Sixty-year-old Oyub Titiyev was arrested in January of 2018. Drugs had supposedly been found in his car. Human rights defenders claim the case was fabricated. Oyub Titiyev, a former teacher and boxing coach, took the helm of the Chechen branch of the Russian human rights organization Memorial ten years ago after its previous leader, Natalya Estemirova, was kidnapped and murdered. Before his arrest, few people knew the name Titiyev, or knew that Memorial was still active in Chechnya. This isn’t surprising, considering that Titiyev’s work was undercover. He and his colleagues were basically a small guerrilla unit, one that saved people instead of killing them. When Titiyev was arrested, journalist Aleksandr Burtin went to the Chechen Republic; in narrating Titiyev’s biography, Burtin narrates the republic’s post-war history.
“I remember one time mama sewed a patch on his pants, on the backside,” Oyub’s older sister recalls. “He was in the second or third grade. [Mama] said, ‘Wear these to school, the other ones aren’t dry yet.’ He was unhappy, but he got dressed and got his things together, his book bag and everything, and left. He didn’t say a word. Mama says to me, ‘I know he’s probably hiding somewhere, give him a minute and then follow him.’ I went out and tracked him down: he had gone around the corner of the neighbor’s house and stopped. I wait, wait a little more, he doesn’t come out. So I go up to him and I say, ‘You’re going to get in trouble with mama’ – our mama was strict, too. ‘Look, you can’t even see it. Go in like that today, Oyub. Just sit there in your place and nobody’ll ever know.’ So he hemmed and hawed and dragged his feet, but he went. I don’t know, for some reason I always remember that little scene...”
I wasn’t going to include this episode. There seemed to be no reason to. But then later I realized that I kept remembering it too. Probably because it really did reflect Oyub’s nature: correct, self-effacing, and stubborn.
Titiyev and I met about ten years ago. He was my sister’s friend and colleague. They rebuilt schools that had been destroyed in the mountainous regions of Chechnya and drove the wounded and sick to Moscow for treatment. Titiyev was a quiet, middle-aged man, nothing memorable about him at first glance.
At one point I needed to write something about Chechen traditional laws, adats, and Oyub drove me around the mountains for a couple of days introducing me to old men. He knew everybody out there, for some reason. He turned out to be a pleasant person, and you could tell right off he was trustworthy. And his demeanor was plain and simple, like in the village. We switched to using the informal ty right away, even though he was significantly older than me. Then I noticed that something else was hiding behind his rustic manner. Sometimes when Oyub was telling me about the villages, he’d describe things that had happened there during the war, complete with unit numbers, commanders’ names, the exact numbers of the dead, and the awful, concrete circumstances of death. Also who had ransomed the body of any given victim, and when, and from whom, and for how much. You had the sense that he knew all this in precise detail, and that he hadn’t gotten it off the internet.
Some time later I came to the realization that Oyub was far better informed than all the Memorial people and other journalists and human rights defenders I knew. It turned out that he knew the inside scoop on everything that had happened or was happening in Chechnya. He habitually gave short, specific replies to all questions. He’d say, for example, “No, that’s not how it was,” and it was clear that he wasn’t going to say anything else about it, and that this was exactly as much information as you needed to understand the situation. Oyub never explained how he knew so much, and he obviously wasn’t proud of knowing it. He looked like a modest village teacher who, for some reason, had been burdened with a massive amount of information about human misery.
Even though we’d had friendly conversations on more than one occasion, Oyub never talked about himself. So I didn’t know what else to write about him.
A woman who knows Oyub told me, “In Chechnya you’ll be hard put to find someone who’ll talk to you. Personally I wouldn’t, if I were there...”
She was wrong. I ran out of time before I could talk with everyone who wanted to tell me about Oyub. It is true that I can’t give any of the Chechens’ names. I couldn’t visit anyone at home, and I always had to spend the night in hotels. Any local who is involved in this story is taking a great risk.
It seems that a certain event from Oyub’s childhood had a big impact on his fate. His father, a village policeman, killed someone. It was an accident, and everyone knew that Oyub’s father hadn’t meant to do it. The Titiyevs asked forgiveness, and the clan of the man who’d been killed forgave them. In Chechnya, blood feud is law: a killing can’t go unpunished. The family of the dead man must get revenge—or else forgive the killer’s family, in which case long negotiations are held, compensation is offered, and religious leaders and the elders of both clans are consulted. It’s important to understand here that a blood feud isn’t the family’s right, it’s the family’s obligation. The rest of the community expects the family to serve justice. Letting a killing go unpunished would destroy the clan’s reputation, and that’s the foundation of the entire way of life. Forgiveness is possible, but it requires a special procedure, as well as an extremely compelling justification that everyone around agrees with.
Forgiveness saddles the killer’s family with an enormous obligation. From that point on, they have to help the family of the man who was killed, they have to be the first ones to come help in any difficult situation, as though they were trying to stand in for the dead man.
“Now [the family of the man Titiyev’s father killed] are like our relatives,” says Oyub’s sister. “We’ve been helping them ever since. We helped when their son got married, we helped when their daughter got married... and in the spring and fall, we help them with their field, too. Just as a regular, ordinary family, we’re obligated to be close to them like that.”
The social life of the killer himself is profoundly altered. It’s as though he’s dying, or in eternal mourning. He must either permanently leave the area where he was born, or stay, but lead an extremely humble life: he can’t be a public figure, he can’t participate in village gatherings, he can’t be out among people.
“Their father quit his job and had to just sit at home, not let anybody see him,” explained a friend of the Titiyevs. “So there he was, required to live like that, and the mother shouldered all the responsibility [for the family] herself. It was hard on her... she’s such a strong woman...”
As a person, Oyub’s father was very mild, and – Soviet propriety notwithstanding – devout. His strict mother was quite the opposite. Oyub was the youngest of four brothers. I suspect his father’s tragedy made a strong impression on Oyub, informing his reserve, modesty, and distaste for violence. And it seems to me that this feeling of guilt has been hanging over him his whole life.
P. E. Teacher
Oyub graduated from an agricultural-technical high school, got a college degree at an institute in Novgorod, and then came back to Kurchaloy and started working in the school as a physical education teacher. In the mid-eighties he and a comrade organized a boxing class there, one of the first in the republic. All his friends say that Oyub is touchingly, fanatically devoted to athletics.
“He started one of the first boxing clubs in Chechnya. It’s been producing various champions ever since,” explains Aleksandr Cherkasov, the chairman of Memorial. “He was really invested in it. The fate of that club and of the people in it, his students, was exceptionally important to him. It wasn’t just some kind of random thing, it was one of the core elements of his life.”
I can well imagine Oyub as a coach: he’s so serious, laconic. I can imagine how much he loves his kids, even though he doesn’t show it, and how patiently he works with them. That club of his played a huge, yet contradictory part in his fate.
Oyub left the school during perestroika. He became a businessman, traded in furniture, I think, and something else. He had a little shop in Gudermes. He got married. He was different back then, to judge from the stories; he was cheerful, uninhibited, and friendly. That lasted until the war. But when the Russian troops entered Grozny, Oyub, like many others, joined Dudayev’s militia. He joined it in spite of what his older brothers thought.
“At first the call-up went like this: ‘Let’s go, come on out! Wives, mothers, let your men go! If you’re a man, sell a cow and buy an assault rifle!’ And yes, a few did give in. Good, honest guys,” says Yakub Titiyev. “But from the very beginning, as soon as Dudayev came on TV, I told my brothers: no, I’m not going to follow that moustache anywhere. That’s not a man’s mustache. If we have to, we’ll find guns, we’ll go out. There are four of us. But right now there’s no sense in defending anything, nobody’s getting ready to take our homeland away from us...”
But Oyub left the village and went to Grozny anyway. Many of the village’s young men were right behind him, including his students. However, he didn’t end up staying in Grozny very long.
“Then his mother and sister went to him,” one of his friends recounted, “and just fell to their knees, crying, trying to convince him to come back, that his father was gone, he couldn’t leave the family like that, and so forth. And his mother said to him: if you don’t listen to me right now and come back with me, then you’re no son of mine. And Oyub felt so guilty before her, guilty that she hadn’t seen anything in life, that she’d always had it so hard... That’s why he had to leave.”
Oyub obeyed and went back. But his students stayed to fight. And they died, seventeen of them, all in one day. Oyub walked around the field and gathered them up in pieces... a leg, an arm, a single boot...
After his students died, Oyub didn’t leave the house for a long time. He didn’t speak with anyone. His friends thought he’d gone off his rocker: “He just sat around all the time trimming and squaring those stone churts, those stone grave-markers. He put them on all their graves. It was a terrible blow to him that he came back, but they died.”
Everyone says that Oyub spent the next few years in a state of depression. His personality changed. He became quiet, reserved, the way he was when we met him. He helped the people from his village look for imprisoned relatives or the bodies of the dead and ransom them from the federal forces.
“It was usually the women who looked for people who’d disappeared. Because the men had to get behind the women back then; it was dangerous. But Oyub wasn’t afraid. He never hid behind a skirt,” says one of Oyub’s friends.
That time period, I think, and that state of mind was when Oyub learned to do very dangerous things, to get the job done while ignoring his fear. Perhaps he was trying to atone for his guilt, or hoping to die.
“He took risks. He really took risks,” recalls Oyub’s neighbor. “Do you remember that one separatist field commander, Raduyev? He and his men went into Gudermes, shot things up. In return the federal forces really let them have it. Oyub and I went to Gudermes together, drove right through the middle of town, across the bridge. There were a lot of bodies. I even recognized one man. Nikolay Narenko. Worked in the highway patrol. People were running out of the city on foot, it was being bombed, shot up. So Oyub goes and ferries those people out of Gudermes in his own car. He drove all day under bombardment. His fender was shot up, there was a hole that big in it. Then he buried bodies...”
That, clearly, was when Oyub started memorizing everything he heard about what was going on. All his coworkers say they were repeatedly amazed by his phenomenal memory for dates, numbers, and events.
“Not even a computer can remember that much, probably. Going back to 1990. Every year, month, day, when such and such happened, what all happened on such and such a day. Say, for instance, if someone was killed, he remembered literally everything. I was just astonished at his memory,” relates a neighbor.
“That’s something Muslims believe, just like Jews,” says Cherkasov. “If you can’t do anything, if you can’t even say anything, then the least you can do is remember. That will also count in your favor on Judgment Day.”
Oyub’s shop in Gudermes burned to the ground during the war. His in-laws were going to rebuild it, but Oyub had lost interest in it. He went back to the school where his older brother, Sultan, was principal. The school was in ruins. The brothers rebuilt it by themselves, and Oyub began teaching physical education and history. When the second Chechen war started, Oyub began rescuing people again, getting people from his village out of the Russian filtration camps.
Natasha Estemirova from the Memorial Human Rights Center arrived in Kurchaloy in 2000. She was gathering data on murders and kidnappings. People put Natasha in touch with Oyub, and he offered to help. That’s how they got to know each other: he began passing her information.
