Chechnya: Where Obama is banned and Steven Seagal is guest of honor

Adam Taylor
The Washington Post | July 28, 2014

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, left, with Steven Seagal and a friend. (Instagram: @kadyrov_95)

On Saturday, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov announced that President Obama would be banned from entering the Russian republic he rules. Addressing his Instagram followers, Kadyrov said Obama and European officials José Manuel Barroso, Herbert Van Rompuy and Catherine Ashton would not only be barred from the country but also have their bank accounts and assets in Chechnya frozen for their roles in sowing global discontent.

It’s unlikely that Obama is canceling fights to Grozny right now or that Ashton is worried about all her Chechen bank accounts. But it’s an interesting piece of bravado from Kadyrov, a former warlord who has generally shown himself eager to embrace Western celebrities.

Kadyrov’s closest Western friend is perhaps Gérard Depardieu, the French actor best known for the titular role in the 1990 romantic comedy "Cyrano de Bergerac." Depardieu is an understandable ally for Kadyrov: His hard-drinking, macho image fits in with the Russian masculinity espoused by Kadyrov and President Vladimir Putin. In 2013, after a spat over taxes in France for which he was branded "shabby" by the French prime minister, Depardieu gave up his French passport and was granted Russian citizenship by Putin.

Depardieu and Kadyrov soon bonded, with the Chechen leader giving his thespian friend a five-bedroom apartment in Grozny (unfortunately, the building later caught fire). Kadyrov documented their friendship on Instagram during May 2013.



As you may have noticed, Depardieu wasn’t the only celebrity featured in these pictures. British actor Elizabeth Hurley also was in Grozny with Depardieu and Kadyrov, apparently in preparation for a film role. Kadyrov later posted a picture of Hurley with a tiny cat:


For Americans of a certain age, however, the biggest name on Kadyrov’s guest list would be Steven Seagal. The American action-movie hero, well known these days for his eccentric nature, has been embraced by Putin’s Russia in recent years. Just a few days after Hurley and Depardieu visited Grozny in 2013, Seagal also featured prominently on Kadyrov’s Instagram feed. "“Nobility. Willpower. Honor," he wrote of the actor. "Qualities, characteristic of Chechens. So we can say he is almost a Chechen!”



In 2011, Kadyrov held a 35th birthday celebration and invited a number of celebrities. According to a report from the Hollywood Reporter, big names such as Kevin Costner, Eva Mendes and Shakira declined the invitation, but others, including Belgian martial arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme and Oscar-winning American actress Hillary Swank, were able to make it. Swank was singled out for criticism by groups such as Human Rights Watch (Kadyrov has been accused of numerous human rights violations) and later said she deeply regretted attending the event.

American actress Hilary Swank attends a concert in a new residential and commercial complex in the Chechen capital, Grozny, on Oct. 5, 2011. (Musa Sadulayev/Associated Press)

Perhaps at first glance, Kadyrov’s embrace of Western celebrities and rejection of Western politicians might seem somewhat of a contradiction. Of course, it’s not really. Most of his celebrity guests have been awkward figures in the West, action-movie stars who have fallen from popularity and dramatic actors who are political pariahs at home. Others seemed to be people who hadn’t really read much about Chechnya and were happy to take a paycheck for making an appearance.

Either way, the Chechen leader’s love of celebrities is driven by the same thing as his rejection of Obama: world-class bluster.


Chechen Experience in Urban Combat Could Be of Vital Use to Ukraine

Mairbek Vatchagaev
Eurasia Daily Monitor | Volume: 11 Issue: 131 – July 18, 2014

Russia is facing a new problem and this concerns the new front that the Chechens have launched outside the North Caucasus. As a result of the brutal suppression of the Chechen armed resistance, only three small groups are left in the republic: the group led by Hamzat, who is also the emir of all the Chechen rebels (, April 10); the group of Aslanbek Vadalov; and the group that remained after the destruction of the Gakaev brothers, Hussein and Muslim (, January 24, 2013), which is now led by Emir Makhran (, November 10, 2012). Geographically, these three groups are based in different parts of mountainous Chechnya: Emir Hamzat is in the western part of Chechnya on the border with Ingushetia, Emir Aslanbek is in the eastern part of Chechnya on the border with Dagestan, and Emir Makhran’s group is in the central part of the republic—in the Vedeno, Kurchaloi and Shali districts.

Pressure on the Chechen militants fighting against Kadyrov inside Chechnya has led to the main forces of the Chechen militancy concentrating outside Russia. Moreover, the policy of driving the militants out of the region has created a new situation in which the Chechen militants launched a second front against Russia abroad. Initially, the new front surfaced in Syria, where around a thousand Chechens concentrated and were prepared to fight for Islamic values (see EDM, December 12, 2013).

The Chechen factor has also played a notable role in the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation since it started. Initially, the Ukrainian media discussed the possibility that Chechens had joined the conflict on Russia’s side against Kyiv (see EDM, May 30). However, statements in the Ukrainian media pushed those Chechens who reside in Europe to open a second front against Russia inside Ukraine. The same Chechens who left Russia at the time of the war now think that they have the full right to take revenge against Russia (

The involvement of Chechens in the hostilities in Ukraine against Russia is not limited to a handful of cases, but has become a mass phenomenon (, May 25). Reports about the first Chechens killed defending Ukraine’s freedom arrived earlier this month. On July 12, Artyom Netrunenko (a.k.a. Umar Valkiria), a 25-year-old of mixed Ukrainian and Chechen extraction who was a member of a Ukrainian interior ministry paramilitary unit, was killed in the suburbs of Luhansk when separatists fired on a car carrying him and four other Ukrainian servicemen (, July 12). Friends of Netrunenko decided not to bury him until the liberation of Luhansk, when he will be given a funeral with full military honors as a hero of Ukraine.

