Tensions Beneath the Bling in Chechnya and Ingushetia
Story and photos by Stephen M. Bland

A trip to the North Caucasus Republics of Ingushetia and Chechnya in Russia's Wild East is not for the faint of heart.

North Caucasus Republics Travel Story

In the shiny capitals of downtown Magas and Grozny, the amount of money poured in by the Russian state in the aftermath of the Ingush Uprising of 2007-2015 and the Second Chechen War of 1999-2009 is immediately apparent. Despite this effort to circumvent extremism through investment, however, old animosities are never far from the surface. As my Ossetian friend, Slava, a mountain tour guide told me when we visited the region recently: "I won't sugar-coat it; it's dangerous, but we'll stick to the main roads. At checkpoints, don't smile, don't speak and don't look at me; just stare straight ahead with dead eyes."

fighters memorialNegotiating the first of many kontrol posts, we stopped at the recently completed Memorial of Memory and Glory on the Kavkaz Highway between the old capital of Ingushetia, Nazran, and the new, less bullet-riddled capital of Magas. Beyond the colonnades and a line of bubbling fountains, a handful of visitors were admiring the Nine Towers, a soaring, tightly packed reconstruction of the ancient defensive towers unique to the region. Two pillars topped with a replica of a golden atom honored the lives of locals who'd died as part of the efforts of the 600,000 "liquidators" called to respond to the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. In a walkway of shady saplings, plaques were dedicated to the "protectors" of Ingushetia, namely the Russian Police and Army who'd been drafted in to quell the uprising.

Stalin's Wrath and Insurrection

At the far end of the park, a somber panel inscribed "1957"—the year the exile of the Ingush people was ended—spoke to the "Eternal memory of those who did not return." In 1944, accusing them of being Nazi collaborators, Stalin had the Ingush-Chechen Autonomous SSR wiped from Soviet maps and the entire populations banished to the steppes of Central Asia and the wastes of Siberia, where many perished. It wasn't the first such experience for these ethnic groups. As part of the Circassian genocide of the 1860s, which saw an estimated 1,500,000 fatalities, 80% of the Ingush population fled or were expelled, whilst the number of Chechens in the Caucasus fell by 92%. As the author Aleksandr Kazbegi—whose most famous character, "Koba," was adopted by Stalin as his first nickname—wrote of the exodus: "Any person who has never heard the Chechens' lament has never heard the sound of grief."

On a small section of rails, a black train bearing the Red Star of the army and military, which had been used during the expulsion, stood soaking up the morning sun. In a wooden carriage housing a representation of the clothing and luggage of those expelled hung a copy of the deportation order.

Eyeing the somber sight, Slava scoffed.

"Suitcases? It would've been more like a cattle truck."

We drove onto Chechnya past fields of cucumbers, tomatoes, grain silos, and onion-domed mosques with shining silver and gold minarets. Graves and monuments were strung along the highway which was peppered with new orange brick villages with names like Novy (new), Yurt (a traditional, cylindrical tent dwelling) and Samashki,. In that last one, on the night of the 7th of April 1995, to the music of Shostakovich, drunken Russian soldiers massacred 250 civilians. In total, approximately 140,000 people lost their lives in the two Chechen Wars.

Russian train

I asked Slava if he thought there would be a third conflict.

"The reconstruction effort has led to money and jobs, so the resistance has been quelled," he replied. "Generally, it's stable at the moment, but as soon as local interests diverge from that of the state, it will spiral once more. After all, this is the Wild East."

The Land of Grozny One and Two

On the outskirts of Grozny, a shimmering mosque kept a watchful eye over a funfair. An example of the rebuilding and job creation, identical new five-story magnolia blocks lined Prospekt Akhmad Kadyrov. In his efforts to build a cult of personality, everything in Grozny —the city's name literally meaning "menacing" —seemed to be have been christened after the local strongman or his father. Even the local football club had been renamed Akhmad Grozny. Along with the Russian tricolor, the faces of the pair were plastered everywhere, clinging to buildings like outsized postage stamps.

