Ilya Yashin announced yesterday on Twitter that he was in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, Russia’s restive republic in the North Caucasus, to conduct research for an investigative report on Ramzan Kadyrov, the country’s strongman, some say warlord, appointed by Vladimir Putin in 2007.
Though not completely unexpected, I’m probably not the only one who gasped at seeing the cherubic Russian politician’s selfie from the home turf of one of the most ruthless men in Russia.
In December of last year, Yashin had reached out, as it were, to Kadyrov in an open letter, seeking a meeting to address the many persistent questions Yashin and many other Russians have about Kadyrov’s rule in Chechnya, not the least of which are his connections to some of the ugliest incidents in recent Russian history. Yashin even requested a meeting, and offered to come to Grozny. That seemed crazy at best, and suicidal at worst.
Kadyrov and his private army, known as the Kadyrovtsy (Kadyrovites) have been associated with criminal corruption in Chechnya as well as a string of assassinations of journalists and activists looking into this activity. Several journalists had been investigating high-level criminal corruption and human rights abuses under Kadyrov when they were ruthlessly murdered.
The murder that is probably best known in the West was that of Novaya Gazeta’s Anna Politkovskaya, award-winning author of many books and articles exposing human rights abuses in Chechnya. Politkovskaya was born in the United States, a daughter of Soviet diplomats from Ukraine. She was threatened, poisoned, and finally murdered in an elevator near her apartment in 2006. At the time of her death, she had been reportedly working on an investigation of torture linked to Kadyrov and his Kadyrovtsy. She was also a vocal critic of Putin’s role in these shady affairs. Many have noted that her murder was carried out on October 7, Putin’s birthday, a gruesome John-the-Baptist head-on-a-platter gift from Kadyrov to Putin.
There are others before and after Politkovskaya, including Klebnikov, Kozlov, Litvinenko, McGrory, Markelov, Barburova, Estemirova, whose deaths have been linked to Chechnya’s underworld. Just reading this list of murdered journalists in Russia is a bone-chilling activity. Several occurred before Kadyrov’s time, but it’s hard to say he’s done anything to reduce the trend of this tragic Chechen history.
To the contrary, the situation has become even more dangerous, now touching Russians not directly connected to Kadyrov or Chechnya. It seems Kadyrov has taken Kremlin propaganda against Russia’s pro-democracy opposition to Putin as his own cause célèbre.
Last year on February 27, 2015, Moscow witnessed the most high profile murder in modern Russian history. Former Deputy Prime Minister, former governor, and prominent Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was gunned down a stone’s throw from Putin’s office in the Kremlin. Several Chechen men, some with direct links to Kadyrov’s private army, have been accused of the murder. Many think that Kadyrov himself ordered the hit or is protecting at least one other man who may have been involved.
And more recently, Kadyrov and members of his regime have been issuing open threats in newspapers, on television and social media, to Russian opposition politicians, calling them “traitors” and “devils” who should be locked away in psychiatric wards. His words have been accompanied by pictures of weapons and menacing dogs on social media. One of his posts showing two prominent opposition politicians, Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza, being watched through a sniper’s scope on a trip to France, was so outrageous that Instagram, his favorite social media site, deleted the post for violating its policy on violence.
Kadyrov also organized a mass rally in Grozny aimed at praising Kadyrov while vilifying as “enemies of the people” politicians, activists, and journalists who oppose Putin’s regime. Although there were rumors that some demonstrators were paid to attend, the placards were powerful denunciations of prominent figures in Russia, including Alexey Navalny (“Western stooge”), Mikhail Khodorkovsky (“faggot”), and Ilya Yashin (“Yashin get out of Russia”). Similar placards were carried in Moscow with Nemtsov’s portrait (“leader of Ukraine’s Maidan”) barely a week before he was assassinated.
It is in this context that Ilya Yashin and a group of volunteers set out this week for Grozny, Chechnya. Recall that Yashin was a protégé and friend of the slain Boris Nemtsov. After Nemtsov’s murder, Yashin has sought to continue Nemtsov’s work while also seeking justice for his friend. Yashin was instrumental in finishing his friend’s research on Russia’s war in Ukraine and published it as the investigative report “Putin.War.” Yashin toured Russia, Europe, and the US presenting the Nemtsov Report findings and conclusions.
Yashin apparently returned from Grozny in one piece. And he soon posted to Facebook some of his findings. Before you read my translation below, I want to point out some events from Chechen history which will illuminate Yashin’s remarks.
Chechnya has had a sad and turbulent history of foreign invasions from Russia since the days of the Russian Empire. Russian forces first moved into the North Caucasus in the early 1800s. During Soviet rule, Chechnya became an official Republic, which included territories of Ingushetia and Dagestan. In the mid-1990s, Russian troops entered an independent Chechnya (declared after the dissolution of the USSR) to “restore order.” In what became the First Chechen War, up to 100,000 people died, 500,000 were displaced, and the country demoralized with cities and villages brutally pounded into ruins.
Russia invaded Chechnya again in the Second Chechen War, after the notorious Moscow apartment bombings in 1999, which were blamed on Chechen extremists, though many believe Russian security forces to have been involved. Some prominent analysts also believe that Putin used the bombings as an excuse to go to war in Chechnya, and assure his political ascendancy in Russia.
Kadyrov officially assumed power after his father Akhmed Kadyrov’s assassination in 2004. The elder Kadyrov lead Chechnya first through an insurgency against Russia and then switched sides to battle the insurgency against Russia.
