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Left behind? Russian life in Chechnya

After years of violence, displacement and an authoritarian peace, what is life like for ethnic Russians in the most mono-ethnic and mono-faith area of Russia?

Ekaterina Neroznikova
6 March 2019
Orthodox cemetery on one of the main routes out of Grozny
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(c) Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

Russians are the largest ethnic minority in the Republic of Chechnya, although according to the 2010 census, they make up just two percent of the population. Ramzan Kadyrov, the country’s leader, calls the republic, “a model of interethnic and interfaith peace and harmony”. But what lies behind the rosy picture painted by the official federal and Chechen media?

I recently spent six months in Chechnya, where I was in close contact with both Chechen and Russian communities. The label “Russian”, however, applies here to anyone who self-identifies as such. They might be ethnic Cossacks, Ukrainians or Armenians, but what unites them is their religious identity: they are all part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Saved by a cross

According to official figures, in 1979 over 30% of the population of Soviet Chechnya were ethnic Russians. By 1989 the figure had fallen, although not by much – they still made up 25% of the population. In 2002, however, less than four percent of residents were Russian, and by 2010 Chechnya was losing its Russian population faster than any other North Caucasus republic. It was, effectively, a mono-ethnic member of the Russian Federation.

Reports of ethnic cleansing emerged under Djokhar Dudayev (1991-1996). Oleg Orlov, the head of the Memorial human rights centre’s North Caucasus programme told me that both he and Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Sergey Kovalev had witnessed harassment of Chechnya’s Russian-speaking population.

Djokhar Dudayev, first President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. | CC BY-SA 4.0 Dmitry Bortko / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved.

“We encountered lawless and outrageous situations,” Orlov told me. “Gangs of bandits were attacking Russian speakers, knowing that the authorities in the de facto independent Chechen Republic of Ichkeria wouldn’t touch them. We handed all the information we gathered to [then President] Yeltsin. But there was no need for it, because soon afterwards a war broke out. “

In the early 1990s, the non-ethnic Chechen part of the population began a mass exodus from the republic, and those who didn’t leave were squeezed between Chechen militants fighting for independence on one side, and Russian armed forces on the other.

There were frequent incidents where rebels threatened the lives of both the local Russian and Chechen populations. One ethnic Russian woman, who still lives in the Chechen capital Grozny, recalls how she would often hear people saying: “We don’t care who you are, you’re all mixed up with the Chechens here.”

Lyusya’s family was in a similar situation. Lyusya (name changed), together with her brother and her elderly bedridden mother, live in a small, dilapidated house. Lucy has to do most of the housework and care for her mother herself: her brother spends most of his time alone, absorbed in his reading. I only managed to talk to him once – he showed me some Masonic symbols he’d found on old plans of the city.

Before the war with Russia, Lyusya’s brother was perfectly normal, but then something happened that permanently changed him. Russian forces were rounding up men with beards in town — a sign, in soldiers’ eyes, of possible allegiance to militant groups — and Lyusya’s brother was captured. He also had a beard. The only reason he wasn’t shot, as it turned out, was that he was wearing a cross around his neck. He still had to plead with the men to look at him and see that he was “one of them” and didn’t have to be killed. A cross didn’t necessarily save your life at the time, but it worked for him.

A story with a happy ending

It’s hard to say for certain whether Chechen rebels or the local residents harassed Russians. There were known cases of fighters bringing lone Russian women flour and water to make bread and making sure that none of their fellow-rebels offended them in any way.

Anna Pavlovna (not her real name) retired many years ago. She came to live in Grozny with her husband when she was young, worked in a factory and was well-respected locally as the 1990s began. Her life wasn’t easy – both her husband and her two sons died young. She now devotes her time to her garden, where she grows fruit, delicious grapes and masses of flowers. And, like most Russians still living in Grozny, she is a staunch churchgoer, and has even planted lots of flowers around the building.

These stories have happy endings. After all, we only hear from the people who have survived. We don’t know what happened to those who didn’t.

During the First and Second Chechen Wars, Anna Pavlovna had to leave her house several times and move to the city of Stavropol, over 400km to the northwest; a Chechen neighbour also took her to live in his village with his family for a while. But she remained in Grozny for most of the war.

