Since Ramzan Kadyrov, the young president of Chechnya, is, as everyone knows, ‘the greatest builder in the world’, it’s a happy chance that has the visitor from abroad arriving in Grozny on 27 April, the eve of Dyen Stroitelei, Builders’ Day, so called to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Ministry of Construction. Tamir, a young Chechen press attaché assigned to help me, had invited me to join him that day in the city’s theatre. Standing next to him in the main auditorium, facing an enormous, gleaming grand piano flanked by the portraits of Kadyrov father and son, I watched the Chechen elite make their entrances, passing one by one through metal detectors surrounded by a squad of special forces.

The district administration chiefs wear gaudy gold Rolexes and diamond rings; the ministers wear pink or pale lavender shirts with variegated ties, cream-coloured silk suits and pointy alligator-hide shoes. Many sport pins decorated with Ramzan’s face, or else the Order of Kadyrov, a gold medal embossed with the bust of his late father, Akhmad-Khadzhi, suspended from a Russian flag which, seen up close, turns out to be made of rows of coloured diamonds. Many also wear the pes, a velvet skullcap with a little tassel attached to a cord. Ask any Chechen and he will tell you it’s the national headgear; few seem to remember that it was worn, not so long ago, solely by the elders of the Sufi wird of the Kunta-Khadzhi, the brotherhood to which the Kadyrovs belong. Now, almost everyone wears one, whatever his wird is; even the Ingush wear it. Tamir introduces me to his uncle Olguzur Abdulkarimov, the minister of industry. Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, the speaker of the Chechen parliament, makes a noisy entrance, conspicuously skirting the security gate, without slowing down, to join Akhmad Gekhayev, the minister of construction whose day we are celebrating; a little further away, in a Nato uniform with a black beret and a pistol at his belt, stands Sharip Delimkhanov, the commander of Neft Polk, a battalion in charge of the security of the oil installations; the man he is talking to, Magomed Kadyrov, brother of the late Akhmad-Khadzhi, is one of the few people present who is wearing neither a suit nor a uniform, but a simple outfit of blazer and jeans, probably expensive and Italian.

The ostentatious semiotics of Chechen power might make one smile, but they are not without interest; the codes are very precise: in a world where everyone tries to show his place in the order of things by any means possible, it seems that the higher up you are, the more informality you can allow yourself, and the less you’re obliged to exhibit yourself. The body language of these men is striking: it’s the same as that of the Chechen rebels in the old days; and this way of greeting each other, of embracing, laughing, talking, slipping from one person to the next, in an elaborate but clearly informal ballet, also has a meaning. It signifies that even if they’re serving in a pro-Russian government, even if they are in fact Russian bureaucrats, we’re not in Russia here, and they are not Russians, but Chechens.

The ceremony itself transports you directly from Chechen to Soviet semiotics, in a revisited postmodern version, sometimes bordering on spontaneous surrealism. The vast hall is crowded with ‘volunteers’ recruited from different ministries and from the university; to fill the wait, the organisers had a girl band come from Moscow, who for the occasion are sporting headscarves in addition to their miniskirts, and are playing a kind of classical-pop fusion on amplified violins and an amplified cello. When Kadyrov enters, surrounded by a tight group of guards and hangers-on, the entire crowd leaps to its feet to applaud while the announcer solemnly roars into his microphone: ‘The president of the Chechen Republic, hero of Russia, Ramzan Akhmadovich Kadyrov!’ Once the hero of Russia has seated himself, the spectacle can begin. First comes a video montage showing the successes of the Ministry of Construction – created by ‘one of the very last executive orders signed by Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov’ – followed by a very long speech read at top speed by Gekhayev, repeating the list of successes in the style of a bureaucratic report. The speech concludes abruptly; immediately changing his bearing, smiling inanely, Gekhayev adds in a tone at once embarrassed and fawning: ‘You might be wondering why I read so quickly. That’s because when I met Ramzan Akhmadovich just now, he asked me: “Akhmad, is your speech long?” And when I said yes, he said: “Read it fast, then.”’

Finally, Ramzan Akhmadovich himself, ‘the greatest builder in the world’, as the announcer reminds us once again, leaps onto the stage and grabs the cordless microphone. Whereas Gekhayev and the other participants spoke in Russian, Kadyrov speaks Chechen, in a deep, gravelly voice emphasised by expressive gestures, arousing laughter and applause with his jokes, at other times aggressively blurting out the foundations of his philosophy: ‘If the leader is good, then everything is good, the colleagues, the subordinates.’ I am not in a position to judge his Chechen; the Chechen writer German Saidullayev, I am told, describes it as extremely literary and articulate, but others assert that it is as limited as his Russian, which is, to quote a friend, ‘not just poor, but riddled with obvious mistakes of gender and declension’, which I can confirm. But whatever the case, one can feel that he is entirely at home in this absurd ritual: he has real stage presence, and a feel for the masses. On TV, where all you see is him, he is often shown stopping in a village, a school or a hospital to plunge into the crowd, doling out advice, orders and banknotes, as if he drew his fabulous energy directly from the (carefully orchestrated) love of his subjects. The ceremony concludes with a sycophantic ode, delivered by Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, to ‘the man who has always stood by the side of the Kadyrov family and the Chechen people, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin’. ‘Glory to Putin!’ he roars amid a thunder of applause. Sitting in the centre of the crowd, his filmed image projected onto the big screen at the rear of the stage, Kadyrov laughs, applauds, jokes with his henchmen, and plays with his mobile phone.

