In Grozny I check into the Hotel Kavkaz, a two-story yellow brick building with a dozen spartan rooms. I found the Kavkaz – Russian for “Caucasus” – on the internet and called in advance to make a reservation.
The lobby is a dim, bare room with a leather armchair and a portrait of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. There’s no front desk, just a small room with a table and bed for the on-duty receptionist.
I chat with the bespectacled granny who checks me in. She’s Roza, a local Tatar who fled Grozny during the war only for the sake of her children. She used to live on the fourth floor of a building close to where the high-rise Grozny City development is now going up.
Roza was never afraid for herself, she says in a matter-of-fact, almost cheerful, way. She had no water or electricity, but for some reason her gas line wasn’t cut off.
As she speaks, the TV news brings a bulletin that overnight, special forces hunted down and killed Khaled Yusuf Magomed al-Emirat, an Arab who was supposedly al-Qaeda’s main representative in Chechnya. Roza hardly takes notice.
In the evenings she always latches the front metal door. Roza tells me to ring the bell or tap on her window if the door is locked when I return from my search for food, beer and an internet connection – the three necessities of a journalist on the road.
Putin Prospekt, the central artery that leads from the gargantuan new mosque to Kadyrov’s government complex, is just a block away. Most of Grozny’s other streets seem to carry their old Soviet-era names, like Garage Street or Oil Pipeline Street.
The street where the Kavkaz is located is named after the German communist martyr Rosa Luxemburg and runs parallel to Putin Prospekt. The familiar blue-and-yellow IKEA logo hangs on a five-story apartment building between a pharmacy and women’s clothing store. A nearby shop advertises “office and Islamic goods.”
It’s overcast, and there are few people or cars on the streets. The extent of Grozny’s reconstruction is impressive. But the people who live here now have little money and nowhere to go.
Putin Prospekt is lined with renovated four-story Stalin-era buildings in pastel colors. A tree-lined promenade cuts down the middle. As I approach the avenue, Kadyrov’s motorcade comes barreling past. It’s like a miniature version of Putin’s cavalcade: black Mercedes SUVs with flashing lights escorting the main vehicle, followed by about two dozen black Toyota Camrys racing at top speed.
The man I most want to see in the Caucasus flies past my nose at 100 miles an hour.
The Café Muskat has a wi-fi sign on its door, so I go inside. It’s a dark place with curtains and booths. Most of the customers are young men, some of them in uniforms with side arms in holsters, smoking hookahs and sipping tea. The couple of women I see are extravagantly done up, wearing high, high heels as if they were out on the town in Moscow. Trashy Russian pop videos with plenty of flesh ooze out of the flat-screen TVs.
I order lamb and eggplant. The internet connection is fast. But there isn’t a drop of alcohol to be had, not in the Café Muskat and not in the convenience store around the corner. The last time I missed a cold beer this much was when I visited Iran. I return to my room.
Although I’m exhausted, I wake up early. It’s 4:45. A few minutes later, the muezzin’s plaintive call to prayer echoes across the sleeping city.