Chechnya, Year III

Jonathan Littell

Since Ramzan Kadyrov, the young president of Chechnya, is, as everyone knows, ‘the greatest builder in the world’, it’s a happy chance that has the visitor from abroad arriving in Grozny on 27 April, the eve of Dyen Stroitelei, Builders’ Day, so called to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Ministry of Construction. Tamir, a young Chechen press attaché assigned to help me, had invited me to join him that day in the city’s theatre. Standing next to him in the main auditorium, facing an enormous, gleaming grand piano flanked by the portraits of Kadyrov father and son, I watched the Chechen elite make their entrances, passing one by one through metal detectors surrounded by a squad of special forces.

The district administration chiefs wear gaudy gold Rolexes and diamond rings; the ministers wear pink or pale lavender shirts with variegated ties, cream-coloured silk suits and pointy alligator-hide shoes. Many sport pins decorated with Ramzan’s face, or else the Order of Kadyrov, a gold medal embossed with the bust of his late father, Akhmad-Khadzhi, suspended from a Russian flag which, seen up close, turns out to be made of rows of coloured diamonds. Many also wear the pes, a velvet skullcap with a little tassel attached to a cord. Ask any Chechen and he will tell you it’s the national headgear; few seem to remember that it was worn, not so long ago, solely by the elders of the Sufi wird of the Kunta-Khadzhi, the brotherhood to which the Kadyrovs belong. Now, almost everyone wears one, whatever his wird is; even the Ingush wear it. Tamir introduces me to his uncle Olguzur Abdulkarimov, the minister of industry. Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, makes a noisy entrance, conspicuously skirting the security gate, without slowing down, to join Akhmad Gekhayev, the minister of construction whose day we are celebrating; a little further away, in a Nato uniform with a black beret and a pistol at his belt, stands Sharip Delimkhanov, the commander of Neft Polk, a battalion in charge of the security of the oil installations; the man he is talking to, Magomed Kadyrov, brother of the late Akhmad-Khadzhi, is one of the few people present who is wearing neither a suit nor a uniform, but a simple outfit of blazer and jeans, probably expensive and Italian.

The ostentatious semiotics of Chechen power might make one smile, but they are not without interest; the codes are very precise: in a world where everyone tries to show his place in the order of things by any means possible, it seems that the higher up you are, the more informality you can allow yourself, and the less you’re obliged to exhibit yourself. The body language of these men is striking: it’s the same as that of the Chechen rebels in the old days; and this way of greeting each other, of embracing, laughing, talking, slipping from one person to the next, in an elaborate but clearly informal ballet, also has a meaning. It signifies that even if they’re serving in a pro-Russian government, even if they are in fact Russian bureaucrats, we’re not in Russia here, and they are not Russians, but Chechens.

The ceremony itself transports you directly from Chechen to Soviet semiotics, in a revisited postmodern version, sometimes bordering on spontaneous surrealism. The vast hall is crowded with ‘volunteers’ recruited from different ministries and from the university; to fill the wait, the organisers had a girl band come from Moscow, who for the occasion are sporting headscarves in addition to their miniskirts, and are playing a kind of classical-pop fusion on amplified violins and an amplified cello. When Kadyrov enters, surrounded by a tight group of guards and hangers-on, the entire crowd leaps to its feet to applaud while the announcer solemnly roars into his microphone: ‘The president of the Chechen Republic, hero of Russia, Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov!’ Once the hero of Russia has seated himself, the spectacle can begin. First comes a video montage showing the successes of the Ministry of Construction – created by ‘one of the very last executive orders signed by Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov’ – followed by a very long speech read at top speed by Gekhayev, repeating the list of successes in the style of a bureaucratic report. The speech concludes abruptly; immediately changing his bearing, smiling inanely, Gekhayev adds in a tone at once embarrassed and fawning: ‘You might be wondering why I read so quickly. That’s because when I met Ramzan Akhmadovich just now, he asked me: “Akhmad, is your speech long?” And when I said yes, he said: “Read it fast, then.”’

Finally, Ramzan Akhmadovich himself, ‘the greatest builder in the world’, as the announcer reminds us once again, leaps onto the stage and grabs the cordless microphone. Whereas Gekhayev and the other participants spoke in Russian, Kadyrov speaks Chechen, in a deep, gravelly voice emphasised by expressive gestures, arousing laughter and applause with his jokes, at other times aggressively blurting out the foundations of his philosophy: ‘If the leader is good, then everything is good, the colleagues, the subordinates.’ I am not in a position to judge his Chechen; the Chechen writer German Saidullayev, I am told, describes it as extremely literary and articulate, but others assert that it is as limited as his Russian, which is, to quote a friend, ‘not just poor, but riddled with obvious mistakes of gender and declension’, which I can confirm. But whatever the case, one can feel that he is entirely at home in this absurd ritual: he has real stage presence, and a feel for the masses. On TV, where all you see is him, he is often shown stopping in a village, a school or a hospital to plunge into the crowd, doling out advice, orders and banknotes, as if he drew his fabulous energy directly from the (carefully orchestrated) love of his subjects. The ceremony concludes with a sycophantic ode, delivered by Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, to ‘the man who has always stood by the side of the Kadyrov family and the Chechen people, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’. ‘Glory to Putin!’ he roars amid a thunder of applause. Sitting in the centre of the crowd, his filmed image projected onto the big screen at the rear of the stage, Kadyrov laughs, applauds, jokes with his henchmen, and plays with his mobile phone.