‘Chechnya is like 1937, 1938,’ Aleksandr Cherkasov, one of the leaders of Memorial, the largest Russian human rights association, asserts in his little Moscow office. ‘They’re completing a vast construction programme, people are getting housing, there are parks where children play, theatres, concerts, everything seems normal … and at night, people disappear.’ One hears this comparison often from Russian human rights defenders, and as Cherkasov points out, it’s not as far-fetched as it seems: the number of people killed or missing in Chechnya, over a ten-year period, is, according to him, proportionally greater than the number of victims of Stalin’s Purges. But what this comparison tries above all to convey is the illusion of normality, or even the reality of normality, for all those who aren’t affected by the terror. I spent two weeks in Chechnya, at the end of April and the beginning of May, and if I had published this report right then, my emphasis would in fact have been on normalisation, on a Chechnya that despite large problems is, overall, doing better than before. The reconstruction is massive and real; as for the terror, none of my friends or members of the different NGOs, aside from those at Memorial who work directly with cases of missing people, torture and extrajudicial executions, seemed to worry much about it. They were vaguely aware that it was going on, in the mountains, but they didn’t know anyone directly touched by it; the phenomenal corruption concerned them much more. And speaking of normalisation would in a way have been ‘true’, for the problem here is not a problem of facts, but one of perspective, of point of view.

I worked in Chechnya during the two wars, first in 1996 and then for about 15 months at the beginning of the second war in autumn 1999, and I have always kept close contacts there. Thus, like the Chechens themselves, I remember very well those years when the life of a Chechen wasn’t worth a kopek; when a man could disappear, be tortured and then murdered because he had met the gaze of a drunk soldier at a checkpoint; when girls were raped then killed, the way you throw away a broken object; when you found the corpses of young men rounded up in the great zachistki – the ‘cleansing’ operations of the federal troops – tied up in barbed wire and burned alive; when panicking families scurried desperately to collect a few thousand dollars to ransom their arrested men before it was too late, and when it was too late still had to spend the money to buy back the corpses; when children grew up in filthy camps with almost no education, if they weren’t killed or mutilated by a bomb, a mine, an idle sniper; when the shakhidki, the ‘black widows’ who blew themselves up to take a few Russians with them, did it not out of religious belief but out of pure despair, because they had no men left, not a single one, and not a single child either. For most Chechens, who have forgotten none of all that, it is obvious that things are ‘better’.

Memorial would almost agree with this view. In Moscow, in June, Cherkasov, who has been following the events in the North Caucasus since the first war of 1994-96, described ‘Chechenisation’ – the name given to the decision taken by Vladimir Putin in 2002 to set up a strong pro-Russian government, made up mainly of former rebels, led by the former pro-independence mufti Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov – as ‘the transfer of full authority to conduct illegal violence from federal to local structures’. And Cherkasov, like his colleagues, agreed that this ‘Chechenisation’ had brought about a real change. ‘The violence is no less cruel,’ he pointed out, ‘but it’s more selective.’ Oleg Orlov, Memorial’s chairman, confirmed this to me: ‘In 2007, when Ramzan Kadyrov came to power, the number of tortures and missing persons fell drastically. In his first year, Kadyrov even used the rhetoric of the human rights defenders!’

Memorial is the only organisation to collect systematic statistics on disappearances and murders in Chechnya; even though these are considerably lower than the actual numbers – ‘we think we’re informed of roughly 30 per cent of the cases,’ Orlov says – they give quite an accurate idea of how things have evolved. In 2006, the final year in power of Alu Alkhanov, the interim president appointed by Putin after the assassination in May 2004 of Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov, Memorial recorded 187 cases of kidnapping; 11 of the victims were found dead and 63 disappeared for ever (the others were either freed, usually after being tortured, or resurfaced in the official legal system, to be tried). In 2007, they documented 35 cases of kidnapping, with one dead and nine missing. At the time of my discussions with Orlov and his colleagues, in May and June, they were noticing a definite increase for 2009, with the numbers of missing and murdered for the first four months of the year already equal to those for the whole of last year. But although the extent of the terror may be Stalin-like in terms of percentages, it is very different if you look at the net figures. Out of 74 cases of disappearance or illegal arrest documented by Memorial between January and June this year, 57 were set free, although usually after being tortured. Four were executed, and 12 ‘disappeared without trace’, which means they were killed too. Sixteen dead in six months is nothing like the numbers of the early years of the war, or even of the Alkhanov period. This is because Kadyrov, like his master in Moscow, knows perfectly well that a few cases suffice to maintain fear.

We know in theory that our representations condition our experiences; but we forget it all the time, and our minds always want to believe that all we have seen, heard and understood combines to form a fresh, ‘objective’ representation. When Cherkasov told me in June that ‘hell has become comfortable, but it’s still hell,’ or when Orlov asserted that ‘the result of this endless war, of this huge quantity of bloodshed and violence, is that a totalitarian system is now being built,’ I thought to myself, yes, maybe, but still, they’re exaggerating a little, they’ve been caught up in it for so long, they lack perspective. Everyone, of course, is trapped in his own representations, I was well aware of that: my mistake was to think that my own were closer to reality than theirs. And who knows anything about the real? The real is two bullets in the head. And only those to whom that has happened are able to glimpse, for a more or less brief instant, the real come smashing down onto them with all its weight, crushing all representations, for ever.

