Two Chechens offer to drive me to Grozny.
I’ve only just met Tagir Gadzhiyev through a contact of a colleague recommended by a fleeting acquaintance. But this being the Caucasus, with its own rules of honor and hospitality, Gadzhiyev takes me into his charge. His friend Gilvani Avaisov comes along for the ride.
Gadzhiyev is a deputy mayor of Khasavyurt, Dagestan, a few kilometers from the provincial border with Chechnya. Chechens make up about a third of the town’s population, and it was here that the 1996 Khasavyurt Accord was signed, ending Russia’s disastrous first war against Chechen separatists.
Chechnya’s flirtation with independence lasted until 1999, when an Islamist faction opposed to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov attacked Dagestan. Russia’s prime minister at the time, an unknown former KGB agent named Vladimir Putin, responded with massive force, establishing a puppet government in Chechnya and riding a wave of patriotic fervor to the presidency.
Gadzhiyev, tall and thin, drives a gold Volga Siber, the Russian version of the Chrysler Sebring. Avaisov, shorter and better fed, sits in the back. They’re in a hurry to make the 100-kilometer dash to Grozny and back before nightfall.
It doesn’t take long to get out of Khasavyurt, known primarily for producing champion wrestlers. The dusty road out of the town is lined with furniture marts, vegetable stands and Gazelle minivans waiting for fares. Bundles of sheepskins are piled up on the roadside next to hand-painted signs reading “we buy hides and wool.”
Gadzhiyev was born in 1949 in Kazakhstan. Like practically every Chechen his age, he was born in exile – a result of the 1944 deportation of the Chechen nation. Fearful that Chechens would collaborate with Nazi Germany, Stalin banished them to Central Asia. Thousands died during the journey, and those who survived were only allowed back in the 1950s, sometimes finding strangers – ethnic Laks and Avars from Dagestan – living in their old homes. That’s how Gadzhiyev’s family ended up on the other side of the border.
As Gadzhiyev speaks, he presses the gas pedal deeper and deeper to the floor.
In recent years, the border crossing between Dagestan and Chechnya was a dreaded checkpoint manned by thugs in uniform. Today the black-and-white barriers are wide open. A dozen Interior Ministry troops in hooded blue camouflage uniforms stand on the roadside cradling their Kalashnikovs. Gadzhiyev slows down ever so briefly, and we enter Chechnya.
We pass a billboard depicting the late Chechen president, Akhmad Kadyrov. Kadyrov served as chief mufti of the breakaway republic before he switched sides and was appointed head of the Kremlin-backed government. Since Kadyrov’s assassination in 2004, his son Ramzan has ruled Chechnya with an iron fist.
Gadzhiyev says he met Kadyrov Sr. in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where the future Chechen leader studied Islamic theology in the 1980s.
“He loved and respected his people,” Gadzhiyev says. “Ramzan is continuing the job his father started. He’s not doing great – but very, very well.”
During my stay in Dagestan, people told me that Chechnya would seem “like Europe” in comparison. I’m surprised to find myself thinking exactly that.
We pass a village with tidy houses of red brick. Road workers are mowing the grass next to the highway. No trash litters the roadside as it does in Dagestan.
“Ramzan isn’t just building; he’s building in the American style,” Gadzhiyev explains.
Gadzhiyev remembers driving into an aerial bombardment on this highway in 1996. During the war, he says, it turned into a “road of life” for anybody who came limping down it.
“Ramzan isn’t just building; he’s building in the American style.”
“We gave blood and bread to everyone,” Gadzhiyev says. It didn’t matter if you were a foreign correspondent, a “federal” or a fighter from Jordan, Khasavyurt helped everyone. The town took in 100,000 refugees, he says.
I ask Gadzhiyev if he knew Dzhokhar Dudayev, the former Soviet Air Force general who became the first president of separatist Chechnya and was killed in a Russian missile attack in 1996.
“I knew Dudayev,” he says. “Who didn’t know Dudayev?”
Gadzhiyev remembers how Dudayev came to a Khasavyurt school in 1990 and announced that Chechnya needed independence. “The local elders said he would bring war and misfortune.”
What about Maskhadov, Dudayev’s lieutenant who was elected president in 1997 and killed by Russian special forces in 2005?
“He was a different character,” Gadzhiyev says. “He was softer, though also a soldier.” Gadzhiyev blames Maskhadov for not stopping his rival Shamil Basayev from carrying out the 1999 attack on Dagestan that provoked Putin’s fury.
I ask if the Chechens living in Khasavyurt initially supported independence. Of course, says Avaisov. It’s all Boris Yeltsin’s fault. First the Russian president told the country’s far-flung regions to take as much sovereignty as they could swallow, then he sent two divisions into Chechnya when Chechens took him at his word.
In Gudermes we pass a big military base with neat barracks for the “federals.” Trucks and armored personnel carriers rumble past. Gadzhiyev turns off the highway to show me the center of town.
The streets are clean and the houses well-tended. Gadzhiyev takes me to a new development of 15-story high-rises called Gudermes City.
“There’s freedom and democracy,” Gadzhiyev says. “Whoever says there’s no democracy wants there to be war again.”
We cross a bridge getting a new layer of asphalt. “It cost us a lot,” Gadzhiyev says.
The faces of Ramzan Kadyrov and his father are omnipresent, not unlike the dual portraits of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung plastered across North Korea.
Back on the highway to Grozny, we pass the gate to Kadyrov’s residence, well-hidden from the road.
We arrive in Argun, on the outskirts of Grozny. Days after the Russian assault in December 1994, Gadzhiyev and a friend escorted English and American journalists along the same highway. They had to turn around here because of an air raid.
Argun today is one big construction site, with major work on a multi-lane thoroughfare, named after Kadyrov Sr., that cuts through the town. Dump trucks and earth movers are everywhere. A space-age mosque is depicted on computer-generated images hanging on a fence – part of the planned Argun City.
We’re fast approaching Grozny.
Saplings line the sides of the highway. The rising towers of the Grozny City development loom in the distance. I venture that this road must be the best in Russia.
Ramzan is a reformer, Gadzhiyev replies.
“Was Roosevelt a reformer? Was de Gaulle?” he asks. “That’s the kind of leader Ramzan is. He does everything for his people.”
We pass through the gates of Grozny, flanked by two stone towers in the traditional style and adorned with portraits of Putin and Kadyrov Sr.
A bit farther is a roundabout with a giant globe in the middle wrapped in a banner that says “Grozny is the center of the world.” As I snap some pictures, Gadzhiyev remarks philosophically: “Any point on the globe is the center of the world.”
We pass more renovated apartment blocks.
Finally we reach Minutka Square, ground zero of the battle for Grozny. New high-rises are going up. A few Interior Ministry troops stand in the center of the square, while a policeman directs the thickening traffic.
“Write the truth,” Gadzhiyev instructs me. “People suffered. They died, they became orphans. That’s how it is in war, especially when it’s brother against brother.”