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.

Ramzan Kadyrov is the real power in the country. He has at his disposal a private army: some eight thousand men who are largely responsible for the endless, almost daily abductions; according to the human-rights group Memorial, which covers only a third of the republic, a total of 1948 people have been kidnapped since 2002, of whom 189 are known to have been killed; as many as 1040 have simply ‘disappeared’. This is what is happening behind the façade of ‘reconstruction’: a continuing counter-insurgency that pits Kadyrov’s gunmen against the general population. People are afraid to mention Kadyrov by name, but he clearly commands little respect – hence the grotesque personality cult. He has been garlanded with medals and honorary degrees by Moscow; in October 2006, schoolchildren were made to attend a rally for his 30th birthday, and forced to wear T-shirts depicting either Putin or Kadyrov himself in the iconic style of Che Guevara. Kadyrov’s cold eyes and leering grin are almost everywhere, especially in Grozny.

His recent elevation to the presidency confirms the Russian authorities’ approval of the methods he uses to pacify his countrymen. As Moscow’s strongman in Chechnya, he is turning into a proxy figure like those installed by the US and the USSR during the Cold War. Indeed, the rash of sycophantic portraiture and the massive presence of kadyrovtsy on the street recall other dictatorial regimes – Iraq in Saddam Hussein’s heyday, perhaps. But outside the capital, the situation comes to seem more like that in, say, the West Bank. There are countless reminders of ongoing warfare: armoured personnel carriers, tanks parked by the roadside, Russian soldiers huddled in huts or wandering through the streets carrying supplies. The frequent movements of Russian men and materiel, when not taking place before your eyes, are betrayed by the wide mud-trails they have left behind on the road surfaces.

This, too, is part of the everyday reality of Chechnya: an occupation that has become so ordinary it is deemed unworthy of comment in most of the world’s media. Every week brings news of more casualties, most commonly Russian servicemen picked off by ambushes or roadside bombs in the mountainous south. Currently, as many as sixty thousand Russian troops from various ministries face a resistance said by the Russian military high command to total no more than a thousand men. The total population of Chechnya is around 900,000 – the higher 2002 census figures are disputed – which means that there is at present one Russian soldier to every 15 Chechens. All the more remarkable, then, that the separatist resistance has – for all its fragmentation, military weakness and moral disorientation – survived into its eighth year. In August 2006 Putin instructed the military to draw up plans for a ‘phased withdrawal’ in 2007-8; such talk has quietly been dropped, and by early November Colonel-General Nikolai Rogozhkin, commander of the Interior Ministry’s troops in the republic, was asking for five thousand more men. No end to this unwinnable war is in sight.

We had a difficult time getting to the Caucasus in the first place. Our initial flight from Moscow to Nazran was cancelled, but we managed to get on a plane to Mineralnye Vody, a tsarist resort town in Russia proper. From there we drove to Nazran in three stages, changing cabs at almost every administrative boundary: in this region of myriad ethnicities, taxi drivers are loath to stray too far from their home turf at night. Our driver for the long middle stage was an Ossetian, and next to me in the back sat another, elderly Ossetian man, who broke the silence by lamenting the fact that we live in a world where we are all suspicious of one another. Conversation began to flow more freely, and we learned that the elderly passenger had lived in Venezuela for a year. The driver chipped in: Hugo Chávez, he said, was his hero. The mood stayed light until talk turned to Beslan: the elderly man’s granddaughter was one of the school hostages; she survived the assault on the building but was injured and lost an eye. He said he didn’t blame the hostage-takers, refusing to believe they could have intended that terrible outcome; the taxi driver cut in angrily, saying that the rebels were of course to blame, and that storming the building had been the only way to deal with them. No one spoke. From the road-signs I could tell we were near Beslan itself, and there were no words that could fill the silence.

Hotel Assa in Nazran is where most of the aid workers and journalists who come to the region pitch camp. Though it is supposed to be a refuge from the horrors of Chechnya, it is not without dangers of its own. The doors to several of the rooms had obviously been forced on several occasions, and we later heard about some Polish journalists who had been filming in Chechnya. The night they returned from the republic, FSB officers burst into their room and confiscated their footage, even though they had all the necessary official permits and paperwork.

We passed a safety notice in the corridor advising what to do if you are taken hostage.

Don’t raise your voice.

Try to keep physically and mentally active.

Try to remember everything you can about the bandits – how many, what they looked like, ethnicity, conversation topics.

Keep away from the windows and, if possible, from the terrorists themselves.

In the event that the building where you are being held is stormed, lie on the floor with your hands behind your head.

Remember at all times that the law-enforcement agencies are doing everything they can to secure your release.

After your liberation, do not make any hasty public statements.

Sadly, there were no illustrations.

No one has counted how many people have been killed by the two wars in Chechnya. The most conservative estimates range around seventy thousand – almost a tenth of the population. Still more numerous are the wounded, the bereaved, the damaged; the witnesses and the survivors. The conflict has spared no one, but its toll is most painfully registered in the broken lives of children. Many were present when one or both of their parents were killed; others have been sexually abused by soldiers or relatives; still others have lost limbs or their hearing to landmines and bombs. In one region of northern Chechnya several dozen children are still suffering from an undiagnosed set of symptoms, including abdominal pains, cold sweats, increased aggressivity and fits of which they remember nothing on regaining consciousness.

