The Making of a New Empire

12/04/2017

Netherlands / 1999 / Chechen, Russian & English

Directed by Jos de Putter

Still from 'The Making of a New Empire'A man stands on an enormous pile of rubble, backgrounded by mountains blanketed by clouds so thick that it’s unclear if they originate from the sky or the ground. Is this some ancient citadel, left to deteriorate in the North Caucasus wilderness, or a more recent shell of a building destroyed by the war with Russia? The man patrols the crumbled walls as though waiting for a distant enemy to return, and the shining white dome of a new-looking mosque peeks out in the left of the frame. This image seems to sum up Chechnya, yesterday and today, the eagerness to cover over what has been destroyed, while at the same time being unable to recover what has been lost.

It is 1999, after the first Chechen war and before the second, and the country remains completely destroyed. We are in a black car with obligatory black curtains, and Khozh Ahmed Noukhaev sits in the back seat, sharply-dressed and self-satisfied, hands resting on the cane that he uses as both walking aid and dramatic accessory, and possibly cudgel. Is this a real person or a myth, a character? He is making the rounds to different villages on a visit home to Chechnya. Although it’s not clear in what ways, this is a man high in the political spectrum of the nation of Ichkeria, as it was known, during its brief independence in the 1990s. Shooting this film, director de Putter followed Noukhaev for a time, finding out about his ambitious plans for the country, delving into his history and uncovering aspects of his self-image. That self-image, however, influences the film a great deal, and the contexts that we see him in are highly limited and regulated by the man and his entourage.

We see him, based in Istanbul, discussing with his English-speaking secretary/translator/lackey their plans for putting Chechnya on the map, both politically and economically. They literally pour over a world map like cartoon villains, discussing how they’re going to make things happen. The most obvious way seems to be oil contracts – not because there’s oil in their country, but a pipeline to Asia could be persuaded to be built through it. After all, if it goes through Georgia, it could easily dip north through the Caucasus. He appears worldly, but also meets the flash of Europe with a bit of caution, a bit of bewilderment. And he relies on his translator, who peddles him around to different countries as an emissary of the new face of Chechnya.

There’s a bit of staginess to The Making of a New Empire, with de Putter borrowing cinematic affectations to frame Noukhaev, who tells his story while shown in profile against the Bosphorus, rather than facing us. He speaks conspiratorially to his secretary, who no doubt already knows all about him, but it gives the narrative a bit more heft, less of a “talking head” appearance. His eyes are so small that they seem not to be there, remaining soft even when facing someone directly, and he looks down with guarded discretion as he speaks to the camera. That this is a feared mafioso turned community leader is simultaneously believable and incongruous with his retiring manner. The overall feeling is someone too guarded and crafty to ever know well, but at the same time commanding, charismatic, and perpetually ahead of the curve.

Still from 'The Making of a New Empire'And it’s an unforgiving, razor-sharp curve that he has managed to outpace, to form even, to some extent. De Putter delights in the image of the chessboard at the two men’s table, as though this is a metaphor for what Noukhaev is doing on the world stage. But if he’s playing a game, it’s an evasive, defensive one, always maneuvering around others in a power struggle while amassing and consolidating power for himself. While his countrymen lay low, too grief-stricken and too cautious to start rebuilding what the Russian army destroyed, he is working away in the wings to elevate the nation to exist for the outside world, and secure his own status while he’s at it. The film is a picture of its moment in history, but it’s also a somewhat prophetic one, hinting at what was to come after the second of the two wars.

Footage of Noukhaev is interspersed with interviews with representatives of the old order, talking a sort of mythic past, and how Chechens used to fight the Russians with magic dirt clods. One elder, decked out in a furry Caucasian hat and a dagger in his belt, and who is either senile or just electrified with self-confidence, talks about how Russian pilots thought that it was his magic walking stick that brought down their aircraft. De Putter seems to be making parallels between the fabled warriors of the olden days and  Noukhaev now, a kingmaker, a magician. Even his cane is like a modern update to the ancient staff that the old man wields. In the new order, it is this man, onetime don of the Chechen mafia and now a much bigger player in the game of nation-building, who leads the fight. After armed insurgency must come some kind of organization, and it is the most cunning opportunist who will emerge from the pig-pile that ensues.

Besides being clever, we’re supposed to see Noukhaev as a bit of a visionary. He explains to de Putter that “is” in Chechen means nine, and “lam” means mountain. Combined they form Islam – “nine mountains”. Therefore, he sketches a flag with nine triangles, a nine-pointed star representing the nine Chechen tukkhum, or tribes. For Chechnya, he doesn’t come off as an extreme sectarian (which is to say, he’s only somewhat sectarian) or any sort of idealogue, but he’ll borrow from whatever is handy to package his ideas, and legitimize what he’s already accomplished. The further that the dream of independence fell out of step with reality, the more dependent that those keeping Ichkeria alive would have to retreat into a desperate form of hardline Sunnism, until eventually the government in exile (launched with Chechnya’s violent annexation by Russia) became explicitly sectarian in character, nationalism turning into jihad.