Once, during the first campaign, a young Russian soldier was brought to her house. Chechens had found him in the woods – he had left his post and was in hiding. As Anna Pavlovna recalls, he was starving and his hair was full of lice.

The men brought the Russian to her home to save his life, though it was unclear who in particular was after him. The rebels might have killed him, but his own side could have convicted him for desertion. The lad lived at Anna Pavlovna’s house for nearly six months, and all that time she and her ex-colleagues (the factory had already closed down) searched for his family, so he could return home. And they found them in the end and his mother came for him – she hadn’t even known that her son had been posted to Chechnya.

Another Anna (again, not her real name) lives in an old Cossack house, so old that it is already partially collapsed into the earth, and inside it has a smell of a dying house that she can’t get rid of, however much she washes everything. During the war she was blockaded within these four walls with her blind and sick mother: the neighbouring houses were all occupied by rebel fighters.

The Cossack house of "Anna", Chechnya. | (c) Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

Like many civilians, she was often visited by rebels in search of food and drink. One day, one of her visitors sat down beside her and placed his hand on her knee. Anna was so scared that she couldn’t move, but other “guests” noticed and quickly took him out of the house.

The next day, a fighter whom she hadn’t seen before turned up at her house and asked whether anyone had been offending her, and after she told him about the previous day’s incident he said, “They won’t be back”. And indeed, she didn’t see the insolent visitor ever again.

These stories have happy endings. After all, we only hear from the people who have survived. We don’t know what happened to those who didn’t. There are, unfortunately other stories, ones in which Russians were robbed, beaten and thrown out of their own houses. They are wary of telling their stories: fear of someone finding out and coming to harass them has taken a firm hold on their consciousness.

Work for “our own people”

Most ethnic Russians who lived in Grozny before the wars worked at plants and factories and found it hard to get work in peacetime. Chechens had a similar problem – but at least they had family ties to fall back on.

Finding work in Chechnya is completely dependent on corrupt practices: you can only get most jobs by offering money in advance, and only with a recommendation from someone who is trusted in the relevant workplace. And it’s not just a problem in terms of professional posts in education, medicine or the law: in Chechnya you need to pay to get a job as an ambulance driver.

The clan system is at the heart of everything here – health, education, police and, of course, government. A similar system holds sway in other North Caucasus republics – Dagestan, for example. But because of Chechnya’s singular ethnic composition, most posts are filled by Chechens, who in their turn find jobs for their friends and relations, who are also Chechens. After the war, the only Russians who could find jobs were those who still had good relations with Chechens or had married into their families.

“I couldn’t find any work anywhere at first. I scraped by, taking work on the side, cleaning, even scrounging. But people were always helpful, and Chechens more so than Russians.”

Lena moved to Chechnya a few years ago. Before that, she lived in Ukraine’s Donbas: when the conflict broke out there she immediately tried to settle in Russia and take Russian citizenship. She moved to Saratov, but encountered the same problem as many other refugees – there was nothing for her there. And all her attempts to get a Russian passport failed.

“I met a Chechen man on a train, by chance, and he told me to go to Grozny, where it would be easier to find work and get Russian citizenship,” she says. “He said that there was lots of building going on, and I might even be offered something. And there was a lot of development in the city, so I could find work. At the time I had nothing to lose, so I went.”

Lena arrived in the new, deeply corrupt Chechnya: “I couldn’t find any work anywhere at first. I scraped by, taking work on the side, cleaning, even scrounging. But people were always helpful, and Chechens more so than Russians.”

She tried to get a job as a cleaner at a hospital, but she would have had to pay 8,000 roubles for the honour, and she didn’t have the money. And everyone has to pay, whatever their ethnicity.

Luckily, Lena was pushy, and found herself a room in a hostel for 1,000 roubles a month. There was neither a kitchen nor an indoor toilet, but it was hers. And she should be getting her Russian passport soon.

“I’ve had to deal with all kinds of attitudes towards me – I’m a single Russian woman, after all,” says Lena, chuckling. There were men who wanted her as a lover, but she couldn’t bring herself to do that. “And on the other hand they would say: ‘Wear a hijab, become a Muslim and we’ll find you a husband’. But that wasn’t for me either: I’ve always been Orthodox, it’s part of our Russian culture,” she says with confidence, although in today’s Chechnya embracing Islam would simplify her life considerably.