Even from this abbreviated history, one can see that relations between Chechens and Russia is very complex, to say the least, marked by events with devastating consequences for the Chechen people. So it is noteworthy that Ilya Yashin is planning to publish his conclusions about Kadyrov and Chechnya on February 23, a significant date in Chechen history, when Chechens commemorate what some call the Chechen Holocaust. This date marks the mass deportations of Chechens from the North Caucasus in 1940s, as part of Stalin’s attempts between the 1930s and 1950s to restructure the USSR through forced resettlement programs that both punished and kept non-Russian ethnic minorities in line during Soviet rule. Tens of thousands, some say even hundreds of thousands, of Chechens and Ingushes died or were killed during these ethnic cleansing roundups and deportations to Central Asia. In 2004 the European Parliament recognized the Chechen deportations of February 1944 as an act of genocide.
In Russia, February 23 is celebrated as “Defenders of the Fatherland Day,” also known as “Men’s Day.” And before that it was “Red Army Day,” commemorating the formation of the Soviet Army in 1918.
For Yashin to release his report on a date significant in Chechen history, particularly one that isn’t recognized in Russia, is intended to show his solidarity with the Chechen people. It’s a nod of respect for their history, one shared by all Chechens, those loyal to Kadyrov today and those not.
Yashin certainly understands that change in Chechnya, as in Russia, must happen from within, by the will of the people. He is hopeful that his efforts in revealing corruption and criminal activity will help ordinary Chechens strive to change their own regime and leaders. Yashin may be looking through rose-colored glasses, of course. Nonetheless, his efforts are sincere if risky, and on the right side of history. I only hope that his stunning bravery isn’t quashed by the brutal forces he’s up against, who have succeeded more than once in silencing bigger fish than Ilya Yashin.
Below is a full translation of Yashin’s facebook post after returning from Grozny.
I will present my report on the regime of Ramzan Kadyrov on February 23 in Moscow. For more than two months, a group of volunteers and I have been gathering information about corruption in Chechnya, Kadyrov’s circle, his personal army, and political murders which the republic’s leadership may be implicated in. Work on the report is now in its final stage. Only a few details remain.
Yesterday I was in Grozny. I met with Chechens who agreed to help me in this work. They gave me some documents on Kadyrov’s entourage. They confirmed a number of facts from my report. At the same time, they challenged some other information which they advised us not to use.
The most important thing is that they agreed to help distribute the report inside Chechnya. This is a very courageous decision because this kind of work in Chechnya carries tremendous risk.
People are definitely afraid of Kadyrov in Chechnya. Often people who criticize him simply disappear. Or they find themselves behind bars. The most lenient punishment is public humiliation. A local blogger ends up making a public apology with his pants down. Or cameras will capture Ramzan screaming at a woman for some comment she made on social media. Recently, in one of the villages, teenagers defiled a portrait of Kadyrov, after which militants combed all the houses in the village, found the kids and badly beat them up.
So it’s preferable to talk about Kadyrov here in a whisper. But complaints about him are numerous.
The first complaint is extortion. Almost every citizen of the Republic is obliged to give part of their income to the Kadyrov Foundation, whether you’re a state employee on a budget or a businessman. At the same time, everyone can see what the money is spent on. Ramzan bathes in luxury. His Palace in Tsentaroy, his private zoo, his golden guns, his fleet of luxury cars …
“I was forced to send my earnings to the fund. I scrimp and save on food and clothing for my family, while Ramzan pays millions to some American lady from Hollywood to sit with him for a while on some stage,” said one upset person.
I tried to play the devil’s advocate: Certainly Grozny has been rebuilt, I said, here’s a beautiful mosque, and look at that business center with skyscrapers. Chechens respond irritably waving their hands at me. “It’s all a facade,” says an elderly man. “Go into those high-rises. They’re empty. Nobody’s there! What sort of business can there be, if Kadyrov’s men taken everything away?”
“It’s all done as a show for Putin! Ramzan drives him around Grozny. He says, look, Vlad Vladimych, look at what we’ve built. They’re beautiful, elegant. Send more money!” He continues, “Meanwhile, what’s happening on the outskirts of Grozny? You saw for yourself: the roads are shattered, homes are falling down. “
The funniest thing about Grozny are the endless portraits of Putin and Kadyrov. Posters like “Thank you, Ramzan” and other kinds of self-promotion. It looks like an absurd parody of North Korea. “I’m ashamed of him,” said my companion. “After all, you’re responsible for being a leader. Do your job. What are you doing hanging your portraits everywhere, and on your Instagram. You act like a schoolboy. Be more modest, behave decently! You’re a Nokhcho [descendant of Noah], after all! “
This discussion and the willingness of Grozny residents to help me has convinced me that the Chechens could become an ally of the democratic opposition, in opposition to Kadyrov and Putin. The notion that Chechens hate liberals is complete nonsense. To believe Kadyrov, the whole city came to the rally and demanded to put me and my comrades in prison as traitors and scoundrels. So where is all this hatred? I arrived in Grozny and calmly walked through the city center. Not a single person said an off word to me.
Contrary to the propaganda slogans, many in Chechnya are unhappy with their regime. And I believe that we can make a difference – to make the republic a normal Russian region, truly part of Russia and the Constitution. The main thing is to overcome fear and start acting. This, incidentally, applies not only to Chechens. Many times I have seen opposition activists fall into a stupor at the mere mention of Kadyrov.
We must not be afraid of him. The more we’re afraid, the stronger he becomes. And if we stay huddled in our corners, before we know it, the whole country will be under the control of Kadyrov and his fighters.
* * *
During my conversations, we arrived at the Vladimir Putin Prospect. Yes, there is such an avenue in Grozny. This is not a joke.
We have been fighting for a year to get an official [commemorative] plaque in Moscow on the site where Boris Nemtsov was killed. Authorities tell us that it takes ten years, that it can’t happen that soon after his death. But in Grozny, there’s an Avenue named for a sitting president. And no one seems to be the worse off.
A version of this article appears at Euromaidan Press.