‘The Terrorist We’d Like To Forget’
Why the past is not popular in today's Chechnya.
Female street-sweepers in orange vests spent all night cleaning the avenues of the deserted city of Grozny. At 7 a.m., the call to prayer began, the muezzin’s beautiful voice ringing through the streets: Chechnya was celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed. As the muezzin’s call faded away, street-cleaning machines appeared, spraying water over the grated fences in the grassy strip along the middle of Putin Avenue, Grozny’s central street. The first rays of the sun glinted off the marble tiles in front of the enormous central mosque and the glass walls of the Chechen capital’s skyscrapers.
These are snapshots of the new Chechnya, and they still have the power to amaze anyone who remembers how the city looked when it stood in ruins after years of war. Ever since Moscow managed to win an uneasy peace with separatist rebels in 2006, the Kremlin has poured billions of dollars into rebuilding the shattered republic, and the effect has been dramatic. The only things I recognized in that peaceful, modern city during my visit earlier this week was the smell of smoky, dry air and the bitter taste of mountain dust.
Two girls clattered past on six-inch stiletto heels with red soles. It occurred to me that, judging by their ages, they had probably grown up in a refugee camp; their homes might well have been bombed, their families threatened by Russian soldiers or Islamic extremists. Try to bring up the word "terror" to young Chechens and you immediately feel how much meaning the word has for them: Chechnya’s young people grew up amid war, and they’ve had enough of it. I spoke with young people in Grozny this week about the recent bombings in Volgograd that took the lives of 34 people and injured over 60 innocent people on a tram and at a railway station. To the relief of the people I spoke with in Grozny, it soon became apparent that no Chechens were involved. "Every time there’s a terrorist attack somewhere, we listen closely to the news, praying that no Chechen was a part of it," Kheda Yakhiyeva, 25, told me, introducing herself as "a Chechen patriot, a true Muslim, and a peacemaker." When she talks to younger Chechens, she said, she speaks about Muslim women’s role in society, above all how they should dress and behave.
We were on a mission. Yakhiyeva and I were sitting in one of three minibuses filled with fans of Ramzan Kadyrov, Chechnya’s Moscow-friendly president, on our way to deliver food to disabled children. The sides of the buses were decorated with Chechen flags and portraits of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad Kadyrov. My bus was filled with girls in uniforms that also featured Kadyrov’s face: they explained to me that he had sacrificed his life for peace in Chechnya. (The photo above shows Kadyrov Senior’s image on a flag used at a recent commemorative ceremony.) Kadyrov Senior died in 2004 when a bomb planted under a reviewing stand by Chechen rebels blew him up, killing some 30 other people and injuring dozens of others. An ex-rebel himself, Kadyrov had switched sides and thrown in his lot with Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin — a betrayal Kadyrov’s former comrades-in-arms were never willing to forgive. But as far as these kids were concerned, Kadyrov the Elder was the best Chechen who had ever lived.
So what did they think of the leader of the terrorists, a Chechen man called Doku Umarov? Umarov worked for the separatist government during Chechnya’s turbulent three-year interlude of de facto independence after the First Chechen War (1994-96). But nobody seemed to remember him or his policies. Last summer, Umarov, the most wanted Chechen associated with Al Qaeda, suddenly returned to prominence by promising to blow up the upcoming Sochi Olympics. The activists on the bus didn’t have anything good to say about Umarov: "He must be sickly and heartless, that Umarov, if he wants to blow people up now, when we can all freely pray in mosques and live a peaceful life, " a 16-year-old activist, Saira Bakhakhanova, said dismissively.
Umarov’s name seemed almost a taboo, a synonym of terror itself. "He’s somebody we’d like to forget," Ibragim Gairabekov, deputy rector the Grozny State Oil Technical University, told me. Umarov allegedly entered the university late in the 1990s, when he was a senior official in the separatist government, but never graduated. Instead he joined the insurgent underground in 1999, when Vladimir Putin unleashed a war to take Chechnya back for Russia. So where’s Umarov? I posed the question to President Kadyrov earlier this week — only to hear him claim that he had no idea. Kadyrov may have already known something we didn’t. Just days after I spoke with the Chechen president, reports of Umarov’s death began to circulate in the media — the main source, apparently, being Kadyrov himself. Whether Umarov is actually dead remains a subject of some dispute; if he was killed, no one seems to know the circumstances or who was behind it. (As for Ramzan Kadyrov, the benign image of the man held high by his supporters stands in stark contrast to the view of many other observers. The militias that operated under his personal command have been blamed for brutal methods in their suppression of the simmering insurgency, and human rights groups have accused him of ordering the murders and kidnappings of his critics.)
As a new Chechnya emerges from the ruins, adorned with new malls, restaurants, and movie theaters, the current generation of Chechens are eager to draw a line between themselves and their dark recent past. The past, however, doesn’t always cooperate. When the two half-Chechen Tsarnaev brothers staged a terrorist attack on the Boston Marathon last spring, Chechens immediately assumed a position of denial. Chechnya’s media rejected the news: some claimed the Tsarnaevs weren’t real Chechens, while others insisted that the two brothers were innocent, and that they’d been framed by the CIA. Young people used social media to claim that the real instigators of the attack were foreigners aiming to hurt Russia and Chechnya.
The new Chechnya is eager to let the world know how it’s changed. In a recent flash mob, hundreds of young Chechen activists gathered on Putin Avenue; when fireworks exploded, everybody dropped to the ground on cue, pretending they’d been killed. A big red banner rolled down to cover the face of a building: "We oppose terrorism," the inscription proclaimed. At a signal, the kids jumped back to their feet and pointed at the banner, chanting, "Killing peaceful people is not jihad!" The aim of the action was, apparently, to assure anyone worried about the threat of attacks at the upcoming Olympics: "We won’t let them pass!" Let’s hope that their confidence is justified.