I stand by the window, in the kitchen of the apartment I am renting in Grozny, smoking a cigarette. The whole window is covered in foil, but in one spot the foil is coming unstuck. I am at home, I am not wearing a scarf and only now, late at night, can I enjoy the freedom to be myself.
Suddenly I see a person leaning out of a window across the street; in their hand there is something blinking. The person, judging by the silhouette, is a man. He is filming me on his cellphone, and he wants me to know it. He wants me, as all the girls here do, to smoke below the window sill, ashamed and afraid. I stub out my cigarette slowly and sink to the floor. I do not know what dishonor I am afraid of. I am not going to marry here, won’t look for relatives, and all my local friends know I am a smoker. But fear haunts this city, it is floating in the air like the poplar fuzz that covers Moscow in June: it penetrates your ears and eyes, it blocks your nostrils, sticks to clothes, carpets the floor. My hands are shaking. I try to ignore it, and go to bed.
I am woken up at six by my own screams, and understand it’s time to move on. I try to calm myself down, put my head under a cold shower (there is no hot water in this flat anyway). Then Ihide under the blanket – there is no other furniture than the bed. I watch a cartoon, then another one, then a third one. At the fourth I break and call for a taxi to Makhachkala. I am now ready to go to Dagestan, where even the road police wear bulletproof vests. It is just outside of Chechnya. I am packing, trying to understand what brought me here.
I spent my last vacation in Somalia, I passed the exam for a 40-meter dive to a sunken ship, and then I decided to go to Chechnya. Some like it hot. “Stupid, what are you doing? Pack a scarf,” a human rights activist, a friend of friends of mine, admonished over the phone, while the Moscow-Grozny train was already moving. I just grinned. After all, I spent a month with Bedouins in the Arabian desert; took a road trip round the Iranian countryside; and I visited Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. I know how to behave.
“And what about the people you will be writing about? Do you understand you’ll get them exposed?” The human rights activist was unstoppable. Yes, I knew. I knew, on the threshold of the Moscow Winter Olympics, that journalists are wise not to risk anything in Chechnya. I knew those at risk would be my protagonists. That was why I had decided to live in a flat rented from fifth parties, to use someone else’s newly bought phone, not to save information on my own computer and not to use wi-fi. But these are all basics for investigative journalists.
I was sure I had calculated all the risks; this is why, against all my friends’ advice, I chose not to fly but to travel in a third-class sleeper. And I did not see any of the things I had been warned about: no baby crying, no couple quarreling publicly, no dangerous-looking guys. The only person in the carriage listening to loud music was a woman, “a Russian up to Astrakhan”. I was pampered, fed and entertained with stories of sheep rearing.
On the second night of this journey, I could not sleep. With two carriage hostesses I descended to an empty platform, where we exchanged chicken recipes. One of the women, in the same conversational tone, started to tell the story of how she had been in Grozny during the war: a piece of shrapnel had flown into the room she was in, she said, and hit her granddaughter in the head. Shehe could not stop her brain leaking. Immediately, another stewardess turned around without a word and went away. Her departure affected me even more than the brain story.
The phone rings. A taxi will be here in half an hour. Again, the phone. It is not the taxi driver but my new friend Fatima: some mutual friends connected us. She has been calling me every day and telling me what she cooked for her husband and his relatives, and what names they called her. Every day, she worries her husband will go to his mistress after dinner. She is around 25, a mother of three, and has nobody to talk to, since in the seven years she has been married, she has not been allowed out of the house. I cannot cut her off because I do not know who else will be willing to listen to her. I switch the speakerphone on and keep packing. I put on a floor-long black skirt and a bright shirt I haven’t dared wear these last three weeks. Upon reflection, I decide to hide it under a black jacket.
– Fatima, you should not think of yourself as incapable, you are a good wife, since you are keeping such a household. Are you sure nobody can overhear this conversation? They can take your cellphone from you again. Yes, Fatima, if you divorce, the kids will be given to your husband, and you will not get your higher education, and you will be locked into the house by your own relatives. I don’t know what to do, Fatima, I really don’t.
