Joshua Yaffa | Report from Grozny | February 8 & 15 Issue | THE NEW YORKER
Is the ruler of Chechnya out of control?
The center of Grozny, the capital of the Russian republic of Chechnya, is unrecognizable to anyone who saw it during the country’s two most recent wars against Russia. The First Chechen War, which began in 1994, was a war of nationalist resistance—Chechnya had declared independence from Russia when the Soviet Union disintegrated—and ended two years later, after a Russian bombing campaign killed thousands of civilians and left the city in ruins. The Second Chechen War, which the Russians launched in 1999, in an effort to curb not only Chechen separatism but the threat of militant Islam, wound down a decade later, with special operations carried out deep in the craggy, wooded hills of the Caucasus. These days, the rubble is gone. The city’s skyline is punctuated by the glass towers of Grozny-City, a collection of skyscrapers that house offices, luxury apartments, and a five-star hotel. Grozny is quiet and bland, with well-paved boulevards running through its center; there is still a faint air of menace—men in black uniforms stand with automatic rifles on many street corners—but the city’s flashier attractions, like a man-made lake with a light show, seem whimsical and family-friendly.
In 2011, Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, who rules the republic as his own private fiefdom but remains unquestionably loyal to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, showed off the Grozny-City complex at his extravagant thirty-fifth-birthday party. Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme appeared onstage—for unspecified fees—to watch an acrobatics show and a concert. Asked where the money for the celebration came from, Kadyrov told reporters, “Allah gives it to us.”
The skyscrapers loom over the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque, named for Kadyrov’s father and predecessor, who was assassinated in 2004. Known as “the Heart of Chechnya,” it was built by Turkish artisans, and opened in 2008. A vast hall lit by Swarovski crystal chandeliers holds ten thousand worshippers, and the mosque is ringed by manicured gardens and fountains decorated with colored lights.
One morning in November, I stood in a large square across from the mosque, waiting for a concert to begin. A young Grozny local had given me directions tinged with sarcasm: “Let’s meet in front of the Kadyrov Mosque, on Kadyrov Square, at the intersection of Kadyrov Prospect and Putin Prospect.” The concert had been organized by the Kadyrov administration in honor of National Unity Day, a Russian public holiday that, given the two wars over as many decades, is not without irony for Chechens.
The officials onstage issued wooden pronouncements on Russia’s many achievements. The crowd was mostly university students and bused-in state employees. Security guards prevented anyone from leaving until Kadyrov had spoken. “He wants to see that this big crowd of people has gathered for him—all voluntarily, of course,” the Grozny local said. But Kadyrov didn’t show—“If he doesn’t feel like it, he doesn’t come.” He delegated speechmaking duties to Magomed Daudov, a former rebel fighter who switched to Moscow’s side in 2004 and is still known by his nom de guerre, Lord. Daudov, who is now the speaker of Chechnya’s parliament, said, in a mumbly monotone, that Putin “demonstrates an excellent command of events and has the ability to respond appropriately to the challenges of our time.” Kadyrov, the “national leader” of the Chechen people, “understands well that only unity can provide a basis for the further rebirth and development of the republic.”
Kadyrov is thirty-nine. He has a thicket of reddish-brown hair growing into a pointy beard sculpted in the Chechen manner, and a guttural voice with the bass-amped rumble of a heavy truck. His squat, muscular frame reflects the amount of time that he spends on his physical-training routine. He is a skillful and popular politician, one of the few in modern Russia, where nearly all officials tend to be charmless functionaries. “Kadyrov’s rule rests on propaganda, fear—and real popularity,” Gregory Shvedov, the editor of Caucasian Knot, a news Web site, told me. “He is like the Chechen Putin.” Over the years, Kadyrov has tried out various personalities: the merciless warrior in fatigues who leads special operations to kill anti-government rebels; the jolly Caucasus baron who spars with Mike Tyson and shows off his private zoo; the family man and observant Muslim who has banned alcohol, ordered that women wear head scarves in public buildings, and boasts that his six-year-old son has memorized the Koran.
Kadyrov has more than one and a half million followers on Instagram. This fall, he posted a video of himself in which, kneeling on a sandy beach, he grabs a hissing python, talks quietly to it, and tosses it away. The snake, he wrote in the caption, “symbolizes the forces of evil that have taken over huge territories of the globe where hundreds of millions of people suffer.” The next day, he posted a photograph of himself discussing the preservation of Chechen traditions with a circle of ministers. “A people who have lost their national dances, rhythm, and music cease to be a nation,” he explained. He can be brutal and severe. In 2009, he told captured rebel fighters on local television, “You want to kill people? You kill my comrades, I’ll kill your father, your brother, all your pets.” But he can also appear genuine, even sensitive—another rarity in Putin-era politics. In November of last year, Kadyrov seemed sincerely moved by a meeting with a Chechen teen-ager whose father disappeared during the Second War. “You and I share the same sorrow,” he said, alluding to his own father’s death. He seized the boy by the arm and said, “When you told me how your father had been taken from you, I swear to Allah all I could do was cry.”
In 2011, Terek Grozny, the local soccer team, of which Kadyrov is the honorary president, announced that it had hired the Dutch coach Ruud Gullit. Gullit headed to Grozny with Tom Sauer, a young Dutchman, as his Russian translator. Sauer told me of driving around Grozny with Kadyrov behind the wheel of a luxury sedan as his bodyguard cradled a gold-plated AK-47. Once, after Gullit told Kadyrov during practice that the club hadn’t paid the players the bonuses they were owed, Kadyrov sent some of his men to his car to fetch bags filled with rubles. Sauer had dinner with Kadyrov several times. At one meal, he told Sauer that he had himself participated in the mission to kill the rebels who planned the attack against his father. “It’s not that people are scared of him,” Sauer said. “I would say: respectfully fearful.”