On the morning of 15 July, Natalia Estemirova, one of the main Memorial activists in Grozny, the one who had the best contacts and brought back the most information, was, according to Memorial, ‘forcibly shoved, near her apartment, into a white VAZ-2107 sedan and then screamed that she was being kidnapped’. That same evening, I learned that her corpse had been found in the woods on the Ingush border, with several bullets in her head and body, precisely because she had dealt with what she wasn’t supposed to deal with, for even if you weren’t entirely obliged to sing the praises of Ramzan Kadyrov from the rooftops you still at least had to let him kill and torture in peace those who needed to be killed or tortured. Last year, Estemirova had taken the liberty of criticising Kadyrov’s veil policy on Russian television; she had declared that even if she wore it, out of respect, when she visited families in a village, she refused to wear it at her places of work, at the Prokuratura or in the ministry buildings, and that ‘the government had no right to get mixed up in the private lives of citizens’; a few days later, she was summoned by Kadyrov, who insulted and threatened her, shouting at her that uncovered hair excited him, did she want to excite him, then she was nothing but a whore, not a woman, and then he said to her, according to Memorial: ‘Yes, my hands are covered in blood. And I’m not ashamed of it. I have killed and I’ll go on killing evil people. We’re fighting against the enemies of the republic.’ Estemirova, obviously, was an evil person, an enemy of the republic. Orlov, whom I know a little, is not a man who loses his temper or his sense of moderation; thus, when I read what he wrote on the night of the murder, I could measure all the rage and bitterness and also the wild guilt he must feel:

I am sure of who is to blame for the murder of Natalia Estemirova. We all know this man. His name is Ramzan Kadyrov, he is the president of the Chechen Republic. Ramzan had already threatened Natalia, had insulted her, regarded her as his personal enemy. We don’t know if he gave the order himself or if it came from his personal entourage, to please their leader. And President Medvedev, obviously, is happy to have a murderer at the head of one of the subjects of the Russian Federation.

Orlov feels guilty about the death – he says so later on in his communiqué – but he too knows who is responsible for it, and he finally says openly and out loud what everyone knows, that Kadyrov may be many things, but he is above all a murderer.

During my trip just a few months earlier, however, none of any of this was apparent. On my first day in Grozny, I asked to tour the city. Already, from the plane, flying over the long Staropromyslovsky Shosse north of Grozny, I could make out the extent of the reconstruction: all the buildings lining the avenue looked new, their green roofs and canary-yellow façades brightening the gloomy countryside around them; even there, on the outskirts of the city, you have to look for a long time, and know what you’re looking for, to notice the scars of the old trenches or of the tank emplacements on the hilltops. In the centre of town, everything is spanking new, absolutely everything: not just the fully rebuilt 19th-century buildings lining the Prospekt, the oldest in the city, but the pavements, the streets, the grass borders with automatic sprinklers, the little trees wrapped in strings of red and blue lights planted in the median that divides the main road, the signs, the traffic lights, the pedestrian signals which count down the seconds left to cross the street. Further on, at the end of the avenue, opposite the bronze monument of Kadyrov senior – recently removed with great ceremony, apparently to counter accusations of idolatry made by fundamentalist rebels – stands, surrounded by fountains and lawns, the pharaonic great mosque of Grozny, a copy of the Blue Mosque of Istanbul, built entirely of marble and hand-decorated by an army of Turkish artisans. A little lower down, the golden domes of the Orthodox cathedral gleam brightly, completely reconstructed by Kadyrov junior in a spirit of perfect ecumenism even while his men continue to harass or kill the rare Russian civilians who persist in wanting to live in Chechnya.

At night, eating half-congealed sushi in a recently opened Japanese restaurant, I thought about the curious sensation I had had when Tamir was driving me through the city, the feeling of a phantom reality superimposing itself on another one, the beautiful new city deposited over the outlines of the ruined, ravaged, devastated old city without managing to annul it, as if each were the dream of the other. I had once lived for months in this city, and I know its landmarks and neighbourhoods well, but now my internal compass was completely disoriented; I recognised the directions of the avenues but nothing of what lined them; I identified buildings by where they were rather than what they looked like; I knew that there, at such a place, must be Hospital No. 9, but when it did in fact appear, I recognised nothing, nothing at all.

‘Ramzan is the only one who is right,’ Moussa, a Chechen human rights defender says sarcastically.* ‘He is the khozyain,’ the boss, ‘he is the barin, and all others must carry out his will.’ But if Kadyrov is indeed a dictator, omnipotent in his little kingdom, he is not a samostoyatelny dictator, as the Russians would say, a dictator who draws his power from himself. Just like his father, Kadyrov is Putin’s anointed, and his power is based above all on the personal protection of the Russian prime minister, the best krysha – ‘roof’, a Russian euphemism for protection – in a country entirely structured by relations of krysha. ‘It’s not a secret that Ramzan really has a special relationship with Putin,’ Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, comments in his vast office on the sixth floor of the Moscow White House. ‘He has got a special respect, from Putin, and for Putin.’

