Welcome to Grozny!
Before the First Chechen War broke out in 1994, Grozny was a fairly typical Russian city of a half a million people – the same size as Oslo in Norway.
One notable aspect of the city though was that it was one of the Soviet Union’s most important oil centers. Grozny was second only to Baku, Azerbaijan in oil refining and pipelines snaked out from the city in all directions.
These refineries were almost like cities in their own right. However, all of this infrastructure was destroyed during the wars. Today, as one approaches Grozny, the forests have moved in and smokestacks are essentially all that remain of these once giant complexes:
Rosneft, the very well-connected Russian oil behemoth, now controls petroleum production in Chechnya and is reported to earn approximately $800,000,000 annually from these operations.
However, it is the devastated center of the city that really comes to the minds of most people when mentioning Grozny, so we’ll start there…
In 2003, the United Nations declared Grozny “the most destroyed city on earth”. And, indeed, if the First Chechen War caused massive damage, the Second Chechen War destroyed Grozny completely.
Despite Vladimir Putin’s assertion that only terrorist hideouts were being attacked, reality showed that the entire city was razed to the ground.
Bombs were dropped in waves and Russian artillery continuously shelled the city from the outskirts. Russian troops looted anything salvageable from the rubble and, at night, the only light in the city came from flames erupting from bullet-riddled gas pipelines. Several thousand civilians with nowhere to go remained in Grozny, scratching out an existence in filthy, damp cellars, cooking over open fires and retrieving water from mud puddles:
Grozny was reminiscent of Stalingrad in 1943 or Dresden in 1945.
Most people remember images like this:
Well, things have changed a bit.
At the very center of the city, the ruins in the picture above have been replaced by the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque:
Based on the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, this mosque is said to be the largest in Russia:
Akhmad Kadyrov was a leading figure in the resistance against the Russians during the First Chechen War. However, in 1999, during the Second Chechen War, Kadyrov switched sides over to Vladimir Putin and the Russian federal forces. This defection cemented his rise to power as when Russian forces seized control over Chechnya in 2000, Kadyrov was appointed acting head of the administration by Putin.
When Akhmad Kadyrov was assassinated in 2004, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov, rose to power (where he remains to this day).
The interior of the mosque:
A view of the center of Grozny from the grounds of the mosque:
Perhaps even more incongruent for those who remember Grozny as it used to be are these high rises next to the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque… This development is known as the Grozny-City Towers and is comprised of a mix of offices, apartments and a luxury hotel. Gérard Depardieu, the French actor, is fond of Ramzan Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin and has an apartment on the 27th floor of the building with the clock on it:
And perhaps even more jarring is how the whole scene looks at night:
The new presidential palace – where Ramzan Kadyrov lives – complete with a private zoo, among other luxuries, is just about a city block away from the high rises pictured above. That’s the Sunzha River in the foreground, part of which has been diverted around the presidential palace area, to create an island paradise for Ramzan Kadyrov:
Ramzan Kadyrov has a hugely popular Instagram account on which he posts many images of his life on the island the palace is situated on. For those that are interested, it can be found here.
You can get a better sense of what I mean with the “island paradise” description by looking at the satellite images of it on Google Maps here.
The entrance to Ramzan Kadyrov’s home:
Now, for those of you struggling to get your bearings, this area directly across from the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque is where Grozny’s presidential palace – an important symbol of Chechen resistance – used to be:
This is how the area looked during the recent wars – that’s the former presidential palace in the background:
And to be fair, not all of Grozny looks like the scenes I shared above of palaces and skyscrapers. There are sections near the center that have just been paved over, but not built up again:
Away from the center, there are fewer flash projects, but the city has still been raised from the ashes.
This district pictured below is Minutka, which was one of the closest to the mountains in the south and so the Chechen fighters would come down and enter Grozny here. As such, it was the scene of particularly heavy fighting. However, it too has been transformed:
The university in Grozny is up and running again as well. You can see it in the picture below…
Before the wars, the Chechen State University was one of the leading universities in the North Caucasus. Just prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the university employed more than 60 full professors and more than 300 associate professors. In addition, the university housed advanced laboratories, a library with more than a million books, a computer center, botanical gardens and served as host to many international seminars and conferences.
