“The disintegration of Russia is inevitable,” said Zarina Sautieva. “If chaos breaks out in the Kremlin, Kadyrov will be the first to declare independence.”
“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.
Dagestan Airlines Flight 372 is a Tupolev-154 which hasn’t seen a redesign since the 1970s. I get a window seat in row 31, where I can put up my legs on a hump that covers the landing gear. The only advantage of my seat is that I’m next to an emergency exit.