This relationship goes back, of course, to the one established by Putin with Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov, during the time, in 2000, when he made him his liegeman in Chechnya. ‘Putin,’ Peskov elaborates, ‘found that Akhmad Kadyrov had a very rich inner world, he had a very firm vision of a possible future for Chechnya.’ From a Russian standpoint, the ‘Kadyrov project’ seemed from the outset exactly what was required. But on 9 May 2004, during the Victory Day celebrations in the new stadium in Grozny, Akhmad Kadyrov was killed by a bomb hidden beneath his seat. As soon as he learned the news, Putin summoned Ramzan, who happened to be in Moscow that day, to the Kremlin: the famous photograph of their meeting – which shows Putin, barely concealing an annoyed grimace, facing a shocked Ramzan on the verge of tears, still dressed in jeans – was immediately perceived as the image of an anointment ceremony.

In his efforts to maintain and develop his power, in his policies and his practices, Kadyrov follows the line set out by his father to the letter. ‘I don’t have a programme, the programme was already set out during my father’s lifetime,’ he declared in early August to a journalist from Radio Liberty. ‘We are accomplishing everything that was indicated by our first president; today we are realising his entire programme, we are leading it to its logical conclusion.’ This ‘programme’ includes the merciless repression of Islamist rebels and opponents, but it also has its ‘positive’ aspects. One cannot deny that Kadyrov has a certain social legitimacy. Even if it is grossly exaggerated by the authorities, even if it is not clear how far it extends beyond the limits of his clan, his teip, and even if it is impossible to measure in a political system that has neither elections nor opinion polls, and where every declared opponent is threatened, tortured or killed, it exists, and Kadyrov does everything he can to reinforce it.

His efforts are concentrated on three sectors: reconstruction and economic development, the surrender or return of former separatist rebels, and the promotion of a form of Islam presented as ‘traditional’. One could say that his power rests on five pillars. Putin’s support remains the central pillar, the one on which the whole edifice rests; the day Putin, for whatever reason, lets Kadyrov go, he will quickly disappear. Terror, reconstruction, co-opting and Islam form the corner pillars. These seem solid; Kadyrov is proud of them and boasts about them. But each of them is in a certain way eroded from within. Terror, of course, serves only to generate new enemies, to push new generations to ‘head for the forest’; as for economic development, it is drowned in the immense swamp of corruption; co-option forces many ex-rebels to take part in turn in the repression of their former brothers in arms; and the Islamic renewal is driven in large part by a veiled war against modernity and above all against the status of women.

In Grozny, when you talk to people about their problems – even, before the murder of Estemirova, when you talked with the Chechens of Memorial – it’s not fear or repression they mention first, but corruption. ‘Everything is rotten, rotten, rotten,’ Issa, a Chechen friend, mutters. We are sitting in the kitchen of his house drinking beer that he has bought illegally from a little shop: Kadyrov, in the name of the new Islamic morality, authorises the sale of strong alcohol only between 8 and 10 in the morning. ‘The worst tragedy is that the young know nothing but that. They go to school, their parents pay. They go to university, their parents pay. They pass the exams, their parents pay. They want a job, their parents pay. They see all that. They know nothing but that – for them, life is like that. But here it was never like that before, everyone says so. Never. We’re living like Orientals.’ Today, in Grozny, you have to pay $1100 to become a driver of marshrutka, the collective taxis that Kadyrov has taken complete control of; between $1300 and $2000 to get a job as a nurse; $3000 to become a fireman. These sums correspond to three or four months’ salary. If you keep the job, all well and good; but, as Issa explains to me, ‘often, ministers receive an order from above: hire 15 people. Thus 15 others who have already paid for their job have to be fired, so the new ones can pay too. Or else it’s guys from Tsentoroi, they all have to have a job too.’ For Kadyrov’s reign is largely clan-based: as another Chechen friend explains to me, ‘you just have to say “I’m from Khosi-Yurt”’ – the historical name of Tsentoroi – ‘i vsyo, that’s all.’

Civil servants, whom Russians ever since Peter the Great have called the chinovniki, also have to pay their dues. Every few months, all government employees, including policemen, doctors and teachers, are obliged to transfer a portion of their salary to the Akhmad-Khadzhi Kadyrov Fund, or FAK, a private foundation headed by Aimani, Ramzan’s very powerful mother. It’s impossible to pursue any serious economic activity in the republic without passing through Kadyrov. If a business is more or less successful, or if its owner has good protection, Kadyrov leaves it to him and taxes him; if it is very successful, he takes it away.

The story of the nine Ozdiev brothers from Bashi-Yurt is typical. A powerful family, as families with many sons often are here, they had succeeded in setting up a large chain of service stations in Dagestan and Chechnya, modern, brand-new stations bearing their name on the front. The conflict with Kadyrov began, apparently, not because of these service stations but because of plots of land that Kadyrov coveted for the creation of Berkat, the immense central market where he has forced all the merchants from different bazaars to come and work. I don’t know the details of the struggle, except that the large house of one of the nine brothers was razed to the ground by a bulldozer in front of TV cameras for ‘illegal construction’; and all their stations in Chechnya, which you can see pretty much everywhere, in town or along the highways, are now closed. ‘Here,’ the Chechen friend telling me this story comments, ‘you don’t have the right to have money. Only he does.’ And Kadyrov doesn’t seem to realise that he might have limits; on the contrary, the idea of limits makes him laugh openly. In May, when he had to submit his declaration of net worth, obligatory for all regional governors, he listed as his entire personal property a 36m2 three-room apartment (no doubt he meant two) in Grozny and a Zhiguli, the Soviet Fiat Panda. Questioned on the subject by REN-TV, Sergei Stepashin, the chairman of the Russian Audit Chamber, replied: ‘All of Chechnya is his property. Don’t worry about him.’