The Free Caucasus socio-political movement caused an uproar when it announced the formation of an international peacekeeping battalion of volunteers that accepts all people who are willing to fight for the freedom and independence of Ukraine. The battalion was named the Dudaev battalion after the first President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, Dzhokhar Dudaev. Isa Munaev, who was a brigadier general in the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was appointed commander of the volunteer peacekeeping battalion (, March 3).

Munaev was one of the most famous heroes of the Second Russian-Chechen war. At the start of the war in 1999, the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, appointed him as the military commandant of the republic. The Russian media later incorrectly announced that he had been killed (Kommersant, October 3, 2000). As Chechen forces retreated from Grozny into the mountains, Munaev was promoted to the rank of general and he was appointed the commander of the southwestern front (compromatwiki). Munaev left Chechnya in 2004 or 2005 after being seriously injured on the battlefield and ended up in Denmark, where he became one of the founders of the Free Caucasus socio-political movement. Along with Chechens, Georgians and Azerbaijanis living in Denmark also belong to this organization.

Responding to questions last month, Munaev said that he did not represent anyone else apart from a movement made up of multiple ethnic groups (bolshoyforum, June 4). Munaev said he was holding talks with Ukrainian authorities about allowing the Dzhokhar Dudaev international peacemaking battalion into Ukraine. The Ukrainian authorities, Munaev said, are afraid of a possible harsh Russian response to such a move. Munaev is known for his uncompromising stance on Russia, and a recent statement for the press testifies to the toughness of his position. “[A]nyone from my people who does not live with the thought of eliminating the Russian Federation is the same to me as Putin,” he said. “[A]ny enemy of the Russian Federation is automatically without any preconditions my friend!” (golosichkerii, June 29).

Not only Chechens, but also Ukrainians and Russians who live in the West are signing up to join this battalion so they can fight on Ukraine’s side under Isa Munaev’s command. Azerbaijani Isa Sadykov was appointed as deputy commander of the volunteer battalion. Sadykov is better known as the former deputy minister of defense of Azerbaijan who opposed the government in Baku and currently resides as a political asylee in Norway (, June 6).

One report stated that “apart from other nationalities of the world, over 300 Chechens signed up for the battalion with the single aim of helping the Ukrainian people defend their freedom and independence in the armed fight against imperial Russia” (, June 29). Thus, the overall number of volunteers currently probably exceeds 500. Of course, it is hard to imagine that Kyiv will agree to allow in volunteer fighters from other countries; but to not use this volunteer battalion would also be a big mistake on the part of the Ukrainian government.

Thus, we are seeing how the confrontation between Chechens and Russia is reaching a new stage, one that involves Chechen emigrants. This new development has a greater significance than the armed jihadist insurgency against the authorities in Chechnya. It is estimated that about 120,000 Chechens emigrated to European countries alone. This figure demonstrates that, in the future, Moscow will have to deal with a formidable force of manpower residing outside of Russia that continues to harbor deep resentment against the Kremlin for its two brutal wars in Chechnya and could become a valuable source of volunteers for the Ukrainian army should Kyiv go this route. At a minimum, Ukraine could capitalize on tapping into the knowledge of former military commanders like General Munaev, who has a vast amount of experience in fighting in urban warfare in Grozny. His knowledge of urban combat could help Ukrainian commanders deal with a major looming challenge in retaking the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, where pro-Russian rebels are well prepared for a future Ukrainian drive to retake those cities.

Ruslan Kutayev: Chechen human rights activist

Maria Klimova
openDemocracy | 11 July 2014

Ruslan Kutayev, human rights activist, has been sentenced to four years imprisonment in Chechnya for possession of heroin. His fellow campaigners are convinced that the charges were false.

On Monday 7 July, a court in the Chechen town of Urus Martan, found Ruslan Kutayev guilty of unlawfully procuring and possessing heroin with no intent to sell; and sentenced him to four years in a minimum-security labour camp. Presiding judge Aleksander Dubkov also banned the 56-year-old president of the NGO ‘Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus,’ and member of the political council of the ‘Alliance of Greens and Social-Democrats,’ from engaging in any public activity for a year after the end of his sentence.

Arrest and beating

Ruslan Kutayev was arrested on 20 February 2014, outside the house of relatives, in the hamlet of Gekhi. According to the Interior Ministry, a crime-prevention operation was being run at the time in the village, and the patrol detained Kutayev, whose behaviour struck them as ‘odd.’ When they searched him, they found three grammes of an unknown powder substance in his trouser pocket. Kutayev was taken in for further investigation.

Ruslan Kutayev has been sentenced to four years in a prison camp. Photo CC: youtube

‘For a long time we didn’t know where Ruslan was, who had taken him, and where,’ said his brother Shirvani. ‘We only knew he had been arrested outside our relatives’ house, in his slippers – they were just sitting down to supper. Several cars drove into the courtyard; then masked men came in to the house and took my brother away. It was only late that night that we discovered he was at the police station at Urus Martan,’ Later, the investigators informed him that Kutayev had confessed to possessing heroin. A day after that, he was taken for medical testing. After several attempts, they apparently found codeine and morphine in his urine.

His brother managed to get to see Ruslan when he was in the police station: ‘he had broken ribs and had been badly beaten. He seemed very low.’ Later, in March, the doctors discovered that Kutayev had two broken ribs and the lawyers recorded many bruises, a large hematoma on his back and in the chest area.