‘Chechnya is like 1937, 1938,’ Aleksandr Cherkasov, one of the leaders of Memorial, the largest Russian human rights association, asserts in his little Moscow office. ‘They’re completing a vast construction programme, people are getting housing, there are parks where children play, theatres, concerts, everything seems normal … and at night, people disappear.’ One hears this comparison often from Russian human rights defenders, and as Cherkasov points out, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems: the number of people killed or missing in Chechnya, over a ten-year period, is, according to him, proportionally greater than the number of victims of Stalin’s Purges. But what this comparison tries above all to convey is the illusion of normality, or even the reality of normality, for all those who aren’t affected by the terror. I spent two weeks in Chechnya, at the end of April and the beginning of May, and if I had published this report right then, my emphasis would in fact have been on normalisation, on a Chechnya that despite large problems is, overall, doing better than before. The reconstruction is massive and real; as for the terror, none of my friends or members of the different NGOs, aside from those at Memorial who work directly with cases of missing people, torture and extrajudicial executions, seemed to worry much about it. They were vaguely aware that it was going on, in the mountains, but they didn’t know anyone directly touched by it; the phenomenal corruption concerned them much more. And speaking of normalisation would in a way have been ‘true’, for the problem here is not a problem of facts, but one of perspective, of point of view.

I worked in Chechnya during the two wars, first in 1996 and then for about 15 months at the beginning of the second war in autumn 1999, and I have always kept close contacts there. Thus, like the Chechens themselves, I remember very well those years when the life of a Chechen wasn’t worth a kopek; when a man could disappear, be tortured and then murdered because he had met the gaze of a drunk soldier at a checkpoint; when girls were raped then killed, the way you throw away a broken object; when you found the corpses of young men rounded up in the great zachistki – the ‘cleansing’ operations of the federal troops – tied up in barbed wire and burned alive; when panicking families scurried desperately to collect a few thousand dollars to ransom their arrested men before it was too late, and when it was too late still had to spend the money to buy back the corpses; when children grew up in filthy camps with almost no education, if they weren’t killed or mutilated by a bomb, a mine, an idle sniper; when the shakhidki, the ‘black widows’ who blew themselves up to take a few Russians with them, did it not out of religious belief but out of pure despair, because they had no men left, not a single one, and not a single child either. For most Chechens, who have forgotten none of all that, it is obvious that things are ‘better’.

Memorial would almost agree with this view. In Moscow, in June, Cherkasov, who has been following the events in the North Caucasus since the first war of 1994-96, described ‘Chechenisation’ – the name given to the decision taken by Vladimir Putin in 2002 to set up a strong pro-Russian government, made up mainly of former rebels, led by the former pro-independence mufti Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov – as ‘the transfer of full authority to conduct illegal violence from federal to local structures’. And Cherkasov, like his colleagues, agreed that this ‘Chechenisation’ had brought about a real change. ‘The violence is no less cruel,’ he pointed out, ‘but it’s more selective.’ Oleg Orlov, Memorial’s chairman, confirmed this to me: ‘In 2007, when Ramzan Kadyrov came to power, the number of tortures and missing persons fell drastically. In his first year, Kadyrov even used the rhetoric of the human rights defenders!’

Memorial is the only organisation to collect systematic statistics on disappearances and murders in Chechnya; even though these are considerably lower than the actual numbers – ‘we think we’re informed of roughly 30 per cent of the cases,’ Orlov says – they give quite an accurate idea of how things have evolved. In 2006, the final year in power of Alu Alkhanov, the interim president appointed by Putin after the assassination in May 2004 of Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov, Memorial recorded 187 cases of kidnapping; 11 of the victims were found dead and 63 disappeared for ever (the others were either freed, usually after being tortured, or resurfaced in the official legal system, to be tried). In 2007, they documented 35 cases of kidnapping, with one dead and nine missing. At the time of my discussions with Orlov and his colleagues, in May and June, they were noticing a definite increase for 2009, with the numbers of missing and murdered for the first four months of the year already equal to those for the whole of last year. But although the extent of the terror may be Stalin-like in terms of percentages, it is very different if you look at the net figures. Out of 74 cases of disappearance or illegal arrest documented by Memorial between January and June this year, 57 were set free, although usually after being tortured. Four were executed, and 12 ‘disappeared without trace’, which means they were killed too. Sixteen dead in six months is nothing like the numbers of the early years of the war, or even of the Alkhanov period. This is because Kadyrov, like his master in Moscow, knows perfectly well that a few cases suffice to maintain fear.

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[*] Moussa and several other names of people quoted in this piece are pseudonyms.