One cannot however distinguish the global phenomenon of corruption in Chechnya from what might be called ‘extra-budgetary circuits of public financing’, a parallel form of taxation. For with at least a part of the money that he handles, diverts or extorts, Kadyrov builds things that serve the inhabitants of his kingdom: roads, schools, hospitals and other sorts of infrastructure. All this is made possible by Russian money, considerable sums budgeted and transferred over many years for the reconstruction of Chechnya. But Russian money alone doesn’t explain everything; this was made clear in the case of South Ossetia, where the hundreds of millions offered by Moscow after last summer’s war simply evaporated, no doubt into bank accounts in Switzerland or Cyprus, leaving the city of Tskhinvali just as devastated as it was before. Kadyrov, however, puts his money to work, and if others get rich along the way, so much the better: like Reagan, or Mobutu, he is a great adept of ‘trickle-down economics’. The fact is that the money looted by the civil servants, from the lowest to the highest, is in large part reinvested locally, in the form of jobs in the construction sector, purchases, gifts to family relations.

According to what I have been told, Kadyrov quickly gets angry if his henchmen try to invest outside Chechnya. He is anxious for his policies to produce results visible to everyone, reconstruction above all, and all his ministers know that their private bank accounts, their apartments and their beautiful furniture are directly dependent on the achievements of their teams. As another Chechen friend, Vakha, acknowledges, despite his detestation of the Kadyrov system, ‘the son has his positive sides. He has a good brain, and he is very strong. He forces people to work. At the end of 2005, when he was still prime minister, he had Prospekt Pobedy’ – the big central avenue, since rebaptised Prospekt Putina – ‘remade in two weeks, in time for the New Year. He forced people to work 24 hours a day, even the ministers. That was a very good experience for him, it taught him a lot.’ Yet as Estemirova, who certainly did not deny the amplitude of Kadyrov’s material achievements, once said, ‘the economic gains were in inverse proportion to the moral ones.’

Valid Kuruyev, the deputy mufti of Chechnya, receives me on a Friday afternoon in his little office at the corner of the great mosque, where he is on duty that day. The religious strategy of the Chechen government is clear: to promote a so-called ‘traditional’, Sufi Islam in order to counter the rise of the Salafism of the Islamic militants, the ones the Russians call ‘Wahhabis’. Chechnya, historically, has always been Sufi; the Islamisation of the teips, in the 18th century, was brought about by Sufi preachers from the Naqshbandi order or tariqat coming from Dagestan, and during the following century it was the Naqshbandi sheikhs, the most famous of them the Imam Shamil, who led the resistance against the Russian invasion. Towards the end of the 1850s, just as Shamil was finally driven to surrender by Prince Bariatinski, a young Chechen shepherd called Kunta-Khadzhi Kishiev, who had been initiated into the Qadiriyya in Baghdad, began preaching a new, quasi-quietist religious message, in which internal jihad and acceptance of the evil of the external world took the place of the external and permanent jihad of the Naqshbandi. Even though the Russians, rather stupidly, decided that he posed a threat to their still fragile rule and deported him to Siberia, where he died, Kunta-Khadzhi’s message spread like wildfire throughout the war-exhausted population.

The Kadyrovs, father and son, are followers of the wird (a sub-branch of the tariqat, a Sufi school) of Kunta-Khadzhi, and the father, once he was in power, often invoked the quietist message of Kunta-Khadzhi to justify his policies of surrender and collaboration. Mirzayev, the new mufti, is also a Kunta-Khadzhi, like Kuruyev. But Ramzan Kadyrov is careful to defer to the other Qadiri wirds as well as to the Naqshbandi: when the leaders of the Muftiat were debating which wird should be granted the management of the great mosque, Kadyrov ordered there to be a different imam every day, so that all might be satisfied. Thus the Kunta-Khadzhi have three days a week, and the Bamat-Girei of Avturi, another powerful Qadiri wird, one day; the Naqshbandi have three days, two for the dynasty of Yusup-Khadzhi and one for that of Tasho-Khadzhi. This shrewd policy, which buries once and for all the conflicts that have set the tariqats against each other for years, is no doubt an idea of Akhmad-Khadzhi, who as mufti perfectly mastered the subtleties of religious politics in Chechnya. Nevertheless, Sharia law, in one form or another, is still at the heart of this project.

Kadyrov and his muftis claim a traditionalist discourse, but it is traditional in name only. Mirzayev and Kuruyev both sat on the former separatist president Maskhadov’s Sharia high court, and Kuruyev, like almost all of his colleagues, studied in Egypt for a total of eight years. As he explains his religious programme, it is harder and harder for me to distinguish it, theologically speaking, from the one preached on YouTube by the Islamist rebel leader Doku Umarov or his new ideologue, a Buryat convert who calls himself Sheikh Sayeed. There are important ‘technical’ distinctions, such as the zikr (a mystical Sufi ritual dance), the veneration of the dead, and the rejection, by the rallied religious figures, at least when they speak in public, of jihad against Russia. But the spirit appears the same to me, or almost so; and Chechnya’s present governing class’s desire for Sharia, or rather an à la carte neo-Sharia, seems very strong.