Long before the recent wars, Russians and Chechens harbored a mutual antagonism. In the Russian imagination, Chechnya, a thousand miles south of Moscow on the edge of the Caucasus mountains, is a place of violence, home to a people who are to be feared and ultimately subjugated, yet awarded the respect one gives to a valiant enemy. Throughout the nineteenth century, the tsar’s army waged a prolonged campaign against guerrilla fighters in the mountains. In “The Cossacks,” Tolstoy, who served as a young military officer in the Caucasus, depicts the Chechens as fierce warriors, and has a Chechen fighter tell a Russian adversary, “Your men slaughter ours, ours butcher yours.”
After the Bolshevik Revolution, Soviet power held the promise of modernization, and, with time, many Chechens joined the Communist system as professors, doctors, and state functionaries. Yet just as many remained hostile to the Russian state. During the Second World War, countless Chechens fought on the Soviet side against the Nazi invaders; others seized the moment to try to overthrow Moscow’s rule. In 1944, Stalin, using the pretext of perceived collaboration with the Germans, ordered the deportation of the entire population of Chechnya—half a million people—to the distant steppes of Kazakhstan. They remained there until 1957, when Nikita Khrushchev allowed them to begin to return home. Most Chechens have a grandfather or grandmother brought up in exile; many of the deportees died of cold and hunger. “Chechens remember everything,” Khassan Bayiev, a widely respected Chechen surgeon, who now lives in Boston, told me. “We know who is who—when Stalin died, the whole country was weeping, but we were dancing the lezginka.”
When Chechnya declared independence, in 1991, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former general in the Soviet Air Force with a trim mustache and a taste for fedoras, returned from Estonia and seized power. In 1994, Boris Yeltsin instigated the First Chechen War—what the head of his security council predicted would be a “small victorious war” to retake the region. During the next two years, more than five thousand Russian soldiers and more than fifty thousand Chechen civilians died. Dudayev himself was killed by Russian guided missiles when his satellite phone revealed his location. A negotiated political settlement brought the fighting to a close, and the region received the trappings of statehood but without formal recognition. A period of outright banditry ensued. Kidnapping became an industry. The nationalists who had led Chechnya during the war lost influence to violent Islamists. In 1999, Moscow launched a new campaign, overseen by Vladimir Putin, then the Prime Minister, who ascended to the Presidency with tough talk against those he labelled “terrorists.” He said, “We’ll waste them in the outhouse.”
Russian forces captured Grozny and other main cities, but Russian soldiers kept dying in high numbers. Even more politically dangerous for Putin, Chechen militants carried out terrorist attacks in Moscow and other Russian cities. In 2002, after Chechen terrorists took more than seven hundred hostages at a Moscow theatre, it was obvious that the Kremlin’s strategy would have to change.
The solution was a policy of “Chechenization,” under which the Kremlin would cede much of the political and military responsibility to its proxies in Grozny. If there was to be a war, let it be among Chechens. The Russians settled on Kadyrov’s father, Akhmad, to carry out the policy. A former chief mufti of separatist Chechnya, he had supported the call for jihad against the Russians during the First Chechen War, only to switch sides and declare allegiance to Moscow in the Second. “He sincerely believed that he was saving the Chechen people from certain death,” Ilyas Akhmadov, who served as the foreign minister of Chechnya’s short-lived separatist government, told me. The elder Kadyrov considered radical Islam, in the form of the Wahhabi practice that was seeping into the country, as urgent an enemy as Russia, and was ready to make a tactical alliance with Moscow to destroy it. Despite Akhmad Kadyrov’s defection, Akhmadov remembers him as “an energetic and brave man, with a great deal of personal courage.”
In 2003, with Chechnya once again incorporated into the Russian state, the elder Kadyrov was elected President of the republic, in a vote held under military occupation. Seven months later, he was dead, killed by a bomb blast at a Grozny stadium as he watched Russian soldiers on parade. Later that day, Ramzan, who was twenty-seven, was summoned to meet with Putin. Until then, Ramzan’s main interests, besides heading his father’s personal militia, were boxing and weightlifting.
In the meeting with Putin, which was televised nationally, Kadyrov’s blue nylon tracksuit set him apart amid the Kremlin’s pompous formality. Alexey Chesnakov, who worked in Putin’s administration at the time, said that a bond seemed to form between the two men that night. “Putin thought of Kadyrov the father as a person with whom he reached a particular political agreement—their relations were honest and businesslike but ultimately political,” Chesnakov said. “But he relates to the son with a certain warmth.” With Putin’s blessing, Kadyrov claimed the throne that had been granted to his father.
Just after the assassination, Anna Politkovskaya, a courageous journalist who wrote for the small, Moscow-based opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, went to interview Ramzan in the family’s home village of Tsentoroy, a place she described as “one of the unsightliest of Chechen villages, unfriendly, ugly and swarming with murderous-looking armed men.” The two had a frosty meeting, and it ended with Kadyrov calling Politkovskaya “an enemy of the Chechen people” and declaring that she “should have to answer for this.” (She was murdered in the stairwell of her apartment building in Moscow in 2006; multiple trials have produced murky and inconclusive results, and those implicated in the killing include three Chechen brothers and a retired F.S.B. officer. Kadyrov has denied any involvement.) In an article about the encounter with Kadyrov, Politkovskaya called the situation in Chechnya “an old story, repeated many times in our history: the Kremlin fosters a baby dragon, which it then has to keep feeding to stop him from setting everything on fire.”
