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Tsarnaev homeland Chechnya: Rebuilt from war, ruled by fear

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"What’s happening here is absurd. It’s George Orwell, 1984," said a dissident who asked that his identity not be revealed. "Nothing is going to change here any time soon. Chechen spring? Forget about it."

Golden chandelier

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In Grozny, passersby freeze and stare with a mixture of fear and awe when Kadyrov’s noisy motorcade glides through the city.

His closest allies drive luxury sedans with tinted windows and distinctive "KRA" number plates — his initials: "Kadyrov, Ramzan Akhmatovich".

Kadyrov’s father Akhmad Kadyrov was a former rebel mufti who was put in charge of Chechnya by Putin and ruled it until he was assassinated in 2004. A museum to the elder Kadyrov sports Russia’s biggest chandelier, weighing 1.65 tons and containing 48 pounds of gold. It was made in Iran.

Perhaps in an attempt to limit the influence of Islamist rebels by co-opting religion, Kadyrov has banned alcohol and gambling, and promoted polygamy and headscarves for women. A few years ago, his supporters were seen firing paintball guns at women whose clothes were deemed insufficiently modest.

Yet Kadyrov’s promotion of Islam has not dimmed the appeal of the radical version espoused by fighters led by Doku Umarov, a Chechen former pro-independence guerrilla commander who leads an Islamist revolt focused mainly on neighboring Dagestan.

"When they tell us that only this official form of Islam is allowed, obviously everyone is going to question it," said the rights campaigner. "People don’t like to be lectured on how to be faithful."

Devotion and resentment

As in Soviet times, it is impossible to say what Chechens truly think of their leader. When questioned in public, residents reply with stock phrases of devotion.

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"I don’t know what would have happened to us without our leader," said Fatima Magomedova, 44, a heavily veiled flower shop worker. "We are free now."

Many are no doubt sincere in their admiration for Kadyrov, who has brought peace and relative prosperity after a decade of war killed tens of thousands of people, mainly civilians.

"I don’t think many people want to leave. In fact, a lot of Chechens say they want to come back. Those who are leaving are those who are after an easy life," said Khamza Khirakhmatov, a deputy to Chechnya’s official spiritual leader.

"Those who want to achieve something, a certain success, are only coming back, getting jobs, getting involved in projects to promote morality and spirituality and help our republic."

But outside the glitzy city center lies an impoverished country where joblessness is close to 80 percent in some regions. Many flock to Grozny in search of work, but complain that jobs are reserved for those in Kadyrov’s clan.

"It’s very hard. There is almost no work. I’ve been out of work for years. All the main construction sites are operated by Ramzan’s people and it’s impossible to get a job there because everyone wants to work there," said Lyoma, a man from the town of Urus-Martan, waiting for work on the side of the road with other unemployed laborers from around Chechnya.

Outside Grozny, Chechens survive off small-scale agriculture in villages scattered across a fertile belt between the capital and the towering, snow-capped Caucasus mountains to the south.

"People live off farming. They eat what they grow," said Yusup, a local resident in the mountain village of Itum-Kale perched in a steep river valley near Chechnya’s border with Georgia. "It’s beautiful here but there is no work for young people."

Others dream of leaving.

Rukiyat Arsayeva went to Grozny to apply for a passport in the hope of travelling to Europe. She said she was seeking medical help for her two daughters.

One, now 14, was a toddler when she was wounded in the abdomen by a Russian air strike. The other, now 20, was made deaf as a child by a missile blast.

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