I wasn’t too sure what to expect ahead of my recent visit to Grozny, a city devastated by separatist conflicts in the 1990s and early 2000s. One thing I certainly didn’t anticipate though was to find myself munching on Italian food in a cosy café on Putin Avenue, the showcase thoroughfare in this North Caucasus city, reconstructed from scratch in the past three years.
The pizza was just one of many things I had failed to foresee. The Chechen capital is today an attractive, clean city whose new, modern buildings betray no hint of the destruction visited upon it. Walking around Grozny’s pleasant streets, it’s hard to reconcile the experience with the city’s violent past. That is, if you don’t count the groups of heavily-armed security personnel who ensure a tense calm.
“Grozny was rebuilt so quickly, that we didn’t even have time to take it all in,” local Fatima told me. “It seems now like the city has always been this way.”
I was in town to cover perhaps one of the strangest games of football (soccer) ever played: an unlikely encounter between former Brazilian World Cup stars such as Romario and Dunga, and a side captained by the republic’s strongman leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. But the match had very little sporting significance. “The game will provide an impetus for development in Chechnya,” the republic’s sports minister, Khaidar Alkhanov, told me at the airport as we waited for the Brazilian stars to fly in.
And development, despite the pizza boom, is something Chechnya clearly needs. The republic suffers from 40% unemployment and there is no local economy to speak of. In place of its own industries, Chechnya receives massive funding from Moscow, which is struggling to contain Islamist insurgents in other republics in the region and has no desire to see the flame of separatism spark again in Grozny.
On the eve of the unlikely encounter, Kadyrov, a former militant accused of human rights abuses, summoned journalists to a news conference at the republic’s seat of power, a luxurious building in a heavily guarded compound.
I’d been walking off a pizza and a plate of spaghetti when the call came. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to see Kadyrov in the flesh, I jumped in a taxi and sped off. While Kadyrov says the insurgents have all but been “eliminated” and Chechnya is one of the safest republics in Russia, he takes no chances with his own safety and security measures were, as a fellow journalist commented, “stricter than at the Kremlin.”
It was close to midnight when Kadyrov, clad all in black and clearly relishing the attention of the world media, finally made an appearance. “Hi, I’m Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Chechnya,” he grinned. “Ask anything you like.”
Kadyrov speaks Russian with a thick Chechen accent, and it took me a while to get my head round his slurred vowels. Once I’d accustomed to his manner of speech, it soon became clear that he was in no mood to apologise for his heavy-handed rule.
“Just look at the disorder in the Middle East and North Africa,” he said. “And look at Saudi Arabia and China. There’s no trouble there. Strong leadership, that’s the answer.”
There were some 50 journalists in the hall, both foreign and Russian. It was fairly easy to spot the locals, especially those based in the North Caucasus. They were the ones asking the obsequious questions, like “Will you be able to handle the responsibility of tomorrow’s match? The eyes of the whole republic will be upon you.”
The foreigners were less eager – and under less pressure - to please, and set about grilling Kadyrov on his human rights record and murder allegations.
An Austrian journalist with an accent almost as strong as Kadyrov’s asked the Chechen strongman to comment on the killing of former bodyguard Umar Israilov in Vienna in 2009. Israilov had filed a complaint to the European Court of Human rights in 2006, alleging that Kadyrov had tortured him. Austrian police have said they want to speak to Kadyrov in connection with the case.
But Kadyrov was nonplussed. “I don’t know anything about what goes on over there in Australia,” he said. When an aide whispered that the question was in fact about Austria, Kadyrov dismissed the question with a haughty “If I’d wanted to kill him I could have done it here in Chechnya, and no one would have known about it.”
And so it went on. When accused of overseeing the Islamization of Chechnya, where alcohol sales are limited to between 8 am and 10 am and the majority of women cover their heads, Kadyrov forced a blushing female aide to confirm that she wears a headscarf because it is her "duty to the Almighty as a good Muslim". No one, she insists, is forcing her to do it. She made no mention of recent paintball attacks, praised by Kadyrov, on uncovered women.
Almost everywhere you go in Grozny, Kadyrov’s image stares down at you from billboards or banners. And when he isn’t casting his gaze over you, it’s his late father, Akhmad Kadyrov, the first Kremlin-backed leader of the republic. And if it isn’t one of the Kadyrovs, then it’s Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Oh - and there are also some images of the head of state, President Medvedev.
Oddly enough, for a man who controls Chechnya with an iron fist, Kadyrov tells journalists that he is powerless to prevent people putting up posters of him all across town.
“I feel uncomfortable when I drive through Grozny and see myself everywhere,” he complains. “It’s not my idea to put them up, but if no one touches them it means they respect me. But, anyway, I’m a handsome looking guy, so why shouldn’t people look at me?”
A local taxi driver later tells me that the town’s residents are used to seeing images of their leader on every corner.
“We don’t even pay attention to those billboards anymore. For me, they are as commonplace as trees or traffic lights,” he says.
Waiting for the Brazilians at the airport the next day, I run into members of the Ramzan Patriotic Club, a youth group clad in red and black jackets bearing yet more images of the Chechen leader, this time sporting a military beret. The organization's members are volunteers dedicated to "improving the life of people in the republic."
"We try to help people wherever we can," Ruslan tells me, happily posing for a photo.
Similar sentiments are expressed by Akhmad, a teenage member of the Vladimir Putin Patriotic Club. "We also battle with social vices - like smoking," he adds. "Putin saved Chechnya," he says. His colleagues in the snappily-named movement nod their heads in agreement. "No, no, no," they respond, still smiling, when I suggest that he also oversaw massive artillery and aviation strikes on the republic. "That's not right. Who told you that?"
The game, in case you can’t be bothered to click on the link I supplied above, finished 6-4 to the Brazilians. It was not a classic, and Kadyrov’s enthusiastic dancing at half-time was by far the most interesting moment. Though the republic’s leader claimed the Brazilians had come to Grozny out of “respect for the Chechen people,” reports from South America suggested the players were paid around $350,000 each to fly in. If you missed it, don’t worry – an even more star-studded exhibition match is planned for May, to coincide with the opening of local side Terek Grozny’s new stadium.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, The Times, and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.