After the Unity Day celebration, I made my way to a café off the square, where I shared a pot of tea with Timur Aliyev, an adviser to Kadyrov. (Despite multiple attempts, I was unable to secure a meeting with Kadyrov himself.) For years, Aliyev was one of Chechnya’s most respected independent journalists. In 2008, he quit reporting and took a job in Kadyrov’s administration. “I once believed in this image of him as a brutal guy,” Aliyev told me. “But then I got a chance to meet him.” In their conversations, he found himself impressed by Kadyrov, and was struck by his “high ethical qualities” and “high religiosity.” Aliyev went on, “He thinks of himself not just as the head of the Chechen republic but as a person who looks after the well-being of each individual.”
I asked about Kadyrov’s cult of personality. News broadcasts often lead with visits he’s made to local schools and gyms; in Grozny, I heard plenty of stories of citizens appealing to Kadyrov through messages on Instagram, and in many cases Kadyrov himself would show up the next day to fix some small problem or cajole an incompetent official into action. This was all positive, Aliyev said. “If we take the personal aspect out of this system, it stops being effective.” As for a day when Kadyrov no longer rules, Aliyev told me, simply, “I hope this time never comes.”
Since 2001, to keep the peace, the Russian government has flooded Chechnya with cash, including at least fourteen billion dollars for postwar reconstruction. Today, more than eighty-five per cent of Chechnya’s budget comes from Moscow. Another untold sum comes from an opaque fund named after Kadyrov’s father, which is financed by business owners and public employees—who are informally required to pay a portion of their income to the fund—and by Chechen oligarchs paying tribute to Kadyrov. The fund, in turn, disburses money for everything from repairing local hospitals to sending Chechens to Mecca for the hajj. Chechen officials have said that donations to the foundation are voluntary, but a staff member at a public institution in Grozny told me that as soon as the workers’ salaries are deposited they get a call from a superior, asking for around thirty to fifty thousand rubles, or four to six hundred dollars. “One time, he explained it was for organizing a big soccer match,” the person said. “Other times, he doesn’t give any explanation at all.” The fund, an indulgence granted to no other Russian governor, frees Kadyrov from complete financial dependence on the Kremlin.
Since succeeding his father, Kadyrov has wrested power not just from the Russian generals and intelligence officers who once oversaw Chechnya but also from internal rivals hailing from other prominent Chechen clans. In this, he resembles Putin, who built what has been called a “vertical of power” across the whole of Russia under his centralized authority. Chechnya is far smaller and more homogenous, so Kadyrov’s power is even more pronounced. Putin has eliminated opponents largely through political trickery and co-optation, reserving outright force for rare occasions. Kadyrov prefers blunter, unmistakably violent means.
For many years, Kadyrov’s chief rivals were the Yamadayev brothers, who had powerful patrons in Moscow. In 2008, Ruslan Yamadayev, a member of the Russian parliament, was shot and killed in his car, outside the Russian White House, the chief office of government administration in Moscow; in 2009, his younger brother Sulim was killed in the parking garage of a luxury apartment tower in Dubai, where he was living under an assumed name. A Dubai court tried and convicted two men, including an Iranian who worked as a stable hand for Kadyrov—Kadyrov keeps racehorses in Dubai—for carrying out the assassination. Dubai police testified in court that Adam Delimkhanov—Kadyrov’s closest ally, enforcer, and heir apparent—provided the killers with the murder weapon, a gold-plated 9-mm. pistol, and they put him on the Interpol wanted list. Delimkhanov denied involvement. He is a deputy in the Russian parliament, and maintains an unblemished legal record in Russia—though he once got into a fistfight with another deputy inside the parliament building in Moscow and a gold-plated handgun fell to the floor beside him. A third Yamadayev brother, Isa, published an open letter in a Moscow newspaper in 2009, claiming that Kadyrov had tried to kill him, but he reached an apparent truce with Kadyrov the next year. The end of the Yamadayev brothers as a political force left Kadyrov with nearly unchecked power. “These were strong guys with connections to the F.S.B.,” the successor agency to the K.G.B., Alexey Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told me. “But it turns out that even the F.S.B. couldn’t defend them, because Kadyrov isn’t protected by the F.S.B., or by the state writ large, but by Putin himself.”
Over the years, various enemies of Kadyrov’s have turned up dead. In 2009, Umar Israilov, a onetime Kadyrov bodyguard who had been given asylum in Austria, was shot dead on a street in Vienna. In Chechnya, he had been captured as a rebel fighter, and ended up in a torture chamber effectively under Kadyrov’s control. As the Times reported, Israilov said that Kadyrov “amused himself by personally giving prisoners electric shocks or firing pistols at their feet.” As Israilov told it, he was saved by agreeing to join Kadyrov’s security forces, but his father urged him to desert, and he fled to Western Europe. After a yearlong investigation, Austrian officials alleged that Kadyrov had ordered Israilov to be abducted; he was shot when the operation went awry, they said. Kadyrov denied any role in the killing.
In London, I spoke with Akhmed Zakayev, once the prime minister of Chechnya’s separatist government. For several years beginning in 2008, Kadyrov sent emissaries to try to convince Zakayev that he should come home. Zakayev rebuffed the offer. “You are traitors,” he instructed an intermediary to tell Kadyrov. He heard later that Kadyrov had shouted, “My main goal in life is to kill Zakayev!”
In 2012, Britain’s security forces detained a Chechen man based on MI5’s suspicion that he had flown to London to assassinate Zakayev, on orders from Kadyrov. (Kadyrov’s spokesman denied the allegations.) Zakayev now lives under British state protection. We met for tea in London. He told me, “Certain people know where I am, where we are sitting, with whom I’m talking, how I arrived here, and how I will depart.” He said that over many centuries Chechen tradition has favored a consensus among families, with no one clan holding absolute power. “A feudal system has been forced on us, in which a new caste has appeared in Chechen society,” he said of Kadyrov and his inner circle—one that is above all other clans, and above the law.
“I’m the boss,” Kadyrov told a televised meeting of Chechen officials in 2011. “And no one else but me, understand? Ramzan—and that’s it. No other names in this region. There is only one name—Kadyrov.”
