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A homeless man gets a hot meal from a soup truck courtesy of the Nochlezhka homeless shelter in St. Petersburg January 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A homeless man gets a hot meal from a soup truck courtesy of the Nochlezhka homeless shelter in St. Petersburg January 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

PUTIN'S GAMES

‘Sochi is Putingrad’: Vladimir Putin has made a lasting impression Add to ...

Russians were angry and scared. Mr. Putin gave them a target for their rage. Twenty years earlier, he had been a young KGB officer monitoring the activities of foreigners when Soviet troops were sent into Afghanistan. Russia had been at war with Muslims on the fringes of its empire for centuries, but that decision not only spoiled the 1980 Olympics, it began the Soviet Union’s long fall from superpower to beggar state.

Offered a chance to end the humiliation and succeed where the tsars had failed, Mr. Putin seized it. He told the nation that Chechnya, which had humiliated Russia’s army a ew years earlier and won de facto independence, had become a bandit republic, a breeding ground for “terrorists.” Then he sent the army back, this time with no holds barred.

I first visited Grozny in the fall of 2002, and found more destruction than in Kabul after two decades of warlords and the Taliban. Not a single building in the heart of the city had escaped heavy-weapons fire. “People live here!” had been painted on apartment blocks, a desperate reminder to warring parties long past caring.

Since then Moscow has invested several times the more than $1-billion it spent on its two wars in Chechnya to reconstruct the city. The downtown is dominated by a massive mosque named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen mufti assassinated after throwing his moral support, and his family’s fighters, behind the Kremlin. Next to it stands the 32-storey Hotel Grozny City, flanked by five skyscrapers that wouldn’t look out of place in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

Mr. Putin’s image smiles down from apartment blocks and government offices as traffic glides past pizzerias and cafés that line Putin Prospekt (formerly Victory Prospekt). Beside him is always a portrait of Akhmad Kadyrov or his son Ramzan, the ruler since his father’s death. The city is a forest of billboards for the Sochi Games – “It’s your Olympiad!” – and sponsors Coca-Cola and Russian Railways. But, as in St. Petersburg, the shine is illusory, hiding a different reality.

The imam of the giant mosque, Daoud Khanbeyev, is a close ally of Ramzan Kadyrov, who has instructed his fighters to search anyone who looks like “Wahhabi,” a term applied to all those who oppose the Chechen leader and his friends in the Kremlin.

Mr. Khanbeyev handles the hearts and minds side of the campaign. “My message is against Wahabbism of any sort, and these movements that try to divide the people,” he tells me after treating worshippers to a fire-and-brimstone denunciation of those still fighting to establish an Islamic emirate in Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan.

He disowns the separatism that tens of thousands of Chechens died pursuing – “We are Russian Muslims.”

But in truth, he and Mr. Kadyrov are building a distinct society within Russia ruled more by clan loyalties and loosely interpreted sharia law than by the constitution. Alcohol, a Russian staple, has disappeared from menus and store shelves. Head scarves are now mandatory for women in the civil service.

Despite the appearance of law and order, security is such a concern that thousands of Chechens have abandoned their homeland. Aley, 39 (he spoke on condition his full name not be used), says he moved back and took a government job in 2004. But two years later, a gunman came to his house and demanded that the father of four use his credentials to smuggle supplies to rebels hiding in the forest.

He did so just once, he says, and was arrested and jailed for more than a year, during which he was tortured until temporarily paralyzed, and forced to watch fellow inmates executed seemingly at random.

When released, he fled to Moscow despite lacking the papers needed to legally rent an apartment or find a job. “It’s impossible to stay in Grozny. Everything you see there is an illusion. You can’t stand up or sit down without permission. People who look the wrong way just disappear.”

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