The film itself, while quite telling about the contradictions of where Chechnya was headed, also, to some extent, plays into the man’s bid for recognition abroad. However it’s hardly a hagiography, and our opinion of the sort of person this is will be more shaped by how we view power and corruption in general, either awed or repulsed, or some combination of the two. What the film does well is reveals a side of power that is rarely seen: not only the machinery in the background that supports power, but the machinery within that machinery, the psychology of the chess player, his ego and insecurity. The film renders these things even more transparently than it even tries to do. We get little of the social and political problems that plagued Chechnya during the interwar years, partly because those things were too dangerous to document, but also because that would disrupt the sense of ambition this man exudes.

There was a time when each human being, by way of ensuring their own protection, had to form into large groups to accomplish anything – be it trade, influence, or just survival. Certainly that is still the case for much of the world, rarely exemplified better than by the tribalism and sectarianism of Chechnya. We see this in the Chechen men’s group singing, with elders and youths alike, their hocketing voices and clapping massed, and the ones in the center bobbing their heads up and down violently in a way that recalls heavy metal fans. In contrast to this communal tradition, we see Noukhaev silently wending his way through the crowd, greasing palms everywhere he goes with an endless supply of bank notes. An empire of one.

Of course he wouldn’t consider this new capitalism antithetical to any traditions in Chechen culture, which he would preserve as much as could be done. The current president Ramzan Kadyrov, essentially a warlord, has kinship with that mentality, justifying everything that maintains his position of power as sanctioned, Islamic, and true. What Kadyrov does well is conflates, much more comprehensively, religion, national character, and faithfulness to a newly dynastic fatherland – the latter being a front for the Russian government – in a self-contained loop. He’s a far cry from the first president during independence, Dzokhar Dudayev, who, by today’s standards, appears like a secular nationalist. Noukhaev thinks that he is carrying the mantle for Dudayev, who had sprung him from a Soviet prison in 1991. Either that or he is taking on the ideas of his assassinated mentor in order to stay in the game, welcoming modern values to elevate his people.

Making5On the one hand, Noukhaev’s ideas of Chechenness and modernity are also tailored by self-interest. He shares a lot of gross, gangster qualities with Kadyrov, as we see him walking around flanked by a black-clad retinue and admiring the buildings in London’s financial district. But Kadyrov is ostentatious, the type to make elaborate deals and put on shows of strength only so that he can boast to his base – which is (if the number of Instagram followers he commands is to be believed) the entire republic, a captive audience. Noukhaev, meanwhile comes off a smarter, quieter, and in some ways scarier figure than the second son who now leads the republic, and partly because of his understated calm. It’s a cinema cliche, but the man seems straight out of a Mario Puzo novel, walking with that slim cane and an imperious tilt. He talks modestly of having clawed, tooth and nail – and, by some accounts, killed with his bare hands – to sit atop the Moscow underworld. Whenever it starts to sound like bragging, he catches himself, and switches to the passive voice. Instead of having accomplishments, things “worked out” for him.

He’s moderately more acceptable to the Western palate than Kadyrov, whose father had been a top mufti in the fledgling nation and the first president of the Russia-aligned republic before being assassinated. Noukhaev is more a disciple of Dudayev, and although he has ideas that intertwine Chechen customs and Sunni Islam, he seems to have what could be called a secular vision for his country, if that’s what it means to court Europe for its support. Things were a bit iffy between the Chechen state and the West, as Russia didn’t provide them with a common enemy at the time, being a vassal of the United States. The kidnappings and assassinations that were rampant in the republic – the most-publicized being those of foreign workers – plus the authorities’ inability to put a lid on (and their possible complicity in) them, ensured that Chechnya wouldn’t win much sympathy abroad.

Some of the strangest scenes in the film come during Noukhaev’s trips outside of Chechnya. He seems to covet the institutions that make Europe grand and flashy, but doesn’t appreciate that they were built on hundreds of years of exploration and exploitation. His hosts in London, Paris and Brussels want to be at ease with the suave, modern face of Chechnya. But it’s an uneasy ease. Discussing an upcoming book about Noukhaev, a British literary agent he meets with jokes, “we’ll say: if it doesn’t sell a hundred thousand copies in the first year, we’ll blow up the building.” It’s not clear from the subtitles whether or not Noukhaev’s translator tells him exactly what the man has said, but they all have a chuckle in any case. Later, back at home, his family watches him on TV meeting Margaret Thatcher, and he explains to his incredulous mother that this woman was once the leader of the United Kingdom.

