It’s Easter Sunday in Grozny. Orthodox Christians come to the so-called Russian cemetery to lay flowers at the graves of their loved ones.
Not all the dead rest in peace here. There’s a mass grave filled with bodies that were collected on city streets during the second war and dumped near the cemetery’s front gate. An Orthodox cross made out of black pipes marks the spot.
A couple of Russian soldiers, in the blue camouflage uniforms of the federal Interior Ministry, guard the entrance. One of them snaps photos of me and a Chechen colleague as we approach the World War II monument to the unknown soldier.
A crude, gray statue of a Soviet soldier stands on a pedestal. He holds a rifle in one hand and cradles a helmet with a red star in the other. The soldier resembles a superhero in a cape with a glowering visage and a lock of hair sweeping over his forehead. The eternal flame, which once came out of a five-pointed star in front of him, has long extinguished.
The men buried here were Red Army soldiers who died in the field hospitals of Grozny during the Nazis’ 1942 campaign to capture the Caspian oil fields.
Every town in Russia has a monument to those who fell in the Great Patriotic War, only in Chechnya it seems somehow out of place. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union coincided with a Chechen rebellion against Stalin. The entire Chechen nation was banished to Central Asia as retribution.
In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Victory Day is celebrated as the main patriotic holiday. In Grozny, a bomb went off at the Victory Day parade in 2004, killing the Kremlin-backed Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov, and catapulting his son Ramzan into power.
Death has branded Chechnya.
Recent graves are marked with Orthodox crosses fashioned out of pipes painted light blue or gray. Older ones testify to more tranquil times with engraved headstones and waist-high blue metal fences.
There are the matching white tombstones of Nikita and Rozaliya Ishkhanov, deceased 1966 and 1981 respectively, adorned with their sepia portraits.
General Mikhail Popkov, who died in 1980 at age 72, has a simple polished black granite tombstone. There’s a bust of a bald man missing his nose but with a row of medals, a hero of the Soviet Union who passed away in 1972 at age 58.
Nobody has vandalized the graves of these Russian heroes, though the black marble tombstone of a Jewish woman named Nina Tyomkina bears a few bullet marks. One of my Chechen guides remarks that after the 1944 deportation, Chechen tombstones were used as building material.
I see a dug-out grave on one plot where relatives have presumably moved the remains of a loved one out of Chechnya.
Four stone slabs make up the stark memorial to the victims of an accident at the Grozny oil refinery that included Jews, Armenians and Tatars.
Few Russians or other ethnic groups that moved here during Soviet times remain. Many of these Grozny natives now live across the border in Stavropol region, which serves as a sort of cultural buffer zone between Russia proper and the North Caucasus.
On Easter they drive down to Grozny to lay some flowers on their relatives’ graves – and then quickly leave again.
Olya, 50, is a local Russian who together with her son sells flowers to the visitors “from Russia.” Bunches of tulips and daffodils tied together with string fill cardboard boxes. Olya says she collected the flowers from abandoned gardens.
Years of hardship mark her face. It’s a miracle she’s alive.
Three of Olya’s children are buried in Grozny. One child, 11 months old, starved to death in the cellar where they sought refuge during the first war. She remembers having to feed him uncooked rice soaked in water.
Two of her children – a 4-month old toddler and a 3 1/2-year old girl – were shot by a Russian sniper. Olya recalls how the bullet passed through the boy, killing him instantly, and then grazed his sister, who died two weeks later.
“I buried them right in front of my window,” Olya says, wiping tears from her eyes.
“I buried my children right in front of my window.”
During the second war, she took her surviving children south to Georgia but returned because her parents had stayed in Grozny.
She was married to her first husband, a Chechen, for 25 years. He was shot and killed. Her second husband, a Russian, died from drink. Three of her children now live in Austria. They might as well be on Mars.
As we speak, a Russian officer strides down the path, escorted by a dozen guards with Kalashnikovs at the ready.
He walks with the stiff bearing of an occupier in a foreign land.