A new world

Over the last two decades, Chechnya has gone through a process of Islamisation. Chechens observed their religion in the past, of course, but it’s in the last few years that Islam has become a unifying factor in many ways.

Russians who have converted to Islam often find it easier to integrate – they can, for example, marry into a Chechen family, which gives them the opportunity to use family relationships to raise their social status. Family ties are basically the only effective mechanism for both climbing a career ladder and simply surviving in today’s Chechnya.

Inside a Russian woman's apartment in Grozny | (c) Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

Adopting Islam, and Chechen traditions at the same time, is in no way compulsory. A certain encouragement to move towards Islam is certainly present, of course, but in general people “Chechenise” under the influence of their surroundings.

Nastya met her future husband in the early 2000s, when she was working on the issue of civilian deaths during the armed conflicts in Chechnya. She was just over 30 and worked in a human rights centre. Her husband, a Chechen, is 15 years older and a lawyer, and they met at a round table discussion about Chechnya.

Nastya’s husband had never been married before, and marrying Nastya was clearly a considered and serious decision. They travelled to Moscow’s cathedral mosque for their nikah (wedding ceremony). Nastya didn’t convert to Islam, but agreed, as is customary, that any children from their marriage would be brought up as Muslims. Her husband then took her back to his village and announced the fait accompli: this is my wife, and she’s a Russian.

Fitting into the family did not come easily. Nastya doesn’t talk about it, but mentions the fact that at one point she and her child had to leave her husband’s house for quite some time.

Nastya now lives in the village, and she and her husband have four children. She has adopted Islam and wears a hijab. And she displays a quality that Chechens value highly in a woman – meekness. The only difference between her and a Chechen woman is that she doesn’t speak the language. She tells me that she first needs to learn Arabic so that she can read the Qur’an, and after that she can learn Chechen. She is a perfect housewife – her house is spotless, an exemplary Chechen home. Even seeing me home late at night, she doesn’t just walk past the fence, but stops to pull up a weed. Her family say that she is a wonderful wife.

Nastya also believes that everything in her life brought her to one thing – her adoption of Islam. She spends a lot of time on her religious education, trying to be as observant as possible. I didn’t know her in the past. It’s hard to imagine that she once lived an ordinary secular existence.

Entrance to Shelkovskaya. In this poster, the town celebrates 300 years existence, and thanks Ramzan Kadyrov for a "flourishing country". | (c) Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

Nastya tells me that Islam has not only calmed her soul and helped her find her true path in life, but has made her relations with her own children easier. They, unlike her, speak Chechen. And given that the basic elements of Chechen national identity are knowledge of the language, observance of cultural codes, customary law and religious affiliation, i.e. Islam, she is now not far from being a Chechen woman. Chechen ethnic identity is passed down through the male line, so despite having a Russian mother, there’s no question about her children’s identity.

It’s rare for a Chechen woman to marry a Russian man, but it is possible if the man adopts Islam and speaks Chechen. The situation with a male Chechen marrying a Russian woman is simpler: Chechen men can marry both Muslim and Orthodox Russian women. The main issue is the religious and ethnic identity of the children of this marriage: they have to be Muslims and be brought up by their father’s side of the family. Children of these marriages generally don’t see themselves as Russian.

In the graveyard

Several large villages in Chechnya are regarded by the authorities as Cossack settlements. I was able to visit two of them, Shelkovskaya and Naurskaya.

In September 2018, Shelkovskaya held an official celebration of the opening of a new Russian Orthodox church, and according to people attending it, Kadyrov himself flew in with his entourage in two helicopters. The opening marked the 300th anniversary of the founding of the village, and was attended by Orthodox worshippers from all over Chechnya as well as from its neighbouring republics. And you can see from the official photos that there were a lot of people there.

I arrived in the village a month after the opening and found the church closed, with no one around apart from a watchmen and a cat. The watchman told me that the building was closed immediately after the so-called opening ceremony and there had been no sign of a priest. A search for the local Cossack population brought me to the place where I’d be most likely to find Russian names: the graveyard.