Russian federal troops are practically invisible in Chechnya, confined to a single base east of Grozny. The uniformed men with automatic rifles in the capital and in smaller towns are Chechen forces, not Russian, and their loyalties lie with Kadyrov, not with Moscow. Between twenty and thirty thousand men are estimated to serve in units under Kadyrov’s unofficial control. As Kadyrov has accrued power, Moscow has come to matter less and less in Chechnya. “Federal law does not work at all,” Svetlana Gannushkina, a human-rights activist who often works on cases in Chechnya, told me. “But, at the same time, there is no homegrown Chechen system of law. So what is there, then? One thing, just one law, which can be formulated in two words: Ramzan’s order.”
Kadyrov’s militias have enabled him to crush Chechnya’s Islamic insurgency, which is likely his most important achievement in Putin’s eyes. Last year, just fourteen people were killed in violence related to the lingering insurgency, compared with eighty-two in 2012 and ninety-five in 2011. Igor Kalyapin, the head of the Committee Against Torture, a Russian legal-aid N.G.O., told me that Putin and the security officials around him operate under the assumption that success in the war against Islamic terrorism in the Caucasus—one of the signal achievements of Putin’s Presidency, and a pillar of his popular legitimacy—couldn’t have been accomplished by strictly following the law. “They think that to keep the peace with legal methods is impossible. So that’s why you have kadyrovtsy”—the militiamen loyal to Kadyrov—“who terrorize the population, who kidnap and, yes, torture people. But it’s not possible to do it any other way.”
After a rare terrorist attack in downtown Grozny, in December, 2014, which left more than a dozen officers in Chechnya’s security forces dead, Kadyrov responded with a punitive campaign against the relatives of suspected militants. “If a rebel kills a policeman or another person, his family will be immediately expelled from Chechnya with no right to return, and his house will be razed to the ground,” he told his security officials. The homes of several families were burned down in the middle of the night.
Such collective punishment is illegal in Russia, and, as the house burnings gained media attention, Putin was forced to respond. At his annual year-end press conference, he said, “Everyone must obey Russian law.” Even if families knew that relatives were involved in terrorism, he said, “that does not give the right to anyone to vigilante justice, including the head of Chechnya.” Nevertheless, more homes were destroyed in the following days. Chechen families consist of dozens or hundreds of people in an extended clan, so it’s never difficult to find someone to pressure or intimidate. “The misfortune of one person becomes the misfortune of a whole family,” a human-rights activist explained.
Kadyrov’s forces represent a convenient instrument for the Kremlin: obedient, battle-hardened troops who can be counted on for messy missions. Fighters identifying themselves as kadyrovtsy popped up in eastern Ukraine throughout 2014, where they took part in decisive battles in support of pro-Russian rebels. A former officer of Sever (“North”), a Chechen special-forces unit under Kadyrov’s informal authority, told me that he once recognized another retired member of the unit in a YouTube clip filmed in Donetsk, the capital of rebel-held eastern Ukraine. Onscreen, a Chechen gunman tells the camera that he has come to “defend the interests of the Russian Federation.” The former officer told me that when he saw the video he exclaimed, “Oh, he’s one of ours!”
More recently, Kadyrov has offered his fighters to Putin for use in Syria, where Russia is bombing rebels but has not launched a full-scale ground operation. He proposed sending Chechen special forces, saying in a radio interview, “If our request is granted, it will be a celebration for us.” Another member of Sever, still active in the unit, told me that when the Afghan warlord Rashid Dostum visited Chechnya, last October, Kadyrov ordered members of the republic’s armed units to attend an impromptu rally. With Dostum at his side, Kadyrov wanted to know who was willing, if asked, to fight in Syria. Every soldier stepped forward. “We are waiting for the call,” the Sever officer told me. “If Putin says to Ramzan, ‘Get your army together,’ we are ready.”
In December, 2014, Kadyrov summoned thousands of armed men from Chechnya’s various security forces together in Grozny’s soccer stadium. He delivered a rousing speech. “We say to the entire world that we are combat infantry of Vladimir Putin,” he said. Russia may have its regular military, but “there are tasks that can be solved only by volunteers, and we’ll solve them.” The rally both proved Kadyrov’s unique loyalty and reminded Putin of Kadyrov’s strength: if the Kremlin were to reconsider its bargain with Kadyrov, tens of thousands of armed men might have something to say about it.
Kadyrov has fashioned Chechnya in his own image. The republic is now governed by diktats inspired by Sharia jurisprudence and Kadyrov’s personal interpretation of adat, a traditional Chechen code of behavior. In 2010, after vigilantes drove around Grozny firing paintballs at uncovered women, Kadyrov said that he wanted to “give an award” to the men. He has displayed a contradictory attitude toward honor killings, condemning the practice while placing it within Chechen tradition. “Here, if a woman does not behave properly, her husband, father, and brother are responsible,” he said in a 2008 interview. “According to our tradition, if a woman fools around, her family members kill her. . . . As a President, I cannot allow for them to kill. So let women not wear shorts.” Last November, the Kadyrov administration issued an order requiring all Chechen police officers to read three hundred thousand prayers to the Prophet Muhammad in the course of the month.
Early one morning in Grozny, I sat in an office off the cavernous main hall of the Kadyrov Mosque with Usman Osmaev, the republic’s deputy mufti, who is thirty-eight. He praised Kadyrov and his amalgam of religion and government. “He needs correct Islam; we need a correct state,” Osmaev said. “What he has achieved is that we have returned to our roots: in religion, adat, culture.” When it came to how such prescriptions were enforced, Osmaev told me, in the span of one sentence, that “nothing is forced,” but, even so, in matters like dress and behavior “the only requirement is that people follow the mentality of the Chechen people.”
