Leaving Sochi we took an amazing overnight train to Mineralnye Voda. £55 for first class, comfy bed, nice duvet, free chocolate, free tea, and a well dressed lady who was in charge of the carriage. Amazingly they also had excellent onboard WiFi with free movies and an amazing app. I am contemplating travelling across Russia now by train as I enjoyed it so much.
Deporting an entire population
Abdylla, our Chechen guide was there to meet us, and we headed off to Nalchik – the capital of Kabardino Balkar. It was an unremarkable but lovely town with lots of trees. We visited a monument commemorating the deportation of the local Balkar population. It was to be a theme for the next few days. At the tail end of WW2, the Russians deported the whole Balkar population of 40000, ostensibly for supporting the Germans.
At the same time they ‘cleansed’ the entire populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia in operation lentil. (C.500,000 people). This was to clear the region of Muslims so Russia could attack Muslim Turkey if they wished. Most of the deportees were women and children whose husbands were conscripts fighting in the Russian army. 60% of the deportees didn’t survive the transit and the first year. When they were eventually allowed to return 15 years later they had to buy their land back from the Russians and Ossetians Sobering!
We went for an excellent sour cream laden lunch, though felt somewhat guilty eating in front of Abdylla who was on his first day of Ramadan fasting. (We did tell him he could ditch us and come back but he wouldn’t). Then we strolled around town, saw a few monuments to Lenin and then hit the road.
Drunk russians, a swift escape and a lot of check points
As we were driving to Ossetia, we made Abdylla stop to take a photo of a mt Rushmore-esque monument. There was a coach tour of Russian military retirees drinking vodka who forcibly invited us for some shots. We chatted for a while and then had to scarper as we made the mistake of answering one of the Russians who spoke to us in Pashto. Purely because we knew the words ‘thank you’ and ‘how are you’, meant we must of been spies.
Escape made, we still had to endure regular check points, as the FSB have a strong presence in these ethnic republics. We also had to endure endless billboards of Putin in various glamorous poses.
Horrifying Beslan – 400 deaths in a high school hostage siege
We stopped at Beslan to see the memorial of the school siege in 2004. More than 1000 people were held hostage by Chechen terrorists for three days in a high school gymnasium, Russian ended the siege by firing rocket launchers into the building. 400 people were killed.
The memorial was beautiful but harrowing with all the faces of those killed. We went after to the town cemetery which had a section for the graves, the saddest was a block of six graves of children all from the same family. I always find it shameful to think about these conflicts happening in our lifetime….., and it reminded me that even today there are 1.5 million Uighur Muslims being forceably detained and ‘cleansed’ in China right now.
Vladikavkaz – capital of Ossetia today but once the capital of Ingushetia
We rolled into Vladikavkaz, a peaceful soviet town watched over by Fatima and the mountains in the distance, with a lovely mosque. We had iftar with Abdylla, waiting until 7.03 to eat – excellent khinkhali, chebusara, and fish and then headed to bed.
After a wonderful breakfast of cottage cheese pie, sausages, beetroot, cottage cheese pancakes and cherries (they like cheese here), we left the pretty town of Vladikavkaz and drove from Ossetia to Ingushetia.
Visiting Magas – the artificial capital of Ingushetia, and waiting for the FSB
The border shifted 50 years ago. When the entire Ingushetian population was deported in 1944, the ossetians extended their territory. When the Ingushetians came back the Russians reset the historical borders. Its not a dumb idea from Moscow, as the more the regions infight amongst each other, the less they fight with the Russian government. Today Ingushetia is an autonomous region with its own government. The border shift though, left Ingushetia without a capital, so the new town of Magas was created. It’s a bit like Milton Keynes or Canberra.
We visited the Magas museum which is a faithful reconstruction of an Ingushetia tower. Abdylla said it would take 40 minutes to climb to the top so we decided to jog the sloping ramps around the castle walls to see how long it would take. Abdylla stopped half way, wisely recognising that trying to race while fasting probably wasn’t that sensible….. it took me 8 minutes. Hubby did a creditable effort only walking and made it in 13. At the top is a glass balcony with a glass floor showing the 100m drop which was a bit vomit inducing.
We then had to go see the FSB (formerly named the KGB). We needed permission to visit the famous ingushetian towers on the Georgian military highway. After a frustrating hour for Abdylla, permits were secured but only for tomorrow so we would have to make an extra four hour round trip – oh well, at the mercy of the FSB.
Monument to deportation, whitewashed by the Russian government
Before leaving Magas, we visited a monument to the Ingushetian deportations. First built by the locals, the Russians intervened with a re-characterisation of the monument, by making it also about when the ingushetians ‘ceded’ their territory, and a monument to the wars in Germany and Afghanistan. The Ingushetians haven’t fully accepted the whitewash and there is a harrowing museum under part of the memorial showing the Russian deportations.
The most shocking thing were gravestones that were purposefully pillaged from Ingushetian cemeteries and used to build roads and farm sheds, a collection of these had been recovered and installed in the museum. It’s amazing to me that I hadn’t ever heard of this before, but I guess I hadn’t studied Russian history and the victor normally writes the history in any case. (Again, my normal caveats apply, I don’t profess to have an actual clue on the history and who was right or wrong). We also managed to find some food, not always straightforward during Ramadan. Lunch was an excellent Chechen pasta (like spätzle) with broth, onions, and chicken.
We meandered our way to Grozny in the secondary roads. Abdylla was playing Crowded house in the car and with the endless flat fertile fields it felt like being home in the Waikato. Well, except for the women in their traditional clothing and the streams of tanks going by. We were not sure if they are mobilising troops or preparing for victory day on the 9th of May, either was possible. My favourite stop was the Achkhoy Martan mosque, which was incredible.
Grozny – capital of Chechnya, about which I had only heard bad things….
We arrived in Grozny, with its obligatory ‘I love Grozny’ sign (every Russian town has one). Grozny can feel like a monument to Kadyrov – the Russian appointed leader who is wildly unpopular with Chechens. His house, visible from the observation deck of the tallest building in town is ridiculous! We couldn’t take photos though, as you are banned – apparently too many people were posting photos and the comments were vicious about how hopeless he is.
Wandering around was lovely, checking out the archangel Michael church, the flower park with the AstroTurf animals and of course ‘the heart of Chechnya mosque’. Strolling for an hour before dinner, the locals here are extremely traditional – most of the women have their heads covered and are in long dresses. Beards and hats are de riguer for men. We bumped into lots of Abdylla’s friends in the street and of course none of the men would shake my hand. Its an interesting town, and a thriving recruitment ground for ISIS after years of Muslims being mistreated by the Russian government .
Iftar was at a very traditional Chechen restaurant – haggis, dumplings, broth, pumpkin pancakes and sea buckthorn tea. The pumpkin pancakes were amazing…. I was less thrilled by the haggis.
Strolling home we popped into the mosque. Clearly my long skirt and headscarf weren’t sufficiently Islamic, so I was loaned a stunning tablecloth ensemble and directed to the women’s prayer area. The mosque was lovely by night, and amusingly set against the ‘high rises’ of Grozny with their neon signs. Off to bed, tomorrow to Ingushetia
Grozny, May 8, 2019