Matthew Clayfield is like an Australian version of me.
He recently returned from a nail-biting trip through the North Caucasus—the blood-soaked region of Russia that includes North Ossetia and Chechnya—and published an inexpensive novella-length e-book about his experience called The Caucasian Semi-Circle: A Journey Along Russia's Exposed Nerve. It’s like a shorter version of my full-length book Where the West Ends.
I read his book and even blurbed it for him. Here’s an excerpt:
The Caucasus is Russia's exposed nerve. Everything wrong with the country ― electoral fraud, endemic corruption, economic inequality, widespread alcoholism, foreign-policy belligerence, inter-ethnic tensions, human rights abuses, the use of political violence ― is at its most clearly and pathologically wrong in this thousand-kilometre stretch of snow-capped mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian. A two-week journey through the region, starting in Astrakhan on the Volga delta and describing a bell-curve through Chechnya, North Ossetia and several federal districts before ending in Rostov-on-Don, where the river that gives that city its name flows quietly into the Sea of Azov, doesn't explain Russia any more than two weeks in Siberia, the Urals, or Moscow and St Petersburg might. But it certainly impresses itself upon one more forcefully. The Caucasus is Russia's exposed nerve and to travel through it is, at times, to have one's own exposed.
We depart Astrakhan at the witching hour. It is long before dawn on the twentieth morning of Oleg Shein's hunger strike against the city's mayoral election results, which saw him lose to the United Russia candidate amidst what he claims were widespread instances of fraud. In a few days, this unassuming city of five hundred thousand, instantly recognisable to fans of Tennessee Williams or Flannery O'Connor for its sleepy, dilapidated charm, will be the new political centre of Russia, and Shein will be the anti-Putin opposition's most celebrated near-martyr. But for the moment that same opposition is still trying to decide what they really think of this provocateur from the usually pro-Kremlin ‘A Just Russia’ party and we are watching two women in head scarves as they take up the ends of a large blanket and start swinging a baby to sleep above the tile floor. The familiar pre-recorded chimes of Russia's train station PA systems rouse us from our pre-dawn catatonia, which has been made worse in this instance by everything we've ever read about our destination in the work of Anna Politkovskaya and others, all of which happens to be dredging itself up here in the waiting room, between the mustachioed men and the big-boned babushkas, and which forms a cloud of uncertainty that our thousand-yard stares fail to penetrate.
The only foreigners amongst a thirty-strong group of tired Dagestanis and Chechens, we find ourselves stumbling across the train tracks in the dark, towards an engine that, in terms of speed and amenity, would have been decommissioned long ago had it serviced any other route in the country. Along with the Tyumen-Baku and Astrakhan-Makhachkala routes, with which it shares a portion of track through Dagestan, this one has been regularly delayed by terrorist attacks along it over the past couple of years. As we roll out our mattresses along maroon upholstery in the wood-paneled compartment that we have scored for ourselves, and as the train begins its halting journey south, nearly throwing us from our beds as it stops suddenly in the night, miles from any observable station, for minutes and even half-hours at a time, it occurs to me that the train needn't have left at two in the morning in order for it to have arrived at its terminus at a reasonable hour. It could have left at eight or nine o'clock and still have made good time. At first I wonder if they have scheduled the train at this hour to dissuade people from taking it. I later learn that they have done so in order to prevent it from hitting the Caucasus until after sunrise and to ensure that it has reached its destination before sunset. Passenger trains no longer pass through here in the dark.
Dagestan at dawn is reminiscent of David Davies' Moonrise: soft light, not yet aided by the sun, weaves its way through long, reedy grass, which grows from a slightly undulating plain. The view from any train in the world will throw a country's economic inequities into sharp relief ― Baltimore's ghettos, Mississippi's family graveyards, Siberia's industrial wastelands and all-wooden villages ― but none more so than the view from this one. Buildings appear unfinished, not for lack of trying, but for lack of bricks. Too-thin horses graze in too-barren holding pens in front of children's murals on concrete depicting much healthier-looking thoroughbreds. In Kizlyar, near the Dagestani-Chechen border, old women push a beat-up car along the side of the road while a group of men some twenty strong all stand around talking about how to best fell a tree. A bemused-looking fellow with an AK47 looks on as they shout over the top of one another.