One of the more sensitive subjects is polygamy, given that it is unequivocally prohibited by Russian law, but Kadyrov and other Chechen officials have repeatedly come out in favor of the practice. In 2011, Kadyrov told a Russian newspaper reporter that he was looking for a second bride, but couldn’t find a woman beautiful enough. “If you have love, then you can take up to four wives,” he explained, citing Sharia law. Last May, a fifty-seven-year-old district police chief took a Chechen teen-ager—she was said to be seventeen—as his second wife. The ceremony became a short-lived sensation in Russian politics, and Kadyrov weighed in, calling it “the marriage of the millennium.”
When I asked Osmaev about polygamy, he replied, “O.K., so there is only one official stamp in your passport—but, in actual fact, please get married a second, third, fourth time. A man has a right to live with as many girls as he wants.”
Kadyrov’s government may be entirely illiberal, and far from purely faithful to Islamic or even Chechen tradition, but, given the sense of trauma and dislocation after twenty years of conflict, it has many elements that are welcomed by the population. Hardly a day passes in Grozny without a dance performance by a local troupe or an athletic competition featuring Chechen sportsmen. One night, I spoke to a woman who is a remaining representative of Grozny’s intelligentsia, a once thriving social class that was largely lost when the city was destroyed. “We were in a difficult position after two wars, spiritually and morally dead,” she told me. “And, while we should keep in mind all the negative parts of his character, in terms of the spiritual aspect Kadyrov has put an end to our decline.” She went on, though, to say that the state could do only so much, and that it would be up to Chechens themselves to rebuild their culture—a tall order, given the state’s degree of intrusion into everyday lives. “Ramzan on his own isn’t culture; it’s just a forced choice, to require this, ban that, build something here, and then declare this culture,” she said. Some traditions were returning, others were being lost—often both at the same time. “When I was a young girl, my grandfather made me wear a head scarf,” she said. “I was afraid of him. He explained to me, ‘You are a Chechen girl, and so you will wear a head scarf.’ But today we don’t have such grandfathers, and instead their role is played by the Department of Spiritual and Moral Education.”
Magomed Khambiev was once the minister of defense in the separatist government, in charge of Chechnya’s rebel forces. He is fifty-three, with a taut, weathered face and wisps of silver hair. During the Second Chechen War, he stayed loyal to the separatist cause long after Kadyrov’s father switched sides. But his commitment to fighting Moscow—which, by the early aughts, meant battling Kadyrov’s forces, too—caused problems for his family. In 2002, an older brother was kidnapped and never seen again. Other relatives were frequently hauled off for questioning and pressured into revealing his whereabouts. In 2004, according to human-rights activists, Chechen security forces arrested at least forty of Khambiev’s relatives—including women and old people—and held them hostage. “I could see the end was near,” he said. “Should I become an enemy to my own family? Every step I took was a further risk to them.” He joined Kadyrov. At first, he thought of his decision as a defeat and a sign of great weakness.
But Khambiev came to believe in the state that Kadyrov was building. “Ramzan said to me, ‘Think about it—I am giving you the chance to live in peace.’ ” Khambiev decided that Kadyrov was right, that the smarter path lay in reaching accommodation with Moscow, rather than remaining its perpetual enemy. “We couldn’t win independence by force—to continue down that road would be to destroy the Chechen people. But, here and now, I live how I want, in my own state, with my own President.” Khambiev now heads a committee on law enforcement and security in Chechnya’s parliament, a body wholly subservient to Kadyrov. With obvious pride, he explained to me that Kadyrov has willed into being a Chechen state that surpasses what he and other rebel commanders once fought so hard to achieve. “The Russian generals wanted to be bosses here, for me to stay on my knees and beg and sob before them,” he said. “Well, it turns out they lost and I won. We Chechens have become rich, and proud, and independent from them.”
In February, 2008, Oleg Orlov, the board chairman of a Moscow-based human-rights organization called Memorial, received an invitation from people close to Kadyrov to speak with him about Memorial’s activities in Chechnya. He went, thinking that it would be a chance to explain the group’s work to Kadyrov and perhaps gain a measure of protection for staff members in the organization’s Grozny office. Several colleagues, including Svetlana Gannushkina, the human-rights activist, accompanied him. In Grozny, they waited for hours, until, just before midnight, two cars came to pick them up and deliver them to one of Kadyrov’s residences. Sirens blaring, they drove along an empty road that had been cleared of traffic and passed through a wrought-iron gate flanked by a pair of bronze lions. “It was like some kind of Babylon,” Orlov said.
They walked into an enormous foyer, bare except for a billiard table and a display case with a collection of rare weapons: antique sabres, ornate pistols, an engraved machine gun. When Orlov sat down with Kadyrov, he tried to raise some of the issues that Memorial was working on in Chechnya—forced disappearances, torture, extrajudicial executions—while avoiding outright confrontation. That proved difficult. Kadyrov presented himself as Chechnya’s “chief human-rights defender”; he didn’t seem to understand the purpose of independent bodies like Memorial. “If there is an issue, tell me—I can solve anything,” he said to Orlov. “He wanted to give the impression of a person who gets joy from helping Chechnya, who truly thinks about Chechnya, and who lives a difficult life,” Orlov said.
The conversation, Orlov recalled, continued like this for some time, until, in the middle of the night, Kadyrov “began to talk about emotional things, what a blow the death of his father was, how important his father was to him.” According to Gannushkina, a former mathematics professor who is now in her seventies, as the meeting dragged on Kadyrov seemed more and more like “a lonely person—not the Ramzan of today but Ramzan as a child.” At a certain point, she said, Kadyrov promised to build a house for her in Chechnya and love her as his own mother. She added, “He also told me some personal, intimate things that I don’t think it would be right to repeat.”