At first, Oyub and the people from Memorial were wary of each other. Human rights defender Svetlana Gannushkina got the feeling they wouldn’t be able to work very well together: “He didn’t smile much, he spoke kind of gritting his teeth a little bit. How are you supposed to work with a person like that? His first reaction, his facial expression, seemed to say that what we were doing was nonsense. But gradually he saw that we do serious work.”
All Oyub’s friends told me that Memorial is what saved him, and otherwise he might’ve really gone around the bend. At first he just passed on information, as a volunteer. He took notes by hand and drove to Khasavyurt, 50 kilometers and dozens of checkpoints away, to send the documentation on to Moscow. He didn’t sign his own name. He was just “Monitor 1.”
In the 2000s, not all of Chechnya had submitted to Kadyrov yet. Moscow was supporting the leaders of several different armed clans at once, each one fighting to gain power or remain independent: the Yamadayev brothers, Baysarov, Kakiyev, Khasambekov. They were very bloodthirsty men, the whole lot of them. Kurchaloy was the domain of Khamzat Edelgiriyev, the Kurchaloy police chief, also famous for his monstrous cruelty. People said he wasn’t afraid of Ramzan Kadyrov. Edelgiriyev had his own secret prison in the mountains around the village of Yalkhoy-Mokhk where kidnap victims were tortured. The Kurchaloy police station was a hundred meters from Oyub’s house.
“That station is one of the most terrible places in all of Chechnya,” says Yelena Milashina, a journalist for Novaya gazeta [The New Gazette]. “Every single day was a risk for him. We knew that in the evening we would be leaving work and going home, but he was going back into the belly of the beast.”
There’s a side of Oyub I hadn’t even known existed; I found out about it from conversations with his relatives and neighbors. In Kurchaloy and beyond he is widely respected as a peacemaker.
First off, you need to understand that there are two public spheres in Chechnya. There’s the external one—the one people talk about on TV—and then there’s the village one, which is defined by clan affiliation [teip], by distinct Chechen-Ingush identity and customs [vainakh]: this is the one where men court their brides, then steal them; where people get married and divorced; are born and die. This is the sphere where conflicts between families are sparked into life and brought to rest, where blood feuds smolder on, where local lay courts keep the peace.
Kinship ties happen to be the most important factor here, but it is still an entirely public life, although it’s absolutely non-public in our sense of the word. Even if everyone around is talking about a conflict, it is still considered a private matter between two families. Nobody would write about it in the paper. But every Chechen lives for better or worse in both spheres, and every complicated situation is interpreted in two dimensions.
“Let’s say somebody got in a fight,” one of Oyub’s relatives explains, “or that one guy got in a car accident and the other driver died. People would call Oyub if they needed to make peace. If he goes out there to talk, they can’t refuse him, because he’s a respected man coming to request it. And it wasn’t just his own kin asking him to do this; it was other people from his village, and people from the next village over, and from across the republic. I even remember people coming to us from Ingushetia.”
“And what was it people came to see him about?”
“I don’t know. That was just between them. If I ever went to him and told him something, he would never tell it to anyone.”
Yakub Titiyev explains, “There are the rules of sharia, of the Koran; and there are customary rules, the rules of adat; but either way there has to be justice. If people are looking for a way to resolve an issue without making a big fuss, it’s ‘Come on, let’s go see Oyub, or maybe Usman or Mahomed?’ ‘Let’s go.’ It means that people are already saying this man judges fairly, objectively. First they all verbally agree to his contract: ‘My verdict is final, both sides will agree. If not, then I won’t even start.’ Once he’s decided whether you’re guilty or innocent, that’s it. That means it’s over. You’ve lost the right to keep being angry about it.”
In Memorial, few people, if any, knew about this part of Oyub’s life. But it starts to make sense how Oyub had so many sources.
The Dark Side
“Whenever I was coming in to Chechnya, we’d sit down somewhere and he’d start telling me everything that was happening, in the minutest detail,” recalls human rights defender Yekaterina Sokiryanskaya. “Somebody’d been kidnapped, was being held somewhere in an illegal prison, was tortured and eventually killed. He worked hundreds of cases like that. Hundreds of peoples’ fates. Bodies that were either buried nobody knew where, or that had been dumped, and then buried in some village cemetery somewhere. He took a long time with his investigations, he was very painstaking. He wove it all together, slowly and gradually, just like a pattern; he brought different loose ends together, checking and double-checking, making sure, until he had the whole picture.
“Oyub understood that he had to establish the facts and document things, because people are leaving—not just the relatives, but also the locals who washed and buried the bodies. They still remembered what the corpse looked like, how it was dressed, but it was obvious that soon this information would be lost forever,” continues Sokiryanskaya. “He had to drive out to where those people were, it was the wives and mothers most often, and get their testimonies. It’s hard on people, psychologically, to make them remember those events again. And it’s astonishing how people forget things: sometimes mothers wouldn’t even be able to remember what color their child’s eyes were, or what day it happened, or what month. They’d remember one thing very clearly, but other details just disappeared for good, and we knew what a huge amount of information was being lost.”
Gradually Oyub created a unique database for Memorial. It could be used not only to look for people who’d disappeared, but also to unearth criminals, including criminals in the military. He had to check and double-check people’s old court cases, information from the public prosecutor, lawyers’ requests, and systematize all of it, collect all the information about each person who’d disappeared in one place; or he’d have to combine several cases, because people would often disappear in groups, for example, around a certain military base. According to Memorial’s information, security forces kidnapped and killed from three to five thousand people in Chechnya in the 2000s.
The Lone Wolf
A woman with a human rights organization explains, “When I started working with him, the people back in Moscow said he’s kind of a lone wolf. My daughter was secretary, but she was afraid to even sit down to lunch at the same table with him, he’s so serious. And he told me himself that people probably don’t like him because he’s not charming. Everyone kind of avoids him.”
“Just looking at him, he comes off as this really stern highlander,” says a female staff member of Memorial. “But then you’d start to see that he’s actually really emotional, but he tries to sort of tamp it down. And there’s nothing the least bit macho or flashy about him. Like when it’s a holiday, giving the girls little presents—doing something nice for somebody else was very important for him, but it wasn’t easy for him. He’d bring us something, with this shy little childlike smile: ‘Here, have some...’ You could see a really touching awkwardness in those gestures of his.”
Oyub’s nephews are really nice-looking guys, thirty years old or thereabouts. They work in construction. Both of them resemble Oyub, but in different ways: one is reticent and stern in the Chechen manner, while the other’s the complete opposite—open, mild, and direct.
“Oyub never yelled at me, no matter what I did. He never yelled at anyone for anything...” The nephew sobs, covering his face with his arm.
“We were working in their courtyard, making cement. Oyub was down below and I was carrying buckets over to him and handing them down. He was doing something down there, he was bent over, and Yusuf says to him, ‘If you don’t take this bucket now, I’m going to pour it out on you.’ And just then Oyub looks up, but the handle breaks, and the entire bucket goes over on him. In his face. But Oyub didn’t say a thing. He wiped the wet concrete from his eyes and just smiled. If that’d been Yakub, he’d’ve shot us.”
“He had a Volga and he’d taken it apart... it was in pieces, bumpers and doors...” remembers one of his neighbors. “He’d laid everything he could out on the roof of his house, so he could put it all back together again later. One time he was sitting at home and he hears someone walking on the roof. He looks out the window and there’s a thief up there. Oyub knew him, the guy also had a Volga. The guy takes what he needs and sneaks off. ‘What about you? Didn’t you say anything?’ ‘No. What am I going to say to him?’“
“They were sitting around at home, the whole family, watching TV. All of a sudden Oyub remembers the neighbors don’t have a TV. They didn’t have much. He goes and turns it off and takes it over to them.”
“His wife was telling me... this was about a month, maybe, before he was arrested. He comes home and he says, check and see, do we have food? Onions, potatoes? Keep some in reserve. I’m not getting a paycheck this month. ‘You already got it...’ ‘But I gave it to so-and-so.’ He helped the poor. He was always helping everyone in the mountains. He gave away their sewing machine! And his wife did what he said...”
“If Oyub’s going somewhere, driving somewhere, and there’s a funeral, he stops and goes to it. Every time. ‘Because you also must die.’ He always said that.”
“It’s Russians he was tolerant of. But I could barely bring myself to even smoke in front of him,” says a male staff member of Memorial. “Not to mention having a drink. We were at a seminar and it was my birthday. One gal, a colleague, says, ‘Oh, but we need some wine, to celebrate! Come on, what’s the big deal? You had a drink yesterday...’ And I can see it in Oyub’s eyes: ‘You alcoholic!’”
“He’s a welder, never mind that he’s self-taught,” says Oyub’s neighbor. “He welded everything for everybody. If something happens in the village, an accident or some kind of trouble, he puts on old clothes and goes over. Just give him a call or knock on his gate. Even if it’s three a.m., it doesn’t matter, he’ll get up: ‘How can I help?’ When I was building my house, he worked harder than I did.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘yours’ or ‘mine’ with him. When we worked in Gudermes, he had a Zhiguli, a nice red one. And we all of us drove that car around. He never refused anyone. One guy would drive up and park the car, I would get in and drive off. I would come back, and another guy would head out. This one traffic cop in Gudermes goes, ‘Listen, just tell me the truth, okay? Whose car is this?’”
“One time I gave him an Italian sport coat. It was too big for me. He felt the cloth. ‘Good quality. How much did it cost you?’ ’Forty-five thousand.’ ‘What are you, an idiot or something!? Why’d you spend that much? You could have given that to a poor man.’”
Oyub exercised diligently his whole life. His neighbors told me how someone knocked at his gate around fifteen years ago and told him that Yakub’s house had collapsed. The gas had caught fire. Oyub ran off to help, all the way to the other end of the village, but he couldn’t make it, he couldn’t catch his breath. So he worked out every day from then on.
“You don’t have to look far for Oyub in the evening. He’s always in the gym,” one of his neighbors says. “Every day, even if he’s already toiled from morning to night. He lifted weights, never mind his age. He’s always been a powerful boxer. There wasn’t a day when he didn’t run his eight kilometers. One time he and his friend had a bet. Oyub puts on a bulletproof vest, eighteen kilos, and they head out on a run together. The friend couldn’t even make it two or three kilometers, but Oyub made it all the way out and back without stopping...”
Fitness was part of Oyub’s ethics: he had to be strong if he was going to help people.
“He wrote us a letter,” recalls his nephew. “I have it here in my phone. He says, ‘Help everyone, both your kin and those who aren’t your kin. A man must help anyone who is having difficulties. You won’t always have the ability to do this. Help people while you are young and healthy. Wherever you are, help people there.’ I can’t translate everything into Russian right on the spot, but it’s a really good letter. He says, ‘And you have to go to the gym and work out.’”
