Zhenya belonged to the small contingent of old Russian men and women who were incapable of leaving Chechnya because they either didn’t have the money or the strength. They had no knowledge of any relatives in Russia and they didn’t even have the strength to get themselves to an old-people’s home in some Russian town in the back of beyond. It was the Russian population that had stayed in the cellars and among the ruins after the main battle. The Russians were the most wretched individuals I came across during my stay in Chechnya. The Russian army regarded them as locals and treated them accordingly. The Chechens let them know they were foreign and blood relatives of the occupants, so they didn’t show much sympathy for them. But most of the time, they left them alone and out of pity even shared things with them.
What’s it like being a Russian woman living among Chechens?
Like a Czech woman among Germans. I was born in Chechnya in 1935. My mother gave birth to me in Grozny in what was known as the 47th district, in a little house with the number 010/7. That’s where my sisters and brother were born, too. One of my sisters died in 1941. So that left me, my sister, who was two years older, and my brother, who was the eldest. I have spent my whole life in the Caucasus and I can’t say that anyone ever did me any wrong. It’s only these past few years.
What made your parents come to Chechnya?
They found themselves here in 1928. As far as I know, they were simply sent here, the way it happened in those days. So that Russians should settle in backward areas and Russify the local wild tribes. Except that the Chechens weren’t a wild tribe.
Did your parents ever complain about being in the Caucasus?
Never. I think they liked it here. In 1941, my father was called up. He died in 1943. From then on it was nothing but funerals here. . . My Mum worked in the refinery and was in charge of the pumps. It was hard and dirty work. No Chechen would have taken the job. She was shy and unassuming. She didn’t drink or go after the men like the other Russian women. Eventually, after a lot of difficulties she got a job as a charwoman. All of us — we three children and Mom — lived on her wages of 210 roubles. We ate beet instead of potatoes. We used to steal kerosene and sell it. When we couldn’t manage to, we would bring spring water from far off and sell it in the bazaar. And we’d also make vodka at home, but it was a risky business. In those days, we could be sent to prison camp for it. More recently, after they brought in the Islamic laws, you could get caned. That’s Sharia law, apparently.
And what happened to your husband?
He disappeared. He was a Ukrainian. I never went out with Chechens.
Do you say that because you’re proud of it?
No, it’s just a statement of fact. They taught us to sleep alongside them, but not with them. We lived in peace, but we each knew we were a different species. They forbade their children to marry Russians. So I, too, began to think it was better not to mix families. Anyway, our traditions and customs are completely different. Even so, I’ve spent my entire life with Chechens. My daughter lived several years with a Chechen and my granddaughters feel at home here. Anya, the elder one, was the only Russian girl out of her whole class. No one ever made the slightest mention of it to her. Everyone treated her kindly, parents and children alike. For a long time, my younger granddaughter, Yevgenia — she’s named after me — didn’t even know she was a different nationality than her fellow pupils. When the girls lost their mother, the parents of their classmates brought us food and clothing. At that time, one of the women neighbours said to her: “Allah is punishing you on account of your president. You Russians will always be slaves of your master.” That was the first time my granddaughter realized that she was “different.”
Your Ukrainian husband left you because you didn’t want to move away from the Caucasus and he didn’t want to live with Chechens. …
That’s not true at all. It’s what the neighbours say, but those women didn’t know him. I got married in 1962. I was madly in love with him. He served here as a soldier. We got married and intended to stay in Grozny. Then all of sudden he received a letter saying his mother had cancer. He told me I had to meet her before she died. But when he took me with him to the Ukraine everything went wrong. First, it turned out that his mother wasn’t ill at all. She had lied to him to get him home. She looked on me as a “Chechenified” Russian, which is probably worse than a “pure-blooded” Chechen. Neither fish nor fowl. Then they forbade him to move to the Caucasus because they said it was a haunt of bandits and criminals. So I came back without him.
Why did you return?
This was my home. I knew lots of people in Grozny and most of all I had a job. I had taken a correspondence course in oil refining. My thesis was entitled “The Progressive Use of Existing Oil Wells.” I worked as a production controller in the oil refinery. Even if someone were to make me an offer to move to Russia, I’d have to give it a lot of thought. I really feel at home here. And I regret what happened to my city, irrespective of whether the Chechens or the Russians are to blame for it. I really don’t want to go away; this is where I’ll die. Chechnya is my homeland, even if I’m a “foreigner.” Have I got anyone expecting me in Russia? Is there anyone there ready to house or feed me? After all, no one’s inviting me there!