Rates of TB infection among the general population are extraordinarily high, something the Russian authorities have until recently been unwilling to admit, since it would place them in the company of sub-Saharan African states with far worse, or non-existent, health infrastructure. Memorial estimates that one Chechen dies from TB every day. We hear testimony of other long-term disasters: one in two women has had a hysterectomy, many people have low haemoglobin, heart problems, breathing disorders; others age extremely prematurely. It is as if the whole country has been poisoned by an all-enveloping toxicity, from which it will take a generation or more to recover even in the best of scenarios.

What of the war’s impact on Russia itself? Unlike the 1994-96 war, the present conflict in Chechnya has largely been hidden from the view of the Russian public, in large measure thanks to increased state control of the media, achieved partly by severely curtailing journalists’ access to the republic, and partly by the acquisition of critical media outlets by Kremlin-friendly businesses or individuals. NTV was taken over by Gazprom in 2001, and TV6 by LUKOil in 2002; editorial teams have been replaced with more pliable staffs at Izvestia, Kommersant, Itogi and elsewhere. Serious reporting on Chechnya was from the outset carried out by only a few courageous, embattled individuals – most notably Anna Politkovskaya, whose murder in October 2006 was obviously connected to her work in exposing abuses and atrocities committed by pro-Moscow forces in Chechnya. On 23 January this year the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, an organisation that reports on disappearances, torture and killings in the republic, lost its appeal against official closure – ordered last October on the grounds that the society was ‘inciting ethnic hatred’.

On the surface, public awareness of the war among Russians is negligible. Yet despite official claims of victory, and recurrent news bulletins purporting to show the continuing ‘stabilisation’ of the republic, the atomised and apathetic Russian public remains sceptical. A poll conducted by the Levada Centre in late 2006 revealed that 44 per cent thought the war was still ongoing, while 54 per cent believed the situation in the region was unlikely to change for the better in the near future. Against government insistence on a policy of continued counter-insurgency, 64 per cent supported negotiations with the separatists, 12 per cent favoured a new peace treaty, and 19 per cent even backed the idea of Chechen independence. Seven and a half years after it went to war to crush the Chechens’ aspirations to sovereignty, the mere existence of such doubts is a striking indication of the Putin government’s failure.

That said, there is currently no clear anti-war consensus in Russia, nor any political or civic force capable of organising a broad opposition movement. A turn against the war, and those responsible for waging it, seems a distant prospect. But a sense of the harm it has inflicted on Russian conscripts has begun to trickle into the culture – and not only in the form of action films glorifying bloodshed and bullets. Veterans of Chechnya have been continuing the tradition established by Babel, Grossman and others, giving testimony of their military experiences in memoirs, fictions or a fragmentary genre inhabiting the fear-stricken ground between the two. Hundreds of such items have been posted on the website, while a handful have now appeared in book form.

Zakhar Prilepin’s novel Patologii (2006) is striking above all for its lack of affect: acts of senseless brutality are recounted in dry, economical prose without further comment. On a night-time patrol of Grozny, the narrator’s group stops six unarmed Chechen men and, without exchanging a word, kills them all; one soldier pours petrol over the bodies and sets light to them. The narrative is strewn with further matter-of-fact killings, more guns emptied into the bodies of nameless enemies. Chechens appear in the novel only as hostile, faceless abstractions: bearded faces glimpsed as the Russians’ base-camp is besieged one night, silent women manning market stalls outside the base, a young boy shaking his clenched fist at a passing troop column.

The way the Chechens are portrayed in the book – their presence only another form of erasure – makes the waging of war seem all the more mechanical and meaningless. There is no rage or even hostility behind the point-blank executions, the beatings with rifle-butts. There are only these actions themselves, suspended in a poisonous void. The gap between event and moral reckoning is never bridged. At the end, as the narrator is leaving the Caucasus, a bedraggled, frightened-looking dog crawls onto his plane. The narrator sees himself crying, embracing the dog and asking its forgiveness. ‘But I didn’t cry, I looked at the ceiling with dry eyes. I didn’t ask anyone forgiveness for anything.’

The sense of consequences – physical, psychological, moral – is far stronger in the work of Arkadii Babchenko, who fought in both Chechen wars, and has reported on the second for Novaya gazeta. In Alkhan-Yurt, a collection of stories and journalism published in 2006, the jarring disjunction between military and civilian life is made plain. In ‘Special Cargo’, for instance, deserters are forced to transport zinc coffins containing the bodies of combat casualties. Stuck in Moscow traffic, they peer from the back of their army truck and see a blonde woman at the wheel of a Nissan; one of them ‘angrily looked the blonde in the eye and, surprising even himself, spat at the red lacquered bonnet.’ The final third of the book consists of journalistic pieces about the fates of the million soldiers who have passed through Chechnya over the last decade:

No one returns from the war. Ever. Only pitiful likenesses of sons are returned to their mothers – malicious, aggressive beasts, embittered against the whole world and believing in nothing but death. Yesterday’s soldiers no longer belong to their parents. They belong to the war, from which only their bodies have returned. Their souls stayed there.

Babchenko sees wounded veterans in Moscow underpasses, and smokes a cigarette with three men who, between them, have ‘five medals, six crutches, two prostheses and one leg. And also a single hatred. Of the whole world.’ One of the veterans expresses his disgust at the carefree, aimless way the people around him live their lives. He doesn’t understand why they are alive, while the boys he served with died: ‘We’re not the lost generation – it’s them, those who didn’t fight are the lost generation. If their deaths could resurrect even one of the lads, I would kill them all. Without even thinking about it. Every one of them is my personal enemy.’

The battlefield can no longer simply be marked on a map of the North Caucasus. It has spread from Chechnya to Moscow street corners, multiplying through villages and towns, shifting into the minds of combatants, widows and orphans. The longer the war continues, the more the territory of the anger will grow.

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