There is a new tradition in Chechnya: attack those who are defending Chechens from Kadyrovites.
Late on the night of Thursday, 6 February, a group of Chechen hired thugs attacked me and lawyer Marina Dubrovina. This was not the first act of aggression encountered by human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers in Chechnya. In 2014 and 2015 there were attacks attacks on staff of both the Committee against Torture and Memorial, as well as their offices in Grozny and Gudermes. In 2016, a bus with human rights activists and journalists was attacked at the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and a few days later, in downtown Grozny, Igor Kalyapin, a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights, was evicted from the city’s best hotel, pelted with eggs and flour, and doused with brilliant green.
Such world famous human rights activists as Svetlana Gannushkina and Oleg Orlov have been targets of Kadyrov’s ire, and in January 2018 a criminal case was fabricated against Oyub Titiev, head of Memorial’s Chechen office.
It’s hard for me to count how many times I personally have received public threats from Ramzan Akhmatovich [Kadyrov]. The wildest of them came in April 2017, after our publications about the persecution of gays in Chechnya. 20,000 people gathered in Chechnya’s main mosque. Shakhikov, who is Kadyrov’s assistant on religious issues, spoke, as did Chechnya’s mufti Mezhidov, and they publicly declared an unlimited “holy jihad” against all associates of Novaya gazeta — from our cafeteria workers to the wonderful ladies in bookkeeping. True, in questioning by an investigator, Mezhidov and Shakhidov renounced their own condemnations, and the story with the packed mosque was removed from Grozny, the website of the Chechen State Radio and Television Company.
Basically, this entire outrage has long since become a genuine tradition. I find it bitter to talk about this, but this new tradition corresponds much more precisely to the state of contemporary Chechen society than do the customs of the proud mountain dwellers. Time after time, society has silently swallowed the reality, which in fact demeans the Chechens themselves: when men and women, young and not very, are beaten up and pelted with eggs by young Chechen men. And now, young Chechen women as well.
On 6 February 2020, I flew into Grozny to cover three trials at the Zavodsky district court. I stayed at the Kontinent Hotel, where I had stayed many times. It’s a convenient and inexpensive hotel that always has a lot of visitors. The hotel also has a fitness club that’s fairly popular among local law enforcement. There are always lots of Chechen police there.
At 19:07 on the day of my arrival, I made a mistake. I posted a photograph on Facebook of a box of wild leeks sold in the supermarket on the first floor of the hotel building.
I love wild leeks, and I’m always sorry that not a single Grozny café cooks them — because of the smell. For a long time I’ve held to the rule of not posting anything on social media about my regular trips to Chechnya, posting only after the fact. Because I’m not inclined to exaggerate the operative talents of the local law enforcement agencies; they can track my moves only with my own help. And yesterday, evidently, I helped them mightily; the comments on my wild leek photograph made the fact that I was in Grozny and where obvious.
It’s clear to me that this attack was put together in a slapdash way. And here’s why.
At about 23:00, after dinner in the café in the building across the way, we went into the hotel lobby. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a large number of people, men and women, more than 15 people. A few young women moved toward us. One of them was wearing a shiny silver top tight around the chest and a black scarf on her head. They were all wearing black scarves, but the scarves had a theatrical look to them. Like stage decorations. The scarf on this shiny young woman had slipped to the side and obviously did not go with what was more like evening wear. She asked me why I was defending the “Wahhabites who killed our husbands.” This question was painfully reminiscent of the now rather forgotten past, when crowds of Chechen budget workers were sent against human rights workers carrying huge posters: “Kalyapin is a friend of terrorists,” “Gannushkina is the mother of anarchy,” and so on.
But the problem is that in the past few years, speculating on the topic of the underground has become quite improper, impossible even. Simply because there has been no such underground in principle for ten years. In Chechnya, terrorist activity has been reduced to zero, as the Chechen authorities are constantly saying when they try to lure tourists to the republic from all over the world. But as soon as Russian and foreign human rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and diplomats come instead of tourists, specters of terrorists begin to roam over Chechnya.
