For at least ten years, Chechnya has been regarded negatively all over the world. It symbolizes not only the most violent forms of war and human savagery, the Apocalypse on Earth, but also separatist pride and rebellion against Moscow. At the center of this is the Chechen people, who the great Russian authors, from Pushkin to Lermontov to Tolstoy, have depicted as one of the proudest and most indomitable in the world, fiercely protective of their origins, characteristics and traditions, which they are determined to preserve at all costs, and profoundly attached to their roots, their land and their pre-colonial past.
This thirst for freedom was first expressed in the nineteenth century, when the rebel mountain dwellers in the Caucasus joined forces to fight the ghazawat against the Tsar, who wanted to place them under his yoke. They were led by the legendary Imam Shamil, born around the border between Chechnya and Dagestan, still revered today as a saint. Then too, Moscow was victorious. Then followed the repression of the clergy and former rebels, punishing all those who had dared to revolt by way of setting an example. The Chechen identity was torn. Moscow began to send Russian colonists to “balance” the local population and prevent any risk of a new rebellion: they still did not trust the Chechens.
Under Soviet rule: once again, faced with the strength of numbers and of history, the Chechens had to submit, take off their warriors’ uniforms and give up their aspirations to freedom. In 1944, Stalin deported all Chechens en masse to Siberia and Central Asia, accusing them (falsely) of collaborating with the Nazis. There followed years of exile, during which the Chechen identity was only preserved several thousands of kilometers away from the motherland. In 1957, under Khrushchev, they were allowed to return home. Chechnya had changed, turned upside down by the Soviets, their houses inhabited by Russians. The Chechens sought refuge in their lands of origin: in the mountain villages, where they could speak their language, which they were forbidden to do in the capital, Grozny.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, opposing Moscow became the right thing to do. The hero of this period was the separatist Red Army general Dzhokhar Dudayev. In the subsequent war, the Chechen hero was the bearded Shamil Basayev, king of terror against Moscow who wanted to impose Sharia law.
These three historic periods completely changed the face of Chechnya, its society, men and women, and its identity.
The year 2000 was year zero for Chechen culture and for its tormented identity. Putin reduced Grozny to rubble, and the social and cultural fabric was destroyed. Thousands of Chechen refugees were deprived of their homes and belongings, branded by the Russians not as victims, but as guilty, evil people. Once again they were not masters in their own house.
And now, twelve years after the official end of the last war against Moscow, what has become of the republic? What of its past ambitions?
Today Chechnya is an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation. Davide Monteleone went there very briefly for the first time in 2003 on a press visit, and then again in 2007. He saw how much the country changed during these years: thanks to the billions invested by Moscow in rebuilding, skyscrapers, parks and gardens, new centres of power grew up, the exiled gradually returned home, though not all. Subdued and pacified by force, Chechnya was depicted as a winner in official Russian rhetoric, set up as a model of virtue and an example for the neighbouring republics in the Caucasus. At the same time, democracy was abolished, the opposition crushed, any dissent silenced and social development was frozen, or even sent back to the Middle Ages. For his latest project, between January and April 2013, the photojournalist wanted to go back there to investigate the current Chechen identity. Above all he wanted to know which of them, Chechnya or Russia, had emerged victorious from the conflict. The answer is undeniably Russia. But if you look at it from a different angle, the answer is perhaps not so clear-cut.
Chechnya did not achieve the independence it so desired, but today enjoys a level of autonomy from Moscow that is unthinkable for the other republics in the region or any other area in the Federation. Ramzan Kadyrov, a protégé of Putin, son of Akhmad, the religious and political leader assassinated in 2003, holds absolute power and has almost limitless resources and support from Moscow. He rules the little republic like a lord over his fief, by rebuilding and remodelling not only the destroyed infrastructure, but also and especially people’s attitudes and identity.
In Chechnya today, people speak Chechen, once banned, they practically only do the traditional dances, while there are few Russians (Orthodox Christians), mainly confined to a few military bases and in the region to the north of Terek.
Islam, the other great casus belli, is now enthusiastically promoted. By achieving the Islamization the rebels dreamt of, it now holds power: a mix of fanaticism and misogyny, of Sufi mysticism and medieval tradition, of orientalism and localism. Society is under close surveillance, alcohol is forbidden and polygamy encouraged, in total contradiction with Russian law.
Oil, however, remains in Russian hands. Chechnya receives a few royalties for its extraction, but it is one of the republics in the Russian Federation that receives the most aid from Moscow.
The Chechnya of today has all the appearance of official power: a mix of “new traditions” and globalization, of superficial grandeur promoted by the capricious and controversial president-chief Ramzan Kadyrov, young, uneducated, violent and megalomaniac, who became a leader at 30.
The official history of the republic has once again been turned upside down. In the new Chechnya, the separatist rebels, once heroes in the eyes of the people, are dogs or devils, traitors in the pay of western countries. The Muslim fundamentalists, those known as the “Wahhabis” who wrought havoc at the end of the 1990s under the leadership of Shamil Basayev, Khattab but also the former president Dudayev, are now depicted as having deceived a naive Chechen people, devoted to a foreign religion, imported by Arabs. Vladimir Putin and the Kadyrov family circle are the new idols. The republic is his personal fief where everything looks normal, even better if compared to the neighboring republics or the living conditions in many of Russia’s peripheral regions. Everything works if you follow the rules.
In short, “Chechnya has won, Russia has won.” Perhaps, the losers are the many Chechens who decided to go into exile for a question of honor. Those who stayed have returned to a normal life and can satisfy their basic needs after several decades of deprivation. A “normal” life that is lived with compromise, in which you have to be able to hold your tongue. There is no alternative, if you want to work, have a home and lead a normal life. Everything is controlled by the authorities that give to the people as they please. A state of comforting stagnation. The physical violence that was so much part of the post-conflict years, the kidnappings and the summary executions, also seem to have decreased. The Chechens are so frightened that these acts of violence are almost no longer necessary. The violence is now psychological, a form of brainwashing that starts with the youngest generations.
Davide Monteleone’s study on identity gradually became the story of a compromise, that which all the inhabitants of this republic are forced to accept from the authorities in return for a better life. As he was told by a friend in the mountains around Itum-Kali quoting a letter written by Yermolov to Tsar Nicolas I, during the Caucasus campaign: “The Chechens are a combative people, difficult to conquer, easier to buy.”
“Thank you Ramzan, thank you Russia” for everything. “Spasibo.”