Relatives are in no doubt that the officers had beaten Kutayev, to try and get him to confess, though he denied this at the bail hearing on 24 February. Kutayev confessed that he had found the package with the three grammes of heroin in a taxi on the way back from Pyatigorsk, and had put it in his pocket quite consciously.

Upsetting the President

Kutayev’s arrest did not cause much of a stir in the Chechen Republic; it did, however, attract the attention of Russian human rights campaigners. Igor Kalyapin, head of the Committee against Torture, was the first to publicise the charges against Kutayev. He pointed out that two days before the arrest, Kutayev, among others, had taken part in an adademic conference in Grozny’s Central Library. This was to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Chechens and Ingush; other participants included Chechen WWII veterans, Deputies of the republican parliament, academics and historians. The anniversary is usually commemorated on 23 February, but this year, President Kadyrov decreed that the date should be changed to 10 May, the anniversary of the burial of his father Akhmad Kadyrov.

Ignoring the decision of the Chechen President, Kutayev convened the conference on 18 February, and, in so doing, according to Kalyapin, fell foul of the head of the Presidential Administration, Magomed Daudov. Several of the people involved in the conference were called to a meeting with Daudov, who expressed his dissatisfaction at what had taken place. Kutayev was telephoned and ‘invited’ to attend, but refused, saying that he did not have to take orders from the head of the Presidential Administration; and he was too busy to attend.

‘After the conference, Ruslan rang me and several others in Moscow. He was sure he would be arrested quite soon because of his refusal to meet Daudov, said Kalyapin. ‘He called me from his relatives in the village to say he was being followed. Two hours later he had been arrested.’ Soon after the arrest, Kalyapin managed to get to see Kutayev in the Urus-Martan police station, where he confirmed the many hematomas and bruises on Kutayev’s body.

Kalyapin’s preliminary investigations led him to declare that the case was politically motivated and the charges trumped up. The Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, reacted very quickly to this statement: at a meeting in the Public Chamber he stated in his usual brusque manner that Kalyapin was involved in dubious financial dealings and even in aiding and abetting terrorist activities in the republic.

‘I emphasised that no one on earth is more interested in protecting the rights of Chechens. Our first President [Kadyrov’s father], Hero of Russia Akhmad-khadzhi Kadyrov and thousands of his supporters, paid with their lives for these rights. At the same time, however, some people in Chechnya are trying to make a career out of human rights and have their own agenda,’ said Kadyrov. According to him, Kalyapin is ‘trying to persuade some Ruslan Kutayev or other to give false evidence.’

This is not the first time that Kadyrov has attacked Kalyapin and his committee, criticising him and it for offering legal assistance to victims of torture, which they have been doing since 1995. ‘We have our own human rights campaigners, who can raise any questions with the Government and defend the legal rights of Chechen citizens; they have no need of any Kalyapins,’ was the conclusion of the President.

The Ombudsman

The next person to speak of the Kutayev case was the Chechen Ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev. He explained that as soon as he heard about Kutayev’s arrest, he tasked his subordinates with discovering both the circumstances and the reason for the detention. He said he had spoken to Kutayev alone, and could reveal that the prisoner had no complaints about his rights being infringed or the conditions of his detention.

‘I can see no reason for getting excited about this case, but those that are making the fuss are certainly working against Kutayev’s interests. The situation is being artificially hyped by some people who are pretending to be energetically engaged in human rights activities, but are really only interested in self-promotion,’ said Nukhazhiyev. He undertook to keep tabs on the investigation, and to react immediately if he considered this to be necessary.

Dressed in white, Chechen Ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev (far right) attends a session with Putin on human rights in Russia

The trial

The investigation of the charges against Kutayev was completed fairly rapidly: the investigators only took two months to prepare the indictment, and on 25 April the trial began.

The police who had taken part in his arrest were called as witnesses. During the trial, Igor Kalyapin more than once pointed out the inconsistencies and contradictions in their evidence. One of the witnesses said that Kutayev had attracted their attention because he was ‘unsteady on his feet, though standing in one place, and in some kind of agitation.’ This led the officers to suspect that he was on drugs. However, Kutayev was only taken for medical examination the day after he was arrested. Kalyapin’s suspicions were also aroused by the fact that during questioning many of the policemen asked the judge to read out to them the statements they had made earlier, during the investigation.

On 2 June, while on the stand, the neurologist who had examined Kutayev, said that she did not know who had entered into her signed statement the ‘fact’ that codeine and morphine had been found in his urine. She said that she had made no probe sampling for analysis, and that she herself had not been in charge of the laboratory investigation; who had done it and when she did not know. Kutayev himself explained at the trial that he had been compelled to confess under torture.

‘I was taken to Daudov. He and Alaudinov (Deputy Interior Minister) beat me viciously in the presence of their bodyguards,’ said Kutayev, during one of the court sessions, ‘I don’t think this was only personal animosity towards me, however, and it is by no means the main reason for the fabrication of criminal charges and the subsequent criminal proceedings.’ In his opinion the case against him is only one of the many examples of Russian officials and siloviki (officers from the uniformed ministries) settling scores with their political opponents in Russia.

‘The false accusation against me of illegal possession of drugs is, first and foremost, to do with my political activities. They are using intimidation to make an example of me so as to scare off other people in the same field, who dare to criticise the Chechen authorities.’

‘Lord’ Daudov

Magomed Daudov, head of the Presidential Administration, is well known in Chechnya as a former soldier with the codename ‘Lord.’ Two weeks before the trial, he expressed his intention of personally attending it.