Do you constitute a sort of community, you Russians who have stayed in Chechnya during the war? Are you closer to each other than to the Chechens?
I expect so, because we share the same fate. The Russians started leaving Chechnya at the beginning of the 90s when Jokhar Dudayev became president. It’s not that they tried to wipe us out, but, for instance, if a Chechen’s flat was burgled it would give rise to a clan war — a scandal, in other words. But if someone robbed a flat where Russians were living no one, not even the authorities, did anything about it. We became second-class citizens. They always had regarded us as such, but during the Soviet Union they didn’t dare show it. Then all of sudden everything was permitted and the hatred they’d been bottling up for years suddenly came pouring out.
Didn’t they have a slight justification? Most of the middle-aged Chechens had been born in exile. And the Soviet regime didn’t make things particularly easy for them when they returned home. They weren’t allowed to learn Chechen in school and they had to buy back their houses, which Russians had occupied during their exile, at enormous cost.
No, most of them didn’t buy them back. Instead they terrorized us until we preferred to leave of our own accord. So, most of the Russians were concentrated in Grozny in blocks of flats that the Soviet government built. The Chechens gradually built up enormous homes around those filthy flats and waited for their opportunity.
Now Grozny virtually no longer exists. The Russians have remained . . .
The remainder of the Russians who are still stuck here are old folk, invalids and people who have been abandoned. Quite simply, they can’t afford to leave. And then there are few fools who couldn’t bear to abandon their mouldy shops and so they were ready to die even. Many of us are old people like me and we haven’t the physical strength to move somewhere else. We are worse off than the Chechens in cellars and ruined flats, because absolutely no one will help us now. Neither the army, nor the government in Moscow nor the local authorities, nor our neighbors, who have enough problems of their own.
Did you also stay here because you didn’t want to abandon the property you had acquired with difficulty over many years?
At the beginning, yes. But later when part of it had gone up in flames, part of it was taken by the partisans and the rest was stolen by Russian soldiers, I realised that love of things was stupid. If you manage to detach yourself from your property, you won’t suffer when you see it go up in flames. Now I don’t amass anything and I will never again stock up with anything.
Didn’t you ever agree with your husband at least privately? Aren’t the Chechens a wild tribe?
They’re different. I must admit that they frighten me. I remember how in 1998 they organized public executions of criminals on International Friendship Square. We always used to call that square “The Three Cretins” because of a statue that stood there that consisted of a Russian, a Chechen and an Eskimo or something, all in national dress. That dreadful spectacle took place beneath that ludicrous trio. I once took my granddaughters to see the ceremony. I wept when they shot the three murderers. The girls cried, too. On that occasion, I felt like Robinson Crusoe among the cannibals.
Even though you grew up in a society where the law of the vendetta applied and the principle of a tooth for a tooth?
I don’t say they were executed unjustly. They had murdered a child and a woman. I could understand why they were executed, but I was sorry for them all the same. You see, although I’ve spent all my life among Caucasians, during the Soviet Union I felt as if I was in Russia. The locals kept up their own traditions and laws at home — I knew them, too — but the society lived according to Soviet laws. There were Russians or Russified Chechens in the posts of authority, and Russian was spoken everywhere on TV and in official departments, and books were published solely in Russian. So I never lost contact with the Russian mentality and my original homeland. I expect that’s why I cried at the public execution and felt myself to be an observer at that spectacle, rather than a participant.
At the beginning of the 1990s, when Jokhar Dudayev came to power and then afterwards, between the wars, from 1996 to 1999, the Russians left the Caucasus en masse although they had live here for decades and felt at home here. Did you also sense that the Chechens were starting to treat you differently?
Differently, yes, but not badly. It depends who. They did take greater liberties with me, that’s true. For instance, where a Chechen had no problems, I had to give bribes. I definitely had a harder time with officials. They were all Chechens. Here everyone is related to everyone else. And a cousin three times removed doesn’t have to stand in line, naturally. The aunt of a cousin’s daughter-in-law gets a higher pension simply because she is part of the clan. Even if you can’t stand the sight of your relative and you worship your Russian neighbour, you’ll always give precedence to your relatives and clan ties. It’s a stupid law and inflexible.
