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Personality Cult in Chechnya

The manufactured campaign to glorify slain Chechen president Akhmad Kadyrov carries a coded message from Moscow.
By Kazbek Tsuraev

Hundreds of people are gathered expectantly in Grozny’s central square, against a backdrop of bullet-scarred and burnt-out buildings.


Facing the crowd, in which black-uniformed policemen mingle with civilians, is a man in a smart suit - Chechnya’s Moscow-backed president, Alu Alkhanov. He is standing beside a towering pedestal on which stands a figure covered in a green cloth.


Alkhanov stretches out a hand and pulls away the cloth to reveal a three-metre tall statue of a man holding prayer beads and dressed in a “papakha”, the traditional Caucasian fur hat.


It depicts Akhmad Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader who was killed when a bomb went off at Grozny’s stadium on May 9, 2004.


“This monument is dedicated to a man who loved his people,” Alkhanov tells the crowd. “He became leader at the most difficult time for his country, and we should raise the next generation by his example.”


The statue - designed by one of Russia’s most famous sculptors, Zurab Tsereteli - was unveiled in Grozny on the day Kadyrov would have turned 54.


“The confident, ambitious and determined look reminds us of Kadyrov,” said Alkhanov.


Since his death, Kadyrov has been the focus of a growing personality cult, although opinion is divided about who is behind it.


Edilbek Khasmagomadov, a political scientist based in Grozny, says it is the present Chechen administration together with Kadyrov’s extended family which are the main drivers behind the campaign. Their intention, he says, is to cast the local regime in a better light.


“They do it partly out of habit,” Khasmagomadov told IWPR. “These people are not capable of achievements of their own, so they set up parameters within which they can act.”


But another political analyst, Idris Amaev, sees the hand of the Kremlin, rather than local officials, behind the Kadyrov cult.


“Moscow needs its own martyr in Chechnya,” he said. “He has to have been murdered for Russia, and not for the idea of Chechen independence.”


Amaev said that the Kadyrov cult was specifically designed to counter the memory of former separatist president Djokhar Dudayev, killed in a 1996 Russian airstrike.


Apart from the statue in Grozny, the main streets in all of Chechnya’s principal towns have been renamed after Kadyrov, and the authorities in Moscow have approved plans to rename a residential street in the Russian capital after him.


The glorification of a man who was once the chief Islamic cleric in Chechnya, and who was part of the rebel movement until he went over to the Russian side and became Moscow’s anointed leader when the second Chechen war began in 1999, has dismayed many people.


Muslim clerics say no one should be exalted after death. According to Muqaddas Bibarsov, who heads the official Muslim clerical body for Russia’s Volga region, "The Prophet Muhammad taught that only a small headstone should mark a person’s burial place.”


The imam or prayer leader at one Grozny mosque said, "There is no doubt that if Kadyrov were alive today, he would be opposed to his canonisation. Islam prohibits such things. Kadyrov was a religious man, and he would not have allowed such a distortion of Islam.”


Many local people in Chechnya are displeased with the campaign of glorification.


"One thousand roubles were deducted from our salary every month for six months in order to construct this monument. I would rather live without the monument than without my money,” said Roza Sadulaeva, an employee at Chechnya’s economics ministry.


“Had he lived, he probably would have done a lot for the country. But he didn’t have time to do anything that is worthy of having streets renamed after him,” said Satsita Isaeva, editor of the independent Voice of the Chechen Republic newspaper.


Regardless of who is backing the personality cult, the late president’s son Ramzan Kadyrov, who heads his own powerful security unit and is first deputy prime minister in the government, makes active use of his father’s reputation to boost his own popularity.


Ramzan Kadyrov and Ruslan Yamadaev, a member of Russia’s national parliament, are seen as the main powerbrokers in the upcoming November 27 election to the Chechen legislature.


Yamadaev is backed by the United Russia party, which is loyal to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Kadyrov has tried to counteract this by establishing his own political movement.


Some observers believe the Kremlin may wish to play Yamadaev off against Kadyrov so as to weaken both their positions and strengthen its own hand. The rivalry between them might also serve to create a semblance of political pluralism.


Kadyrov junior’s strategy has involved the sort of populist measures that his father might have welcomed, and that are also calculated to appeal to Moscow. For instance, he led a campaign to ban slot machines that were proliferating in Chechnya, and handed out cars and gifts to journalists working for the official media.


He has also tried to boost his Islamic credentials, promising to build a mosque in Grozny which would be the biggest in Europe. And he was behind a decision by Chechnya’s chief Muslim cleric to declare a jihad or holy war against terrorism and “Wahabbism”, a reference to all forms of Islamic fundamentalism.


President Putin sounded approval for these initiatives at a meeting with Kadyrov in Sochi on August 22, and he added that the political process in Chechnya was developing in just the way the elder Kadyrov had planned.


“You know better than me about the nuances and difficulties of this process. However, it is developing in the direction that Akhmad-haji spelled out. I would like to thank you for that. Well done!” Putin told Kadyrov.


Some observers believe that the personality cult is so closely associated with Ramzan Kadyrov himself that it will fade as soon as he falls from grace.


“Akhmad Kadyrov’s personality cult will disappear,” said Khasmagomadov. “We may yet see the dismantling of those monuments that were unveiled with so much pomp.”


Kazbek Tsuraev is a reporter for Chechenskoe Obshchestvo newspaper in Grozny.


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