‘I heard that during the last session my name gave rise to laughter. I am not working in a circus, and therefore do not take kindly to anyone ridiculing my name.’ He stressed that he had neither beaten Kutayev nor detained him. He also assured the judge that he was not personally acquainted with the defendant, had never met him and, contrary to what the defence had said, had only spoken with him once on the telephone. Daudov even asked the court to show mercy towards the accused on the grounds that anyone can make a mistake.

‘I do not support violent measures against someone who has made one mistake,’ said Daudov, ’I know our prison service, how people are held and in what shape they come out of prison. Unfortunately, anyone who receives a ten-year sentence will definitely suffer. Prison does not bring them to their senses and they are, therefore, ruined.’

In Russia, the penalty for possession of drugs in large quantities without intent to sell is from three to ten years. The prosecution called for Kutayev to be given five years. The court sentence was four years in a prison camp.


Kutayev’s arrest has attracted the attention of human rights campaigners inside Russia and abroad. In Russia, the human rights watchdog ‘Memorial’ designated Ruslan Kutayev a political prisoner. Memorial is sure that the case bears all the hallmarks of falsification: their suspicions were aroused, among other things, by the evidence of the policemen during the trial. Interior Ministry officials were unable to explain where the order had come from to carry out a crime-prevention operation in the village of Gekhi; and no documents on this subject were made available to the court.

In the opinion of the international organisation Human Rights Watch, the Russian authorities must immediately release Ruslan Kutayev. Hugh Williamson, director of the HRW Europe & Central Asia Division expressed his support thus: ‘The arrest of Ruslan Kutayev and his appalling treatment have unambiguously reminded us that it is better not to criticise the regime in Chechnya. The atmosphere of fear is so strong in the republic that few dare to protest any matter at all to Kadyrov.’

Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina, who has been following the case, regards the Kutayev case as the first political trial in today’s Chechnya. ‘I was present at practically every session of the trial in Grozny, and I am absolutely convinced that the legal investigation was falsified from start to finish. The barrister for Kutayev completely demolished all the accusations against him, although the court totally ignored his conclusions, thus only emphasising the weakness of the verdict.’ She is sure that Daudov attended the trial of his own volition solely with the intention of scaring everyone involved, and demonstrating his strength.

‘It’s the first time that such a high-ranking silovik (bureaucrat) has wanted to be called as a witness at a trial. All the better – now his surname will remind everyone of the scandalous sentence imposed on Kutayev,’ she says. His relatives and friends point out the inconsistency of the charge against him – he could not bear cigarettes or alcohol, so how much more intolerant would he have been of drugs?

It is important to remember that there was no criminal episode, as Igor Kalyapin points out. ‘No one found heroin on Kutayev because he was not searched; he was detained at home by armed men. All the documentation materialised later on. We tried to prove this in court. We had only to ask for the phone records of the policemen who apparently arrested him but who were not actually in Gekhi on that day; and, indeed, Kutayev’s own records, to see that he hadn’t been to Pyatigorsk that day. So he didn’t come back in a taxi and didn’t find a package,’ says Kalyapin. Notwithstanding, he considers that the chances of the appeal court finding in favour of Kutayev, and reducing the sentence are virtually nil.

‘I’m sure that the appeal court too will be doing the will of the Chechen Government,’ he says. As for the officials’ part in Kutayev’s beating, he is absolutely convinced that everything happened exactly as Kutayev said. But, ‘It is extremely unlikely that the case will ever be investigated.’

‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,’ by Anthony Marra

Prisoners of the Caucasus
‘A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,’ by Anthony Marra
NYT | June 7, 2013

Anthony Marra’s extraordinary first novel, “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” opens with a disappearance typical of postmodern warfare, cobbled to an image completely alien to it: “On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” This fusion of the desperate with the whimsical sets the tone.


By Anthony Marra
384 pp. Hogarth. $26.

In the background are the Chechen wars, a staggeringly destructive pair of conflicts pitting the army of post-Soviet Russia against Chechen guerrillas who were sometimes supported by visiting Arab jihadis. Marra’s timeline runs from 1994 to 2004, but the larger story is much, much deeper. This novel is, among other things, a meditation on the use and abuse of history, and an inquiry into the extent to which acts of memory may also constitute acts of survival.

For Marra’s characters, the odds against survival are high. The disappearance of Havaa’s father comes near the end of a 10-year sequence of similar events that have devastated the tiny village of Eldar. But for the time being, 8-year-old Havaa is saved by a neighbor, Akhmed, who walks her to the reluctant care of the last doctor in the bomb-shattered hospital of the nearby city of Volchansk.

Sonja, the doctor, is an ethnic Russian whose grandparents moved to Volchansk as part of the Stalinist colonization of the region. She is so skilled and resourceful she can successfully stitch a gaping chest wound with dental floss. Akhmed, an ethnic Chechen, is a drastically underqualified doctor with a talent for drawing, who has spent his life in such extreme isolation that he has Ronald McDonald mixed up with Ronald Reagan. Yet the lives of both are tormented by loss.

Akhmed’s wife has been in a vegetative state since the Russian military first ravaged Eldar. Havaa’s father was his closest friend. Fundamentally incompetent to stem the flow of medical trauma that war brings to his village, Akhmed has taken to painting portraits of the dead and the vanished and hanging them around the neighborhood — one of a number of semi-surreal acts of remembrance the novel has to offer. Sonja, meanwhile, is desperate to find her sister, who has disappeared from Volchansk (for a second time) about a year before. The delicate web of connection among these characters takes the novel’s whole length to reveal itself.

