Parallel world of Chechnya

May 2, 2013

Grozny, Chechnya

By Maxim Shemetov

What did I know about Chechnya before last week? For someone who grew up in the 1990s the very word Chechnya meant a string of grainy images on TV showing people in battered camouflage outfits, shooting at each other amid destruction and ruin. Fear, wahhabis, Shamil Basayev, terrorism, mountains: these were the words that used to spring to my mind when someone mentioned Chechnya.

It still has a reputation as a frightening place where people get kidnapped and entire villages are razed. When I told my friends I was leaving for Chechnya on assignment they asked me in jest if I would need an armored vehicle. Many of then were visibly worried. But then I spoke to a colleague who had worked there for more than 15 years. He said: “You won’t find a safer place in Russia, be smart and you’ll be okay”.

I flew to Grozny, with mixed expectations. When we got there and I stepped out of Grozny’s Severny Airport, I knew this wasn’t Russia. It was a totally different, parallel world, a cross between Singapore and the Middle East, with veiled women, men in camouflage, Islamic skull caps and long beards, and armed police on every street corner. There was a mosque outside the main airport terminal. A huge portrait of Chechnya’s strongman leader Ramzan Kadyrov was just across the street, and another, smaller portrait of Russian president Vladimir Putin close by. The streets were spotless, a rarity in Russia where many cities are full of potholes and crumbling buildings. I got into a taxi and plunged into Grozny.

Grozny was once described as the world’s most destroyed city. I remember photographs from the 1990s depicting unthinkable destruction and suffering.

(Photo by Yannis Behrakis)

It has changed in a way I found astounding. The quiet streets are now lined with trees and marble facades, the skyscrapers of Grozny city, the center point of Kadyrov’s reconstruction efforts, soar into the sky. Locals lower their voices when describing their hard-line leader. He controls every construction site in the city. Locals say that if he doesn’t like how a project is going he often orders it to be knocked down and built anew. When his motorcade glides through the city, complete with sirens and columns of security vehicles, people freeze and stare with awe. His relatives hold key positions in government. His father, a former president, was killed in a bomb blast in 2004. Both men’s portraits glare from giant billboards. “Ramzan, thank you for Grozny!’ says a red neon light sign opposite the city’s giant central mosque.

Locals kept asking me: did I like the city? What did I think about the food, about Kadyrov? Often I didnt know what to say. Despite its friendly facade, it’s a city tightly controlled by Russian security forces. Locals know that sensitive things should not be said on the telephone. Public criticism of the government is not allowed. Journalists working for foreign media organisations are often treated with suspicion. From time to time while walking down the street I’d notice a man with a neutral facial expression shadowing me. Our eyes would meet sometimes. I smiled once, and he smiled back.

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