Once when Oyub and I were driving around Chechnya, an old man well versed in the subject told me about konakhalla, the way of the konakh. Meaning “fighter” or “defender” in Chechen, the konakh is the core concept of traditional Chechen ethics. First and foremost he must strictly observe all the rules of good conduct, live the right way. This requires him to continually practice self-restraint and moderation. Secondly, the konakh is responsible for those weaker than himself. Above all others he must take care of his family, but he can include other people in his family: for example, he can vow to defend all his neighbors, or all children, all women, all elderly people without families, and so forth. A few legendary konakhs assumed responsibility for their entire village or teip. This meant that if any villager or clan member came to that konakh for help, he had to be ready to do for them what he’d do for his own brother. The old man emphasized that the konakh’s most important quality is modesty. You take this responsibility on, but you don’t make a big show of it.
A konakh could take the blood of another man onto himself, substitute himself as the object of a blood feud, in order to stop the killing. The strongest konakhs would assume responsibility for everyone around them, and then renounce violence. A mighty konakh doesn’t carry a weapon; his behavior alone prompts criminals to start listening to their conscience. I never talked with Oyub about it, but I think this ethical space is the one he inhabits.
One of his close friends told me, “You know, for Oyub all our abreks, our brave young heroes from the fairy tales our grannies told us, weren’t some kind of mythological characters. For him they were just models to emulate.”
Oyub started working full-time for the Gudermes branch of Memorial in 2002. In addition to keeping track of murders and kidnappings, he and his colleagues also undertook far-reaching community service projects: they organized literacy courses and worked with the Civic Assistance Committee to help the sick and injured in mountain villages that had been devastated in the war.
The health care system had been completely destroyed. There were no doctors, no clinics. But there were enormous numbers of sick, injured, and maimed people. The first order of business was just to find them. People in the mountains had forgotten what it was like to be able to see a doctor. My sister Alyona drove around the mountains with Oyub and other Civic Assistance Committee workers talking to people, finding the sick and injured, buying medicine, and driving people to Grozny and Moscow for medical treatment.
“Driving around was dangerous,” my sister told me. “There was still shooting in the mountains. In the Vedensky region, I remember, we went to see their local rural doctor at her house. She was so terrified of us – I even wanted to just leave, I was afraid something’d happen to her. She just kept shuffling through all these little notebooks and patients’ charts with trembling hands, saying, ‘No, don’t, don’t take us, it’d be better for us to die here, together...’ But it was good work. We were able to save a lot of people. We helped around eight thousand people all told.”
Almost all the schools in the mountains had been damaged or destroyed, since in wartime both sides liked to set up their headquarters in schools. The village teachers tried to fix what they could on their own. They held class in unheated buildings, with just a little stove in the room to keep warm, and they brought in water or milk from their own cows and used hot plates or wood stoves to make porridge for the children. Oyub and Alyona shuttled back and forth all over the mountains figuring out what needed to be done and talking with principals, government employees, locals, and workers. Oyub drew up estimates and talked to the construction workers. This was something he knew about from personal experience; he’d gone through it all himself. In one place the roof needed to be repaired, in another place it was the gym, or rewiring the electricity. In one place they built a bridge across a ravine and a road to the school.
Every single trip into the mountains was dangerous. Anything could happen at any time. People regularly disappeared or were found dead by the side of the road somewhere. In April of 2016 Bulat Chilayev, a driver for the Civic Assistance Committee’s medical aid program, left his house in Sernovodsk. Soldiers from Zapad [West], the Chechen Special Forces battalion, stopped his car at a checkpoint. They stuffed Bulat into their car and his companion into their trunk. Neither of them were ever seen again. They were probably murdered or tortured to death.
Many mountain villages were completely abandoned. That was convenient for the federal forces, since the separatists were deprived of food and shelter. Soldiers blew up abandoned houses to keep people from coming back. The residents of one little aul asked for help getting their houses and farms up and running again. The Civic Assistance Committee bought the village a tractor to fix the road and got farm animals for several families. Oyub’s life back then was full of all that: cows, Gazelle minibuses, and tractors. All the horror aside, it seems to have been a happy time for him.
In the ancient Chechen world he’d come from, you could atone for your guilt and return balance to the world. If you killed someone, you paid it back in blood, or in help and humility, like his father. Oyub felt he was guilty of his students’ deaths and believed he was obligated to save dozens of other people who’d suffered from the war. He was trying to restore balance to a world that was falling apart before his eyes.
The second watershed moment in Oyub’s life was the death of the woman who’d brought him into Memorial: Natasha Estemirova.
“Oyub was there in Kurchaloy, Gudermes, the worst places to be back in those days, just quietly doing these dangerous things,” recalls Natasha’s friend Tatyana Lokshina. “I remember how much Natashka worried about him, and whenever she brought somebody to see him, she made sure to tell them not to reveal his identity, no matter what.”
Natasha was from another world, she was cut from a different cloth. I didn’t figure out until very recently that she and Oyub had something in common: they were both schoolteachers. But perhaps the main theme running through Oyub’s story is the counterpoint of their two personalities.
Natasha was an extremely passionate and emotional person. She was half Russian and grew up in Sverdlovsk oblast, then lived in Russian-speaking Grozny. She was a history teacher and had gotten involved in human rights defense even before the first Chechen war. During the second Chechen war she joined Memorial and helped Anna Politkovskaya a lot. Everyone called her Natasha.
Tatyana Lokshina explains, “Natasha was a completely European woman. She walked and held herself like a ballet dancer. Even though she lived on the edge of poverty, she put a lot of effort into dressing with style. She’d been abroad somewhere and spent her last three kopecks buying all these gorgeous scarves. She spoke Chechen badly, and of course she was a little out of place there.”
“Natashka was a person with a lot of ambition, she was very driven,” recalls Lokshina. “She knew all the dangers, but she couldn’t stop. She got to the riskiest places, sometimes in the craziest ways. She couldn’t stand injustice, she couldn’t take it on a purely physical level. And she really wanted to speak in the first person, first-hand: ‘I saw it, I heard it, I was there.’ To her, silence was like a knife at her throat. Everyone was always trying to tell her, ‘Hey, Natasha, that’s really important information, but please, don’t use your own name! You’re crazy, you’re right in the middle of those people...’”
Oyub never gave interviews, but Natasha was the opposite. Her colleagues would get really angry with her, but Natasha was a deeply public person and thought of herself as a journalist. She helped Anna Politkovskaya a lot. After Anna’s death, Novaya gazeta wanted to continue working in Chechnya and offered Natasha a regular column under a pseudonym.
Lokshina continues, “I still remember how a year and a half or so before she died, she came to see me again in Moscow and she was all excited and proud of herself. On her flight in from Grozny, someone who worked in the Chechen Press Ministry sat down next to her and bats his eyes at her, all innocent, and says, ‘Listen, Natasha, about that column in Novaya gazeta that’s signed by Mahomed Aliyev. I remember your stuff in Groznensky rabochy [The Grozny Worker], and this is really similar. Is that you?’ And instead of beating around the bush, and ‘Of course not, what do you mean,’ she gets happy and starts beaming: ‘Oh, really? You recognized my style? I’m so happy people are reading me...’”
A year before her death, Kadyrov laid into her. This was after her big interview on Ren-TV about how women were being forced to wear headscarves. This was a touchy subject for Natasha. She explained in the interview that she was a Chechen herself and that if she’s going to a funeral service or into the home of religious people, of course she’d cover her head. But nobody has the right to force women to do it.
“Kadyrov called her onto the carpet,” Lokshina remembers. “He screamed and ranted at her and threatened her, it was terrible. Her face was greenish-white when she came back. I think Kadyrov had assumed she was Russian, that she was a Memorial staff member who just worked here. But that interview showed him that she was Chechen, so he could do whatever he wanted to her.”
I only met Natasha once, the week before she died. I remember she was very nervous. She was working on the story of that shooting in the village of Akhkinchu-Borzoy, in July of 2009, when Kadyrov’s men publicly executed a villager who’d allegedly given the separatist fighters a ram.
“They shoved him out of the car, he’d been horrifically beaten, just pounded into raw meant. He was physically incapable of talking, he couldn’t do anything at that point,” Lokshina tells me. “And they shot him dead in front of everyone, they said this is what’ll happen to anyone who helps the fighters, doesn’t matter if it’s a sheep or a crust of bread, they’ll find out and that person will be terribly punished. But it’s a village at the edge of the woods. If armed men come banging on your door with a Kalashnikov in the middle of the night saying, ‘Give us some bread!’ are you really going to be able to say no? Anyway, his relatives buried him quickly and wrote a statement that he’d died of a heart attack. It was Oyub, actually, who passed us the story. We went to the village and talked to people. And Natasha did an interview for Kavkazsky uzel [The Caucasian Knot] about it.”
Natasha named the names of the men in the Kurchaloy police department who’d arranged the execution. Soon Oyub informed his colleagues that the situation was extremely dangerous. Kadyrov’s men were furious with Natasha for at least three cases of kidnapping, murder, and torture that she was investigating.
Svetlana Gannushkina recalls, “I came out here to see what was going on. Natasha was really scared, and we decided she had to leave. But she asked to stay for one more week. We had to force her to go, we sent her off the very next morning. But we had arranged with the Ministry of Internal Affairs that she’d go to Stavropol to combine the databases of people who’d disappeared without a trace. Their database and ours. Well, that was that. Natasha left [the building] in the morning and never showed up to the meeting with the Ministry people.”
That was the most terrible morning the Grozny office of Memorial had ever had.
“We went looking for her, we were running all around outside her building,” Sokiryanskaya remembers. “And then the single witness happened to overhear me talking to the drivers of the shuttle buses. She pulls me over to the side: ‘Are you asking about Natasha?’ She told me everything, showed me the place where it happened, and then got on a bus. She was terrified.”
Natasha had been seized right next to the building and shoved into a white Lada Seven. She managed to scream that she was being kidnapped. That day Natasha’s body was found in a strip of forest near the Ingush village of Gazi-Yurt. There were bullets in her head and chest.
“Oyub just couldn’t live with it,” says Lokshina. “She had protected him, she’d kept his identity secret, but she herself died, and left behind a little girl, orphaned...”
My sister recalled, “He kept saying ‘It should’ve been me instead of her.’”
Given that empty rhetoric was completely foreign to him, this is to be understood in the literal sense. There was a specific reason behind what happened. She had been killed because of information he had procured.
A Different Chechnya
Grozny has been magnificently rebuilt. Never mind Russia’s regional cities—it looks every bit as good as Moscow itself. The roads are excellent, everything’s neat as a pin. I was here ten years ago. Back then, almost the whole city, except for the main streets in the city center, was still in ruins. It looked like in all of Chechnya there wasn’t a single wall that hadn’t been punched full of holes by shrapnel. Now, it’s impossible to imagine there was ever a war here.
It doesn’t look like Russia. The architecture’s reminiscent of Ankara or Dubai. Women walk down the street in colorful hijab. Police and soldiers wear fashionable NATO-style uniforms, and they all have identical trim beards without moustaches. Nobody speaks Russian on the street and the Russian billboards look out of place.