During their childhood, Sonja is the smart sister, Natasha the pretty one. With Sonja in a London medical school and both their parents dead, Natasha finds herself alone as Volchansk begins to collapse in the escalation of the first Chechen war. Aware that despite her Russian ethnicity she’ll fare ill in the oncoming Russian invasion, she becomes the agent of her own first disappearance, turning herself over to a broker of “au pairs.” Though she knows she’ll really become a prostitute, Natasha still hopes this maneuver may help her rejoin Sonja in London. “Make me an au pair,” she tells her sex trafficker. “Make me reappear.”

But chances of reappearance in wartime are thin. Bargaining with Sonja for Havaa’s shelter, Akhmed volunteers his services to the shattered hospital — staffed only by Sonja and a single nurse, with whom Akhmed sorts the clothing of the dead. They discover a note with instructions for burial sewn into a pair of trousers, but the nurse tells Akhmed the owner is “already in the clouds” of the city crematorium. When Akhmed (who has a similar note in one of his own seams) wants to pursue the matter, she shows him a box of identity documents “layered eight deep. . . . ‘He’s one of these,’ she said.” This peripheral victim has disappeared before the reader ever met him, to be remembered only by the novelist, who spins out a thin strand of his story: “That man had a sister in Shali who would have given her travel agency, . . . her parents-in-law and nine-tenths of her immortal soul to hold that note now lying at the bottom of the trash can, if only to hold the final wish of the brother she regretted giving so little for in life.”

The novel is peppered with these short detours into the pasts or futures of characters who momentarily cross paths with the principals. It’s one of Marra’s ways of holding the value of human wishes against their vanity. There’s a constant impulse to retrieve and affirm what was, though acts of remembrance are themselves evanescent. Akhmed contemplates his demented wife: “As a web is no more than holes woven together, they were bonded by what was no longer there.” His portraits of the lost dissolve quickly to “no more than two eyes, a nose and a mouth fading between the trees.” Natasha, briefly reunited with her sister in Volchansk between the two wars, painstakingly draws, where a window once was, the view that existed before the landscape was reduced to rubble. The suitcase Havaa saves from her burning house is full of relics of the refugees her father used to shelter. These become meaningless for want of a provenance, except for a Buckingham Palace guard nutcracker, once given to Natasha by Sonja, then to Havaa by Natasha during her second flight from Volchansk (hoping this time to outdistance heroin addiction).

Another of Akhmed’s neighbors decides finally to burn his “six-­volume, 3,300-page historical survey of the Chechen lands,” telling Akhmed: “History writes itself. It doesn’t need my assistance.” His personal history includes his having brought home the bones of his parents in a suitcase during the 1956 repatriation of exiled Chechens from Kazakhstan, and the fact that his son is the informer who brought about the disappearance of Havaa’s father, among many others, and will eventually inform on Akhmed as well.

This son (for whom Marra creates a surprising amount of sympathy) tells Akhmed close to the end: “They won’t ask you where the girl is. They will make you bring her to them, and you will watch yourself do it. . . . Once I was like you, and soon you will be like me.” Here is the most dreadful disappearance of all: destruction of the self under torture. This novel plentifully displays the very worst of human capability. In the interrogation pits somewhere between Volchansk and Eldar, fingers and testicles chopped off with bolt cutters are only the beginning.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Under the rain of atrocity it portrays, this novel’s generally optimistic tone can sometimes seem downright bizarre. Some other recent works have adopted this attitude of infinite resignation (“The Known World,” by Edward P. Jones, and “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name two), but Marra seems to derive his astral calm in the face of catastrophe directly from Tolstoy, whose Chechnya-set novel, “Hadji Murad,” is mentioned several times in this one. “Constellation” might be a 21st-­century “War and Peace,” except, as the informer warns, there’s no real peace available: “They will kill Havaa and call it peace.”

While reminding us of the worst of the war-torn world we live in, Marra finds sustainable hope in the survival of a very few, and in the regenerative possibility of life in its essential form, defined by a medical textbook passage that Sonja and Natasha read at different times. In her darkest moments, Sonja sees her life as “an uneven orbit around a dark star, a moth circling a dead bulb,” but against that image is the textbook definition: “a constellation of vital phenomena — organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.”

Madison Smartt Bell is the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently “The Color of Night.”



Tolstoy Influence Felt In U.S. Chechen Book
By Carolina Starin
The Moscow Times | Jul. 09 2014

Anthony Marra’s novel “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena,” which made The New York Times’ bestseller list, is based in Chechnya and follows a series of characters in an often bloody and brutal book.


Q: The New York Times’ review calls your book a “21st-century ‘War and Peace.’” Was Tolstoy an influence?

A: Tolstoy was certainly an influence. He can write about Napoleon or he can write about a peasant in the provinces and he treats both subjects with the same seriousness and the same emotional and intellectual rigor. When I went to Chechnya, I would ask people who their favorite author was, and Tolstoy was the answer nine times out of 10. It struck me as peculiar that among these people whose one defining national characteristic historically has been defiance of Russia that the quintessential Russian novelist would so often pop up among their favorite writers.

A response that I heard repeatedly was that Tolstoy treated everyone like people. In “Hadji Murad,” he wrote about Chechens and he treated them like human beings. I think that being able to treat a character like a human being is something I really admire in Tolstoy’s work and tried to embody in my own.

Q: There are points in the book where I had to kind of read with one eye, like closing your eyes during a violent movie. What was it like to write about such difficult subjects?

