Vladimir Vorsobin: I was impressed by the goodwill towards Russians in Chechnya

Oleg Kusov. Exclusively for Vestnik Kavkaza
Vladimir Vorsobin: I was impressed by the goodwill towards Russians in Chechnya

A series of materials about Chechnya on the air of the radio station Komsomolskaya Pravda was a media event for the North Caucasus last week. They were also published in the newspaper and on the website. The columnist of Komsomolskaya Pravda Vladimir Vorsobin lived in Chechnya for about a month. It is difficult to describe it as a usual journalistic business trip. His impressions convinced that it was a detailed study of one of the most unique Russian regions, which has a lot of myths and legends. You can learn about them with the help of the KP columnist’s travel notes. Besides, it is interesting to know his opinion about Chechnya, as he was visiting Chechnya for the first time. Vladimir Vorsobin hadn't seen the republic in either Soviet times, or in the times of the post-Soviet campaigns. After returning to Moscow, Vladimir Vorsobin was interviewed by our colleague Oleg Kusov.

- Vladimir, I have read your notes with increased attention, also because they contain a lot of information about the vivid Chechen life. In the times of Dzhokhar Dudayev we had a purely political attitude towards the republic. Many colleagues are interested today only in Kadyrov and his statements. According to the material, it was interesting to keep your eye on ordinary citizens of the republic. Who are they today? For example, we are in the habit of talking at a usual Moscow coffee shop so is it possible to fix a meeting at a cafe in Grozny? Let's start with their visitors. Is there a European atmosphere?

- If you forget that you are in Grozny, it seems that you are in a European city. The central streets are in good condition, houses are reconstructed. A lot of money has been invested and the city has become much better. A lot of things were made with good taste. If a building was constructed a long time ago, you won’t tell it apart from the new buildings. There are many cafes and restaurants in the city if you walk along the Arbat street. But when I was looking at Grozny from a cafe, I didn’t feel as if I were in an ordinary Russian city. Everything is restrained here, you cannot buy alcohol, or smoke here. Chechnya is still a religious area. I visited it on the eve of Eid al-Fitr! You can imagine this atmosphere. You can meet well-armed men on the streets. But they don’t irritate. On the contrary, you have a sense of security and peace, as they look after you. When you think about what Grozny was like 15 years ago, you realize that the changes are fantastic! This is clear not only from the architecture, but also from the people, who are well-dressed, they have decent cars. People are relaxed in Chechnya. When I was on my way to Chechnya I assumed that people are careful and they are under pressure from the security services. However, this is wrong.

The Chechens are frank. They will talk to you with pleasure, but they won’t say too much. It's a very strange thing: on the one hand, they are very sociable people, on the other hand they control themselves. A Chechen who controls himself is a phenomenon. For example, no one can afford to shave off his moustache, leaving the beard, because the man could be suspected of Wahhabism and his future could be difficult. For example, many young Chechens believe that they cannot shave their moustaches off and have only beards, as in this case they could be suspected of Wahhabism. Indeed, many young Chechens believe that a beard without a moustache isn’t fashionable. It affects those who returned to Chechnya from Europe after graduation. It is not easy for those Chechens who return to their homeland from Kazakhstan, where their grandfathers and great grandfathers were deported in Stalin's period. The majority of Kazakhstani Chechens are secular and educated.

- Childhood Chechen youth were there at the time of the military conflict. Do you feel this when you have a conversation with them? Are there many differences in comparison to young people in Moscow?

- They are absolutely different people. Russian children have no such concepts as the Chechens have. For example, they are very cautious about words. If a Russian guy can say swearwords without any consequences, in Chechnya it can cause a problem immediately. Certainly, Chechen men have a special relationship to women. Once in a mountain village I made a compliment while I was in conversation with a landlady. She asked me not to tell this to anyone else, as it is indecent according to local canons. But in a Russian village all women like compliments. Even the length of the sleeves of their dress is important for a Chechen woman. They are very sensitive about the length of these sleeves.

Beyond the boundaries of the administrative borders of Chechnya you can see another life (but not in Ingushetia, there are many similarities with Chechnya). You can feel it as soon as you arrive in Ossetia. You can safely buy beer and drink it on the street. But that is not the main thing. Numerous features of life in Chechnya are obstacles to the return of the Russian population to the republic. This is not their environment. For example, it is difficult for Russians to understand the wholesale commitment to polygamy in Chechnya. Two wives are fashionable. In a Chechen village I was told that in the Soviet times there was only one man who lived with two wives. He was a schoolteacher. Then polygamy became a relic of the past. Today, Islam permeates the entire life of a Chechen. Of course, it has some advantages. There is almost no crime in Chechnya, not thanks to the efforts of the law enforcement agencies, but to the moral principles of the population. Robbery, vandalism, hard drinking and drugs are sinful things. There are a lot of believers among young people. There are moral rules that make people's lives more balanced and fair.

- In times of armed conflict, as I have noticed, many Chechens remembered the Soviet times. They sang Soviet songs, loved Soviet films. Thus, they opposed themselves to the Soviet era. But not Stalin, Khrushchev and Brezhnev, as there were difficult post-Soviet times. Do they have these memories now?

- I haven’t felt this memory. I lived in a Chechen village. In Soviet times there were 80% Russians. Dance clubs, modern music... Chechen guys courted Russian girls and the Chechen girls didn’t like it. They drank beer in the village and even spirits. Of course, some remember it fondly, but many people add at the same time, that it was a sin. My impression is that the Chechens have forgotten the Soviet regime. 

- In the early 1990s, Chechnya was fascinated by Dzhokhar Dudayev. What attitude do they have towards this man now?

- They remember him. I thought that Dudayev was a man who did not live up to their expectations and brought them to hell, but the reality is much more complicated. There is a monument in honor of Zelimhan in Kharachoy. He was killed in 1913. He has fame as the Chechen Robin Hood. Dudayev has the same attitude. They say that Dudayev strived for justice, trying to make Chechnya like Kuwait. There are a lot of oil workers in the republic, who know about the wealth in their land. Dudayev told them that Moscow took away all their oil, but now it belongs to the Chechens. Today they remember Dudayev as a romantic who wanted to make the republic better. But I heard from some Chechens that, without paying attention to Dudayev, they then ran guns, captured oil derricks and spoiled everything. An important detail for understanding of that period of time: let’s go back to the village where I stayed. I cannot name it. The majority of residents of the village voted for Dudayev, but 80% of the population was Russian.

- Are Chechen cities and villages two different worlds?

- Sure. You won’t see a woman without a headscarf in the village. But in Grozny they look more secular. Now women in short skirts aren’t pursued with paintball guns with balls of paint. Gudermes is an intermediate variant between Grozny and a Chechen village. You won’t see a woman without a headscarf here, but there is a shopping center, a cafe where young people can celebrate birthdays. There are no such places in villages. Rural girls are always at home, they cannot travel to other republics alone, only with a man.

- Vladimir, you first arrived in Chechnya and lived there almost a month. What surprised you the most?

- Goodwill. Russian people may not even believe it, but the Chechens have no prejudice or anger. I never noted a malevolent gaze, there was no rudeness when addressing me. At the time of the military campaign my classmate was killed in Chechnya. He was a serviceman of the federal forces. Frankly speaking, I was a little nervous on my way to Chechnya. But it all disappeared soon after arrival. I cannot imagine a village in the Russian provinces where a stranger would be provided with the best room for many days and they won’t take money from him. The traditions of Caucasian hospitality in Chechnya are high. Don't believe in the myths that Chechnya is dangerous territory for Russians.