I wanted to explain to the dolled-up girl that she was far too young to pass herself off as the widow of a police officer who had died fighting genuine insurgents.
But there was no time for me to engage in conversations. They were simply not on the agenda for this night-time performance. Looking as though she were enjoying herself, the girl hit me with a fist in the face, and – as if in response to a sign – the whole crowd suddenly united to knock Marina and me onto the beautiful (but, as it turned out, none too clean) marble floor. They adopted a “feminine” approach to beating us up, with lots of hysteria and drama, using glamorous gel nails as their main weapon of choice. They focused most of their attacks on our hair, and Marina and I spent the rest of the night removing with a comb the strands of hair that had been torn out, like the camel Kesha in Tyumen that forgot to moult.
Marina and I initially endured the onslaught in silence, probably because it was so unexpected. It was only when I realised that two girls had got their claws into my iPhone (an item which is extremely precious to me) that I bawled “Fire!” loud enough to raise the dead. Marina copied my example by yelling “Help!” This strategy is a useful one, since it worked straight away.
A young man with a beard, who appeared to be in charge of the gang of women and was videoing the attack, gave an order and the “young widows” escaped onto the street one after another. I noticed one stopping to look at herself in the mirror, pulling down the skirt that had ridden up and fixing her tousled hair. This moment genuinely mesmerised me.
I will now explain whom exactly we are defending in Chechnya, and why we were attacked. I’ve defended representatives of more or less every section of Chechen society over the past few years. Gay Chechens and Chechen “drug addicts” (or, more accurately, people who have had drugs planted on them). Christians, government employees, woman and men, lesser mortals and mayors of Chechen towns, public prosecutors, police officers, investigators and, time and again, judges from Chechnya’s Supreme Court (my favourite category of Chechen victims).
One hour before the attack, for example, I learned that 20 school pupils had been arrested in Gudermes on the previous day.
Representatives of the authorities threatened their families that the boys would be held in Chechen basements until they came of age, because they had posted criticisms of the Chechen authorities on social media networks.
On 1 November last year yet another young Chechen, Islam Nukhanov, was arrested in his home in Grozny, taken to the basement of the Grozny police department and tortured almost to death. Why? Because on the previous day he had uploaded to YouTube a video showing the luxury villas in which the Chechen elite live together with their mistresses, who have never worked a day in their lives and who are passed off as second (or third, or fourth…) wives.
In late November, Marina Dubrovina acted as defence lawyer for Islam Nukhanov, who had been tortured and forced to provide laughably inconsistent “confessions” about possession of arms (the second most popular article of Chechnya’s Criminal Code after that on drug possession). Dubrovina had already become a thorn in the side of the local authorities because of her activism, and now she came under the full glare of a very dangerous spotlight. The authorities started to investigate how she funded her work and to interrogate and then persecute her Chechen colleagues. The lawyer Abubakar Vadayev for example, who assisted Dubrovina with the Nukhanov case, was hauled up before Mr Alkhanov, head of the Chechen police ministry, in early January, and now they’re trying to instigate criminal proceedings against him.
There can be no question about the fact that this attack was linked to Islam Nukhanov, and I understand perfectly well what motivated the people behind it.
It is not terrorists that the Chechen authorities fear, but the festering issues that have already poisoned the heart of society. I’m talking about corruption, catastrophic social inequality, and the lawlessness of the Chechen security apparatus. It just so happens that young people are the ones starting to talk about these issues. And that’s why large numbers of young people who (purely because of their age) did not fight either on Ichkeria’s side or on Russia’s side are currently filling the basements of secret Chechen prisons. And why smaller numbers of them – the cowardly ones – are attacking those who stand up to the authorities and get their contemporaries out of the Chechen detention facilities.
Translated by Marian Schwartz and Joanne Reynolds