I ask my driver about the “bandits” who hide out in the mountains and attack the police. “The bandits are in Moscow,” he replies. “The boys in the woods are just regular guys. They don’t touch us. They’re against Russia.”
“You’ll be forced to write what’s expected,” Alvi Karimov says. “If it’s raining, you’ll write the sun is shining. Who wants to know that it’s peaceful in Grozny and that women don’t wear headscarves?”
The ambitions of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow ruler Ramzan Kadyrov, inflated by billions of rubles from Kremlin coffers, have transformed Grozny into a glittering monument of hero worship and mass amnesia.
Nobody I meet in Grozny believes that Islamist insurgents killed Akhmad Kadyrov, the first Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya. Here it’s taken for granted that Russian security agencies were behind the assassination.
I meet with a Chechen who asks me just to call him “a public figure.” I’m going to censor myself by redacting any other identifying clues. Even if the fighting is over, fear still inhabits the neat and tidy streets of Grozny.
The couple of women I see are extravagantly done up, wearing high, high heels as if they were out in Moscow. But there isn’t a drop of alcohol, not in the Café Muskat and not in the convenience store around the corner.
We arrive in Argun, on the outskirts of Grozny. Days after the Russian assault, Tagir Gadzhiyev escorted English and American journalists along the same highway. They had to turn around here because of an air raid.
As we enter Derbent, a fat traffic policeman stops our car, a black Lada of the make preferred by suicide bombers. The cop is surprisingly jovial. A “special operation” against terrorists is under way, he says.
The Soviet Army once trained here because of the terrain’s similarity to Afghanistan. Today Dagestan’s homegrown Mujahideen imagine themselves in a holy war fought from the cliffs that tower above us.