A: I was sitting at my desk in a comfortable middle-class life in America, whereas real people did suffer these indignities. I feel like as a writer you can never ever correlate the experience of writing about something with the experience of enduring it, especially when it comes to atrocity. Maybe this is on my mind a little bit more because on Saturday night I spent the night talking with a Chechen. His brother worked for Reuters and he was involved with helping his brother smuggle footage out. He was eventually captured and was put in a pit for six weeks. He was brutally tortured and was later shot alongside his brother. His brother died and he survived and now he lives in America, but the idea that the experience of writing anything, or reading anything, will ever match the experience of actually enduring it just isn’t the case.

Q: Would you say your book is political?

A: As soon as you start writing fiction with the idea that you are trying to convince a reader of a particular political viewpoint, in most cases, the fiction begins to fail. As readers we are all highly attuned and sensitive to any sort of propaganda. As soon as literature gears in that direction, it stops being about the people on the page and starts being about political ideas in a way that may be unconstructive in creating a work of art. I think it is probably pretty clear where my sympathies lie when reading the novel, but I thought it was really important to write the book without laying any sort of judgment. I think if you simply tell the story of what life was like there, it is pretty hard not to jump to the conclusion that life for a civilian in Chechnya was terrible because of these wars. These wars were acts of genocide and the level of depravity and horror that everyday people were subjected to on a daily basis was reprehensible. I feel like that as a citizen or as a person. But as a writer of fiction I felt like it was my job to simply stick to these characters’ stories and let readers make up their own mind.

Q: You credit Anna Politkovskaya’s “A Small Corner of Hell” as a source for your book. In what way?

A: She was an incredibly courageous journalist and writer and she would repeatedly put herself in grave risk to report. While she went after big fish, again and again you would see in her work that she was telling the stories of lives that were too small, the dramas that are too intimate to ever make the front-page headlines. Often in these sorts of wars we see it as a bunch of rebels and a bunch of soldiers shooting at one another when, in fact, there is this broad mid-section of the population that is struggling to survive between these equally brutal factions. She was a remarkable person and someone whose work will long outlive her.


Excerpt from A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Stegner Fellow and Whiting Award winner Anthony Marra transports us to a snow-covered village in Chechnya.

A resilient doctor risks everything to save the life of a hunted child, in this majestic debut about love, loss, and the unexpected ties that bind us together.

In Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, eight-year-old Havaa watches from the woods as Russian soldiers abduct her father in the middle of the night, accusing him of aiding Chechen rebels. Across the road their lifelong neighbor and family friend Akhmed has also been watching, fearing the worst when the soldiers set fire to Havaa’s house. But when he finds her hiding in the forest with a strange blue suitcase, he makes a decision that will forever change their lives. He will seek refuge at the abandoned hospital where the sole remaining doctor, Sonja Rabina, treats the wounded.

For the talented, tough-minded Sonja, the arrival of Akhmed and Havaa is an unwelcome surprise. Weary and overburdened, she has no desire to take on additional risk and responsibility. And she has a deeply personal reason for caution: harboring these refugees could easily jeopardize the return of her missing sister. But over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will shift on its axis and reveal the intricate pattern of connections that weave together the pasts of these three unlikely companions and unexpectedly decides their fate. A story of the transcendent power of love in wartime, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a work of sweeping breadth, profound compassion, and lasting significance.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena Book Excerpt

Kebekov trying to improve image of "Imarat Kavkaz" among public, experts say

Caucasian Knot | 02 July 2014

The Kebekov’s statement about the unacceptability of terror acts against the civilian population may indicate his desire to improve the image of the "Imarat Kavkaz" in the eyes of the general population. However, it is too early to speak about any change of militants’ tactics, the experts interviewed by the "Caucasian Knot" believe.

The statement of the militants’ leader may cause serious changes in the ongoing processes in Northern Caucasus, said Enver Kisriev, the head of the Sector of the Caucasus Centre for Civilization and Regional Studies of the Institute of Africa of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS). In general, he said, it is "good news."

"On the one hand, it can be viewed as a split within the ‘Imarat Kavkaz’; on the other – as an attempt of the relatively moderate (although it is difficult to talk about moderation here) to somehow strengthen their positions," said Alexei Malashenko, an Islamic scholar and a Senior Researcher for the Institute of Oriental Studies of the RAS, in his comment on Kebekov’a statement.

He believes that the reaction of Russian authorities to this appeal will also be indicative.

The call for moderation may respond to some situational goals of the underground movement; but militants’ attacks on civilians will not stop regardless of the appeals of their leadership, said Dmitry Oreshkin, a political analyst and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights.

Author: Magomed Tuaev; Source: CK correspondent

New North Caucasus Insurgency Leader Seeks To Avoid Suicide Bombings

RFE/RL Caucasus Report | July 03, 2014

In new video footage, North Caucasus insurgency leader Ali Abu-Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) discusses in detail to what extent suicide bombings and inflicting casualties on the civilian population constitute acceptable tactics in the ongoing jihad to replace Russia’s hegemony over the region with an independent Islamic state.

North Caucasus insurgency leader Ali Abu-Mukhammad (Aliaskhab Kebekov) "categorically forbids" women to act as suicide bombers, even though "there are some sisters who want to do this and keep pestering us" for permission, and asks his commanders not to use women for this purpose.

The one-hour video clip follows the same format as the "Answers to questions" footage uploaded in May and removed almost immediately as a violation of YouTube’s policy on violence. Kebekov, in battle dress as usual, is seen seated against the background of the black jihadist banner and answers questions posed by an interlocutor off-camera.