His purpose in Europe remains ambiguous, and although he visits these places as part of president Maskhadov’s committee, he nonetheless basks in interest from the press, for the same reasons that make him interesting to the filmmaker. He has been alpha gangster, freedom-fighter, yokel with kalashnikov, entrepreneur, de facto diplomat and prison camp wheeler-dealer. In the mess that is the North Caucasus, none of those things are contradictory. Legitimacy vacillates with each hairpin shift in power, and within a few years, Noukhaev would again become a hunted rebel, fleeing to Baku and then possibly getting killed in Dagestan in 2004.

One of the few documentaries to be made inside of Chechnya during its brief independence as a breakaway state, de Putter’s film portrays Noukhaev as a seemingly unstoppable force playing, to some degree, in all that has happened to the Chechens in the last quarter-century. The film is not only an interesting look at an extremely murky underworld character increasingly enamored of international recognition and respect, but it’s also a sharp insight, albeit a misaligned one, of what was to come. In the exact week that the film was released, a series of apartment building bombings happened in Moscow and two other cities, killing nearly 300 people. While a final, thwarted bombing was found to be the work of FSB (Russian intelligence) agents, the attacks were used as pretext to re-invade Chechnya, and Russia was not about to be routed this time.

His trauma is the trauma of his people. He tells de Putter that when, in the 1950s, the Ingush and Chechen people moved back to their respective homelands from exile in Central Asia, their houses had been occupied by Russians. Every day he had to prove himself stronger and meaner than the Russians in his area. And his disillusionment with the Soviet system became total as he saw the elite cadres hogging all of the wealth and privilege. He talks of his initial move to Moscow to study, and how he was transformed by the dog-eat-dog environment. He claims that he would walk down his street, beating up anyone who didn’t stand at attention as he passed by. Methodically he took down the top dogs in the Chechen mafia until he was at the top of the heap. Then he would offer his protection not only to newly-arrived Chechens, but to all the nationalities that filtered down to the criminal underworld. The mafia that he led doubled as the underground Chechen resistance, and the money they raked in would fund the armed struggle for independence.

Still from 'The Making of a New Empire'So all this, his expansion from essentially a foreigner in Moscow, a child of exile, into a gangster, then into a freedom fighter, and finally into a respected political player, is a quest for legitimacy, a cauterizing of impossibly deep, generational wounds. In a scene that is striking because you probably wouldn’t see it in a film made inside Chechnya today, the camera goes through the beaded curtain of the kitchen to talk to the women in Noukhaev’s family, who stand around with hair barely covered, pouring tea and talking in a very frank way about the horror of the forced migration, when about half of the Chechen and Ingush populations died. That trauma has been compounded by the further trauma of a war in which tens of thousands were killed, of losing everything again, and no one seems certain of how to deal with it.

Although there’s this guarded optimism that things can be different, it’s still too early to rebuild. At this point Grozny has been left as a wasteland – formerly densely built-up areas are now flat landscapes. Noukhaev points around the center of the city to where the presidential palace used to be, and the shell that once was parliament, where he took a stand against the Russian army and got hit by a bullet. He has plans for the place, but it’s unclear how he’s going to achieve it. We know that he’s building a link with Europe, hoping to do it the way many strongmen have in the past: through an oil pipeline. But with the onset of the second Chechen war – as with any huge war – all would get reset once again. Things abruptly ceased to “work out” for Noukhaev, as he disappeared from the political scene, disappearing entirely a mere five years after this film about him came out.

Noukhaev’s activities – at least his public activities – during the second Chechen war indicate that he wanted to resist sectarianism and tribalism, as well as the absolutist, go-for-broke policies that kept them permanently in conflict with Russia. He saw guerilla warfare as never-ending, and called for it to cease, as well as calling for inter-clan partnership and international cooperation. At one point he even proposed ceding half of the country to Russia while retaining an independent Ichkeria to the South. To the hardliners he was a traitor, and was forced to go into exile and move about in secret. While collusion with Russia isn’t talked about in de Putter’s film, we can see the modernizing principles – namely international money and legitimacy – playing a large role in his vision for the country.