I’m amazed at the energy in Chechnya. You feel it from the very first moments, words, intonations. Everything is powerful, somehow. The men are all huge, square, and muscled, like trolls. But the people are polite and friendly. Crowds of Russian tourists with guides meander between the skyscrapers down Putin Prospect, which turns into Kadyrov Prospect.
Yet it’s immediately clear that something in the air has changed, a lot. It’s a different Chechnya. Before, among the ruins, when people went missing every so often, it had clearly been much easier to breathe.
“During the war, during the worst parts, you’d go to any village and people would run up to you, you didn’t know which way to turn,” recalls Lokshina. “People just tore you to shreds, it didn’t matter who you were, a journalist, or a human rights defender, or somebody from Moscow, or a foreigner. The main thing was that you were a person from some other place, a big place, and people could tell you things. People had this unbelievable need to speak. But then, over the last sixteen years, it’s all shut down right before our eyes. People started being more and more careful, saying less and less. ‘I’ll tell you about it, but please don’t say my name anywhere, and don’t even name my village, otherwise people’ll figure out who I am right away...’ And then, ‘You listen to this, but don’t tell it to anybody...’ And as time went on, fewer and fewer people were willing to say anything at all, not even whisper their secrets into a hollow tree.”
“People are far more afraid now than back when soldiers were coming into villages and grabbing whoever they could get their hands on,” says Memorial leader Oleg Orlov. “Back at the beginning of the aughts, I remember, when we were going out to the mopping-up operations, Oyub and I were just stunned: ‘What are they doing?!’ They were grabbing the first men they saw, bringing them to the filtration camps, beating them all up one by one, and asking ‘Where is Shamil Basayev?’ Just how is some random village farmer going to know where Shamil Basayev is? They asked everyone the most idiotic questions, the same ones over and over. They were doing their jobs in a really stupid, unthinking way. Or so we thought. And it wasn’t until later that we realized it had been a conscious, rational tactic, or strategy, rather. They knew they weren’t going to get any information out of anybody; they were just breaking everybody down.”
“They didn’t really care whether the information was true. You’d scream out somebody’s name under torture, ‘Yes, him, he’s a separatist fighter...’ And then they’d come at night and take that person away, he’d disappear, but then you and your family would now be held hostage. They’d tell you, ‘Look, man, you were the one who testified against him. We can tell his people. His blood will be not only on you, but also on your whole family. Think about your son, your brother, your nephews...’ That’s how they built a whole network of informants, way back in the beginning of the 2000s,” explains Orlov. “And then the federal forces transferred this function, of carrying out unlawful violence, to the Chechen armed groups. And along with that they passed on this network of informants. And once they had this network, they were able to gradually, year by year, create this utterly horrifying atmosphere of fear. These days, the number of people disappearing has decreased significantly, but the amount of fear has increased exponentially. Everyone thinks the authorities know everything about them...”
Ten years ago Chechnya was literally riddled with Russian military bases. There were checkpoints, armored personnel carriers, barbed wire, sandbags, and faded army tents everywhere. Now they’ve all just disappeared into thin air. In their place stand bearded, musclebound, grim-faced Chechens draped in expensive imported firearms. Ramzan likes to remind everyone often that he has a strong army. These aren’t empty words: he has his own security force of around twelve thousand armed men who report to him personally. Formally they serve in the Ministry of Interior Affairs, but they only take orders from Kadyrov and Kadyrov’s people. I can’t speak to how strong this army actually is, but it instills abject, paralyzing terror in the population. My interlocutors wouldn’t say the name of the army’s leader out loud; they’d just mouth it, with no sound.
After Natasha Estemirova’s death, the chairman of Memorial at the time, Oleg Orlov, called Ramzan Kadyrov a murderer. It was terrifying to even read that declaration. Ramzan replied, “Why should Kadyrov kill a woman nobody needs? She never did have any honor, dignity, conscience...”
Less than a month after Natasha’s death, armed men kidnapped two friends of Memorial, Zarema Sadulayeva and Alik Dzhabrailov. They were part of an organization called Save the Generation that helped children and teenagers who’d survived the war. Their bodies, bearing signs of torture, were found the next morning in the trunk of their own car. The Grozny branch of Memorial closed and its director, Shakhman Akbulatov, had to emigrate.
Oyub completed his investigation of the murders fairly quickly. I saw him a couple of months after the killings, and he already knew all the names and circumstances. But the Investigative Committee wasn’t about to start looking for the killers. It wouldn’t have been hard to find them, because Natasha had fought with her kidnappers and there were traces of DNA under her fingernails. But it wasn’t realistic to try to make investigators from Moscow get DNA samples from the Kurchaloy police. The investigators were forbidden to follow any trail that could lead to Kadyrov’s men. Instead, they tried to falsify alibis and pass the crime off on separatist fighters who’d been killed soon after Natasha’s death. Memorial was unable to get a real investigation, but Oyub and his colleagues did collect irrefutable evidence proving the fake story was groundless. The Investigative Committee was at a loss, and the case stalled; it’s been under investigation for nine years now.
Nobody knew what to do next. Resuming Memorial’s work would mean knowingly risking another death. But the Grozny contingent decided to keep it going.
“Oyub used to say that if we stopped our work, it was basically almost the same as if we’d committed a crime,” recalls Orlov. “He said it was a tribute to Natasha’s memory. And where would all those people go? They’d be left completely helpless. ‘What’s the point of all the work we did here for all those years, if we leave now?’ He took systematically steps to get the office open again, and it did.”
Then they faced the question of who would be director. No one was willing to take that on.
“But Oyub agreed to do it, and he wasn’t bothered about it,” remembers Oyub’s colleague. “Even though it was a long drive, all the way from Kurchaloy. ‘No big deal, I’ll do the drive.’ He got in first thing in the morning and was one of the last to leave at night.”
Lokshina notes, “Oyub was highly motivated even before, but after Natasha’s death it seems to me like it turned into an obsession.”
It’s difficult to imagine how hard it was for Oyub. He had tried so hard to earn forgiveness; for years he had worked those granite slabs. Then someone came along and helped him. Someone filled his life with meaning, taught him to do something truly important that could atone for his guilt. He started helping Natasha, he was doing everything he could possibly do – and she was killed.
I was getting ready to leave after speaking with Oyub’s relatives and friends, but all of a sudden I felt there was something missing. I hadn’t seen Chechnya itself, I hadn’t had a chance to get a feel for the place outside of politics and my own specific topic. I left my computer with friends, grabbed my old Nokia with a local SIM-card, went out to the highway, and raised my hand.
Hitchhiking in Chechnya is wonderful. As soon as you get to the villages, especially the mountain ones, it’s much easier to breathe. People are a lot simpler: there are no glares from bearded men, no fake Dubai around you, no expensive cars, no pampered play at being real highlanders.
People looked at me with friendly astonishment: there are never tourists here. Most people thought I was a soldier coming back to base. I caught people glaring me literally just twice; the overwhelming majority of people were clearly happy to see visitors. And it wasn’t just a matter of hospitality. You could read it in people’s gazes and smiles: “There, see? Now we’ve finally made peace.” It was as if we were back in the Soviet Union, and there’d never been a war, and people could just go and visit each other.
Whenever you talk to people about Chechnya, you become keenly aware of your own journalistic one-sidedness. You start talking about kidnappings, torture, and murder, and you end up with a horror movie from back during the Chechen war. But right over there’s a lovely, contemporary city where everything’s okay and where regular, ordinary people live. When you write about the fear, it’s hard to also mention the lovely fountains and the fact that everyone is glad for the peace and quiet. And when you tell people about the fountains, the cafes, and the gratitude to Ramzan, it’s hard to remember that a slavish humiliation is hiding under it all.
“We had this one jack-of-all-trades in our village, he made his living fixing trucks. He built little houses for people, had a garden, all kinds of stuff. His place caught the eye of somebody in Tsentaroy [the Russian name for Ramzan Kadyrov’s home village of Khosi-Yurt. – Trans.] and they offered to buy it, but he refused. So Kadyrov’s men came one time while he was away and they ripped out all his machines and equipment and sold it for scrap. They offered him the chance to sell it, again, but this time for a third of the first offer. He tells them, you can just take it from me, but I will never forgive you for this. They came and found him and beat him. At least they left him alive.”
“They decided to build a shopping center in the village, so they just took my plot of land. Of course there was no compensation, that’s absurd! They had an arrangement with the regional authorities here, and that’s all they needed. What court!? Those guys will just show up, you know, and take you away, and they’ll shrug the court off.”
“They were refurbishing the hospital, putting in new equipment. The old head doctor was run off under a cloud of shame, and a new head doctor was named. As soon as he started the job, he gets a phone call from the local police chief who tells him he has one week to collect eighteen million rubles and bring them personally to Khosi-Yurt. He tried to quit on the spot. They told him, ‘First pay up, then you can do whatever you want.’ He collected as much as he could from his doctors, he put in all his own money, he borrowed from his relatives and friends, and in the end he did pay up.”
“Women with bags just go around the shops and cafes collecting money for this or that official event. Each woman has two policemen with her, the whole street’s full of police cars. They stop into all the commercial establishments and give them the once-over to estimate what each one’s bringing in, and then calculate their cut accordingly. Some people pay ten thousand; others, fifty. You can’t refuse to pay, because right behind them they’ve got the fire safety inspectors, the Federal Consumer Rights Service, the public health department, and they’ll dig up all kinds of things on you...”
“One of my relatives is the head of city administration. Our region’s small; they pay around sixty million rubles a year to Khosi-Yurt. Everyone pays: establishments, organizations, the regional offices of every single government agency. They add on fictional pensions and compensation, they keep dead souls in the hospitals, schools, and preschools.”
“At the end of April, Kadyrov held a meeting where he criticized Housing and Public Utilities for being lax collecting payments from the population. People tensed up immediately: here we go. And literally the next day the utilities people were running all over the place collecting natural gas bills. A supervisor or two, a welder, and a policeman. They fabricate some kind of old unpaid bills, show you fake documentation, and demand that you pay then and there. There’s no way you can prove anything – they just turn the gas off, right on the spot. If one guy doesn’t pay, they cut off the gas to the whole building. ‘Get your neighbor to pay, and we’ll turn it on.’ And the city will only connect your gas through the mayor’s office. You’ll have to go through all the red tape or pay a bribe. I heard they’re collecting money for Akhmat Tower.”
“Akhmed had some paperwork drawn up documenting that his building was supposedly flooded. The committee there, it’s with the Ministry of Emergency Situations and the administration, they wrote him up a damage settlement of a million rubles. He gave seven hundred thousand to the administration and pocketed three hundred thousand himself. If there really had been any flood damage, the opposite would’ve happened. There are dozens of cases like this every year in our region. Landslides, usually...”
