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Russia's rebellious regions: a trip through Chechnya

The north has long fascinated, and terrified, the Russian consciousness.

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.

In the wake of the March Moscow subway bombings, GlobalPost correspondent Miriam Elder traveled to Chechnya and Dagestan to investigate the relationship between these rebellious republics and the Russian state.
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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.