The next day, Kadyrov met with Orlov and Gannushkina again. This meeting was broadcast on Chechen television. Kadyrov proposed the creation of a municipal human-rights council for Grozny and named as its head Natalia Estemirova, a respected and courageous activist who worked in Memorial’s Grozny office. “Just like that, like a tsar and a god, he decided and made it happen,” Orlov said. As Orlov came to understand, Kadyrov thought that the move would bring Estemirova’s activities under his control.
The arrangement didn’t last long. Estemirova continued to investigate abuses carried out by Chechen security forces. A month later, she gave an interview to federal television in which she criticized Kadyrov’s policy of requiring women to wear head scarves in public buildings. She was called in to see Grozny’s mayor, and then Kadyrov showed up and announced that he was dissolving the Grozny human-rights council. As Estemirova later told Orlov, Kadyrov warned her, “Think about the consequences—think about yourself, about your daughter.”
In July, 2009, Estemirova travelled to the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoi. She spoke with locals about a killing in which armed men had dragged a man suspected of being involved in the militant underground to the center of the village and shot him dead. She published her findings in a press release for Memorial. Orlov told me that an official close to Kadyrov summoned the head of the Grozny office, Estemirova’s boss. “Do you understand what you are printing—do you remember what happened with Anna Stepanovna?” the official said, referring to Politkovskaya. He went on, “Keep in mind the exact same thing could happen with Natasha Estemirova.” Memorial told her to leave the republic. The day before her flight, she was kidnapped outside her apartment. Her body was found later that day in a field off a highway.
Orlov declared at a press conference the next day that Kadyrov bore responsibility for the murder. Kadyrov phoned him and vehemently denied it, and subsequently filed a criminal complaint for slander. In a Moscow court, he testified that Orlov’s claims were a “big black mark for the Kadyrov family— I have four daughters and three sons, and they should all get married.” In 2011, the judge found Orlov not guilty. (Kadyrov had won an earlier civil case against Orlov, and was awarded $2,410 in damages.) Orlov told me recently that he doesn’t necessarily believe Kadyrov issued a clear order; it’s possible that his language was indirect—“Solve the problem,” say. But, given the prevailing situation in Chechnya, he said, Kadyrov’s subordinates would interpret such language as instructions to act.
The Grozny office of Memorial remains open, but few victims of abuse come to ask for help, and those who do file claims withdraw them once their families come under pressure. “People tell us, quite frankly, ‘You can’t even defend your own people,’ ” Orlov said. “What can we say, really? They are right.”
Last year, on February 27th, Boris Nemtsov—a former deputy prime minister, who had become one of Putin’s best-known opponents—was walking on a bridge near the Kremlin when an assassin approached from behind and shot him. Some days later, Putin told a meeting of high-ranking law-enforcement officials that “the brazen murder of Boris Nemtsov right in the center of the capital” was a “shame and tragedy” that the country must not tolerate.
Putin’s moral outrage may have been a cynical performance, but his anger appeared genuine. “He was obviously stunned,” Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to Putin who left the Kremlin in 2011 and became a critic of it, told me. “As a political assassination, this is direct interference in the politics of the federal center, and, what’s more, right under Putin’s nose.” He went on, “If you can do something like this just outside Spassky gate”—a Kremlin landmark, whose spire overlooks the bridge where Nemtsov was killed—“then maybe you could do this inside Spassky gate as well.”
The arrests came relatively fast: in the first week of March, the F.S.B. detained five suspects. All were ethnic Chechens; two were arrested in Moscow, and three in Ingushetia, a small republic bordering Chechnya. Security forces said that as they moved in to arrest another suspect in Grozny he blew himself up with a grenade.
Attention quickly focussed on the alleged triggerman: a decorated thirty-three-year-old Chechen officer named Zaur Dadaev, a former deputy commander of Sever. The timing of Dadaev’s departure from Sever was curious: his resignation letter was dated December, 2014, but it was processed on February 28th, the day after Nemtsov’s murder. At first, investigators implied that Dadaev and his suspected accomplices were enraged by Nemtsov’s support for the French cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, but that theory fell apart after it came to light that his killers had begun trailing him in the fall of 2014, months before the attack in Paris. “Dadaev doesn’t really have his own motives; he’s not a bird of very high altitude, as we say,” Vadim Prokhorov, Nemtsov’s lawyer, told me. “It’s clear that he takes orders from someone else.”
Nemtsov’s supporters, including his family, immediately pointed to Kadyrov and his inner circle. Two days after Dadaev’s arrest, Kadyrov took to Instagram in Dadaev’s defense. “I knew Zaur as a genuine patriot of Russia,” he wrote. Dadaev was one of the “most fearless and brave warriors in his regiment . . . genuinely devoted to Russia, ready to give up his life for his motherland.”
Putin’s mood was hard to read. Orkhan Djemal, a journalist with extensive sources inside Chechnya, told me he had heard that for days Putin wouldn’t take Kadyrov’s calls, which caused Kadyrov to panic. Kadyrov apparently managed to smooth relations with Putin, but the fact that people even tangentially related to Chechnya’s political élite had been arrested on murder charges marked an unprecedented moment in Putin-era politics. “The arrests may seem modest, but it’s actually a revolution—they are a genuine achievement for investigators, and a blow to Kadyrov,” Elena Milashina, who covers Chechnya for Novaya Gazeta, said. Since Politkovskaya’s death, Milashina has become one of the most deeply committed reporters covering the region.
On December 30th, Russian investigators named the alleged organizer of the crime: Ruslan Mukhudinov, a low-ranking officer in the Sever unit. No one knew where he was, and the indictment was issued in absentia. Yet, all along, the Russian press, citing law-enforcement sources, had pointed not so much to Mukhudinov as to his senior officer, Ruslan Geremeyev, for whom Mukhudinov worked as a driver. Other suspects detained with Dadaev told investigators that Geremeyev had spent time during the weeks before the killing at the Moscow apartment where the hit team was staying. Dadaev and Geremeyev were close after many years in Sever, and the day following the murder they drove to the Moscow airport together and flew back to Chechnya, according to airport surveillance photos.
