the Wahhabis spend time with them.’
By 2006 I had left public policy for tabloid television. I was in Nalchik to make a film about a local celebrity: Jambik Hatohov, the biggest boy in the world. He was seven years old and weighed more than 100 kilos. I drove out of town to his mother’s apartment in a suburb of Soviet blocks standing crooked in uneven dirt-roads, the local FSB following to make sure I wasn’t meeting with Jihadists on the sly. Jambik’s mother, Nelya, opened the door. The apartment had been refurbished in the IKEA-style, paid for by Jambik’s photo and TV appearances. He was in the bath. His mother said I should go in and say hello. There was water all over the floor and he was sliding up and down in the bath he could hardly fit in. He clambered out and charged at me, slamming me against the door. ‘He never had a father,’ Nelya said. ‘He needs a man in his life.’
We went into town. Jambik was a star. ‘It’s our Sosruko, our little warrior!’ Everyone gave him food: shashlik, smoked lamb, Snickers, pizza, Coke. He ate all the time, grunting and breathing heavily. When Nelya tried to stop him he would scream and hit her. His speech was slow and slurred. I asked how he was doing at school. ‘Oh, he’s such a star they let him pass into the year above without taking any exams,’ Nelya said.
We flew Jambik to Moscow where he appeared on a talk show and pushed a Jeep for the cameras. Concerned doctors met with Nelya: Jambik was not a warrior, they explained, but a very sick child who needed help or he would die. She needed to put him on a diet, change their lifestyle. Nelya didn’t want to know: he was her bloated, golden goose and their ticket to another life. ‘God has willed him to be this way,’ she said. When we parted she had just received an invitation for Jambik to appear on a TV show in Japan. She hoped he could start Sumo there, and they would never have to return to the North Caucasus. But Jambik was not agile enough for Sumo, and he was soon back in Nalchik. At the age of 11 he weighed 146 kilos.