Nobody speaks openly about all this, of course. But if you’ve been chatting with your driver for a while, and then you drop by to “have some tea” (which means that you’re offered a feast fit for a king), and you just happen to ask, for no special reason, something like ‘so how much does it take to buy a driver’s license here?’ then you will undoubtedly hear a couple of similar stories. Not that different from Russia, right? But it’s actually not the same thing here. The problem isn’t so much universal corruption as it is this whole system of illegal taxation. The money, for the most part, doesn’t come to rest in anyone’s pockets; rather, it flows up into the Akhmad Kadyrov Foundation, the regime’s parallel treasury. The Foundation is subject to no one except Ramzan. According to the financial newspaper Kommersant [The Businessman], the Ministry of Justice database shows no accounts from the Foundation, even though non-profits are required to submit accounts to it regularly. Meanwhile, the Foundation controls enormous business assets, it is the founder of the largest Grozny companies, and, as Kommersant reports, it controls almost all the high-profile real estate in Chechnya.
Every Chechen with an official paycheck pays a certain percent of it to the Foundation every month, from a tenth to a third. Every enterprise, whether state-run or private, must deposit a set amount into it regularly. Figuring out how to scrape together the money to pay it is your problem. Later, in front of the TV cameras, Ramzan hands out the money as gifts to the poor or uses it to equip his troops.
It goes without saying that some part of the money does get diverted to the intermediary links in the chain; the system wouldn’t work otherwise. But overall, Tsentaroy maintains strict discipline. Everyone knows what will follow insubordination. In the best-case scenario, you’re summarily fired. In the worst, they come and take you away, chain you to a radiator somewhere, and beat you until your relatives pay everything you owe (or more). (In his book Chechnya: Year III, Jonathan Littell has given a very vivid and even-handed description of how this system works; I recommend it highly.)
The de facto situation is that the laws of the Russian Federation don’t apply in Chechnya. But that doesn’t mean there is no law here. There is a law, one that is obeyed without fail: Ramzan’s will. This subordination of the nominal law to the actual one is demonstrated every day, but the most vivid example, perhaps, is from two years ago. Kadyrov ordered the senior members of the republic’s Supreme Court, all appointed by Moscow, to retire. But the acting chairman of the Chechen Supreme Court, Takhir Murdalov, refused to obey the order. The affair was settled when Lord (Ramzan’s right-hand man, Mahomed Daudov; Lord was his call sign during the war) went to the Chechen Supreme Court in broad daylight and severely beat the acting chairman.
This is the unspoken agreement: Chechnya nominally accepts Russia’s sovereignty, and in exchange, Moscow doesn’t interfere in the governance of Chechnya. Investigating crimes committed in Chechnya is something Russia neither needs nor wants to do.
On the other hand, the group that seized power here has fallen hostage to its own victory. What do these thousands of kidnapped, tortured, and murdered people mean? They mean that Kadyrov and his men now have thousands of blood feuds. They are the regime, but they can’t let down their guard. They can’t relax, get fat, send their kids to London. They are forced to stand together and support each other no matter what and to maintain such a level of fear in society that nobody even dares think about revenge. They can’t allow themselves to lose power. At the same time, they know that Moscow will only tolerate them as long as they are able to suppress the Islamists. And such sentiments do exist in Chechnya. They are provoked, of course, by the state’s campaign of terror, but this same terror prevents them from flaring too hot. The end result is a nightmarish knot that pulls itself ever tighter.
Ramzan Kadyrov has said more than once that the families of young men who run off to join the separatist fighters in the mountains must answer for them. The Chechen police took to methodically burning down the homes of separatists’ relatives. Moscow did not respond to the outcry from human rights defenders, so it didn’t take long for this principle of collective responsibility to be expanded to include everyone else.
A woman I know explains, “These days, god forbid you should slip up somehow. If you say something, or like something in Facebook, they’ll figure out who you are real fast. And they won’t even go looking for you. They’ll go straight to looking for your relatives. They catch them, bring them in, beat them up, and tell them, ‘If you don’t stop him, it’ll get worse.’ This happens all the time, but nobody in Chechnya will dare tell you about it. I wouldn’t even talk to you about it, if I were in Chechnya right now. You’re recording right now, and I’m thinking: god forbid that somebody gets ahold of this. ‘Who is that? Right, now where are her relatives?’”
“Every month I get dozens of letters from Chechnya,” says Igor Kalyapin, chairman of the Committee Against Torture. “And every time we have the exact same conversation: ‘Your son’s been gone for four days. He’s probably being tortured. Next time you see him will be in court, where he will admit to conspiring to commit a terrorist act. We can send you a lawyer from Central Russia who will find out where your son is and secure a meeting with him within twenty-four hours.’ But people are afraid for their other family members, so they don’t agree to it. I don’t understand what they write us for.”
“You’ll have a person’s statement to us, his testimony, on video, even,” says another woman who works in Memorial with Oyub, “but then all of a sudden he’ll say, ‘No, I was lying to them, I didn’t tell them a single thing, they made it all up themselves to tarnish the good name of Ramzan Akhmatovich Kadyrov.’”
“You know what was really a telling sign for me?” asks Tatyana Lokshina. “The portraits have been around a long time now: Ramzan, Akhmat, all that stuff. At first it was the offices; well, that goes without saying. Then they showed up in shops; that was the next step. But then we’d go visit a friend at home, and in his own home he’s got a picture of Kadyrov hanging in his living room... You’ve known somebody for many years, and you know perfectly well what he thinks of Ramzan Akhmatovich, and you look at that picture, but you don’t even ask him about it, he himself says to you, ‘I’ve got a family, you know, I’ve got kids...’”
Sokiryanskaya explains, “These aren’t some kind of radicals, these are regular everyday women, chatting in WhatsApp, in closed groups. They don’t even say anything like ‘Ramzan is doing terrible things.’ They say, ‘The electricity doesn’t work very well in our village, and the bureaucrats take bribes.’ And they get caught, and then later they have to repent on TV. Or the guys will be in WhatsApp too, and they’ll make a joke, like, ‘Oh, don’t let people like Ramzan into Mecca,’ and they’ll find them and bring them in. They killed one man.”
“A few years ago there was a big story in the village of Kenkhi,” Lokshina says. “One of the residents, Ramazan Dzhalaldinov, wrote a letter to Putin about the theft, the extortion, the fraud, all the usual. Journalists from Dozhd [Rain] came in and his neighbors corroborated his complaints to them. Then armed men came to the village and arrested three of the neighbors, but Ramazan and his sons escaped in the night across the mountains to Dagestan. Ramazan didn’t take his wife and daughters, because getting over the pass is hard going, and also he’d assumed they wouldn’t do anything to them: a woman, after all, little girls... They came for them, broke down the door, dragged them out, and burned the house down. They beat the wife and the oldest daughter, they choked them, and pretended to shoot them, they said they’d kill them and the sons. The younger sisters were ten and twelve, they were terrified out of their wits, sobbing, they heard what was happening to their mother and older sister. They shoved the girls into a car and said that’s it, you don’t have a mother anymore. Then they drove them out of Chechnya. In the end the whole village apologized to Kadyrov, and Dzhalaldinov apologized personally, but just so they’d let his neighbors go. One of them did get sentenced, though, supposedly for drugs. Kadyrov obviously has carte blanche: he can do whatever he wants with Chechens as long as everything looks quiet from the outside.”
It’s not easy to convey just how severely Chechnya has mutated as a result of Kadyrov’s regime of terror. Until recently, every Chechen knew that he was under the protection of his family and his teip, and he, in turn, led his life in keeping with their interests. He was invested in maintaining their honor, and he was ready to defend his own. That was the foundation of his worldview, his self-respect, and it gave his life structure. For Oyub, the collapse of this order was a tragedy. The basic laws governing his universe were losing all meaning as he watched; people were beginning to believe in something else; everywhere he looked, his truth was being replaced by soaring minarets and gleaming jeeps.
It’s hard to get a sense of this in Grozny, of course; all you see there is glass-and-concrete prosperity. What’s the people’s mood here? I suspect it’s everything all at once: humiliation, fear, love for Big Brother and pride in his accomplishments, joy at the prospect of living in peace.
“We’re not made of iron, for goodness’ sake!” one of my Grozny acquaintances told me. “We want to live, too, we want to have some amount of joy in life, and not just survive, not just carry these thoughts around all the time. I don’t care who rules, let it be whoever, but just let us catch our breath...”
“What are you supposed to do when everybody around you has acquiesced to what’s going on?” ponders Cherkasov. “It turns out that collecting information is also a way to fill this expanse of insanity with meaning.”
One he became chairman of the Grozny branch of Memorial, Oyub completely changed the on-the-job procedures, prioritizing security above all else. None of the employees or staff published anything under their own names anymore; there were no more interviews; nobody gave out their real identity; all information was funneled directly to Moscow. The majority of journalists (including myself) had no idea that Memorial was continuing its field work in Chechnya. Natasha’s tenure had ended, and was succeeded by Oyub’s tenure—which has probably also ended, now.
A Memorial staff member recalls, “Oyub did his work very quietly, he didn’t talk, he didn’t try to be in the limelight. He never gave interviews, because a journalist is somebody from the outside, somebody who doesn’t know the local situation. The journalist will do what he thinks is best, acting with the best of intentions, and he’ll believe that the right thing to do is publish it. But the reality is that any little piece of information might end up helping Kadyrov’s men: ‘Ah, we hadn’t known about this, but now, it turns out that...’”
“Oyub never even told us where he got his information from,” says another Memorial staff member. “He’d just say, ‘I found out such and such...’ He’d call people, say ‘I need to meet with you,’ drive off to different places. And of course he didn’t trust electronic devices.”
“Sometimes we didn’t even publish anything, we’d just send formal queries to various offices,” Orlov continues. “And just the fact that we knew this or that person had been kidnapped, that they were located in this or that place, sometimes just that helped get those people freed. For example, a little while ago they were showing a story on Chechen television: ‘And now let’s take a look at the story of these two young men, their relatives were searching for them, didn’t know where they were. But these men had just gone off on a bender somewhere...’ And then the mothers come out: ‘Thank you, thank you, Ramzan Akhmatovich, for finding our dear sons!’ The guys are standing there, hanging their heads: ‘Yes, that’s right, we’re guilty...’ Naturally, the relatives cut off contact with us after that, and we couldn’t write anything about it. And there’s no need for us to get any thanks for it. Oyub understood this very well: ‘We’re done, folks. If somebody was released, that’s where we stop, we did our job.’”
Oyub was absolutely free of personal ambition. I think this is partly because in the highland world he came from, personal identity just isn’t that important. There, a man works to ensure the survival of his extended family, but as for himself, he’s just trying to live his life like his father and grandfather did. Being a real Chechen and a good Muslim was immensely important to Oyub; public ambition was just outside his system of reference. It’s not that he didn’t care about public opinion, it’s that he had a different public. There’s no doubt he was deeply invested in maintaining the respect of his village.
“Oyub made sure that we, the girls, weren’t left alone in the office,” recalls a Memorial staffer. “He was always the last to leave. Whenever he had to be out of the office, he’d tell the guys, ‘You don’t leave until the girls leave.’ He always had a hand on the pulse of the office: if somebody was running late, he’d call immediately and ask what was up. He instituted this security rule where if somebody was gone for a long time, and hadn’t let us know in advance, we’d start calling them right away.”