I remember my first day very well. My wish list included: a manicure (in my experience, there is no wiser, more connected person than a manicurist), an expensive café (there is no better place to find rich people in a provincial town) and some shopping (I won’t bother lying that this was an attempt to look for stories).
I did not walk – I floated along Putin Prospect in my black scarf, elegantly thrown over one shoulder, and long wide skirt. I was the epitome of decency; I was modesty itself. I was a bloody blue-stocking compared to Chechen girls who clattered by on their ten-centimeter heels, in long but snug-fitting skirts, so narrow they were about to wrinkle like caterpillars around their hips, some wearing beautiful bright scarves and some without. They were parading proudly, their heads lifted. They emanated so much self-confidence that I took off my scarf immediately.
As soon as it happened, someone coughed behind me. “Hello miss, how are you?” said a two-meter tall goof in a grey Special Police Force uniform with no recognizable badge and a Kalashnikov across his chest. He grinned naughtily.
I immediately feigned shyness and friendliness – I lowered my eyes and smiled. I needed time to read the situation. In truth, I was scared shitless. It was clear he was doing his job. We were in a Muslim city where it was unusual to ask girls out on the street, indeed was disrespectful. So it was clear he knew that I was not local.
In Teheran it would mean: baby, go change your clothes. In Grozny, there is no morality police, but there are pro-Kadyrov youth groups instead, who half a year ago shot at girls not dressed in typical Islamic attire with remote markers. 1See http://www.interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=35999 But here, half the girls werent wearing scarves. What was the matter?
With horror I understood that scarves apart, all the women were dressed in black, while I was wearing beige. Wearing a different color in Grozny immediately marked me out. On my clothes it may as well have been written: “I am from Moscow, I am looking for dissidents, gays in particular.”
I managed to escape him and rushed into the next store looking for a black skirt.
It was a small, almost empty store with an unremarkable sign and arrogant saleswomen. With the snobbery of all Muscovites shopping in the provinces (“I can afford anything here”) I gathered a pile of rags, not even looking at the price-tags. Imagine my surprise when in the fitting room I discovered these rags cost 100, 000 rubles each [ca. 3000 USD]. On some of them it was written Cristian Dior (yes, like that).
I really needed my wise woman at the beauty salon. The manicurist laughed: “Normal people buy skirts at the bazaar for 500 rubles!” No skirts for under a hundred bucks, hence no middle class. I have been in many regional capitals and have never seen anything like it anywhere. “These shops,” she continued, “they are for those in Camrys.” “For who?” – “For those who drive Toyota Camrys,” the manicurist said and waved her head in an indefinite direction, not daring to utter the word ‘Kadyrovists.’ The people one cannot mention, who drive the state-bought Toyota Camry. 2http://susanin.udm.ru/news/2013/06/07/404545 Who can, without introducing themselves and without showing any papers, stop a grown man in the street and give him a lesson about being outside too late. Nowhere in the world is the Toyota hated as much hated as here.
I left my wise woman happy and hungry, and looked into a cafe. There were only men around, and they all turned towards me. They could let me eat maybe, but definitely not smoke. Out of curiosity I made a tour of a five other cafes; there were girls in some of them, but only in groups. In the fifth one there was a couple sitting. I asked if I could smoke. The waitress shook her head. The guy had a cigarette in his hand.
The taxi is pulling out, and the driver switches the radio on. I take my black jacket off and start to sing along. We are in a traffic jam, and I realize the windows are open. Drivers of Camrys close to us look at me with disapproval. I can feel the fear spread in my belly, and stop singing.
