CHECHNYA AND DAGESTAN, Russia — Russia likes to present itself as a solid monolith, a country crafted into stability by the strong hand of Vladimir Putin.
The easiest way to shatter that myth is to tell a Russian that you have just returned from a trip to Chechnya and Dagestan. They’ll ask if you were scared. They’ll ask if you got hurt. One Moscow taxi driver said, “I know they’re strategically important, but at this point I wonder why we don’t just let them go.”
The north Caucasus — the mountainous region that includes Chechnya and Dagestan, and a half-dozen other republics — has long fascinated, and terrified, the Russian consciousness. Nestled between the Black and Caspian seas, the region provides Russia key maritime access. But as the home since the mid-1990s to a persistent Islamic insurgency, as well as dozens of ethnic groups, many governed by intense clan interests, these republics have proved difficult to govern.
Attacks occur daily. Last week alone, a judge was killed in Dagestan, as were a federal security officer and a civilian in a separate incident. A policeman was killed and 25 people were injured in a bomb attack in Ingushetia, and a policeman was shot and injured in Chechnya.
Unemployment is sky high across the region and many survive by growing vegetables and tending cows, which in some Chechen and Dagestani villages appear to outnumber the people.
Some think the low standard of living is by Kremlin design. “It’s the age-old problem — they think if people live well in the north Caucasus, they’ll separate from Russia. If they live very badly, they’ll tear away from Russia too,” said Nadira Isaeva, the editor-in-chief of Chernovik, Dagestan's most respected weekly newspaper.
Isaeva was one of the first people I met in Makhachkala, Dagestan’s bustling capital, after a three-hour drive east from Grozny, the capital of neighboring Chechnya. I had been in Chechnya three days, flying in on a Yak-42, one of those Soviet-era jets whose mention is often followed by a death toll. (You enter the plane through a small hatch in the back, and flight attendants distribute barf bags before take off.)
Landing at Grozny airport, there's no question where you've arrived. Huge posters of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are visible from the runway. It took a full minute before I spotted the first gun, attached to the hip of a tall man dressed in camouflage and a purple skullcap, his closely cropped beard mimicking Kadyrov's. The airport's facade is adorned with Kadyrov's sayings — “My weapon is truth and in the face of this weapon any army will be destroyed” — and more portraits line the road into town. This is something a visitor quickly gets used to.
I last visited Grozny in January 2003, when it was a rotting carcass following Russia's brutal bombardment as it battled a separatist rebellion across the republic. There was a 9 p.m. curfew, but as the city grew dark you could see homefires burning in the blasted-out windows of bombed apartment blocks. It was a ghost town. Hardly anyone ventured outside and those who did were women — Russian federal forces worked under the assumption that any man of fighting age was a rebel, and they were regularly snatched and usually killed.
Today, Grozny is shiny and new. There are shops and restaurants. There is even a mall. The center of town boasts a grand mosque, decked out in chandeliers and freshly vaccuumed green carpets. Chechens insist it is the largest in Europe.
One night I drove back to Grozny from a village near the mountains at 1 a.m. This would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Rebels hid in the woods that lined the road and Russian military checkpoint were ubiquitous. We passed three Chechen-manned checkpoints on the way into town, but were quickly waved on. Russian troops remain confined to bases on the outskirts of town.
I thought the checkpoints would be worse on the way to Makhachkala. The four-lane road connecting the republics, the Moscow-Baku highway, is smoother than most of the thoroughfares around Moscow. It's lined by grassy plains, and Chechnya's mountains tower in the distance. Flags — representing Chechnya, Russia and the ruling United Russia party — line posts along the way. Photos of Kadyrov and his father, the deceased former President Akhmat Kadyrov, hang everywhere, often with the slogan: “The most important thing is to finish what was started.” A building belonging to the traffic police stood covered in a photo of Ramzan Kadyrov, with the words: “You ensure the law!”
Just before hitting the Dagestani border, travelers pass Koshkeldy, a small rundown village just like the handful of others that dot the road. A hill there is topped with row after row of bright blue and green headstones. Outside the cemetary gates, the hills are covered in purple and yellow flowers. This is where Natalia Estemirova, Chechnya's leading human rights activist, is buried. She was killed in July 2009, and her colleagues accuse Kadyrov of orchestrating her murder, a charge he denies.
It's a fitting way to leave Chechnya, paying respects at the grave of a woman who devoted her life to exposing the atrocities here. She's still very much present and the pain of her death is too, with activists and victims speaking of a woman they refer to only as Natasha, as if she had been killed yesterday.
The Dagestani border is just minutes away, and cars zip through the checkpoint, rarely being stopped. The differences from Chechnya are immediately noticeable. There are signs of industry — trucks hauling gravel, electricity lines. The posters of Kadyrov are quickly replaced by advertisements. The first one advertises “Women's Clothing Store” and provides an address. Shop names appear to be simple in Dagestan — there are “Rich Lady,” “Prestige” and “Aristocrat,” which is, of course, a men's clothing store.
It's 60 miles from the border to Makhachkala. Just outside the city stands a dilapidated building, missing windows and its roof. It's covered in black Stars of David with red swastikas inside. That's the most blatant sign of anti-Semitism I saw in the region, where the people, as in the rest of Russia, routinely voice anti-Semitic beliefs. Dagestan even boasts a Jewish population, the Tati, among its dozens of ethnic groups and there is a new synagogue in the center of Makhachkala. It's not open yet, and from the outside it looks simply like an apartment building converted into a place of worship. But it exists. Another synagogue was recently opened in the coastal city of Derbent.
Driving down one of Makhachkala's main streets, I saw a man washing his car while wearing a T-shirt emblazened with the word “Russia.” This is something you would never see in Chechnya, where attitudes toward Russia remain spiteful, and Chechen is the language of choice among all generations. But Dagestan — with its land and 3 million strong population three times the size of Chechnya’s — counts 14 officially recognized ethnic groups, and over a dozen smaller ones. Russian is the language that binds them together.
If Russia isn't a monolith, I quickly realized, than neither is the Caucasus.