Nobody I meet in Grozny believes that Islamist insurgents were responsible for the 2004 bomb blast that killed Akhmad Kadyrov, the first Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya. Here it’s taken for granted that Russian security agencies were behind the assassination, which occurred during Victory Day celebrations in Dinamo Stadium.
In a land of mysterious explosions and unsolved murders, conspiracy theories run amok: How could fighters hiding in the hills have been capable of such a sophisticated attack? Why were local guards at the stadium replaced by Russians three weeks before the holiday? Why had Kadyrov’s son Ramzan been summoned to Moscow on the day of the assassination?
Questions about questions about questions. To Chechens the answer is clear: Kadyrov Sr., a former separatist leader, wasn’t reliable enough for the Kremlin. After seeing the fate of his father, Ramzan would become a pliant client who would bring Russia’s most unruly province into line in return for running it as his personal fiefdom.
One Chechen government critic tells me that she started respecting Kadyrov Sr. only after his death.
“He was courageous, though he won’t go down in history as a hero of his people,” she says.
“He was smart. He didn’t lick the Russians’ boots. He wouldn’t have made a Putin Prospekt or founded a Putin fan club.”
At the same time, she says, she sometimes feels sorry for Ramzan since he has to fear the Russian security agencies more than Islamist militants.
As Ramzan seeks to legitimize his own grip on power, he has erased any memory of pro-independence leaders Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov – both killed by Russian forces – and tried to turn Akhmad Kadyrov into the father of modern Chechnya.
The new stadium is named after him. So is the city’s main thoroughfare, once called Lenin Prospekt, which leads to the giant new Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. From here, the street continues as Putin Prospekt, ending at the Akhmad Kadyrov Museum.
The memorial complex appears to have been modeled after Moscow’s Victory Park. There’s a gold obelisk in the center, protruding from the dome of the museum, which is half submerged in the ground. The words “Path of Glory” are embossed on a semi-circular marble gateway. A statue of Mavlid Visaitov, one of the few Chechens to distinguish themselves in the Red Army during World War II, is at the center of the walkway.
Screens mounted above the marble columns are showing a performance by a Chechen crooner. According to the posted opening hours, the museum is supposed to be closed. But the doors are open, and I buy a ticket.
The museum consists of two levels built around a central hall filled with natural light from the dome ceiling. No quantity of gilt, crystal and marble can cover up the clumsy proportions of the neo-baroque interior. Two small lawn tractors are incongruously parked on opposite ends of the ground floor.
I’ve been trying for days to set up an interview with Ramzan. I dial his spokesman before entering the exhibition. A guard, a punk in a blue camouflage uniform, passes me.
“Whatcha doing?” he barks.
“Calling,” I reply, barely looking up.
I ignore him. I don’t get through anyway.
Works by a Chechen artist named Saidkhusein Bitsirayev are on display in the gallery on the upper level, mostly Caucasian motifs but also communist themes. There’s a picture of a smiling boy holding a toy machine gun and a depiction of the Bolsheviks’ storming of the Winter Palace. Apparently Bitsirayev has always been in the good graces of the powers that be. A painting of the 19th century Caucasian War is personally dedicated to Ramzan.
The lower floor level contains artifacts that belonged to Kadyrov Sr., officially referred to as Akhmad-hajji because he made the pilgrimage to Mecca.
In one hall there’s a recreation of his office, complete with his desk, bookshelves and a meeting table for cabinet ministers with notepads and sharpened pencils. The two clocks on the wall are frozen at 10:05, the exact time when the bomb that killed Akhmad-hajji exploded.
A stern middle-aged woman starts a tour when six boys arrive.
“He was a hero of peace-making,” the guide says. One wall is covered with copies of decrees he signed. Behind the desk is a huge portrait of Vladimir Putin – the very one that hung in Akhmad-hajji’s office, the guide claims.
There are four heavy brown leather chairs and a coffee table in another corner. When I step on the rug, one of the boys points at my offending foot, and the guide asks me to step back, explaining that it’s hand-woven.
“We’re an indivisible part of Russia and live by Russian laws,” she says. “Akhmad-hajji was the one who stopped the zachistky (mopping-up operations), which you may have heard about.”
The young visitors have taken a greater interest in the foreigner in their midst.
“He didn’t become president as a politician but as a spiritual man,” their guide continues. “He started reconstruction and invited back the refugees, including me.”
In a soothing voice, she sings Kadyrov Sr.’s praises. He declared war on Islamic extremists because they were “foreigners” who intruded on Chechen soil.
“Akhmad-hajji always emphasized the indivisibility of Chechnya from Russia,” the guide says, forgetting to mention Kadyrov Sr.’s support for separatists during the First Chechen War.
We continue to a second hall that contains photos from the life of Akhmad-hajji. One picture shows him in a spiffy hat with brother Magomed in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, in 1990. There’s a snapshot from Saudi Arabia. The robe and mortar-board hat that he wore when he received an honorary degree from Pyatigorsk State Technical University are displayed in a glass case.
Another case shows three decorative plates depicting Akmad-hajji – with the same mischievous eyes as his son – his wife and Ramzan.
The last picture in the gallery is of father and son, superimposed over mountains under a banner reading “leaders of the nation.”