From Chechnya, I wanted to write some features for different magazines, on the most taboo topics – homosexuality, violence towards women and the murders of sorcerers 3See: http://esquire.ru/folk-healer. Normally, journalists go to Chechnya with a fixer – usually a human rights activist, who helps the writer find stories and can opens doors using his or her name. But for the topics I was interested in there were few human rights activists, and I wanted to understand everything myself, having also the time to do so. I had a plan: to come, hang out for a week or two, see what was going on, make some friends, and then, using my own connections, find my subjects. The first few days, Grozny was the best city on earth. Women were smiling at each other in the street, totally unlike Moscow. Taxi drivers did not try to rip you off. Neighbors offered food, a laundry service, and shelter. In the grocery store, I was given a discount, since I was an out-of-towner.
I hung out with local hipsters. They hid their dissident status easily enough, i.e. their bright T-shirts and orange nails, under black pullovers and gloves. They took me to see rehearsals of “underground” jazz concerts. They called them underground not because they were forbidden but because it sounded funnier and cooler this way.
I was even asked to give a semi-legal seminar for students. The topic was something like ‘religious tolerance.’ Ten girls came, all in long black skirts and similar scarves, their uniform. I could not resist asking whether they liked it. As an answer, eight of the ten wordlessly stood up and ripped open their skirts – they turned out to have velcro. There were bright minis underneath. These eight laughed together and peered at the remaining two, quietly sitting in the corner. They wore hijabs covering their hair and necks. I included them in the discussion and it turned out that for a long time their parents actually forbade them to wear hijabs, an Arab tradition of dress that they considered unsuitable for Chechnya.
All the girls except these two dreamed of leaving Chechnya and going to Moscow. I warned them about so-called “religious tolerance” in Moscow, and did not keep from them the hate speech against Chechnya there. I also wanted to ask whether they knew that in the interwar period all the Russians in Chechnya were slaughtered. But I did not dare.
The taxi driver listens to my favorite pop. On an empty road, a column of armored vehicles belonging to the federal military troops emerges, cars are overtaking them at breakneck speed on the wrong side, and my driver suddenly joins the middle of the column. The opposite lane is already free, but we are still hidden inside the column. Something is going on, but I do not dare to ask what. When we finally overtake them, my driver smiles, obviously relaxed.
“Till very recently you could not join their column, you could not drive in front of an armored vehicle, even if there was just one. If you didn’t give way to them, they could overturn you. We would hear stories about overturned buses in which people died.” The driver smiles, but his eyes are severe. “Now I am the boss of my roads.”
What stupefied me in Chechnya more than anything, more than the new housing developments, more than Depardieu parading around, and even more than Kadyrov’s Instagram feed and whatever else one usually mentions, was how people reacted to someone mentioning the war. Whenever it came up, people would suddenly check their text messages, turn away to make some tea, or leave without explanation. Everybody here had his or her own unaddressed memories of war that they were unable to talk about with anymore, and yet were unable to forget. They lived in their beautiful renovated houses, wore hipster T-shirts under their black clothes, but everything under these T-shirts was boiling. After each of these stories, their fear would seep into me. In the end I understood why journalists and human rights activists who have been working in Chechnya for too long tend to sound a bit hysterical when they tell stories.
I lost it after five days, once people started to trust me a little and share their secrets. For the first time during an interview I burst into tears. The woman I was interviewing promptly changed the subject. One of these stories the online magazine “Kaukazian Knot” usually writes about: a group of young men was kidnapped and brought to an unknown destination, and nobody has seen them since. I knew about the kidnappings, had read a lot on the subject, but my Moscow editors did not want me to write about it anymore, believing it to be overexposed. But I cried nonetheless. It was just the beginning. Each day brought new confessions. People kept talking. They could not stop.
A friend who fell in love with a married man told me her relatives would not allow her to be his second wife.
Another friend complained that her husband brought home a second wife without any warning.
A 40-year-old widow and mother of three complained that her mother-in-law requires her to be at home by 8 PM.
Another 40-year-old told me that, after being beaten by her husband for 20 years and having practically no teeth, when she finally asked for divorce, nobody believed her.