Orthodoxy Cemetery near Staropromyslovskoe Highway, Grozny. | (c) Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

Here, by the grave of a young serviceman, I found a family: his mother, widow and two children. They told me hardly any homesteads in the village were occupied by Cossacks, and that they were practically alone there. Those Cossacks who weren’t killed in the First War in the 1990s had fled the area, replaced by Chechens from remote settlements. “It’s not bad here,” they told me. “The land’s flat, so we can farm. There are a lot of Chechens living in the area, who’ve moved to find a livelihood. There was lots of work in the good years, but now you can just about manage to feed yourselves. So Chechens who’ve had an education have also left.” The women didn’t want to talk about why people died in the 1990s – Shelkovskaya was nowhere near any actual fighting – and quickly began to leave the cemetery.

There is one unusual place in Shelkovskaya, the Russian Cultural Centre, which is to be found in a tiny room on the ground floor of the local community centre. The building is old and dilapidated – there are thousands of these decommissioned cultural facilities scattered around the former USSR. It stands close to the village’s central square, which is totally lacking in interest if you don’t count the national flags and photos of Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of Chechnya’s present leader, and Vladimir Putin. Sometimes local teenagers get together at the community centre to play their guitars: during my visit, young men were sat along one wall of the building, singing songs by Timur Mutsurayev, a Chechen singer-songwriter particularly popular for his compositions about war and religion, some of which are banned in Russia.

The cultural centre itself contains a table, a few chairs and a glass-fronted cabinet holding commemorative certificates and photographs. Khan-eli Khamayev, leader of the local Cossack folk choir, tells me that the centre has been a successful operation for many years and the young musicians go on regular tours around the republic.

Naurskaya is a village similar to Shelkovskaya, except that its church is older and larger. The building lies behind a high fence that backs onto the local police station. I was stopped in front of the church gates by police officers, who after a short conversation demanded to see my ID and searched my car, saying that the appearance of any strangers was considered suspicious “for security reasons”.

In front of the St Michael Archangel Orthodox Church, Grozny. | (c) Ekaterina Neroznikova. All rights reserved.

The village has a tiny Cossack club run by a lively short-haired woman of around 50. Here she created a mini-museum of objects that had come from private houses. “This used to be a good place: we would watch films and even hold dances. But there’s nothing left now – the villages are all in a bad state,” she tells me as we walk along a once handsome central avenue of trees. Now it looks very sad. The trees aren’t looked after, the path is a mess: some of the paving stones have disappeared and the remainder lie all higgledy-piggledy. Most of the locals are Chechens – any Russians you see are probably army people posted here for duty. It’s mostly their children who come to the Cossack club.

“There’s one brave girl. They were told at school that they had to wear hijabs, but she refused, on the grounds that she was a Russian,” says the woman. We soon come across this girl; she’s walking along the street in a jumper, a short jacket and skinny jeans, which would be brave even for Grozny.

When you're young

Chechen has never been spoken in Ramzan’s house. His mother, who is from neighbouring Ingushetia, only speaks Russian and his father’s Chechen isn’t very good either. The only person with fluent Chechen is Ramzan himself.

Ramzan is 21, and his early childhood was spent in Ingushetia, in a refugee camp. He has no concept of Soviet-era Grozny and how people lived there – but he knows what kind of people live there today. Conversations among young people, especially the lads, often end up in discussions about how good a Chechen you are. And here Ramzan has had some problems: both his grandmothers were Ukrainians; both were Orthodox Christians.

He has no problems with his own identity: he is a Chechen – that’s clear and unshakeable. But he can’t understand why young guys treat Russian girls badly, why they think of them as easy lays. He has often tried to defend young non-Chechen women from friends wanting to have sex with them - which his mates just don’t get.

One of Ramzan’s grandmothers is buried in Grozny’s central Christian cemetery, not far from an old canning factory. We went there together to visit her grave. He once went there with a friend, who refused even to go through the gate – as a Muslim, he can’t do that.

People in Chechnya today are bombarded with myths around religion: a ban on going into an Orthodox cemetery or church is just one of them. Religious rites, such as processions with a cross at Easter, seem like medieval absurdities to young people, and people of their parents’ generation have also lost the habit.

That said, most adults are fine when it comes to Russians’ religion and traditions. When they were young, Chechnya wasn’t a mono-ethnic republic.

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