The first-time visitor to Grozny has to be reminded that, until recently, the Chechen capital was often called “the most destroyed city on Earth.” Today, Grozny rises out of the plain like the Emerald City of Oz. The famous Associated Press image of a Russian soldier lighting a cigarette from a pile of burning refuse in the middle of a blown-out street seems a world away.
Friday prayers have finished by the time I find myself standing in the forecourt of Grozny’s Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque. Based on Istanbul’s famous Blue Mosque and constructed by Turkish laborers, the Heart of Chechnya, as it’s officially known, opened four years ago and is said to be the largest mosque in Europe. My guide, Elina, and photographer, Melanie, are told that women aren’t allowed inside the main section of the building today. A sign over the taps in the ablution area informs me politely that my handgun isn’t, either. The mosque is said to be able to hold 10,000 worshipers, but only three stand inside when I cross the threshold—all uniformed members of Chechnya’s ministry of internal affairs. When I emerge after several minutes spent examining the mosque’s cupola—a gaudy derivation of the original, heavy on the bling—I find Melanie wearing her neckerchief on her head.
“I was asked to cover up while I’m here,” she says. “In any case, I’ve been getting looks.” Neither women’s hair nor women’s legs are completely invisible on Grozny’s streets: one sees an occasional woman without a headscarf, usually the same one who’s wearing a miniskirt. But both are much rarer here than elsewhere in the country.
In an upmarket clothing store, several middle-aged women and one young man sit at sewing machines, producing traditional, high-collared men’s shirts and even more conservative women’s fashion. I ask to have a button sewn back on to my jacket—it’s been loose for months—and a customer notices my accent and takes an interest. As he tries on a shirt, he takes his handgun out of his pants and rests it on one of the sewing machines.
“Where are you from?” he asks.
“Australia!” He turns to the woman who’s working on my jacket. “You hear that? Australia!”
I try to pay for the button repair, but the woman will have none of it. Foreigners are a novelty in these parts. We leave, passing several svelte, feminine mannequins wearing fashionable, expensive clothes that show off only their plastic faces and hands. “It’s not because we’re Wahhabists that we dress like this,” Elina says as we step out onto the street. (Most of Grozny’s Muslims are Sufis.) “It’s because we’re close to God.”
I like Elina and don’t doubt her faith. But the conservative dress sense of Grozny’s women almost certainly has more to do with President Ramzan Kadyrov’s headscarf laws—and with the harassment meted out to those who don’t comply—than with religious belief. In 2010, as the reach of this virtue campaign broadened to include places like public parks and cinemas, men dressed as local law enforcement officials took to roaming Grozny’s streets and shooting uncovered women with paintball guns. Kadyrov, who had already said publicly that women were inferior to men, announced that he would like to “give an award” to these defenders of the faith. The president has also endorsed polygamy and honor killings, saying that “loose women” and their lovers “should be killed”—as indeed a good many women have been over the past five years, their bodies unceremoniously dumped in forests and on roadsides.
The Akhmad Kadyrov Museum is closed on the day we visit, but Elina knows a few employees, and they usher us in, past the metal detectors and armed guards. Like the mosque, the museum is an ostentatious display of power and wealth, its centerpiece a half-ton, 790-lamp chandelier containing 20 kilograms of pure gold. Where the mosque, however, might conceivably excuse its interior as a celebration of God’s power and glory, the museum is clearly a celebration of the power and glory of a single man: former president Akhmad Kadyrov, father of the current president. The museum is currently between exhibitions and, while most of the paintings are propped against the walls, waiting to be taken elsewhere or hung, the Kadyrovs’ portraits remain untouched. A photograph of Akhmad stares across at a badly painted portrait of his son and a smaller, cross-stitched image of the same. Their likenesses here probably wouldn’t grate so much if the city weren’t already plastered with them. Like the sign affixed to a building’s facade on Prospekt Putina—RAMZAN! THANK YOU FOR GROZNY!—they almost surely don’t reflect the sentiments of most of the city’s residents.
From the top-floor restaurant of Hotel Grozny City, alcohol-free but with 360-degree views, the city sparkles anew. But my impression is nevertheless of a place that hasn’t recovered from the two wars with Russia in the 1990s. Perhaps because of my encounter in the clothing store, I’m reminded of a hasty sewing job—of a city stitched together haphazardly and still in danger of falling into tatters.