As soon as news broke on Twitter of the bombings in Boston, I turned to my partner and said – “Russia’s going to cop this.” By morning in Moscow there was CNN stating that the unknown terrorists had received foreign military training. However as of yesterday, it remains the work of two brothers who were the descendants of displaced victims of one of Stalin’s famed purges. Not known for his liberal views, Uncle Joe, as he was affectionately known to his US and UK allies, had a beef with anyone who didn’t buy into his way of thinking.
The freedom loving people of the mountains in the south of the Soviet Union were one of his pet peeves, along with clever people, Jews and people whose family name ended with “-ov”, one of these is not quite true. With a long history of non-conformity Chechens were never the most well-regarded in Russian society and rarely had a stable relationship with the central authorities. Inspired by Pushkin’s poem (and supposedly by his own experiences) the recovering gambler and debauched aristocrat Tolstoy released the “Prisoner of the Caucasus” in 1872. In brief it details the capture, captivity and escape of two Russian soldiers, held high in the mountains by a local chieftain. It’s an interesting read in the wee hours on an overnight train to Ulyanovsk.
The prevailing Russian mentality has it that the country is always prisoner to the whims and wishes of this mountainous terrain and nobody seems to be totally pleased with how the behaviour of those resident in or associated with the region reflect on the country abroad. I was about to start University when the First Chechen War”, as it is now known, erupted in Grozny. I remember reading reports of beheadings, murders, forced deportations of non-Chechens and even the murder of the local Communist Party boss, and then a failed Russian military insertion followed by chaos and War. Yet it was events from 1934 and the deportation of over half a million Chechens and other regional peoples that laid the foundations for what still rumbles on today. And this is where we get to the interesting stuff, football, well, almost. The Tsarnaev family ended up in the Asiatic Republic of Kyrgyzstan. One of the poorest nations on earth it has pristine high mountains, good skiing, gold and fresh water. It also has, for almost 20 years, Saudi funded mosques and Islamic centres of excellence (no need to elaborate on this point). It is insightful for a person to stand at Kazansky Station in Moscow and watch the Bishkek train chunt in to witness the arrival of more additions to the Moscow population, many of whom are ethnic Russians desperate for a new start in the homeland. The Tsarnaev family were lucky, they got to America 10 years ago. They were part of the Chechen diaspora scattered around the world and almost all fated never to return to Grozny.
And so to football. It is not passe to discuss the instagram-loving “Kremlin strongman” Ramzan Kadyrov who controls the Republic and glories in the exploits of the football team named after the local river Terek. Grozny has seen centuries of suffering and conflict, yet football is one of the only reasons the city receives positive recognition, and in the “Western” media it comes with the tagline in the second sentence of this paragraph. Kadyrov is portrayed as a dangerous, egomaniacal buffoon who employed Ruud Gullit as a vanity project then sacked the Dutchman for complaining about the lack of nightlife in Grozny. Despite what the media would have us believe, it was never as cut and dried as that. Appalling results coupled with lack of coaching capability meant the former Dutch star wasn’t long for the mountains. Kadyrov took the hit for his club and got back to business. To date he has continually tried to develop his club’s infrastructure and do what other Russian Premier clubs see as unnecessary, build from the ground up. Though it is a job that needs a lot more support and thought. This season has highlighted this perfectly.
In March, the leader of the Republic was as aghast as any of us watching on tv when the referee continually punished Terek players for infractions that didn’t appear to the naked eye, even those of ours who were cheering for visitors Rubin. When a muffled shout came over the tannoy – “The referee is corrupt, you donkey.” Now, Ramzan Kadyrov’s fit of temper was then portrayed as his “shouting” or “screaming” at or “abusing” the referee, or even he went “bezerk”. Whichever media version you accept, he made a mistake, owned up to it (except that he continued to say the referee was a cheat) and was sanctioned. Done and dusted. However Russian football was still held in the dank pit of Caucasian captivity. At the end of last month a linesman attacked a youth team player from Amkar Perm when the bankrupt Ural side were in town to face Terek. Apparently the Amkar player had insulted Musa Kadyrov’s mother and family, so at the final whistle he ran over and gave the player wallop. Within hours this incident had gone around the world and again the Republic was in the firing line. The linesman missed his chance to give a defence in the “House of Football” in Moscow, so he was banned from officiating for life. I had the feeling that there was many the linesman or referee who secretly smiled when watching the footage, apparently, for too often it is them on the receiving end of abuse and violence.
However, this latest incident of “Chechen lawlessness” has set back local attempts to build a society that can become less dependant on handouts from Moscow. Across the mountains Anzhi Makhachkala continue their big spending ways while next door Spartak Nalchik are fighting for a return to the top flight. If they go up they’ll take the place of famed North Ossetian club Alania Vladikavkaz whose head man Valeri Gazzaev remains one of the best coaches in modern Russian football yet still derided for backing the Gazprom Super League. Next year Terek might be the only team from the region in the top flight, if so they will need a major push to improve their image at home and abroad as the Russian “opposition” continue to target those from the mountains as enemies and not worthy of Russian citizenship. As part of the civil society moves against VVP and his St. Petersburg cadre, those supposed to be their leaders look down upon the Caucasians as non-Russian. Meanwhile football fans and authorities scratch their heads at how to solve the Caucasian riddle. It seems that in football and life Russia remains captive to the southern mountains. And in both cases it might not have as happy an ending as Tolstoy’s short story.