On this occasion, the first question — which Kebekov calls a "very good" one — focuses on the admissibility of suicide bombings in general, and specifically in light of the danger they may kill innocent civilians. Kebekov argues that such acts should be kept to a minimum, but he does so on tactical, rather than theological grounds.

He acknowledges that such self-sacrifice constitutes the "supreme manifestation of faith," and that however eloquently you argue, it is impossible to dissuade someone who is determined to carry out such an act because that person already has the scent of paradise in his nostrils. And there are some potential targets among the "unbelievers" whom it is impossible to get close enough to kill by any other means. At the same time, he continues, every fighter is an asset, and "if there is another way to rid ourselves of the unbelievers, there is no need for us to give our lives."

Therefore, Kebekov reasons, in each individual case we should weigh the benefit against the potential damage. In that context, he stresses that only men should be permitted to commit such acts of self-sacrifice. He "categorically forbids" women to do so, even though "there are some sisters who want to do this and keep pestering us" for permission, and asks his commanders not to use women for this purpose. He explains that if even a few women perpetrate such acts, the Russian authorities will retaliate by targeting for humiliation thousands of others who are practicing Muslims.

Kebekov’s clear reluctance to condone suicide bombings is difficult to reconcile with his warning in the video footage filmed in May that the insurgency is preparing to inflict "crushing blows"  on the enemy, although he mentions in passing the hypothetical possibility of blowing up a Russian military base.

Kebekov develops the theme of preventing the unnecessary death of women in responding to a follow-up question. He urges women who find themselves together with their insurgent husbands in a building surrounded by Interior Ministry forces to surrender, if offered the choice. This is all the more imperative, Kebekov says, if the couple have children whom the woman has an obligation to raise "in the spirit of Islam," rather than leave them to be brought up by parents who in all likelihood have no sympathy for the insurgency cause.

How long this will remain an option is questionable, however. Colonel General Sergei Chenchik, who heads the Russian Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for the North Caucasus Federal District, argues that it is imperative to organize the "adaptation" (read indoctrination) of the children of insurgents who have been killed or are serving prison terms.

Kebekov urges male fighters too to surrender in such circumstances rather than fight to the death, saying he hopes to be in a position within a few years to secure the release from prison of insurgents jailed after surrender or capture. But his assertion that "we know of no cases" in which either men or women who surrendered during counterterror operations were subsequently mistreated is at odds with data compiled by human rights watchdogs.

As for civilian casualties, Kebekov declares that Islam forbids the deliberate killing of women, children, and the elderly. But at the same time, he says that the insurgency cannot be held responsible if innocent civilians are killed by chance during an operation, especially as the civilian population has been repeatedly warned to avoid locations that the insurgents regard as legitimate targets.

Kebekov nonetheless expresses regret for such deaths. He says lower-level commanders have been told to do their best to avoid killing women and children, noting that Ayman al-Zawahiri (the current head of Al-Qaeda) has issued analogous instructions. He refers to Zawahiri as "our emir" or leader, a formulation that will doubtless be adduced to substantiate the tenuous claims of an institutional link between Al-Qaeda and the Caucasus Emirate declared in the fall of 2007 by Kebekov’s predecessor, Doku Umarov.

Two further interrelated questions address the issues of recruits to the insurgency, and the expediency of creating so-called autonomous jamaats (fighting units) that are not formally subordinate to the insurgency commander. Kebekov admits that the insurgency cannot accept all the recruits who aspire to join its ranks, especially those who are not physically fit. At the same time, he says that it is possible to participate in the jihad simply on the basis of the strength of one’s desire to do so, without taking up arms.

Kebekov expounded that argument in far greater detail in a landmark video address filmed while he was still "qadi" (senior religious authority), before his election early this year to succeed Umarov. In that address, Kebekov outlined a vision of jihad not as the low-level insurgency of the past 15 years, but as a clandestine ideological struggle within society as a whole in which "we must juxtapose our system to that of the infidels in all directions: political, economic, informational." For that reason, he continued, it is desirable that those with specialized knowledge, whether of politics, economics, or the media, espouse the cause of jihad, as "we can defeat the infidels only by a united struggle."

Kebekov pointed out that "the unbelievers themselves have long sought to drive the mujahedin deep into the forest and isolate them from society, and in some cases they have achieved that goal."

"For that reason, brothers," Kebekov continued, "when we call on you to join the jihad, that does not mean immediately taking up arms, on the contrary, it is a call to labor intelligently [грамотно,] on the path of Allah, together with the community, in subordination to one’s commander, but in a way that does not arouse suspicion…. We don’t need you to leave home and head for the forest, there is no need whatsoever for this, as jihad knocks at the door of every Muslim."

As for the phenomenon of autonomous jamaats, which is the subject of an impassioned debate on insurgency websites, Kebekov questions the excuse that their leaders are unable to make contact with and swear allegiance to the commander of the Daghestan insurgency wing. He dismisses such groups as being of little use in light of their lack of experience.

Kebekov is even more scathing in his dismissal of the form of Sufism, sometimes called muridism or tariqatism, that co-exists in Daghestan with canonical Sunni Islam as represented by the Shafii legal school. Tariqatism rejects expansionism and exhortations of jihad, and focuses on esoteric aspects of Islamic teaching.

Kebekov argues that the hallmarks of true Sufism are spiritual self-purification, asceticism, and seeking to achieve the maximum proximity to God. By those criteria, he reasons, Daghestan’s official Muslim clergy are not Sufis but a bunch of Federal Security Service (FSB) stooges who work hand in glove with the authorities. He ridicules current mufti Akhmad–hadzhi Abdullayev for giving credence to tsarist accounts of how during the siege of Imam Shamil’s stronghold of Akhulgo (in the summer of 1839), the Sufi defenders fought valiantly while holding prayer beads in both hands. (This is the first time in any of Kebekov’s video homilies that he has ever shown any indication that he has a sense of humor.)