Geremeyev has deep connections to the Chechen political élite: he is related to both Delimkhanov, Kadyrov’s closest ally, and another high-ranking Kadyrov associate who represents Chechnya in the upper house of Russia’s parliament. Over the past year, investigators have twice tried to issue an indictment against Geremeyev, only to be rebuffed by their boss, the powerful head of the country’s Investigative Committee—he refused to sign the warrant, according to a report published last month by RBK, a Russian daily. More than that, investigators can’t even talk to Geremeyev: leaks from the security services imply that he fled to the United Arab Emirates, then quietly returned to Chechnya, where requests summoning him for questioning have got nowhere. Clearly, Putin could have Geremeyev arrested if he wished; the fact that he hasn’t suggests that stability in Chechnya is more important to him.
One night toward the end of my time in Grozny, I paid a visit to Shakhrudi Dadaev, Zaur Dadaev’s older brother. Shakhrudi, who is sixty and raises sheep, lives in a large, immaculately clean house that would be the pride of any Chechen extended family. He set out a tray of fruit and candies, made a pot of strong black tea, and had me sit in a far corner facing the door, the seat of honor for guests in a Chechen home. Zaur is the youngest of four brothers, Shakhrudi told me. Their parents returned to Chechnya in the nineteen-fifties, when Khrushchev cancelled Stalin’s deportation order. After serving for several years with Russian federal forces, Zaur joined Kadyrov’s personal guard, and in 2006 he enlisted in Sever. “That was a time when not everyone wanted to join,” Shakhrudi said. “Now that Kadyrov is President, there is some order and quiet, but back then it was dangerous. You didn’t know who was shooting at whom.”
Zaur Dadaev proved himself as a fighter, and in 2010 was awarded a medal for leading an assault against a group of militants. He rose to become Sever’s deputy commander, and was known as a strong leader, a former Sever fighter told me: “If he found himself in a group of ten guys, the other nine would wait for him to do something.” Another Sever member, still active in the unit, told me that few on the unit’s base now talk of Dadaev. “Everyone has forgotten about him; it’s as if he never existed.”
In Chechnya, I heard several versions of why Dadaev left Sever for Moscow: he wanted to get a law degree or open a café, or maybe find work as a driver or security guard. No one heard much from him until, in early March, a few days after Nemtsov was killed, he returned to Grozny. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. “He was in a great mood—he was the same Zaur as always, same laugh,” one of his Sever colleagues told me. He hadn’t even changed his cell-phone number. No one who knew Dadaev thought that he could be involved in gunning down Nemtsov. “We have a rule: if a person is walking away, you don’t shoot them,” an officer from Sever told me. “To kill someone like that would be a great disgrace. Zaur is a smart guy, not dumb, and you’d have to be an idiot to go for something like this.”
Shakhrudi, in his living room, showed me two letters he had received from his brother in jail. “Everything is fine, by the will of the Almighty,” Zaur wrote in June. “I didn’t do anything against the law. Everything I said after I was arrested I said under pressure. It was dictated to me—the pressure was serious, not a joke.” The next month, he wrote again, “Don’t worry, brother, my conscience is clean, not only before you and our relatives but before all of Chechnya.” Shakhrudi grew more animated as we spoke. Chechen tradition would never allow such a thing, he said; he was the elder in the family, and Zaur hadn’t consulted him—he never would have got himself mixed up in such a plot without checking with him first. “I don’t believe that he did this,” Shakhrudi told me. “For me and our whole family, it is a shame even that there are rumors that my brother could have shot an unarmed man in the street.”
In the months since the murder, Kadyrov has said little about Nemtsov or the detained suspects. When I asked a high-ranking official in the Chechen security forces about the case, he waved off any suggestion that there was cause for worry. “If a particular person commits a crime, it doesn’t matter who this person was in the past or what kind of medals he received—he should be arrested, tried, and punished,” he said.
In Russia, how you see the plot is determined largely by how you think Putin’s state works. The fact that Dadaev carried himself with apparent nonchalance after his return to Chechnya from Moscow, for example, showed either that he had nothing to hide and had been set up or that he operated with impunity, certain that those who ordered the crime would cover for him. Many other mysteries loom. Were Kadyrov and his clique involved and, if so, did they act without Putin’s permission, thinking that they would please the President? Or had Putin ordered the hit? Investigators are conspicuously avoiding these questions. The lack of information has led to a flourishing trade in conspiracy theories. The murder, it is said, could be anything from a plot by the security services to discredit Kadyrov to an attempt by Kadyrov to compel Putin to rely on force alone in propping up his rule.
A trial will begin sometime this spring, but in a case like this a courtroom is an unlikely place for new facts to emerge. “I have the sense that the highest authorities in Moscow know full well who carried out this murder and where these people are—they are getting the full picture from investigators,” Olga Shorina, a longtime employee and confidante of Nemtsov’s, told me. Yet she doesn’t expect to learn much herself. “The regime wants all conflicts between its component parts to be resolved in private.”
After more than a decade of Kadyrov’s rule, Chechnya has become Russia in miniature, a concentrated tincture of all its habits and instincts and pathologies, with Kadyrov worshipping Putin and consistently enacting the darker urges and impulses of the system that Putin has created.
At the same time, Chechnya arguably serves as both a testing ground and a harbinger of what Russia is becoming. “Chechnya is Russia’s avant-garde,” Varvara Pakhomenko, an analyst who covers the North Caucasus for the International Crisis Group, told me. “What we see in Chechnya now we may soon see in the whole of Russia.” She mentioned the decay of the rule of law and an increased use of torture, to say nothing of a shrinking space for civil-society groups and anyone who takes public action outside the state’s increasingly paranoid control. “You can’t allow one enclave to exist outside the law,” Pakhomenko said. “If you let one arm rot, the infection spreads to the whole body.”