Of course, during the wars, all of this was completely destroyed and many of the professors and students were killed.
The university is near the district in the picture above:
The apartments and housing blocks have been rebuilt as well:
Most of them looked like this by the end of the wars:
The area pictured below was the site of a bustling street market before the wars. Early in the conflict, a series of Russian missiles struck here, causing widespread death and destruction:
This – the Hollywood Restaurant – was the very first restaurant to open in Grozny after the complete destruction of the city:
And, naturally, part of the reconstruction process involved placing portraits of the Kadyrovs and Putin & Co. everywhere around Grozny – on billboards, on top of buildings, even outside fuel stations:
So, those many billions of dollars in reconstruction funds from the Kremlin have achieved a sense of normality on the surface of Grozny.
The street markets are open again:
People go out again for fun… This is along Putin Avenue (Yes, that really is the name of the street) in the center of Grozny:
The cafes in Grozny are full of young Chechens again:
And fancy restaurants dot the city. This a traditional Chechen dinner at one of them:
But this seeming normality has a few cracks in its facade despite all the efforts to insist otherwise by Kadyrov and Putin.
One crack in the facade is represented by the “Golden Youth” that careen through Grozny in their luxury automobiles, completely above the law… The “Golden Youth” are the spoiled children of those connected to the Kadyrov clan. As with those connected to Putin in greater Russia, those connected to the Kadyrovs in Chechnya have done very, very well for themselves and their children flaunt this wealth and power without limits.
The black Mercedes parked below is an example of the behavior of the Golden Youth. Rather than bothering to find a place to park, the owner just simply parked in the middle of the exit of the crowded parking lot, essentially daring anyone to do something about it. This type of behavior gets under the skin of ordinary Chechens who feel as if they are the subjects of an occupying power:
And there are more stark reminders, such as this memorial across from the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque for members of the security forces that have just recently lost their lives in the course of their duties:
The FSB and the military dominate Grozny with their large bases. The FSB – or Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation – is a loose descendant of the KGB and focuses primarily on internal intelligence and security matters in Russia.
This is the FSB headquarters in Chechnya:
Military bases are scattered across the city:
And then there are actual events themselves… Below is the site of a suicide bombing that took place on October 5th, 2014 – the day before our arrival in the city. This attack, carried out by a nineteen-year-old man named Opti Mudarov, during Grozny City Day celebrations (which just happen to coincide with Ramzan Kadyrov’s birthday) killed five police officers and wounded twelve others:
And, even more dramatic, was the attack on Grozny just after our departure…
On December 4th, 2014, militants traveling in three cars, reportedly originating in Shalazhi, infiltrated Grozny around one o’clock in the morning, killing three traffic police officers that stopped them at a checkpoint. After the shooting at the checkpoint, the militants fanned out across Grozny with some occupying a school – known as School No. 20 – and the rest storming and occupying a media center – known as the House of Publishing or the Press House – where many Chechen and Russian media organizations were based.
After a ferocious firefight with Chechen and Russian security forces that left the House of Publishing a burned out wreck along with a nearby market that also caught fire, the death toll at the end of the next day stood at 11 militants and 14 members of the security services along with 1 civilian that was caught in the crossfire. An additional 36 members of the security services were injured.
The image below, courtesy of Musa Sadulayev with the AP, shows the appearance of the House of Publishing in the aftermath:
I took this picture of the House of Publishing very shortly before the building was attacked and destroyed:
The battle between the Chechens and the Russians has been going on for hundreds of years now. The conflict ebbs and flows, but it has never gone away completely. For now, many of the most recent generation of Chechen fighters has been killed off and billions of Russian dollars and many thousands of Russian troops and intelligence officers are keeping a lid on things.
However, the next generation of Chechens is growing up – just in time to embrace those Chechens that have perfected their fighting skills on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq returning home to the North Caucasus.
And, tellingly, not a single Chechen we spoke with – not one – did not think that this war was going to seriously get under way again in the future.