Mosque in Russian east

Born in Kazakhstan to a family of deportees, Akhmad Kadyrov was the Chief Mufti of Chechnya in the 1990s, both during and after the First Chechen War. When the second war broke out, he switched allegiances; offering his services to the Russian State, he later became the President of the Chechen Republic. On the 9th of May 2004, Kadyrov was assassinated in Grozny, blown to pieces during a Great Patriotic War victory parade. Shamil Basayev—the leader of the insurgency and the man behind the Beslan School Siege—claimed to have paid $50,000 for the bombing. Handpicked by Putin in a Czar-like move designed to stamp out dissent, his son, Ramzan, the head of his father's militia, has ruled with an iron fist since 2007.

"In the First Chechen War, Russia was ill-prepared; they were sending in young conscripts," Slava opined. "Now, the Russian Army is professional and dissenters will be crushed."

He seemed to be right. In March 2019, Oyub Titiev, local head of the human rights group Memorial, was sentenced to four years in a penal colony after revealing details about abductions and torture in the Republic. Officially, his incarceration is for being in possession of seven ounces of marijuana.

Writing about his experiences as a conscript in the Chechen Wars, journalist Arkady Babchenko highlighted the culture of brutality prevalent in the Russian Army at the time: "Beatings here are just the norm. Everyone is going to die anyway...This column of walking dead cares nothing about anything: the war, Chechnya, the heaps of bodies at the airstrip. They are worried only about tonight, when the officers leave the barracks after the evening muster and they will get beaten again with shovels. In the morning, the officers will come back, the thick-headed morons, and beat them for having shovel marks on their faces."

Russian east new city

Prospekt Putina and a New Version of History

Its car park filled with coaches from which men in Hard Rock Cafe t-shirts spilled, the new Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque completed in 2008 was clearly a regional tourist attraction. With babushkas selling fridge magnets at the rear of the edifice—exit via the gift shop—there was a palpable sense of normality. Having successfully negotiated the security scanner and passed the "No Guns" sign, inside, men in velvet skullcaps twirled prayer beads beneath a chandelier shaped to mimic Mecca Square. Women in colorful ankle-length kurtas haunted the galleries. Ornate and quite beautiful, the stained-glass windows and tiered blue domes looked out on a courtyard which seemed to change from a soft yellow to apricot pink as the hour grew later.

In the city center, Prospekt Putina was walled off by barricades. Adorned in Russian flags, the President's motorcade was on the move. Women with and without headscarves and young men in denim with beards and dark glasses eyed the spectacle outside malls guarded by machine-gun wielding soldiers. In a show of military might, hardware was strategically placed on display. With plaques commemorating Russians who'd fallen during the wars, the winners were writing history.

Alcohol and energy drinks may be banned in Chechnya, but other facets of Western culture had penetrated the republic. M Burger and McDowells had both appropriated the golden arches, while the Burger King logo had been usurped by Burger Hubz. One garage had decided to use the Puma emblem, while a fake Shell gas station replete with a mosque offered the devout the option of drive-through prayers.

Scaling the sky-scrapping Akhmad Tower—where a sign let it be known that no photos were to be taken in the direction of the oddly shaped, castle-like presidential compound—we took in a vista of the glimmering, green city. A hangover from Soviet times, taking pictures of official buildings can still land you in jail in most of the nations which used to make up the USSR. As we emerged from the entrance, a wedding party drove past in a vehicle emblazoned with the words "Love Wagon," but which looked like a re-purposed hearse. Sticking her head through the sunroof, the bride clung grimly to her bouquet.

Modern Chechnya

"They'll be shooting up the ceiling at the celebrations later," Slava said, winking.

Given the proliferation of new constructions, the devastation wrought by the conflicts was barely imaginable, the few older blocks that had survived appearing incongruous. One didn't have to travel far from the center, however, for the asphalt to be replaced by bomb-cratered gravel tracks. With entire districts comprised of nothing but burnt-out houses and factories overgrown with vines, the scale of the destruction was immediately apparent.

The day after we left, the police shot dead four teenagers who had launched three simultaneous attacks in and around Grozny. A fifth teenager who detonated a bomb he was carrying in a rucksack survived. The Chechen Information Minister said the youngest of the group was eleven, and the oldest just seventeen. ISIS claimed responsibility for the incident which serves to highlight the fact that whilst insurgent activities may be on the decline in these authoritarian republics, the peace remains fragile.

Stephen M. Bland is a freelance journalist, travel writer and award-winning author specializing on Central Asia and the Caucasus. A mix of travel, history and reportage, his book on Central Asia—Does it Yurt? Travels in Central Asia or How I Came to Love the Stans was released in December 2016. See more at www.stephenmbland.com

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