The drive to Grozny from Nazran, in neighbouring Ingushetia, takes about an hour and a half. We speed past a cluster of Russian soldiers at the roadside while we are still in Ingushetia; shortly afterwards two Mi-8 helicopters come barrelling overhead at low altitude – signs of continuing military operations, in this ‘post-conflict zone’. The Kavkaz-1 checkpoint on the Chechen border is manned by nervous Russian soldiers, who sit in two low, sandbagged huts either side of the road. When our driver stops 50 yards short of the barriers – we are changing cars for the rest of the journey – he gets out to reassure the soldiers, who ask him to reverse the car back another 50 yards. The car that will take us to Grozny arrives, and we roll up to the checkpoint. Our documents are given brief, desultory scrutiny, and we are waved through.
The landscape ahead of us and to our right is mostly flat, the trees and fields bare. Everything is a dull mud-brown, including the Sunzha ridge of hills that rises in the distance to our left. We pass signposts pointing to villages whose names I recognise as sites of atrocities from either the 1994-96 or the current war – Samashki, Alkhan-Yurt. Our progress is slowed only by a wandering flock of sheep, and by a string of less formal checkpoints, now manned by Chechen pro-Moscow police; cars slow down and some are singled out for inspection. Our papers aren’t checked again, but we lose enough speed to get a clear view of the portraits of Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov that stand guard at the roadside; the closer we get to Grozny the more frequent they become.
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.
There are, however, many signs of life on the streets: cars, trucks, market stalls, people going about their daily business. This is the second shock: the ordinary to and fro in such grim surroundings. The place has little infrastructure – most of the city lacks running water or functioning sewers – but it has some of the meta-infrastructure of the neoliberal age: mobile phones, an internet cafe, traders selling TVs, electronic equipment. Spiritual life hasn’t been neglected by the pro-Moscow authorities: near the centre of Grozny, a huge Turkish-built mosque – in a distinctly Ottoman style – is nearing completion.
What do those people do who aren’t manning stalls or wielding guns? What kinds of employment, ways of making a living are available to them? One morning we pass a row of men standing by the roadside in front of a wooden fence; a handwritten sign hangs from it, announcing LABOUR EXCHANGE. Some of the men have leather tool-bags at their feet, waiting the chance to fix and mend and build. But the much touted reconstruction of Grozny has largely been confined to a few showpiece buildings along the city’s main arteries – government offices and ministries mostly. The agency responsible for large-scale reconstruction projects, Spetsstroi, is run by the Russian Defence Ministry; the generals responsible for flattening the city in the first place are now supervising the supposed rebuilding. The buildings that have gone up are plastered with portraits of Putin, Ramzan Kadyrov, the current pro-Moscow president, or of Ramzan’s late father, Akhmed, himself puppet president until his assassination in 2004. Images of the latter bear the slogan: ‘We remember you and love you.’ But the park where a statue and fountain commemorate Kadyrov Senior is largely unvisited.