Another coworker recalls: “He used to talk about them like, ‘girls, the girls.’ As if they were little children, as if they were all alone and needed to be protected.”
A woman who works at Memorial says, “One time I confided in him, I said, ‘Oyub, you are my moral touchstone.’ He just smiled, you know; he wasn’t very talkative. I go, ‘If something happens to me, well, my kids have a father, but I’m counting on you, too.’ ‘Whew,’ he goes, ‘that’s a heavy burden you’ve put on me.’”
“If you said that human rights work is my calling, the thing I love most, it wouldn’t be the truth,” wrote Oyub recently, in a letter to Zoya Svetovaya. “I don’t think of myself as happy, and I wasn’t able to spend my life doing what I love most. I’d enjoy coaching kids’ athletics.”
The Wedding of the Century
“It’s practically impossible to work normally outside your own circle—just come in to the office, chat with people—because it’s getting smaller and smaller,” says Sokiryanskaya. “You are afraid for people because you don’t want them to get in trouble, and your friends are afraid for you, too. Oyub didn’t even leave me alone in the office, ever, he didn’t even let me get out of a car alone. He was very gentle about it, unobtrusive, and nobody’s going to tell him not to do it, we respect him too much.”
In January of 2015, masked men with guns ransacked the Memorial office in Gudermes. Many of Memorial’s staff left and started doing some other kind of work.
“Z. said he didn’t leave because he feared for his life,” my sister explained. “It’s just that Memorial can’t operate like it used to anymore, it’s had to stop criticizing the authorities and bow down before Kadyrov. He doesn’t think there’s any point in working there any longer.”
A Memorial staff member says, “I was thinking maybe it’s time for me to do something else, where I can truly be self-actualized. It used to be you could see the results of your work: somebody was set free, we achieved at least some small measure of justice. But you can’t do anything lately. Not far from our very own office somebody stopped their car, grabbed a guy, and drove off with him. You go to the relatives, but people are afraid. It’s a catch-22: you’ve got tons of information, but you can’t use it.”
Oyub never had any doubts at all, somehow. Even though he’d been walking the edge of the abyss all those years.
“Oyub was warned more than once, as a matter of fact,” says one of his colleagues. “They’d pick him up and bring him to the police station. Oyub never talked about what they actually threatened to do to him, but I can imagine what they said: ‘Either you stop working against us, or we take you out.’ He knew perfectly well they were killers, they could come after his kids at any moment. He lived that way for many years.”
“I got him talking one time, and he told me,” says Sokiryanskaya. “They told him they’d kill him, that there wouldn’t be any more talking. This was the last word. But he didn’t want to talk about it back then, he kept it under the radar. Even our people back in Moscow didn’t know for a while. He didn’t talk about it because he was afraid Memorial would stop working in Chechnya.”
Yelena Milashina recalls, “We got into a lot of risky situations. But I always followed this rule: if Oyub says stop, we stop. Except for one story. Just one. It was that idiotic ‘wedding of the century.’ In 2015, I was approached by the family of Luiza Goylabiyeva from the village of Baytarki. Nazhut Guchigov, the police chief in Nozhay-Yurt, wanted to take this seventeen-year-old girl as a second wife. He was three times her age. Her family asked us to write about it. They asked Kadyrov to intervene, because he’d forbidden marriages to minors. I wrote him, but Ramzan Akhmatovich was like, ‘Well suck on that,’ and decided to make a big show out of it, make it ‘the wedding of the century.’ But I had to talk to that young girl, so I went.
“Those mountainous regions were Oyub’s specialty, those places it was hard to get to. I went to him, but he says, ‘You can’t go.’ I say, ‘Oyub, I know I can’t, but I’m going to disobey you for the first time here. Because I have to.’ I decided to go through Dagestan because it’d be safer and there was a chance I’d get back before dark. Early the next morning I get a phone call. Oyub was already at the checkpoint between Chechnya and Dagestan: ‘No, you’re not going without me.’”
Milashina continues, “He knew I’d go anyway, and he couldn’t let me go alone, because he wouldn’t be able to take it if the same thing that happened to Natasha happened to me. We ate, had a little flatbread, and headed out into those glorious mountains. Oyub had a plan. But the very first person we met in Baytarki, the first person we visited according to the plan, had given us up to Kadyrov’s men. We knew that as soon as he said literally two sentences. But we went on to see the Goylabiyevs anyway. Luiza ran away from us. Her father also took off. We talked with her sister for a little bit and headed back, and saw that somebody was coming after us. And then Oyub’s little Lada Kalina really flew along those twisting roads! It was raining, we were turning this way and that, these really tight turns, there’s a ravine right there, the earth just drops away, so far down... Anyway, he and I had a fun little trip, and we didn’t get back to Grozny until late at night, but Oyub started getting calls right away, people saying that he should leave Chechnya for good, and fast.”
After Baytarki the red warning lights started flashing like crazy. Ramzan and Lord had to have been furious. Memorial got Oyub’s wife and children to Moscow immediately, and from there to Sweden. Oyub spent three months with them there, then went back. He was categorically unable to imagine life outside Chechnya, life outside his work.
Oyub never told his family any details about his work.
“We thought it was just another job, a government position,” says Oyub’s sister. “Seeing as how everything was official, the organization has a title and everything. And it’s not just in Chechnya, too, Memorial works in all the big cities. And so we weren’t worried about it.”
“They didn’t understand how serious it was,” explains Oyub’s colleague. “Of course not. Otherwise they wouldn’t have come back. I remember those conversations. Oyub tells them, ‘No way,’ and they don’t get it: ‘But you live at home! We want to live at home too!’”
Six months later they came back. They didn’t care they’d been granted refugee status in Europe; they just dropped everything and flew back to Oyub.
It was an absolute miracle that the Chechen branch of Memorial was able to keep going for almost nine years after Natasha’s death. One thing that made the miracle possible was that in 2010, completely out of the blue, Oyub acquired a partner.
Igor Kalyapin reminds you of a bulldog: thickset, serious, and fearless, with a grip like iron. He was majoring in physics in college, but during perestroika he was expelled from his university for participating in student protests. In the 1990s he was a businessman in his home town of Nizhny Novgorod. He was framed, arrested, and brutally tortured in an attempt to extract a confession. After Igor was released, he founded the Committee Against Torture and started doing human rights work. Gradually the Committee became the strongest human rights organization in Russia, identifying police offers and prison guards who engage in torture and putting them behind bars. The Committee is known for its ability to conduct criminal investigations at a very high, professional level. It knows the Code of Criminal Procedure inside and out, so it can clamp down like a vice on an official investigation and keep the investigators from evading their obligations.
After Estemirova’s murder, when it became clear that it was deadly dangerous for Chechen human rights defenders to work in Chechnya, Kalyapin made the extraordinary decision to come to Memorial’s aid.
He explains, “We introduced the technique of joint mobile groups. Each team has three people. They spend one month in Chechnya, and then they’re replaced by the next shift. We copied the way the Investigative Committee works: they only go out and do investigative work in groups of three or more. Two do the work while the third observes from a distance and maintains visual contact. There’s equipment everywhere, everything’s recorded continuously. In Chechnya they knew we had special technology, and they were leery of it. Although it won’t save you from a bullet, of course.
“Titiyev’s the one who gave us all the big cases we took on after Estemirova’s death. Orlov tells me, ‘We’ve got a guy undercover there who knows everything and everybody. Go see him at the office.’ And somehow we just understood each other from the get-go. I say, ‘We’re prepared to hitch your cases up to our rig and haul them.’ ‘I don’t know how our people will take that.’ ‘Have me in the room with you when you talk to them, or else they’ll be too afraid.’ ‘Where will we meet? Should we have them come to Grozny?’ ‘No, they’ll be afraid to come.’ ‘Then let’s do it closer to the villages.’ Starting from our very first conversation, he and I had this total alignment of perspective.”
I think Oyub was also quick to see a fellow professional in Kalyapin. Needless to say, that wasn’t the only thing that brought them together; they’re just similar, in general. They’re both very serious, both round-headed, both have a surprising combination of practicality and idealism. Kalyapin took on eight cases of kidnapping or murder by Kadyrov’s men.
“We divided the risk evenly, fair and square,” says Kalyapin. “This time you’ll take the bigger risk, but next time it’ll be me. You could say that we bored the holes and Memorial dug the trenches.”
It goes without saying that law enforcement was doing zero investigation into the cases the Committee Against Torture had taken.
“We were constantly having to show that this is another state entirely. We kept saying that Russian law doesn’t apply in Chechnya, we kept explaining how things work there. For example, an investigator from Moscow wants to go into a police station where people were being held prisoner, chained to a radiator. But the soldier at the gate cocks his rifle and goes, ‘Get out of here, or I’ll drop you.’ He brings in reinforcements from Khankala, but the Russian special forces guys just refuse point blank to get off the bus. They’re afraid. Or this: at our request, Alkhanov, the Internal Affairs Minister, orders them to release their detainees. But the guy at the police station goes, ‘I don’t give a crap about Alkhanov’s order, because he’s just a general, but I’m Ramzan’s relative!’ And whenever there was a question about the scope of the problem, Oyub would step in and give a sort of cross section of the data, how many people were being held, how many had disappeared, how many cases had been opened, and so forth.”
Of course the Nizhny team was taking a huge risk. At any moment they could get picked off with absolutely no consequences, just somebody giving in to a momentary whim, and nobody would bother looking for the killer. I asked Kalyapin why he wasn’t afraid.
“That’s just the way my life turned out, you know; I’ve had to make my peace with death several times now. First the cops tortured me, then bandits tortured me and hung me. So I just know what you think at those moments. And I’ve always been amazed: where’s the pleasure in dying of disease in your bed? What’s so great about that? I don’t get it. But I should be a coward because of that? I should fail to do something important because of that? I have no fear of being shot dead. None. What I am afraid of is pain. I’m afraid of torture...”
Obviously these are Igor’s comments, but it seems to me they apply to Oyub, too.
The Committee’s work had a second, hidden effect, one few people knew about. Kalyapin made so much noise that he drew all the authorities’ ire onto himself, and Oyub was able to keep working quietly along. The Committee’s presence was the only thing that allowed Memorial to hold on for so long in Chechnya. Memorial was able to help more than two thousand people while Oyub was chairman.
The Nizhny Novgorod team was under continual surveillance. In December of 2014, armed individuals broke into the office of the Committee Against Torture in Grozny and burned it down. In June of 2015, masked individuals broke down the door and ransacked the office again, stealing what they didn’t destroy. The members of the mobile group were able to escape out the window. In March of 2016 the Committee’s van was stopped at the border of Chechnya and Ingushetia. A crowd of masked men brandishing baseball bats and shouting “Allah akbar!” dragged everyone – human rights defenders, journalists, and the driver – out of the van, then brutally beat and robbed them all, including the women. They doused the van with gasoline and set it on fire. At the same time, a dozen men with automatic rifles broke into the Committee Against Torture office in Ingushetia and ransacked it.