Turning serious again, Kebekov reasons that but for the official clergy’s support for the authorities’ crackdown on the insurgency, it would be transparently clear to the population at large that the authorities are engaged in a war against Islam. As it is, he continues, the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Daghestan seeks to portray the standoff as pitting Muslims against Muslims, with imams denouncing "Wahhabism" (meaning the Salafism espoused by the insurgency) in their weekly sermons to the exclusion of all other ills.

That line of argument is disingenuous in light of the number of Muslim clerics in Daghestan killed by the insurgency in recent years.

On the whole, however, Kebekov’s statements serve to underscore yet again that he is not only more articulate (despite his ungrammatical Russian), but also intellectually more sophisticated than his predecessor Umarov, of whom former Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov once observed that "he understands very little about politics." For that reason, he poses a much greater threat to the Russian authorities. His name did not figure, however, in the extensive (3,000-word) and detailed report of a counterterrorism forum in Makhachkala on July 2 chaired by presidential envoy to the North Caucasus Federal District, Sergei Melikov. Republic of Daghestan head Ramazan Abdulatipov was conspicuous by his absence from that event.

— Liz Fuller

Respected Chechen Political Figure Jailed For Four Years

RFE/RL Caucasus Report | July 07, 2014

A court in the Chechen town of Urus Martan has sentenced Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus head Ruslan Kutayev to four years in prison on a charge of illegal possession of drugs that human rights activists say was blatantly fabricated. He is barred from engaging in public political activity for a further year after his release. The prosecutor had called for a five-year jail term.

Just days prior to his arrest on February 20, Kutayev had convened a conference in Grozny to mark the 70th anniversary of the deportation on orders from then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin of the entire Chechen and Ingush nations to Kazakhstan and Central Asia. Speaking at that conference, Kutayev had incurred Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov’s wrath by criticizing his edict two years earlier  that henceforth the deportation anniversary should be marked not on the actual date (February 23), but in early May, concurrently with the anniversary of the death in 2004 of Kadyrov’s father, Akhmed-hadzhi, in a terrorist bombing.

According to the prosecution, Kutayev, 56, was detained on the street in the town of Gekhi in the Urus Martan district, southwest of Grozny, because he was behaving "oddly." A search of his person reportedly revealed 3 grams of heroin. Kutayev and other witnesses, however, say he was apprehended at the home of friends he was visiting and was not searched before being driven away. And as Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus Vice Chairman Abdulla Khizriyev points out, having just antagonized Kadyrov, Kutayev would hardly have ventured out on the street with a pocket full of drugs inviting arrest.

What is more, the six witnesses for the prosecution who claim to have been present at Kutayev’s arrest gave mutually contradictory testimony in court. While all agreed on what the weather was like that day, they were unable to say who authorized Kutayev’s arrest or whether they made their way to the spot where he was apprehended on foot or in a police vehicle. They were also unable to describe the packet of heroin purportedly found on Kutayev.

Committee Against Torture head Igor Kalyapin said Kutayev’s lawyer spent 2 1/2 hours in court on July 4 enumerating the various discrepancies in the indictment. The Moscow-based human rights watchdog Memorial designated Kutayev a political prisoner several weeks ago on the grounds that the criminal case against him was clearly fabricated.

After his arrest, Kutayev was taken not to the local Urus Martan police station, but to Grozny, where he was questioned in the presence of Chechen Deputy Interior Minister Apti Alaudinov and Magomed Daudov, head of Kadyrov’s administration. Daudov had telephoned Kutayev after the deportation anniversary conference and demanded he report to his office for questioning, a demand that Kutayev ignored as he considered it shameful to comply immediately.

Testifying on May 7, Kutayev said that after his arrest he was "brutally beaten and kicked" by top officials in the presence of their bodyguards. He did not name the officials in question.

While most human rights activists attribute Kutayev’s arrest to his public criticism of Kadyrov and/or his refusal to report immediately to Kadyrov’s office for questioning when ordered to do so, Kutayev himself sees the reprisals against him as part of a broader trend — "a clear tendency to discredit political and public figures who criticize the authorities." He explains that his political engagement as a leading member of the Alliance of Greens and Social Democrats headed by former Russian State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov placed him in that category, given that "the course we have launched of developing social and political institutions, and hereby developing civil society is geared toward seeking to come to power within the framework of the laws and Constitution of the Russian Federation."

Gudkov for his part appears to lend credence to the hypothesis that Kutayev was arrested because he had defied Kadyrov. Testifying on Kutayev’s behalf, Gudkov said that "as someone who has drafted laws, I find the way in which they are applied very strange. Laws that you would think are written absolutely clearly, concretely, in order that justice and the law should prevail, are used as an instrument of revenge."

The groundswell of support for Kutayev is not confined to the two organizations for which he worked. In Stavropol Krai, the heads of two Russian NGOs collected signatures to an open letter to Kadyrov asking him to ensure Kutayev gets a fair trial. The two dismiss the drug charge against Kutayev as "clearly absurd." Vladimir Nesterov, who heads a Council of Russians and Other Slavic Peoples, characterized Kutayev as "the sole representative of the peoples of the Caucasus who stood up for Russians in the Caucasus and Russia as a whole."

Kutayev accepted the July 7 verdict with equanimity, according to his lawyer Pyotr Zaykin, who called the sentence "unprecedentedly harsh." 

— Liz Fuller