The new Islamisation of Chechnya is advancing unevenly, however; this is apparent in the case of alcohol, readily available and drunk by many, despite the attempts to restrict its sale. But it is above all the women who are paying the price for Kadyrov’s ‘return to tradition’, his imams and his siloviki, his strongmen. ‘The dictatorship being put into place also rests on the humiliation of women,’ Estemirova noted in April in front of the camera of the French journalist Mylène Saulois. The veil is already obligatory in all public buildings and at the university. At the entrance to the central office of the Chechen press, for example, a sign announces: DEAR WOMEN! FOR THE PURPOSE OF SHOWING RESPECT FOR NATIONAL TRADITIONS AND CUSTOMS, WE INSISTENTLY REQUEST THAT YOU ENTER THE DOM PECHATI BUILDING WITH YOUR HEAD COVERED. Kadyrov and his entourage also preach (and practise) multiple marriage quite openly, arguing a dearth of Chechen men after the war and the obligation for women to ‘behave well’, with threats to back the arguments up: ‘It’s better for a woman to be a second or third wife than to be killed’ (for her loose living, is the implication), Kadyrov declared in April in an interview with Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

The question of women’s conduct seems to obsess Kadyrov. Last July’s Russian GQ published a revealing interview, conducted by Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian Paris Hilton-style celebrity, and one of her Moscow journalist friends. To the question, ‘Tell us, what things are absolutely taboo, forbidden in a Chechen family?’ Kadyrov unhesitatingly replies: ‘Among the things that are forbidden are included everything you do … Everything you do, for our daughters and our sisters, is categorically forbidden. It is forbidden even to think about it! … You, you are both spoiled goods. A shame.’ And Kadyrov obviously believes that it is his duty, as president, personally to impose these rules of good conduct. When the bodies of several women were found around Grozny last November and December, he provoked a scandal by declaring (without the slightest proof) that these were murders of honour, indicating that he found this normal. The right to beat or kill one’s wives or daughters seems so fundamental to Kadyrov that he uses it as an argument to encourage the return of Chechen men exiled in the West. In February, he gathered together almost 400 former fighters, some of them very well-known figures, in a television studio to harangue them live for four hours and 20 minutes. (When the host tried to interrupt, after two hours, saying it was time for the news, Kadyrov retorted: ‘What do we care about the news! It only shows me anyhow.’) Returning to an incident he had already played up in the past, the story of a young Chechen girl from the diaspora who, beaten by her father, had reported him to the police of her host country, he launched into an extraordinary tirade, translated into Russian on the Prague Watchdog website:

He [the Chechen of the diaspora] must already know that he is not a man, if his daughter has the phone number of the police saved on her mobile phone. Every Chechen is afraid she’s going to make that phone call, try to tell me a single one of them isn’t afraid she’ll call that number. If he says that today he is a man, tomorrow he might no longer be a man, tomorrow he might no longer be able to answer for his child, to say ‘bang’ [he makes the sound of a gunshot] and shoot into the middle of her forehead with a pistol. If you can’t kill her like that, what is that? And if he doesn’t kill her, what kind of man is he? He brings shame on himself! Today he is a man, and tomorrow he is no longer a man. He cannot sell out his future that way! Don’t sell your future!

The fact is, however, that there is nothing traditional about these practices. Chechen women, of course, have always lived under very strong social control, but the control could be exercised only by men of their family: father, husband or brothers. The question of the behaviour of women was a strictly familial question, and each family could decide on the latitude it granted its women. But my interlocutors at the Muftiat or the government see no problem with the politicisation of social control. Valid Kuruyev prays to Allah that the government will pass a law making the veil obligatory: ‘If women cover their skin, their beautiful skin, there won’t be any more rapes, right?’ He tells me how his 129-year-old maternal grandmother in Goity continues to dress as she did before, with many layers covering her head and her entire body: ‘Everyone lived like that before! And she still lives like that. Before, when a man went out, a woman didn’t even cross the street! If she saw an old man, she turned back! Such was the respect for elders, for men. And now, look: split skirts, Da Vinci, what’s his name? Armani, Versace, all that, it’s not for Chechens. In the government, they’re all Muslims, right? They don’t want their daughters to walk around like that either.’ He concludes his diatribe with this profound thought: ‘The intelligence of a woman is like the tail of the frog.’

It’s the word ‘modernisation’, uttered by a young woman with whom I’m discussing these questions, that makes me think again about an idea that struck me as I left the theatre after the Dyen Stroitelei, a hypothesis rather: that Chechnya, because of the war and the massive destruction of the fabric of society it brought about, might well have passed directly from the traditional era to the postmodern era, to the contemporary globalised era, skipping over the stage of modernity. This isn’t actually correct, for Chechnya of course had a modernity, Soviet modernity. It penetrated the villages (Grozny, at the time, was a Russian city) only in its most basic forms – the teacher, the policeman, the Party secretary – and was never fully integrated; but nevertheless it slowly diluted and weakened the archaic social structures. In 1996, in Grozny, most of my colleagues drank vodka and thought it was perfectly legitimate to fast only three days for Ramadan; and one night, in Vedeno, I found myself, along with a French colleague, in the curious position of having to explain the basics and history of Islam to a group of Shamil Basayev’s fighters.