A human rights activist did not complain about anything, she simply refused to talk to me, having learned I was especially interested in gays. The gays themselves refused to give me an interview as well.
One man told me how he sent his pregnant sister outside the republic, having told everyone, even their own father, that he had killed her. How could he save her otherwise?
Another one told me he hears his wife crying at night, because all of her family was slaughtered, and he does not know how to talk to her.}
Another told me about how after the first Chechen war he used to find mass graves just by looking out for walls with bullet holes – you just start to dig, he said, and not very deep. He would unearth the bodies, and they would be taken away without any explanation.
Another guy, who was not quitting his vodka bottle, boasted about beating his 15-year–old sister because she dared to leave the house without his permission. I could understand him, in a perverse way: if she were to hook up with anyone, he would have to kill her. And he does not want to, he loves her, therefore he has to beat her.
This same guy described how he likes to have sex with underage girls without really penetrating them. Sometimes a mistake occurs, however, and a girl is deflowered despite all the bizarre efforts taken. When I asked whether these teenagers have older brothers as well, he went silent for a while.
Someone else told me his brother was tortured by the feds during the second war, with a bottle wrapped in barbed wire. Here I erased half a page. Nobody wants to hear it anyway. I cannot hear it any more myself. When I read about Chechnya, I skip half of the pages. It is clear it is a nightmare.
There are very few psychologists in Chechnya, and there are no programs to send specialists there. “This is awful,” my friend psychiatrist in Grozny said. “After Beslan there were many psychologists working with hostages, many volunteers went to Krymsk after the flood. The whole republic survived the hell, but nobody is ready to talk.”
Chechens are not listening to each other. Each has his or her own horror in memory. Meanwhile, domestic violence is escalating. The number of “dishonored” girls killed by their own relatives is believed to be rising ever higher 4See: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/apr/29/chechen-women-in-mortal-fear-as-president-backs-ho/. And even now, men who do not know how to carry on, go into the mountains to join those who are called terrorists on TV. Violence generates violence.
Do you hear me screaming?
We are approaching the border. We move ahead at full speed, the wind rushing in through the window. And then it stops. We get stuck in a traffic jam. The highway connecting two republics is blocked to make way for Kadyrov’s cortege, the driver explains. I am reaching for my Ipad to shoot a video, but the driver stops me: “They have a license to shoot without warning. Please don’t.”
Cars are shooting past us, one every five seconds, going at least 200 kmh.. Forty-seven Toyota Camrys, more jeeps, and some ten police cars move past. An hour later, and I am relatively safe in Dagestan.
In Chechnya I had this recurring nightmare. In it, soldiers break into the sleeping car of the Moscow-Grozny train and force a 70-year-old Chechen man to go with them. The men all around are helpless, their heads hanging low –soldiers have guns, after all – and women are crying. I am trying to work out if it would help to say I am a journalist, or just make things worse. For three weeks in a row I woke up every night in a cold sweat after this same nightmare. But when I was out of Chechnya and in Makhachkala, I still hadn’t come up with an answer. I paused this endlessly replaying scenario and then imagined everybody there in detail – the old man with his cane, the soldiers, among themboth Chechens and Russian feds, village women who played games on their phones, even the scumbag who was harassing me in the sleeping car corridor, and talked to each one, right in the middle of my dream. It was then I understood: they weren’t aware that the war continues only in their heads, that the regime is hated in Moscow as well as in Chechnya, and that corruption is not just in Grozny but in the whole of Russia. And so, with this realization and little by little, these people begin to wake up and reclaim their rights. And then I pressed Play in my head, and my inner video started again. Soldiers removed their guns and showed protocols of arrest. Women ceased their humiliated crying, and instead started screaming indignantly. And the men started to cite the law. These are the kinds of dreams one starts having in Chechnya.
This text was selected an translated from Russian by Ekaterina Degot as part of WdW Review’s Moscow editorial Desk. It was originally published on colta.ru.