At a time when news from Eastern Europe is almost exclusively focused on the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it comes as a surprise to hear that someone has chosen to make a documentary about Chechnya, a place that we've heard little about since the end of the Second Chechen War in 2009.
Manon Loizeau – a French-English journalist and documentary maker – has recently returned to Chechnya 20 years after she covered the troubled territory's wars with Russia. Loizeau wants to change the fact that, in her words, "many young people nowadays don't even know there was once a war in that region."
The conflict – which saw the two territories in opposition over the course of more than ten years (the First Chechen War took place between 1994 and 1996, the Second went on from 1999 to 2009) – is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 Chechens overall, wiping out a fifth of the population.
In her documentary, Chechnya: War Without Trace, Loizeau tells the stories of those who've been long forgotten, and the result is both enlightening and tear-jerking. I gave her a call to talk about what Chechnya looks like nowadays, the resurgence of a Stalinian terror imposed by authoritative leader Ramzan Kadyrov and the country's relationship with the Kremlin.
VICE: Hi Manon. After all these years, what made you decide to go back to Chechnya?
Manon Loizeau: When I first went there, I was a young journalist beginning my career. It was the first conflict I ever covered. There was an incredible brutality to it, yet I developed friendships there. I knew that the place and its people would be in my heart forever, so it felt important to give a continuation to their stories, and to talk about a forgotten population – a forgotten country.
How different was the situation that you found there now?
Well first of all, everything was so much more open before… Reporting itself was much easier. Now, with Putin and the control of the media, it's much harder. Back in the 90s, during the Yeltsin years, it looked like the ex-USSR was well on the way to becoming a democracy. Who would have guessed that it would become what it is now?
There is an atmosphere of terror similar to that of Stalin's era, successfully implemented by the Chechen Republic's leader Ramzan Kadyrov. People know that if they say something against the regime, they are very likely to get into trouble. Everything has been "locked up" by Kadyrov.
I imagine that making the documentary and finding people to speak to was not easy.
Before I even started, all my friends had warned me that I would never manage because people were too afraid to talk. But actually, it's been quite amazing how many people were willing to speak to me. I think some people have become wary of the regime, and some cracks are – very slowly – beginning to appear. Several people even thanked me for doing what I was doing – coming all the way from France to understand their situation and give them a voice. They're not used to getting that sort of attention.
During the shoot however, me and my team had to be very careful as you get easily spotted: Western media are simply non-existent there. They are very careful as to who is filming especially during official parades, such as Kadyrov and Putin's birthdays. And of course we didn't want to put any of our interviewees in danger, so we had to be very discreet. We always had to find new tricks; but I know we were followed several times.
How would you describe the atmosphere there now?
There is an evident eradication of the past imposed by the regime. This is why in the film I worked with the aesthetics of erasure, of oblivion. Kadyrov is progressively crushing whatever remains of the Chechen identity. One of the best examples is the ban put in place by Kadyrov last year on the February 23rd celebrations, which mark the remembrance of the 1944 deportation of Chechens by Stalin. It was a day of national union – a union that Kadyrov is obviously trying to break to gain ever more power and authority.
What is he trying to achieve with this erasure of the past, in your opinion?
The aim is to get ever closer to Russia, to crush any instinct of resistance or rebellion, to suppress any feeling of identity. The only identities that can exist are his and Putin's. It really is reminiscent of the Soviet terror in lots of ways. The history of Chechnya is being rewritten – it starts now, with them. This comes as the same time as actual Russian history books are being rewritten to give a greater part to Soviet history and to Stalin.
In the film, you argue that people are more scared now than they were during the war. Why is that?
This is something I understood when I was talking to people. The major difference is that, before, people were only afraid of one enemy: Russia. Now, they know that they can also be killed by their own family because the atmosphere of terror that Kadyrov has imposed has in fact provoked betrayals within families themselves – if you know it will save you, you may be ready to denounce a member of your own family. In that sense, he has very much succeeded in dividing the population. Solidarity no longer exists.
So are you saying that people have surrendered in a way?
In a sense, yes. Because of what these people have been through, because of the war, it seems that they have accepted a sort of collective schizophrenia where they are forced to forget about the past. In the old days, it was "svoboda ili smert" – "freedom or death." Times have changed. Whatever Kadyrov says is the law. People have no other choice but to accept it. I've had people telling me that they felt safer during war time.
In the film, you didn't interview any officials from the Chechen government. Was that a deliberate decision?
Yes – I wanted this to be a "human" film, a film focusing on the people and on how they really live and behind the scenery set up by Kadyrov. Getting all these testimonies was absolutely unexpected though – I'm glad that so many were willing to speak to me. Showing images of Kadyrov during official parades was enough, as it portrayed him well enough as "the Chechen leader". There was no need to interview him.
We know that back in 2007, Vladimir Putin appointed Kadyrov as acting president of Chechnya after dismissing Alu Alkhanov and that, to this day, they remain strong allies. Would you say that Kadyrov is still acting directly under Putin's influence?
It's hard to assess, but what can be said for sure is that he's doing everything he can in order to appear as "Russia's best pupil". And he's quite successful so far: he's managed to create a sort of "mini-dictatorship" in the region, and he is keeping order in it. So in that sense, he is still very useful to Putin yes.
What are your hopes for Chechnya in the near future?
I think there aren't many hopes that things will change soon unfortunately, unless Moscow suddenly makes the decision to replace Kadyrov with someone else. By inflicting terror, organising surprise raids and killing or arresting people randomly, the risk is that he is slowly radicalising the population and encouraging terrorism.
Do you think once things have settled down in the Donbass region in Ukraine, a similar destiny will await?
In a sense, I think the seeds of what occurred in Ukraine were planted in Chechnya, and there is obviously a similarity in the scenario. One shouldn't forget that the war in Chechnya is also to a large extent what helped Putin seize power in Russia… But it's obviously hard to predict what will become of that region.
You can watch Manon's documentary here.
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