In January, Kadyrov attacked Russia’s liberal opposition, saying that its leaders were traitors, who “should be treated as enemies of the people”—a Stalin-era locution—and “tried to the fullest extent for their subversive activities.” A scandal erupted in Moscow political circles, and Putin’s human-rights ombudswoman—whose position is a thankless, largely impotent one, but with a relatively high profile—said that Kadyrov’s “statements are not only pointless but also harmful, because they render a disservice to the President and cast a shadow on the country.” Even the speaker of Russia’s parliament, a thoroughly obedient body, suggested that Kadyrov had spoken in error. Some days later, Kadyrov responded with an editorial in Izvestia, a pro-Kremlin daily, in which he called the country’s opposition “jackals, who are dreaming of destroying our state,” and, in another grim echo of the Soviet past, suggested that they be sent to a psychiatric hospital in Chechnya.
Many in the beleaguered opposition thought that Kadyrov was trying to deflect attention from the Nemtsov investigation; others believed that, in a time of shrinking budgets for Russia’s regions, he was trying to simultaneously impress and frighten the Kremlin, in order to make sure that federal money keeps flowing to Grozny. Whatever the explanation, Kadyrov had become a political figure of national significance. If Putin isn’t always pleased by his more strident expressions of aggression and intolerance, he surely finds something useful in his role as the bogeyman of Russia’s political system, and, in any case, he lacks the ability to control Kadyrov’s every move. Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow, an independent radio station, thinks that for Putin Kadyrov is a way to show that, “anytime he wants, like Freddy Krueger, he can put on a clawed glove, a glove covered in spikes, and use it as a weapon.” Last month, Venediktov was among those singled out for criticism by Kadyrov and his deputies; the station increased his personal security detail. On January 22nd, the administration in Grozny put together a large demonstration in the center of the city in support of Kadyrov; his allies railed against Venediktov and Gannushkina and others from the stage. Venediktov told me, “Just like anyone with unlimited power, who faces no borders at all, he tries to expand his influence as much as possible.”
As the Nemtsov case had already made clear, Kadyrov has no shortage of enemies, whether among the liberal opposition or F.S.B. generals, but he has managed to play on his image as Putin’s dragon, wielding as much power over his master as vice versa. Even if relations between Putin and Kadyrov indeed reach a state of crisis, Pakhomenko said, ultimately “the Kremlin believes that the current situation is better than what could happen if it changes anything.” Indeed, Putin seems little inclined to risk altering his relations with Kadyrov, or even to scold him openly. In late January, Putin made his first comments in the wake of Kadyrov’s public clash with the country’s liberals, saying that Kadyrov “works effectively” and that he and his father deserve “thanks” for what the region has become today.
If Putin were to admit that Kadyrov has become too dangerous or too costly, he would be conceding the failure of his own policy. He rose to the Presidency on the basis of having pacified Chechnya and neutralized the threat of terrorism, and now he can’t abandon Kadyrov any more easily than he could abandon the narrative of his own rule. But that may be beside the point, Gleb Pavlovsky, the former Putin adviser, said. “The Kremlin isn’t interested in laws—it itself doesn’t follow them. It’s interested in reality, and from its point of view reality means the use of force and the transfer of money.” On this score, Kadyrov hasn’t done anything to abrogate his end of the bargain.
The more paranoid in Moscow’s opposition circles see Kadyrov as a potential successor to Putin. That’s highly unlikely—preposterous, even—but Kadyrov has made himself an irreplaceable part of the political system. Nikolay Petrov, the head of the Center for Political Geographic Research, said that, whatever turn the Russian political system takes in the future, Kadyrov will have to be accounted for, and could perhaps play a decisive role. “Kadyrov has the potential to be a tsar-maker,” Petrov said. “Not because he has more men at his disposal than, for example, the minister of defense, but because his men—tens of thousands of them—will carry out his orders without thinking twice. If the minister of defense tells his troops to storm the Kremlin, he can’t be sure that all of them will actually do it. But Kadyrov can.”
On my last day in Grozny, the city was celebrating another public holiday, this one honoring the police and the Interior Ministry. Hundreds gathered at the city’s main concert hall for a ceremony led by Kadyrov. Just before two in the afternoon, he arrived in a black Mercedes S.U.V.—he was driving himself—and parked it in the square outside the hall. He jumped out and was saluted by Chechnya’s interior minister and his deputies, along with a group of young Chechen cadets. His chief bodyguard, a Chechen fighter nicknamed Patriot, stood watching, dressed in fatigues and wraparound sunglasses, with a machine gun held tight against his chest. As is usual these days, Kadyrov was wearing an olive-green overshirt, a form of traditional Chechen dress that he has made popular among his retinue and has required male public employees to wear to the office on Fridays. His beard had grown long.
Inside the hall, a troupe of Chechen women in flowing red dresses performed a traditional dance that was lyrical, almost mournful. A speaker announced a charity project initiated by Kadyrov’s mother and sponsored by the Kadyrov fund: the families of officers killed in the fight against militants would receive a payment of fifty thousand rubles. The interior minister then presented a new award, “For distinction in the struggle against terrorism and extremism,” and announced that its first recipient would be Kadyrov. Kadyrov took the stage and delivered a speech in memory, as he explained, of those Chechen troops who had been killed or injured while on duty. “We remember what has come before,” he said, alluding to the destruction of the two wars. “We couldn’t walk around the city, we couldn’t say openly that we were Chechens. Thanks to Akhmad-Haji Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin, all that has changed.” Afterward, he got back in the driver’s seat, and his motorcade followed him down Putin Prospect. ♦