“All we had to do in difficult situations was just look at each other, and we understood,” says Kalyapin. “As soon as they burned our van, I went to Grozny immediately. I had to stop in at Memorial. I told them, girls, we submarine captains need to have a talk. I go in to see Oyub, and I can see the question written all over his face: you do understand, right, that any minute now they’re going to come and do something to you? I say, ‘I get it, I know, I’ll leave in just a second, we need to have a quick talk.’”
That same evening, Kalyapin was attacked. It was clear that the Committee would no longer be able to hold down a base in Chechnya. Oyub was the only one left.
“There were times when we realized a car was driving along behind us, it was obviously just herding us,” says a Memorial staff member. “But then the second day it wouldn’t be there, or the third day either. We didn’t attach a whole lot of significance to it.”
Another Memorial staffer explains, “It’s strange. You know the situation, but at the same time you feel like it’s not going to affect you personally, as long as you follow certain security guidelines. You are worried about other people, of course, but you yourself can’t live in code red every minute of every day, you just stop thinking about it. You go inside yourself and you turn that option off. It doesn’t change anything, but it’s what you do.”
In 2016 the war on “drug addicts” began. At a conference on the fight against drug addiction, Kadyrov announced: “Whoever disturbs the peace in the Chechen Republic—to hell with them, shoot them. Doesn’t matter what the law is. Just shoot them! Got it? As-salamu alaykum and no problem! That’s your law right there!” The police rushed to comply. According to Kadyrov himself, fifteen hundred people were arrested in 2017 alone. Drug charges are laid on anybody picked up drunk. The police beat the men and order them to admit to drug possession, threatening to charge them with terrorism or belonging to an illegal armed group if they don’t. The majority of cases are identical: “The subject cut several leaves off of wild cannabis plants and dried them.” Every single one of the defendants confessed and was sentenced in a “special procedure” where the sentence is issued as soon as the defendant’s brought into the courtroom.
In political affairs, drugs have also become routine. At a meeting in Urus-Martan, Apti Alaudinov, the first deputy director of the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs [and head of all Chechen police. – Trans.] said this: “If somebody looks even remotely like a Wahhabi” – and the new police chief is sitting right there – “then I’m telling you personally: mow them down. Put whoever you can in prison. If you get a chance to plant something on somebody, do it. Do what you want and kill who you want! The leader said to pass that on to him. I swear by Allah, I support this!”
In general, the leaders of the republic speak very openly when they’re speaking Chechen.
Zhalaudi Geriyev, a Chechnya correspondent for Kavkazsky uzel [The Caucasian Knot], an internet publication founded by Memorial, was kidnapped in April of 2016. Armed men dragged him out of his bus, hit him in the head, shoved him into a black Lada Priora, bound his hands with wire, and drove him out into the forest. There they beat Geriyev, suffocated him with a plastic bag, and threatened to shoot him. They told him he’d only return from the forest if he signed a confession of drug possession; otherwise, he’d disappear. In the pre-trial detention center, Geriev recanted his statement, but he was sentenced, of course, and he’s still in prison today. (Before him, in 2014, the Chechen dissident Ruslan Kutayev had also been imprisoned on the same charges. On February 23rd, Red Army Day—now officially known as “Defenders of the Fatherland Day”—in spite of directives from both Moscow and Kadyrov, Kutayev had dared commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet deportation of Chechens and Ingush during World War II.)
In the spring and summer of 2017, Yelena Milashina and Irina Gordiyenko published their renowned reports on the January shootings and purges of gay men.
The night of January 25th to 26th there was a mass execution at the base of the Chechen police’s Patrol and Sentry Service in Grozny: at least twenty-seven men (possibly twice as many) suspected of Wahhabism were shot. The relatives of most of the victims signed a statement declaring that their son had gone to fight in Syria or a form reading ‘My son/brother left the republic to work in Moscow at the end of February. He has no complaints against the Chechen police.’ Oyub helped the journalists verify the information. It was one of his last investigations.
The persecution of gay men began that spring. Hundreds of men were arrested, and many were tortured and killed. It caused an international furor. Federal Human Rights Ombudsman Tatyana Moskalkova even convinced the Investigative Committee to do a preinvestigative check into the matter. At the end of the year, Ramzan Kadyrov followed Daudov and Alaudinov in being added to the Magnitsky List, as people who “have engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture, or other gross violations of human rights.” As a result, Kadyrov’s Instagram account was blocked. As ridiculous as it may seem, it was none other than this that provoked the most fury from the Chechen leadership. “Kadyrov wasn’t just deprived of his favorite toy,” explains Alexandr Cherkasov, the head of Memorial. “It was his own personal news outlet, with an audience of over three million subscribers.”
On December 25th, Mahomed Daudov asserted in an official announcement that the human rights defenders were to blame for Kadyrov’s Instagram being shut down: “If only we didn’t have a moratorium [on the death penalty] in Russia, we’d take these enemies of the people and salaam aleykum. The end.”
“I remember one time when we were on monitoring duty,” recalls Oyub’s colleague. “We were going down this street, and all of a sudden he starts giving me the details in a certain case: look, you need to know this, a person involved in such and such a crime lives here, he gave me some kind of random details... At first I was distracted, only half-listening, I was tired and falling asleep. But then it starts to hit me: he was always prepared for his own death. So I thought, okay, I have to hear this again, I didn’t get it all the first time...”
Oyub couldn’t stop. He was old now; it was too late to admit that nothing had worked out. People were following him, and he was afraid for them, but he kept leading them further in.
Lokshina recalls, “I was joking with him and I asked, ‘What’s the deal, Oyub, you’ve just moved into the gym permanently? Do you go every day, or something?’ ‘Yes,’ he says, and then he adds, very seriously: ‘It’s just that I think if they take me and torture me, then being in good shape will help me survive it...’ He said this without even a hint of irony. He wasn’t looking for sympathy, or pity. It was just a statement of fact.”
“Chechens generally think you have to stay in shape,” my sister explains. “A cultured man can’t have a big flabby gut. It inspires contempt. ‘Like a farmer,’ Chechens will say. All the more so because Oyub’s a P.E. teacher. But he’s sixty years old, and going to the gym every night... What for, I thought? No matter how pumped up he gets, it’s still not a fair fight. They’re armed, they’re young, there are a lot of them. And then one time a teacher we know was talking about a man from his village who Kadyrov’s men had stuffed in the trunk of a car. Oyub said, ‘Nobody’s stuffing me into any trunk unless I’m dead.’ In other words, for him it was more important to avoid humiliation than death. That’s the situation Oyub was getting ready for.”
“He called in December [of 2017], it was the New Year holidays and we’d already been let off work,” remembers a woman who worked with Oyub. “He says to me, ‘Are you going to be in town over the weekend? Stop by the office, there are some bags on the shelf, go get them.’ I stop by the office and see that they’re New Year’s presents for my kids. That was our last conversation.”
On January 9th, the first business day of 2018, Oyub left his house to meet a friend in the village of Mayrtup. His friend waited for around an hour, then started calling Oyub, who didn’t answer. The friend stopped waiting and drove up the road in the direction Oyub would be coming from. He saw Oyub’s Lada Kalina, and Oyub himself, and next to him some police cars—a Niva and a UAZ-Patriot—and armed men with Rapid Response Team patches on their green camouflage uniforms. The friend stopped his car and got out, but Oyub signaled him to keep driving. Oyub didn’t want to get anyone else involved.
The friend drove on ahead, then turned around and came back. Again, Oyub signaled him not to stop. The third time Oyub and the police weren’t on the road anymore, but the friend knew they’d gone to Kurchaloy. He saw Oyub’s car in the Kurchaloy police station courtyard.
The police demanded that Oyub sign a confession of drug possession, threatening that if he didn’t, they’d detain his son on charges of belonging to an illegal armed group. Oyub refused, saying that drugs “found” without attesting witnesses have no evidentiary force. The police hadn’t seen that coming; after all, every “drug addict,” without exception, writes a confession. They took Oyub back out onto the road, this time with attesting witnesses present, and staged the highway patrol detaining him and finding the cannabis. It goes without saying that the videocameras in the law enforcement vehicles and inside the police department, the cameras that were supposed to record the whole farce, didn’t work. Meanwhile, in Kurchaloy, all along the path the cars took, fifteen video surveillance systems also “broke.” Including the videocameras on banks and public administration buildings. Someone broke into Oyub’s car, which had been impounded and sealed at the police station, and stole the dashcam and GPS tracker.
The next item on the agenda would have been beating a confession out of him, but they didn’t get to it quick enough. As soon as Oyub’s friend saw Oyub’s car, he called Memorial. A lawyer went out to Kurchaloy but was not allowed to enter the police station and was told Oyub wasn’t there. In Moscow, however, the general alarm had already been sounded. Oleg Orlov contacted Tatyana Moskalkova, the government’s human rights ombudsman, as well as Mikhail Fedotov, chairman of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights. That evening the police chief was obliged to confirm that Oyub was there and had been formally accused of drug possession, since 200 grams of marijuana had allegedly been found in Oyub’s vehicle.
In an appearance on Chechen television, Ramzan Kadyrov called Titiyev a drug addict. He continued, “They [the human rights defenders] talk about things that didn’t happen, but even if these things did happen, and he talks about them and writes his little reports about them, then what he’s doing is acting against his people. He is an enemy of our people. They have no homeland, no nation, no religion. I am very surprised by a man who works for them but claims to be Chechen. So I will tell you how we will break the spines of our enemies...”
The night of January 16th to January 17th, unknown masked individuals burned down the Memorial office in Nazran. On January 19th, the Memorial office in Grozny was searched, allegedly producing two cigarettes containing drugs. On January 22nd, the car belonging to Memorial’s Dagestan office in Makhachkala, which had started assisting with Oyub’s case, was burned. The office phone received a text message reading, “You are walking the edge of the abyss shut down! Next time we will burn your office down along with we will burn you. The car is a message.” The Makhachkala police just spread their hands. “But who are we supposed to look for? It’s Kadyrov’s men.”
The first thing I thought when I heard that drugs had been planted on Oyub was “Thank goodness!” His friends knew there was no happy ending for him: he wasn’t about to leave, and the only alternative was death.
One of his female colleagues reflects, “I’m thinking maybe Allah made it happen this way, to shut down the office? Because by now it’s all just tilting at windmills. It’s painful for me to admit this, but it’s pointless to fight them now. All it does is get our people killed...”
“At that moment we all felt something resembling gratitude toward the Chechen Ministry of Internal Affairs: thanks for leaving him alive,” wrote Yelena Milashina.
Apart from the planted bag of drugs, a “witness” had also been arranged: Amadi Baskhanov, who had seen Oyub smoking marijuana out in public, in broad daylight. But there was a snafu before the lineup, when Oyub’s lawyer, Pyotr Zaikin, noted that Oyub stood out too much, since he was in sport slides while the rest of men in the lineup were in boots. Zaikin insisted that this discrepancy in appearance be eliminated.
