Russia's rebellious regions: In Grozny, a new museum reinforces a personality cult


GROZNY, Russia — A deep voice blares from the loudspeakers at a gleaming new monument in the center of Grozny, Chechnya's rebuilt capital: “He showed the world that politics is the art of the possible.”

"He" is Akhmat Kadyrov, the rebel-turned-Russia supporter who led the troubled republic out of its separatist war with Moscow.

Kadyrov is also the subject of a massive cult of personality in Chechnya, propagated by his son, the current president, who owes his legitimacy entirely to his father's legacy and the support of their main champion, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Now the son, Ramzan Kadyrov, has opened a museum entirely devoted to his father — eerily displaying the clothes that he died in and dozens of photographs detailing every aspect of his life.

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.
A trip through Chechnya and Dagestan

The price of Chechnya’s stability

A new museum reinforces a cult of personality

Islamic militancy brews in Dagestan

An opening ceremony was held on May 9, a major holiday in Russia marking Nazi Germany's capitulation in World War II. On that day in 2004, Akhmat Kadyrov was attending a holiday parade in Grozny's main stadium when a massive bomb exploded under the VIP area where he was sitting. Thirty others were also killed.

That evening, Ramzan Kadyrov flew to Moscow and held a teary meeting with Putin. Thus began his rise to the Chechen presidency, a post he assumed in 2007 upon turning the legal age of 30.

One of Putin's quotes from that evening lines posters on nearly every street in Grozny and the villages and roads that surround it: “He left undefeated.”

Technically, the museum is not yet open to the public, but upon hearing that an American reporter was roaming the grounds, its director quickly allowed entry.

The museum lies at the end of a long path, framed by arches, dubbed the “alley of glory.” It is topped with an obelisk, a small pathway and an eternal flame. In front of its doors stands a monument bearing an etching of the former president, the Putin quote noted above, the dates of his life and his full name, Akhmat-Hadji, honoring the fact that he made the hajj to Mecca.

Inside, a grand white and gold staircase leads visitors to the exhibition space. The central hall holds photos of Chechen veterans who fought in World War II. But the real goods lie in two rooms behind the hall.

One room holds an exact reconstruction of Akhmat Kadyrov's office — the maps he had on his wall, the armchairs he used to relax, the desk placed in front of a portrait of Putin, the conference table where he held meetings. All clocks in the museum are stopped at 10:05 — the time the bomb that killed him went off.

“It's a moral-ethical arrangement,” said Musa Labazanov when asked about the clocks as he led me on a tour of the facility. Labazonav proudly spelled out his full title: deputy general director of the memorial glory complex in the name of Akhmat Kadyrov.

The second room holds artifacts from Kadyrov's life: books about him, books by him, the tie he was wearing when he was killed. “They cleaned it off and brought it to us,” Labazanov said.

The walls of the museum are lined with dozens of photos, and captions that are not intended to be humorous. There is Akhmat Kadyrov, wearing the traditional Chechen grey lambskin hat he was rarely seen without. He looks deep in thought, a finger raised to his lips. The caption reads: “There is no such thing as a simple decision.”

Another photo shows Kadyrov superimposed in front of Chechnya's grand Caucasus mountains, a la Kim Jong Il. There's an entire wall devoted to him exchanging glances with Putin.

“There are lots of photos because he was an unusual person,” Labazanov said. “He didn't have just one interest, he had many.”

Throughout the museum, as well as on the ubiquitous posters of him around Chechnya, Akhmat Kadyrov is identified as Chechnya's first president.

The majority of Chechens with whom I spoke took issue with this, noting the presidencies of Dzhokar Dudayev, Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev and Aslan Maskhadov in the 1990s, when Chechnya was in chaos and de facto independent, dealing with the fallout from the Soviet Union's end and the start of hostilities with Moscow. Ramzan Kadyrov is, they say, rewriting history.

Labazanov think it's a title that Akhmat Kadyrov earned. “He's the only person who really thought of the people,” he said. “Dudayev became president and what happened? War started. Under Yanderbayev, also war. Makhadov? Also war. Kadyrov was the first to say: let's learn how to live peacefully.”

I ask Labazanov if he thinks Akhmat Kadyrov would be proud of his son. Ramzan Kadyrov certainly seems to think so, lining Grozny's streets with posters that proclaim “The dreams of the father realized in the son!”

Their paths were, however, rather different. Akhmat Kadyrov launched his career in the early 1990s as Chechnya's chief mufti, supporting the war for independence from 1994 to 1996. When war broke out again three years later, he supported Moscow instead, and was rewarded with the presidency. Meanwhile, Ramzan Kadyrov — one of three sons and the only one who remains alive today — built up a strong and widely feared personal militia, composed mainly of former fighters, which came to be known as the kadyrovtsy.

Labazanov took a long moment to think over the question.

“I think he would be happy that his plans are being realized,” he responded. “The main goal is to be as close to the people as possible.”