Take a walk down Putin Prospect, Grozny’s main street, with shining marble facades, look carefully at long-limbed Muslim women filing out of beauty salons, men riding in brand new SUVs, and you would never believe that this place was leveled by Russian aerial and artillery assaults less than a decade ago. Pause. Wait to celebrate peace, the reinvented life: inside, behind the freshly-painted, pale-pink walls, hate and despair still perform their sad dance. The ruined hopes and dreams—Chechnya’s wounds stay open like the deep puddles reflecting high skies outside the enormous central mosque. No fancy, newly-opened sushi bars, no propaganda posters portraying Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov on every other building, can hide Grozny’s loneliness.
Layer by layer, the “Grozny: Nine Cities” documentary project peels the veil off for you to uncover what is really going on in the complex life of the Chechen capital. Inspired by Thornton Wilder’s novel “Theophilus North,” about many cities in one, the authors display various hidden and yet core aspects of human life in post-war Grozny, the city built on top of the mass graves of two bloody wars. The project’s nine themes (or nine cities) devoted to the nation that for centuries tried to break free from Moscow’s control, penetrate the unstoppable efforts that Chechens undertake in search of their own way to happiness.
The City of Memory reflects the unfading history of nearly 300,000 human lives destroyed by the two recent wars. Moscow vowed to win over Chechen civilians by rebuilding their devastated society, but seemed mainly interested in Chechen loyalty to the Kremlin and in plundering the natural reserves of the City of Oil.
The City of War shows that Grozny, which translates as fearsome, has never stopped breathing wars, the violence finding new targets. With Russian tanks gone from its streets, Russian nationals are isolated in the City of Strangers. Chechen suicide bombers attacking Chechen public places, Chechen police detaining Chechen civilians for being involved with the radical Islamic underground tear apart the City of War.
Dealing with violence, as with rain and snow, the city tries on its Sufi identity: new mosques, new Sharia laws emerge in every block of the City of Religion, its streets being renamed after Sufi sheiks. Uncovered women’s heads, even on street advertisements, must be shameful for Chechen men, as local television appeals to the City of Men. Men proud of their black BMWs, assault rifles and pointy, black shoes ban the appearance of unveiled women in public places. The City of Women, as a symphony devoted to beauty, features the most attractive face of Grozny.
With more authority wired from Moscow, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a former rebel fighter famous for silencing whistle blowers, creates the City of Servants with overwhelming armies of his fans, stadiums full of people chanting his name and Ramzan News TV chronicles covering his daily routine. The idolizing of one leader has never been a traditional concept for Chechen society. Historically, many Chechen clans constructed stone towers on their own land, a symbol of stable defense and self-confidence. In today’s City of Normality, men and women exhausted by more than fifteen years of vile fighting and self-destruction cover floors in their new brick homes with thick, brightly-colored carpets, throw feasts and dance their feet off at crowded weddings in their most beautiful clothes, grabbing the chance to enjoy the happy moments before more troubles roll into their fearsome city.
Text by Anna Nemtsova, a Moscow correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast.
Maria Morina. Freelance photographer based in Moscow.
Has worked for advertising campaigns of Stockholm School of Economics in Russia, U-Journal Magazine, Svoj Business Magazine.
One of the finalists of “Feminine Vision of the Reality’ contest in Belarus.
Part of group exhibitions in St.Petersburg, Minsk, Moscow.
Author of projects: Verhneuralsk, Memory Diary, autobiography project.
Oksana Yushko. Freelance photographer, based in Moscow.
Is working for Russian Reporter, Russian Newsweek, Reuters, among others.
Top-10 winner of the 3 competitions “Young photographers of Russia”, twice winner of Silver Camera competition about Moscow, winner of the competition Without Barriers devoted to disabled people, Moscow. Author of photoprojects “Kenozero”, “Toilers of the sea”, “Life with Parkinson disease”.
Exhibited in several major galleries in Moscow.
Olga Kravets. Freelance photographer, based in Moscow.
Has worked for Berlingske Tidende (Denmark), Dagsavisen (Norway), Financial Times Deutschland, Helsingin Sanomat (Finland), Kristeligt Dagblad ( Denmark), Observer (UK), Tank Magazine (UK), The Globe and Mail (Canada), Throw (Neutherlands), AFP, EPA, among others.
Top-10 winner of competition “Young photographers of Russia”. Author of photoprojects “Primorsk. The Sunken Soviet City”, “Heroes of Karabakh”.
Part of several group exhibitions in Russia and Norway