Milashina, writing in Novaya gazeta, described the scene: “The witness showed all the signs of narcotic intoxication. His pupils were enormous, the size of his irises. He moved very slowly. He stood there, swaying, and didn’t react to the investigator at all. The witness was wearing an expensive leather jacket that clearly was not his, as well as ragged trousers and worn, battered shoes with no laces. His hair was so dirty it had matted together in clumps that hung down like icicles. The witness smelled so bad that he couldn’t have washed for several weeks. It was obvious that the Kurchaloy operatives were the only thing that could sober him up. As soon as he saw them, the witness flinched and tried to hide in a corner. The investigator asked him questions repeatedly, but the witness gave no replies. What was perfectly clear was that he didn’t know which one Oyub was. The witness kept running his eyes along the feet of the men in the lineup, as though he were searching for something to latch on to.”
Flustered, the investigator initially wrote down the truth, which was that the witness had been unable to identify Oyub. Later, though, the investigator declared that he’d gotten confused, and that the witness really had identified Oyub, it was just that he, the investigator, had written down the wrong thing.
Zaikin was put under demonstratively obvious surveillance. The car he drove was set on fire. One of Oyub’s other lawyers, Aslan Telkhigov of Memorial, was forced to flee Chechnya due to threats.
Three weeks after Oyub’s arrest, Kadyrov announced, “We found out afterwards that she’d sold out. She discredited the image of our people before Europe and the West. We found out what kind of slut she was after we caught her with drugs...” Ramzan was talking about Oyub using the female grammatical form, just as he’d done earlier with the gay singer Zelim Bakayev, who was killed.
After the arrest, Oyub’s wife and children fled Chechnya immediately. But the Kurchaloy police kept their promise: in May, they arrested one of Oyub’s nephews on drug possession.
Oyub looks shy as he sits behind bars in the courtroom. It looks like he feels a little bit bad about everyone being gathered in here just because of him. During a break I make my way through the crowd to his cage and say that in one week I’ve heard more good things about him that I’ve ever heard about anybody. Oyub’s face remains an impassive mask. He’s clearly disconcerted.
“For Oyub, ‘drug addict’ was a terribly strong obscenity,” says Lokshina. “Whenever he was talking about a Chechen in the security forces who’d done something particularly disgraceful, he’d grit his teeth and growl, ‘drug addict.’ He obviously couldn’t imagine how a man who wasn’t under the influence of some kind of substance could do such hideous things. The thought that somebody somewhere might actually think that he, Oyub, is a drug addict, a drug dealer, has to be just horrific for him.”
Human rights defenders sit in the first few rows. The back rows are occupied by brown Kurchaloy farmers in their skullcaps. Oyub’s relatives and neighbors.
One of the neighbors explains, “Not a single person in the village believes they found drugs on him. There’s no way. Back when we were in school, he even scolded the principal and the vice-principal for smoking. And the guy they showed on TV, the guy who accused him who was supposedly a neighbor from the village—nobody in the village knows who he is. If they did, they’d have gotten rid of him a long time ago. That’s how upset everyone is.”
“There are five thousand people who go to our mosque,” says Yakub Titiyev. “Every one of them is ready to vouch for Oyub. The first few days after it happened, we were overrun with people, everyone came to express their condolences.”
“He gave me these prayer beads,” says one of Oyub’s nephews, showing me a tasseled string of light purple beads. Like everything Oyub puts his hands to, they are meticulously crafted. “He made them in jail, from bread and coffee. In all his letters he says, ‘I’m sorry all this is because of me, that you’re crying at a trial...’ My aunt is always, ‘Are you eating? Are they giving you food?’ And he goes, ‘Is that the only thing you can ask about? You always talk about food, but I’ve got bigger things to worry about than food...’ And then the next day he wrote, ‘I’m sorry, my dear one, I didn’t mean to hurt you.’ I also went over to him: ‘Tell me, Oyub, what can I send you?’ ‘Send cola, soft drinks,’ he says. ‘But you don’t drink cola,’ I said, surprised. ‘The guys in the cell with me, they’d like some cola...’”
His nephew says, “Oyub had a dream about his older brother, the one who died. He told us, ‘I dreamed about my brother. He asked me for money. Did my paycheck come in? Give it to the poor.’ Even now, he wants to help everyone...”
One by one the court questions witnesses. Twenty-eight Kurchaloy policemen, none of whom can remember a thing.
“What kind of vehicle do you drive on patrol?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What color is your uniform?”
“I don’t remember.”
“What is your call sign?”
“I don’t remember.”
“The defense is mocking the witnesses!” exclaims the prosecutor. “I demand this be noted in the record!”
The police department never had a Niva or a UAZ-Patriot. Nobody ever wore a green camouflage uniform with a Rapid Response Team patch on it or saw such a uniform.
“But here in Instagram you have a picture of yourself in a uniform like that.”
“Ummm... I have one at home. I wear it at home.”
“What is a Rapid Response Team?”
“I don’t know.”
When it’s time for the ones who acted directly, the ones who actually planted the drugs, to take their turn, their behavior changes. The policemen answer aggressively and laugh a lot for no reason. Nurid Salamov, the former investigator on the case who was removed after the snafu with the lineup, finds everything funny: the lawyer’s question about what the date was on the tags used to seal Oyub’s car; the question about whether Titiyev had a weapon; the attempt to determine what investigative action he took.
“I’m not required to know that. I don’t remember what I investigated. There were a lot of different investigative actions.” Salamov laughs. “Do you think I just had one case to work?”
Salamov didn’t even take fingerprints from the bag of marijuana that was “found” on Oyub.
It’s a never-ending game of ping-pong, variations on one and the same dialogue. Lawyer: “But you can’t even lie with a straight face!” Witness: “Doesn’t matter. You’re going to lose anyway. Suck it!”
Suddenly, Oyub asks the investigator, “Are you a man of faith?”
“And what faith is that?”
“What do you mean?” Salamov asks, flustered. “Islam, of course.”
“Because maybe there is such a faith that allows you to lie. But in Islam, that’s a sin. When you were tasked with this investigation, what were you, as a faithful Muslim, supposed to do? Find out the truth or prove my guilt?”
“Find out the truth...” answers Salamov, very quietly.
“And what did you do?”
“I’m striking the defendant’s question. This isn’t a sharia court!”
On August 22nd, Ramzan Kadyrov made an appearance to a group of Chechen policemen. “All the corrupt little scum from all over the world, from all over the country, are coming to see this trial,” he said. “As if this one drug addict was the only problem we have in Russia, in the world. They’re not defending my rights! I was added to the sanctioned list illegally. My accounts were blocked without any justification. Even my horses were taken away. I can’t bring them back home! If I don’t have the right to go to Europe and the West, then I say these human rights defenders don’t have the right to come to my territory!”
How did Oyub turn out the way he did? He probably just felt bad for his mom. He spent his whole life trying to do the right thing. Granted, the world turned out not to be the way his grandparents taught him it was. They told him that if you’re like the hero in a fairy tale, you can save everybody. But it didn’t work out that way. His students, his beloved students, were dead; Natasha was dead; the work he’d devoted his life to had been destroyed. He’d been put in a cage and displayed on television as a drug dealer.
“Go in like that today, Oyub. Just sit there in your place and nobody’ll ever know.”
After the court session the people from Memorial and I go sit in a café on Putin Prospect, the Central Park café, named in honor of the TV series “Friends.” Old-time photographs of New York hang on the walls and pretty waitresses in hijab bustle between tables. Just then, Cherkasov gets a message. “I got information that they killed a young man in the police station in Komsomolskoye. I have his father’s name and number.” “Then we should go...” answers one of the women from Memorial.
We confer with the Moscow office.
“Don’t call now, they’ve doubtless got a wire on the father’s phone and they’d get there before you did. Get to the village first and then call. Find out the address and go straight there.”
“What if we can’t reach him by phone?”
“You can just go to the village and ask for his address once you’re there. Everyone’s going over there now to express their condolences. If you put on headscarves nobody’ll notice you.”
The girls put on headscarves and dresses. They’re both Russian, and they look Russian as can be, but that’s not the problem. Chechen women also look different, they’re not all the same. It’s the hipster Keds that betray Stirlitz the spy from a hundred paces.
“Should we take the Delimobile?”
Turns out there’s carsharing in Grozny. Just as good as Europe. We get to Komsomolskoye, and it’s horribly scary. We call, but nobody picks up. We find a group of old men sitting on a bench of packed earth along the side of a building and ask where the dead man’s father lives. They look at us in amazement, but carefully explain how to get there. Along the way I find out more about the circumstances: the police were looking for the guy, and since he knew what that would mean, he hid. But his father believed that they’d work it all out and let him go, so his father went and took the guy to the police station himself. The day after that, they brought back a corpse bearing signs of torture. And then they turned around and picked up one of the neighbor boys.
It’s a beautifully built village, with its main street, fences, and gates, and then the tense glances from the young men in the family across the street. Here, the father is gone. He was taken in to the local police station three hours ago. The mother, an elderly farmwife with an ashen face, is in the courtyard. Politely, lifelessly, she thanks us for our condolences. Then she sinks down onto a low bench: she doesn’t have the strength to stand. The dead man had been buried the day before, without a wake, just as Kadyrov’s men had ordered. This was to keep people from seeing the signs of torture and raising a racket. The widow peers out from the summer kitchen. She’s just a young girl. She’s cooking something. Her face is set. It’s bluish-white, like porcelain. She will have to spend the rest of her life alone with two children. She could eventually remarry, but she’d lose her children.
The father shows up. The police let him go after making sure he knew how to behave. He’s just a regular guy from the village. He falters a little as he walks around. We explain who we are.
“Thank you, thank you. Everything’s okay, nothing happened...”
“But your son died...?”
“What did he die of?”
“Well, it’s just... he stopped breathing...”
After I wrote this story, I gave it to Oyub in jail. He sent me a letter in response. Almost the whole letter was focused on the death of his students. Twenty-three years later he was still thinking about them.
“They went there, but not with me. I didn’t run into them there. It was an idiot from our village who got them all together. Each of those kids could’ve refused, and nobody would’ve judged him for it. Back then, nobody had the right to give any orders to anybody, anyway. Everything was voluntary. People formed groups and offered resistance on their own, as best they could.”
“I knew they were getting ready to go somewhere, but I didn’t know where. But they were posted on a bare plowed field, and they all made the decision to die. My guilt lies in the fact that I didn’t see to things myself, I wasn’t with them. I let matters take their own course. If I had been there with them, I’d have gotten them out of there without a fight. Nineteen people died there, the majority of them my former students. Three of them were my third cousins. One was my nephew, who grew up in my arms. On the fourth day we were able to pull out eleven corpses. I gathered them up, one by one, some of them in pieces. It’s hard to blot something like that out of your memory. I would give a lot to have been there at that moment, next to my nephew and the others, to have shared their fate, and not to have seen what’s happened to Chechnya.”