Laws like that always applied in the Caucasus. But did something change in the 1990s?
Neighbors and friends behaved as they did before. During the Soviet Union, they didn’t dare cross a Russian official and all of a sudden the boot was on the other foot. During Dudayev’s rule, they started to be afraid to treat us normally. And on top of that, after 1996 religious fanatics came on the scene — Wahhabis — and they actually tried to force me out of my home and move in there. You see, the war turned people into animals. My neighbour, an influential Chechen, talked to them and they left me alone. The Russians started leaving mostly out of fear. They think twice before trying any tricks with a local. Everyone has some influential uncle in the establishment and a cousin with the partisans so as to have the best of both worlds — that’s the best protection, it’s what they call “a roof” here. No one will avenge the death of a Russian — and certainly not Yeltsin or Putin. But over the death of a Chechen his entire family will proclaim a vendetta which, unlike people, never dies. It can last for hundreds of years. We Russians don’t even take offence when a Chechen spits in our face on the street. That’s why they take greater liberties with us and why they have no respect for us. Nothing they do to a Russian is ever punished. At first, it had nothing to do with national hatred. It was just because we Russians were powerless, unarmed and downtrodden and didn’t have a “roof.”
So no one is to blame that you lost a roof over your head?
Tell me who and maybe I’ll go to the ends of the earth. But you don’t know either. Am I supposed to go to the Kremlin? Or to the UN? Or to the Russian soldiers here at the military post, maybe. They could easily open fire on me if they happened to be in a bad mood. Someone must be to blame for my tragedy, but I don’t know who. I just have a suspicion that the person is somewhere very high up the ladder. During the first war, they used to say that Dudayev and Yeltsin weren’t able to agree on sharing Chechen oil. But Dudayev is dead now, Yeltsin is retired and yet the war goes on, so I don’t know. All the Russians will tell you that the Chechens brought it on themselves and the Chechens will say that the Russians want to wipe them out for no reason at all. Each side is half-right.
You say you’re not angry with anyone and you don’t want to blame anyone for everything that has happened to you. Are you grateful to anyone?
I ought to be, but it’s like with hatred and rage: I just don’t have the time for gratitude or the inclination. There are only a couple of people who stuck in my memory, maybe because I met them at moments of tension. On March 29, 1998 at 2.30 a.m. at night, we were burgled. They were ordinary burglars. They crept into our house and stole my mother’s death certificate, the lease of the house, pots and pans, clothes and a $100 bill I had been given by [rebel leader] Shamil Basayev’s brother, Shirvani. While my daughter was still able to walk, I had managed to fight my way into an audience with him, at the time when he was minister for the Chechen oil industry, and I explained to him the situation we found ourselves in. He told me that he didn’t have anything to do with social policies, but that he would give her $100 out of his own pocket. And he did so. We kept it one side for when the worse came to the worst. Sometimes when I’m fed up with the entire world, I say to myself: “One crooked Chechen took everything I had and another Chechen gave me $100. That must be the way things ought to be, the way God wants it to be.”
You lost everything of value, even your clothes. It wasn’t the first time, nor the last, unfortunately. The authorities never helped you. Did you get any help from people around you — your neighbours or friends?
At the school, the teacher gave my granddaughters some clothes after their mother died. My neighbors brought me something. One family from the Adygei region gave me some pots and pans. They were a bit battered, but they did the job. The Adygeians actually wanted to arrange for us to move out of Chechnya. They themselves were going back to Adygei and could have helped us get a room in a hostel and even refugee status. But that time Anya told them: “You don’t know our Gran. She’ll never leave Chechnya.” Now I sometimes sit and think to myself that if someone were really to give me a clean room and guarantee that I’d live out my days in peace and calm, I’d leave. Even for Russia.
Would you like to take revenge on someone for everything that happened to you?
Not at all. Not now. I’m not angry with anyone. In spite of the fact that my daughter died, that they wrecked my house and did dreadful things to my granddaughters, I’m not angry with anyone.
— Reprinted with permission from Petra Procházková.