Dear painderouters (?), this is the first post on this blog officially written in English only: hurrah!
The author is not me, but my dear Mexican friend Jorge Luis. We met in Moscow while we were both studying at the same University. After his 5 days trip to the Russian Caucasus I’ve repeatedly asked him to write a report about it. Finally we’re able to read about this last adventure to one of the less visited (and most troubled) areas of the world. All the following text and pictures are a property of Jorge Luis. Enjoy!
If being a Mexican who studies full time in Russia is exotic enough, I cannot tell you about the (mutual) thrill of a Mexican in the Russian Caucasus. “Откуда вы? Мексиканец?, ооо… это первый раз я вижу” (“where are you from? Mexican? Ohh, this is the first time I see one”). Such aura was actually very useful with one of our hosts in Grozny, who, in order to be generous with his first Mexican guest, took us to some areas not so easy-to-reach in the mountains of Chechnya (for instance, Vedeno, Itum Kale… yes, if you happen to have read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat these names will ring a bell). So, if you are still wondering if it is worth enough going to the Russian Caucasus, I have to tell you, yes, it definitely is. Yet, I have to be honest with you, it is not a holiday in the Caribbean, and no journey to the Caucasus will be trouble-less. But, hey, a trip there without a couple of tricky experiences would be like not having visited this region so full of history.
1. Should I go to the Russian Caucasus?
So, first things first, how to make your mind about this? In other cases, the first thing on the list would be, surely, how to plan it, but in conflicting or former conflicting areas you should bear some things into consideration. If you come with the idea of going to the Caucasus you will probably hear that it is not a good idea. There are compelling reasons for this: the Russo-Chechen wars, the presence of terrorist groups, the presence of the Russian Army, the FSB controls, the border with Georgia and the conflicts regarding Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the possible existence of corridors of terror groups going from the Russian Caucasus to Syria, and so on.
So, you are probably wondering if it is dangerous. From the perspective of someone coming from Mexico, I wouldn’t say it is dangerous. If you are a journalist or doing some research, I would advise been more cautious though. The presence of the Russian Army and the FSB or even the Kadirovtsi (the special Chechen forces), might prevent some things happening to you. But, actually, these same elements are the main reason you might face some issues in your journey (see section 4).
Another good advice is to speak Russian. In Ingushetia and Chechnya they speak Ingush-Chechen or plainly Chechen, and as a lingua franca they use Russian. Thus, if you don’t speak a word of Russian your journey could be more difficult. So if your mind-set, your language skills and your spirit for adventure are on, you may start planning it.
2. Planning your trip to the Caucasus
Judging for what has been said, now you know this is a difficult region. Doing some research is advisable, especially when it comes to the places where you CANNOT enter. I am sorry to tell you that this information is somewhat ambiguous regarding clear borders. There is something called “пограничная зона” or “регламентирована зона”, which means areas where you cannot enter unless you have a special permit (пропуск) granted by the FSB. It is not impossible to get these permits, and you can do it online. It takes sixty days as far as I know. Give or take, villages close to the southern borders and specially those close to Abkhazia and South Ossetia belong to this concept. Fiagdon, for instance, a beautiful mountainous village of North Ossetia-Alania is within the zone. We didn’t know this, by the way (check section 4).
An itinerary for your journey is useful. Define your interests and more if you happen to travel in a group. It seems to me that three to four people is a good number (better if at least one of them speaks Russian). Are you interested in the people and the local culture? Are you interested in the religion and Mosques? Are you interested in landscapes and hiking? Well, the Russian Coaucasus has all of this to offer. So, a bit of everything is good enough. Understanding the geography of the place is useful too. I have the impression that moving within the Russian Caucasus is not that hard. Once you are in the right marshrutka you can go from one republic to the other. Identify and mark in your map the relevant автовокзалы. This is also very cheap, for instance: a marshrutka from Vladikavkaz to Grozny costs something like 60 rubles, that is one euro, or was it 120 rubles? Well, even if it is the double, it is still very cheap.
Coach-surfing is advisable, but hostels and hotels in the region are also very cheap. We used both. A description of our journey might be useful for you as an example of planning.
3. 5 days itinerary in the Russian Caucasus
I travelled with a group of friends from different countries, so yes, we were a bit of a moving joke, but that was good also because people liked us. We travel by plane from Moscow (Vnukovo) to Nazran, the biggest city in Ingushetia (not the capital though). Then we went to Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia-Alania. In Vladikavkaz we made a hiking journey to Fiagdon and then went back. Back in Vladikavkaz we went back to Nazran and then to a village nearby and then to Grozny, Chechnya’s capital. We were able to do a great deal of things in Grozny, mainly because of our host, who took us to Vedeno, Itum Kale and other places. Then we departed again to Moscow from Grozny’s airport. Apart from the planes, the means of transportation were basically marshrutki, unless we were in our host’s car.