In ten years in power, Kadyrov has changed the equation quite a bit, teaming up with Putin, gradually purifying the republic of its militants (or at least, loaning them out to Syria, Ukraine, South Ossetia and countless other conflicts), and accepting a generous underground flow of money from the gulf states. But with Saudi money comes a Saudi worldview, and in the shiny, new mosques of Chechnya a new generation of boys, born post-conflict, chant and move in unison. While being dissuaded from Salafism, they’re being indoctrinated into a Kadyrovian mindset – which thrives on monoethnic, monoreligious allegiance to him. He is not only the head of state, but also the religious enforcer, paramilitary commander, stern coach, and biggest celebrity – less a father figure and more a domineering older cousin. But instead of tossing around a football, he wants to swiftly kick you in the chest. From underneath his bully’s half-smile and meaty paws, a new generation of ultra-aggressive males are having their minds directed to things besides insurgency: namely Kadyrov’s strange mixture of state-Sufism, Mixed Martial Arts, and conspicuous consumption. Masculinity is defined by strength and deadliness, femininity by appearance or non-appearance.

Aside from the regressive politics of the regime itself, Chechnya’s synthesis of the worst of both Russia and Saudi Arabia (a total concession to both the free market and to religious autocracy), while a far cry from the failed state Chechnya had been, fits into the already-existing cultural codes of patriarchy and dominance by force. It’s just a question of how to exploit those things, and Kadyrov has done so with roaring success. He’s an ogre, but a canny one. The furtive, underground protectionism that Noukhaev exemplified had worked in the Soviet Union and, subsequently, in lawless Ichkeria (which, in the context of Yeltsin’s rapidly unraveling Russia, didn’t look so terrible), but seems to have gone out of style in the 21st Century, giving way to the brash intimidation and media savviness necessary to rule nowadays. The chaos under which he prospered still exists, but has been put under control, managed by the republic with the guidance of the Kremlin. Murder, torture and other forms of persecution have been rebranded “human rights abuses”, and slavery and extortion still plague the country, just less brazenly than before. Those things are acceptable as long as the militants remain corralled. Kadyrov has his fiefdom, the Russian state is content that the region no longer restive and that terrorist attacks have slowed to a trickle, and Chechens have security in authoritarianism. Win-win-win.

Making4Wounded nationalism can putrify for many generations, and the Chechens’ is perhaps the most wounded of all. They have suffered unimaginable indignities and genocidal atrocities, and lived to tell about it, but all of that is now buried underneath the appearance of affluence. While we’re encouraged by Russia to see the five-star hotels and fashion shows where women parade in glitzy hijabs as indications that Chechnya has recovered, these things are all facade. Yes, Grozny has brand new shopping malls, where there had been none even before the conflicts. But what may never be salvaged is the people’s connection to what had made them need to rise up in the first place. As an elder says at the end of the film, “if only for a day, for a year… better to die a cockerel than a chicken.”

Where are these warlike elders now, who encouraged young men to take up arms or even took up arms themselves? Anyone who espouses something at odds with the Kremlin’s plan has to do so from a safe distance, be they hardline sectarians or doomed moderates. The empire happened, but it quite obviously stems from Moscow, its sharpened tip digging into the backs of people in the republic so that they can’t move a muscle. This oppression is cloaked in fake democracy, family values and tradition. Who knows what direction things would have taken if Russia had somehow left Chechnya alone? In the film Noukhaev seems geared, as many post-Soviet nationalists were, to pander to the West, while wanting to retain a modicum of dignity. However when ceding to larger, greedier empires, there’s no giving an inch; if Ichkeria had been allowed to exist, they would no doubt be used today by the US against Russia, in the manner of Georgia or Ukraine.

Compared to those who have come along since, both he and Dudayev look, if not principled, then certainly modernizing. Thus the film’s title is accurate; a new empire was being formed, but Noukhaev would be bucked from the scrappy republic’s rise as from an ornery horse. He has his convictions, and strong ones – but according to a different rubric, one defined by late capitalism and formed in the streets and gulags. War was the drainpipe that shot him up into the political scene, which, as it happens, is contiguous with the sewer from which he emerged. His experience has put him quite in line with capitalist mentality, but on the wrong side of general recognition. Thus the film examines political validity in the late 20th Century, the binary between illicit and legitimate, and the cost of bringing a kind of order to Chechnya. The much older, traditional values of the Chechen people, which still seem to suffuse political life there, complicate the character further, adding yet another aspect to the already mixed visage.

Defined by the violence and chaos of post-Soviet Russia, is progress possible without extreme corruption? Probably not, particularly in a place like the Caucasus, where the code of conduct has long necessitated power-grabs and killing. But interrogating this isn’t on the table, and The Making of a New Empire isn’t up for such questions. This is good, because that would be imposing Western ethics on a situation from which they are virtually absent. What the film does offer up is how these Western values are approached – that is to say, cautiously – by someone who thinks that his nation is ready to start incorporating them, however far from reality that may be. He comes off like the man on the parapet at the beginning of the film, standing on ruins and looking out at the mountains. There may be hope, but the only way of pursuing it is ugly, shady and merciless – and the future may be equally so.

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