But the years of war, even if they contributed strongly – like all wars – to a renewal of religiosity if not of religion, also managed to destructure the most deeply rooted social codes, the codes of conduct and personal behaviour that form the very basis of ‘Chechenness’. The young men who grew up during those years, with fathers who were either dead or absent, or paralysed by their powerlessness, did not undergo the social training their elders did. I saw this every day during my trip; they hadn’t even learned the basic rules of politeness, like getting up when an older man enters the room. But when you see your president insulting much older men in public, even men who were close to his father, like Taus Dzhabrailov, demeaned and beaten for having dared to treat Kadyrov the way a Chechen man should treat a younger one, who could be surprised? And thus all this has had to be plastered over with a patched-up, makeshift discourse on ‘tradition’, and Islam, once a distinct component of Chechen identity, was folded over into Chechenness. Chechenness was identified with Islam to the exclusion of all its other components, which had become too fragile, eroded, even erased by the war. The archaic structures remain, in the underpinnings of people’s behaviour, but piled over them is a thick layer made up of a mixture of fast cash, business, mobile phones, Porsche Cayennes and Hummers, despotism, a total absence of restraint, and a half-reinvented and half-radicalised religion, with neo-traditional kitsch sprinkled over it. And all with the blessings of the Kremlin.

Victory is a subjective concept. It’s also sometimes a bureaucratic concept. The Russian victory in Chechnya that was officially declared on 16 April shows a little of both, as the communiqué published by the National Anti-Terrorism Committee demonstrates: ‘The President of the Committee, the director of the Federal Security Service Aleksandr Bortnikov … has cancelled the decree making the territory of the Chechen Republic a zone for carrying out anti-terrorist operations.’ A decision of this sort has a performative value: even if it is not at all certain to what extent it will be followed by concrete results, such as a withdrawal of Russian troops or the lifting of restrictions on journalists, it does alter the state of affairs, and lets us see a given situation from a new angle. It also alters the power balance. Requested by Kadyrov, and quickly authorised, certainly by Putin himself, against a number of objections stemming mainly from the military and the security services, the decree confirms Ramzan’s almost absolute power, and does even more to reinforce the ambiguity of his relations with Russia. Who, exactly, has ‘won’ here? Victory is also a fluid concept, subject to numerous interpretations.

Since the formal cancellation of the anti-terrorist operations regime, the Islamist militants have again become relatively active, and since early summer not a week has passed without an attack or a raid, and without the federal or Kadyrov’s police force suffering casualties. The situation is markedly worse in the neighbouring republics, in Dagestan and Ingushetia, but in Chechnya, for the first time in several years, it gives the impression of beginning to escape from the control of the authorities. Oleg Orlov told me even before the murder of Estemirova that he thought the increase in disappearances this year was directly linked to Kadyrov’s inability to obtain a ‘final’ victory, or even to check the flood of young people joining the resistance; events since then have only reinforced Orlov’s analysis. For it is obvious that despite all the efforts made by Kadyrov and his regime, despite the police jobs distributed to former rebel leaders and despite the promotion of a semi-fundamentalist Islam, the young continue to ‘head for the forest’. For Mairbek Vachagayev, the former spokesman for the separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, this is only logical: ‘The young see that the Sufi wirds are completely under the government’s thumb. They’re not stupid. And that sends them right into the arms of the Wahhabis.’ The arbitrariness, the corruption, the clannish nature of the regime disgusts many of them; as Orlov explained to me in Moscow, ‘in traditional Chechen society – which I am not idealising, far from it – there have always been checks and balances. Now there’s just one single force. And against this force nothing, not the elders, not the clan or teip relations, can do anything … When a Kadyrovets kidnaps a girl to make her his second or third wife, who can stand up to him? … Of course, one part of society cannot accept that, and one of the ways to protest – there are almost no others – is to go off with the boeviki.’

The phenomenon is impossible to quantify, and even hard to qualify. One has the impression, according to the meagre information available, that it remains relatively localised, especially in the villages around Vedeno, the historic centre of Chechen rebellion. But it isn’t just poor villagers who are angry with Kadyrov. Many sources, in both Moscow and Grozny, told me that in July last year he narrowly survived an assassination attempt organised by young people in his native village, Tsentoroi. The affair was kept secret, and the details remain vague: they say that the conspirators took advantage of a wedding to approach their target (Tsentoroi is usually completely closed off, and all the unreliable local residents have long been expelled, but for weddings or funerals guests are still allowed in). Yet all the sources confirm that one of the main youths responsible was the son of a member of the Kadyrov nomenklatura, a district administration chief called Baimuradov. ‘Zolotaya molodiozh’, a journalist from Novaya Gazeta calls them, ‘the golden youth’. And there are rumours that there was another serious assassination attempt this summer, in Grozny itself.

Kadyrov, for the Russians, is a double-edged sword. And the least one can say is that his relationship to his Kremlin and Moscow White House bosses is shrouded in ambiguity. During my conversation with Dmitri Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, I put the following question to him: ‘One of Putin’s main themes when he took office was the “vertical of power”, regaining control of the regions and their leaders. But his solution to the Chechen problem was to put in place an ultra-powerful president who commands a private army of 20,000 men and has considerable resources at his disposal, over whom Moscow has little control. Isn’t there a contradiction in this?’