Crossing from Dagestan into Chechnya, it is impossible not to note that one has done so. Run-down villages give way to the fruits of recent development and construction projects, the occasional semi-automatic weapon to the near-ubiquitous presence of firearms, and a landscape unblighted by the aesthetic preoccupations of the personality cult to one in which every public space serves as its leader's own private photo album. If the trackside food stalls patronised exclusively by Chechen Interior Ministry forces wasn't enough to indicate that a border has been crossed, Akhmad Kadyrov's face, bulbous and troll-like beneath its traditional papakha and enlarged to emphasise every pore as it stares at me gruffly from the station platform in Gudermes, certainly is. The former president was assassinated in an explosion at Grozny's Dinamo stadium during Victory Day celebrations in 2004 and was succeeded in the position three years later by his sole surviving son. Ramzan Kadyrov's face grins from a similarly oversized poster a little further along the platform. No fewer than six heavily-armed soldiers stand smoking and laughing in front of their leader. We are by now the only people left in our carriage.
THE post-Soviet space has inspired a good deal of journalistic shorthand. Alexander Lukashenko's Belarus remains "the Last Dictatorship in Europe" even as Viktor Yunokovych's Ukraine gives it a run for its money. For a long time, Grozny was, infamously, "the Most Destroyed City on Earth". For the first-time visitor, however, approaching the city on the train from the north-east, one is reminded of this epithet only negatively. It is certainly difficult to believe that it remained roughly accurate as little as five years ago. Today, Grozny rises out of the plain like Oz's Emerald City. The famous Associated Press image of a Russian soldier lighting a cigarette from a pile of burning refuse in the middle of the blown-to-shit street seems a world away. And more of the city is set to rise in the coming years. With cranes outnumbering the Turkish-designed buildings of its skyline by at least two to one, Grozny is today arguably the most rebuilt city in the world. The seven skyscrapers of its central development, Grozny City, were completed last year and today sparkle, glassy and blue, above both the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque and Ramzan Kadyrov's opulent presidential palace. They are soon to be joined by Grozny City 2, another seven-building development underway across Prospekt Akhmad Kadyrov, and by a dome-roofed hotel that will supposedly be used by foreign dignitaries. A brief glance out the train's opposite window, however, helps to put the new city into perspective: a sprawling military base, with hundreds of jeeps, trucks and even tanks, sits right on the city's periphery. The Russian government's investment is very heavily insured.
The first five-star hotel to open after the Second Chechen War, Hotel Arena City has long been a favourite of Western journalists, intrepid independent travellers, and celebrities who probably should have known better than to accept an invitation from a warlord. Photographs of unapologetic disaster tourists and so-called travel collectors posing with the hotel's heavily-armed night guards are dime-a-dozen on the internet. But the only hotel in Grozny is no longer the only hotel in Grozny. The five-star Hotel Grozny City opened last year and very quickly became the default choice for Ramzan Kadyrov's bought-and-paid-for party guests. These included Jean-Claude Van Damme and Oscar-winner Hilary Swank, the latter of whom told the gathering that she "could feel the spirit of the [city's] people" and "see that everyone was so happy," before human rights organisations told her more about her host and she sacked her entire management team. Like a long-popular bar in New York City or Los Angeles, Hotel Arena City today commemorates its glory years with a series of framed photographs of its celebrity guests, who have been given pride of place in the lobby beneath the obligatory portraits of the former and current presidents. It is here, on the morning of our first full day in Chechnya, that Elina Bataeva comes to pick us up.
Born and raised in Moscow, Elina is the Russian-Chechen owner of Chechnya Tourism & Travel, the only company of its kinds in the republic. She moved to Grozny in 2008, to get married and to be closer to her father, a little over twelve months after Ramzan Kadyrov announced that Chechnya was open for tourism. This slight, bird-like twenty-four-year-old has been trying to kick-start the industry single-handedly ever since. Although she is constantly fielding calls from Russians, who are curious to see what's become of the place, this is only the second time she's had the pleasure of hosting foreigners. The first was when The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon visited several weeks before us. When it comes to Westerners, only journalists holiday here.