4. An afternoon with the FSB in Ossetia
So according to our research, and what we inquired with the locals, and even with the marshrutka driver, we can go to Fiagdon (see the pictures, isn’t it amazing?), so what could go wrong?
So there we were, strolling along the road, and we even greeted a group of local policemen very easy-going, while I stop for a moment to take a picture of a Stalin’s bust (which, by the way, I’ve learned it might be new), and out of the blue I listen the brakes of a car stopping abruptly, and a man addresses me, the Mexican in the Caucasus:
– добрый день, что вы делаете здесь? (hello, what are you doing here?)
Our script was always the same: we are from different countries, we are students in Moscow. We asked everyone if we could come here (which was true, by the way). But he argued that there was a big sign at the entrance of the village, which we never saw. This agent called to the appointed efesbechnik (FSB agent) of the village, who came and didn’t have any wish of troubling us. But the little dispute of authority between the agents prevented the appointed efesbechnik of sparing us. So they took our passports and we had to go to the police station and spent there around three hours for they to fill a fine (штраф) for each one of us. The fine was 2000 rubles each, with the extra warning that we cannot incur in the same fault in the period of a year, otherwise we will be deported. That is why, by the way, I am avoiding going back to Kavkaz at least for a time.
I have to say that the police didn’t mistreat us and that we weren’t officially detained (although without our passports it is more or less the same). What was probably the most dangerous part of it was going back to Vladikavkaz on the efesbechnik’s Lada, because he was driving like a mad man and listening to Natali’s “Ой боже какой мужчина” in the radio. This was probably one of the creepiest but also more thrilling moments of my life. Also, I have to mention that he made a little stop to buy us some snickers bars (#truestory). Back to Vladikavkaz we spent the night out as we would do in another Russian City while preparing to go to the main objective of our trip: Grozny.
5. Grozny, Chechnya’s capital
When we talk to the people of both Nazran and Vladikavkaz about Chechnyaa and Grozny they identified the place as “the place where the money goes”. There is certainly some feeling of unfairness when it comes to the Caucasian recent history.
And the thing is that when we arrived to the city we could see ultra-modern buildings, presumably empty, decorated with lights, and majestic Mosques (recently built), making you feel that this city could be also compared to a totalitarian dream like Pyongyang or Ashgabat. Other sign of this spirit is also easy to see in the cult to personality to Ramzan
Kadyrov, Ahmad Kadyrov and Vladimir Putin. You can easily spot their pictures in the roads, in the city and actually everywhere.
In the city of Grozny, you should not miss the following:
- The “Heart of Chechnya” Mosque, named after Kadyrov’s father, Ahmad
- “Heart of Mother” Mosque, named after Kadyrov’s mother, Ayman Kadyrova
- The Ahmad Kadyrov museum.
A few words about the museum are worthwhile. This is one of my favourite points. It is not a conventional museum, although it pretends to be so, but it is rather the consummation of cult to personality centred in Ahmad Kadyrov. Here you can find things such as AK’s favourite bow tie, his favourite rod and so on.
6. Caucasus: don’t do this
Some extra tips might be useful. Please remember that, except for Vladikavkaz, these cities have a Muslim majority and I would add that they are conservatives in many regards. If you want to visit the mosques, of course, you should stick to the universal dress code: women have to cover their heads; men cannot enter with shorts. Actually, I have the impression that even outdoors using shorts would be at least frowned upon. I would advise discretion in your clothes. Of course, outdoors the veil is not mandatory, Russia is still a secular country. Vladikavkaz is, on the other hand, a typical Russian city with a statue of Lenin in the main square and bars and shops where you can buy alcohol. However, and unlike Vladikavkaz, in Nazran and Grozny it is very difficult to find alcohol in restaurants and we didn’t see any bar.
If you have travelled to Russia before, especially to Moscow, you will find that in the Caucasus people are rather warmer and more welcoming. They are not used to foreigners (at least that is the impression I have) and surely they will ask you questions and you can ask them questions as well. Of course, unless you like polemicise, you probably won’t like the reactions you can find about the topic of homophobia, for instance. Bear in mind, as well, that many Chechens and Ingush, do not consider themselves ‘Russians’. And you can actually find the same spirit of resistance that is described by Tostoy’s Hadji Murat. There are, of course, many things missing in the depiction I offer you, after all, it is based on a short experience. A main aspect that is still to be considered, and that I am planning to visit the following year, is Dagestan. Apart from the Derbent fortress, when I told a guy in Ingushetia that I was Mexican, he told me that Dagestan is like the “Mexico” of the Caucasus. I don’t know what connotations that comment entails, but that is something I, definitely, have to find out. I hope you still want to go to the Caucasus, for sure it is a journey you are going to remember until your last days.
Thanks for reading up to here and I hope you enjoyed this post.
Further readings about Chechnya and the Russian Caucasus: Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat (available in Italian as well) and Anna Politkovskaya’s A small corner of Hell: dispatches from Chechnya (available in Italian as well).