Peskov, of course, hemmed and hawed, before acknowledging that Kadyrov, the only leader of a Russian region who appoints his own siloviki, ‘is trying to build his own vertical. That is understandable.’

‘But doesn’t that leave open the question of that vertical’s loyalty to Moscow?’

‘One vertical can be loyal, as a whole body, to a larger vertical.’

Moscow can certainly hope so, but it’s hard to guarantee, especially when you’re dealing with such a dynamic ‘vertical’. The Chechens, for the most part, firmly believe they won the war. My friend Vakha had cried out, during one of our conversations: ‘What did Russia take away from all this? Russia lost. We have de facto independence. Ramzan will always tout his loyalty to Russia, but here he is the owner. Russian law doesn’t apply here. Russians will never be able to come back to live in Grozny.’ When I repeat this to Peskov, he sketches a little smile: ‘Is that right? Well … I’ve never heard that before.’ But for him, as for his boss Putin, only one question really counts, that of separatism, the ‘bacteria of separatism’ as he calls it: everything else can be negotiated. Moscow could easily envisage, in Peskov’s words, an ‘enlarged autonomous status … as with Tatarstan. But only up to a certain red line. A certain red line exists for everyone.’ It is with this red line that Kadyrov seems constantly to be playing, and it is this, no doubt, that is such a source of confusion. Since the ‘red line’ of the Russians is purely symbolic, or even sacramental, its practical application in the real world, once it has been established that the Chechens have formally renounced the idea of legal independence, remains subject to interpretation. And Kadyrov gives the impression of constantly testing his limits, seeing how far they go; for the moment, publicly at least, no one seems to have imposed very precise limits on him.

Moreover it would seem that Kadyrov, for all his exuberance, his megalomania and his violence, is animated by motivations more profound than power for its own sake, or self-interest. ‘His father had a mission, thought that he had a mission to save his people,’ the Russian journalist Andrei Babitski explains to me in his Prague apartment, next to a bottle of wine and a television set permanently tuned to the Chechnya Today satellite channel. Babitski, almost the only Russian journalist to have stayed in Chechnya at the beginning of the second war, had to go into exile in 2000 after narrowly surviving a bungled operation mounted by the FSB to discredit and kill him; since then, he continues to cover Russia for Radio Liberty, and has developed the news website Prague Watchdog, to which many Chechens contribute. ‘Ramzan,’ Babitski goes on, ‘has taken on responsibility for this mission himself. It’s a mission received directly from God, to save his people, to give a future to Chechnya … We are all products of the Soviet system, we’ve learned to sacrifice the present in the name of the future. Morally, we are Soviets, Bolsheviks. Nothing has changed. I believe that Ramzan is like that too. The present means nothing to him, only the future … And in the name of this future, all methods are allowed.’

It remains to be seen how the Russians will be able to manage that, in the long term. Even if they might be content with the situation for now, even if they think everything is under control, they know how drastically everything can change from one instant to the next. As Vachagayev lucidly puts it, ‘everything is built on one single man … And today the entire republic has to pray for Ramzan Kadyrov, because if anything happens to him, they lose everything … Which means that it’s not a system. It’s not a long-term policy … It’s a moment that is given to Chechnya.’ A European ambassador told me that the subject had been brought up during a meeting with Aleksandr Bortnikov, the new head of the FSB: ‘When I asked him about Ramzan, he answered: “He’s far from ideal, but we don’t have an alternative solution.”’ To tell the truth, Moscow no longer has a choice but to believe in Kadyrov. And he, in turn, understands this perfectly.

The unconscious, as we know, has much more direct access to the truth of things than conscious reasoning. In Chechnya, in early May, the situation seemed almost normal, the country was visibly rebuilt, terror seemed a faraway thing, affecting just a few villages. My friends were bemoaning the corruption, but seemed no more worried than that; and in the mountains, the FSB let journalists run around and have picnics. I didn’t feel any fear, any anxiety, when I went about, either in Grozny or in the mountains. And why would I have been afraid? What problem could a foreign writer who’s only spending a few days there pose to Kadyrov? What could he learn by himself, even in two weeks, that the people at Memorial couldn’t tell him? Let him go, let him write what he wants, it’s all the same to us, they must have said to themselves, or rather that’s what I told myself they must have been saying to themselves.

And then, on one of my last nights in Chechnya, I dreamed of Ramzan. I was lying in a big, green, slightly sloping meadow surrounded by trees, a park maybe, and I was looking up at the sky. Above my head, behind me, rose a great crane, like the gantry cranes you see in ports, blue with dark red parts. Ramzan was standing at the top, at the tip of the cantilever, and was having men tied together in twos, some in uniform, others in civilian clothes, thrown over the edge. I watched them spin as they fell, then they disappeared from my field of vision to smash into the ground around me with a great muffled sound that I heard with horror, a mute anguish. As they fell I thought: now they’re still alive. And when they struck the ground I thought: now they are dead. There were many of them; and Ramzan, high above, was laughing as he watched them fall. And when he finally found himself alone he leaped in turn, unfurling a parachute that carried him gently, still laughing, to the ground.

This piece was translated from French by Charlotte Mandell.

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