Spasibo, the Chechen Compromise

The year 2000 was year zero for Chechen culture and its tormented identity. Putin reduced Grozny to rubble, and the social and cultural fabric was destroyed. Deprived of their homes and belongings, thousands of Chechen refugees were branded not as victims, but as guilty, evil people. Once again, they were forced out of their country. Twelve years after the official end of the latest war against Moscow, what has become of the republic?

For my latest project, I wanted to go back to investigate Chechen identity today. Above all, I wanted to know whether Chechnya or Russia had emerged victorious from the conflict. The answer is undeniably Russia. But if you look at it from a different standpoint, the answer is perhaps not so clear-cut.

Today, Chechnya is an autonomous republic in the Russian Federation. Subdued and pacified by force, Chechnya was depicted as a winner in official Russian rhetoric, held up as a model of virtue and an example for the neighboring republics in the Caucasus. At the same time, democracy was abolished, the opposition was crushed, all dissent was silenced and there has been a sort of freeze on social progress — even an outright return to the Middle Ages.

The Putin protégé Ramzan Kadyrov, son of Akhmad, the religious and political leader assassinated in 2003, holds absolute power and has almost limitless resources and support from Moscow. He rules the small republic like a feudal lord, rebuilding and remodeling not only the destroyed infrastructure, but also and especially the attitudes and identity of the population.

In Chechnya today, people speak their formerly banned language, dance traditional dances to the exclusion of almost anything else, and there are few Russians left. Islam, the other great casus belli, is now enthusiastically promoted. In carrying out the Islamization the rebels dreamt of, the government has given the religion a contemporary twist. Chechen Islam is a mixture of fanaticism and misogyny, of Sufi mysticism and medieval tradition, of Orientalism and localism. Society is under close surveillance, alcohol is forbidden and polygamy encouraged, in blatant violation of Russian law.

Vladimir Putin and the Kadyrov family circle are the new idols. The republic is Ramzan Kadyrov’s personal fiefdom. Everything looks normal, even good in comparison with conditions in the neighboring republics. So life can be fine — just as long as you follow the rules.

My study on identity gradually became the story of a compromise, one that all the inhabitants of this republic are forced to make with the authorities in return for a better life.

“Thank you Ramzan, thank you Russia…Spasibo”.

—Davide Monteleone

Editor's Note: 

In 2009, the Carmignac Foundation created the Carmignac Gestion Photojournalism Award, aimed at financing a reportage on a given topic directly connected to current affairs. 

Consisting of a 50,000 euro grant, the objective of the award is to sponsor an in-depth, in-the-field photojournalistic reportage. 

Davide Monteleone was the recipient of the 2013 award.

For another view on Chechnya, see the short multimedia report, Grozny: 9 Cities, which won grand prize in the LensCulture Exposure Awards 2011.