Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechen Troupe Get Extended Tour

A dedicated group of actors and dancers are keeping Chechen culture alive outside the war-ravaged republic.

Outside the hotel in a quiet park in Nalchik, the group of singing and playing children went silent as they heard me speak Russian. These young Chechens took me for one of their oppressors.

Inside, the reception was warmer and actors welcomed me into a cramped room with two beds and a small table, the home of two members of the Chechen Drama Theatre and the Vainakh dance troupe.

The military operation in Chechnya, which goes by the name of "the fight against terror", has caused ten years of destruction and left tens of thousands of Chechens homeless. Amongst them are Chechnya's actors and dancers, many of whom have ended up here in Nalchik, the capital of the neighbouring republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.

Over the last two months, life has got harder for the artists. Their hotel accommodation is paid for by Chechnya's ministry of culture, but due to salary delays they are no longer being served food on the premises.

They live on salaries of 1000 roubles (about 30 US dollars) a month, supplemented in some cases by their wives working in the local market or relatives in Moscow. Many of the performers are being forced to leave the hotel, because the group cannot afford to keep employing them, while others are looking for other work, which can feed their families.

Zulai Aidamirova, a mother of three children, is also the daughter of the Mariam Aidamirova, a well-known performer who frequently toured with Chechnya's most famous dancer, Makhmud Esambayev. Her mother died not long before the first Chechen war started. The family moved to Kabardino-Balkaria, after their house was reduced to rubble.

"I'm so glad that mother did not live to see this horror," said Zulai. "They are planning to hold an evening in memory of Mariam next month, but we did not manage to save the recordings of her songs and dances."

Chechnya's state drama theatre was founded at the beginning of the 20th century. During the Second World War, its "brigades" laid on hundreds of performances of plays and concerts in the region's towns and villages. Then in 1944, the theatre was disbanded, as its artists were deported by Stalin to Central Asia, along with the rest of the Chechen people.

The theatre was reborn in the late 1950s, when the exiles were allowed to return home. World classics by Lope de Vega, Schiller, Goldoni and Moliere were translated into Chechen and performed for the first time.

With the latest tragedy of the Chechen wars of the 1990s, the theatre lost its scenery, costumes, equipment and archive. The ministry of culture gave them the money to re-sew some costumes, but they cannot afford to restore their scenery and props.

"At first military subjects predominated in our repertoire, but then we decided to move away from tragedies and financial problems and began to put on comedies," said Zulai Aidamirova. "Before, there were representatives of different age groups in our audience, but now most people are interested only in finding bread and feeding their children.

"Nowadays most of our viewers are schoolchildren and students. Many of them have not left Chechnya, since the first war began. When our children, who were used to cellars and bomb-shelters first arrived at the hotel, they were even afraid to get into the lift, because they didn't know what it was."

The performers have been promised a hall and hostel in the Chechen town of Gudermes and, although they want to return home, they are worried for their family members and so far not convinced that their food and housing will be paid for.

In the same hotel lives another Chechen cultural insitution, the Vainakh troupe. Their leader Dikal Muzakayev managed to reassemble its members here, after they were literally scattered across the entire North Caucasus. Since then the group has performed in Nalchik, Krasnodar and Moscow and is preparing for a foreign tour.

The first concert by the re-formed Vainakh in Nalchik's Musical Theatre was a roaring success. The hall was full, the dancers received a standing ovation and did several encores. A Chechen child standing next to me turned and asked, "Well do, you like it?" I enthusiastically replied, "Yes, I like it very much!" to which he proudly said, "It is our Vainakh!"

After that performance, tickets for Vainakh's concerts in Nalchik and the rest of Kabardino-Balkaria sold out quickly and viewers formed queues to get seats. Earlier this month, the group performed to great acclaim in Moscow.

When they first came to Kabardino-Balkaria, the performers complained that the police frequently stopped them for documents checks. Since then however, they say, they have received refugee status and the situation has improved.

The Chechen conflict has touched every member of the troupe, said Bislan Indurkayev, one of Vainakh's dancers. Many of them had lost loved ones and others were separated from their families. "And one of our performers died with her mother and younger sister in an artillery attacks," he said.

It seems the tragedy has only strengthened their desire to renew and enrich their native culture. "Whatever happens, whatever is the fate of our people and wherever we end up, we will carry on dancing, because it is our duty to the Chechen people," said Indurkayev.

Svetlana Balkarova is a freelance journalist based in Nalchik.

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